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Leigh Hunt And Barry Cornwall
by [?]

IT has recently become the fashion to speak disparagingly of Leigh Hunt as a poet, to class him as a sort of pursuivant or shield-bearer to Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. Truth to tell, Hunt was not a Keats nor a Shelley nor a Coleridge, but he was a most excellent Hunt. He was a delightful essayist–quite unsurpassed, indeed, in his blithe, optimistic way–and as a poet deserves to rank high among the lesser singers of his time. I should place him far above Barry Cornwall, who has not half the freshness, variety, and originality of his compeer.

I instance Barry Cornwall because there has seemed a disposition since his death to praise him unduly. Barry Cornwall has always struck me as extremely artificial, especially in his dramatic sketches. His verses in this line are mostly soft Elizabethan echoes. Of course a dramatist may find it to his profit to go out of his own age and atmosphere for inspiration; but in order successfully to do so he must be a dramatist. Barry Cornwall fell short of filling the role; he got no further than the composing of brief disconnected scenes and scraps of soliloquies, and a tragedy entitled Mirandola, for which the stage had no use. His chief claim to recognition lies in his lyrics. Here, as in the dramatic studies, his attitude is nearly always affected. He studiously strives to reproduce the form and spirit of the early poets. Being a Londoner, he naturally sings much of rural English life, but his England is the England of two or three centuries ago. He has a great deal to say about the “falcon,” but the poor bird has the air of beating fatigued wings against the bookshelves of a well-furnished library! This well-furnished library was–if I may be pardoned a mixed image–the rock on which Barry Cornwall split. He did not look into his own heart, and write: he looked into his books.

A poet need not confine himself to his individual experiences; the world is all before him where to choose; but there are subjects which he had better not handle unless he have some personal knowledge of them. The sea is one of these. The man who sang,

The sea! the sea! the open sea!
The blue, the fresh, the ever free!

(a couplet which the Gifted Hopkins might have penned), should never have permitted himself to sing of the ocean. I am quoting from one of Barry Cornwall’s most popular lyrics. When I first read this singularly vapid poem years ago, in mid-Atlantic, I wondered if the author had ever laid eyes on any piece of water wider than the Thames at Greenwich, and in looking over Barry Cornwall’s “Life and Letters” I am not so much surprised as amused to learn that he was never out of sight of land in the whole course of his existence. It is to be said of him more positively than the captain of the Pinafore said it of himself, that he was hardly ever sick at sea.

Imagine Byron or Shelley, who knew the ocean in all its protean moods, piping such thin feebleness as

“The blue, the fresh, the ever free!”

To do that required a man whose acquaintance with the deep was limited to a view of it from an upper window at Margate or Scarborough. Even frequent dinners of turbot and whitebait at the sign of The Ship and Turtle will not enable one to write sea poetry.

Considering the actual facts, there is something weird in the statement,

I ‘m on the sea! I ‘m on the sea!
I am where I would ever be.

The words, to be sure, are placed in the mouth of an imagined sailor, but they are none the less diverting. The stanza containing the distich ends with a striking piece of realism: