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'Alas for love, for woman's breast,
If woe like this must be!
Hast thou seen a youth with an eagle crest
And a white plume waving free?
With his proud quick-flashing eye,
Doth he come from where the swords flashed high
'In the gloomy Roncesvalles' Strait
But it is not youth which turns
'Thou canst not say that he lies low,
Oh none could look on his joyous brow
Dark, dark perchance the day
From the Roncesvalles' Strait.'
'There is dust upon his joyous brow,
And the warhorse will not wake him now,
And the strong man meet his fate,
In the Roncesvalles' Strait.'
Calm on the bosom of thy God,
Dust, to its narrow house beneath!
The boy stood on the burning deck,
As born to rule the storm!
A proud, though child-like form!
The flames roll'd on-he would not go
That Father, faint in death below,
He knew not that the chieftain lay
'Speak, father!' once again he cried, 'If I may yet be gone!'
And but the booming shots replied,
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And look'd from that lone post of death
And shouted but once more aloud,
'My father! must I stay?'
While o'er him fast through sail and shroud,
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
There came a burst of thunder-sound
The boy-O! where was he? -Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea, With mast, and helm, and pennon fair, That well had borne their part; But the noblest thing which perish'd there Was that young faithful heart!
[BORN at Southgate, Middlesex, October 19, 1784; was educated at Christ's Hospital; contributed to various periodicals; was an editor of The Examiner, 1808; was imprisoned for libel on the Prince Regent, 1811; visited Byron and Shelley in Italy, 1822; received a pension from the Crown, 1847; died August 28, 1859. Besides many works in prose, he published Juvenilia, 1801; The Feast of the Poets, 1814; The Descent of Liberty, A Mask, 1815; The Story of Rimini, 1816; Foliage, 1818; Poetical Works, 1832; Captain Sword and Captain Pen, 1835; A Legend of Florence, 1840; The Palfrey, 1842; Stories in Verse, 1855. For the bibliography of Leigh Hunt see List of the Writings of William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, chronologically arranged with notes, &c., by Alexander Ireland,' 1868.]
Leigh Hunt's distinction as a poet is to be inspired by pleasure which never steals from his senses the freshness of boyhood, and never darkens his heart with the shadow of unsatisfied desire. Hazlitt spoke of 'the vinous quality of his mind,' which, with his natural gaiety and sprightliness of manner and his high animal spirits, produce an immediate fascination and intoxication in those who come in contact with him.' This vinous quality is in all Leigh Hunt's verse, but it is not that of the heady liquor Hazlitt describes; it is a bright, light wine,
'Tasting of Flora, and the country green,
For his chief poem, The Story of Rimini, he chose a passionate and piteous theme; but it was, as he says, to steady his felicity when, released from imprisonment, he visited the English south coast with his wife and their first beloved child.
A clear bright happiness in duty Leigh Hunt found; his industry was that of a bird building its nest. He had dared in a troubled time to libel the girth of the first gentleman in Europe,
to call Adonis corpulent; and when sentence of two years' imprisonment was pronounced, there was some sinking at his heart. But by and by his room in the prison infirmary began to blossom into an Arcadian bower-'I papered the wall with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling covered with clouds and sky; the barred windows I screened with Venetian blinds; and when my book-cases were set up with their busts, and flowers and a pianoforte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side the water.' It must have come out of a fairy tale, said Charles Lamb. On one bookshelf lay a solid 'lump of sunshine,' the Parnaso Italiano in fifty-six duodecimo volumes. All Mount Hybla and the Vale of Enna were in his cell.
The Parnaso Italiano accompanied him later to Italy. His earlier masters had been Spenser, the youthful Milton, and, in chief, Dryden. He speaks of his 'first manner,' and of his growth in inward perception of poetical requirement; as he advanced in years he became fastidious, rejecting altogether many charming pieces of earlier date. But in truth, although sallies of vivid phraseology were less frequent as his animal spirits lost the licence of boyhood, his style was from first to last in essentials one and the same. The wine was the same, but it had grown mellower. His poetry was not the poetry of thought and passion, which we have in Shakespeare; nor—to use Leigh Hunt's own words-that of 'scholarship and a rapt ambition,' which we have in Milton. He could have passed his whole life writing eternal new stories in verse, part grave, part gay, of no great length, but 'just sufficient,' he says, 'to vent the pleasure with which I am stung on meeting with some touching adventure, and which haunts me till I can speak of it somehow.'
Strolling in the meadows near northern London, a Spenser or a volume of the Parnaso under his arm, Leigh Hunt-a Cockney poet, as were Milton, Chaucer, and Spenser-gathered honey for his hive. When seated at his desk a blissful still excitement possessed him; his cheek flushed, his breath came irregularly, yet all seemed to be calmed and harmonised by some sweet necessity. In such a vivid composure the fine phrase, the subtle image emerged, to be welcomed and caressed :—
A ghastly castle, that eternally
Holds its blind visage out to the lone sea'
-after such words the poet's breast might drink a deep inspiration.