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[John Gibson Lockhart]
Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine  Vol. 2  No. 10  (January 1818)  414-17.
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No. X. JANUARY, 1818. Vol. II.


The manner in which you have twice addressed me in your newspaper, requires, by the rules of common civility, an answer from me in the first person. I lay aside without regret the authoritative plural, in which you and I, and all the periodical writers of the present day, find our advantage; and I speak to Mr Leigh Hunt, as an individual, with the unfashionable humility of the singular number.

In Blackwood’s Magazine for October there appeared, as you well know, an article entitled, “On the Cockney School of poetry, No I.” in which I took the liberty of stating a few general opinions respecting you as a poet, and the founder of a new school of poetry. To be the founder of a good school of poetry, I asserted, that you were unfit, and I maintained, that you have hitherto made a very bad use of the poetical talents, such as they are, with which you are endowed. That the opinion which I then expressed could be at all agreeable to your personal vanity I never expected; but I confess I gave you credit for tact and experience in the world, sufficient to prevent you from the adoption of those silly and inefficient measures by which you have been pleased to express your resentment.

My opinion with respect to you is the opinion of an individual; and I never doubted that it was very different from that of many others. But I did not presume to offer my opinion to the public, without hinting at the same time, that I intended to lay before it the grounds upon which that opinion had been formed. My October paper was merely an opening of the case; I said, as plainly as words could speak it, that the examination of witnesses, and the closing address, would both follow in their season. But you are such a testy person, that you cannot bear to hear the first paragraph of your indictment, without manifesting, by passionate outcries, your indignation at being dragged forward upon such a charge. Such an ebullition of noble rage might perhaps have been better timed at the end of the trial, when the proofs had all been produced, when your accuser had closed his mouth, and the impartial jury of your country were about to form their final opinion, whether you were or were not guilty of the things which, had been laid to your account. In your situation, however, such a phrenzied declaration of innocence could never have been considered as the proper method of exculpation. You also had it in your power to bring your witnesses into court, and you were at
Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt415
liberty either to be your own advocate at the bar, or to give a brief to your champion
Mr Hazlitt.

The first line of your foaming exclamations was “my accuser is a liar.” Let us see what you mean by this polite and laconic asseveration. He has filed against you a bill, which may be divided into eight several counts. Do you mean to say that the whole indictment is a falsehood, or do you confine your indignation to any individual section of the charge? Your temper is in such a state, that I cannot place much reliance on your capacity of dissecting even the most perspicuous of compositions. I will save you the trouble.

The charges which I have brought against your literary life and conversation are these: 1. The want and the pretence of scholarship; 2. A vulgar style in writing; 3. A want of respect for the Christian religion; 4. A contempt for kingly power, and an indecent mode of attacking the government of your country; 5. Extravagant admiration of yourself, the Round Table, and your own poems; 6. Affectation; 7. A partiality for indecent subjects, and an immoral manner of writing concerning the crime of incest, in your poem of Rimini; 8. I have asserted, that you are a poet vastly inferior to Wordsworth, Byron, and Moore!

The truth of these propositions I offered to prove to the satisfaction of the public, without however binding myself to bring them forward in any particular order of arrangement. But you exclaim, that I am a liar. Answer me these questions before I answer any of yours. Are you a profound scholar? Are you a genteel and elegant writer of English? Are you a pious Christian? Are you not the editor of the Examiner? Do you not think the Round Table worthy of standing on the same shelf with the Spectator, and Rimini of being bound up with the Inferno? Are you a simple and unaffected writer? Have you not gloated over all the details of an incestuous amour in a manner calculated to excite in young and sentimental minds, not horror, but sympathy for the guilty lovers? Do you presume to say that you wish to be considered as occupying the same station in poetry with the authors of the Excursion, Childe Harold, and Lallah Rookh? Let me know which of the eight counts it is that has provoked your resentment, and rest assured, that upon that very count my first evidences shall be produced.

Excepting in so far as your compliance with this demand may give occasion for it, it is not by any means my intention to depart from the plan which I originally proposed. I mean to handle each of these topics in its turn, and now and then to relieve my main attack upon you, by a diversion against some of your younger and less important auxiliaries, the Keateses, the Shellys, and the Webbes. Did you ever suppose, that having formed and announced such a plan, I should be the fool to weaken the effect of its execution, by telling you my name the moment you were pleased to demand it? If you think me a fool, why do you read my papers at all? If you do me the honour to suppose that I am capable of reading and comprehending your writings, that is all I want you or any body else to do. I am desirous of addressing myself to the public upon these subjects, in the character of one who understands your works and their tendency. What could you or the public gain by learning by what name I am called? If I please at any time to disclose myself, that will be done with a better grace after I have finished my series of papers “on the Cockney School” than now, when I have little more than commenced it. Did you hope to irritate me by calling names in the Examiner? The unknown and insignificant Z., shares the abuse of that journal, with those who may well keep him in countenance. Do the politicians who have decided that Mr Pitt was “a dull” “common man,” destitute of either “understanding, imagination, sensibility, wit, or judgment”—Do the philosophers who have called Mr Locke a blundering plagiary, and styled King David a Methodist, the first who made a regular compromise between immorality and religion, and a man of the same stamp with Louis XIV. and Charles II.—Do the sweeping moralists, who have pronounced every Scotchman to be by impulse a scoundrel, and every Irishman by principle a knave—Do these oracular dogmatists imagine that Z. shall be offended because they choose to christen him a reptile?

You have found, it seems, two excellent writers who have taken up
416Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt
your cause. Your notice of them in the
Examiner was my first information of their existence; but, upon looking into their productions, I am sorry to say, that I think your partiality for the subject has induced you to rate a little too high the value of their eulogies. The Pamphleteer has come forward with words full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, to defend you from the remarks I had made on your politics and your religion. In regard to the first, he informs us that you are a true English patriot, and adds, by way of proof, that you are the convicted libeller of your Sovereign. In regard to the second, he tells us in one page, that no man can commit a greater crime than by offending the religious prejudices of his countrymen; and in the next, he very gravely asserts, that you are an open professor of the same respectable faith with Hume, Condorcet, and Voltaire. I desire no more. Out of your own words are ye judged. The Critic is a great admirer of you and of Mr Hazlitt. He thinks the Round Table a divine production. He says that “Mr Hazlitt’s writings are incomparably fuller of ideas than Addison’s.” Z. is not very anxious to know what this person thinks of his writings. Are you not afraid of the old adage, “Noscitur a socio,” when you are willing to associate your cause with such a set of drivellers as these? It is curious to see of what absurdities a clever man can be guilty, when he is fairly in a passion.

It appears from the language of your last note to Z. that you have yourself misconceived my meaning in one part of my first paper. Mr Blackwood’s Editor has thought proper to soften some of my expressions in the Second Edition of his Magazine, so as to prevent the possibility of the misconstruction into which it appears you have fallen. I suspect, however, that in truth, you are the only person who have mistaken my meaning, and that it would be a difficult thing for any disinterested individual, to comprehend in what way you have committed such a blunder. When I charged you with depraved morality, obscenity, and indecency, I spoke not of Leigh Hunt as a man. I deny the fact.—I have no reason to doubt that your private character is respectable; but I judged of you from your works, and I maintain that they are little calculated to support such a conclusion. I am willing to confess to you, that there are few absurdities of which I do not believe most affected and tasteless rhymster to be capable, even though his morals should have no share in the base qualities of his intellect. But the more virtuous you are, the greater must your influence be, and in exact proportion to the private worth of Mr Hunt must the corrupting effects of his vile poem be increased. Your poem is vile, profligate, obscene, indecent, and detestable. I have already proved, and I mean to prove yet more fully, that in the Story of Rimini you have offered a laborious, and yet a smiling apology for a crime at once horrible in its effects, and easy in its perpetration—a crime which takes for granted the breach of brotherly confidence, and the pollution of home—a crime which we had fondly imagined was extinct in England, but of which a late melancholy example has taught us that the beginnings are as insidious as the end is miserable. In those who have wept with tears of blood over the fatal errors of a Paolo and a Francesca of our own—in those who have curst the smooth villanies of Mildmay, and pitied the sufferings of the generous and unsuspecting Roseberry—in those who have felt the horrors of a real story of Rimini, it will excite no wonder that a lover of virtue has poured out his bitter indignation against the husband and the father who had dared to be the apologist of adultery and incest.

To answer the charges which I have made against your works, is in your power, and in that of your friends. The sooner you shew yourself to be a classical writer, a good Christian, and a great poet, the better will it be for yourself; and the first to congratulate you and the public on the metamorphosis, will be the present object of your resentment and your abuse. If you can shew that Rimini has no bad tendency, that the young wife of an old, or the sentimental wife of a busy husband, can study it without danger, your cause is won. Till that be, the accusation I have brought against you as its author will remain as it now is, and you will never white-wash the reputation of your poem by blackening the character of one who has told you that he cannot read it without loathing.

Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt 417

You are not satisfied with calling me a liar, an epithet which the world will attach to me, if I fail to establish the justice of my assertions, and which it will bestow upon you, sir, as soon it believes me to have made out my point. You add, “Z is a coward.” This assertion is at the best premature. Perhaps you may hereafter find reason to retract your charge. But you will permit me to observe, that you invited Z to disclose his name, in terms which augured no very chivalrous intentions on your part. It is all one. That is a matter of very little importance either to Z or to the public.

Junius, a much greater man than Z, was once attacked with epithets similar to yours, by a more respectable man than you—Sir William Draper. He replied in these terms, which I transcribe for your use. “When you tell me I have submitted to be called a liar and a coward, I must ask you in my turn, whether you seriously think it any way incumbent on me to take notice of the silly invectives of every simpleton who writes in a newspaper; and what opinion you would have formed of my discretion, if I had suffered myself to be the dupe of so shallow an artifice?”