LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[John Gibson Lockhart]
To Mr Leigh Hunt, King of the Cockneys.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine  Vol. 3  No. 14  (May 1818)  196-201.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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No. XIV. MAY, 1818. Vol. III.


Your Majesty, the King of the Cockneys, having signified your royal resolution to preserve an inviolable silence towards me, the unfortunate Z., who am said to “think the green leaves black,” and to be “ignorant of all noble theories,” (I refer your Majesty to one of your late edicts in the Cockney Court-gazette,) I shall, notwithstanding, as it becomes a good and faithful subject to do, continue to pay a little further homage to your Majesty; and I therefore now seek, with a fitting tribute, once more to approach your throne. In the first place, then, I humbly suggest, that you give yourself too many of those regal airs so natural to a crowned head, and that you conduct yourself, at your court at Lisson Grove, with a stateliness and hauteur that may be considered, by the youthful nobility of Cockaigne, a perfect model of monarchical dignity, but is, in fact, risibly characteristic of your plebeian origin and education. Your Majesty is also subject to unseemly fits of passion, which you try to smile off before your courtiers with an aspect alarmingly ghastly; yet, on the whole, your personal appearance, which with wincing soreness you ac-
Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt197
cused me of having caricatured, is not uncaptivating. What with your “ivy crown” “shed nodding over both eyes,” as it was fixed there by the delicate hand of young
Mister Keats,—what with “your ripe locks and fair light limbs,” and the “yellow breeches” celebrated by me in my first address, and which, to better eyes than mine, may, for any thing I know, “seem sky-blue scarlet,”—your Majesty must be a most formidable personage to the Maids of Honour about court; and such bodily accomplishments and attractions are quite sufficient to justify that harmless personal vanity which “the many men so beautiful” have in general exhibited, whether fate have kept them, throughout life, in a private station, or elevated them, like Leigh Hunt, to a throne.

That I may not feel myself too much constrained, however, by this image of royalty regularly carried on throughout, I propose now to address you sometimes as plain Leigh Hunt, sometimes as the editor of the Examiner newspaper, sometimes as the author of the incestuous “Story of Rimini,” sometimes as the gatherer of “Foliage” and “Green-woods,” and sometimes as the potent and august King of the Cockneys. And if, in following out this method, I occasionally depart from that respectful language which the vulgar prejudices of the ignorant may think due to majesty, I hope that the Cockney King will extend to me his gracious pardon, while he calls to mind his own youthful imprudences in that sort, and those many melancholy prison hours, when he sought to beguile the punishment inflicted on him for the outrage he had committed against his sovereign, by the whisper of that Italian Muse who “visited his slumbers nightly,” and breathed into his ear all the agonies and all the transports of an incestuous passion.

It appears then that you, Leigh Hunt, after ten years' unintermitted abuse of your sovereign and of the government of your country, and after the publication of many hundred libels, both of a public and private kind, have suddenly fallen into convulsions at the first frown of a “poor creature,” whom, nevertheless, you pretend to despise; and after having lain in a speechless state for some weeks, you have awaked raving, and subject to uncouth peals of hysterical and sardonic laughter. That clever actress, Mrs Bartley, could not have recited Collins's Ode to the Passions with greater variety of action and gesticulation, with more “whisks and whirrings” of frenzied emotion, than did Leigh Hunt peruse my Critique. Anger, pity, fear, and revenge, alternately ruled that royal bosom,
“Exulting, trembling, raging, fainting,
Possess'd beyond the Muse's painting.”

What a fine subject for a series of pictures! “Collins's Ode to the Passions, illustrated by a series of views of Leigh Hunt in appropriate costume. Engraved by Landseer, from the original paintings by R. Haydon;” with this motto,
Mille habet ornatus, mille decenter habet.

These you might have framed, and hung up in that magnificent chamber of yours at Lisson Grove, where, amiable but infatuated bardling, Mister John Keats, slept on the night when he composed his famous Cockney Poem in honour of
“Him of the rose, the violet, and the spring,
The social smile, the chain for freedom's sake,”
and other mighty masters of the lyre, that often as you are sickened with the follies and sins of mankind, (a complaint to which, you weekly inform us, you are lamentably subject, as well as to bad headaches, proceeding from bile and indigestion,) you may withdraw to the holy contemplation of your own divine perfections, and there “perk up with timid mouth” “and lamping eyes,” (so you have it) upon what to you is dearer and more glorious than all created things besides, till you become absorbed in your own identity,—motionless, mighty, and magnificent, in the pure calm of Cockneyism.

Does your Majesty remember, how, during the paroxysms of your passion, you kept fearfully crying out for Z.? Nothing would pacify you but the appearance of that gentleman. A message was accordingly sent to him, and, being a good-natured man, he was about to visit the patient, when, all at once, you “stayed your hand, and changed your measure,” and threatened the very person whom, in the same breath, you had invited to visit you, with
198Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt
all the terrors of the law, if he should venture to set foot within the Cockney King's dominions. Not wishing to be brought into any unnecessary trouble by a lunatic, I contented myself with quoting the following rhymes, which you may find in
“Were I in my castle of Bungay,
Beside the river of Waveney,
I would ne care for the King of Cockney.”
In spite and in pity of your wild yells of “Coward! Coward!” I am, at this present moment, writing incog. And I purpose doing so, till it may suit my own convenience to affront, “in angry parle,” the offended majesty of Lisson Grove. But, meanwhile, let me open your eyes, if possible, to the foolishness of this expression—“Coward.”

You, Leigh Hunt, allow your rage and conscious guilt (for you know that Rimini is an incestuous poem) to drive you into the stupidest inconsistency of speech. You tell us that you are answerable for every thing in your inflammatory and unprincipled newspaper, and that therefore every man who writes against you, ought to give his name to the public. There is no logic in this—it is a non-sequitur. You may unblushingly expose yourself and your name to the scorn and disgust of the wise and the good—you may endeavour to sap the foundations of civil society and of social life—you may, as you have often done in prose, eulogise prostitutes and kept-mistresses, and sneer at that dull thing a wife—you may, as you have done in something that is not prose, hold up to the love, and pity, and admiration, and worship of virgins, the incestuous and adulterous wretch, who took to her polluted embraces her husband's brother, for no other cause than because he was a handsome man, and “more lightsomely dropt in his lordly back”— you may, as you have done, abet murder and assassination, by blaming the general principle, and yet applauding or extenuating each particular instance of it—and to all these enormities you may affix, with an imperial flourish, the sign-manual of Leigh Hunt—☞. But is that any reason why Z., or any other man, should voluntarily offer himself to the filthy abuse of a crew of Jacobins and incendiaries? How can courage or cowardice be in any way shewn, by concealing or avowing one's self to be the castigator of your wicked and pernicious tale of incest? To fear Leigh Hunt, is beyond the power of human timidity. But while I despise you and your noisy impotence, I choose freedom from the molestation of your abuse. You are the coward. You bawled upon a man, who, you clearly saw, held you in derision, to offer himself to the combat. You are like some puny drunkard at a village-wake, “shewing fight” to a sober man; and, in the midst of all his vapouring, well aware, first, that the muscular object of his slavering curses would be satisfied with merely holding up his fist; and, secondly, that his own gang would prevent him from fighting, and were his challenge accepted, cry out for a constable.
“Then see what thou'lt do:
Woul't weep? Woul't Fight? woul't fast? woul't tear thyself?
Woul't drink up easil? eat a crocodile?
I'll Do't.

In the midst of your fury, you would fain be jocular. You tell me that I think the “green leaves black,” and am ignorant of “all noble theories.” Truly if I were to form my opinion of “leaves” from your system of “Foliage,” I should have singular notions both of their shape and colour. A tree in the hands of Leigh Hunt is a very odd affair. No such tree as he is in the habit of describing grows in the British isles; nor is any description of it to be found in Evelyn's Silva. I am sorry it is not in my power to admire what I never saw. But how is this my insensibility to the colour of leaves, or rather the diseased state of my optical nerves, connected with that hatred and disgust which I, in common with every body else, entertain for indecent and immoral compositions in verse, more particularly the “Story of Rimini?” And can it indeed be, that no one can admire, or even see, the beauties of nature, without also admiring that most artificial of all objects, Mr Leigh Hunt?

With respect to my ignorance “of all noble theories,” there again breaks forth the vanity of the Cockney King. You think that “all noble theories” are contained in your own writings—for of those alone did I speak. And I presume, that the “ideal beauty of “all those noble theories” is to be found
Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt199
in the “
Story of Rimini.” Noble as those theories are, let me hope that they may never be carried into practice. Let me hope that wives may continue to love their husbands, and to remain faithful to their bed, though they may chance to see finer men at church and market,—that a holier power guards the sanctity of the marriage-couch, than whim, fancy, caprice, passion, and shameless desire,—that execration and hatred shall for ever pursue the memory of the unprincipled adultress,—that instead of flowers being sprinkled, and annual hymns chaunted over the mingled dust of incestuous paramours, weeds may grow there, and toads undisturbed engender; and that all low-minded and paltry men, who, in folly, or in wickedness, shall seek, like Leigh Hunt, to versify vice into virtue, may meet with some just infliction, as severe as that which makes him at this moment to wince, wail, and tremble, and in his heart to feel all the agonies of remorse, without the softening of repentance, at having dedicated to a licentious muse the prison-hours that were doomed to be the punishment of his sedition.

But it seems that Leigh Hunt now denies having had any thing to do with these pot-valiant denunciations of vengeance against Z. You sat still and silent,
“As the female dove,
Or ere her golden couplets ore disclosed,”
You are still “he of the rose and the violet,”
“A fool of sweetness, crispness, ease,
Compound of lovely smallnesses.”
But your
brother, who appears to be the drudge at the printing-office in town, while your Majesty resides at Hampstead, was, you say, the oracle on that occasion. Really the King of the Cockneys must himself be sensible of the imprudence of Prince John. That unhappy prince must needs have two separate readings of his creed. He calls upon Z. to come forward with his name, and declares him to be a coward for withholding it, though all that Z. did was to expose the wickedness of an immoral poem. By and by the Examiner publishes, with high praise and commendation, a letter to Mr Canning, which, whatever may be its character as a literary composition, is, beyond doubt, the most malignant and fiendish curse ever uttered by one human being against another, and concludes with a threat of assassination, either idiotically unmeaning, or savagely wicked. Prince John is in high glee at the sarcasms of this lurking assassin; he delights to think that Mr Canning allowed himself to be disturbed by them; a single unguarded expression of an animated orator, during the warmth of discussion, is judged by him worthy of death and a conjuration of murderers; for the sake of one word, an accomplished gentleman, rhetorician, scholar, and poet, ought, according to this moralist, to be outlawed from human society, and denied the common attributes of a human being; and, at the fancied idea of his humiliation, a shout is raised by the royal brothers, that shakes the whole kingdom of Cockney, from Lisson Grove to No 18, Catherine Street, Strand.

Your Majesty seems to be sensible of the extraordinary style of your royal edicts, and you seek to preserve your own consistency by the sacrifice of Prince John. How hard the hearts of kings! There, alas, generosity is not to be found. You, forsooth, think, that the author of the letter to Mr Canning ought to come forward; though you also think, that he may have good reason for not doing so; and with these clashing opinions of your own, you give your royal brother a sort of awkward lecture on his absurd and contending principles. But still you admire the author of the letter—hint that he is your friend—and the friend of man—talk of enduring “petrefaction” before you disclose his name—breathe not a syllable of displeasure with his ferocity and avowed determination, under supposeable circumstances, to commit murder—and delight in the universal odium against Mr Canning, which, according to you, his atrocious epistle has excited.

Prince John can have no hopes of the succession, for you have often told the world, that your throne is surrounded by a numerous progeny, but you ought to drill him into the appearance of consistency with himself and his elder brother; so that he may not drive you into the necessity of again speaking of the “poor creature whom you last week dismissed;” as if Z. could be said to be dismissed from a mind which his image for ever haunts like an avenging shadow, and from
200Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt
which it wrings out delirious and passionate outcries at the very moment when you are lauding your coolness and magnanimity.

And now, before parting with you for a month, allow me to return you my best thanks, for the very kind and condescending permission which, in a late Number of the Examiner, you gave me to come forward and avow myself. This was more than kind—it was generous. I need fear nothing from you—so you inform me. But it would seem as if there were some other formidable Champion into whose hands you would wish slyly to deliver me. Of him, as of you, my contempt is perfect. As you got him to praise you and your verses in the Edinburgh Review, so may you get him at small cost to defend you in a Sunday Newspaper. But let him have a cooling draught before he enters the lists. I observed him lately breaking all the laws of chivalry, by using foul language to some humble squire who had spied a pimple on his nose. Give him a visor and send him forth to the battle. Choose for his shield-bearer the flower of the Cockney youth. Have warm possets and salves ready against his return from the combat, and one or two of your own “Nepheliads” to bring some “bubbling freshness” to his green wounds. Let this man of steel come at his leisure. You at least are disposed of. True that you called out “a foul blow,” but it has been decided against you by impartial umpires, and it is evident that you have not weighed your metal before you rushed into the battle. Your imprudence has been great; had it not been the offspring of so much conceit I should have disdained to punish it. The die is cast. It is now too late to talk of retreating.

And now, for the present, I know not that I have much more to add. That you have been irritated to a state of lunacy by my Critiques on the Cockney School of Poetry, of which you are the founder, is proved by your raving and incoherent denials. You, who have libelled so many men, ought not to have considered yourself sacred from the hand of vengeance. Above all persons living, you, the Editor of the Examiner, who have so often run a muck, stabbing men, women, and children, should, if unable to defend yourself when the avenger came, have had the sense and fortitude at least to endure punishment with decent composure. But your whole mind seems to be one universal sore of vanity, and the pinch of a finger and thumb causes you to shriek out, as if you were broken on the wheel, and to burst into insane invectives with the very avowal of silence on your pale quivering lips. Silent you cannot remain; and when you speak out against me, what is it you say? Nothing. Your abilities, which on some subjects are considerable, then utterly desert you; and instead of rousing yourself from your lair, like some noble beast when attacked by the hunter, you roll yourself round like a sick hedge-hog, that has crawled out into the “crisp” gravel walk round your box at Hampstead, and oppose only the feeble prickles of your hunch'd-up back to the kicks of one who wishes less to hurt you, than to drive you into your den.

The question at issue between Leigh Hunt and Z. is not to be decided by raving on your side, or contempt on mine. It is to be decided by that portion of the public who have read your works, and, if need be, the charges I have brought against them. You alone, of all the writers in verse of the present day, of any pretensions, real or imaginary, to the character of poet, have been the secret and invidious foe of virtue. No woman who has not either lost her chastity, or is desirous of losing it, ever read “The Story of Rimini” without the flushings of shame and self-reproach. A brother would tear it indignantly from a sister's hand, and the husband who saw his wife's eyes resting on it with any other expression than of contempt or disgust, would have reason to look with perplexing agony on the countenances of his children.

You may, henceforth, endeavour to remain silent, and it may be well for you that you do so. But I shall hereafter have much to say to you. Your vulgar vanity, your audacious arrogance, your conceited coxcombry, your ignorant pedantry,—all the manifold sins and iniquities of Cockneyism lie spread before me as in a map; and I will not part with your Majesty till I have shewn your crown, which you imagine is formed of diamonds and pearls, to be wholly composed of paste and parchment, and
Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt201
glass-beads; your robes to be worthless as old rags from St Giles'; your sceptre to be a hollow-hearted and sapless broom-stick, which no hawker could vend without dishonesty; and your throne itself, though glittering with gew-gaws, to be no better than a broken-armed kitchen-chair, and worthy to be the seat of that “
Washerwoman,” whose charms you, in the “Round Table,” have, like a fitting knight, so chivalrously celebrated.

I shall probe you to the core. I shall prove you to be ignorant of all you pretend to understand. I shall shew that you have written verse for these ten years without ever having had one glimpse of what true poetry is; that you nave been a weekly babbler about patriotism and freedom, and yet, all the while, the most abject slave that ever bowed himself to clear the path before the idol-chariot of anarchy. I shall shew the world to what a low pass the spirit of England is reduced, when any of her children can stoop to be instructed by one who has not a single iota of the English character within him; one who is in his religion as base and cold as a second-hand sceptic of the Palais Royal; who, in his politics, mingles the vulgar insolence of a Paine with the weakness of a mountebank and theatrical notable; whose perceptions of moral truth have been embalmed in strains that might be cheered from a Venetian Gondola, but which have had no effect in England, except that of heaping an already contemptible name with the blackest infamy of voluntary pandarism and coveted humiliation.

The advantage which I have over you, Mr Hunt, is indeed a very considerable one. You should have reflected better before you thus compelled and invited me to make my most of its power. I have the established sentiments of national honour on my side. There is not a man or a woman around us, who venerates the memory of a respectable ancestry, or the interests of a yet unpolluted progeny, that will not rejoice to see your poison neutralized by the wholesome chemistry of Z. There is not a single mother of a seduced daughter, or a single father of a profligate son, or a single repentant victim of sophistical vice, that does not lavish the foulest of execrations on your devoted head. Even in those scenes of wickedness, where alone, unhappy man, your verses find willing readers, there occur many moments of languor and remorse, wherein the daughters of degradation themselves, toss from their hands, with angry loathing, the obscene and traitorous pages of your Rimini. In those who have sinned from weakness or levity, the spark of original conscience is not always totally extinguished. To your breast alone, and to those of others like you, the deliberate, and pensive, and sentimental apostles of profligacy, there comes no visiting of purity, no drop of repentance. Your souls are so hardened, that the harlot deity, who is worshipped by others with their senses alone, claims and receives from you the prostration and slavery of intellect. Alas! that where pity is so much the predominant feeling, I should be forced, by the stubbornness of the offender, to array myself in the externals of severity. Confess only that you have done wrong,—make a clear breast of it,—beg pardon of your God and of your country for the iniquities of your polluted muse, and the last to add one pang to the secret throbbings of a contrite spirit, shall be Z.