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Leigh Hunt and the Poetry of Fancy.

Literary history has not treated Leigh Hunt kindly. It is safe to say that even in English departments, only a few specialists have more than a nodding acquaintance with the man or his works. Leigh Hunt and the Poetry of Fancy, the first exclusive analysis of his verses, thus remedies a long-standing neglect. As if in additional compensation, the poet is fortunate to have found an expositor as knowledgeable, sensitive, clear, and lively as Professor Edge-combe.

The admirable aspects of the book begin with its architecture, which presents the poet both comprehensively and to his best advantage. The opening chapter thoroughly explores not the poems themselves, but rather the sensibility which produced them, defined as rococo. An essentially decorative mode of thought, its most prominent characteristics include lightness, grace, and spontaneity. Rococo verse displays frequent neologisms, a gentle eroticism, an emphasis on curvature, imagination in rhyme, and syncopaton in metre. In brief, the style aims to provide immediate pleasure, rather than the sublime transcendence to which the Romantics aspired. For readers familiar with art history, the author establishes a useful analogy: Hunt is to poetry as Watteau is to painting.

Given these traits, it seems clear that such a sensibility would deploy itself far more effectively in short lyric poems than in long narratives. The analysis of Hunt's works themselves therefore begins with a close reading of the narrative 'The Story of Rimini' and then continues with similar discussions of Hunt's other narrative poems. These works contain many well-wrought and appealing set-pieces of lyric description, which do have the negative feature of bringing the action of the narrative to a dead stop. Although these poems therefore fail as organic wholes, Professor Edgecombe meticulously and convincingly demonstrates that they do have charms for the reader willing to search for the sweet plums amidst the pudding. It is with a clear sense of relief, however, that the argument turns to Hunt's less ambitious works. The shorter form and looser structure of his political, critical, and miscellaneous verse provide a better setting for his idiosyncratic turn of mind. Accordingly, they present much less necessity for apology, and much greater cause for critical praise. Professor Edgecombe has thus led the reader from Hunt's weakest poems to his strongest. Meanwhile, he has made a strong case that readjusting our criteria for evaluating poetry can increase our comprehension and enjoyment of an author whom the canon seems unjustly to have overlooked.

The book merits praise for other qualities as well. The author has great skill at traditional thematic analysis, especially with regard to imagery and rhythm. He repeatedly and ably moves from a particular image or metrical pattern to discussion of how it contributes to a certain emotional and psychological effect, and he does so in deft and supple prose which reflects the clarity of his thought. While he remains firmly based in the New Critical tradition, he has not closed himself off entirely from newer modes of scholarship. In particular, he has carefully chosen certain strands of feminism and cross-bred them with the close-reading mode, despite the seemingly incompatibility of these two approaches. The result shows considerable hybrid vigour. His readings of Hunt's poems and of Hunt himself remain strongly grounded, but lack the taint of fustiness which could easily have spoiled them.

Finally, the book's wild stylistic range contributes greatly to its liveliness. Within the context of criticism, Professor Edgecombe has a way with words at least as rococo and as interesting as Hunt's own. Probably this is the only book in the English language containing both 'hodoiporikon' (a sixty-four dollar term for a travel poem), and 'flumping'. Such modulations from the academic to the demotic give the book a unique flavour. Some readers may not find them entirely enjoyable; still, it would take a pedant with a heart of flint to resist such touches as the description of anapaests in narrative verse showing 'all the unwelcome energy and boisterousness of hyperactive children' (121). The author has a capable and well-stocked mind; in addition, his exuberant spirit as he goes about his task of explication is as delightful as it is rare. Clearly, he has derived great pleasure from working through Hunt's poems, and he has arranged his book so the reader shares in it as well. He convincingly establishes his point that the poetry of Leigh Hunt has solid merit and deserves a wide circulation; the same applies to his own highly illuminating and enjoyable analysis.

DAVE WILLIAMS Ithaca, New York
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Author:Williams, Dave
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1996
Words:748
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