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Hunt, Byron, and The Story of Rimini - A Literary Challenge to “the Public Mind”

  • Will Bowers

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  • Will Bowers
    University College, London

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I. “The pleasure of supplying”

Parisina, Byron claims, is “grounded on a circumstance mentioned in Gibbon” (Parisina 282). The small amount of criticism on the poem has failed to look beyond Gibbon as the source of Parisina. This is an oversight, it is a source but many of the intricacies in composition and the poem itself suggest a more complex root. Despite the well-worn anecdote of the poets' first meeting in Horsemonger Lane Gaol, there has been little critical suggestion that Hunt was influencing Byron whilst they were writing ostensibly similar poems. These similarities are apparent in the structure of the narratives, split between the lovers comfort in the arboreal opening paragraphs, and their despair at public wedding, trial and execution scenes. Hunt and Byron poems also share the same triangulation of older man, younger wife and younger lover, familiar to the world of Romance, the betrayal of a male blood-relation, and a setting in Medieval Italy. The male knights in both poems explore the genetic links between lover and husband; the likeness of Paolo and Giovanni “for when you see the one, you know the other”, and of Hugo “too like a son” to Azo (Rimini II.60-64, III.21-29, III.55-66; Parisina l.234-317). It is this bond which Byron and Hunt sever through incest, which threatens to break a society where the marital bed is “the chamber of his [Azo's] state”, and where a betrayal of lineage makes Paolo a “traitor to the noble name/ Of Malatesta” (Parisina l.133; Rimini IV.230-238). When these betrayals are revealed, the poets choose a suitably Italian catholic diction of sin and punishment (Parisina l.56, l.404-429; Rimini IV.213, IV.315, IV.404).

The failure of criticism to perceive this similarity is due to the stage of Byron's development in which Parisina is placed. Byron had chosen Eastern settings for his previous five works; a group of poems critically bundled as “Turkish” tales, in which Parisina is included. Reading Parisina as a “Turkish” tale is awkward, and this difference from the tales has caused a critical void around the poem; it escapes analysis in the body of work on Byron and the East and in later discussions of the Italian influence. If we overlook this entrenched grouping, a case for Hunt's influence on Parisina and an earlier dating for an Italianate Byron can be made. The easiest place to begin a search for influence is in Hunt's Autobiography, where on the topic of Rimini he writes, “I had the pleasure of supplying my friendly critic, Lord Byron, with a point for his Parisina (the incident of the Heroine talking in her sleep)” (258).

Hunt places the origin of Byron’s revelation in sleep in Francesca's disclosure to Giovanni in Rimini. This device is not in Gibbon, where Niccolo catches the lovers during a tryst (Gibbon III: 470). At the lines in question, Hunt builds up “the pangs within” Francesca to a climax by constant reiteration of her emotional state (Rimini IV.145). Tension is created through fluctuations between waking and sleeping. Francesca's sense of “the long lingering day” is an obstacle to “sleep again”, and a diminished perception is caused by her “distempered sight” blurred by tears and “disease's visions” (Rimini IV.118-142). Byron distills this oneiric state to these lines:

  ...fevered in her sleep she seems,

And red her cheek with troubled dreams,

And mutters she in her unrest

A name she dare not breathe by day...

And whose that name? that o'er his pillow

Sounds fearful as the breaking billow,

Parisina, l.69-73, l.93-4

Her muttering is talking in sleep, a conscious action, taking place in fevered dreaming. She releases her “pangs within” which “she dare not breathe by day” with a cheek red from shame and tears. The catharsis of her revelation is released as an aqueous wave, echoing the weeping in Rimini. Byron and Hunt inhabit the same conflicted sensory nexus, just as they consider the same transgressive repercussions of incest. If we take Hunt at his word, we have the first of Byron's borrowings.

To find further influence, the composition of Parisina must be scrutinised. Byron began to write what would become a poem in 1814, that was then later turned into Parisina, as Jerome McGann has found:

The crucial revision process that resulted in Parisina probably did not begin until 1815. I incline to this view because the poem is based on a passage in Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works (1814) which B first saw and read in 1/1815...Parisina's name in the earliest stages of the poem seems to have been Francesca, which also strongly suggests that B reworked his earlier materials into the story of Parisina...all the evidence strongly suggests...that the materials in the poem which were composed earlier were originally part of a different but similar story of incest.

Poetical Works III: 489

McGann suggests the following: Byron already had the basis for a poem, which was then placed on to a narrative frame after reading Gibbon, and that the original naming of Parisina's heroine as Francesca in earlier material is Byron recycling unused material. He then goes on to claim that this unused material was from The Siege of Corinth, which contains a ghost called Francesca. In the manuscript history between these texts McGann admits “a real problem exists” (Poetical Works III: 489). He argues for a split in the two poems around January 1815 (Poetical Works III: 479). At this juncture the Siege MS. T is taken from a body of work, from which the remaining lines become Parisina. This dating and split is speculative as no draft manuscript of Parisina survives or of the aforementioned “earlier materials”.

There is a number of issues with McGann's root for Parisina. Firstly, his statement that Byron “first saw and read” the story in Gibbon in January 1815 from the 1814 edition is questionable; Byron owned a much earlier copy of Gibbon’s Miscellaneous works, from 1796, which he could have read long before he received the Murray edition in 1815.[3] Secondly, McGann's root is typical of a critical practice which groups Parisina and The Siege together as “Turkish” tales, as he does in his Byron monograph Fiery Dust (190-1). The differences between Parisina and the tales are numerous. The protagonist of TheSiege, Alp, is the typical Byronic hero who “stood alone – a renegade/ Against the country he betrayed”. Like the Giaour he is defiant in death, unlike the resigned acceptance of Parisina's Hugo (Parisina l.250-315). Furthermore, the love of the “Turkish” tales is wrong for its cultural impropriety, the clash of occidental and oriental faiths and values, as opposed to the moral concerns which surround the incestuous romance of Parisina. The Siege is set, in keeping with The Giaour, The Corsair, and Lara, in the Levant and is historically modern (1710-20); it shows a foreign power invading coastal terrain. The topography of this landscape is commented on throughout, which is coloured with Eastern diction like “Spahi”, “Turcoman” and “Tophaike” (The Siege III.322-356, L31,37).[4]Parisina shares none of these features: it is set entirely in Italy, in the medieval past, and is contained within the court and forests of Ferreira.

In addition to these literary differences, McGann's theory on the root of Parisina is problematic from a documentary perspective. At no point does The Siege contain an incest theme, so the claim that Parisina was “originally part of a different but similar story of incest” contradicts the argument that this material could become The Siege. Despite this, McGann's split of The Siege and Parisina from one poem could be possible if the combined pre-1815 materials conformed to an Eastern format. This material would then be split in 1815 after reading Gibbon, with a name change to Francesca (Siege) and Parisina (Parisina). A complete overhaul occurred in 1815 – so McGann's argument goes – to the tone, plot, and location, of the “earlier materials”. But lines which make their way into the final version of Parisina, written before the supposed separation, cast further doubt over this. In 1814 Byron sent Isaac Nathsan two lyrics for Hebrew Melodies entitled “It is the Hour” and “Francisca” (Poetical Works III: 297, VII: 90). These lines, written before McGann's split at 1815, with the title naming a “Francisca” who bears little resemblance to the Francesca of The Siege, become the opening of Parisina. In these lines “the nightingale’s high note is heard” with the “gentle winds and waters near”.[5] Francisca is sat “in her garden bower” as her lover tramps “through the foliage thick” and “rustling leaves” to meet for their clandestine tryst (Poetical Works III: 297). The diction in these lyrics gives no hints towards an Eastern poem, this the verdant forest of medieval romance. At this “earliest stage” before McGann's 1815 division, the lines share the tone of Paolo and Francesca's meeting in Rimini, rather than Francesca's visitation to Alp on the eve of war in The Siege (The Siege III.339, L50-117).

My proposed alternative to McGann's split from the one Francesca of “earlier materials” into Parisina and Francesca, is that Byron wrote two separate Francescas. An earlier Francesca in his eastern mode, and one inspired by Rimini who became Parisina. At this pre-Gibbon stage, Byron had read draft versions of Rimini, and wrote the opening lines of what was to become a story of incest, set in Italy, with a heroine named Francisca. This provides the “different but similar” narrative which McGann is looking for; Parisina's Italian narrative, courtly setting, the name Francesca, and most of all the mode of romance have plausible antecedents in Rimini.

The difference of Parisina from previous tales was clear to Byron's publisher, John Murray II: “These two tales form an invaluable contrast, and display the variety of your power. For myself, I am really more interested by the effect of the story of “Parisina” than by either, I think, of the former tales” (Murray “Murray to Byron” 1.4.1816). This “contrast” and difference in “effect” which Murray sees displayed in Parisina, is rooted in the same generic tradition as Rimini: the medieval romance. These similarities cannot be seen as a significant influence from Byron to Hunt. Byron made lengthy comments and suggestions to a draft of Rimini canto II/III in October 1815 (Rimini Ashley ms.907 ). This manuscript is the only known example of Byron offering suggestions to a contemporary poet on his text. In the manuscript Byron's high regard for Rimini is shown in his marginal comments of “Superlative”, “Very good too”, “Very Good indeed”, “Very Very Good”, and, “The whole page is very fine and original” (Rimini Ashley ms.907).[6] Only two of Byron's seventeen amendments were accepted; Hunt appears disinclined to submit to changes by the most popular poet of the day.[7] Byron as editor had little impact. As a poet through Parisina he could have no influence; Hunt was not aware of the poems existence until February 1816, as the following letter shows,

I desired Murray to forward you a pamphlet with two things of mine in it [Parisina/The Siege]... written before others of my composing – which have preceded them in publication: - they are neither of them of much pretension – nor intended for it – you will perhaps wonder at my dwelling so much and so frequently on former subjects & scenes – but the fact is that I found them fading fast from my memory.

BLJ V: 32-3

Byron is insistent that these works are “former”, “written before others” and “fading fast”, he then dismisses the literary pretensions of these “frequently” wrought scenes. If this letter was only referring to The Siege these expressions would be relatively mundane. In the context of Parisina, they are intriguing. His claim to be dwelling on former scenes in Parisina is false, as the differences in this poem from the tales prove. Byron has been working on a medieval Italian narrative of incest for some time, and yet had not mentioned it to Hunt, who was also working on thematically similar tale which Byron had read multiple times. He informs him only a month before publication. The atypically hesitant tone of this letter, in its repetition to stress the age of the work and convoluted clauses, could suggest Byron felt insecure about his debt to Hunt.

That Parisina was not like The Siege, or any “Turkish” tale, and closer to Rimini, was raised in contemporary reception. Lockhart wrote: “To none of these poems, however, does the subject of Rimini bear so great a resemblance as to Parisina” (“Cockney School II” 196). This same comparison was made in the British Review where the poems were reviewed together (“The Siege of Corinth, &c” 452). With this weight of evidence, in pre-publication, correspondence, and contemporary reception, why is the influence from Hunt to Byron critically unexamined? Nicholas Roe comes closest to providing an examination in his idea of a “creative exchange” between Byron and Hunt in the period 1814-16 (Fiery Heart 244). An exchange requires cross-influence; Roe's evidence for this is the appearance of the names Azo and Hugo, characters from Parisina, in Rimini at I.88-9. But Byron's letter suggests that Hunt had no contact with Parisina or its characters until February 1816, assuming he read the work the moment it was delivered. At this point Rimini was nearly complete, discussions were being made for publication, and Hunt had moved to Hampstead to finish the final canto (Hunt Autobiography 257). The John Murray Archive, at the National Library of Scotland, contains evidence that suggests Hunt did not read the Parisina volume instantly. In an unpublished letter from Hampstead dated “April 1816” Hunt writes:

My dear Byron,
You have seen, I hope, in yesterday's Examiner the reason why I could not visit the poetry you were kind enough to send me till this week.

Letter to Byron, 1814

Hunt is apologising for not reading The Siege/Parisina volume Byron had asked Murray to send him months earlier. By this point Rimini was printed, and so the names of Azo and Hugo in the court at Ravenna cannot have been taken from Parisina: Hunt had not read it.

Proving conclusively an influence of Hunt on Byron is impossible, but marking the similitude between the two projects is essential; Rimini and Parisina share an interest in a new poetry. A possible reason for the lack of critical attention to this relationship, or the placing of it from Byron to Hunt, is the industry that surrounds Byron Studies and the relative neglect of Hunt. It appears to be a critical tendency to label Hunt “at best” a “representative of that legion of eccentrics who populated the Romantic period” (Gaull 33), and in works on Byron to neglect the 1814-16 relationship between the poets,[8] or disparage it.[9] Despite this direction in criticism, evidence in manuscript, correspondence, and the work themselves, strongly suggests that Byron was captured by something in his reading of Rimini which incited a change in his approach.

II. “Chivalrous rhymes”

Parisina and Rimini are romances, a status both poets seem to promote. The world of Parisina is one of “damsels” who are amongst the “knights and dames” of “her court”, in which men must win their “spurs” to honour the “lineal throne” (Parisina, L124,270,262). Hunt devotes a verse paragraph to the deeds needed for “knightly fame”; there is self-consciousness in both poems generic status (Rimini, III.55-66). This choice of genre is one which corresponds to popular tastes, as St. Clair has noted, “...the great poems of the romantic age were not those that feature in modern university courses but The Lay of the last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake.....” (215). This is the genre in which Scott and Byron wrote the most successful poems of the age, and in which Rimini and Parisina attempt to instigate change. The verse romance before 1816 carried political connotations and was of a deeply nationalistic character. The progenitor of this mode was Walter Scott, whose romances (1802-1815) centred on battles of champions, embodying whole nations with a clear split between good and evil. Examples of this can be seen in the the compared deeds of Marmion and De Wilton in Marmion (1808) or the battle of Roderick Dhu and Fitz-James in The Lady of the Lake (1810). The nationalistic character of the Scottian romance became increasingly Tory around the production of these two poems, when Lockhart claims Scott “made himself conspicuous as a leading instrument of his party” (Life I.489). This is most obvious in a work like “Health to Lord Melville”, a triumphant song on the acquittal of an impeached Scottish Tory peer, but before Marmion, which sold 13,000 copies in six months, Scott's Toryism had not been explicitly pronounced in his romances.

Marmion has two narratives, the tale based around the Battle of Flodden Field (1513) and the epistles which begin each canto, addressed to prominent present-day Tories. The first epistle is addressed to the Tory MP for Christ Church William Stewart Rose, the son of the Secretary to the Treasury George Rose, who was a close friend of Pitt, and in the King's favour. It begins in typical romance fashion, an idealised winter setting at “Glenkinnon’s rill” complete with glimpses of shepherds and their flock, couched in archaic diction like “sward”, “brier”, and “gambols” (Marmion 89-90). The reader is then taken into spring amongst the “daisy flower's” and on into the “summer bower”. It is after this progress from winter to summer that a change in tone occurs:

But oh! my country's wintry state

What second spring shall renovate?

What powerful call shall bid arise

The buried warlike and the wise;

The mind that thought for Britain's weal,

The hand that grasp'd the victor steel?...

….Where glory weeps o'er NELSON'S shrine,

And vainly pierce the solemn gloom

That shrouds, O PITT, they hallowed tomb!

Marmion I.57-62, 66-68

Scott turns from the seasons of old romance, to winter and the political events of the early nineteenth century. Here Pitt and Nelson embody, like Scott's heroes, the political and military apparatus of an entire nation. Pitt is “the mind that thought of Britain's weal’ (L67) and ‘served his Albion for herself” (L99), and becomes, as Simon Bainbridge has claimed, the romance knight saving the damsel of the state (136). Both men are elegised for their service to “Britain”, a relatively recent concept which used ten times, with “Scotland” or “England” not mentioned once. The epistle is filled with questions as to what will recover the spirits of the unified nation at war, after the death of these men. Scott, at his most bardic, is proposing his own nationalist romances, which combine verse and politics in a combination of “heroes, patriots, bards, and kings”, as the solution to the state's woes (Marmion L143). The blend of medieval romance and contemporary politics in the epistle, and of clothing these politicians in a romance garb, shows the reader resonances between present and past. This feature is continued in the next epistle in its discussion of activities like hunting which have changed very little in centuries. This is a technique which Scott carries on to his best-selling novels, the introduction to Waverley claims that the novel discusses,

...those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corset of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day.


Despite changes in costume, the mental processes of the sixteenth century occur unchanged in the nineteenth; the reader is prodded into seeing that now is diffused in then. The text works on the level of the Flodden Field narrative, of a nation defending itself from a foreign power filled with war and heroes in single combat. This is Scott appropriating a Bardic tradition, telling a tale of national history, with his copious footnotes giving factual authority. The epistles then gloss these for the reader, to reveal in apparently factual British medieval tales, support and encouragement for the international wars of the present.[10]

This patriotic, pro-war, and conservative romance, is the status quo which Parisina and Rimini contend with. These works are radical in there denial of what had made this genre the mode of the decade: its basis in domestic history and focus on war.[11] So, although advertising their status as romances, they become what Stuart Curran has called “conspicuous testing grounds for received generic paradigms” (6). A switch in locale to Italy – a locale which readers of the novel and travel literature over the last fifty years would associate with loose morals and machiavels – gives Hunt and Byron a new option within an established genre. Scott's brother-in-law John Lockhart saw this perversion of an establishment genre, and expressed disgust: “Leigh Hunt's chivalrous rhymes are as unlike those of Walter Scott, as is the chivalry of a knighted cheesemonger to that of Archibold the Grim” (“Cockney School II” 194). This is the very point: a reader expecting war and national myth is instead confronted with a courtly Italian romance. This divergence from established generic codes is most obvious in the challenging morality of the tales, especially the theme of incest. These incestuous relationships bring about a weakening of the court, and thus the state, through moral transgression. Unlike Scott's tacit support for the nation against foreign agitator, Byron and Hunt ask their reader to weigh the passion of two individuals against the health of the state. The sense of civil disorder, of a polity not involved in a foreign war but internally discordant, is ingrained in both poems through conflicted description. This extract from Parisina shows this technique,

He plucked his poniard in its sheath,

But sheathed it ere the point was bare –

Howe’er unworthy now to breathe,

He could not slay a thing so fair –

At least, not smiling – sleeping – there –

Nay more – he did not wake her then,

But gazed upon her with a glance,

Which, had she roused her from her trance,

Had frozen her sense to sleep again –


The revelation of incest forces Azo to confront the prospect of losing his wife, seeking revenge against his son, and bringing scandal to his court. Byron mimetically enacts this torment in the confused quality of these lines. His first reaction is murder; he at once draws his sword. Upon consideration it is withdrawn creating the hesitation from the “sheath” to “sheathed”. The alliteratively paired “gazed” and “glance” are another conflict; how can Azo be studying with a “gaze” which has the temporary quality of a “glance”. The opposite terms partner the central concern of the extract with the nexus of consciousness and sleep. Parisina's state in the fifth line is “sleeping”. To complicate this Byron moves into a hypothetical mode, “had she”, which provides a false waking and return to sleep in the final two lines. This return is carried by the act of freezing, of making the fluid static, in a confrontation of opposite states which Byron will return to (Parisina 374, L553-6). A challenge is given to the reader of understanding emotions which are described at an uncertain point between oppositional states. These tensions which characterise Byron's first Italian poem, appear again in the romance world of Haidée in Don Juan II-III. The world of Parisina is in flux, “with all its change of time and tide” (Parisina 359, L30), just as Juan washed up on shore feels his “Senses dim...nothing more of Night or Day” (Don Juan II: VII.123).

Hunt's world is similarly conflicted:

  …sitting now, calm from the gush of tears,

 With dreaming eye fixed down, and half shut ears,

 Hearing, yet hearing not...

 ...And looking up again, half sigh, half stare,

 She lifts her veil, and feel the freshening air.

Rimini, III.142-8

Francesca's state, like Parisina's, is a complicated one. She is crying but also dreaming, so much so that she has managed to block her aural capacity in her “half-shut ears”. Using “half” twice more, compounding the sense of betweenness, she manages a stare qualified by her exasperated “sigh”. It is then revealed that she is veiled, giving a tangible barrier to vision and smell, to accompany the emotional obstacles of her mental state. Hunt and Byron offer little in the way of clarity; the reader is being led, within the images, to a place of internal confusion which enacts the moral conflict at the centre of each tale. Scott's minstrel had tapped into a historically assured tradition, with the weight of copious footnotes behind him. He can play the secure role of story-teller or bard, heightened by the reference to a listening audience in the introductions to each canto of Marmion. This security is denied in the new Italian romance; where Scott taps into a national folk consciousness through public entreaty, Hunt and Byron approach foreign, courtly, and incestuous conflicts.

III. The Pope problem

Hunt’s innovation continues, in parallel with the challenges to genre, in his revisions to an established form: the couplet. The couplet had been the dominant poetic form of the eighteenth-century, finding its most famous proponent in Pope, and brought into Hunt’s period by Rogers and Campbell. The use of the couplet and the influence of Pope in the Romantic period is a complex issue, later culminating in the “Pope Controversy”.[12] The form had developed conventions regarding its metrical formations which were intrinsically linked to the social mores the verse expounded. Piper argues that Pope's use of the couplet put, “...into harmonious definition a system of social practices and into harmonious agreement a set of social attitudes” (151). These attitudes were usually anti-liberal, with Wasserman calling the form “the sanctum for conservatives” (245). Piper's repetition of “harmonious” shows the affinity that most critics see between the form and regularity. To see Pope's prosody, as some Romantic poets did, as “mere mechanic art” is a misrepresentation (Cowper L.654).[13] As Bate has argued the rejection by the Romantics, and subsequent critics, of Pope for his correctness, is far more a characteristic of his imitators (31).

The reaction against the regular Popean couplet begun by Warton and Cowper, and carried through the Romantic period by Wordsworth and Hunt, was not shared by contemporary periodicals. They, in fact, rarely criticised Pope and entrenched the orthodoxy surrounding the couplet and its social effect. In the period of Rimini's formulation this defence was taken to such an extent that Gifford deleted whole paragraphs of Southey's remarks on Pope's Homer to remove criticisms of his translation (“Chalmer’s”). This attitude can be summarised by two other major periodical editors: Jeffrey commenting that the standards of poetry “were fixed long ago, by certain inspired writers, whose authority it is no longer lawful to call in question” (63), and Lockhart claiming, “to deny his [Pope's] genius, is just as absurd as to dispute that of Wordsworth, or to believe in that of Hunt” (“Cockney School IV” 520). These remarks give a sense of rigidity of formal precepts, which can be found in the praise of many articles concerning Pope in the period.[14] In the context of these prevalent attitudes the opprobrium Hunt received for meddling with this form can be understood.

Hunt, in Rimini's preface, states his reasons for this attack on established modes, and reveals the essential difference between his divergence from Pope, and that of Wordsworth and Southey:

I do not hesitate to say however, that Pope and the French school of versification have known the least on any subject as any that ever wrote...because their ears were only sensible of a marked and uniform regularity.

Rimini, “Preface”

Hunt is direct in castigating Pope for his monotony, the “marked and uniform regularity”, his aim is to move “towards the revival of what seems to be proper English versification”, for which he finds precedents not in a “native school” but in Pulci and Ariosto (Rimini, “Preface”). Pitting Italian examples against French is a common trait in poetically radical work of the period.[15] But other critics of Pope's couplet, principally Wordsworth and Southey, did not equate this to a promotion of the Italian. The position of these two poets was to praise domestic verse before Pope, rather than link themselves to the growing Italian influence. For Hunt there was an understanding that a native school based around Milton and Chaucer to confront the “French school”, in disagreement with the domesticity of the Lake poets, must have an Italian root.

In TheFeast of the Poets (1814), Hunt had argued for “the great superiority of the Italian school over the French”; correspondence shows this was a judgement Byron shared (52). In a letter of February 1814, Byron commends Hunt for his knowledge of the Italian poets, and then goes on to claim: “I have always thought the Italians the only poetical moderns...far superior to the French School” (BLJ IV: 49-50). Hunt responds the very next day, in an unpublished letter, praising Byron's “congeniality of opinion with regard to my old friends the Italians” (Letter to Byron, 1814). Byron's attitude in favour of the Italian school, and against the French, presents a complication. The French school is synonymous with the poetry of Pope: a poet of whom Byron, almost exclusively amongst the so-called major Romantics, was an avid defender. Not only is Byron's correspondence littered with praise for Pope at the expense of contemporary poets, but his two early works English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and Hints from Horace were heavily influenced by him.

There must be an attempt to reconcile the Byron who in English Bards is full of praise for Pope, and his heirs Campbell and Rogers, and the Byron of 1814 who backs Rimini and its perversion of the couplet (L799-805). Byron's later role in the Pope controversy suggest that he had not fallen out of love with Pope's verse, but that it was no longer the primary model for his work. A persuasive reason for Byron's falling away from Pope as a model, whilst retaining his defence of Pope's position within the tradition, is given by Chandler: “Byron saves Pope not for the history of the future, but only for the history of the past” (505). Byron is the fiercest advocate, in tandem with the major periodicals, of Pope's reputation. But at around the time of Parisina, unlike the journals, he began to question the continuation of Pope's impact on contemporary verse, and sees the Italians as the moderns.[16]

IV. “A lax and lawless versification”

Rimini is Hunt’s earliest experiment with “Italian” versification against the strictness of the “French” school. The verse paragraph beginning “And now the Princess...” shows this digression from established form, particularly in the extract below:

The Princess, from a distance, scarcely knows

Which way to look; her colour comes and goes;

When some one's voice, as if it knew not how

To check itself, exclaims, “the prince! now – now!”

And on a milk-white courser, like the air,

A glorious figure springs into the square;

Up, with a burst of thunder, goes the shout,

And rolls the trembling walls and peopled roofs about.

Rimini. I.253-4,256-64

In the first line, Hunt pauses at the third and seventh syllable and the line is enjambed; it has neither the medial caesurae nor the end-stopped closure associated with Pope's couplet. Hunt's enjambment here causes a syntagmatic constraint between “knows” and “look”; the reader is forced not to pause at the rhyming “knows”, but to pour over the line break and find its sense, which arrives three syllables later with “look”. “The Princess” who was the subject of the first phrase in the couplet does not meet her corresponding action for a line and a half. The syntax stumbles, enacting the Princess' confusion and, as shown earlier, her suspended state as “her colour comes and goes”. The internal confusion of these lines is a prelude to the suspense of the second extract. In the next couplet, again, the reader is forced over the line end to see what the voice shouted. This is still not found in the next line: further suspense is built up as the line mimetically checks itself with “exclaims”. Finally the voice is heard, which Hunt has delayed since the couplet's opening, and the Prince arrives on the percussive repetition “now – now!”. The reader is taken from Francesca's inner thoughts, to a view of one man, and finally to the outpouring of the masses. The penultimate line pauses three times to the alexandrine: the section finishes its move from singular mind to the people's expression of collective approval in its final, long, non-punctuated line. None of Pope's concision or aphorism remains in Hunt's couplet; his formal variety allows syntax and meter to reinforce the suspense, confusion and joy of the scene.

When the Quarterly complains in a review of Endymion that “there is hardly a complete couplet inclosing a complete idea in the whole book”, we see Hunt's legacy (“Endymion” 204). Unsurprisingly, the literary establishment which cherished the Popean couplet did not approve. The British Review accused Hunt of, “a lax and lawless versification, which seems to propose to itself something of lyric irregularity, in the simple neglect of metrical consonance and methodical structure” (The Siege of Corinth, &c” 452). Hunt’s couplet is not grounded in, or obedient to, established laws of versification. The critic's reaction can be read in the context of Jauss' erwartungshorizont.[17] On an aesthetic level the form receives scrutiny; the text is tested by comparing it to earlier works of the same pattern, to see if convergence occurs. So when the reader, or more importantly the reviewer, meets the couplet form it expects syntax suitable for a “medium for public discourse” (Piper 23). Within the closed-couplet, Hunt's creates an often convoluted syntax which causes ambiguous meanings and delays in sense. The reader is presented with a “lawless” formal approach; there is “simple neglect” for expectations; the horizon is broken.

Historicist criticism has encouraged a link between Hunt's revision of form and genre analysed above, and his political opinions articulated in The Examiner. William Keach and Roe illustrate this in the statements below:

Hunt's effort to reform the heroic couplet is an exact image of his reformist politics.

Keach 182-3

In this free-flowing impressionistic verse we can recognise a stylistic equivalent of his liberal politics.

Roe, Fiery Heart 166

Hunt's poetry of sympathetic, natural justice in The Story of Rimini...was a lyrical expression of the Examiner's oppositional politics.

Roe, John Keats 122

For Keach formal experimentation finds its value as “an image” of political belief', and for Roe changes to the couplet are recognised for their equivalence to, or as an “expression” of, “politics”. These critics seem intent on using Hunt's challenges to established form as a proxy for his national political activism. This manner of reading is useful for situating Rimini within the wider journalistic output of Hunt, but is also reductive and restricts “the meanings of the poetic text to the generalised ideological matrix to which it is declared to belong” (Manning 300). It values form for its equivalence and likeness to wider societal issues, rather than giving it an ontic political value. The analysis above has demonstrated how complex a tradition Rimini interferes with, to reduce this to a likeness with national politics is simplistic. Within the lengthy preface, Hunt does not espouse national political commentary, it is a document focused on poetry. Furthermore, the poem itself avoids a direct narrative address to contemporary problems; it more subtly questions positions of transgression, notions of privacy, identity, desire, and persuasion.[18] These elements of life have their own substantial identity, which are, and should be, relatable to politics but cannot be reduced to national political discourse. Rimini's challenge is political but, as critics like Manning and Wolfson have found in other Romantic poets, it emanates from challenges to genre and form (Wolfson 1-30). They are poetic provocations which critics correctly view as overturning politically conservative forms, and are relevant to national political issues. But this relevance can only begin in the formal: Rimini, and the virulence of the attacks on it, must be seen as a literary confrontation.

Antonio Gramsci's theory of “hegemony”, moving the power of non-violence beyond Marx's statement that “popular persuasion is often as strong as material force”, is useful in an attempt to reevaluate the ontic political value of Hunt's experiments (869).[19] In Gramscian terms, the poem should be seen as a challenge to “hegemony”: the consensual basis of an existing political system. Not, as some historicist criticism has tended to read it, as a sister project to Hunt's criticism of “Domination”: the state's monopoly on the means of violence and control of the law (in acts like Peterloo or in the suspension of habeas corpus) (Gramsci1518-9). In the relatively stable post-Waterloo climate of 1816, before the effects of the “year without a summer” and other events leading to 1819, hegemonic rule had predominance over domination.[20] Hegemony functions to promote valued forms and genres, and defend them through the culture industry. Hunt and Byron's work challenge the precepts defended by centralized opinion. Byron had consolidated his European fame with the best-selling “Turkish” tales, but in Beppo he questioned the poetic merits of,

 ...those pretty poems never known to fail!

How quickly would I print (the world delighting)

A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale.

Beppo, L404-6, p.145

A letter to Murray of March 1817 suggests this disenchantment existed before Byron wrote Beppo (BLJ V: 192-3). With the manuscript and generic evidence which began this study, I would suggest a move away from this mode occurred earlier still, in the production of Parisina, influenced by Byron’s reading of Rimini. For this he would choose, like Beppo, an Italian locale from which to explore the oneiric tensions which differentiate Parisina from the tales. Byron saw something new in Rimini. It is a novelty on which Byron had commented,

...there is more originality than I recollect to have seen elsewhere within the same compass.

BLJ IV: 319-20

...with the substratum of originality, and with poetry about it, that will stand the test.

BLJ V: 35 have 2 excellent points in that poem – originality – & Italianism – I will back you as a bard...

BLJ IV: 324-6

Rimini's central feature for Byron was its originality. This originality must be contextualised in terms of a Regency mindset.

Both Rimini and Parisina are deviations from the normative standards of the genre, and fail to formally comply with literary heritage. They are transgressive texts; expectations are disrupted, and reception evokes a strong negative response to the work. It is not a response to be confined within Hunt's political radicalism, but should be viewed as a defence of literary values. The guarantors of these values have been comprehensively analysed by T. C. W. Blanning, who argues that the salient feature in the rise of hegemony in the preceding century was that “public opinion” came to be recognized as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste (2). How “public” this was, is debatable, as Blanning notes “the liberal notion of a universal public sphere was a fiction” (11). In literary terms, the status quo is represented by established forms and genres, and perpetuated by favoured writers. There is a spur to conformity as the state supports works which fit its favoured forms through the culture industry. “Public opinion” is the defender of this subjective culture, becoming both the creator and an extension of social values. Rimini and Parisina were at the vanguard of an Italian challenge to this “fastidiousness of the reader” (Parisina, “Dedication”). The criticism of these poems is based on the iconoclasm of breaking formal and generic standards, which are defended through reception as “public opinion”.[21]

The negative contemporary reception to many works of Second Generation Romanticism is often read in criticism as personal attacks on the poets' politics, rather than an attack on the threat to hegemony entrenched in their work.[22] An analysis of contemporary reception shows that the belief that these were personal attacks may be misplaced.[23] The ignored Quarterly article on Rimini is, aside from the first paragraph on Hunt's incarceration and the last on the dedication to Byron, concerned with the poem itself. Croker and Gifford are methodical in their sarcastic destruction of the work on literary grounds, moving from a thorough analysis of the perceived misuse of the couplet (“a negligent and harsh style of versification”) to chastising the experiments in diction (“which are the cant of ordinary discourse”) (“Leigh Hunt’s Rimini” 474, 477). Even the “Cockney School” articles, generally viewed as the acme of the personal attacks on Hunt and Keats, maintain a literary vein.[24] They are based within the manner in which “the work [Rimini] is executed”, its “indelicacy” in diction and form (Lockhart “Cockney School I” 38). Lockhart does mount a comprehensive assault on Hunt's birth and opinions, but this has its basis within the often ignored literary dimension. The two are interconnected, yet criticism has been intent on reducing the formal to an aspect of the political; seeing only a battle ground at Hunt's wider politics, not the literary implications of Rimini. For the British Review the problem was: “Mr Hunt in his levelling doctrines in poetic composition” (“The Siege of Corinth, &c” 452). The reviewer takes umbrage with Hunt's “levelling doctrines”. This is not criticism of parliamentary politics, but of “poetic composition”. The critic couches his analysis in the politics of national revolution, recalling The Levellers and their threat to established order. National politics function in the simile as the means of comparison to the literary. The reviewer defends the place of the couplet in a hegemonic order, which complements, but is separate from the criticism heaped on Hunt for his attacks of domination in the popular press. Hunt is aware of the political parallels these revisions lends themselves to, as shown in the preface’s claim to pursue “the various and legitimate harmony of the English heroic” (Rimini, “Preface” (my italics)).

The periodicals perceived the mainstream ideology as under threat from Rimini and Parisina. It was a romance mode of transitional states and private amorous concerns, which critics found irreconcilable to the nationalistic war-based romances of Scott. An awareness of the social confrontation embodied by the comprehensive originality of Rimini lurks in its preface: “I can be content that he [the reader] shall miss an occasional nicety or so in other matters, and not be quite sensible of the mighty extent of my information” (Rimini, “Preface”). Hunt's comment appears to be casual, but it alludes to the wealth of incendiary features which may reveal themselves to the reader. A sense is created of the complexities which abound in Hunt's “mighty” text, of a work which implicitly contains political dangers. Hunt is aware of the social significance of poetry itself, of form and genre.

Reception of Rimini is hostile, but is also precise in its perception of Hunt's wider transgression. Reviewers saw the danger of Hunt's “mighty information” and viewed it as a threat to cultural hegemony. The British Review found: “…some danger to public sentiment lurking in this new poetical character...We love the public mind, and feel tremblingly alive to its best interests” (“The Siege of Corinth, &c” 452). While Blackwood's found:

Many a one reads Rimini as a pleasant romance, and closes it without having the least suspicion that he has been perusing a tale pregnant with all the horrors of the most unpardonable guilt...

Lockhart“Cockney School II” 201

As Hunt's “mighty information” had earlier implied, critics saw Rimini as a “danger to public sentiment” which would not be in the “best interests” of the “public mind”. It is specifically in its “new poetical character” where this danger is “lurking”. Lockhart warns his reader of a tale “pregnant” with “horrors”: being both below the surface and also looking forward to the birth of the experimental Italian vein in Shelley, and Byron. Hunt is relevant before what Cox has called “The Hunt Era” - he was more than a political cause célèbre, he was in Byron's words “at the centre of circles” providing literary influence before coteries at Hampstead and Marlow. Rimini can be regarded, in its effrontery, experimentation, and engagement with an Italian locale, as the beginning of the Italian influence on the second generation of Romantic poets. Byron, the poet which Rimini influenced, was about to leave Britain's shores and literary conservatism; he “turned to Italy for added light” (Hunt “To Lord Byron” 266). Hunt, Shelley, and Keats, would follow, and leave a culture which rewarded conformity to continue their literary challenge to Regency cultural hegemony.