If the collector of first editions requires an instance from which to justify the faith which is in him against those who cry out that bibliography is naught, Leigh Hunt is a good example to his hand. This active and often admirable writer, during a busy professional life, issued a long series of works in prose and verse which are of every variety of commonness and scarcity, but which have never been, and probably never will be, reprinted as a whole. Yet not to possess the works of Leigh Hunt is to be ill-equipped for the minute study of literary history at the beginning of the century. The original 1816 edition of Rimini, for instance, is of a desperate rarity, yet not to be able to refer to it in the grotesqueness of this its earliest form is to miss a most curious proof of the crude taste of the young school out of which Shelley and Keats were to arise. The scarcest of all Leigh Hunt's poetical pamphlets, but by no means the least interesting, is that whose title stands at the head of this chapter. Of Ultra-crepidarius, which was "printed for John Hunt" in 1823, it is believed that not half a dozen copies are in existence, and it has never been reprinted. It is a rarity, then, to which the most austere despisers of first editions may allow a special interest.
From internal evidence we find that Ultra-crepidarius; a Satire on William Gifford, was sent to press in the summer of 1823, from Maiano, soon after the break-up of Hunt's household in Genoa, and Byron's departure for Greece. The poem is the "stick" which had been recently mentioned in the third number of the Liberal:
Have I, these five years, spared the dog a stick,
Cut for his special use, and reasonably thick?
It had been written in 1818, in consequence of the famous review in the Quarterly of Keats's Endymion, a fact which the biographers of Keats do not seem to have observed. Why did Hunt not immediately print it? Perhaps because to have done so would have been worse than useless in the then condition of public taste and temper. What led Hunt to break through his intention of suppressing the poem it might be difficult to discover. At all events, in the summer of 1823 he suddenly sent it home for publication; whether it was actually published is doubtful, it was probably only circulated in private to a handful of sympathetic Tory-hating friends.
Ultra-crepidarius is written in the same anapaestic measure as The Feast of the Poets, but is somewhat longer. As a satire on William Gifford it possessed the disadvantage of coming too late in the day to be of any service to anybody. At the close of 1823 Gifford, in failing health, was resigning the editorial chair of the Quarterly, which he had made so formidable, and was retiring into private life, to die in 1826. The poem probably explains, however, what has always seemed a little difficult to comprehend, the extreme personal bitterness with which Gifford, at the close of his career, regarded Hunt, since the slayer of the Della Cruscans was not the man to tolerate being treated as though he were a Della Cruscan himself. However narrow the circulation of Ultra-crepidarius may have been, care was no doubt taken that the editor of the Quarterly Review should receive one copy at his private address, and Leigh Hunt returned from Italy in time for that odd incident to take place at the Roxburgh sale, when Barron Field called his attention to the fact that "a little man, with a warped frame, and a countenance between the querulous and the angry, was gazing at me with all his might." Hunt tells this story in the Autobiography, from which, however, he omits all allusion to his satire.
The latter opens with the statement that:
'Tis now about fifty or sixty years since
(The date of a charming old boy of a Prince)–
Mercury was in a state of rare fidget from the discovery that he had lost one of his precious winged shoes, and had in consequence dawdled away a whole week in company with Venus, not having dreamed that it was that crafty goddess herself, who, wishing for a pair of them, had sent one of Mercury's shoes down to Ashburton for a pattern. Venus confesses her peccadillo, and offers to descend to the Devonshire borough with her lover, and see what can have become of the ethereal shoe. As they reach the ground, they meet with an ill-favoured boot of leather, which acknowledges that it has ill-treated the delicate slipper of Mercury. This boot, of course, is Gifford, who had been a shoemaker's apprentice in Ashburton. Mercury curses this unsightly object, and part of his malediction may here be quoted.
I hear someone say "Murrain take him, the ape!"
And so Murrain shall, in a bookseller's shape;
An evil-eyed elf, in a down-looking flurry,
Who'd fain be a coxcomb, and calls himself Murray.
Adorn thou his door, like the sign of the Shoe,
For court-understrappers to congregate to;
For Southey to come, in his dearth of invention,
And eat his own words for mock-praise and a pension;
For Croker to lurk with his spider-like limb in,
And stock his lean bag with waylaying the women;
And Jove only knows for what creatures beside
To shelter their envy and dust-liking pride,
And feed on corruption, like bats, who at nights,
In the dark take their shuffles, which they call then flights;
Be these the court-critics and vamp a Review.
And by a poor figure, and therefore a true,
For it suits with thy nature, both shoe-like and slaughterly
Be its hue leathern, and title the Quarterly,
Much misconduct, and see that the others
Misdeem, and misconstrue, like miscreant brothers;
Misquote, and misplace, and mislead, and misstate,
Misapply, misinterpret, misreckon, misdate,
Misinform, misconjecture, misargue; in short,
Miss all that is good, that ye miss not the Court.
* * * * *
And finally, thou, my old soul of the tritical,
Noting, translating, high slavish, hot critical,
Quarterly-scutcheon'd, great heir to each dunce,
Be Tibbald, Cook, Arnall, and Dennis at once
At the end, Mercury dooms the ugly boot to take the semblance of a man, and the satire closes with its painful metamorphosis into Gifford. The poem is not without cleverness, but it is chiefly remarkable for a savage tone which is not, we think, repeated elsewhere throughout the writings of Hunt. The allusions to Gifford's relations, nearly half a century earlier, to that Earl Grosvenor who first rescued him from poverty, the well-deserved scorn of his intolerable sneers at Perdita Robinson's crutches:
Hate Woman, thou block in the path of fair feet;
If Fate want a hand to distress them, thine be it;
When the Great, and their flourishing vices, are mention'd
Say people "impute" 'em, and show thou art pension'd;
But meet with a Prince's old mistress discarded,
And then let the world see how vice is rewarded–
the indications of the satirist's acquaintance with the private life of his victim, all these must have stung the editor of the Quarterly to the quick, and are very little in Hunt's usual manner, though he had examples for them in Peter Pindar and others. There is a very early allusion to "Mr. Keats and Mr. Shelley," where, "calm, up above thee, they soar and they shine." This was written immediately after the review of Endymion in the Quarterly.
At the close is printed an extremely vigorous onslaught of Hazlitt's upon Gifford, which is better known than the poem which it illustrates. In itself, in its preface, and in its notes alike this very rare pamphlet presents us with a genuine curiosity of literature.
From Gossip in a Library, 1891.