Leigh Hunt

The world of books

To the Editor of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine

Sir,—To write in your Magazine makes me feel as if I, at length, had the pleasure of being personally in Scotland, a gratification which I have not yet enjoyed in any other way. I dive into my channel of communication, like another Alpheus, and reappear in the shop of Mr. Tait; not pursuing, I trust, anything fugitive, but behaving very unlike a river-god, and helping to bring forth an Edinburgh periodical.

Nor will you, sir, who enter so much into the interests of your fellow-creatures, and know so well of what their faculties are capable, look upon this kind of presence as a thing so purely unreal as it might be supposed. Our strongest proofs of the existence of anything amounts but to a proportionate belief to that effect; and it would puzzle a wise man, though not a fool, to prove to himself that I was not, in some spiritual measure, in any place where I chose to pitch my imagination. I notice this metaphysical subtlety, merely, in the first place, to baulk your friend the Pechter, should he think it a settled thing that a man cannot be in two places at once (which would be a very green assumption of his); and secondly, the better to impress a conviction which I have,—that I know Scotland very well, and have been there many times. Whether we go to another country on these occasions, in the manner of a thing spiritual, our souls being pitched out of ourselves like rockets or meteors; or whether the country comes to us, and our large souls are inhabited by it for the time being, upon the principle of the greater including the less,—the mind of man being a far more capacious thing than any set of square miles,—I shall leave the curious to determine; but if I am not intimate with the very best parts of Scotland, and have not seen them a thousand times, then do I know nothing of Burns, or Allan Ramsay, or Walter Scott, or Smollett, or Ossian, or James the First, or Fifth, or snoods, or cockernonies, or gloamin’, or birks and burnies, or plaids, bonnets, and phillabegs, or John Knox, or Queen Mary, or the Canongate, or the Calton Hill, or Hume and Robertson, or Tweed-side, or a haggis, or cakes, or heather, or reels and strathspeys, or Glengarry, or all the clans, or Auld Robin Gray, or a mist, or rappee, or second sight, or the kirk, or the cutty-stool, or golf and hurling, or the Border, or Bruce and Wallace, or bagpipes, or bonnie lasses. “A lover’s plaid and a bed of heath,” says the right poetical Allan Cunningham, “are favorite topics with the northern muse. When the heather is in bloom, it is worthy of becoming the couch of beauty. A sea of brown blossom, undulating as far as the eye can reach, and swarming with wild bees, is a fine sight.” Sir, I have seen it a million times, though I never set eyes on it. Who that has ever read it, is not put into visual possession of the following scene in the “Gentle Shepherd?”

A flowrie howm between twa verdant braes,
Where lasses used to wash and spread their claes;
A trotting burnie, wimpling through the ground,
Its channel pebbles shining smooth and round:
Here view twa bide-foot beauties, clean and clear.

Or this?—

The open field.—A cottage in a glen;
An auld wife spinning at the sunny en’.

Or this other, a perfect domestic picture?—

While Peggy laces up her bosom fair,
Wi’ a blue snood Jenny binds up her hair;
Glaud by a morning ingle takes a beek,
The rising sun shines motty through the reek:
A pipe his mouth, the lasses please his een,
And now and then a joke maun intervene.

The globe we inhabit is divisible into two worlds; one hardly less tangible, and far more known than the other,—the common geographical world, and the world of books; and the latter may be as geographically set forth. A man of letters, conversant with poetry and romance, might draw out a very curious map, in which this world of books should be delineated and filled up, to the delight of all genuine readers, as truly as that in Guthrie or Pinkerton. To give a specimen, and begin with Scotland,—Scotland would not be the mere territory it is, with a scale of so many miles to a degree, and such and such a population. Who (except a patriot or a cosmopolite) cares for the miles or the men, or knows that they exist, in any degree of consciousness with which he cares for the never-dying population of books? How many generations of men have passed away, and will pass, in Ayrshire or Dumfries, and not all the myriads be as interesting to us as a single Burns? What have we known of them, or shall ever know, whether lairds, lords, or ladies, in comparison with the inspired plough-man? But we know of the bards and the lasses, and the places which he has recorded in song; we know the scene of Tam o’Shanter’s exploit; we know the pastoral landscapes above quoted, and the scenes immortalized in Walter Scott and the old ballads; and, therefore, the book-map of Scotland would present us with the most prominent of these. We should have the border, with its banditti, towns, and woods; Tweed-side, Melrose, and Roslin, Edina, otherwise called Edinburgh and Auld Reekie, or the town of Hume, Robertson, and others; Woodhouselee, and other classical and haunted places; the bower built by the fair hands of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray; the farm-houses of Burns’s friends; the scenes of his loves and sorrows; the land of Old Mortality, of the Gentle Shepherd and of Ossian. The Highlands, and the great blue billowy domains of heather, would be distinctly marked out, in their most poetical regions; and We should have the tracks of Ben Jonson to Hawthornden, of Rob Roy to his hiding-places, and of Jeanie Deans towards England. Abbotsford, be sure, would not be left out; nor the house of the Antiquary,—al-most as real a man as his author. Nor is this all; for we should have older Scotland, the Scotland of James the First, and of “Peeblis at the Play,” and Gawin Douglas, and Bruce, and Wallace; we should have older Scotland still, the Scotland of Ariosto, with his tale of “Ginevra,” and the new “Andromeda,” delivered from the sea-monster at the Isle of Ebuda (the Hebrides), and there would be the residence of the famous Launcelot of the Lake, at Berwick, called the Joyeuse Garde, and other ancient sites of chivalry and romance; nor should the nightingale be left out in Ginevra’s bower, for Ariosto has put it there, and there, accordingly, it is and has been heard, let ornithology say what it will; for what ornithologist knows so much of the nightingale as a poet? We would have an inscription put on the spot—” Here the nightingale sings, contrary to what has been affirmed by White and others.”

This is the Scotland of books, and a beautiful place it is. I will venture to affirm, sir, even to yourself; that it is a more beautiful place than the other Scotland, always excepting to an exile or a rover; for the former is piqued to prefer what he must not touch; and to the latter, no spot is so charming as the ugliest place that contains his beauty. Not that Scotland has not many places literally as well as poetically beautiful: I know that well enough. But you see that young man there, turning down the corner of the dullest spot in Edinburgh, with a dead wall over against it, and delight in his eyes? He sees No. 4, the house where the girl lives he is in love with. Now what that place is to him, all places are, in their proportion, to the lover of books, for he has beheld therein by the light of imagination and sympathy.

China, sir, is a very unknown place to us,—in one sense of the word unknown but who is not intimate with it as the land of tea, and china, and ko-tons, and Pagodas, and mandarins, and Confucius, and conical caps, and people with little names, little eyes, and little feet, who sit in little bowers, drinking little cups of tea, and writing little odes? The Jesuits, and the tea-cups, and the novel of Ju-Kiao-Li, have made us well acquainted with it; better, a great deal, than millions of its inhabitants are acquainted—fellows who think it in the middle of the world, and know nothing of themselves. With one China they are totally unacquainted, to-wit, the great China of the poet and old travellers, Cathay, “seat of Cathian Can,” the country of which Ariosto’s Angelica was princess-royal; yes, she was a Chinese, “the fairest of her sex, Angelica.” It shows that the ladies in that country must have greatly degenerated, for it is impossible to conceive that Ariosto, and Orlando, and Rinaldo, and King Sacripant, who was a Circassian, could have been in love with her for having eyes and feet like a pig. I will deviate here into a critical remark, which is, that the Italian poets seem to have considered people the handsomer the farther you went north. The old traveller, it is true, found a good deal of the beauty that depends on red and white, in Tartary, and other western regions; and a fine complexion is highly esteemed in the swarthy south? But Astoya, the Englishman, is celebrated for his beauty by the Italian poets; the unrivalled Angelicawas a Chinese; and the handsomest of Ariosto’s heroes, Zerbino, of whom he writes the famous passage “that nature made him, and then broke the mould,” was a Scotchman. The poet had probably seen some very handsome Scotchman in Romagna. With this piece of “bribery and corruption” to your national readers, I return to my subject.

Book-England on the map would shine as the Albion of the old Giants; as the “Logres” of the Knights of the Round Table; as the scene of Amadis of Gaul, with its island of Windsor; as the abode of fairies, of the Druids, of the divine Countess of Coventry, of Guy, Earl of Warwick, of Alfred (whose reality was a romance), of the Fair Rosamond, of the Arcades and “Comus,” of Chaucer and Spenser, of the poets of the Globe and the Mermaid, the wits of Twickenham and Hampton Court. Fleet Street would be Johnson’s Fleet Street; the Tower would belong to Julius Caesar; and Blackfriars to Suckling, Vandyke, and the Dunciad. Chronology, and the mixture of truth and fiction, that is to say, of one sort of truth and another, would come to nothing in a work of this kind; for, as it has been before observed, things are real in proportion as they are impressive. And who has not as “gross, open, and palpable” an idea of Falstaff in East Cheap, as of Captain Grose himself; beating up his quarters? A map of fictitious, literary, and historical London, would, of itself; constitute a great curiosity. So would one of Edinburgh, or of any other city in which there have been great men and romantic events, whether the latter were real or fictitious. Swift speaks of maps, in which they,

Place elephants for want of towns.

Here would be towns and elephants too, the popular and the prodigious.

How much would not Swift do for Ireland, in this geography of wit and talent! What a figure would not St. Patrick’s Cathedral make! The other day, mention was made of a “Dean of St. Patrick’s” now living! as if there was, or ever could be again, more than one Dean of St. Patrick’s! In the Irish maps we should have the Saint himself driving out all venomous creatures: (what a pity that the most venomous retain a property as absentees!) and there would be the old Irish kings, and O’Donoghue with his White Horse, and the lady of the “gold wand” who made the miraculous virgin pilgrimage, and all the other marvels of lakes and ladies, and the Round Towers still remaining to perplex the antiquary, and Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” and Goldsmith himself, and the birthplaces of Steele and Sterne, and the brief hour of poor Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and Carolan with his harp, and the schools of the poor Latin boys under the hedges, and Castle Rackrent, and Edgeworth’s town, and the Giant’s Causeway, and Ginleas and other classical poverties, and Spenser’s castle on the river Mulla, with the wood-gods whom his pipe drew round him. Ireland is wild ground still; and there are some that would fain keep it so,like a forest to hunt in. The French map would present us with the woods and warriors of old Gaul, and Lucan’s witch; with Charlemaine and his court at Tours; with the siege of Paris by the Saracens, and half the wonders of Italian poetry; with Angelica and Medoro; with the castles of Orlando and Rinaldo, and the traitor Gan; with part of the great forest of Ardenne (Rosalind being in it); with the gentle territory of the Troubadours, and Navarre; with “Love’s Labor Lost,” and “Vaucluse; with Petrarch and Laura, and the pastoral scenes of D’Urfe’s romance, and the “Men-Wolves” of Brittany, and the “Fairy of Lusignan.” Napoleon, also (for he too was a romance), should be drawn as a giant, meet the allied forces in the neighborhood of Paris. Italy would be covered with ancient and modern romance; with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Boccaccio, &c., with classical villas and scenes Elysian and infernal. There would be the regions of Saturn, during his Age of Gold, and the old Tuscan cities, and Phaeton in the north, and the sirens and fairies at Naples, and Polyphemus in Sicily, with the abodes of Boiardo and Ariosto, and Horace’s mount Soracte, and the Cross of St. Peter, and the city in the sea, and the golden scenes of Titian and Raphael, and other names that make us hear the music of their owners: Pythagoras also with his philosophy, and Petrarch with his lute. A circle of stars would tell us where Galileo lived; and the palace of Doria would look more than royal towards the sea. I dare not, in this hasty sketch, and with limited time before me, indulge myself in other luxuries of recollection, or do anything more than barely mention the names of Spain, Fontarabia, and Cervantes; of Greece; of Persia, and the “Arabian Nights;” of Mount Caucasus and Turkey, and the Gothic north; of El Dorado and Columbus; or the sea-snakes, floating islands, and other marvels of the ocean; not forgetting the Atalantis of Plato, and the regions of Gulliver and Peter Wilkins. Neither can I have the pleasure of being suffocated with contemplating, at proper length, the burning deserts of Africa; or of hearing the ghastly sounds of its old satyrs and AEgipans in their woody hills at night-time, described by Pomponius Mela of seeing the stormy Spirit of the Cape, stationed there forever by Camoens, and whose stature on the map would be like a mountain. You will be good enough to take this paper as nothing but a hint of what such a map might contain.

One word, however, respecting a heresy in fictitious belief, which has been uttered by Rousseau, and repeated, I am sorry to say, by our excellent poet Wordsworth, the man of all men who ought not to reduce a matter of fact to what might be supposed to be its poverty. Rousseau, speaking of the banks of the Lignon, where the scene of the old French romance is laid, expresses his disappointment at finding there no-thing like the beautiful things he fancied in his child-hood; and Mr. Wordsworth in his poem of “Yarrow,” Visited and Unvisited, utters a like regret, in speaking of the scene of the “bonny bride—the winsome marrow.” I know there is such an opinion abroad, like many other errors; but it does not become men of imagination to give in to it; and I must protest against it, as a flat irreligion. I do not pretend to be as romantic in my conduct as the Genevese philosopher, or as poetical in my nature as the bard of Rydalmount; but I have, by nature, perhaps, greater animal spirits than either; and a bit of health is a fine prism to see fancies by. It may be granted, for the sake of argument, that the book-Lignon and the book-Yarrow are still finer things than the Lignon and Yarrow geographical: but to be actually on the spot, to look with one’s own eyes upon the places in which our favorite heroes or heroines underwent the circumstances that made us love them—this may surely make up for an advantage on the side of the description in the book; and, in addition to this, we have the pleasure of seeing how much has been done for the place by love and poetry. I have seen various places in Europe, which have been rendered interesting by great men and their works; and I never found myself the worse for seeing them, but the better. I seem to have made friends with them in their own houses; to have walked, and talked, and suffered, and enjoyed with them; and if their books have made the places better, the books themselves were there which made them so, and which grew out of them. The poet’s hand was on the place, blessing it. I can no more separate this idea from the spot, than I can take away from it any other beauty. Even in London, I find the principle hold good in me, though I have lived there many years, and, of course, associated it with every commonplace the most unpoetical. The greater still includes the less: and I can no more pass through Westminster, without thinking of Milton; or the Borough, without thinking of Chaucer and Shakespeare: or Gray’s Inn, without calling Bacon to mind; or Bloomsbury Square, without Steele and Akenside—than I can prefer brick and mortar to wit and poetry, or not see a beauty upon it beyond architecture, in the splendor of the recollection. I once had duties to perform, which kept me out late at night, and severely taxed my health and spirits. My path lay through a neighborhood in which Dryden lived; and though no-thing could be more commonplace, and I used to be tired to the heart and soul of me, I never hesitated to go a little out of the way, purely that I might pass through Gerard Street, and so give myself the shadow of a pleasant thought.

I am, sir, your cordial well-wisher,

A Lover of Books


MLA Citation

Hunt, Leigh. “The world of books.” 1832. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 18 May 2015. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/world_of_books/>.

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