Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

HUNT, LEIGH (1784-1859)

HUNT, LEIGH (1784-1859), English essayist and miscellaneous writer, was born at Southgate, Middlesex, on the 19th of October 1784. His father, the son of a West Indian clergyman, had settled as a lawyer in Philadelphia, and his mother was the daughter of a merchant there. Having embraced the loyalist side, Leigh Hunt’s father was compelled to fly to England, where he took orders, and acquired some reputation as a popular preacher, but want of steadiness, want of orthodoxy, and want of interest conspired to prevent his obtaining any preferment. He was engaged by James Brydges, 3rd duke of Chandos, to act as tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh, after whom Leigh Hunt was called. The boy was educated at Christ’s Hospital, of which school he has left a lively account in his autobiography. As a boy at school he was an ardent admirer of Gray and Collins, writing many verses in imitation of them. An impediment in his speech, afterwards removed, prevented his being sent to the university. For some time after I left school, he says, I did nothing but visit my school-fellows, haunt the book-stalls and write verses. These latter were published in 1801 under the title of Juvenilia, and contributed to introduce him into literary and theatrical society. He began to write for the newspapers, and published in 1807 a volume of theatrical criticisms, and a series of Classic Tales with critical essays on the authors.

In 1808 he quitted the War Office, where he had for some time been a clerk, to become editor of the Examiner newspaper, a speculation of his brother John. The new journal with which Leigh Hunt was connected for thirteen years soon acquired a high reputation. It was perhaps the only newspaper of the time which owed no allegiance to any political party, but assailed whatever seemed amiss, from a principle of taste, as Keats happily expressed it. The taste of the attack itself, indeed, was not always unexceptionable; and one upon the Prince Regent, the chief sting of which lay in its substantial truth, occasioned (1813) a prosecution and a sentence of two years’ imprisonment for each of the brothers. The effect was to give a political direction to what should have been the career of a man of letters. But the cheerfulness and gaiety with which Leigh Hunt bore his imprisonment attracted general attention and sympathy, and brought him visits from Byron, Moore, Brougham and others, whose acquaintance exerted much influence on his future destiny.

In 1810–1811 he edited for his brother John a quarterly magazine, the Reflector, for which he wrote The Feast of the Poets, a satire which gave offence to many contemporary poets, and particularly offended William Gifford of the Quarterly. The essays afterwards published under the title of the Round Table (2 vols., 1816–1817), conjointly with William Hazlitt, appeared in the Examiner. In 1816 he made a permanent mark in English literature by the publication of his Story of Rimini. There is perhaps no other instance of a poem short of the highest excellence having produced so important and durable an effect in modifying the accepted standards of literary composition. The secret of Hunt’s success consists less in superiority of genius than of taste. His refined critical perception had detected the superiority of Chaucer’s versification, as adapted to the present state of the language by Dryden, over the sententious epigrammatic couplet of Pope which had superseded it. By a simple return to the old manner he effected for English poetry in the comparatively restricted domain of metrical art what Wordsworth had already effected in the domain of nature; his is an achievement of the same class, though not of the same calibre. His poem is also a triumph in the art of poetical narrative, abounds with verbal felicities, and is pervaded throughout by a free, cheerful and animated spirit, notwithstanding the tragic nature of the subject. It has been remarked that it does not contain one hackneyed or conventional rhyme. But the writer’s occasional flippancy and familiarity, not seldom degenerating into the ludicrous, made him a mark for ridicule and parody on the part of his opponents, whose animosity, however, was rather political than literary.

In 1818 appeared a collection of poems entitled Foliage, followed in 1819 by Hero and Leander, and Bacchus and Ariadne. In the same year he reprinted these two works with The Story of Rimini and The Descent of Liberty with the title of Poetical Works, and started the Indicator, in which some of his best work appeared. Both Keats and Shelley belonged to the circle gathered around him at Hampstead, which also included William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Bryan Procter, Benjamin Haydon, Cowden Clarke, C. W. Dilke, Walter Coulson,[1] John Hamilton Reynolds,[2] and in general almost all the rising young men of letters of liberal sympathies. He had now for some years been married to Marianne Kent, who seems to have been sincerely attached to him, but was not in every respect a desirable partner. His own affairs were by this time in the utmost confusion, and he was only saved from ruin by the romantic generosity of Shelley. In return he was lavish of sympathy to Shelley at the time of the latter’s domestic distresses, and defended him with spirit in the Examiner, although he does not appear to have at this date appreciated his genius with either the discernment or the warmth of his generous adversary, Professor Wilson. Keats he welcomed with enthusiasm, and introduced to Shelley. He also wrote a very generous appreciation of him in the Indicator, and, before leaving for Italy, Keats stayed with Hunt at Hampstead. Keats seems, however, to have subsequently felt that Hunt’s example as a poet had been in some respects detrimental to him. After Shelley’s departure for Italy (1818) Leigh Hunt’s affairs became still more embarrassed, and the prospects of political reform less and less satisfactory. His health and his wife’s failed, and he was obliged to discontinue his charming series of essays entitled the Indicator (1819–1821), having, he says, almost died over the last numbers. These circumstances induced him to listen to a proposal, which seems to have originated with Shelley, that he should proceed to Italy and join Shelley and Byron in the establishment of a quarterly magazine in which Liberal opinions should be advocated with more freedom than was possible at home. The project was injudicious from every point of view; it would have done little for Hunt or the Liberal cause at the best, and depended entirely upon the co-operation of Byron, the most capricious of allies, and the most parsimonious of paymasters. Byron’s principal motive for acceding to it appears to have been the expectation of acquiring influence over the Examiner, and he was exceedingly mortified on discovering when too late that Hunt had parted, or was considered to have parted, with his interest in the journal. Leigh Hunt left England for Italy in November 1821, but storm, sickness and misadventure retarded his arrival until the 1st of July 1822, a rate of progress which T. L. Peacock appropriately compares to the navigation of Ulysses.

The tragic death of Shelley, a few weeks later, destroyed every prospect of success for the Liberal. Hunt was now virtually a dependant upon Byron, whose least amiable qualities were called forth by the relation of patron to an unsympathetic dependant, burdened with a large and troublesome family. He was moreover incessantly wounded by the representations of his friends that he was losing caste by the connexion. The Liberal lived through four quarterly numbers, containing contributions no less memorable than Byron’s Vision of Judgment and Shelley’s translations from Faust; but in 1823 Byron sailed for Greece, leaving his coadjutor at Genoa to shift for himself. The Italian climate and manners, however, were entirely to Hunt’s taste, and he protracted his residence until 1825, producing in the interim Ultra-Crepidarius, a Satire on William Gifford (1823), and his matchless translation (1825) of Francesco Redi’s Bacco in Toscana. In 1825 an unfortunate litigation with his brother brought him back to England, and in 1828 he committed his greatest mistake by the publication of his Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries. The work is of considerable value as a corrective of merely idealized estimates of Lord Byron. But such a corrective should not have come from one who had lain under obligations to Byron. British ideas of what was decent were shocked, and the author especially writhed under the withering satire of Moore. For many years ensuing the history of Hunt’s life is that of a painful struggle with poverty and sickness. He worked unremittingly, but one effort failed after another. Two journalistic ventures, the Tatler (1830–1832), a daily devoted to literary and dramatic criticism, and Leigh Hunt’s London Journal (1834–1835), were discontinued for want of subscribers, although in the latter Leigh Hunt had able coadjutors, and it contained some of his best writing. His editorship (1837–1838) of the Monthly Repository, in which he succeeded W. J. Fox, was also unsuccessful. The adventitious circumstances which had for a time made the fortune of the Examiner no longer existed, and Hunt’s strong and weak points, his refinement and his affectations, were alike unsuited to the general body of readers.

In 1832 a collected edition of his poems was published by subscription, the list of subscribers including many of his opponents. In the same year was printed for private circulation Christianism, the work afterwards published (1853) as The Religion of the Heart. A copy sent to Carlyle secured his friendship, and Hunt went to live next door to him in Cheyne Row in 1833. Sir Ralph Esher, a romance of Charles II.’s period, had a success, and Captain Sword and Captain Pen (1835), a spirited contrast between the victories of peace and the victories of war, deserves to be ranked among his best poems. In 1840 his circumstances were improved by the successful representation at Covent Garden of his Legend of Florence, a play of considerable merit. Lover’s Amazements, a comedy, was acted several years afterwards, and was printed in Leigh Hunt’s Journal (1850–1851); and other plays remained in MS. In 1840 he wrote introductory notices to the work of R. B. Sheridan and to Moxon’s edition of the works of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar, a work which furnished the occasion of Macaulay’s essay on the Dramatists of the Restoration. The pretty narrative poem of The Palfrey was published in 1842.

The time of Hunt’s greatest difficulties was between 1834 and 1840. He was at times in absolute want, and his distress was aggravated by domestic complications. By Macaulay’s recommendation he began to write for the Edinburgh Review. In 1844 he was further benefited by the generosity of Mrs Shelley and her son, who, on succeeding to the family estates, settled an annuity of £120 upon him; and in 1847 Lord John Russell procured him a civil list pension of £200. The fruits of the improved comfort and augmented leisure of these latter years were visible in the production of some charming volumes. Foremost among these are the companion books, Imagination and Fancy (1844), and Wit and Humour (1846), two volumes of selections from the English poets. In these Leigh Hunt shows himself within a certain range the most refined, appreciative and felicitous of critics. Homer and Milton may be upon the whole beyond his reach, though even here he is great in the detection of minor and unapprehended beauties; with Spenser and the old English dramatists he is perfectly at home, and his subtle and discriminating criticism upon them, as well as upon his own great contemporaries, is continually bringing to light unsuspected beauties. His companion volume on the pastoral poetry of Sicily, quaintly entitled A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla (1848), is almost equally delightful. The Town (2 vols., 1848) and Men, Women and Books (2 vols., 1847) are partly made up from former material. The Old Court Suburb (2 vols., 1855; ed. A. Dobson, 1902) is an anecdotic sketch of Kensington, where he long resided before his final removal to Hammersmith. In 1850 he published his Autobiography (3 vols.), a naïve and accurate piece of self-portraiture, full of affectations, but on that account free from the affectation of unreality. It contains very detailed accounts of some of the most interesting periods of the author’s life, his education at Christ’s Hospital, his imprisonment, and his residence in Italy. A Book for a Corner (2 vols.) was published in 1849, and his Table Talk appeared in 1851. In 1855 his narrative poems, original and translated, were collected under the title of Stories in Verse, with an interesting preface. He died at Putney on the 28th of August 1859.

Leigh Hunt’s virtues were charming rather than imposing or brilliant; he had no vices, but very many foibles. His great misfortune was that these foibles were for the most part of an undignified sort. His affectation is not comparable to Byron’s, nor his egotism to Wordsworth’s, but their very pettiness excites a sensation of the ludicrous. The very sincerity of his nature is detrimental to him; the whole man seems to be revealed in everything he ever wrote, and hence the most beautiful productions of his pen appear in a manner tainted by his really very pardonable weaknesses. Some of these, such as his helplessness in money matters, and his facility in accepting the obligations which he would have delighted to confer, involved him in painful and humiliating embarrassments, which seem to have been aggravated by the mismanagement of those around him. The notoriety of these things has deprived him of much of the honour due to him for his fortitude under the severest calamities, for his unremitting literary industry under the most discouraging circumstances, and for his uncompromising independence as a journalist and an author. It was his misfortune to be involved in politics, for he was as thorough a man of letters as ever existed, and most of his failings were more or less incidental to that character. But it is not every consummate man of letters of whom it can be unhesitatingly affirmed that he was brave, just and pious. When it was suggested that Leigh Hunt was the original of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, Charles Dickens denied that any of the shadows in the portrait were suggested by Hunt, who was, he said, the very soul of truth and honour.

Leigh Hunt’s character as an author was the counterpart of his character as a man. In some respects his literary position is unique. Few men have effected so much by mere exquisiteness of taste in the absence of high creative power; fewer still, so richly endowed with taste, have so frequently and conspicuously betrayed the want of it; and he was incapable of discovering where familiarity became flippancy. But his poetry possesses a brightness, animation, artistic symmetry and metrical harmony, which lift the author out of the rank of minor poets, particularly when the influence of his example upon his contemporaries is taken into account. He excelled especially in narrative poetry, of which, upon a small scale, there are probably no better examples than Abou ben Adhem and Solomon’s Ring. He possessed every qualification for a translator; and as an appreciative critic, whether literary or dramatic, he has hardly been equalled.

Leigh Hunt’s other works include: Amyntas, A Tale of the Woods (1820), translated from Tasso; The Seer, or Common-Places refreshed (2 pts., 1840–1841); three of the Canterbury Tales in The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, modernized (1841); Stories from the Italian Poets (1846); compilations such as One Hundred Romances of Real Life (1843); selections from Beaumont and Fletcher (1855); and, with S. Adams Lee, The Book of the Sonnet (Boston, 1867). His Poetical Works (2 vols.), revised by himself and edited by Lee, were printed at Boston, U.S.A., in 1857, and an edition (London and New York) by his son, Thornton Hunt, appeared in 1860. Among volumes of selections are: Essays (1887), ed. A. Symons; Leigh Hunt as Poet and Essayist (1889), ed. C. Kent; Essays and Poems (1891), ed. R. B. Johnson for the Temple Library.

His Autobiography was revised by himself shortly before his death, and edited (1859) by his son Thornton Hunt, who also arranged his Correspondence (2 vols., 1862). Additional letters were printed by the Cowden Clarkes in their Recollections of Writers (1878). The Autobiography was edited (2 vols., 1903) with full bibliographical note by R. Ingpen. A bibliography of his works was compiled by Alexander Ireland (List of the Writings of William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, 1868). There are short lives of Hunt by Cosmo Monkhouse (Great Writers, 1893) and by R. B. Johnson (1896).

1. Walter Coulson (1794?–1860), lawyer and journalist, was at one time amanuensis to Jeremy Bentham, and became in 1823 editor of the Globe.

2.John Hamilton Reynolds (1796–1852), best known for his friendship and correspondence with Keats. His narrative verse founded on the tales of Boccaccio appeared in 1821 as The Garden of Florence and other Poems. He wrote some admirable sonnets, one of which is addressed to Keats.

[contributor not given]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

HUNT, Leigh (1784-1859) by Jeffrey N. Cox

The 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica’s somewhat breezy entry on Leigh Hunt offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of this oddly central if secondary figure within Romantic-era culture. Yet a fair number of odious comparisons suggest a dissatisfaction with Romanticism as a whole: His affectation is not comparable to Byron’s nor his egotism to Wordsworth’s, but their very pettiness excites a sensation of the ludicrous; Few men have effected so much by mere exquisiteness of taste in the absence of high creative power. There is a tinge of the aesthete in pronouncements about the value of aesthetic taste and the distastefulness of politics. However, I had expected the author to evoke Charles Dickens’ Skimpole as a key to Hunt’s character and perhaps to repeat some of the attacks on his writings leveled by his contemporaries. Not only does the author avoid these reductive takes on Hunt, the piece in fact refutes the Skimpole parallel and argues for Hunt’s position as an important writer.

Leigh Hunt
:Laurence, Samuel. Leigh Hunt. c. 1837, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Still, one can tell the difference between the Britannica’s Hunt and the one revealed in more recent scholarship in its limiting designation of Hunt’s occupation as essayist and miscellaneous writer. He was both, but it would be more useful to tag him as a poet, a political essayist, and a leader—even martyr—for the left intelligentsia of the Romantic period. I want to talk, first, about his political writing, then his poetry, and finally his role as a cultural leader. I will focus on the romantic era Hunt—what Nicolas Roe in his 2005 biography of Hunt (Fiery Heart) calls his first life—but the Britannica entry, of course, also covers key moments in Hunt’s later life.

The entry devotes very little space to what was one of Hunt’s major efforts and contributions: his editorship of The Examiner, the weekly for which he wrote an enormous percentage of the material over the course of more than a dozen years. While there is a continuing tendency to value the paper’s literary and theatrical pieces over its more political ones, a great deal is missed by not paying close attention to the opening Political Examiner essays and to other commentaries on the news of the day that filled most of the newspaper’s pages. The Britannica entry seems to regret the amount of time Hunt spent on the journal: The effect was to give a political direction to what should have been the career of a man of letters. It considers The Examiner’s attempt to distance itself from the madness of political parties as putting taste rather than ideology at the center of its efforts: The Examiner was perhaps the only newspaper of the time which owed no allegiance to any political party, but assailed whatever seemed amiss, ‘from a principle of taste,’ as Keats happily expressed it. The author continues, The taste of the attack itself, was not always unexceptional, with the further proposition that it is this tastelessness that led the Hunt brothers to be imprisoned for Leigh’s satire on The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day (22 March 1812). This suggestion that the successful government prosecution arose from some departure from aesthetic standards on Hunt’s part ignores the fact that the government had conducted a long attack on the Hunts, and other left-leaning journalists, having brought three failed prosecutions against the brothers before they finally succeed in getting them sent to prison in 1813. Hunt was a target of government opposition—and of vituperative assaults from conservative journals—not because he lacked taste, but because he had the bravery to continue to assail the powers that be.

The Examiner was one of the best political journals of its day, mixing polemical rage with literary flourishes, biting satire with philosophical reflection. A huge range of topics are covered—from the obvious issues such as the war with Napoleon and the struggle for Parliamentary Reform to less expected topics such as diplomatic efforts in Tibet and Siam (27 March 1808) and child labor (29 March 1818). Hunt addressed every major issue of the day—slavery, Catholic rights, the standing military, the income tax, the conduct of foreign affairs, the Luddite protests, Peterloo—and from a modern left-leaning perspective he was almost always in the right. We know his opinion pieces were read with interest by a wide variety of important writers and thinkers including Percy Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, Henry Brougham, William Hone, and William Godwin; Jeremy Bentham remarked in July 1812 (to John Mulford) that The Examiner was widely read especially among the high political men. This is writing that mattered in its moment; these are essays that can still tell us a great deal about the period.

The entry does praise Hunt’s poetry, particularly his narrative poetry, and especially his 1816 Story of Rimini: There is perhaps no other instance of a poem short of the highest excellence having produced so important and durable an effect in modifying the accept standards of literary composition. Again, there is damning by faint praise: it is less. . .superiority of genius than of taste that leads to Hunt’s successes, and that taste, the author laments, can betray him: the writer’s occasional flippancy and familiarity. . .made him a mark for ridicule and parody on the part of his opponents, whose animosity, however, was rather political than literary. This divorce of the political and the poetic would have baffled Hunt, who wrote a poem called Politics and Poetics. As scholars such as Greg Kucich have argued, Hunt’s Rimini in particular makes a political point through its aesthetic choices, as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and others certainly saw. We might consider Hunt naïve, but he held a firm belief that a delight in beauty was linked to a love of freedom, that cultural improvement led to social amelioration. Hunt was interested in liberty in poetry as well as politics. As the entry suggests, Rimini opened up versification for younger writers, as Hunt takes on conservative aesthetics on its home ground of the heroic couplet, and it also led the way for other significant poets to turn to Italianate poetry as a way of exploring erotic freedom in particular: Rimini echoes in Shelley’s Epipsychidion, Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes, and Byron’s Don Juan.

One could track the many ways in which politics and poetics intertwine for Hunt, many times in which he interconnects key writers of the day. For example, take the often dismissed connections between Hunt and Byron. Byron had, of course, along with Tom Moore, visited Hunt in prison, helping to forge a literary and political friendship. As Hunt worked on Rimini in prison, Byron loaned him books, and he would later read and comment on the manuscript; Will Bowers recently shows how Hunt’s poem influenced Byron’s Parasina in turn (in The Italian Idea: Anglo-Italian Radical Literary Culture, 1815-1823 [2020]). From Waterloo in the summer of 1815 until Byron departed for the continent in April 1816, Hunt would publish a series of Byron’s poems, using, for example, Byron’s Farewell to Napoleon and On the Star of the ‘Legion of Honour’ to counter the nationalistic verses being offered by Southey, Scott, and Wordsworth during the same period. As 1816 opened, as Hunt was attacking Wordsworth’s Waterloo sonnets under the heading Heaven Made Party to Earthly Disputes (18 February 1816), he was also suggesting that Byron could lead liberal forces in the House of Lords in conjunction with Henry Brougham, the lawyer who had defended Hunt, in the House of Commons (28 January 1816). Brougham and Byron would be divided by the latter’s separation scandal, as Brougham helped to publish and to attack Byron’s poems on his domestic circumstances, but Hunt would stand as a major supporter of Byron; as Byron later said, Hunt was the only newspaper editor who defended him when party feeling ran highest against me (in Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron [1824], 320). This is perhaps the reason that he agreed with Shelley to bring Hunt to Italy to edit The Liberal, despite the Britannica author’s claim that Byron had the expectation of acquiring influence over the Examiner.

These ongoing and growing links are suggestive of the stronger ties Hunt had to Percy Shelley, John Keats, William Hazlitt, John Hamilton Reynolds, Horace Smith, Bryan Waller Procter, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, and the musician Vincent Novello among other figures in the left intelligentsia. There was, in fact, a Cockney School, a gathering of writers and thinkers around Hunt, which he had announced in his Young Poets review (Examiner, 1 December 1816) of Shelley, Keats, and Reynolds—with a glance at Byron—well before the Cockney School attacks. He would continue to gather, inspire, and champion these figures together, as they dined, argued, and wrote together. The Liberal seems less the ill-conceived plan described in this entry than an attempt to recreate in Italy the Cockney School that flourished in London, with Byron and Shelley inviting Hunt and attempting to get Keats and Horace Smith to join them as well. Had the journal not been wrecked with Shelley’s death at sea in July 1822, we might have a very different sense of the trajectory of Romanticism.

The Encyclopædia Britannica provides a fair but incomplete estimate of Hunt. In 1910, Hunt had not yet disappeared into the marginal status from which he has not been fully rescued. It is perhaps difficult to place a figure such as Hunt—an interesting poet, a major political commentator, an enabler of community and creativity. He lived at the center—in some ways was the center—of a movement that included greater writers. Hunt’s poetry, his political efforts, and his influence on others deserve more attention, not least because they help reveal the deep connections between literature, politics, and lived life.

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