1902 Encyclopedia > Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt
(James Henry Leigh Hunt)
English poet, critic and essayist

JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT (1784-1859), one of the most delightful of English essayists and miscellaneous writers, and especially remarkable for his connexion with the most eminent literati of his time, was born at Southgate, October 19, 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 of that city. 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 auy preferment. Leigh Hunt was educated at Christ's Hospital, of which school as it existed in his time he has left a lively account in his autobiography. 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, although the mere literary exercises of a clever boy, contributed to introduce him into literary and theatrical society. He began to write for the newspapers, published a volume of theatrical criticisms in 1807, and in 1808 quitted the War Office, where he had for some time filled a situation as clerk, to assume the editorship of the Examiner newspaper, a speculation of his brother John. The new journal soon acquired a high reputation for independence, both in political and literary criticism. 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, unseemly and imprudent without doubt, but the chief sting of which lay in its substantial truth, occasioned (1813) a prosecution and a sentence of two years' imprisonment in the Surrey jail. The effect was naturally to make Hunt a hero for the time being, and to give a political direction to the career of a man of letters. The position was an essentially false one, and led to an entire misunderstanding of Leigh Hunt's character and aptitudes alike on the part of his friends and his antagonists. For the time he was exceedingly popular; the cheerfulness and gaiety with which he bore his imprisonment, and his amusing devices to mitigate its severity, 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 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 our 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. Other characteristic traits are less commendable, and 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. These faults were still more conspicuous in other pieces published by him about this _date. Ere long, however, Keats's " Lamia " and Shelley's " Julian and Maddalo " manifested the deliverance which he had wrought for English narrative poetry. Both these illustrious men belonged to the circle gathered around him at Hampstead, which also included Hazlitt, Lamb, Procter, Haydon, Cowden Clarke, Dilke, Coulson, Reynolds, 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 aided to the uttermost, though Keats seems 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, 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 periodical work 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 June 1822, a rate of progress which Peacock appropriately compares to the navigation of Ulysses.

Hunt's arrival in Italy was almost immediately followed by the tragic death of Shelley, which 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, and who was moreover incessantly wounded in the most sensitive part 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 it produced little effect on the whole, and 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 his matchless translation of Redi's Bacco in Toscana, and the religious work subsequently published under the title of The Religion of the Heart. In 1825 an unfortunate litigation with his brother brought him back to England, and in 1828 he committed the greatest mistake of his life by the publication of his Lord Byron and 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, however trifling, or however they might seem to be cancelled by subsequent unkindness. Leigh Hunt should also have considered that the materials for his estimate of Byron were chiefly afforded by a residence under Byron's own roof. Apart from its obvious impropriety, the publication in itself is in general petty and carping. Hunt's attitude towards Byron is always that of the inferior; in proportion, therefore, as Byron is made to look small, Hunt appears still smaller. The book's reception was even more unfavourable than its deserts. British manliness and British cant were for once equally 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 periodical ventures, the Toiler and the London Journal, 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 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. Sir Ralph Esher, a romance of Charles the Second's period, was more successful, and Captain Sword and Captain Pen, 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 of his Legend of Florence, a play of great merit, although it has not maintained itself upon the stage. Lover's Amazements, a comedy, was acted several years afterwards ; and other plays are extant in MS. The pretty narrative poem of The Palfrey was published in 1842 ; and about this time he began to write for the Edinburgh Review. In 1844 he was further benefited by the generosity of Mrs Shelley and her son, the present baronet, 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 and Wit and Humour. In these Leigh Hunt shows himself as 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 beauties unsuspected by the reader, as they were probably undesigned by the writer. His companion volume on the pastoral poetry of Sicily, quaintly entitled A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, is almost equally delightful. The Town and Men, Women, and Boohs are partly made up from former material. The Old Court Suburb is an anecdotic sketch of Kensington, where he long resided before his final removal to Hammersmith. In 1850 he published his autobiography, a naive and accurate piece of self-portraiture, full of affectations, but on that very account free from the affectation of unreality. It is more chary of portraits of contemporaries than might have been expected, but 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. 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 August 28, 1859.

The character of Leigh Hunt is not easy to delineate, not from any difficulty of recognizing or harmonizing its leading features, but from that of depicting the less admirable traits in a manner consistent with the affection and respect to which it is entitled on the whole. His 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, and, though it may seem a paradox, that they were so harmless, and on so miniature a scale. Leigh Hunt's affectation, for example, is not comparable to Byron's, or his egotism to "Wordsworth's, and therefore its very pettiness excites a sensation of the ludicrous which the colossal self-consciousness of his contemporaries does not produce. 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, were unfortunately of a nature to involve 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 which he had little vocation, and which embroiled him with many with whom he would otherwise have been on good terms. "Though I was a politician," he says himself, " I had scarcely a political work in my library. Spensers and Arabian Tales filled up the shelves." He was in fact 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.

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. As Wordsworth could never see where simplicity of poetic diction lapsed into mere prose, so Hunt was incapable of discovering where familiarity became flippancy. While Wordsworth, however, is at worst wearisome, Hunt is sometimes positively offensive to fastidious readers. This observation principally refers to his poetry, which, in spite of such vexatious flaws, nevertheless 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 in our language than " Abou ben Adhem " and " Solomon's Ring." He possessed every qualification for a translator, and it is to be regretted that his performances in that department are not more numerous and sustained. As an appreciative critic, whether literary or dramatic, he is hardly equalled; his guidance is as safe as it is genial. The no less important vocation of a censor was uncongenial to his gentle nature, and was rarely essayed by him.

The principal authorities for Leigh Hunt's life are his Autobiography, published in 1850, and reprinted since his death with additions and corrections, and the two volumes of his Correspondence, published with a connecting thread of biography by his son in 1862. The references to him in the writings and biographies of his contemporaries are innumerable. A full bibliography of his works, with excellent remarks, has been published by Mr Alexander Ireland. (E. G.)

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