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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Leigh Hunt (1784–1859)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
LEIGH HUNT (whose two less distinctive first names, James and Henry, his own pen has taught us to forget) was more American than English by descent. His father, Rev. Isaac Hunt, was a West-Indian, who received a large part of his education at a college in Philadelphia; his mother, Mary Shewell, came of an old Philadelphian Quaker family. His melancholy, which certainly did not play a leading part in his temperament, Leigh Hunt always declared came from his mother; his mirth from his father, who had given up his charge in the West Indies when the War of Independence threatened, and sailed for England, where he lived a rather improvident life. The boy Leigh, who was by far the youngest of the family, was born at Southgate, County Middlesex, October 19th, 1784; then quite a country village. At eight years old he was sent to Christ’s Hospital, some ten years after Charles Lamb and Coleridge had passed their memorable school days there. Eight years of its strong discipline, and Leigh Hunt emerged “with much classics and no mathematics,” such being then the tradition of the school, to spend a couple of years in writing verses and roaming London, under the easy-going rule of the Rev. Isaac, who collected and published a first book of his boy’s poems as early as 1801. Its contents are curious, perhaps, but not worth preserving.  1
  Some intermittent experiences as a London clerk in the attorney’s office of his brother Stephen, and in the War Office, varied by his first essays as a dramatic critic, bring us to the climacteric point when he joined his brother John in sundry journalistic adventures. These, after some failures, led to the successful commencement in 1808 of the now historical Examiner newspaper, whose future seemed so secure in the second year that Leigh Hunt felt warranted in marrying Marianne Kent, to whom he had been for long affianced.  2
  It was not until 1812, in its issue of March 22d, that the Examiner’s growing independence led it to its well-timed attack on the vicious Prince Regent, and brought down the law on its editors’ heads. The attack was made in an outspoken leading article (one of a series of such social criticisms), entitled ‘The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day.’ Some little delay occurred in the trial; and it was even intimated that if the editors would refrain from free speech in the future, their offense would be passed over: but with great courage they refused to give any such undertaking. Eventually the trial took place in the King’s Bench, Westminster, on the 9th December, 1812; and Leigh Hunt and his brother, who were defended by Lord Brougham, were condemned to two years’ imprisonment in separate prisons and a fine of £1,000. Of the two, Leigh Hunt was sent to Horsemonger Lane Jail. There he went on directing and writing for the Examiner with undiminished spirit. Two numbers of its issue for February 1813 (No. 267 and No. 268, the only ones the present writer has seen) bear traces, as one might expect, of his political rather than his literary pen. The paper makes somewhat the effect of a thinner and smaller Nation, its ink a little faded, its type older fashioned. It is sub-titled ‘A Sunday Paper on Politics, Domestic Economy, and Theatricals,’ and it bears a characteristic motto from Swift: “Party is the madness of the Many for the gain of the Few.” In its pages, during the time of Leigh Hunt’s imprisonment from 1813 to 1815, appeared several of his best sonnets, and notably those addressed to his favorite Hampstead; one of which follows below. His account of how he transformed his prison cell within, by a wallpaper of trellised roses, a ceiling of blue sky and clouds, a piano, books, and busts, while without he contrived a little flower garden, added to the testimony of Charles Lamb and others, tends rather to falsify the real effect his days in jail had upon him. In truth they left him broken in health; and he was heavily embarrassed in fortune, moreover, by the heavy fine. And of the new friends that he gained among those sympathizing with his misfortune, it cannot be considered that he was altogether fortunate, for instance, in being thrown into contact with Lord Byron. As for Shelley and Keats, the two names that most naturally occur, and with the most ideal effect, in the list of Hunt’s friends,—their friendship dates from before his imprisonment. His new intercourse with Byron under Shelley’s auspices led to the unlucky visit of the whole Hunt family to Italy, and the still more unlucky founding of the Liberal. There is no more entertaining chapter in all Leigh Hunt’s delightful ‘Autobiography’ than that so light-heartedly relating the story of the voyage to Italy and its results. As for the fate of the Liberal, it only ran to four numbers, issued during 1822–3; but it is a bibliophile’s prize now, whether in the original parts or in the two volumes in which these were collected in 1823. Of Leigh Hunt’s other journalistic doings, Charles Lamb’s couplet reminds us of one:—
  “Wit, poet, prose-man, party-man, translator,—
Hunt, thy best title yet is Indicator.”
  3
  The Indicator, issued weekly from 1819 to 1821; previously a quarterly, the Reflector, continuing from 1810 to 1812; and sequently the Companion, a weekly similar to the Indicator,—account for many years of sheer hard writing in Leigh Hunt’s life, which was never an idle one. But the hardest task of the kind he set himself was the Talker, “A Daily Journal of Literature and the Stage,” consisting of four folio pages, written with very slight exception wholly and solely by Hunt himself, from September 4th, 1830, to February 13th, 1832. It proved, as might have been expected, with his other avocations to be considered, too much for his health; and on giving it up he fell back on his favorite belle-lettristic weekly publications, in his London Journal (1834–5), and again his Journal at the latter end of his career. If so much is said of these papers, it is because so much of his most characteristical writing first appeared in their pages; and we have not yet nearly exhausted the list of the periodicals to which he was an occasional contributor.  4
  When we turn to his books, we find in his ‘Autobiography’ perhaps the most complete and individual expression of the man: his charming fancy, his high spirits, wit, gayety, and abiding good-nature. But the same lightness and ease of style, the same kindliness and shrewdness of thought and observation, are to be found in his essays, so often written currente calamo for some one of his weekly periodicals. Such are the papers on the ‘Deaths of Little Children,’ ‘The Old Lady,’ ‘The Maid-Servant,’ and ‘Coaches.’ His contributions, whether as a poet or as a critic and appreciator of poetry, are, it is said, not read as much as they were ten, twenty years ago; but they make alone a remarkable contribution to nineteenth-century literature. His favorite Spenser owes a new laurel to his praise. ‘The Story of Rimini,’ his longest poem, still delights in its best pages, full as they are of reminders not only of older poets like Spenser, but of Keats, whom Hunt so strongly influenced; and such lines as those to “Jenny,” or upon ‘Abou Ben Adhem,’ are simply unforgettable. His poems, together with such works as his ‘Men, Women, and Books’ (1847), ‘Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla’ (1848), ‘Imagination and Fancy’ (1844), ‘Wit and Humor’ (1846), and ‘The Town’ (1848), are best to be read in alternation with the chapters of his ‘Autobiography.’  5
  We have preferred to pass lightly over his much-bruited quarrel with Byron, the fault of which was mainly Byron’s. It is pleasanter to think of his unbroken friendships with so many poets and men of genius, from “Elia,” Keats, and Shelley, on to Carlyle, whose tribute to him may be remembered along with that of Emerson and of Hawthorne. Accepting it as essentially true, we shall be able to forget that Dickens ever caricatured him, or that his lack of economics ever impaired the genuine character of the man and his work. The present writer, writing in a house traditionally associated with Leigh Hunt’s sojourn at Hampstead, can only say that every story of his career told by his few remaining friends and acquaintances bears out the brighter estimate of his life as the true one. He lived until 1859, dying in the house of a friend at Putney on August 28th, 1859. “His death was simply exhaustion,” we are told: “he broke off his work to lie down and repose. So gentle was the final approach that … it came without terrors.”  6
  In his prime, Leigh Hunt was described as a tall, agile, slender figure; with black hair, vivid features, brilliant dark eyes, and a lurking humor in the expression of his mobile mouth. And except that his hair grew white, he preserved this effect, and the grace and courtesy of his bearing, to the end.  7
  The best edition of his poetical works is still the Boston one, edited by Mr. S. Adams Lee, joint author with Hunt of his posthumously published ‘Book of the Sonnet.’  8
 
 
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