Leigh Hunt’s three-volume The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt has remained the single most important source of information on both the facts of his life and those personal attributes that influenced his writings. There is, in fact, comparatively little in The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt dealing exclusively with Hunt; it is more a series of recollections and examinations of his many literary friends. This fact is of some importance in understanding Hunt the man, for it reflects a total lack of selfishness and a genuine sympathetic concern for the many fortunate people who won his friendship. These friendships were treasured by Hunt, and in the accounts of his youthful infatuations is reflected the simple kindheartedness and romantic idealism that were noted by his contemporaries and by later critics. The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt does not follow a strict chronology but is rather a series of units. For example, he describes his parents’ lives until their deaths before he discusses his own early years. In fact, Hunt’s father lived to see his son a successful editor. This organizational method may well be a result of Hunt’s reliance on personal taste. His taste of course was selective; he extracted from his experience what he considered excellent and showed little regard for the organizational coherence of the whole. His literary criticism, indeed even his poetry, displays the same fondness for selection found in his autobiography.
Most critics agree that Hunt’s greatest contribution to poetry was not the poetry he himself wrote but rather his fine criticism of the poetry of others. Again, Hunt’s criticism is based on his own excellent taste, but his taste was far more useful in recognizing good literature than in distinguishing what was specifically bad and forming a thoughtful critical opinion as to the nature of the faults. In practice, Hunt the critic was a selector; he chose those passages from a work that especially appealed to his taste and quoted them at length. Thus, he assumed that the works would speak for themselves. He did not conceive of a critic as one who thinks for the reader and locks literature into a single interpretation. If Hunt has survived as a critic, it is because his personal taste was so good. At the same time, his natural sensitivity to what is fine in literature may be said to have worked against his ever achieving a place among the very greatest critics. He had no need for detailed analysis to tell him what was fine in art, and he created no aesthetic concepts approaching the sophistication of some of his contemporaries, notably Coleridge. Thus, Hunt cannot be numbered among the important literary theoreticians. His reputation as a quite respectable critic is dependent on the fact that he was perhaps the greatest appreciator of literature in the history of English letters.
The same quality of taste that enabled Hunt to select what was best in the writings of others also influenced his own poetic compositions. That selective talent, however, did not serve Hunt the poet quite so well. In the composition of his own verse, he was inclined to combine lines and passages reflective of specific poetic principles without a view to the appropriateness of the principle in relation to the poem as a whole. For example, Hunt as the great popularizer of Romantic literary ideas did more than William Wordsworth to bring home to the nineteenth century reader the notion that poetry should reflect the language really used by people. Another aim of the Romantics was to make a place in literature for the experiences of the lower classes, comprising that whole stratum of society that neoclassical writers generally ignored. Hunt’s conviction that it was the business of poetry to do these things led him, much more than Wordsworth, Coleridge, and his other illustrious contemporaries who shared these ideas, to overlook yet another major principle of composition that had so concerned the neoclassicist: decorum.
Decorum demanded that all the various elements of a work of art contribute to the unified effect of the work as a whole. Thus, diction must be appropriate to character and action; a king suffering tragedy should not speak like the common man in the street. Decorum made the poet responsible to the propriety of the particular work. Hunt too often forced the work to comply...
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