Leigh Hunt 1784-1859
(Born James Henry Leigh Hunt) English critic, essayist, journalist, poet, and playwright.
For additional information on Hunt's life and works, see .
Although today he is remembered primarily as a minor poet and author of the frequently anthologized poem "Rondeau," commonly known as "Jenny kissed me," Hunt is important historically as a political essayist and literary critic who articulated the Romantic manifesto. He also played a vital role in encouraging and influencing the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Hunt was born in England to Isaac and Mary Hunt, the only one of their seven children to be born in Great Britain. Although Hunt's parents were Americans, they were loyal to the English crown, and at the beginning of the Revolutionary War fled to England. As a child, Hunt attended Christ's Hospital School from 1791 to 1798, where he earned a solid education in the classics. He began writing at an early age, and his father collected and published his early poetry in Juvenilia (1801). Although this book is generally considered a derivative effort, Hunt regarded it as the first step toward his life as a man of letters. After the publication of this work, Hunt worked for a time as an apprentice to his brother Stephen who was a barrister; he was also a drama critic for News, a weekly published by his brother John. In 1808, Hunt and John established The Examiner, a weekly liberal newspaper. This began an editing career for Hunt which would encompass years of political and literary writing under the auspices of several popular journals. The Examiner, with the Hunts' attacks on the Prince Regent, also signaled the political opposition that earned jail sentences for each of the Hunts. While in jail, Hunt continued writing and frequently received visits from writers such as Lord Byron, Jeremy Bentham, and Charles Lamb. Upon his release from prison, Hunt became increasingly more involved in poetry, though he never gave up his political interests. Hunt died in Putney in August 1859.
Hunt's pursuit of poetry resulted in The Story of Rimini (1816), an adaptation of the Paolo and Francesca story from Dante's Divine Comedy. This work was generally well received (although the attacks on Hunt by the reviewers for Blackwood's Magazine began soon after in 1817), and it fostered friendships with Keats and Shelley. Hunt's favorable reviews of these poets' early works, and his diligence in using his connections to publish them, helped establish Keats's and Shelley's reputations. Hunt's relationship with Byron deteriorated, however, especially after the death of Shelley in 1822—a great blow to Hunt, who considered Shelley his best friend. One of Hunt's best known nonpoetical works, Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828), was actually a thinly veiled harangue against Byron. Though the book's controversial nature met with a cool reception, Hunt produced other works at this time which were commercial successes, including The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt (1832). The nonpoetical Imagination and Fancy (1844) provided significant insight into the nature of Romantic tastes, and was favorably reviewed. Hunt continued to be prolific in his final years, and The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, with Reminiscences of Friends and Contemporaries (1850), which retracted some of his earlier sharp criticism, indicates his pleasure at surviving years of literary warfare.
Critical reception of Hunt's work, both contemporary and modern, has been uneven. While his poetry could inspire spirited attacks such as those appearing in Blackwood's Magazine, he was also praised as one of his generation's best-known literary figures. Poetry is widely held to have been the weakest of Hunt's undertakings, and he seems destined to remain a minor poet. Yet recent criticism favorably reviews the rococo aspects of his poetry, and his influence on other poets has never been questioned. Critical attention has been paid to his achievements as editor, essayist, teacher, and mentor. It is commonly accepted that he pioneered the contemporary journal and made invaluable contributions as political writer and dramatic critic. His current relative obscurity stems in part from the sheer volume of work he produced, which prevented him from concentrating on any one area. Ultimately, Hunt's personal contact with more prominent poets established him as a contributing force to a richly creative period.
Juvenilia (poetry) 1801
Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, Including General Observations on the Practise and Genius of the Stage (criticism) 1807
The Examiner [editor] (journalism) 1808-21
The Feast of the Poets, with Notes, and Other Pieces in Verse (poetry) 1814
The Descent of Liberty (mask) 1815 The Story of Rimini (poetry) 1816
Foliage (poetry) 1818
Hero and Leander and Bacchus and Ariadne (poetry) 1819
The Indicator [editor] (journalism) 1819-21
The Liberal [editor] (journalism) 1822-23
Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (essays) 1828
The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt (poetry) 1832
Sir Ralph Esher; or Memoirs of a Gentleman of the Court of Charles II (novel) 1832
The Indicator and the Companion (essays) 1834
Captain Sword and Captain Pen (poetry) 1835
A Legend of Florence (drama) 1840
Imagination and Fancy [editor] (poetry and critical essays) 1844
Stories from the Italian Poets: with Lives of the Writers [translator and adapter] (poetry, biography, and criticism) 1846
Wit and Humour, Selected from the English Poets, with an Illustrative Essay, and Critical Comments [editor] (poetry and criticism) 1846
Men, Women and Books (sketches, essays, and memoirs) 1847
A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla (essays) 1848
The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, with Reminiscences of Friends and Contemporaries (autobiography) 1850
The Religion of the Heart (philosophy, prose) 1853
The Old Court Suburb; Or, Memorials of Kensington, Regal, Critical, and Anecdotal (sketches, memoirs) 1855
The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt (letters) 1862
SOURCE: "From the Author's Preface to the Editions of 1832," in The Political Works of Leigh Hunt, edited by H. S. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1923, pp. xvii-xxxi.
[In the following excerpt from his preface to the first collected edition of his poems, Hunt introduces his work by explaining his philosophy of poetry.]
I intended to write a very short preface to the volume here submitted to the public indulgence; but finding the small number of pages to which it amounted, compared with the price put upon it in the advertisement, I wished to do what I could towards bringing it to a becoming size. To add verses which I had rejected, would have been an injustice both to the readers and myself. It was suggested to me that a 'good gossiping preface' would not be ill received; and I therefore write one in the true spirit of that word, leaving it to their good nature to interpret it accordingly.
I am so aware that the world is rich in books of all sorts, and that its attention, beyond the moment, is not to be looked for by voluminous writers, except those of the first order, that I have done my best to render my verses as little unworthy of re-perusal, as correction and omission could make them. I have availed myself of the criticism both of friends and enemies; and have been so willing to construe in my disfavour any doubts which arose in my own mind, that the volume does not contain above a third of the verses I have written. I took for granted, that an author's self-love is pretty sure not to be too hard upon him, and adopted the principle of making the doubt itself a sentence of condemnation. Upon this I have acted in every instance, with the exception of the "Fragments upon the Nymphs," the "Sonnet on the Nile," and the passages out of the "Bacchus in Tuscany." The fragments, and the sonnet, a partial friend induced me not to discard: otherwise, with a doubt perhaps in favour of the second and eighth lines of the sonnet, I felt that they did not possess enough of the subtler and remoter spirit of poetry, demanded by the titles. Of the "Bacchus" I retained a few specimens, partly for the sake of old associations, and of the tune echoed into it from the Italian; but chiefly in consequence of discovering that it had found favour in unexpected quarters.
If it be asked, why I have not been as scrupulous with the whole volume, or whether I look upon the rest of it as being free from objection, I answer, that I only believe it to be as good as it was in the writer's power to make it. What that power may be, if any, is another matter. At all events, I cannot accuse myself of taking no pains to satisfy my own judgment, or to bespeak the reader's good wishes. I have not shovelled my verses out by cart-loads, leaving the public, much less another generation, to save me the trouble of selection! I do not believe that other generations will take the trouble to rake for jewels in much nobler dust than mine. Posterity is too rich and idle. The only hope I can have of coming into any one's hands, and exciting his attention beyond the moment, is by putting my workmanship, such as it is, into its best and compactest state.
The truth is, I have such a reverence for poetry, preeminently so called (by which I mean that which posterity and the greatest poets agree to call such), that I should not dare to apply the term to anything written by me in verse, were I not fortunate enough to be of opinion, that poetry, like the trees and flowers, is not of one class only; but that if the plant comes out of Nature's hands, and not the gauze-maker's, it is still a plant, and has ground for it. All houses are not palaces, nor every shrine a cathedral. In domo patris mei (not to speak it profanely) mansiones multœ sunt.
Poetry, in its highest sense, belongs exclusively to such men as Shakespeare, Spenser, and others, who possessed the deepest insight into the spirit and sympathies of all things; but poetry, in the most comprehensive application of the term, I take to be the flower of any kind of experience, rooted in truth, and issuing forth into beauty. All that the critic has a right to demand of it, according to its degree, is, that it should spring out of a real impulse, be consistent in its parts, and shaped into some characteristic harmony of verse.
Without these requisites (apart from fleeting and artificial causes), the world will scarcely look at any poetical production a second time; whereas, if it possess them, the humblest poetry stands a chance of surviving not only whatever is falsely so called, but much that contains, here and there, more poetical passages than itself; passages that are the fits and starts of a fancy without judgment—the incoherences of a nature, poetical only by convulsion, but prosaic in its ordinary strength.
Thus, in their several kinds, we have the poetry of thought and passion in Shakespeare and Chaucer; of poetical abstraction and enjoyment in Spenser; of scholarship and a rapt ambition in Milton; of courtliness in Waller (who writes like an inspired gentleman-usher); of gallantry in Suckling; of wit and satire in Pope; of heartiness in Burns; of the 'fat of the land' in Thomson; of a certain sequestered gentleness in Shenstone; and the poetry of prose itself in Dryden: not that he was a prosaic writer, but that what other people thought in prose, he could think in verse; and so made absolute poems of pamphlets and party-reasoning.
The first quality of a poet is imagination, or that faculty by which the subtlest idea is given us of the nature or condition of any one thing, by illustration from another, or by the inclusion of remote affinities: as when Shakspeare speaks of moonlight sleeping on a bank; or of nice customs curtseying to great kings (though the reader may, if he pleases, put this under the head of wit, or imagination in miniature); or where Milton speaks of towers bosom 'd in trees, or of motes that people the sunbeams; or compares Satan on the wing at a distance, to a fleet of ships hanging in the clouds; or where Mr. Shelley (for I avoid quoting from living writers, lest it should be thought invidious towards such as are not quoted) puts that stately, superior, and comprehensive image, into the mouth of a speaker who is at once firm of soul, and yet anticipates a dreadful necessity—
I see, as from a tower, the end of all:
or lastly, where Mr. Keats tells us of the realm less eyes of old Saturn (as he sits musing after his dethronement); or of the two brothers and their murdered man, riding from Florence; that is to say, the man whom they were about to murder; or where, by one exquisite touch, he describes an important and affecting office of the god Mercury, and the effects of it upon the spectators in the lower world—calling him 'the star of Lethe;' by which we see that he was the only bright object which visited that dreary region. We behold him rising on its borders.
In proportion to the imagination, is the abstract poetical faculty: in proportion to extent of sympathy (for passion, which is everywhere in poetry, may be comparatively narrow and self-revolving), is the power of universality: in proportion to energy of temperament and variety of experience, is the power of embodying the conceptions in a greater or less amount of consistent and stirring action, whether narrative or dramatic. The greatest poets have the greatest amount of all these qualities conjoined: the next greatest are those who unite the first two: the next, those whose imagination is exquisite as far as it goes, but is confined to certain spheres of contemplation: then come the poets, who have less imagination, but more action—who are imaginative, as it were, in the mass, and with a certain vague enjoyment allied to the feelings of youth: then the purely artificial poets, or such as poetize in art rather than nature, or upon conventional beauty and propriety, as distinguished from beauty universal: and then follow the minor wits, the song-writers, burlesquers, &c. In every instance, the indispensable requisites are truth of feeling, freedom from superfluity (that is, absence of forced or unfitting thoughts), and beauty of result; and in proportion as these requisites are comprehensive, profound, and active, the poet is great. But it is always to be borne in mind, that the writers in any of these classes, who take lasting hold of the world's attention, are justly accounted superior to such as afford less evidences of power in a higher class. The pretension is nothing; the performance every thing. A good apple is better than an insipid peach. A song of Burns is (literally) worth half the poets in the collections.
Suckling's "Ballad on a Wedding" is a small and unambitious, yet unmisgiving and happy production, of no rank whatsoever considered with reference to the height of poetry; but so excellent of its kind for consistency, freshness, and relish, that it has survived hundreds of epithalamiums, and epics too; and will last as long as beauty has a lip, or gallantry frankness.
Shenstone's "School-mistress" is a poem of a very humble description in subject, style, and everything, except its humane and thoughtful sweetness: yet being founded in truth, and consistent, and desiring nothing but truth and consistency, it has survived in like manner. Compared with greater productions, it resembles the herbs which the author speaks of in its cottage-garden; but balm and mint have their flourishing, as well as the aloe; and like them, and its old heroine, it has secured its 'grey renown,' clean as her mob-cap, and laid up in lavender. Crashaw is a poet now scarcely known except to book-worms. Pope said of him, that his writing was 'a mixture of tender gentle thoughts and suitable expressions, of forced and inextricable conceits, and of needless fillers-up to the rest.' Crashaw had a morbid enthusiasm, which sometimes helped him to an apprehensiveness and depth of expression, perhaps beyond the voluntary power of his great critic; yet Pope, by writing nothing out of what the painters call 'keeping', or unworthy of himself, is justly reckoned worth a hundred Crashaws. Random thoughts and fillings-up are a poet's felo de se.
Far am I, in making these remarks, from pretending to claim any part or parcel in the fellowship of names consecrated by time. I can truly say, that, except when I look upon some others that get into the collections, consecrated by no hands but the book-jobbers, I do not know (after I have written them) whether my verses deserve to live a dozen days longer. The confession may be thought strong or weak, as it happens; but such is the fact. I have witnessed so much self-delusion in my time, and partaken of so much, and the older I grow, my veneration so increases for poetry not to be questioned, that all I can be sure of, is my admiration of genius in others. I cannot say how far I overvalue it, or even undervalue it, in myself. I am in the condition of a lover who is sure that he loves, and is therefore happy in the presence of the beloved object; but is uncertain how far he is worthy to be beloved. Perhaps the symptom is a bad one, and only better than that of a confident ignorance. Perhaps the many struggles of my life; the strange conflicting thoughts upon a thousand matters, into which I have been forced; the necessity of cultivating some modesty of self-knowledge, as a setoff to peremptoriness of public action; and the unceasing alternation of a melancholy and a cheerfulness, equally native to my blood—and the latter of which I have suffered to go its lengths, both as an innocent propensity and a means of resistance—have combined in me to baffle conclusion, and filled me full of these perhapses, which I have observed growing upon my writings for many years past. Perhaps the question is not worth a word I have said of it, except upon that principle of 'gossiping' with which my preface sets out, and which I hope will procure me the reader's pardon for starting it. All that I was going to say was, that if I cannot do in poetry what ought to be done, I know what ought not; and that if there is no truth in my verses, I look for no indulgence.
As I do write poetry however, such as it is, I must have my side of confidence as well as of misgiving; and when I am in the humour for thinking that I have done something that may dare hope to be called by the name, I fancy I know where my station is. I please myself with thinking, that had the circumstances of my life permitted it, I might have done something a little worthier of acceptance, in the way of a mixed kind of narrative poetry, part lively and part serious, somewhere between the longer poems of the Italians, and the Fabliaux of the old French. My propensity would have been (and, oh! had my duties permitted, how willingly would I have passed my life in it! how willingly now pass it!) to write 'eternal new stories' in verse, of no great length, but just sufficient to vent the pleasure with which I am stung on meeting with some touching adventure, and which haunts me till I can speak of it somehow. I would have dared to pretend to be a servant in the train of Ariosto, nay, of Chaucer,
—and far off his skirts adore.
I sometimes look at the trusting animal spirits in which the following poems were written (for my doubts come after I have done writing, and not while I am about it), and wonder whether or not they are of a right sort. I know not. I cannot tell whether what pleased me at the moment, was mere pleasure taken in the subject, or whether it involved the power of communicating it to the reader. All I can be sure of is, that I was in earnest; that the feelings, whatever they were, which I pretended to have, I had. It was the mistake of the criticism of a northern climate, to think that the occasional quaintnesses and neologisms, which formerly disfigured the Story of Rimini, arose out of affectation. They were the sheer license of animal spirits. While I was writing them, I never imagined that they were not proper to be indulged in. I have tropical blood in my veins, inherited through many generations, and was too full of impulse and sincerity to pretend to anything I did not feel. Probably the criticisms were not altogether a matter of climate; for I was a writer of politics as well as verses, and the former (two years ago!) were as illegal as the sallies of phraseology. Be this as it may, I have here shown, that I have at any rate not enough of the vanity of affectation to hinder me from availing myself of experience, and ridding my volume both of superfluities of a larger sort, and of those petty anomalies of words and phrases which I never thought worth defending. I believe there are but two words remaining in the Story of Rimini, to which any body would think it worth while to object; and one of these (the word swirl in page 1)1 I had marked to be taken out, but found it restored by a friend who saw the passage as it was going through the press (no stickler for neologisms), and who put a wondering 'quœre ' why it should be omitted. I used it to express the entrance of a sailing boat into harbour, when it turns the corner of it, and comes round with a sweeping motion. 'Sweep' would have described the motion but not the figure. 'Wheel' appeared to me too mechanical, and to make the circle too complete. I could find, therefore, no other word for the mixed idea which I wished to convey; and as swirl is in the dictionaries, I had no hesitation in submitting to the query, and letting it remain. The other word is 'cored,' at page 152, meaning something that has taken root in the heart of our consciousness. I give it up to the critic, if he dislikes it, having accidentally let the proof-sheet, which contained it, go to press beyond power of recai. I care no more for it, than if it had been the oldest and least venerable of commonplaces. I should beg the reader's pardon for detaining him so long with these trifles, did not my value for his good opinion in higher matters, make me wish not to be thought contemptuous of it in the smallest.
My verses having thus been corrected, as far as I saw occasion, and evidence enough (I hope) having been given to show that I have no overweening value for what I have written, merely because I have written it, I should prove indeed that I had no reason to doubt the measure of my pretensions, if I gave up the right of keeping my own opinion, upon points on which I did not feel it shaken. I have therefore retained in my versification, not only the triplets and alexandrines which some have objected to, because they have been rarely used in heroic poetry since the time of Dryden, but the double rhymes which have been disused since the days of Milton.
It has been said of the triplet, that it is only a temptation to add a needless line, to what ought to be comprised in two. This is manifestly a half-sighted objection; for at least the converse of the proposition may be as true; namely, that it comprises, in one additional line, what two might have needlessly extended. And undoubtedly compression is often obtained by the triplet, and should never be injured by it; but I take its true spirit to be this—that it carries onward the fervour of the poet's feeling; delivers him for the moment, and on the most suitable occasions, from the ordinary laws of his verse; and enables him to finish his impulse with triumph. In all instances, where the triplet is not used for the mere sake of convenience, it expresses continuity of some sort, whether for the purpose of extension, or inclusion; and this is the reason why the alexandrine so admirably suits it, the spirit of both being a sustained enthusiasm. In proportion as this enthusiasm is less, or the feeling to be conveyed is one of hurry in the midst of aggregation, the alexandrine is perhaps generally dropped. The continuity implied by the triplet, is one of four kinds: it is either an impatience of stopping, arising out of an eagerness to include; or it is the march of triumphant power; or it 'builds the lofty rhyme' for some staider shew of it; or lastly, it is the indulgence of a sense of luxury and beauty, a prolongation of delight. Dryden has fine specimens of all. . . .
If Dryden had had sentiment, he would have been as great a poet natural, as he was artificial. The want, it must be owned, is no trifle! It is idle, however, to wish the addition of these cubits to human stature. Let us be content with the greatness his genius gave him, and with our power to look up to it.
Pope denounced alexandrines in a celebrated couplet, in which he seems to confound length of line with slowness of motion; two very distinct things, as Mr. Lamb has shown in one of his masterly essays.
A needless alexandrine ends the song,
Which like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
And yet, in his no less celebrated eulogy upon the versification of Dryden, he has attempted an imitation of his master's style, in which he has introduced both alexandrine and triplet.
Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full majestic line,
The long resounding march, and energy divine.
How comes it then, that he rejected both from his own poetry? The reason was, that he acted by a judicious instinct. He felt, that variety and energy were not what his muse would deal in, but beauties of a different sort; and he wisely confined himself to what he could do best. It is true, it seems strange that he should exalt Dryden's variety at the expense of Waller's smoothness. It looks like dispraising himself. But then he felt that he had more in him than Waller; and that if he had not Dryden's variety, neither had he his carelessness, but carried the rhyming heroic to what he thought a perfection superior to both, and justly purchased by the sacrifice of Dryden's inequality. Inferior indeed as Pope's versification is to Dryden's, upon every principle both of power and music, nobody can deny that it admirably suits the nicer point of his genius, and the subjects on which it was exercised. Dryden had a tranchant sword, which demanded stoutness in the sheath. Pope's weapon was a lancet enclosed in pearl.
Let it not be thought (as it has too often been unthinkingly asserted), that remarks of this kind are meant to disparage our great master of poetic wit; to whose genius I should think it a foppery to express even my ' homage, were it not for the sake of guarding against the imputation of a more preposterous immodesty. But, in endeavouring to ascertain critically what is best in general composition, one is sometimes obliged to notice what is not so good, except in specific instances.
I confess I like the very bracket that marks out the triplet to the reader's eye, and prepares him for the music of it. It has a look like the bridge of a lute.
It seems to me, that beautiful as are the compositions which the English language possesses in the heroic couplet, both by deceased and living writers, it remains for some poet hereafter to perfect the versification, by making a just compromise between the inharmonious freedom of our old poets in general (who were greatest in greater measures), and the regularity of Dryden himself; who, noble as his management of it is, beats, after all, too much upon the rhyme. It hinders his matter from...
(The entire section is 8923 words.)
SOURCE: "Leigh Hunt and the Laureateship," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LV, No. 4, October, 1958, pp. 603-15.
[In the following essay, Fogle examines Hunt's quest for the poet laureateship in light of Hunt's lifelong political rhetoric and writings concerning the royal family.]
Twice during Leigh Hunt's career, there seemed, at least to him, a fair chance that he might be named poet laureate of England. Three times during his adult career as a man of letters, the office fell vacant: in 1813 on the death of Pye, in 1843 on the death of Southey, and in 1850 on the death of Wordsworth. It was of course manifestly impossible that the Prince Regent in 1813 would have...
(The entire section is 4883 words.)
SOURCE: "Leigh Hunt in Literary History: A Response," in The Life & Times of Leigh Hunt, edited by Robert A. McCown, Friends of the University of Iowa Libraries, 1985, pp. 73-100.
[In the following essay, Reiman evaluates Hunt as one of the most influential Romantic writers—one who should be judged not just for his literary merits but also for his wide-ranging contributions to English culture.]
(The entire section is 14807 words.)
SOURCE: "Correcting the Irritability of His Temper: The Evolution of Leigh Hunt's Autobiography," in Romantic Revisions, edited by Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 268-90.
[In the following essay, Webb contends that Hunt used his Autobiography as an opportunity to revise earlier, more openly critical writings in order to express a generous, accepting philosophy.]
Leigh Hunt was in the first place a circuitous autobiographer. This may have been a result, in part at least, of the rather unfortunate and compromised circumstances in which he was propelled towards his first extended contribution to the emerging genre. After the...
(The entire section is 11170 words.)
SOURCE: "Leigh Hunt's 'Cockney' Aesthetics," in The Keats-Shelley Review, No. 10, Spring, 1996, pp. 77-96.
[In the following essay, Wu examines Hunt's poetical aesthetics, his relations with Wordsworth as a critic, and his influence on Keats's poetry.]
In October 1817 J. G. Lockhart launched his notorious attack in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine on what he christened the 'Cockney' school. 'Its chief Doctor and Professor', he wrote, 'is Mr Leigh Hunt, a man certainly of some talents, of extravagant pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking and manners in all respects.'1...
(The entire section is 7167 words.)