Seldom, if ever before or since, has a creative man, notable in his own right, been so fortunate in his association with great men as was Leigh Hunt. To have known intimately all three of the leading “younger generation” English Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—and to have been well acquainted with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb, and Carlyle is a social and intellectual privilege not in any sense usual.
The AUTOBIOGRAPHY of James Henry Leigh Hunt, to give him his full name, is far more than a chronological account of the life of an important essayist and minor poet. It is a sorting out of vivid impressions from past experiences and associations, impressions which delineate Hunt’s lifelong passion for human advancement as well as his ability in old age to evaluate objectively the way he has come, the influences he has experienced, and those he has exerted.
Published in 1850, nine years before Hunt’s death, the AUTOBIOGRAPHY was hailed by Thomas Carlyle as the best autobiographical writing in the English language. This opinion was widely shared by reviewers, and the book has become a classic of its kind. Its quality derives largely from its emphasis on human values and on the interactions between the author and his various notable friends. Leigh Hunt, therefore, can afford to be neglectful of mere dates and mundane details; he has matters of present and future value to impart.
The AUTOBIOGRAPHY begins with a survey of the author’s ancestry, largely Anglican ministers with strong Tory leanings. In the seventeenth century the family, seeking to avoid harassment by the Puritans, had moved to the West Indies but had returned to England in the following century. Leigh Hunt’s father, Isaac Hunt, had gone to Philadelphia for an education and had narrowly escaped being tarred and feathered during the American Revolution for the Tory views he expressed in various pamphlets. Having returned to England with his wife and children, he had encountered severe financial difficulties and had abandoned the Tory cause to assume more liberal opinions. With his wife’s enthusiastic support, Isaac Hunt had become a Unitarian minister and strong advocate of political reform.
After the Hunts had settled in the Middlesex village of Southgate, their youngest son Leigh was born on October 19, 1784. With his brothers, he was brought up in an atmosphere pervaded by the newly adopted liberalism of both parents, the general improvidence of his father, and the kindliness and near pacifism of his mother. Yet, despite the appeal of Hunt’s reminiscences about his youth and his schooling at Christ’s Hospital, which Coleridge and Lamb had attended earlier, the AUTOBIOGRAPHY achieves its greatness only in its dealing with the adult life of Leigh Hunt, for it is not in and of itself that Hunt’s life demands this memorial; it is the interaction of this life with others that draws our attention.
Having, through his father’s efforts, had his first volume of poetry published when he was sixteen, Leigh Hunt continued to follow a literary career. His editing of the weekly EXAMINER in collaboration with his politically minded brother John, made of the young Hunt a resolute champion of liberal politics. Not long after THE EXAMINER was founded, Hunt married Marianne Kent, who not only became the devoted mother of a large family but also proved an undaunted partner throughout the difficulties which his open pronouncements for reform brought upon Hunt. Its expression of these liberal views made THE EXAMINER attractive to Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Hazlitt, who all soon published in it and thus made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt.
Its unreserved political criticisms repeatedly involved THE EXAMINER in legal prosecutions by the government. After three acquittals, the Hunt brothers, who had called the Prince Regent “a libertine over head and ears in disgrace . . . the companion of gamblers and demireps,” were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and were each...
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