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.