Context: James Henry Leigh Hunt is remembered today for only a few graceful poems. In his day he was poet, critic, and essayist; a friend of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, he influenced Keats' early work to some extent. Keats later outgrew the influence and evolved along lines of his own. In 1822 Byron and Shelley invited Hunt to Italy to edit a new quarterly called The Liberal; Hunt took his family there, and four issues of the quarterly appeared. However, Byron lost interest in the project and there was a quarrel; he abandoned the Hunts, who were left without resources in a foreign land. When Hunt managed to return home, in 1825, he found a huge demand for material on Byron, and contributed Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. Hunt did not falsify anything in this work but he did take the opportunity to get even with Byron for numerous humiliations to which the latter had subjected him. To show the less attractive side of a public idol, particularly a recently deceased one, is always unwise: Hunt bitterly regretted his criticism afterward. He was vilified; Thomas Moore likened him to a dog attacking a dead lion. Hunt continued with his literary efforts and wrote voluminously until his death, enjoying a measure of success. A good journalist and a man who loved beauty, he nonetheless lacked the sensibility and taste that characterize the great poets. Among the few of Hunt's poems which are still felt to be of lasting value is The Nile, a picture of the ancient dreaming river and its vanished civilization, a glimpse of Cleopatra, and a sense of the steadily flowing stream of time. The sonnet was composed in competition with Keats and Shelley, each poet writing a sonnet on the same subject. In fairness to the now almost forgotten Hunt, it should be said that his sonnet was the best of the three. The sonnet is as follows:
It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,And times and things, as in that vision, seemKeeping along it their eternal stands,–Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bandsThat roamed through the young world, the glory extremeOf high Sesostris, and that southern beam,The laughing queen that caught the world's great hands.Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,As of a world left empty of its throng,And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,And hear the fruitful stream lapsing alongTwixt villages, and think how we shall takeOur own calm journey on for human sake.