Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hunt, James Henry Leigh
HUNT, JAMES HENRY LEIGH (1784–1859), essayist, critic, and poet, was born at Southgate, Middlesex, on 19 Oct. 1784. His father, Isaac, was descended from one of the oldest settlers in Barbadoes, and studied at a college in Philadelphia, U.S.A. He married Mary Shewell, a lady of quaker extraction, a tender-hearted, refined, and sensitively conscientious woman, whose memory was, says Leigh Hunt, 'a serene and inspiring influence to animate me in the love of truth.' The father was sanguine, pleasure-loving, and unpractical. He encountered much persecution as a loyalist, and finally, with broken fortunes, came to England, where he became a popular metropolitan preacher. His manners were theatrical, and he was fond of society. He acquired a reputation for unsteadiness, which prevented him from getting preferment in the church. He found a friend in James Brydges, third duke of Chandos, and was engaged by him as a tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh (the father of Chandos Leigh, first Lord Leigh [q.v.]), after whom Leigh Hunt was called. He was subsequently placed on the Loyalist Pension Fund with 100l. a year, but he mortgaged the pension, and after undergoing a series of mortifications and distresses died in 1809.
Leigh Hunt was a delicate child. He was watched over with great tenderness by his mother, and after a short visit to the coast of France his health improved. He was nervous, and his elder brothers took a pleasure in terrifying him by telling him ghost-stories, and by pretended apparitions. In 1792 he went to Christ's Hospital School. His recollections of his schooldays and schoolmates occupy a large portion of his 'Autobiography.' He describes himself as an 'ultra-sympathising and timid boy.' The thrashing system then in vogue horrified him. His gentle disposition often made him the victim of rougher boys, but he at length gained strength and address enough to stand his own ground. He only fought once, beat his antagonist, and then made a friend of him. Among his school-fellows were Mitchell, the translator of Aristophanes, and Thomas Barnes (1785-1841) [q. v.], subsequently editor of the 'Times.' With Barnes he learned Italian, and the two lads used to wander over the Hornsey fields together, shouting verses from Metastasio. Coleridge and Lamb quitted the school just before he entered it. On account of some hesitation in his speech, which was afterwards overcome, he was not sent to the university. While at school he wrote verses in imitation of Collins and Gray, whom he passionately admired. He revelled in the six-penny edition of English poets then published by John Cooke (1731-1810) [q.v.], and among his favourite volumes were Tooke's 'Pantheon,' Lemprière's 'Classical Dictionary,' and Spence's 'Polymetis,' with the plates. He wrote a poem called 'Winter' in imitation of Thomson, and another called 'The Fairy King' in the manner of Spenser. At thirteen, 'if so old,' he fell in love with a charming cousin of fifteen. After leaving school his time was chiefly spent in visiting his schoolfellows, haunting the bookstalls, reading whatever came in his way, and writing poetry. His father obtained subscribers from his old congregation for 'Juvenilia; or, a Collection of Poems, written between the ages of twelve and sixteen, by J. H. L. Hunt, late of the Grammar School of Christ's Hospital, and dedicated by permission to the Honble. J. H. Leigh, containing Miscellanies, Translations, Sonnets, Pastorals, Elegies, Odes, Hymns, and Anthems, 1801.' The book reached a fourth edition in 1804. Hunt himself afterwards thought these poems 'good for nothing.' Subsequently he visited Oxford, and was patronised by Henry Kett [q.v.], who 'hoped the young poet would receive inspiration from the muse of Warton.' He was soon 'introduced to literati, and shown about among parties in London.' His father had given him a set of the British classics, which he read with avidity, and he began essay-writing, contributing several papers, written with the 'dashing confidence' of a youth, barely of age, to the 'Traveller.' They were signed 'Mr. Town, Junior, Critic and Censor-general,' a signature borrowed from the 'Connoisseur.' In 1805 his brother John started a short-lived paper called 'The News.' Its theatrical criticisms by Leigh Hunt, however, attracted attention by their independence and originality. A selection from them, published in 1807, was entitled 'Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, including General Remarks on the Practice and Genius of the Stage.' In 1807 appeared in five duodecimo volumes 'Classic Tales, Serious and Lively; with Critical Essays on the Merits and Reputation of the Authors.' The tales were selected from Johnson, Voltaire, Marmontel, Goldsmith, Mackenzie, Brooke, Hawkesworth, and Sterne.
About this time Hunt was for a while a clerk under his brother Stephen, an attorney, and afterwards obtained a clerkship in the war office under the patronage of Addington, the premier, his father's friend. This situation he abandoned in 1808 to co-operate with his brother John in a weekly newspaper, to be called 'The Examiner.' Although no politician, he undertook to be editor and leader-writer. The paper soon became popular. It was thoroughly independent, and owed allegiance to no party, but advocated liberal politics with courage and consistency. Its main object was to assert the cause of reform in parliament, liberality of opinion in general, and to infuse in its readers a taste for literature. As a journalist no man did more than Leigh Hunt, during his thirteen years' connection with the 'Examiner,' to raise the tone of newspaper writing, and to introduce into its keenest controversies a spirit of fairness and tolerance.
In 1809 Hunt married Miss Marianne Kent. In the same year appeared 'An Attempt to show the Folly and Danger of Methodism …,' a reprint, with additions, from the 'Examiner.' In 1810 his brother John started a quarterly magazine called 'The Reflector,' which Leigh Hunt edited. Only four numbers of it appeared. Barnes, Charles Lamb, and other friends contributed to it. Hunt wrote for it a poem called 'The Feast of the Poets' (afterwards published separately), a playful and satirical piece, which offended most of the poetical fraternity, especially Gilford, editor of the 'Quarterly Review.' The 'Round Table,' a series of essays on literature, men, and manners, by William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt (2 vols. 1817), originally appeared in the 'Examiner ' between 1815 and 1817.
The 'Examiner' was looked upon with suspicion by those in power. Moore, Life, ii. 204). Shelley had made him 'a princely offer,' which was declined immediately after the sentence was pronounced (Autobiog. i. 221). When Jeremy Bentham came to see him he found him playing at battledore. During his imprisonment he wrote 'The Descent of Liberty: a Masque, dealing with the downfall of Napoleon, published in 1815, and dedicated to his friend Barnes. All through his imprisonment he continued to edit the 'Examiner.' He left prison in February 1815, and, after a year's lodging in the Edgware Road, went to live at Hampstead, where Shelley, who had just sent him a sum of money, was his guest in December 1816. About the same time Charles Cowden Clarke introduced Keats to him, and Hunt was the means of bringing Keats and Shelley together for the first time (ib. i. 224 228). An article by Hunt on 'Young Poets, published in the 'Examiner,' 1 Dec. 1816, first made the genius of Shelley and Keats known to the public. To both Hunt was a true friend, and both recorded their gratitude. Hunt addressed three sonnets to Keats, and afterwards devoted many pages of his 'Indicator' to a lengthened and glowing criticism of one of the young poet's volumes. Keats stayed with him at Hampstead shortly before leaving for Italy. Shelley made him many handsome gifts; often invited him and his wife to stay with him at Marlow in 1817; and dedicated his 'Cenci' to him in 1819. Keats thought that Hunt afterwards neglected him, though Hunt disclaimed the imputation in an article in the 'Examiner.'the brothers were prosecuted by the government for political offences, but were acquitted. An article on the savagery of military floggings led to a prosecution early in 1811, when Brougham successfully defended the Hunts. Immediately after the acquittal Shelley first introduced himself to Hunt, by sending him from Oxford a sympahetic note of congratulation. At a political dinner in 1812 the assembled company significantly omitted the usual toast of the prince regent. A writer in the 'Morning Post,' noticing this, printed a poem of adulation, describing the prince as the 'Protector of the Arts,' the 'Mæcenas of the Age,' the 'Glory of the People,' an 'Adonis of Loveliness, attended by Pleasure, Honour, Virtue, and Truth.' The 'Examiner' retorted by a plain description of the prince. 'This Adonis in loveliness,' the article concluded, 'was a corpulent man of fifty'—in short, this delightful, blissful, wise, honourable, virtuous, true, and immortal prince was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity.' A prosecution of Hunt and his brother followed. They were tried in December 1812; Brougham again appeared in their defence, but both were convicted, and each was sentenced by the judge, Lord Ellenborough, in the following February to two years' imprisonment in separate gaols and a fine of 500l. They were subsequently informed that if a pledge were given by them to abstain in future from attacks on the regent it would insure them a remission of both the imprisonment and the fine. This was indignantly rejected, and the two brothers went to prison, John to Clerkenwell and Leigh to Surrey gaol. Leigh was then in delicate health. With his invincible cheerfulness he had the walls of his room papered with a trellis of roses, the ceiling painted with sky and clouds, the windows furnished with Venetian blinds, and an unfailing supply of flowers. He had the companionship of his books, busts, and a pianoforte. He was not debarred from the society of his wife and friends. Charles Lamb declared there was no other such room, except in a fairy tale. Moore, a frequent visitor to the gaol, brought Byron with him in May 1813, and Hunt's intimacy with Byron was thus begun (
In 1816 appeared 'The Story of Rimini,' a poem. It was dedicated to Lord Byron. The greater part of it was written during his imprisonment. The subject of it was Dante's love-story of Paolo and Francesca. It is conceived in the spirit of Chaucer and has in it lines worthy of Dryden. In conformity with the strictures of some of his critics he rewrote the poem some years later, but it is questionable whether he improved it. When he wrote it, he had not been in Italy, and afterwards he corrected some mistakes in the scenery, and restored its true historical conclusion. At this time Hunt became the object of the most bitter attacks on the part of many tory writers. His close friendship with Shelley, whom he actively assisted in the difficulties consequent on his desertion of his first wife, and whom he vigorously defended from the onslaughts of the 'Quarterly' in the 'Examiner' (September–October 1819), caused him to be identified with some opinions which he himself did not entertain. He was bitterly attacked in 'Blackwood's Magazine' and the 'Quarterly Review.' In the words of Carlyle, he suffered 'obloquy and calumny through the tory press—perhaps a greater quantity of baseness, persevering, implacable calumny, than any other living writer has undergone, which long course of hostility … may be regarded as the beginning of his other worst distresses, and a main cause of them down to this day.' The 'Quarterly Review' nearly fifty years later gave utterance, through the pen of Bulwer, to a generous recognition of the genius of both Hunt and Hazlitt, whom it had similarly attacked, and fifteen years afterwards Wilson in 'Blackwood' made a graceful reference to him in one of the 'Noctes,' the concluding words of which were 'the animosities are mortal, the humanities live for ever.' Wilson even invited him to write for the magazine, but Hunt declined the offer.
In 1818 appeared 'Foliage; or Poems, Original and Translated.' This was followed in 1819 by 'The Literary Pocket-book,' a kind of pocket and memorandum book for men of intellectual and literary tastes. Three more numbers of it appeared, viz. in 1820, 1821, and 1822. The articles in the 'Pocket-book' for 1819 descriptive of the successive beauties of the year were printed with considerable additions in a separate volume in 1821, under the title of 'The Months.' In 1819 Hunt also published 'Hero and Leander' and 'Bacchus and Ariadne.' A new journalistic venture, 'The Indicator,' in which some of his finest essays appeared, commenced in October 1819. During the seventy-six weeks of its existence his papers on literature, life, manners, morals, and nature were all characterised by subtle and delicate criticisms, kindly cheerfulness, and sympathy with nature and art. 'Amyntas, a Tale of the Woods; from the Italian of Torquato Tasso,' appeared in 1820.
In 1821 a proposal was made to Hunt by Shelley and Byron, who were then in Italy, to join them in the establishment of a quarterly liberal magazine, the profits to be divided between Hunt and Byron. The 'Examiner' was declining in circulation, and Hunt was in delicate health. He had been compelled to discontinue the 'Indicator,' 'having,' as he said, 'almost died over the last number.' He set sail with his wife and seven children on 15 Nov. 1821. After a tremendous storm the vessel was driven into Dartmouth, where they relanded and passed on to Plymouth. Here they remained for several months. Shelley sent Hunt 150l. in January 1822, and urged him to secure some means of support other than the projected quarterly before finally leaving England. In May, however, the Hunts sailed for Leghorn, where they arrived at length Byron, George Gordon]. The 'Liberal' lived through four numbers (1822–3). Hunt had left Pisa with Byron in September 1822 for Genoa. In 1823 he removed to Florence, and remained there till his return to England two years later. After Byron's departure for Greece in 1823, Hunt and his family were left in a foreign country without the means of support, and much suffering ensued. He produced during that period 'Ultra-Crepidarius; a Satire on William Gifford,' and 'Bacchus in Tuscany, a Dithyrambic Poem from the Italian of Francesco Redi, with Notes, original and select.' He also issued the 'Literary Examiner,' an unstamped weekly paper, extending to twenty-seven numbers; and wrote 'The Wishing Cap,' a series of papers which appeared in the 'Examiner;' and a number of papers in the 'New Monthly Magazine,' called 'The Family Journal,' signed 'Harry Honeycomb.' To the 'New Monthly' he also contributed many essays at later dates. Hunt left Italy in September 1825, one of his reasons for returning to England being a litigation with his brother John. He settled on Highgate Hill, and energetically continued his journalistic work, but in 1828 he committed the great blunder of his life by writing and publishing 'Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author's Life, and of his visit to Italy, with Portraits.' Although everything stated in the book was undoubtedly true, it ought never to have been written, far less printed. He himself afterwards regretted the imprudent act. 'I had been goaded,' he wrote, 'to the task by misrepresentation …,' and added that he might have said more 'but for common humanity.' At a later period he admitted that he had been 'agitated by anger and grief,' though he had said nothing in which he did not believe. The book has its historical value, however improper it may have been that one who was under obligations to Byron and had been Byron's guest should publish it.. They were joined by Shelley, and removed to Pisa, Hunt and his family occupying rooms on the ground floor of Byron's house there. Shelley was drowned on 8 July 1822, and Hunt was present at the burning of his body, and wrote the epitaph for his tomb in the protestant cemetery at Rome. Byron's interest in the projected magazine had already begun to cool. Hunt's reliance on its speedy appearance was frustrated by Byron's procrastination, and he was thus compelled to unwilling inactivity, and to the humiliation of having to ask for pecuniary assistance. The two men were thoroughly uncongenial, and their relations mutually vexatious [see under
In 1828, while living at Highgate, he issued, under the title of 'The Companion,' a weekly periodical in the style of the 'Indicator.' It extended to twenty-eight numbers, and consisted of criticisms on books, the theatres, and public events. 'They contained some of what afterwards turned out to be my most popular writings.' In the 'Keepsake,' one of the annuals of 1828, there are two articles from his pen; one on 'Pocket-books and Keepsakes,' and the other 'Dreams on the Borderlands of the Land of Poetry' (cf. for extracts from these articles art. in Temple Bar for 1873). In 1828 he went to live at Epsom, where he started a periodical called 'The Chat of the Week,' which ceased with the thirteenth number, owing to difficulties connected with the compulsory stamp on periodicals containing news. He thereupon undertook the laborious task of issuing a daily sheet of four pages folio, called 'The Tatler,' devoted to literature and the stage, entirely written by himself. It commenced on 4 Oct. 1830, and ended 13 Feb. 1832. 'I did it all myself,' he writes, 'except when too ill; and illness seldom hindered me either from supplying the review of a book, going every night to the play, or writing the notice of the play the same night at the printing-office.' The work, he adds, almost killed him, and left a feeling of fatigue for a year and a half. Still he was never in better spirits or wrote such good theatrical criticisms. He was living at this period in London, successively at Old Brompton, St. John's Wood, and the New (now Euston) Road. While at Epsom he had commenced writing 'Sir Ralph Esher; or Memoirs of a Gentleman of the Court of Charles the Second, including those of his Friend, Sir Philip Herne.' It was published in 1832, and in 1836 reached a third edition. In 1832, by the pecuniary assistance of his intimate friend John Forster, he printed for private circulation among friends a thin volume, entitled 'Christianism; being Exercises and Meditations. "Mercy and Truth have met together; Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other." Not for sale—only 75 copies printed.' It was written while in Italy. It was printed in an enlarged form in 1853, under the title of 'The Religion of the Heart.' He sent a copy of 'Christianism' to Thomas Carlyle, which led to an interview, and ultimately to a lifelong friendship. In 1832 there was published by subscription in a handsome volume the first collected edition of his poems, with a preface of fifty-eight pages. A list of the subscribers appeared in the 'Times,' comprising names of all shades of opinion, some of his sharpest personal antagonists being included. The prejudices against him had to a great extent died away. In the same year Shelley's 'Masque of Anarchy' appeared with a preface by Leigh Hunt of thirty pages.
Hunt settled in 1833 at 4 Cheyne Row, next door to Carlyle, where he remained till 1840. In 1833 he contributed six articles to 'Tait's Magazine,' being a new series of 'The Wishing Cap.' Between 1838 and 1841 he wrote five articles in the 'Monthly Chronicle,' a magazine which had among its contributors Sir E. L. Bulwer and Dr. Lardner. In the same year he wrote reviews of new books in the 'True Sun,' a daily newspaper. His health was at this time so feeble that he had for some time to be taken daily in a coach to the office. He then made the acquaintance of Laman Blanchard [q.v.], to whom he pays a tribute in his 'Autobiography.' In 1834 appeared two volumes with the title 'The Indicator and the Companion; a Miscellany for the Fields and the Fireside.' They contained a selection of the best papers in these periodicals written in 1819–21 and in 1828. The publisher afterwards issued these volumes in two parts, double columns, at a moderate price, and they were several times reprinted. His next venture, one of the best-known of his periodicals, was 'Leigh Hunt's London Journal,' begun in 1834—'To Assist the Inquiring, Animate the Struggling, and Sympathise with All.' Partly modelled on Chambers's 'Edinburgh Journal' (established in 1832), it was a miscellany of essays, sketches, criticisms, striking passages from books, anecdotes, poems, translations, and romantic short stories of real life. Admirable in every way, it was, unhappily, too literary and refined for ordinary tastes, and ceased on 26 Dec. 1835. Christopher North praised it warmly in 'Blackwood's Magazine.' In 1835 Hunt published a poem called 'Captain Sword and Captain Pen; with some Remarks on War and Military Statesmen.' It is chiefly remarkable for its vivid descriptions of the horrors of war. He succeeded William Johnson Fox [q.v.] as editor, and contributed to the 'Monthly Repository' (July 1837 to March 1838). In it appeared his poem, 'Blue-Stocking Revels, or The Feast of the Violets,' a sort of female 'Feast of the Poets,' which was well spoken of by Rogers and Lord Holland. In 1840 was published 'The Seer, or Common-Places Refreshed,' consisting of selections from the 'London Journal,' the 'Liberal,' the 'Tatler,' the 'Monthly Repository,' and the 'Round Table.' The preface concludes: 'Given at our suburban abode, with a fire on one side of us, and a vine at the window of the other, this 19th day of October 1840, and in the very green and invincible year of our life, the 56th.' From 1840 to 1851 he lived in Edwardes Square, Kensington.
On 7 Feb. 1840 Hunt's fine play, in five acts, 'A Legend of Florence,' was brought out at Covent Garden Theatre. Its poetical qualities and brilliant dialogue secured for it a deserved success. During its first season it was witnessed two or three times by the queen. It was revived ten years later at Sadler's Wells, and in 1852 it was performed at Windsor Castle by her majesty's command. In a letter to the present writer, who had informed Hunt of its favourable reception in Manchester, he described with great satisfaction how highly the queen had praised it. In 1840 he wrote 'Introductory Biographical and Critical Notices to Moxon's Edition of the Dramatic Works of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar.' He took great pains with these prefaces, which are written in his best style. Macaulay's essay on 'The Dramatists of the Restoration' was suggested by this volume. He also at this time wrote a 'Biographical and Critical Sketch of Sheridan,' prefixed to Moxon's edition of the works of that dramatist. In 1842 appeared 'The Palfrey; a Love-Story of Old Times,' with illustrations; a variation of one of the most amusing of the old French narrative poems, treated with great freshness and originality and unbounded animal spirits. In 1843 he published 'One Hundred Romances of Real Life, comprising Remarkable Historical and Domestic Facts illustrative of Human Nature.' These had appeared in his 'London Journal' in 1834–5. In 1844 his poetical works, containing many pieces hitherto uncollected, were published in a neat pocket-volume. In the same year appeared 'Imagination and Fancy, or Selections from the English Poets illustrative of those First Requisites of their Art; with Markings of the best Passages, Critical Notices of the Writers, and an Essay in answer to the Question, "What is Poetry?"' The prefatory essay gives a masterly and subtle definition of the nature and requisites of poetry. In 1846 he produced 'Wit and Humour, selected from the English Poets; with an Illustrative Essay and Critical Comments.' In the same year was published 'Stories from the Italian Poets, with Lives of the Writers,' 2 vols. These volumes summarised in prose the 'Commedia' of Dante, and the most celebrated narratives of Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso, with comments throughout, occasional passages versified, and critical notices of the lives and genius of the authors. In 1847 he contributed a set of papers to the 'Atlas' newspaper, which were afterwards collected and published under the title of 'A Saunter through the West-End.' A very delightful collection of his papers in two volumes was published in 1847, entitled 'Men, Women, and Books; a Selection of Sketches, Essays, and Critical Memoirs, from the Author's uncollected Prose Writings.' They consist of contributions to the 'Edinburgh' and 'Westminster' reviews, the 'New Monthly Magazine,' 'Tait's Edinburgh Magazine,' 'Ainsworth's Magazine,' and the 'Monthly Chronicle.'
Thornton Hunt tells us that between 1834 and 1840 his father's embarrassments were at their worst. He was in perpetual difficulties. On more than one occasion he was literally without bread. He wrote to friends to get some of his books sold, so that he and his family may have something to eat. There were gaps of total destitution, in which every available source had been absolutely exhausted. He suffered, too, from bodily and mental ailments, and had 'great family sufferings apart from considerations of fortune,' of which some hint is given in his correspondence (Autobiog. ii. i. 164, 268). Macaulay, who writing to Napier in 1841 suggested that in case of Southey's death Hunt would make a suitable poet laureate, obtained for him some reviewing in the 'Edinburgh.' His personal, friends, aware of his struggles, were anxious to see some provision made for his declining years. Already on two occasions a royal grant of 200l. had been secured for him, and a pension of 120l. was settled upon him by Sir Percy Shelley upon succeeding to the family estates in 1844. Among those who urged Hunt's claims to a moderate public provision most earnestly, was his friend Carlyle. The characteristic paper which Carlyle drew up on the subject eulogised Hunt with admirable clearness and force. On 22 June 1847 the prime minister, Lord John Russell, wrote to Hunt that a pension of 200l. a year would be settled upon him. During the summer of 1847 Charles Dickens, with a company of amateur comedians, chiefly men of letters and artists, gave two performances of Ben Jonson's 'Every Man in his Humour' for Hunt's benefit, in Manchester and Liverpool, by which 900l. was raised.
In 1848 appeared 'A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, illustrated by Richard Doyle.' The substance of the volume had appeared in 'Ainsworth's Magazine' in 1844. It includes a retrospect of the mythology, history, and biography of Sicily, and ancient legends and examples of pastoral poetry selected from Greece, Italy, and Britain, with illustrative criticisms, including a notice of Theocritus, with translated specimens. In the same year appeared 'The Town: its Memorable Characters and Events—St. Paul's to St. James's—with 45 Illustrations,' in 2 vols., containing an account of London, partly topographical and historical, but chiefly memoirs of remarkable characters and events associated with the streets between St. Paul's and St. James's. The principal portion of the work had appeared thirteen years before in 'Leigh Hunt's London Journal.' His next work was 'A Book for a Corner, or Selections in Prose and Verse from Authors the best suited to that mode of enjoyment, with Comments on each, and a General Introduction, with 80 Wood Engravings.' In 1849 he issued 'Readings for Railways, or Anecdotes and other Short Stories, Reflections, Maxims, Characteristics, Passages of Wit, Humour, Poetry, &c., together with Points of Information on Matters of General Interest, collected in the course of his own reading.' In 1850 he gave to the world 'The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, with Reminiscences of A revised edition, brought down to near his death (1859), with an introduction by his eldest son, Thornton, was published in 1860. A new edition, edited by Roger Ingpen, appeared in 1903. The book is one of the most graceful and genial chronicles of its kind. Carlyle reckoned it only second to Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' and called it (in a letter to Hunt which belonged to the present writer) 'a pious, ingenious, altogether human, and worthy book, imaging with graceful honesty and free felicity many interesting objects and persons on your life-path, and imaging throughout what is best of all, a gifted, gentle, patient, and valiant human soul as it buffets its way through the billows of the time, and will not drown, though often in danger cannot be drowned, but conquers and leaves a tract of radiance behind it. …' Between 1845 and 1850 there appeared several poems by Hunt in 'Ainsworth's Magazine' and the 'New Monthly Magazine.' In 1851 was issued 'Table-Talk, to which are added Imaginary Conversations of Pope and Swift.' The matter consisted partly of short pieces first published under the head of 'Table-Talk' in the 'Atlas ' newspaper, and partly of passages scattered in periodicals, and never before collected. In 1850 he revived an old venture under the slightly changed title of 'Leigh Hunt's Journal: xx Miscellany for the Cultivation of the Memorable, the Progressive, and the Beautiful.' Carlyle contributed to it three articles. It was discontinued in March 1851, failing 'chiefly from the smallness of the means which the originators of it had thought sufficient for its establishment.' In 1852 his youngest son, Vincent, died. In the same year Dickens wrote 'Bleak House,' in which Harold Skimpole was generally understood to represent Hunt. But Dickens categorically denied in 'All the Year Round' (24 Dec. 1859) that Hunt's character had suggested any of the unpleasant features of the portrait. 'In the midst of the sorest temptations,' Dickens wrote of Hunt, 'He maintained his honesty unblemished by a single stain. He was in all public and private transactions the very soul of truth and honour.'
'The Old Court Suburb, or Memorials of Kensington—Royal, Critical, and Anecdotical,' 2 vols., appeared in 1855. The book is full of historical and literary anecdotes. There followed in the same year 'Beaumont and Fletcher, or the finest Scenes, Lyrics, and other Beauties of these two Poets now first selected from the whole of their works, to the exclusion of whatever is morally objectionable; with Opinions of distinguished Critics, Notes explanatory and otherwise, and a General Introductory Preface.' It was dedicated to Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall). The volume is somewhat on the plan of 'Lamb's Specimens of the Old Dramatists,' but gives whole scenes as well as separate passages. In 1855 appeared 'Stories in Verse, now first collected.' All his narrative poems are here reprinted. In the story of 'Rimini' he has restored the omitted and altered passages. His wife died in 1857, at the age of 69. In 1857 an American edition of his poems appeared in 2 vols., 'The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt, now first entirely collected, revised by himself, and edited with an introduction by S. Adams Lee, Boston.' It contains all the verses that he had published, with the exception of such as were rejected by him in the course of reperusal. This edition contains his play 'Lovers' Amazements,' which is not given in any English edition. In 1859 he contributed two poems to 'Fraser's Magazine,' in the manner of Chaucer and Spenser, viz. 'The Tapiser's Tale' and 'The Shewe of Fair Seeming.' Three of Chaucer's poems, 'The Manciple's Tale,' 'The Friar's Tale,' and 'The Squire's Tale,' had been modernised by him in 1841, in a volume by various writers, entitled 'The Poems of Chaucer Modernised.' The last product of his pen was a series of papers in the 'Spectator' in 1859, under the title of 'The Occasional,' the last of which appeared about a week before his death.
For about two years he had been declining in health, but he still retained a keen interest in life. Early in August 1859 he went for a change of air to his old friend Charles Reynell at Putney, carrying with him his work and the books he needed, and there he quietly sank to rest on the 28th. His death was simply exhaustion. His latest words were in the shape of eager questions about the vicissitudes and growing hopes of Italy, in inquiries from the children and friends around him for news of those he loved, and messages to the absent who loved him. He had lived in his later years at Phillimore Terrace,whence he removed in 1853 to 7 Cornwall Road, Hammersmith, his last residence. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. Ten years later a bust, executed by Joseph Durham [q.v.], was placed over his grave, with the motto, from his own poem, 'Abou-ben-Adhem,' 'Write me as one who loves his fellow-men.' The memorial was unveiled on 19 Oct. 1869 by Lord Houghton.
Not many months after his death there appeared in 'Fraser's Magazine' a reply by Hunt to Cardinal Wiseman, who had in a lecture charged Chaucer and Spenser with occasional indecency. In 1860 was published 'The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt, now finally collected, revised by himself, and edited by his Son, Thornton Hunt.' In 1862 was published 'The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, edited by his Eldest Son, with a Portrait,' 2 vols. A number of his letters, not included in these volumes, were published in 1878 by Mr. and Mrs. Cowden Clarke in their 'Recollections of Writers.' In 1867 appeared 'The Book of the Sonnet, edited by Leigh Hunt and S. Adams Lee,' 2 vols. It was published simultaneously in London and Boston, U.S. This volume is entirely devoted to the history and literature of the sonnet, with specimens by English and American authors. An introductory letter of four pages, and an essay of ninety-one pages are prefixed.
Despite the numerous collections of his scattered essays and articles published by himself, very many of Leigh Hunt's contributions to periodical literature have never been reprinted. The most interesting of these are his papers in the 'New Monthly Magazine' for 1825-6 (the present writer possesses a number of revised proofs of unreprinted articles of this date; others are in the Forster library at South Kensington); 'A Rustic Walk and Dinner,' a poem, in the 'Monthly Magazine,' 1842; a series of articles in the 'Musical World,' called first 'Words for Composers,' and afterwards 'The Musician's Poetical Companion,' 1838-9; two articles in the 'Edinburgh Review' (on the Colman family, October 1841, and George Selwyn, July 1844); and eight articles in the 'Musical Times,' 1853-4.
His son Thornton [q.v.] bequeathed some unpublished manuscript by his father to Mr. Townshend Mayer, but none of it was of sufficient importance to warrant publication.
Leigh Hunt takes high rank as an essayist and critic. The spirit of his writings is eminently cheerful and humanising. He is perhaps the best teacher in our literature of the contentment which flows from a recognition of everyday joys and blessings. A belief in all that is good and beautiful, and in the ultimate success of every true and honest endeavour, and a tender consideration for mistake and circumstance, are the pervading spirit of all his writings. Cheap and simple enjoyments, true taste leading to true economy, the companionship of books and the pleasures of friendly intercourse, were the constant themes of his pen. He knew much suffering, physical and mental, and experienced many cares and sorrows; but his cheerful courage, imperturbable sweetness of temper, and unfailing love and power of forgiveness never deserted him.
It is in the familiar essay that he shows to greatest advantage. Criticism, speculation, literary gossip, romantic stories from real life, and descriptions of country pleasures, are charmingly mingled in his pages; he can be grave as well as gay, and speak consolation to friends in trouble. 'No man,' says Mr. Lowell, 'has ever understood the delicacies and luxuries of language better than he; and his thoughts often have all the rounded grace and shifting lustre of a dove's neck. … He was as pure-minded a man as ever lived, and a critic whose subtlety of discrimination and whose soundness of judgment, supported as it was on a broad basis of truly liberal scholarship, have hardly yet won fitting appreciation.'
As a poet Leigh Hunt showed much tenderness, a delicate and vivid fancy, and an entire freedom from any morbid strain of introspection. His verses never lack the sense and expression of quick, keen delight in all things naturally and wholesomely delightful. But an occasional mannerism, bordering on affectation, detracts somewhat from the merits of his poetry. His narrative poems, such as 'The Story of Kimini,' are, however, among the very best in the language. He is most successful in the heroic couplet. His exquisite little fable 'Abou ben Adhem' has assured him a permanent place in the records of the English language.
'In appearance,' says his son, 'Leigh Hunt was tall and straight as an arrow, and looked slenderer than he really was. His hair was black and shining, and slightly inclined to wave. His head was high, his forehead straight and white, under which beamed a pair of eyes, dark, brilliant, reflecting, gay, and kind, with a certain look of observant humour. His general complexion was dark. There was in his whole carriage and manner an extraordinary degree of life. His whole existence and habit of mind were essentially literary. He was a hard and conscientious worker, and most painstaking as regards accuracy. He would often spend hours in verifying some fact or event which he had only stated parenthetically. Few men were more attractive in society, whether in a large company or over the fireside. His manner was particularly animated, his conversation varied, ranging over a great field of subjects. There was a spontaneous courtesy in him that never failed, and a considerateness derived from a ceaseless kindness of heart that invariably fascinated.' Hawthorne and Emerson have left on record the delightful impression he made when they visited him. He led a singularly plain life. His customary drink was water, and his food of the plainest and simplest kind; bread alone was what he took for luncheon or supper. His personal friendships embraced men of every party, and among those who have eloquently testified to his high character as a man and an author are Carlyle, Lytton, Shelley, Macaulay, Dickens, Thackeray, Lord Houghton, Forster, Macready, Jerrold, W. J. Fox, Miss Martineau, and Miss Mitford.
A portrait of Hunt by Haydon is in the National Portrait Gallery. There is a portrait by Maclise in 'Fraser's Magazine.'[The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, a new Edition, revised by the Author, with further Revision, and an Introduction by his Eldest Son, 1860; The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, edited by his Eldest Son, with a Portrait, 2 vols. 1862; Recollections of Writers, by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, with Letters of Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Douglas Jerrold, and Charles Dickens, and a Preface by Mary Cowden Clarke, 1878; Professor Dowden's Life of Shelley; Moore's Life of Byron; List of the Writings of William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, chronologically arranged,with Notes, descriptive, critical, and explanatory, by Alexander Ireland, 1868 (two hundred copies printed); Characteristics of Leigh Hunt as exhibited in that typical Literary Periodical Leigh Hunt's London Journal, 1834-5, with Illustrative Notes by Lancelot Cross (Frank Carr), 1878. References to Leigh Hunt occur in the writings of his contemporaries William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and Barry Cornwall (Bryan Waller Procter), and in the Reminiscences and Letters of Thomas Carlyle. Selections from his writings have been made by Edmund Oilier, with introduction and notes, 1869; by Arthur Symons, with useful introduction and notes, 1887; by Charles Kent, with a biographical introduction and portrait, 1889, and chiefly from the poems, by Reginald Brimley Johnson, in the Temple Library, 1891, with a biographical and critical introduction and portrait from an unpublished sketch, and views of his birthplace and the various houses inhabited by him; A Life of Hunt, by Cosmo Monkhouse, in the Great Writers series, is in preparation.]