Leigh Hunt was an English poet, essayist, literary critic, journalist, translator, editor and prose writer during the early nineteenth century. He spent two years in prison, from 1813 to 1815, after slandering the Prince Regent in an Examiner editorial. Hunt was the editor of the Examiner from 1808 until 1821.
JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT, — for such was his name in extenso, — was born at Southgate, in Middlesex, — his father a West Indian, and his mother a Philadelphian, — October 19th, 1784. Like his life-long friends, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and Barnes, afterwards editor of the Times, he was educated at Christ's Hospital, London; and while yet a schoolboy evinced his natural bent for literature by the composition of numerous pieces of poetry, which were published by his father in 1802, under the title of Juvenilia: or a Collection of Poems written between the Ages of Twelve and Sixteen a volume a good deal sought for now-a-days on account of its fine frontispiece by Bartolozzi. At the age of fifteen, he left the Hospital; and after a short time passed in the office of one al his brothers, a lawyer, he obtained an appointment in the War Office. About this period, his elder brother, John, had established a weekly paper called The News; and to this he contributed a series of criticisms on the drama, in a style entirely new, a selection of which he republished in 1807, under the title of Critical Essays on the Performances of the London Theatres. These papers entitle their author to a high rank as a dramatic critic, — the highest, indeed, after Hazlitt himself. His judgments are marked by refinement of taste, felicity of expression, and nicety of discrimination; and the little volume is charming reading, even at this lapse of time. I am not, however, unaware that the author seems to have looked upon it with some disfavour, and says that "if he thought that it had a chance of survival, he should regret and qualify a good deal of uninformed judgment in it respecting the art of acting."
The assertion is made to this day, and will be repeated in the future, that Dickens, in Bleak House, pilloried his friend for public contempt, by grafting his incapacity for business, his airy frivolities and childish mannerisms, upon the selfishness and dishonesty of Harold Skimpole. As Dickens warmly repudiated the imputation, and so affectionately referred to Leigh Hunt in Household Words, we are bound to believe that he had no such intention. It is not, however, denied, either by Dickens or his apologists, that "some of the innocent eccentricities of the fictitious character had been suggested by some of the humorous qualities of the poet's air, temper, etc.;" and the question remains how far it was consistent with gentlemanliness of feeling to make such use of those peculiarities of his friend, which private and confidential intercourse alone could have made him acquainted with, and thus, without his knowledge or permission, exhibit his portrait, caricatured or not, to the world. I imagine that if John Tenniel, in a Punch cartoon, chose to surmount the body of a gorilla with the head of Gladstone, he would have some difficulty in convincing the public, that he had no intention of bringing contempt on the Minister.
With this provision for the quiet evening of that day whose heat and burthen had been so well and bravely borne, Leigh Hunt continued to enjoy, in his Hammersmith cottage, his old books, and such old friends as time had spared him. He contributed occasionally to the serials of the day, — to Household Words, — and to The Spectator, for which he wrote a paper the week before his death. In 1859, he was planning a removal to London, to be nearer to his eldest son, and other friends; but rapidly failing health seeming to render immediate change of air desirable, he was induced to remove to the house of his friend, Mr. Reynell, at Putney, — the printer, by the way, of The Examiner, the paper which he had founded just half a century before, — and here he breathed his last, without suffering, in the possession of all his faculties, and without a sigh or struggle, on Sunday, August 28th, 1859, in the seventy-fifth year of his age. He was buried in the place of his choice) the cemetery at Kensall Green, where his funeral was attended by his sons and grandsons, — Severn, the friend of Keats in Italy, — and Trelawney, the "Younger Son," the associate of Byron and Shelley. For the space of ten years there was nothing to mark the spot where he slept; but at length, mainly through the exertions of S. C. Hall, the disgrace has been removed. A sum was raised by subscription; and on October 19th 1869, a graceful monument by Joseph Durham, A.R.A., was placed on the spot, and formally presented to the family in an impressive and eulogistic address by Lord Houghton. On one side of this memorial may be read the date of his birth and death; on the other, the line "Write me as one who loves his fellow-men," — from the beautiful little poem, Abou Ben Adhem, — significant as embodying his own theory of religion, in which theology is conspicuous by its absence — contributed by him many years before to the album of Mrs. S. C. Hall. With regard to the scope and tendency of his long literary career, it would be impossible, — as I regard it, — to convey, a more correct and adequate idea than that expressed in the concluding sentence of his son's Introduction to the edition of the Autobiography, published by him: — "To promote the happiness of his kind, to minister to the more educated appreciation of order and beauty, to open more widely the door of the library, and more widely the window of the library looking out upon nature, — these were the purposes that guided his studies, and animated his labour to the very last."
I have already spoken of Leigh Hunt as a JOURNALIST, an ESSAYIST a THEATRICAL CRITIC and a DRAMATIST. There is yet another aspect in which he may be regarded.
James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) was an essayist and poet. For full details of his life and achievements see the Dictionary of National Biography
He began to write for the newspapers, and published in 1807 a volume of theatrical criticisms, and a series of with critical essays on the authors.In 1808 he left the War Office, where he had for some time been a clerk, to become editor of the newspaper, a speculation of his brother John.
Leigh Hunt was educated at from 1791 to 1799, a period which is detailed in his . He entered the school shortly after Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb had both left however Thomas Barnes was a schoolfriend of his. One of the current boarding houses at Christ's Hospital is named after him. As a boy, he was an ardent admirer of and , writing many verses in imitation of them. A speech impediment, later cured, prevented his going to university. "For some time after I left school," he says, "I did nothing but visit my school-fellows, haunt the book-stalls and write verses." His poems were published in 1801 under the title of Juvenilia, and introduced him into literary and theatrical society. He began to write for the newspapers, and published in 1807 a volume of , and a series of Classic Tales with critical essays on the authors.
But the cheerfulness and gaiety with which Leigh Hunt bore his imprisonment attracted general attention and sympathy, and brought him visits from , Thomas Moore, Lord Brougham and others, whose acquaintance exerted much influence on his future destiny.In 1810-11 he edited for his brother John a quarterly magazine, the , for which he wrote "The Feast of the Poets", a satire which gave offense to many contemporary poets, and particularly offended William Gifford of the .
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In 1808 he resigned his appointment at the War Office, to become joint editor and proprietor of the Examiner newspaper, — a journal which, under the management of the brothers, soon acquired a high reputation for the liberality of its politics and the ability of its criticism. But these were troublous times, and although his articles were rather literary than political in their motive, his paper managed to get involved in three several Government prosecutions. The first was in 1810, for an article on the Regency in which the rule of George III. was commented on in a manner that gave offence: this prosecution was, however, abandoned. The second was in the following year, when the casus belli was a leader in which flogging in the army was denounced. He and his brother were tried before Lord Ellenborough, but, being defended by Brougham, were acquitted by the jury. The third occasion, however, paid for all. Hunt, in a rather severe article, called the Prince Regent an "Adonis of Fifty," and awoke the spretae injuria of the "first gentleman of Europe." Here the sentence was a fine of �500 each, and two years' imprisonment. Like Beranger in La Force, Leigh Hunt passed the period of durance not unpleasantly amid books and flowers; solaced by public sympathy and cheered by the visits of friends such as Byron, Moore, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Cowden Clarke, Jeremy Bentham, "Aristophanes" Mitchell, Barnes of the Times, Alsager and others. The fine sonnet by John Keats, "written on the day that Mr. Hunt left prison," is a proof of the affection and respect with which the prisoner was regarded by his friends. He employed his enforced leisure in literary composition; and The Descent of Liberty, a Masque (1815), — The Feast of the Poets, with Notes, and other Pieces in Verse (1815), — and the Story of Rimini (1816), — published after his release, — gave him a high place among the poets of the day. In 1818, appeared his Foliage, or Poems Original and Translated from the Greek of Homer, Theocritus, Bion, Moschus and Anacreon, and from the Latin of Catullus.
Besides the stings of these Scottish gad-flies, Leigh Hunt was long the chosen mark for the Zoili of his own city, all eager to strike the politician through the poet. Thus Gifford, the cobblering editor of the Quarterly, whose unmanly sneer at the crutches of poor Mary Robinson, actress, poetess, and cast-off mistress of the Prince Regent, — had excited the indignation of the poet, went on misquoting and ridiculing the Story of Rimini, till pilloried by its author in his pamphlet Ultra Crepidarius (1823, 8vo, pp. 4to), reviewed, savagely of course, in Blackwood (vol. xv p. 86), where its writer is politely styled "the weakest and wishy-washyest satirist, without exception, whose pen ever dribbled," etc.