English Literature Of The 19th Century:
First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Leigh Hunt is notable as an associate of most of the prominent English writers of the first half of the century. His father had been a Tory lawyer in Philadelphia, but left after the Revolution and took orders in England. Leigh was born in 1784 and educated at Christ Hospital, of which he has left a pleasing sketch. He began early to write verses, and was employed on newspapers. An incident in his editorship of "The Examiner" had a permanent effect on his career. It aimed to be independent in political and literary criticism, and published a sharp, but practically true, attack on the Prince Regent. For this Hunt was convicted of libel and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. This rendered him a martyr and brought him visits from Byron, Moore and other Radicals. But his cell was made a charming bower and abode of gayety, and his newspaper went on as before. Hunt's peculiar poetic talent was shown in "A Story of Rimini," a sprightly version of Dante's celebrated incident of Paolo and Francesca. He revived the natural style of Chaucer's tales, though he occasionally sunk into familiarity and flippancy. The new style was taken up by Shelley, Keats, and others. "Blackwood's Magazine" called them the "Cockney School of Poetry," but it was only Hunt that deserved the implied censure.
Hunt, careless and generous in money matters, through most of his career, suffered from pecuniary distress, and Shelley was a liberal benefactor. Hunt defended the poet when public opinion was against him, and a few years after Shelley went to Italy was induced to join him. A new periodical was projected, "The Liberal," to which Byron, Shelley, and Hunt were to contribute. But Shelley's sudden death and Byron's departure for Greece, destroyed the plan, though a few numbers appeared with poems from those authors.
The general demand for information about Byron led Hunt in 1827 to publish "Lord Byron and His Contemporaries." In this he took undue advantage of the opportunities he had enjoyed while living under Byron's roof, and sank in public esteem. He was condemned not merely as a man too ready to accept money obligations from those around him, but as willing to sell knowledge obtained in confidence. In spite of his diligent writing and many publishing schemes, Hunt was unable to retrieve his losses. At last Mrs. Shelley and her son settled an annuity on him and the government in 1847 gave him a pension.
The pitiable moral weakness of Hunt's character was generally known, and when Dickens caricatured him as Harold Skimpole in "Bleak House," the likeness was recognized, though the novelist afterwards endeavored to deny it. In many ways Hunt was a pleasant companion; his books abound in naive egotism and petty affectations, but also in correct criticism and genial fancy. His "Autobiography," published in 1850, is a truthful picture of himself, but reveals less about his distinguished friends than might have been expected. Though he wrote many pleasant pieces of verse, none has attained wider fame than the delightful "Abou Ben Adhem." He died in 1859.