Leigh Hunt wrote essays on a wide variety of subjects and in a number of styles. This eclecticism and versatility have established his reputation as an important figure in the Romantic period.
Beginning in 1801, Hunt wrote essays and theatrical criticism for a number of journals, one of which was his brother John’s News. In collaboration with his brother, Leigh began the weekly political journal, the Examiner, in 1808. Concurrent with the Examiner was the short-lived Reflector (1810–11), a quarterly magazine devoted to literary topics, noteworthy for the familiar essays “A Day by the Fire” and “The Feast of the Poets.”
Legal trouble befell Hunt in 1813, when his unrestrained criticism of government corruption, ineptitude, and foreign policy provoked the charge of seditious libel, for which he was found guilty, fined, and incarcerated for two years.
Despite this experience, the best of Hunt’s work was yet to come. Familiar essays such as “Getting up on Cold Mornings” and “A ‘Now’: Descriptive of a Hot Day” appeared in the weekly Indicator (1819–21). While in Italy in 1822, Hunt planned a joint periodical venture with Byron and Shelley. After Shelley’s death, however, the Liberal produced only four numbers (1822–23), ceasing once an embittered Byron left Hunt, who remained in Genoa, destitute. By 1828, Hunt was, once again, writing high-quality essays for the
Companion, these contributions consisting largely of theatrical criticism and occasional essays in the manner of the Indicator. Among his later outlets were the Tatler (1830–32), Leigh Hunt’s London Journal (1834–35), and Leigh Hunt’s Journal: A Miscellany for the Cultivation of the Memorable, the Progressive, and the Beautiful (1850–51).
One of Hunt’s greatest innovations in the genre was his version of the Theophrastan character, a sketch in which the definition of a human weakness introduces a list of actions typical of such a person. An example of this motif can be found in “On Washerwomen” (1816). Hunt, whose knowledge of the fine arts was impressive, begins by describing “direct picture-making” as a means of sketching both men and things. Like a great painter who captures the intensity of a scene through color, position, and shade, or like a great composer whose overture conveys the substance of a symphony, the essayist must approach his task with incisiveness, perspicuity, and power. The “detached portrait,” the form of which Chaucer and Steele had done much to develop, was, for Hunt, precisely such an intense scene or overture. From this theoretical preamble, he turns, not without tongue in cheek, to washerwomen. In a Wordsworthian spirit, Hunt makes his purpose clear: to celebrate the pleasures derived from contemplating “any set of one’s fellow creatures and their humours, when our knowledge has acquired humility enough to look at them steadily.” This topical versatility—the ability to treat theoretical material in an imaginative context—is a distinguishing feature of Hunt’s talent.
A further example of Hunt’s proclivity for literary innovation in the essay is “A ‘Now’: Descriptive of a Hot Day” (1820). In this piece, the speaker focuses on a sequence of detached scenes of rural and urban persons, things, and familiar activities. Here, mundane or commonplace subject matter is used in a highly imaginative way: the sequencing of portraits is unified spatially through the mind of the ubiquitous speaker; and the simultaneity of experience is linguistically evoked by the repetition of the adverb “Now” at the head of each sentence. “A ‘Now’” demonstrates Hunt’s intention of using the essay as a testing ground for his theory of detached portraiture.
Hunt underscores his idea of the amplitude of great poetry in “What Is Poetry?,” the introductory essay to his larger work, Imagination and Fancy (1844). Defining poetry synoptically as an utterance of a passion for truth, beauty, and power, he signals his departure from neoclassical norms, stating that any subject can be legitimately considered for poetry. Thus, the means of poetry can be “whatever the universe contains”; rather than striving for a didactic or moral message, poetry should seek to convey “pleasure and exaltation.” Hunt’s conjectures on the creative faculties—on imagination and fancy— clearly owe much to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Keats; in fact, Hunt seems to have had Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria in mind in his enumeration of the kinds and degrees of imagination. His sevenfold paradigm treats figurative language (the dynamics of metaphor) and emphasizes the great importance of the imagination, in all its phases, “as a constituent part of the highest poetic faculty.” “What Is Poetry?” epitomizes Hunt’s theoretical interests and incisive style.
Perhaps nowhere else are Hunt’s critical intelligence and virtuosity with the genre exhibited more impressively than in his famous review of John Keats’ first volume of poetry (1816). As a preamble to his evaluation of Keats’ work, Hunt describes neoclassical poetry as being bereft of imagination, of intense feeling, and of sentiment and variety. Even the greatest of the 18th-century poets—Gray, Thomson, Akenside, and Collins—allegedly practiced an imitative and artificial style. Whereas the 18th-century poets were reputedly alienated from feeling and concrete reality, the Lake poets, though not above criticism themselves, were the first to revive true taste for nature, with Wordsworth epitomizing this tendency. Keats, too, is emphatically a poet of the new age, for he pursues new poetry for its own sake. Hunt’s review is typically balanced, precise, and even-tempered. He begins by enumerating two faults of Keats’ poetry (one of which is to overdo rhymes intentionally), but then turns to the obvious “Beauties” of his work.
Three prominent aspects of Keats’ verse are his “fine ear,” the felicitous workings of his imagination and fancy, and “an intense feeling of external beauty in its most natural and least expressible simplicity.” Besides evidencing Hunt’s support of Romantic literature, the review reflects his tactical ability, within a relatively finite space, to focus on and to interrelate a variety of topics (literary theory and history), as well to employ effectively several rhetorical strategies (comparison and exemplification).
Among his numerous essays on the theater, that on the reopening of the Covent Garden Theatre (1809) evidences Hunt’s concern for his fellow man and for social equity. No dilettante, he could not detach the arts either from the living reality they imitated or from the society which they were supposed to entertain. Specifically, he castigates the hypocritical management of Covent Garden for raising ticket prices to cater to the aristocracy and probably to defray the costs of the opulent furnishings and decor.
Calculating to serve only “the higher orders,” the management, whom Hunt calls “tradesmen,” have, in a sense, subverted the nobility of the theater, not to mention having precipitated riots. This piece, like many others, depicts Hunt as a humane, penetrating, and conscientious critic.
CHARLES DE PAOLO
James Henry Leigh Hunt. Born 19 October 1784 in Southgate, Middlesex. Studied at Christ’s Hospital school, London, 1791–99. Served with the St. James regiment, 1803.
Legal clerk, 1803–05; worked for the War Office, 1805–08. Married Marianne Kent, 1809 (died, 1857): seven children (one son died). Contributor throughout his career to many journals and periodicals, including the Traveller, 1804, the News, 1805–07, the Statesman, 1806, the Times, 1807, New Monthly Magazine, 1825–26 and occasionally until 1850, Atlas, 1828–30, True Sun and Weekly True Sun, 1833–34, the Spectator,
1858–59, and the Morning Chronide; editor of many journals, including the Examiner: A Sunday Paper, 1808–21 (also contributor until 1825), the Reflector, 1810–11, the Indicator, 1819–21, Literary Pocket-Book; or, Companion for the Lover of Nature and Art, 1819–23, the Companion, 1828, Chat of the Week, 1830, the Tatler: A Daily Journal of Literature and the Stage, 1830–32, Leigh Hunt’s London Journal, 1834–35, the
Monthly Repository, 1837–38, and Leigh Hunt’s Journal, 1850–51. Convicted and jailed for libeling the prince regent, 1813–15 (continued to edit the Examiner while in prison).
Lived in Italy (arrived a week before Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drowning), 1822–25: established the Liberal with Shelley, editing it with Byron after Shelley’s death, 1822–23.
Granted Civil List pension, 1847. Died in Putney, south London, 28 August 1859.
Essays and Related Prose
Critical Essays on the Perfortners of the London Theatres, 1807
The Examiner (periodical), 3 January 1808–26 February 1821
The Reflector (periodical), nos. 1–4, 1 January 1811–23 March 1812; in 2 vols., 1812
The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Manners, with William Hazlitt, 2 vols., 1817; facsimile reprint, 1991
The Indicator (periodical), nos. 1–76, 13 October 1819–21 March 1821; in 2 vols., 1820– 21
The Chat of the Week (periodical), nos. 1–13, 5 June-28 August 1830
The Seer; or, Commonplaces Refreshed, 2 vols., 1840
Essays: The Indicator, The Seer, 1841
Imagination and Fancy, with an Essay in Answer to the Question What Is Poetry?, 1844
Men, Women, and Books: A Selection of Sketches, Essays and Critical Memoirs, 2 vols., 1847
A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, 1848
The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events, 2 vols., 1848
Essays and Miscellanies (from the Indicator and the Companion), 1851
The Old Court Suburb; or, Memorials of Kensington, Regal, Critical, and Anecdotical, 2 vols., 1855; enlarged edition, 1855
A Tale for a Chimney Corner and Other Essays, edited by Edmund Ollier, 1869
A Day by the Fire; and Other Papers Hitherto Uncollected, edited by Joseph Edward Babson, 1870
Essays and Poems, edited by R.Bromley Johnson, 2 vols., 1891
Dramatic Essays, edited by William Archer and R.W.Lowe, 1894
Prefaces by Leigh Hunt, Mainly to His Periodicals, edited by R. Brimley Johnson, 1927
Dramatic Criticism, Literary Criticism, and Political and Occasional Essays, edited by Lawrence H.Houtchens and Carolyn W. Houtchens, 3 vols., 1949–62
Selected Writings, edited by David Jesson-Dibley, 1990
Other writings: poetry, a novel, two plays, a book on Byron (1828),
books on London, a three-volume autobiography (1850), and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Works, 7 vols., 1870–89.
Lulofs, Timothy J., and Hans Ostrom, Leigh Hunt: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1985
Waltman, John L., and Gerald G.McDavid, Leigh Hunt: A Comprehensive Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1985
Blainey, Ann, Immortal Boy: A Portrait of Leigh Hunt, New York: St. Martin’s Press, and London: Croom Helm, 1985
Blunden, Edmund, Leigh Hunt: A Biography, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1970 (original edition, 1930)
Cheney, David R., “Leigh Hunt, Essayist,” Books at Iowa 40 (April 1984):31–40
Grigely, Joseph C, “Leigh Hunt and the Examiner Review of Keats’s Poems, 1817,” Keats-Shelley Journal 33 (1984):30–37
Kendall, Kenneth E., Leigh Hunt’s Reflector, The Hague: Mouton, 1971
Marshall, William H., Byron, Shelley, Hunt, and the Liberal, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960
Smith, David Q., “Genius and Common Sense: The Romantics and Leigh Hunt,” Books at Iowa 40 (April 1984):41–57
Thompson, James R., Leigh Hunt, Boston: Twayne, 1977
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