Leigh Hunt (1784–1859)
As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 7, 383–385.
This Browning acquaintance was among the nineteenth century’s most prolific writers. He was of special interest to the Brownings and others of their generation because of his close relationships with Shelley, Byron, and Keats. Hunt, who did not use his first two given names, James Henry, was born at Southgate, Middlesex, on 19 October 1784, a son of Isaac and Mary (née Shewell) Hunt. Isaac came from a West Indies family, worked as a lawyer in Philadelphia, fled to England as a British loyalist during the American Revolution, and became a preacher and tutor. He named Leigh for his pupil, a nephew of the third Duke of Chandos. In 1792 Leigh Hunt entered Christ’s Hospital School, where he began writing imitations of various early English poets. A book entitled Juvenilia … by J.H.L. Hunt appeared in 1801, and by 1804 it had reached a fourth edition. This was the start of a massive outpouring that continued for the rest of his life. For a while Hunt acted as a clerk, first for his brother Stephen—who was an attorney—and later at the War Office; but in 1808 he turned wholly to literature and journalism. He joined his brother John in establishing a weekly newspaper, the eventually prestigious Examiner. “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” (DNB). This does not mean that the paper was soft-spoken. In 1811, an attack on the savagery of military floggings brought unsuccessful efforts at prosecution by the government, and led to a friendship between Hunt and the poet Shelley. Leigh and John Hunt were less fortunate in 1812 when they called the Prince Regent (later to become George IV), among other things, “a libertine over head and ears in disgrace … the companion of gamblers and demireps.” Despite the accuracy of these charges, the brothers were prosecuted, fined, and sentenced (in February 1813) to two years’ imprisonment. In the gaol at Surrey, Leigh Hunt apparently underwent no severe hardship. His biography in R.H. Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844) tells how “he covered his prison-walls with garlands of roses, and lived … in a bower.” According to DNB, he “was not debarred from the society of his wife [the former Miss Marianne Kent, whom he had married in 1809] and friends.” Also he continued, throughout his imprisonment, to edit The Examiner. One of his numerous visitors, who thus became a new acquaintance, was Byron. Not long after his release he met Keats, whom he then introduced to Shelley. He spotlighted both young poets in an Examiner article on 1 December 1816. Appearing in that same year was one of Hunt’s own major works, a long poem, The Story of Rimini. In the early 1820’s, Hunt took his wife and seven children to Italy, intending to join Shelley and Byron in publishing a magazine. But Shelley was drowned in July 1822, and Byron lost interest in the publishing enterprise, which soon collapsed. Byron went to Greece, where he died in 1824. Hunt eventually returned to England and published his Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828), which reflected his bitterness toward the famous poet. (See letter 1102 for a comment on this, plus some uninhibited remarks about Hunt himself, by EBB’s correspondent Benjamin Robert Haydon.) In 1834 Leigh Hunt’s London Journal appeared, only to vanish at the end of 1835. Hunt succeeded RB’s friend William Johnson Fox as editor of The Monthly Repository in July 1837, but kept the position for less than a year. In 1840 his play A Legend of Florence appeared at Covent Garden Theatre and was more than once attended by Queen Victoria. Twelve years later it was performed at Windsor Castle. During much of his life Hunt suffered grave financial difficulties, somewhat alleviated by help from friends (including the Shelley family), two royal grants, and eventually—in 1847—a civil list pension of £200 per year. Despite Hunt’s strenuous literary efforts throughout his life, his works perhaps best remembered by the public are two comparatively short poems that appeared in the 1830’s, “Abou Ben Adhem” and “The Glove and the Lions.” RB’s “The Glove” (1845) stemmed from the latter. Hunt died at Putney on 28 August 1859 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, eventually the burial place of EBB’s sister Arabella.
A review of RB’s Paracelsus (1835) appeared in Leigh Hunt’s London Journal on 21 November of that year (see The Brownings’ Correspondence, vol. 3, pp. 357–363). Hunt praised the work’s “high poetic power,” but noted “some marks of haste in the composition.” RB had conversed with Hunt while this composition was under way, as he indicated years later (on 5 March 1866) in a letter to Professor Edward Dowden. In The Monthly Repository for July 1837 Hunt published his “Blue-Stocking Revels, or The Feast of the Violets” (see SD825.1), a poem concerning lady writers, in which he devoted 15 lines to EBB. The poetess seemingly did not learn of this recognition until 1840, as indicated to Mary Russell Mitford in letter 733. Hunt and EBB were among the contributors to R.H. Horne’s The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, Modernized (1841), but they used different approaches. Gardner B. Taplin (The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1957, p. 83) says that EBB tried to stay close to Chaucer’s style, while Hunt’s contributions became “almost original poems.” (Nevertheless a contemporary reviewer, in The Athenæum of 6 February 1841, called Hunt “the best refashioner of Chaucer,” with a “colloquial air,” and “a just and appreciating relish for the old poet.”) EBB admired Hunt, and on 25 July 1841 (letter 832, to Miss Mitford) wrote of his poems as having an effect “for beauty & for good.” She continued: “Oh I plead for Leigh Hunt. He has been very unfortunate, & very imprudent as to money affairs—but it is the way of poets, as a race.” She later assisted with the favourable section on Hunt which appeared in Horne’s A New Spirit of the Age (1844). Writing to Miss Mitford in that same year, EBB referred to Hunt as “a man of true genius” (4 March) and “a true poet” (22 March). In 1850, while The Athenæum was mentioning EBB for the Poet Laureateship, EBB’s own favourite prospect was Hunt. In a letter to Miss Mitford dated 8 July she admitted that Tennyson (the eventual appointee) was perhaps “worthier”; but, alluding to the fact that Hunt was 25 years older, she said, “Tennyson can wait.” There is comparatively little discussion of Hunt in the letters that passed between RB and EBB in 1845–46. RB does, however, mention dining with Hunt and John Forster “to-day,” in a letter of 29 April 1846. RB possessed a plaster bust of Shelley, given to him by Thomas Carlyle but created by Hunt’s wife, Marianne (Reconstruction, H264). This is illustrated in Michael Meredith’s Meeting the Brownings (1986, p. 52). The Brownings had contacts with Hunt during their visits to England in 1855–56, despite difficulties arising from the illness of Mrs. Hunt, who died in 1857. All their definitely known and dated correspondence with Hunt occurred during this period in the mid-1850’s. (However, see letter 625, note 3.) Hunt gave the Brownings a lock of John Milton’s hair (Reconstruction, H482), which they both mentioned with appreciation in a letter of 6 October 1857. EBB’s Aurora Leigh came off the press late in 1856, and Hunt praised it in a long letter which he began on 31 December of that year. He called it “a unique, wonderful, and immortal poem … the production of the greatest poetess the world ever saw.”
After Hunt’s death in 1859, RB became active in efforts to provide a monument at his grave in Kensal Green Cemetery (Reconstruction, E529). A bust was unveiled there on Hunt’s eighty-fifth birthday, 19 October 1869. On 27 March 1877, in a letter to H. Buxton Forman, RB recounted a story about Hunt and Shelley which Hunt had told him years earlier. Hunt had lent Shelley a valued copy of Keats’s Lamia (1820); and, when Shelley was drowned, the book was found at his bosom. Instead of keeping the volume, Hunt threw it into Shelley’s funeral pyre. Hunt told RB: “Shelley said he would return it with his own hands into mine—and so he shall return it!”
The Brownings’ library contained a number of Hunt’s works (Reconstruction, A1267–72), but none were inscribed by him. Reconstruction (C250) lists an inscribed copy of RB’s Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, presented to Hunt in August 1857.