Reevaluating Leigh Hunt

Too often, Leigh Hunt has been considered only as a second-tier poet (compared to Byron, Keats, and Shelly) or a sadly inept personal financier. A representative summation of Hunt’s faults on both counts was provided by Maurice Hewlett in 1922: “He wrote too fast and too much; he wrote as he lived, from hand to mouth, and spent his gifts lavishly.... I guess him to have been the first accomplished practitioner of the artless in his art. There was method in his prattling. It was certainly deliberate.... He is not turgid, nor ultra-sensuous. His chief faults are sentimentalism and triviality; another is that he mistakes the imitation for the reality” (Hewlett, 865).

A few commentators, however, have taken a more sympathetic view, recognizing Hunt for his central role in gathering together and marketing his now more canonical peers. Among these more appreciative treatments, Barnett Miller’s Leigh Hunt's relations with Byron, Shelley and Keats (1910) is both detailed and insightful. On the matter of Hunt’s shortcomings as a poet, Miller admits them, but notes that Hunt’s stylistic foibles were not haphazard and were, in fact, results of faulty application of a principled approach to language. Hunt’s guiding principle was a dedication to “an idiomatic spirit in verse”. Though Hunt imagined his stance as an extension of Wordsworth’s break from linguistic formalism, in practice it led him into a number of errors: colloquial words that demeaned an otherwise lofty subject; vague and passionless words (like “amiable”, “fair”, “serene” and “earnest”) that he used as bland tropes; unusual words that held, for him only, unique meanings; ordinary words in unusual contexts (too often over-reaching rather than innovating); coined compounds; and very frequently coined modifiers ( like “plumpy” and “farmy”, produced through the addition of suffixes) that frequently seemed to signal ineptitude rather than imagination.

On the matter of Hunt’s financial difficulties, Miller is thankfully more probing in his research and analysis than many other commentators. Though Hunt was, indeed, plagued by financial difficulties until the last few years of his life, Miller posits a reason for these troubles that looks deeper than “irresponsibility”. Miller describes Hunt’s financial distress first as an unceasing cycle of indebtedness that began with the 1000-pound fine (along with two years of imprisonment) he was assessed (split between him and his brother) upon being convicted of libel—for derogatory comments he’d made about the prince regent in The Examiner. Hunt served his prison sentence with aplomb (being allowed to have his family live with him in his cell). “He transformed his prison yard into a garden and his prison room into a bower.” However, though he received numerous offers, he steadfastly refused assistance in paying the fine. He felt that personally accepting the entirety of his punishment constituted a valiant statement against press censorship. This decision set off the cycle of indebtedness that would continue throughout his life. Nevertheless, even during ensuing periods of struggle Hunt continued to uphold his principles. He frequently refused unsolicited offers of assistance—either from a belief in personal responsibility, or  from a belief in reciprocity (offers from those he’d not helped in some other way were declined).

Furthermore, Hunt shared with Godwin a belief in communal property, distributed according to “justice and necessity”.  Predating Marx by half a century, Godwin’s indictment of religion—for its role in perpetuating “private property”—is representative of Hunt’s philosophy: “They [churches] have called upon the rich to be clement and merciful to the poor. The consequence of this has been that the rich, when they bestowed the slender pittance of their enormous wealth in acts of charity, as they were called, took merit to themselves for what they gave, instead of considering themselves delinquents for what they withheld” (Miller). Consequently, Hunt leaned heavily on his friends but also on his principles. Though not the greatest money manager, he was also not the worst. Though plagued with debt, he assumed no martyrdom or privilege. And though also beset with recurring mental and physical health problems, he worked constantly and consistently—writing both Descent of Liberty and part of the Story of Rimini while imprisoned.

A chief point in reevaluating Hunt’s significance is his establishment of The Examiner, which published domestic and foreign news, theatre criticism, literary essays, political essays, and poetry. Donald H. Reiman noted in 1984 that, “Hunt not only introduced the developing British middle-class readership to the classics of their own culture and to the great writers of Greece, Rome, and Italy, but he also hailed and aided almost every English writer about whom we still care and who published during his tenure as a cultural influence; in most cases, he did so for reasons that we still find valid.” Again, this note had already been struck by Miller who cited H.R. Fox-Bourne to explain that “…previous to Hunt’s Examiner there had been weeklies or ‘essay sheets’ such as Defoe, Steele, Addison and Goldsmith had developed, and that there had been dailies or ‘news sheets’ which gave bare facts, but that The Examiner was the first to give the news faithfully in essay style.”

As with his literary and financial failings, Hunt’s successes with The Examiner stemmed from his principled devotion to personal integrity and friendship. In his 1999 review of Jeffrey Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle, Nicholas Roe maintains that “Hunt was unstinting in his support for Shelley after the death of Harriet Westbrook, and for Byron during the trials of his separation. Generous in his personal relationships, Hunt was also the most prominent and active representative of a cultural avant-garde 'offering in its own communal organization a model for a society remade'” (Cox, 61). This dedication (along with his highly sophisticated taste) led to The Examiner establishing an influential publishing history that included, “Shelley's 'Ozymandias' (11 January 1818) and an extract from The Revolt of Islam (25 January 1818), reporting Hazlitt's Surrey Institution lectures, and reviewing Keats's ‘Lamia’ volume (30 July 1820), and Shelley's Revolt of Islam, Rosalind and Helen, and Prometheus Unbound (1 February 1818; 9 May 1819; 16 and 23 June 1822)” (Roe).

In the life and career of Mary Shelley, Hunt’s sense of devotion would prove crucial both personally and professionally. “Though Hunt and Mary Shelley treated one another as friends and equals from their very earliest acquaintance, perhaps Hunt's most important aid to Mary Shelley--"Marina" as he called her during [P.B.] Shelley's lifetime--came from July to November 1819, when he wrote frequent and sympathetic letters to Mary, then in despair because of the death of William, her last surviving child” (Reiman, note 15). Furthermore, Hunt supported Mary’s literary work with sympathetic reviews and “…once by taking a passage from her 24 September letter to him and publishing it as part of his essay, "Autumnal Commencement of Fires," in The Indicator for 20 October 1819” (Reiman). And it was through both criticism and production that Hunt helped transform the British stage. Thus, according to Roe, “The Descent of Liberty opened the way for Mary Shelley's Midas and Proserpine, 'dramatic sketches' of various kinds by Barry Cornwall, Horace Smith's Amarynthus the Nympholept and Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.”

From our distant perspective it may seem that Hunt’s legacy shines less brightly than those of his famous friends. But it must be recognized that it was Hunt’s devotion and courage, in the face of continual adversity, that often allowed the others to shine at all. “While Hunt had no original or constructive political theory, little power of philosophical or logical thought, and no special equipment besides wide general knowledge, he had great sincerity and courage and a defiant attitude toward corruption of all kinds. He was himself absolutely incorruptible” (Miller). And as Reiman summarized: “Hunt's sunny disposition produced a virtue that remains one of his claims to literary greatness. For he has an admirable record of privately encouraging and publicly praising and defending the best of contemporary writers, artists, actors, and musicians, as well as disseminating great writings of the past. His role as an influential journalist and cultural guru to the rising middle classes gave him an influence out of proportion to the originality of his judgments.”

 Contributor: Derek Hyatte

Works Cited:

Hewlett, Maurice. "Fancy and Familiarity." The Saturday Review 134.3502 (9 Dec. 1922): 865-866. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Oct. 2013.

Miller, Barnett. Leigh Hunt's relations with Byron, Shelley and Keats. New York: Columbia UP, 1910.

Reiman, Donald H.  “The Life & Times of Leigh Hunt: Papers Delivered at a Symposium at the University of Iowa, April 13, 1984.” Ed. Robert A. McCown. Iowa City, Iowa: Friends of the University of Iowa Libraries, 1985.

Roe, Nicholas. “The Hunt Era”. Rev. of Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle by Jeffery N. Cox. Romanticism on the Net, Number 14: 1999.