1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 152.



LEIGH HUNT is the son of a clergyman of the Church of England, and was born at Southgate, in Middlesex, October the 19th, 1784. He, as well as Coleridge and Lamb, received his early education at Christ's Hospital, and chiefly under the same grammar-master; and, like Lamb, he was prevented from going to the University (on the Christ's Hospital foundation, it is understood to be a preparatory step to holy orders) by an impediment In his speech — which, however, he had the good fortune to overcome. At school, as in after life, he was remarkable for exuberance of animal spirits, and for passionate attachment to his friends, — a feeling, also, which years have not diminished; but he evinced little care for study, except when the exercises were in verse, when he would "give up" double the quantity demanded from him. His prose themes (he has so told us among other interesting facts) were generally so bad, that the master used to crumple them in his hand, and throw them to the boys for their amusement. Mr. Hunt has been an ardent, though never an ungenerous, political partizan, and has suffered in almost every possible way for the advocacy of opinions, which, whether right or wrong, he has lived to see in a great measure triumph. He is not the only early struggler for "Reform," who has been left by Reformers in power, to be recompensed by his own feelings.

The acquaintance of Mr. Hunt and Lord Byron began in prison, where Mr. Hunt was confined for the publication of an article in the Examiner, which he then conducted. It was pronounced to be a libel on the Prince Regent; — and originated in his sympathy with the sufferings of the people of Ireland. To the history of their after intercourse we have not space to refer. Time has pretty nearly satisfied the world that Mr. Hunt by no means overdrew the picture of the noble Bard. The leading feature in Mr. Hunt's character is a love of truth. This was unpalatable to Lord Byron, and, for a time also, to the public. Animal spirits, — a power of receiving delight from the commonest every-day objects, as well as from remote ones, — and a sort of luxurious natural piety (so to speak), are the prevailing influences of his writings. His friend, Hazlitt, used to say of him, in allusion to his spirits, and to his family-stock (which is from the West Indies), that he had "tropical blood in his veins."

In person he is tall, and slightly formed; his countenance is singularly fine; his eyes, like his complexion, are dark — but they have a gentle expression, akin to that of the gazelle. His look and his manner are both kindly and persuasive; indeed we have rarely met any one who so completely realizes our notions of benevolence. His conversation is exquisitely pleasing, — "combining the vivacity of the schoolboy with the resources of the wit, and the taste of the scholar." We know little of his political writings; they must have been fierce and bitter, — for they alarmed his opponents, and delighted and encouraged his friends: but unquestionably the MAN is to be seen in the tender, graceful, and affectionate effusions of the Poet. He is only at home where the Heart presides. In the earlier part of his career, his opinions were assailed with the severest hostility. He has outlived the animosity to which he was subjected; the misfortunes to which he has been exposed have been met with philosophy; and his enemies have, like generous antagonists, aided in binding up the wounds they had inflicted. He has at length received justice from all, — save his political "friends."

The poetry of Leigh Hunt has been, and ever will be, appreciated, by all who love nature, and sympathise with humanity. It is liable to the charge of occasional affectation; and it is to be lamented that, at times, he defaces the beauty of a composition by some trifling puerilities. Mr. Hazlitt appears to have divined the cause of these defects. "From great sanguineness of temper, from great quickness and unsuspecting simplicity, he runs on to the public as he does at his own fireside, — and talks about himself, forgetting that he is not always among friends." This disposition, however, is also the main source of his success. His nature is essentially GOOD; and what he writes makes its way to the heart. The models he consults are the true old English Poets; and the gayer spirits of Italy. He is a scholar, and "a special lover of books;" yet we never find in him a touch of pedantry. His poetry is like his mind, — a sort of buoyant outbreak of joyousness; and when a tone of sadness pervades it, it is so gentle, confiding, and hoping, as to be far nearer allied to resignation than repining. Perhaps there is no Poet who so completely pictures himself: it is it fine and natural and an unselfish egotism; and a glorious contrast to the gloomy and misanthropic moods which some Bards have laboured first to acquire, and then to portray.