1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Leigh Hunt

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:422-23.



LEIGH HUNT, a poet and essayist of the lively and descriptive, not the intense school, was born at Southgate, in Middlesex, October 19, 1784. His father was a West Indian, but being in Pennsylvania at the time of the American war, he espoused the British interest with so much warmth, that he had to leave the new world and seek a subsistence in the old. He took orders in the church of England, and was sometime tutor to the nephew of Lord Chandos, near Southgate. His son (who was named after his father's pupil, Mr. Leigh) was educated at Christ's Hospital, where he continued till his fifteenth year. "I was then," he says, "first deputy Grecian; and had the honour of going out of the school in the same rank, at the same age, and for the same reason as my friend Charles Lamb. The reason was, that I hesitated in my speech. It was understood that a Grecian was bound to deliver a public speech before he left school, and to go into the church afterwards; and as I could do neither of these things, a Grecian I could not be." Leigh was then a poet, and his father collected his verses, and published them with a large list of subscribers. He has himself described this volume as a heap of imitations, some of them clever enough for a youth of sixteen, but absolutely worthless in every other respect. In 1805, Mr. Hunt's brother set up a paper called the News, and the poet went to live with him, and write the theatrical criticisms in it. Three years afterwards, they established, in joint partnership, the Examiner, a weekly journal still conducted with distinguished ability. The poet was more literary than political in his tastes and lucubrations; but unfortunately he ventured some strictures on the prince regent, which were construed into a libel, and he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment. The poet's captivity was not without its bright side. He had much of the public sympathy, and his friends (Byron and Moore being of the number) were attentive in their visits. One of his two rooms on the "ground-floor" he converted into a picturesque and poetical study: — "I papered the walls with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows were screened with Venetian blinds; and when my bookcases were set up, with their busts and flowers, and a pianoforte made its appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side the water. I took a pleasure, when a stranger knocked at the door, to see him come in and stare about him. The surprise on issuing from the borough, and passing through the avenues of a jail, was dramatic. Charles Lamb declared there was no other such room except in a fairy tale. But I had another surprise, which was a garden. There was a little yard outside, railed off from another belonging to the neighbouring ward. This yard I shut in with green palings, adorned it with a trellis, bordered it with a thick bed of earth from a nursery, and even contrived to have a grass plot. The earth I filled with flowers and young trees. There was an apple-tree from which we managed to get a pudding the second year. As to my flowers, they were allowed to be perfect. A poet from Derbyshire (Mr. Moore) told me he had seen no such heart's-ease. I bought the "Parnaso Italiano" while in prison, and used often to think of a passage in it, while looking at this miniature piece of horticulture:—

Mio picciol orto,
A me sei vigna, e campo, e silva, e prato. — Baldi.

My little garden,
To me thou'rt vineyard, field, and wood, and meadow.

Here I wrote and read in fine weather, sometimes under an awning. In autumn, my trellises were hung with scarlet runners, which added to the flowery investment. I used to shut my eyes in my arm-chair, and affect to think myself hundreds of miles off. But my triumph was in issuing forth of a morning. A wicket out of the garden led into the large one belonging to the prison. The latter was only for vegetables, but it contained a cherry-tree, which I twice saw in blossom."

This is so interesting a little picture, and so fine an example of making the most of adverse circumstances, that it should not be omitted in any life of Hunt. The poet, however, was not so well fitted to battle with the world, and apply himself steadily to worldly business, as he was to dress his garden and nurse his poetical fancies. He fell into difficulties, and has been contending with them ever since. On leaving prison he published his Story of Rimiai, an Italian tale in verse, containing some exquisite lines and passages. He set up also a small weekly paper called the Indicator, on the plan of the periodical essayists, which was well received. He also gave to the world two small volumes of poetry, Foliage, and The Feast of the Poets. In 1822 Mr. Hunt went to Italy to reside with Lord Byron, and to establish the Liberal, a crude and violent melange of poetry and politics, both in the extreme of liberalism. This connexion was productive of mutual disappointment and disgust. The Liberal did not sell; Byron's titled and aristocratic friends cried out against so plebeian a partnership; and Hunt found that the noble poet, to whom he was indebted in a pecuniary sense, was cold, sarcastic, and worldly-minded. Still more unfortunate was it that Hunt should afterwards have written the work, Lord Byron end Some of his Contemporaries, in which his disappointed feelings found vent, and their expression was construed into ingratitude. His life has been spent in struggling with influences contrary to his nature and poetical temperament. The spirit of the poet, however, is still active and cheerful, as may be readily conceived from perusing the following set of blithe images in a poem written in December 1840, on the birth of the Princess Royal.

Beheld where thou dost lie,
Heeding naught, remote on high!
Naught of all the news we sing
Dost then knew, sweet ignorant thing;
Naught of planet's love nor people's;
Nor dost hear the giddy steeples
Carolling of thee and thine,
As if heaven had rained them wine;
Nor dost care for all the pains
Of ushers and of chamberlains,
Nor the doctor's learned looks,
Nor the very bishop's books,
Nor the lace that wraps thy chin,
No, nor for thy rank a pin.
E'en thy father's loving hand
Nowise dost thou understand,
When he makes thee feebly grasp
His finger with a tiny clasp;
Nor dost then knew thy very mother's
Balmy bosom from another's,
Though thy small blind eyes pursue it;
Nor the arms that draw thee to it;
Nor the eyes that, while they fold thee,
Never can enough behold thee!

In 1840 Mr. Hunt brought out a drama entitled A Legend of Florence, and in 1842 a narrative poem, The Palfrey. His poetry, generally, is marked by a profusion of imagery, of sprightly fancy, and animated description. Some quaintness and affectation in his style and manner fixed upon him the name of a Cockney poet; but his studies have lain chiefly in the elder writers, and he has imitated with success the lighter and more picturesque parts of Chaucer and Spenser. Boccaccio, and the gay Italian authors, appear also to have been among his favourites. His prose essays have been collected and published under the title of The Indicator end the Companion, a Miscellany for the Fields and the Fireside. They are deservedly popular — full of literary anecdote, poetical feeling, and fine sketches both of town and country life. The egotism of the author is undisguised; but in all Hunt's writings, his peculiar tastes and romantic fancy, his talk of books and flowers, and his love of the domestic virtues and charities (though he has too much imagination for his judgment in the serious matters of life), impart a particular interest and pleasure to his personal disclosures.