The "wit in the dungeon" was James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who was educated at Christ's Hospital, and began his literary life with "a collection of poems, written between the ages "of twelve and sixteen," and published in 1801 as Juvenilia. In 1808 he and his brother John started a weekly newspaper called the Examiner, which advocated liberal principles with remarkable independence. On February 24, 1811, Hunt published an article in defence of Peter Finnerty, convicted for a libel on Castlereagh, and exhorting public writers to be bold in the cause of individual liberty. The same number contained an article on the savagery of military floggings, for which he was prosecuted, defended by Brougham, and acquitted. His acquittal drew from Shelley a letter of congratulation, addressed to Hunt as "one of the most fearless en lighteners of the public mind" (Dowden's Life of Shelley, vol. i. p. 113).
In March, 1812, the Morning Post printed a poem, speaking of the Prince Regent as the "Maecenas of the Age," the "Exciter of Desire," the "Glory of the People," an "Adonis of Loveliness," etc. The Examiner for March 12, 1812, thus translated this adulation into "the language of truth: "What person, unacquainted with the true state of the case, would imagine, in reading these astounding eulogies, that this 'Glory of the People' was the subject of millions of shrugs and reproaches! ... that this 'Exciter of Desire' (bravo! Messieurs of the Post!), this 'Adonis in Loveliness,' was a corpulent man of fifty! — in short, this delightful, blissful, wise, pleasureable, honourable, virtuous, true, and immortal prince was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity."
Crabb Robinson, who met Leigh Hunt, four days later, at Charles Lamb's, says (Diary, vol. i. p 376), "Leigh Hunt is an enthusiast, very well intentioned, and, I believe, prepared for the worst. He said, pleasantly enough, 'No one can accuse me of not writing a libel. Everything is a libel, as the law is now declared, and our security lies only in their shame.'" For this libel John and Leigh Hunt were convicted in the Court of King's Bench on December 9, 1812. In the following February they were sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of £500 a-piece. John was imprisoned in Coldbath-fields, Leigh in the Surrey County Gaol. They were released on February 2 or 3, 1815.
Shelley, on reading the sentence, proposed a subscription for "the brave and enlightened man ... to whom the public owes a debt as the champion of their liberties and virtues" (Dowden, Life of Shelley, vol. i. p. 325). Keats wrote a sonnet to Hunt on the day he left his prison, beginning—
What though for showing truth to flatter'd state,
Kind Hunt was shut in prison.
A political alliance was thus cemented, which, for the time, was disastrous to the literary prospects of Shelley and Keats. To Hunt Shelley dedicated the Cenci, and Keats his first volume of Poems (1817). He is the "gentlest of the wise" in Shelley's Adonais; and, in a suppressed stanza of the same poem, the poet speaks of Hunt's "sweet and earnest looks," "soft smiles," and "dark and "night-like eyes." The words inscribed on Shelley's tomb — "Cor Cordium" — were Hunt's choice. In his various papers Hunt zealously championed his friends. In the Examiner for September to October, 1819, he defended Shelley's personal character; in the same paper for June to July, 1817, he praised Keats's first volume of Poems; he reviewed "Lamia" in the Indicator for August 2-9, 1820, and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" in that for May 10, 1820. In his Foliage (1818) are three sonnets addressed to Keats.
Shelley believed in Hunt to the end. It was mainly through him that Hunt came to Pisa in June, 1822, to join with Byron in The Liberal. But he doubted whether the alliance between the "wren and the eagle" could continue (Life of Shelley, vol. ii. p. 519). Keats, on the other hand, lost his faith in Hunt. In a letter to Haydon (May, 1817), speaking of Hunt, he says, "There is no greater Sin after the seven deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet." Again (March, 1818) he writes, "It is a great Pity that People should, by associating themselves with the finest things, spoil them. Hunt has damned Hampstead, and masks, and sonnets, and Italian tales." He writes still more severely (December, 1818-January, 1819), "If I were to follow my own inclinations, I should never meet any one of that set again, not even Hunt, who is certainly a pleasant fellow in the main when you are with him; but in reality be is vain, egotistical, and disgusting in matters of taste and morals. Hunt does one harm by making fine things petty, and beautiful things hateful. Through him I am indifferent to Mozart. I care not for white Busts — and many a glorious thing when associated with him becomes a nothing." Haydon considered that Hunt was the "great unhinger" of Keats's best dispositions (Works of Keats, ed. H. B. Forman, vol. iv. p. 359); and Severn attributes Keats's temporary "mawkishness" to Hunt's society (ibid., p. 376).
Nathaniel Hawthorne (Our Old Home, p. 229, ed. 1884) says of Hunt, and means it as high praise, that "there was not an English trait in him from head to foot — morally, intellectually, or physically. Beef, ale or stout, brandy or port-wine, entered not at all into his composition." He was, in fact, a man of weak fibre, who allowed himself to sponge upon his friends, such as Talfourd, Haydon, and Shelley. Though Dickens denied (All the Year Round, Dec. 24, 1859) that "Harold Skimpole" was intended for Hunt, the picture was recognized as a portrait. On the other hand, Hunt was a man of kindly and genial disposition. "He loves everything," says Crabb Robinson (Diary, vol. ii. p. 192), "he catches the sunny side of everything, and, excepting that he has a few polemical antipathies, finds everything beautiful." In his essays, the best of which appeared in the indicator (1819-21), he communicates some of his own sense of enjoyment to those of his readers who are content to take him as he is. His circle is limited; but in it his observation is minute and suggestive. The Vale of Health is to him, in a degree proportioned to their respective powers, what the Temple was to Lamb. His style is neat, pretty, and would be affected if it were not the man himself. As a literary journalist, a dramatic critic, and an essayist, be has a place in literature. His poetry is less successful; his affectations, innate vulgarity, and habit of pawing his subjects repel even those who are attracted by its sweetness. Yet his Story of Rimini (1816), which he dedicated to Byron, was admired in its day. Byron, though be condemned its affected style, thought the poem a "devilish good one." Moore held the same opinion; and Jeffrey, writing to him May 28, 1816 (Memoirs, etc., of Thomas Moore, vol. ii. p. 100), says, "I certainly shall not be ill-natured to Rimini. It is very sweet and very lively in many places, and is altogether piquant, as being by far the best imitation of Chaucer and some of his Italian contemporaries that modern times have produced."
No two men could be more unlike than Byron and Hunt, or have less in common. Yet, with a singular capacity for self-delusion, Hunt told his wife that the texture of Byron's mind resembled his to a thread (Correspondence of L. Hunt, vol. i. p. 88). The friendship began in political sympathy; but two years later (see Byron's letter to Moor; June 1, 1818) it had, on one side at least, cooled. In June, 1822, Hunt came to Pisa to launch The Liberal, with the aid of Shelley and Byron. The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South, started in 1822, lived through four numbers, and died in July, 1823. During that time Byron expressed to Lady Blessington (Conversations, p. 77) "a very good opinion of the talents and principle of Mr. Hunt, though, as be said, 'our tastes are so opposite that we are totally unsuited to each other ... in short, we are more formed to be friends at a distance, than near.'" For the best part of two years Hunt was Byron's guest: he repaid his hospitality by publishing his Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1825).
Though Lady Blessington said the book "gave, in the main, a fair account" of Byron (Crabb Robinson's Diary, vol. iii. p. 13), its publication was a breach of honour. As such it was justly attacked by Moore in "The 'Living Dog' and the 'Dead Lion'":—
Next week will be published (as 'Lives' are the rage)
The whole Reminiscences, wondrous and strange,
Of a small puppy-dog, that lived once in the cage
Of the late noble Lion at Exeter 'Change.
Though the dog is a dog of the kind they call 'sad,'
'Tis a puppy that much to good breeding pretends;
And few dogs have such opportunities had
Of knowing how Lions behave — among friends.
How that animal eats, how he snores, how he drinks,
Is all noted down by this Boswell so small;
And 'tis plain, from each sentence, the puppy-dog thinks
That the Lion was no such great things after all.
Though he roared pretty well — this the puppy allows—
It was all, he says, borrowed — all second-hand roar;
And he vastly prefers his own little bow-wows
To the loftiest war-note the Lion could pour.
'Tis, indeed, as good fun as a Cynic could ask,
To see how this cockney-bred setter of rabbits
Takes gravely the Lord of the Forest to task,
And judges of Lions by puppy-dog habits.
Nay, fed as he was (and this makes it a dark case)
With sops every day from the Lion's own pan,
He lifts up his leg at the noble beast's carcass,
And — does all a dog, so diminutive, can.
However, the book's a good book, being rich in
Examples and warnings to lions high-bred,
How they suffer small mongrelly curs in their kitchen,
Who'll feed on them living, and foul them when dead.
For the reply of Hunt or one of his friends, "The Giant and the Dwarf," see Appendix VI.
The reply of Leigh Hunt's friends to Moore's squib, The "Living Dog" and the "Dead Lion" (see Letter 291, p. 205, note i), ran as follows:—
THE GIANT AND THE DWARF.
Humbly inscribed to T. Pidcock, Esq., of Exeter 'Change.
A Giant that once of a Dwarf made a friend,
(And their friendship the Dwarf took care shouldn't be hid),
Would now and then, out of his glooms, condescend
To laugh at his antics, — as every one did.
This Dwarf — an extremely diminutive Dwarf,
In birth unlike G—y, though his pride was as big,
Had been taken, when young, from the bogs of Clontarf,
And though born quite a Helot, had grown up a Whig.
He wrote little verses — and sung them withal,
And the Giant's dark visions they sometimes could charm,
Like the voice of the lute which had pow'r over Saul,
And the song which could Hell and its legions disarm.
The Giant was grateful, and offered him gold,
But the Dwarf was indignant, and spurn'd at the offer:
"No, never!" he cried, "shall my friendship be sold
For the sordid contents of another man's coffer!
"What would Dwarfland, and Ireland, and every land say?
To what would so shocking a thing be ascribed?
My Lady would think that I was in your pay,
And the Quarterly say that I must have been bribed.
"You see how I'm puzzled; I don't say it wouldn't
Be pleasant just now to have just that amount
But to take it in gold or in bank-notes! — I couldn't,
I wouldn't accept it — on any account.
"But couldn't you just write your Autobiography,
All fearless and personal, bitter and stinging?
Sure that, with a few famous heads in lithography,
Would bring me far more than my Songs or my singing.
"You know what I did for poor Sheridan's Life;
Your's is sure of my very best superintendence;
I'll expunge what might point at your sister or wife,
And I'll thus keep my priceless, unbought independence!"
The Giant smiled grimly: he couldn't quite see
What diff'rence there was on the face of the earth,
Between the Dwarf's taking the money in fee,
And his taking the same thing in that money's worth.
But to please him he wrote; and the business was done:
The Dwarf went immediately off to "the Row;"
And ere the next night had pass'd over the sun,
The MEMOIRS were purchas'd by Longman and Co.
W. GYNGELL, Showman, Bartholomew Fair