LEIGH HUNT (1784-1859)
His forebears were landholders in Barbados until his father moved to Philadelphia before the Revolutionary War. He and his wife did well until the conflict began, when they were persecuted for their Tory inclinations. Mrs. Hunt left the country, turning down Benjamin Franklin’s offer of guitar lessons, moving back to the island first and then on to England. Her husband was taken in a riot and narrowly escaped being tar-and-feathered. He escaped from jail and made his way to London to rejoin his family. Leigh was born soon after, the youngest of five brothers and one sister. The family lived for a while with Nathaniel West (the painter) until they found their own place near the edge of town. Leigh was a somewhat fearful boy partly because of his brother Stephen’s relentless teasing and persecution. But he loved escaping into the woods and fields with a book of poetry or Day’s Sandford and Merton stories and talking to the cowboys and sheepherders. He was occasionally ill and once was sent to France to recover his health at the seashore. His brother’s persecution resulted in frequent nightmares, one of which featured a mantichore. The grinning toothy face scared him for years before he outgrew bad dreams.
Leigh was sent to Christ Hospital school, the largest free educational institution in London with 600 boys as students. Charles Lamb and Sam Coleridge both were students, but preceded Leigh by several years. The foundation of his future financial difficulties began at this point because the student body was split into different categories, none of which associated with the others. So Leigh learned languages and soft subjects but no arithmetic or physical sciences. He suffered the usual beatings and practical jokes common to the era but also made some life-long friendships. As his status improved, he was able to access local bookstores on Paternoster Row, where he found books on Spenser, Collins, Grey, Shakspere and others. He read the Arabian Nights, Hamlet, Hudibras, Paradise Lost and wrote a lot of poetry himself. When in bed with scalded legs he learned the flute. One of the instructors, known as Boyer the Beater knocked out one of his front teeth. At fifteen years of age he left the school and almost immediately had a book of poetry published. He graduated at a lower level than some of his peers because he stuttered. Fully accredited students had to be able to speak fluently.
For several years he left a mildly madcap existence. He was almost drowned while sailing on the Isis when the small sailboat he and a friend were in jibbed at the wrong time and he was thrown into the water with the main sheet wrapped around his neck. He and another associate once walked from Ramsgate to Brighton (112 miles) in four days. The reign of Napoleon began in 1802 and Leigh joined the civilian militia. At the same time he became interested in the theater and started writing reviews of plays that were published in small magazines and newspapers. His work was first printed in The Traveller, a minor gossip sheet with a short life. His father made him a present of a 36 volume edition of English poetry that he devoured, and that materially influenced his writing style and provided a foundation for his later critical efforts. Reviews of the drama at that time were mostly involved with puffing up plays in order to increase attendance and to sell more tickets. Leigh’s essays concentrated more on literary and objective qualities; he raised the level of criticism even though his reviews were only printed in smaller journals and magazines.
One day while riding he experienced severe heart palpitations. Associating these with episodes of depression (which he’d been suffering from for a while), he came to the conclusion that strenuous exercise was the best cure. So he started walking long distances and rowing on the Thames. One day on the water they came across a line that ran from one bank to the other, apparently supporting a fishnet that spanned the whole river. They cut it and subsequently got into a row with the fisherpersons who’d been watching from the bank. Luckily a policeman appeared before any substantial damage was done to any of the participating parties.
In 1810 Leigh became the managing editor of his brother’s paper, The Reflector. Some of his friends, C. Lamb and Barnes submitted essays for it. It lasted four issues before going broke. Shortly after, Leigh went to jail. The Prince of Wales had engaged himself as a supporter of the Free-Ireland movement some months before, but reneged on his promises to a group of Reformers and Leigh wrote a scathing criticism of his behavior. So he was arrested and spent two years in prison and was fined 1000 pounds. Eventually he lived in a two room suite in the prison hospital with his family and they enjoyed good food, stayed warm in the winter and were able to go for walks in the garden. Lamb was a frequent visitor as was Thomas Moore. William Hazlitt appeared, as did Percy Shelley. Jeremy Bentham was a regular badminton participator. Lord Byron came to ride the younger Hunt’s rocking horse. Leigh noted that Thomas Carlyle had the finest eyes he’d ever seen. Keats and Shelley didn’t agree too well; the former was experiencing the first symptoms of tuberculosis and he was defensive in the presence of the latter; and probably was jealous as well. Lamb loved practical jokes and was addicted to punning. But he valued truth: “truth was precious, and not to be wasted on everybody”. Coleridge was an idler and a waster of his great talents.
After his release, Leigh and his family took ship for Italy. It was a very rough passage, with four children and his wife confined in a small cabin with a goat. During the period they were sailing, 1500 ships were noted by the officials as being lost. The Hunts rented a house north of Leghorn and Byron and Shelley were frequent visitors. One evening Shelley, who loved the water, was sailing back to his residence when his boat was swamped and he drowned. Leigh had named Shelley as his best friend at one time and he was devastated by the accident. Shortly after, they moved closer to Genoa with Byron. The latter soon left, however, as the government was becoming upset with his associations with the Carbonari (the Mafia of the time). Byron left for Greece, where he had an appointment with fate at Missolonghi. Walter Savage Landor visited fairly often and became a good friend and helped in dealing with the authorities and merchants. Later, another move took place when they all relocated to Florence. Leigh loved it there: the art, architecture, statuary and culture gave him great pleasure. But money became an issue so the family moved back to England.
The balance of his life was devoted to writing essays and reviews and poetry and the occasional book. He continued to experience difficulties with money and debt. His friends made a futile attempt to have the government issue him a pension. His most popular and successful play was “A Legend of Florence” which was produced in 1840. Queen Victoria saw it four times. Charles Dickens, Forster and Jerrold held a benefit dinner for Leigh that was quite successful in terms of money. Bulwer-Lytton had nice things to say about him and aided with his financial entanglements.
The book ends in 1858 with a short codicil in ’59 that contained his final thoughts concerning his lifelong exertions. His last book, “Religion of the Heart” was well-accepted. It described his religious convictions and hopes for the future.
This was a peculiar book in some ways. It rambled about quite a lot and was difficult to follow occasionally. He liked long sentences and employed them at the drop of a conjunction. Sometimes the meaning got lost in the underbrush. Hunt was the target of resentment and jealousy for part of his life, mostly having to do with his financial ineptness: he made the point more than once that he knew no arithmetic. His health was peripatetically terrible, although the exact nature of his trouble was never stated: just hypochondria and depression. He was not a believer in established religion, although he believed in an afterlife. He thought Dante’s Inferno was ‘childishly mistaken”. Im not sure what he meant by that.
I’d read about Hunt for years and was always curious about him so i’m glad to have finally read the book. He wasn’t an exceptional talent, but he was apparently very knowledgeable and personable. He was generous with his time and attracted lights greater than himself, for which he should be honored. I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in the period, but the intended reader should be one who was capable of “summoning up the blood”…