Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Leigh Hunt (17841859)
[James Henry Leigh Hunt (who during his literary life entirely dropped his first two Christian names) was the son of Isaac, latterly the Rev. Isaac Hunt, an Anglo-West-Indian, who was a lawyer till he took orders, and of Mary Shewell, a Philadelphian. His parents were loyalists and had to leave America, where Isaac Hunt had practised. Leigh, their youngest son, was born in London on 19th October 1784, was educated at Christs Hospital, produced a book of verses at the age of sixteen, and, after holding a War Office clerkship for a short time, joined his brother John in starting the Examiner newspaper, and lived by literature, periodical and other, for the rest of his life. He married in 1809, and three years later came his imprisonment (for libelling the Prince Regent), during which he wrote his principal poem, the Story of Rimini, and made the acquaintance of the chief men of letters of the day, who sympathised with his politics. Being released, he did a great deal of miscellaneous work, his best being in The Indicator, a mainly single-handed periodical. In 18212, at Shelleys suggestion, he took his family to Italy, and edited The Liberal, a quarterly review under Byrons patronage. Shelley died, Byron and Hunt found it impossible to get on together, and Hunt, though he remained in Italy for some years after Byrons departure for Greece, had to come home, and took his revenge in the unlucky and discreditable Lord Byron and his Contemporaries (1828). He lived more than thirty years longer in different suburbs of London, doing a great deal of miscellaneous literary work, but suffering from chronic impecuniosity. For some time Shelley, and then the Shelley family, supplied his wants; and in 1847 he received a crown pension of £200 a year. He died on 28th August 1859. His character has been rather variously judged. Most people have admitted his amiability, but estimates in other respects have ranged from that of the critic who has pronounced him a noble fellow to that of those who think that the famous caricature of Skimpole in Bleak House, though a good deal blackened, was not quite unlike, and that there are in Hunt touches of vulgarity. His extremely voluminous works have never been collected; and some of them are not easy to obtain.]
THE FAME of Leigh Hunt, like that of most writers of the second or lower ranks, who have not come to the period when their works are finally classed, has probably on the whole sunk a good deal since his death, though there has been a recent revival of interest in him. But though, as has been said above, there is no complete collection of his works, certain parts of it appear to be kept steadily in print by the booksellers, while of others reprints in different forms still appear from time to time. With the exception of a novel of no great merit, of one or two religious or quasi-religious books, and of a little nondescript matter, the whole of his work in prose belongs to what is called occasional writing. Even where his books were issued with titles intimating a certain unity, such as The Town, The Old Court Suburb, A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, and so forth, they are not in reality anything more than collections or strings of separate articles, and though an exception has been sought by some for the Autobiography, I am not myself much inclined to grant it.
Leigh Hunt was in fact a born article-writer, if not a born journalist. For the occupations of journalism proper, though he had a good deal of practice in them, he was, I suspect, both too original in fancy and too desultory in temper. He could write on an immense variety of subjects, but they must be subjects which hit his own taste and caprice at the moment, not subjects dictated by the events of the day or the needs of an editor. At the same time, he was not very capable of conceiving, or, having conceived, of working out any large and orderly scheme. Accordingly, the great mass of his work, though it has qualities which raise it far above ordinary journalism, still has some of the defects of journalism upon it. It consists of hundredsit might hardly be an exaggeration to say thousandsof articles, essays, sketches, reviews, short stories, sometimes mere paragraphs which touch on the widest diversity of subject. Hunt busied himself with literary history and criticism, art, politics, topography, social life, religion as he conceived ita very vague and formless religion, which epithets will also apply to his politicsalmost everything except the more serious subjects of science and scholarship. Even these, though with uniformly disastrous results, he now and then attempted to touch. To this multifarious and miscellaneous industry he brought a fair amount of rather desultory reading, a very fine taste in some departments (especially the poetical) of literary criticism, some knowledge of art, especially of the drama, a peculiar loving affection for the monuments and the memories of old London (which, with Italy, was almost his sole place of residence), a great deal of interest in the ordinary concerns of humanity, and above all a distinct style. This style, with a certain tendency to the careless and slipshod, has a very remarkable vividness, no small share of grace, and a peculiar attractive quality which contrives to surmount and survive occasional shocks to refined taste in matter of manners, and contempts of logical exigences in point of ethics and of thought.
Except in this quality of manner Leigh Hunt is not, in prose, a very original writer. He is most original in literary criticism where, chiefly by dint of intense affection for and sympathy with the writers, especially the poets, whom he handles, he holds a position quite by himself. He was the contemporary and the more or less intimate associate of Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Carlyle; the contemporary if not the associate of Jeffrey, Wilson, Lockhart, De Quincey, and Macaulay. All these men were of much robuster intelligence, most of them were of far greater erudition, and some of them had a finer critical originality than Hunt could boast. Yet if it should happen (as it very well may) that all of them have written on some one literary subject, especially if that subject be poetry, the reading of the whole will not make it superfluous to see what Leigh Hunt has to say. His criticism is the reverse of methodical; it rarely attempts to grasp and never succeeds in grasping the whole of the subject; it is the last criticism to go to if what one wants is the latitude and longitude of the writer or the book in the great chart of literature. It may almost be said of Hunts criticism of poetry in the late Laureates words that it cannot understand, it loves; and by virtue of love it frequently detects and reveals peculiarities of the subject which more strictly intelligent treatment has missed. For this irregular desultory impressionist criticism, as well as for his topographical narratives and descriptions, his sketches of manners, his stories and anecdotes, his eighteenth-century essay-writing adjusted to a looser nineteenth-century standardLeigh Hunts style is excellently suited. Save now and then when his poetic fit comes on while he is wielding the pen of prose, it cannot be said to be a very dignified or distinguished style; it is even, as has been hinted, sometimes slipshod and out-at-elbows, suggestive of the peculiar and rather slovenly ease and bonhomie which characterised its authors whole life and conversation. But at its best it can be almost beautiful; and except when it is at its very worst (which is very seldom) it is always agreeable. As a style it has no very salient characteristics, and is almost devoid of mannerisms; such as it shows being chiefly vestiges of the old eighteenth-century essay habit of imitating the mannerisms of the Tatler and the Spectator. Indeed, one of Hunts chief charms is his extreme naturalness, which steers quite clear of the excessively artificial nature too common in literature, and makes any idea of affectation impossible. His writing thus has the great and rare merit of being perfectly adapted to his thought and subjectto his easy but by no means always trivial humour, to his wide if not very scholarly reading, to his still wider and for the most part perfectly genuine range of human interests, and above all to his intense love of some of the sides of poetry, and most of the gentler emotions of life.