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This report is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

James Leigh Hunt David Jesson-Dibley
The bicentary of Leigh Hunt's birth occurred on 19 October. Married to Marianne Kent in 1809, he fathered ten children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. Before his death in 1859 he had outlived all the notable Romantic writers with whom his name is associated.

Leigh Hunt? Ah, yes: Coleridge, Lamb and Leigh Hunt, literary alumni of Christ's Hospital School; Hazlitt, Lamb and Leigh Hunt, essayists; Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, dramatic and literary critics; Byron, Shelley, Keats - and Leigh Hunt by association and friendship more than performance - poets of the second wave of the Romantic Movement. Leigh Hunt, ever in third place, often in fourth. Leigh Hunt, amiable and at times suffering as well as suffered friend of all, though of domestic necessity more of a financial borrower than lender; Leigh Hunt, bibliophile, profligate lender and loser of books; a literary factotum, who chose, he declared, to work for his children till his last day. Consequently, he was styled at a recent exhibition in Hampstead as 'Poet, author, dramatic critic, political journalist, essayist, biographer, wit, publisher and friend'; a list that could have included, as well, accomplished translator of Italian pastoral poetry and editor of Elizabethan and Restoration playwrights.

Unlike Hazlitt, he was not personally acquainted with Wordsworth and Coleridge during their creative years. Both, however, could have acknowledged that although Hunt was neither a great nor a distinctively original writer, he had been instrumental in creating 'the taste by which' the Romantic poets and prose writers were 'to be relished'. In his best and most substantial prose work, the engagingly written Autobiography, Hunt could have stressed with justice the measure of guidance, encouragement, advocacy and advancement that he afforded to Shelley, Keats, Byron and others. But the emphasis is always upon the enrichment their company and talents afforded to him.

In later years, Hunt was quick to spot and commend genuine poetic promise in the early work of Tennyson, Browning and Rossetti. How much easier, he once declared, to write appreciatively of writers whose work has stood the test of time than to single out contemporaries whose work will be read two hundred years hence.

Is it sufficient to rest his literary reputation upon his talent-spotting perceptions and the reflected glory of his literary associates? As editor and journalist Hunt founded or contributed substantially to nearly a dozen magazines and periodicals. Unless exercised stylishly and with an eye to posterity, journalism is an ephemeral literary form. Hunt's provocatively radical writings for The Examiner, which he and his brother John edited for several years - even from prison - were of and for his day and age: courageous, impudent shafts in the causes of liberty, justice and human decencies that culminated but did not conclude with his attack on the Prince Regent, that 'fat Adonis of fifty', and a consequent fine of £500 for both brothers plus two years of imprisonment. Of more literary significance are the several hundred theatrical articles and reviews that Hunt wrote as a young man: cocky, but dispassionate, a keen observer of acting and scenic detail, Hunt was a pioneer critic of plays-in-performance, an example followed by Lamb and Hazlitt, whose careers he advanced.

Far too much of his time and creative resources was expended upon occasional literary pieces, on well observed and humorous essays depicting social and street life in London; pleasing to dip into but not, today, compelling reading. Nevertheless, much of Hunt's multitudinous writing in this vein appears to have influenced Dickens in his Sketches by Boz. Despite the travestied depiction of Hunt as Skimpole in Bleak House, Dickens remained a well-disposed and financially helpful friend to the end of Hunt's life.

Hunt is not to be remembered for his single novel, set in the late seventeenth century; nor for his several plays, though two of these were performed at Drury Lane and Covent Garden; one of them, an Italianate Jacobean pastiche, being sufficiently admired by Queen Victoria to merit a command performance at Windsor. Though he has a comic touch, Hunt is no more skilled as a dramatist than any other early or late Romantic.

As a poet, Hunt has left to the anthologists the engaging 'Rondeau', 'Jenny kissed me', which surely gave him as much pleasure in the composing of it as the kiss received from Carlyle's wife, Jane, and 'Abou Ben Adhem'. Abou, like Hunt, loved his fellow-men and was rewarded for so doing by his benevolent God. Hunt trusted, and his religious faith did not extend much further, that God would reunite him in death with all his loved ones and friends in a spiritual, Parnassian hereafter. Though lightweight, these two poems are so dextrously accomplished that it is a wonder that Hunt was not able to polish off several of their like in the two volumes of his collected poetry.

The most literary of his longer poems, The Story of Rimini, has suffered at the hands of critics for its allegedly cloying influence upon Keats's earlier poetry. Despite gushing lapses and nudging colloquialisms, the narrative is lively and the settings and processional scenes are richly described. Apart from two or three sonnets worthy to compete with all but the best of Keats's and Shelley's, and apart perhaps from a poem that Shelley admired particularly, 'The Nymphs', Hunt's early poetry is largely pallid stuff. He is more effective in middle life writing as a satirical versifier. In 1835, three years before the 'Rondeau' and 'Abou Ben Adhem' were composed, Hunt wrote a sturdy poem of conviction, 'Captain Sword and Captain Pen', which bounces along with zestful rhythms. War is presented as a brutal remedy, not to be condoned. Man resorts to it, not through innate depravity but, as he resorts to all other evil means, out of stupidity and ignorance. Hunt affirms the reforming power of 'Pen', the disseminator of culture and education. Naive the argument may seem today, but it is carried through the poem with an urgency of commitment not to be found in Hunt's other verses. Another relatively late poem (1836), 'The Fish, the Man and the Spirit', is a quirkily humorous dialogue written in the form of three sonnets. For the rest, especially his not disagreeable but undemanding poems in blank verse on domestic themes, silence has been the verdict of posterity. So be it.

Remembered at home, indeed in various cluttered and noisy homes in London and northern Italy, by his eldest son, Thornton, and various friends, with either a book or a pen in his hand, Hunt deserves to be honoured today by begetters, editors and readers of contemporary literary periodicals. If it is too much to hope that their tribe may increase, may it not diminish. DAVID JESSON-DIBLEY

This report is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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