LEIGH HUNT (JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT)

(1784-1859)
Critic, essayist, poet and writer

Leigh Hunt lived in Epsom for a time from 1828 and, whilst there, started to publish a periodical called 'The Chat of the Week'; he also began writing a book called 'Sir Ralph Esher; or Memoirs of a Gentleman of the Court of Charles the Second, including those of his Friend, Sir Philip Herne.'

Engraving of Leigh Hunt by H Meyer.
Engraving of Leigh Hunt by H Meyer.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Leigh Hunt was born in Southgate, London (then a fairly rural village) on 19 October 1784. His father, Isaac (died 1809), was a lawyer in Philadelphia, but the family had been obliged to leave/escape during the American War of Independence, owing to their support for the British; Isaac then became a clergyman - his wife, Mary Shewell (died 1805), was from a Quaker mercantile family.

Schooldays

Leigh was not a particularly healthy child and also suffered from a speech impediment which he later overcame. He was educated at Christ's Hospital (the Bluecoat School, then at Newgate, now at Horsham) and showed early signs of fortitude by refusing to become a fag (servant to a more senior boy) and taking punishment as a result. He said, 'I never was fag to anybody; never made anybody's bed, or cleaned his shoes, or was the boy to get his tea, much less expected to stand as a screen for him before the fire ...' He retained fond memories of the school but noted that the food was poor.

He wrote a lot of poetry at school but was not good at essays: he said that the master was in the habit of contemptuously crumpling them up in his hand and calling out, 'Here children, there is something to amuse you.' Because of his stammer, Leigh could not complete his education at Christ's Hospital and proceed to university, since speech-making was required of the senior scholars, so he left and wrote poetry, which was published by his father with some success. Subsequently Leigh did not think much of his early poetic efforts, which appeared in book form, as shown below.

Title page from the 1802 edition of Leigh Hunt's 'Juvenilia'.
Title page from the 1802 edition of Leigh Hunt's 'Juvenilia'.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the works in this first book imitated the style of other poets (which Leigh freely admitted in the book itself) but nevertheless it was impressive output for a teenaged boy. Obviously this kind of poetry is very dated now but it was very much in vogue at the beginning of the 19th century. This excerpt is from 'The Palace of Pleasure' which was written in imitation of Edmund Spenser.

And right aloud the joyous birds did sing,
With melody confus'd that fill'd the sky:
The soaring Lark, with tawny-dappled wing,
And humbler Linnet with his gentle eye,
And gorgeous Finch, with breast of golden dye;
Ne fear'd the bright Canary there to dwell,
Ne chatt'ring Thrush that peeps with glancing sly;
But ne sad Nightingale mourn'd o'er the dell,
Ne Owl with flapping wings shrieking the notes of Hell.

Leigh Hunt at 17.
Leigh Hunt at 17.
Image source: The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt.

What came next

It seems that no career path had been suggested to or mapped out for Leigh and he spent some time simply enjoying himself. However, in 1802, talk was rife of an invasion by Napoleon - something which Leigh rightly believed would not happen - and he joined the St James's Volunteers. He did not have much to say about the actual soldiering, but waxed lyrical about some actors whom he met at that time: he was very much a fan of the theatre (this was the era of Charles Kemble, Sarah Siddons and Mrs Dorothea Jordan, mistress of King William IV) and described Mrs Jordan as follows. 'Mrs Jordan was inimitable in exemplifying the consequences of too much restraint in ill-educated Country-Girls, in Romps, in Hoydens (high-spirited saucy girls), and in Wards on whom the mercenary have designs. She wore a bib and tucker, and pinafore, with a bouncing propriety, fit to make the boldest spectator alarmed at the idea of bringing such a household responsibility on his shoulders. To see her when thus attired shed blubbering tears for some disappointment, and eat all the while a great thick slice of bread and butter, weeping, and moaning, and munching, and eyeing at every bite the part she meant to bite next, was a lesson against will and appetite worth a hundred sermons of our friends on board the hoy ...' ('on board the hoy' is a reference to an earlier passage in Leigh's autobiography where he criticised Methodists on a ship who would not make room in their dormitory for a woman sleeping on deck in the cold and damp.)

Mrs Jordan in 1791; mezzotint by John Jones after a drawing by John Hoppner.
Mrs Jordan in 1791; mezzotint by John Jones after a drawing by John Hoppner.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Leigh then turned his hand back to prose, which had not been his forte at school, but since then he had read material of his own choice and developed an appreciation of the classics; he managed to get some of his efforts published in an evening paper called The Traveller (later The Globe) under the pseudonym of Mr Town Junior. Subsequently he wrote well-received theatrical criticisms for a short-lived paper started by his brother John.

'Proper work'

One can surmise that these writings did not bring in a substantial income and in about 1807 Leigh worked for a while as a clerk to his lawyer brother Stephen; he was then given a clerkship in the War Office, engineered by his father. This was not what he wanted from life and when, in 1808, John Hunt started another paper called The Examiner he became its editor and leader-writer for the next 13 years. The paper did not mince its words and John and Leigh were prosecuted for political offences on several occasions, being 'got off' by Scottish lawyer Henry Brougham, who later became Lord Chancellor. However, the brothers came unstuck when they published a description of the Prince Regent in response to a poem which had appeared calling him 'the Adonis of Loveliness'. They wrote that the Prince 'was a corpulent man of fifty-in short, this delightful, blissful, wise, 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.' All of which was true, of course, but in 1812 the Hunts were prosecuted for these words and Brougham couldn't save them this time: they were fined and sentenced to two years' imprisonment, although they could have avoided the penalties by giving an undertaking not to attack the Prince again. They declined and off to prison they went, with Leigh being incarcerated in the Surrey County Gaol at Horsemonger Lane.

A representation of the 'Adonis of Loveliness'.
A representation of the 'Adonis of Loveliness'
(aka the Prince Regent) in Brighton Museum,
proving that one can now get away with more than Leigh Hunt did.
Image © Linda Jackson 2014.

In truth, conditions at Horsemonger Lane for Leigh were not that bad: being a gentleman, he was allowed to decorate his room and have any visitors he wanted, and he still edited The Examiner. It was during this incarceration that he was introduced to Lord Byron, having already become acquainted with Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shortly after his release in 1815 he went to live in Hampstead.

Marriage and children

This is a convenient moment to talk about Leigh's family, although he made little mention of them in his autobiography. In 1809 he married Marianne Kent, whom he had been courting since he was 17. By all accounts she was an attractive woman and very self-confident, but the marriage soon ran into trouble, which mainly arose from Leigh deciding to improve her education even before they were married - she could barely read and write and her spelling was awful. She resented his attempts to improve her. Additionally he had apparently suffered what amounted to a nervous breakdown following the death of his mother in 1805, although he attributes many of his frequent illnesses to hypochondria. Reading an account of their courtship it is hard to understand why or how they ever actually got married, but they did. There were ten children in total (a few sources say eleven) and they were as follows.

Name Born Married Died
Thornton Leigh 1810 Katharine Gliddon 1873 Kilburn, Yorks
John Horatio Leigh 1812 Harriett Lapham 1846 (phthisis) West London
Mary Florimel Leigh 1813 Surrey County Gaol John Gliddon 1849 Kensington district
Swinburne Percy Leigh 1816 - 1827
Percy Bysshe Shelley Leigh 1817 Paddington Ann Knight 1899 Sussex
James Henry Sylvan Leigh 1819 Rosalind Williams 1876 Fulham
Vincent Novello Leigh 1823 Florence - 1852 Kensington district
Julia Trelawney Leigh 1826 St Pancras - 1872 Kensington district
Jacintha Shelley Leigh 1828 Charles Smith Cheltnam (author) 1914 Fulham district
Arabella Leigh 1829 - 1830

Thornton became a newspaper journalist and was the first editor of The Daily Telegraph. John eked out a precarious living as a clerk and hack journalist but did quite well out of writing begging letters to well-off people, much to his father's annoyance.

Departure for Italy

While Leigh was in Hampstead he completed and published his very long narrative poem called 'The Story of Rimini', which has come to be regarded as his major work. It tells the story of Paolo and Francesca, two characters from Dante's 'Inferno', and is online at http://books.google.co.uk/books. Although some of Leigh Hunt's poetry is still well-known today, he is not regarded as a great poet, unlike his friends Byron, Shelley and Keats, all three of whom were about to die.

The Examiner paper was still in existence at this point, but in decline. In 1818 Shelley had gone to live in Italy with his second wife Mary (daughter of William Godwin and the author of 'Frankenstein' ) and Godwin's step-daughter, Claire Clairmont. Claire had a daughter, Alba/Allegra, born in 1817 and fathered by Byron, who was also in Italy at this period. Keats went to Rome in 1820, by then dying of tuberculosis. Byron had proposed that the four of them should set up a new periodical and, although Leigh and his wife were both ailing, they packed up their belongings and children and set sail for Italy in November 1821, one of the worst winters on record for bad weather. The voyage was aborted at Dartmouth as Marianne was too ill to continue. Keats had already died in February 1821.

The Hunts did not sail again until May 1822, arriving in Genoa towards the end of June and then going on to Livorno, where Byron was staying; they were joined by Shelley. In due course the latter departed in the company of a friend, naval officer Captain Edward Ellerker Williams. Hunt never saw Shelley alive again for he, Williams and a sailor were drowned at sea on the Gulf of Spezia in July 1822. And so, Byron and Hunt alone started up the periodical, which was called The Liberal and ran for just four quarterly editions. Byron departed for Greece, where he died in April 1824.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier.
The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Return to England

The Hunts returned to England via France in 1825 and went to live in Highgate for a while, after which they moved to Epsom. Unfortunately, at this point in his autobiography Leigh digresses into literary matters and, when he gets back to the plot, he is in London. However, we do know that whilst in Epsom Leigh had started a publication called The Chat of the Week, but it was classed by officialdom as a newspaper and thus subject to stamp duty, which he could not afford. We also know that he finished the aforementioned 'Sir Ralph Esher'. The Spectator, reviewing it in 1832, said that, although it contained ten times the talent to be found in an ordinary novel, 'we admire the talents and ingenuity of Leigh Hunt, while we cannot read his works with pleasure. There is, or we fancy there is, a tone of affected volatility, an elaborate smartness, or jauntiness, to use a word of his own, about all he writes, for which we cannot repress our distaste.' Should you wish to attempt the book it is online at https://archive.org.

(I will confess now that, although much of the material in this article is derived from Leigh's three-volume autobiography, I skim-read the whole thing, mainly because he could not stick to the plot without long and flowery literary digressions. The passages of descriptive narrative, such as the sections dealing with his schooldays, his voyage to Italy and his travels there, are very readable ... and then, for example, he gets too clever by quoting large chunks of verse in Latin and Italian. To my way of thinking you either write a full factual book of autobiography or a book about literature, but both in the same volume, or rather three volumes, is hard going. If you want to tackle this one all of it is online at https://archive.org.)

In due course the Hunts went to live in Chelsea, where they remained for seven years. Leigh continued editing periodicals and writing - too many works to detail here - but two notable pieces of output were a series of sketches he wrote about London (later published in book form as 'The Town') and a poem called 'Captain Sword and Captain Pen', which began like this.

Captain Sword got up one day,
Over the hills to march away,
Over the hills and through the towns,
They heard him coming across the downs,
Stepping in music and thunder sweet,
Which his drums sent before him into the street.
And lo! 'twas a beautiful sight in the sun;
For first came his foot, all marching like one,
With tranquil faces, and bristling steel,
And the flag full of honour as though it could feel,
And the officers gentle, the sword that hold
'Gainst the shoulder heavy with trembling gold,
And the massy tread, that in passing is heard,
Though the drums and the music say never a word.

There was also a play called 'The Legend of Florence' which enjoyed reasonable success and made him £200, but he was always short of money and in due course the Shelley family granted him an annuity. Later, his friend, Charles Dickens, prevailed upon the Government to give him a Civil List pension.

Leigh Hunt at 66.
Leigh Hunt at 66.
Image source: Volume 3 of his autobiography.

Leigh's autobiography was published in 1850, by which time he was living in Kensington and sounding rather world-weary.

'Captain Sword and Captain Pen' is reckoned by some to be his best poem, but readers may be more familiar with 'Abou Ben Adhem' (which I was forced to learn by heart at school) and 'Jenny Kissed Me', which are sufficiently short to be included here in full.

ABOU BEN ADHEM

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:-
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?"-The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

JENNY KISSED ME

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.


Neither Leigh nor Marianne enjoyed good health and their domestic situation was further complicated by the fact that she was an alcoholic. In 1853 they moved to Hammersmith. Marianne died on 26 January 1857. In 1859 Leigh went to visit a friend in Putney and died there on 28 August from exhaustion. Both are buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Researched and written by Linda Jackson ©2014



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