James Henry Leigh Hunt by Samuel Laurence

James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). Portrait by Samuel Laurence (1812-1884), circa 1837. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

James Henry Leigh Hunt (19 October 1784 - 28 August 1859) was an English poet, literary critic, and essayist.



Hunt was born at Southgate, London, where his parents had settled after leaving the United States. His father Isaac, a lawyer from Philadelphia, and his mother, Mary Shewell, a merchant's daughter and a devout Quaker, had been forced to come to Britain because of their loyalist sympathies during the American War of Independence. Hunt's father took holy orders, and became a popular preacher, but was unsuccessful in obtaining a permanent living. Hunt's father was then employed by James Brydges, 3rd Duke of Chandos, as tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh (father of Chandos Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh), after whom the boy was named.[1]


Leigh Hunt was educated at Christ's Hospital from 1791 to 1799, a period which is detailed in his autobiography. He entered the school shortly after Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb had both left; Thomas Barnes, however, was a school friend of his. Christ's Hospital was a typical English boarding school, and many students later wrote of the terrible violence they suffered there. The upper master of the school from 1778 to 1799 was Reverend James Boyer, a man renowned for his unpredictable and capricious temper. In one famous story Boyer was said to have knocked one of Hunt's teeth out by throwing a copy of Homer at him from across the room.

As a boy, he was an ardent admirer of Thomas Gray and William Collins, writing many verses in imitation of them. A speech impediment, later cured, prevented his going to university. "For some time after I left school," he says, "I did nothing but visit my school-fellows, haunt the book-stalls and write verses." His poems were published in 1801 under the title of Juvenilia, and introduced him into literary and theatrical society. He began to write for the newspapers, and published in 1807 a volume of theatre criticism, and a series of Classic Tales with critical essays on the authors.

Hunt's early essays were published by Edward Quin, editor and owner of The Traveller.[2]


The ExaminerEdit

In 1808 he left the War Office, where he had been working as a clerk, to become editor of the Examiner, a newspaper founded by his brother, John. His brother Robert Hunt, among others, also contributed to its columns; his criticism earned the enmity of William Blake, who described the journal's office at Beaufort Buildings as containing a "nest of villains".[3] Blake's response included Leigh Hunt, who aside from publishing the vitriolic reviews of 1808 and 1809 had added Blake's name on a list of "quacks".[4]

This journal soon acquired a reputation for unusual political independence; it would attack any worthy target, "from a principle of taste," as John Keats expressed it. In 1813, an attack on the Prince Regent, based on substantial truth, resulted in prosecution and a sentence of two years' imprisonment for each of the brothers — Leigh Hunt served his term at the Surrey County Gaol.[5] Leigh Hunt's visitors in prison included Lord Byron, Thomas Moore[6], Lord Brougham, Charles Lamb and others, whose acquaintance influenced his later career. The stoicism with which Leigh Hunt bore his imprisonment attracted general attention and sympathy. His imprisonment allowed him many luxuries and access to friends and family, Lamb described his decorations of the cell as something not found outside a fairy tale. When Jeremy Bentham called on him, he was found playing battledore.[1]

A number of essays in The Examiner that were written by Hunt and William Hazlitt between 1814 and 1817 under the series title "The Round Table" were collected in book form in The Round Table, published in two volumes in 1817. Twelve of the fifty-two essays were by Hunt, the rest by Hazlitt.[7]

The ReflectorEdit

In 1810-1811 he edited a quarterly magazine, the Reflector, for his brother John. He wrote "The Feast of the Poets" for this, a satire, which offended many contemporary poets, particularly William Gifford of the Quarterly.


Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt, from Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, 1828. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1816 he made a mark in English literature with the publication of Story of Rimini. Hunt's preference was decidedly for Chaucer's verse style, as adapted to the Modern English by John Dryden, in opposition to the epigrammatic couplet of Alexander Pope which had superseded it. The poem is an optimistic narrative which runs contrary to the tragic nature of its subject. Hunt's flippancy and familiarity, often degenerating into the ludicrous, subsequently made him a target for ridicule and parody.

In 1818 appeared a collection of poems entitled Foliage, followed in 1819 by Hero and Leander, and Bacchies and Ariadne. In the same year he reprinted these two works with The Story of Rimini and The Descent of Liberty with the title of Poetical Works, and started the Indicator, in which some of his best work appeared. Both Keats and Shelley belonged to the circle gathered around him at Hampstead, which also included William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Bryan Procter, Benjamin Haydon, Charles Cowden Clarke, C.W. Dilke, Walter Coulson and John Hamilton Reynolds.

Friend of Keats and ShelleyEdit

He had for some years been married to Marianne Kent. His own affairs were in confusion, and only Shelley's generosity saved him from ruin. In return he showed sympathy to Shelley during the latter's domestic distresses, and defended him in the Examiner. He introduced Keats to Shelley and wrote a very generous appreciation of him in the Indicator. Keats seems, however, to have subsequently felt that Hunt's example as a poet had been in some respects detrimental to him.

After Shelley's departure for Italy in 1818, Leigh Hunt became even poorer, and the prospects of political reform less satisfactory. Both his health and his wife's failed, and he was obliged to discontinue the Indicator (1819–1821), having, he says, "almost died over the last numbers." Shelley suggested that Hunt go to Italy with him and Byron to establish a quarterly magazine in which Liberal opinions could be advocated with more freedom than was possible at home. An injudicious suggestion, it would have done little for Hunt or the Liberal cause at the best, and depended entirely upon the co-operation of the capricious, parsimonious Byron. Byron's principal motive for agreeing appears to have been the expectation of acquiring influence over the Examiner, and he was mortified to discover that Hunt was no longer interested in the "Examiner". Leigh Hunt left England for Italy in November 1821, but storm, sickness and misadventure retarded his arrival until 1 July 1822, a rate of progress which Thomas Love Peacock appropriately compares to the navigation of Ulysses.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier (1889); pictured in the centre are, from left, Trelawny, Hunt, and Byron. (As a matter of fact Hunt was not standing before the fire, he remained in his coach the entire time.)

The death of Shelley, a few weeks later, destroyed every prospect of success for the Liberal. Hunt was now virtually dependent upon Byron, who did not relish the idea of being patron to Hunt's large and troublesome family. Byron's friends also scorned Hunt. The Liberal lived through four quarterly numbers, containing contributions no less memorable than Byron's "Vision of Judgment" and Shelley's translations from Faust; but in 1823 Byron sailed for Greece, leaving Hunt at Genoa to shift for himself. The Italian climate and manners, however, were entirely to Hunt's taste, and he protracted his residence until 1825, producing in the interim Ultra-Crepidarius: a Satire on William Gifford (1823), and his matchless translation (1825) of Francesco Redi's Bacco in Toscana.

In 1825 a litigation with his brother brought him back to England, and in 1828 he published Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, a corrective to idealized portraits of Byron. The public was shocked that Hunt, who had been obliged to Byron for so much, would "bite the hand that fed him" in this way. Hunt especially writhed under the withering satire of Moore. For many years afterwards, the history of Hunt's life is a painful struggle with poverty and sickness. He worked unremittingly, but one effort failed after another. Two journalistic ventures, the Tatler (1830–1832), a daily devoted to literary and dramatic criticism, and Leigh Hunt's London Journal (1834–1835), were discontinued for want of subscribers, although the latter contained some of his best writing. His editorship (1837–1838) of the Monthly Repository, in which he succeeded William Johnson Fox, was also unsuccessful. The adventitious circumstances which allowed the Examiner to succeed no longer existed, and Hunt's personality was unsuited to the general body of readers.

In 1832 a collected edition of his poems was published by subscription, the list of subscribers including many of his opponents. In the same year was printed for private circulation Christianism, the work afterwards published (1853) as The Religion of the Heart. A copy sent to Thomas Carlyle secured his friendship, and Hunt went to live next door to him in Cheyne Row in 1833. Sir Ralph Esher, a romance of Charles II's period, had a success, and Captain Sword and Captain Pen (1835), a spirited contrast between the victories of peace and the victories of war, deserves to be ranked among his best poems. In 1840 his circumstances were improved by the successful representation at Covent Garden of his play Legend of Florence. Lover's Amazements, a comedy, was acted several years afterwards, and was printed in Leigh Hunt's Journal (1850–1851); other plays remained in manuscript. In 1840 he wrote introductory notices to the work of Sheridan and to Edward Moxon's edition of the works of William Wycherley, William Congreve, John Vanbrugh and George Farquhar, a work which furnished the occasion of Macaulay's essay on the Dramatists of the Restoration. The narrative poem The Palfrey was published in 1842.

Financial difficultiesEdit

The time of Hunt's greatest difficulties was between 1834 and 1840. He was at times in absolute poverty, and his distress was aggravated by domestic complications. By Macaulay's recommendation he began to write for the Edinburgh Review. In 1844 Mary Shelley and her son, on succeeding to the family estates, settled an annuity of £120 upon Hunt (Rossetti 1890); and in 1847 Lord John Russell procured him a pension of £200. Now living in improved comfort, Hunt published the companion books, Imagination and Fancy (1844), and Wit and Humour (1846), two volumes of selections from the English poets, which displayed his refined, discriminating critical tastes. His book on the pastoral poetry of Sicily, A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla (1848), is also delightful. The Town (2 vols., 1848) and Men, Women and Books (2 vols., 1847) are partly made up from former material. The Old Court Suburb (2 vols., 1855; ed. A Dobson, 2002) is a sketch of Kensington, where he long resided. In 1850 he published his Autobiography (3 vols.), a naive and affected, but accurate, piece of self-portraiture. A Book for a Corner (2 vols.) was published in 1849, and his Table Talk appeared in 1851. In 1855 his narrative poems, original and translated, were collected under the title Stories in Verse.

He died in Putney on the 28 August 1859. He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.


Critical introductionEdit

by Edward Dowden

Hunt's distinction as a poet is to be inspired by pleasure which never steals from his senses the freshness of boyhood, and never darkens his heart with the shadow of unsatisfied desire. Hazlitt spoke of ‘the vinous quality of his mind,’ which, with his natural gaiety and sprightliness of manner and his high animal spirits, ‘produce an immediate fascination and intoxication in those who come in contact with him.’ This vinous quality is in all Leigh Hunt’s verse, but it is not that of the heady liquor Hazlitt describes; it is a bright, light wine,

‘Tasting of Flora, and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sun-burnt mirth.’

For his chief poem, The Story of Rimini, he chose a passionate and piteous theme; but it was, as he says, to steady his felicity when, released from imprisonment, he visited the English south coast with his wife and their first beloved child.

A clear bright happiness in duty Leigh Hunt found; his industry was that of a bird building its nest. He had dared in a troubled time to libel the girth of the first gentleman in Europe, to call Adonis corpulent; and when sentence of two years’ imprisonment was pronounced, there was some sinking at his heart. But by and by his room in the prison infirmary began to blossom into an Arcadian bower — "I papered the wall with a trellis of roses; I had the ceiling covered with clouds and sky; the barred windows I screened with Venetian blinds; and when my book-cases were set up with their busts, and flowers and a pianoforte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side the water." It must have come out of a fairy tale, said Charles Lamb. On one bookshelf lay a solid "lump of sunshine," the Parnaso Italiano in fifty-six duodecimo volumes. All Mount Hybla and the Vale of Enna were in his cell.

The Parnaso Italiano accompanied him later to Italy. His earlier masters had been Spenser, the youthful Milton, and, in chief, Dryden. He speaks of his ‘first manner,’ and of his growth in inward perception of poetical requirement; as he advanced in years he became fastidious, rejecting altogether many charming pieces of earlier date. But in truth, although sallies of vivid phraseology were less frequent as his animal spirits lost the licence of boyhood, his style was from first to last in essentials one and the same. The wine was the same, but it had grown mellower.

His poetry was not the poetry of thought and passion, which we have in Shakespeare; nor — to use Leigh Hunt’s own words — that of "scholarship and a rapt ambition," which we have in Milton. He could have passed his whole life writing eternal new stories in verse, part grave, part gay, of no great length, but "just sufficient," he says, "to vent the pleasure with which I am stung on meeting with some touching adventure, and which haunts me till I can speak of it somehow."

Strolling in the meadows near northern London, a Spenser or a volume of the Parnaso under his arm, Leigh Hunt — a Cockney poet, as were Milton, Chaucer, and Spenser — gathered honey for his hive. When seated at his desk a blissful still excitement possessed him; his cheek flushed, his breath came irregularly, yet all seemed to be calmed and harmonised by some sweet necessity. In such a vivid composure the fine phrase, the subtle image emerged, to be welcomed and caressed:—

‘A ghastly castle, that eternally
Holds its blind visage out to the lone sea’

—after such words the poet’s breast might drink a deep inspiration.

‘A few cattle looking up askance
With ruminant meek mouths and sleepy glance’—

there again he had liberated his perception and his pleasure, and might pause for a happy moment. So he flitted on with steady purpose, and a happy industrious imagination storing his hive. His verses, though less rich and deep in loveliness than those of Keats, seem, as he so finely said of Keats’s lines, ‘to take pleasure in the progress of their own beauty, like sea-nymphs luxuriating in the water.’ He loved the triplet because it prolonged this luxury.

Leigh Hunt’s reverence for literature was of the finest temper. It would have pleased him to be a servant in the train of Ariosto. His loyalty to Keats was generous and constant, untouched by a shadow of ignoble rivalry. To him, the elder of the two, Keats offered his first printed verses. And Shelley withdrew, as fearing by sigh or tear to wrong the deeper grief of him, the "gentlest of the wise," who "taught, soothed, loved, honoured" dead Adonais.[8]


His poem "Jenny Kiss'd Me" was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[9]

In September 1966, Christ's Hospital named one of its Houses in memory of him.

Hunt was the original of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. "Dickens wrote in a letter of 25 September 1853, 'I suppose he is the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words! ... It is an absolute reproduction of a real man'; and a contemporary critic commented, 'I recognized Skimpole instantaneously; ... and so did every person whom I talked with about it who had ever had Leigh Hunt's acquaintance.'"[10] G.K. Chesterton suggested that Dickens "may never once have had the unfriendly thought, 'Suppose Hunt behaved like a rascal!'; he may have only had the fanciful thought, 'Suppose a rascal behaved like Hunt!'" (Chesterton 1906).


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Collected editionsEdit




  • The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt (edited by his eldest son [Thornton Leigh Hunt]). London: Smith, Elder, 1862.[24] Volume I, Volume II.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[25]

Play productionsEdit

  • A Legend of Florence. London, Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 7 February 1840.[25]
  • Lovers' Amazements. London, Lyceum Theatre, 20 January 1858.[25]

See alsoEdit

"Abou Ben Adhem" = great poem by Leigh Hunt (Abou's comment pleases God)01:17

"Abou Ben Adhem" = great poem by Leigh Hunt (Abou's comment pleases God)


  • Blainey, Ann. Immortal Boy. 1985.
  • Blunden, Edmund, The Examiner Examined. Cobden-Sanderson, 1928
  • Cox, Jeffrey N., Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle. Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0521631006
  • Eberle-Sinatra, Michael, Leigh Hunt and the London Literary Scene: A Reception History of His Major Works, 1805-1828. Routledge, 2005.
  • Holden, Anthony, The Wit in the Dungeon: The Life of Leigh Hunt. Little, Brown, 2005. ISBN 978-0316859271
  • Lulofs, Timothy J. and Hans Ostrom, Leigh Hunt: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985. ISBN 978-0415316767
  • Roe, Nicholas, Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt. Pimlico, 2005. ISBN 978-0712602242


  1. 1.0 1.1 12px Ireland, Alexander (1899) "Hunt, James Henry Leigh" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 60 London: Smith, Elder, 
  2. 12px Donoghue, David James (1896) "Quin, Edward" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 47 London: Smith, Elder, 
  3. Symons, Arthur (1907). William Blake. New York: Dutton. pp. 150. 
  4. Blake, William; Essick, Robert N.; Viscomi, Joseph (1998-09-04). Milton a poem, and the final illuminated works: The ghost of Abel, On Homers poetry, [and] On Virgil, Laocoön. Princeton University Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780691001487. Retrieved 2 December 2010. 
  5. Roe, Nicholas. "'The Hunt Era': Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle and The Examiner, 1818–1822, introduced by Yasuo Deguchi." Romanticism On the Net 14 (May 1999). Accessed 19 December 2006.
  6. See Byron's "To Thomas Moore : Written The Evening Before His Visit To Mr. Leigh Hunt In Horsemonger Lane Gaol, May 19, 1813".
  7. Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt (ed. P.P. Howe), vol. 4. London: Dent & Sons, 1910, "Bibliographical Note" and "Advertisement to the Edition of 1817" (unpaginated).
  8. from Edward Dowden, "Critical Introduction: Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 29, 2016.
  9. "Jenny kiss'd Me". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 5, 2012.
  10. Page, Norman, editor, Bleak House, Penguin Books, 1971, p.955 (note 2 to Chapter 6).
  11. Modern Parnassus; or, The new art of poetry (1814), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  12. Poems of Leigh Hunt (1891), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  13. The Companion (1828), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  14. Essays and Miscellanies (1851), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  15. Essays by Leigh Hunt (1887), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  16. Dramatic Essays (1894), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  17. Search results = Leigh Hunt Coaches and Coaching, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 6, 2013.
  18. Citation styles for "Leigh Hunt as essayist", WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Sep. 7, 2013.
  19. Essays and Sketches (1912), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  20. Ballads of Robin Hood (1922), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  21. Selections in Prose and Verse (1909), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  22. Leight Hunt (The Regent Library), Abe Books. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  23. The Liberal: Verse and prose from the south (1822), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  24. The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt (1862), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 7, 2013.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Leigh Hunt 1784-1859, Poetry Foundation, Web, Oct. 8, 2012.

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