Leigh Hunt was born in 1784 at Southgate. He was the son of a poor clergyman. Hunt received his schooling as a charity boy at Christ’s Hospital.
His first collection of poems, Juvenilia, appeared in 1801. In 1808 he founded and edited, with his brother John Hunt, the radical journal The Examiner, the first of many journals he was to initiate. He was to write poetry and drama, but the bulk of his large output was in the form of essays on a wide variety of subjects, many of which were published in his journals. The Reflector, in which he published Charles Lamb‘s essays on William Shakespeare and William Hogarth, appeared in 1810.
In 1813 he and his brother were fined £500 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for a libel in The Examiner on the prince regent. While in jail he was allowed to have his family with him, to continue to write and edit The Examiner, and to receive visits from friends, who included Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, the Lambs, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and Henry Brougham.
In 1816 he printed John Keats’s early sonnet ‘O Solitude’ in The Examiner, and began his vigorous and lifelong support of Keats, P. B.Shelley, and the Romantic poets. His name was linked with that of Keats and Hazlitt in attacks on the so-called Cockney School.
He published his influential poem The Story of Rimini, dedicated to Lord Byron, in the same year. His verses appeared in Foliage (1818) and in 1819 he published his poems Hero and Leander and Bacchus and Ariadne. In the ‘Indicator’ in 1821 he published Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci‘. In The Liberal, founded jointly with Byron, there appeared in 1822
The Vision of Judgement, and in the three subsequent numbers works by Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt, Hunt, Hogg, and others.
His critical account of the co-founder of The Liberal in Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828) was generally seen as ignoble and was mercilessly satirized by Moore’s “The Living Dog and the Dead Lion’.
The Companion, a magazine which contains some of Hunt’s best work, appeared in 1828, his Tatler in 1830-32, and his London Journal in 1834-5. Captain Sword and Captain Pen (1835) is an effective threnody on the horrors of war. ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ (probably, with Jenny kissed me’, Hunt’s best-known poem) was published in an anthology, the Book of Gems (1838).
Hunt’s play A Legend of Florence (1840), a semi-Elizabethan tragedy, was produced at Covent Garden and was well received: he wrote several others without success. In the same year, he published an edition of Restoration dramatists. In 1844 appeared his Poetical Works and Imagination and Fancy, in which he usefully compares painting and poetry; in 1846 an anthology, Wit and Humour, and Stories from Italian Poets; in 1847 (the year in which he received a Civil List pension) appeared Men, Women, and Books; in 1848 A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla and The Town, an evocation of London; in 1850 a lively Autobiography, much admired by Thomas Carlyle and others; in 1851 Table Talk; in 1853 The Religion of the Heart; in 1855 The Old Court Suburb, essays on Kensington, and a bowdlerized edition of *Beaumont and Fletcher.
Hunt’s essays, although much influenced by the essayists of the previous century, were not moral in principal intent. His aim was to convey appreciation and enjoyment (‘to reap pleasure from every object in creation’), and his pleasure in literature, drama, music, and friendship is agreeably infectious. Hunt was a brave and outspoken radical during the Regency, and a poet whose contemporary importance has recently been positively reassessed.
His gift for detecting talent, from Keats to Tennyson, and his determined support for it, made him an invaluable editor. His sunny, optimistic nature is sketched in the early character of Skimpole in Bleak House; Dickens denied the later knavery of Skimpole had anything to do with Hunt.