Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)
A Blupete Biography Page

The Poets: And A Sojourn In Italy (1816-25), Part 4 to the Life & Works of
Leigh Hunt

Ann Blainey writes of Hunt's immediate post-prison life:
"At the end of 1816 he moved to the favorite of all his homes: Hampstead, the site of his mother's grave and the place to which, above all others, he felt strongly attached. The place -- near enough to London for visiting friends, bookshops, and theaters but sufficiently rural to provide peace and quiet -- soothed his jangled nerves and he entered into a happy and fruitful period. The focus of his life was changing. Previously it had centered on his brother John and the Examiner to the detriment of his wife and babies. In prison he became a different person, his priorities committed less to John and the paper and more to his wife and three children, and to those literary friends who had so faithfully supported him through his sentence."20
Among his literary friends were two young men, who, it can be claimed, were first introduced by Hunt to the literary world. "I first saw Shelley," Hunt explains in his Autobiography, "during the early period of the Examiner, before its indictment on account of the Regent; but it was only for a few short visits, which did not produce intimacy. ... He was then a youth, not come to his full growth; very gentlemanly, earnestly gazing at every object that interested him, and quoting the Greek dramatists." It appears that the two did not hit it off until 1816, after Hunt had come out of prison and after his, "The Story of Rimini" was published in 1816. It was shortly after that, that Shelley, from an aristocratic family of means, sent "a large sum of money" to Hunt at his home address, known as the "Vale of Health" at Hampstead: thereafter, "an affectionate correspondence began."21 On December 6th, Shelley arrived at Hunt's home at Hampstead and was ushered in as a member of the family. Also at about the same time, and quite independent of Shelley the young John Keats, a medical student at the time, also arrived at Hunt's home, and, he was to get the same sort of warm reception. To both Keats and Shelley, Hunt dispensed enthusiasm and encouragement; and most importantly he gave them access to the columns of the Examiner. Thus, it is to Leigh Hunt that we might give thanks, likely, for our current day knowledge of Shelley and Keats. Though it was indeed fortunate for them to have taken the trouble to meet Hunt, their friendship with this writer and newspaper editor came with a built in set of enemies. As we shall see on our biographical sketch on Keats, the association he had with Hunt made him a particular target of critics.

In 1816, Hunt had his long narrative poem, "The Story of Rimini" published. It had a mixed reception. His friends liked it well enough, but Hunt's enemies (he had many due to his writings in the Examiner) criticized the poem's "idiosyncratic, colloquial style and the sympathetic treatment of incestuous adultery." The Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Tory magazines, seemed to have led the attack.22 Hunt's style was a matter of taste, but the reference to his acceptance of sexual liberty was a matter of fact. Hunt himself, it seems, was faithful to Marianne, a simple woman and by whom he had numerous children; but his young poetic friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley was ready to get it on with any attractive woman who happened to be in his company and had a little time on her hands. Paul Johnson:

"Shelley was soon renting a big house in Great Marlow, for an extended family consisting of himself; the pregnant Mary [Mary Wollstonecraft/Godwin, Shelley's second wife]; her stepsister Claire Clairmont with the baby, Allegra, whom she had just had by Byron; as well as Leigh Hunt and his wife Marianne, also pregnant; and Marianne's sister Bess. They built an alter to Pan in the woods, and the atmosphere was heavy with sexual innuendo. Mary was correcting the proofs of Frankenstein and Shelley was writing Laon and Cynthia, whose theme was incest."23
The worshippers at Great Marlow were not to stay together for long, for, in February of 1818, the Shelleys with Claire and the children left for Italy, so to join Lord Byron. Hunt was probably encouraged to come along; but he, with no money and a growing family, could hardly go off to Italy as much as he might like to do so.24 By September of 1821, however, Hunt was summing up the reasons why he too should go off to Italy: his health, Marianne's tuberculosis, his declining interest in the Examiner, the cheapness of living and education in Italy, the sunshine, and the classical culture. An additional incentive was offered: the three (Shelley, Byron and Hunt) could get up a new literary/political journal which they could all do from Italy. Hunt was without money, but that problem too was surmounted; Shelley and Byron (with independent aristocratic means, the both of them) would provide money sufficient, and a house. Mary Shelley was to write directly to Marianne Hunt: "Italy will not strike you as so divine at first; but each day it becomes dearer and more delightful; the sun, the flowers, the air, all is more sweet and more balmy than in Ultima Thule that you inhabit."25

In January of 1822, Shelley, writing from Italy, sent to Hunt by "return of post" £150. In his letter Shelley writes:

"Lord Byron has assigned you a portion of his palace, and Mary and I had occupied ourselves in furnishing it ... We had hired a woman cook of the country for you, who is still with us. Lord B. had kindly insisted upon paying the upholsterer's bill, with that sort of unsuspecting goodness which makes it infinitely difficult to ask him for more ..."26
On May 13th, 1822, the Hunt family27 went aboard a sailing vessel, the David Walter, which set sail for Italy; the vessel arrived at Genoa on June 15th, it then sailed down to Leghorn arriving there on the first of July. Within days of Hunt's arrival in Italy, Shelley was to die in a boating accident. The death of Shelley left Leigh Hunt without his chief ally in respect to the forthcoming publication of the planned periodical, The Liberal. Byron was to soon lose interest in The Liberal.28 Its first number did appear in September of 1822. It was a work doomed to failure, mainly, I suppose to Shelley's death: it was criticized as "a miscellany of disconnected writings without the momentum of a controlling mind." Shelley's contribution to the publication was key to its success; it might have still had a bit of a run, but Byron had lost interest, it seems, even before Shelley's tragic and unexpected death. With Shelley having died, and with Byron's whims and Hunt's penniless state; it will be no surprise to read that The Liberal came onto the streets a sickly child. It was blasted by certain editors, such as those at the Quarterly, as just being more drivel from "The Cockney School of Poetry."29

It is of course history, and a matter to be taken up in connection with my biographical sketch of the man; but Lord Byron, leaving Italy, went off to Greece in 1823, there to die, at the age of 36, in pursuit of his final romantic dream. So, there it is: Hunt's reasons for being in Italy, to be with Shelley and Byron, went up and disappeared, like thick-flaming shots from a funeral pyre. Hunt would then have gladly returned to England but he lacked passage money; further, he could not face the prospect of being arrested for debt, or of trying to resolve the growing argument with his brother, John (from whom he had borrowed heavily) over the proprietorship of the Examiner.

In September of 1825, having received "a literary advance" from England, Hunt and his family (there was by this time seven children) departed overland for Calais; on October 12th, the family took a "steamboat" at Calais. For Hunt, with the death of Shelley and Byron, an era had come to an end; in any event, Leigh Hunt was glad to take his leave of Italy.

"To, me. Italy had a certain hard taste in the mouth. Its mountains were too bare, its outlines too sharp, its lanes too stony, its voices too loud, its long summer too dusty. I longed to bathe myself in the grassy balm of my native fields."30


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Peter Landry

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