English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

Leigh Hunt

JAMES HENRY LEIGH HUNT (1784–1859) was the son of a clergyman from the West Indies. Like Lamb and Coleridge, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital in London, and began writing poetry while still a boy. He attracted attention early by his theatrical criticisms; and in 1808 he joined his brother in founding a weekly newspaper, the “Examiner.” During the thirteen years for which he contributed to this paper he exerted a wholesome influence in journalism, raising the tone of the press, showing great independence and tolerance, and fighting vigorously for liberal principles. He earned the distinction of two years’ imprisonment for telling plain truths about the Prince Regent; and his prosecution by the Government made him many distinguished friends. Some years later he went to Italy to join Shelley and Byron in the establishment of a new magazine; and it was on returning from Leghorn, where he had gone to meet Hunt, that Shelley was drowned. The new magazine was soon abandoned, Hunt returned to England, engaged in various periodical and other literary enterprises from which he seldom earned enough to meet his expenses, and struggled on cheerfully and courageously to the age of seventy-five.

Hunt’s poetry is pretty, fanciful, and musical, but, with the exception of one or two pieces, is now little read. Much of his prose work is merely highly-toned journalism, the interest of which has passed with its occasion. But among his familiar essays, from which the paper here printed is taken, there are many little masterpieces, suffused with his cheerful optimistic spirit, and expressed always gracefully and sometimes exquisitely. “No man,” says James Russell Lowell, “has ever understood the delicacies and luxuries of language better than he; and his thoughts often have all the rounded grace and shifting luster of a dove’s neck.… He was as pure-minded a man as ever lived, and a critic whose subtlety of discrimination and whose soundness of judgment, supported as it was on a broad basis of truly liberal scholarship, have hardly yet won fitting appreciation.”