HUNT, JAMES HENRY LEIGH (1784–1859), essayist, critic, and poet, was born at Southgate, Middlesex, on 19 Oct. 1784. His father, Isaac, was descended from one of the oldest settlers in Barbadoes, and studied at a college in Philadelphia, U.S.A. He married Mary Shewell, a lady of quaker extraction, a tender-hearted, refined, and sensitively conscientious woman, whose memory was, says Leigh Hunt, 'a serene and inspiring influence to animate me in the love of truth.' The father was sanguine, pleasure-loving, and unpractical. He encountered much persecution as a loyalist, and finally, with broken fortunes, came to England, where he became a popular metropolitan preacher. His manners were theatrical, and he was fond of society. He acquired a reputation for unsteadiness, which prevented him from getting preferment in the church. He found a friend in James Brydges, third duke of Chandos, and was engaged by him as a tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh (the father of Chandos Leigh, first Lord Leigh [q.v.]), after whom Leigh Hunt was called. He was subsequently placed on the Loyalist Pension Fund with 100l. a year, but he mortgaged the pension, and after undergoing a series of mortifications and distresses died in 1809.
Leigh Hunt was a delicate child. He was watched over with great tenderness by his mother, and after a short visit to the coast of France his health improved. He was nervous, and his elder brothers took a pleasure in terrifying him by telling him ghost-stories, and by pretended apparitions. In 1792 he went to Christ's Hospital School. His recollections of his schooldays and schoolmates occupy a large portion of his 'Autobiography.' He describes himself as an 'ultra-sympathising and timid boy.' The thrashing system then in vogue horrified him. His gentle disposition often made him the victim of rougher boys, but he at length gained strength and address enough to stand his own ground. He only fought once, beat his antagonist, and then made a friend of him. Among his school-fellows were Mitchell, the translator of Aristophanes, and Thomas Barnes (1785-1841) [q. v.], subsequently editor of the 'Times.' With Barnes he learned Italian, and the two lads used to wander over the Hornsey fields together, shouting verses from Metastasio. Coleridge and Lamb quitted the school just before he entered it. On account of some hesitation in his speech, which was afterwards overcome, he was not sent to the university. While at school he wrote verses in imitation of Collins and Gray, whom he passionately admired. He revelled in the six-penny edition of English poets then published by John Cooke (1731-1810) [q.v.], and among his favourite volumes were Tooke's 'Pantheon,' Lemprière's 'Classical Dictionary,' and Spence's 'Polymetis,' with the plates. He wrote a poem called 'Winter' in imitation of Thomson, and another called 'The Fairy King' in the manner of Spenser. At thirteen, 'if so old,' he fell in love with a charming cousin of fifteen. After leaving school his time was chiefly spent in visiting his schoolfellows, haunting the bookstalls, reading whatever came in his way, and writing poetry. His father obtained subscribers from his old congregation for 'Juvenilia; or, a Collection of Poems, written between the ages of twelve and sixteen, by J. H. L. Hunt, late of the Grammar School of Christ's Hospital, and dedicated by permission to the Honble. J. H. Leigh, containing Miscellanies, Translations, Sonnets, Pastorals, Elegies, Odes, Hymns, and Anthems, 1801.' The book reached a fourth edition in 1804. Hunt himself afterwards thought these poems 'good for nothing.' Subsequently he visited Oxford, and was patronised by Henry Kett [q.v.], who 'hoped the young poet would receive inspiration from the muse of Warton.' He was soon 'introduced to literati, and shown about among parties in London.' His father had given him a set of the British classics, which he read with avidity, and he began essay-writing, contributing several papers, written with the 'dashing confidence' of a youth, barely of age, to the 'Traveller.' They were signed 'Mr. Town, Junior, Critic and Censor-general,' a signature borrowed from the 'Connoisseur.' In 1805 his brother John started a short-lived paper called 'The News.' Its theatrical criticisms by Leigh Hunt, however, attracted attention by their independence and originality. A selection from them, published in 1807, was entitled 'Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, including General Remarks on the Practice and Genius of the Stage.' In 1807 appeared in five duodecimo volumes 'Classic Tales, Serious and Lively; with Critical Essays on the Merits and Reputation of the Authors.' The tales were selected from Johnson, Voltaire, Marmontel, Goldsmith, Mackenzie, Brooke, Hawkesworth, and Sterne.
About this time Hunt was for a while a clerk under his brother Stephen, an attorney, and afterwards obtained a clerkship in the war office under the patronage of Addington, the premier, his father's friend. This situation he abandoned in 1808 to co-operate with his brother John in a weekly newspaper, to be called 'The Examiner.' Although no politician, he undertook to be editor and leader-writer. The paper soon became popular. It was thoroughly independent, and owed allegiance to no party, but advocated liberal politics with courage and consistency. Its main object was to assert the cause of reform in parliament, liberality of opinion in general, and to infuse in its readers a taste for literature. As a journalist no man did more than Leigh Hunt, during his thirteen years' connection with the 'Examiner,' to raise the tone of newspaper writing, and to introduce into its keenest controversies a spirit of fairness and tolerance.
In 1809 Hunt married Miss Marianne Kent. In the same year appeared 'An Attempt to show the Folly and Danger of Methodism …,' a reprint, with additions, from the 'Examiner.' In 1810 his brother John started a quarterly magazine called 'The Reflector,' which Leigh Hunt edited. Only four numbers of it appeared. Barnes, Charles Lamb, and other friends contributed to it. Hunt wrote for it a poem called 'The Feast of the Poets' (afterwards published separately), a playful and satirical piece, which offended most of the poetical fraternity, especially Gilford, editor of the 'Quarterly Review.' The 'Round Table,' a series of essays on literature, men, and manners, by William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt (2 vols. 1817), originally appeared in the 'Examiner ' between 1815 and 1817.
The 'Examiner' was looked upon with suspicion by those in power. More than once the brothers were prosecuted by the government for political offences, but in each case were acquitted. An article on the savagery of military floggings led to a prosecution early in 1811, when Brougham successfully defended the Hunts. Immediately after the acquittal Shelley first introduced himself to Hunt, by sending him from Oxford a sympahetic note of congratulation. At a political dinner in 1812 the assembled company significantly omitted the usual toast of the prince regent. A writer in the 'Morning Post,' noticing this, printed a poem of adulation, describing the prince as the 'Protector of the Arts,' the 'Mæcenas of the Age,' the 'Glory of the People,' an 'Adonis of Loveliness, attended by Pleasure, Honour, Virtue, and Truth.' The 'Examiner' retorted by a plain description of the prince. 'This Adonis in loveliness,' the article concluded, '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.' A prosecution of Hunt and his brother followed. They were tried in December 1812; Brougham again appeared in their defence, but both were convicted, and each was sentenced by the judge, Lord Ellenborough, in the following February to two years' imprisonment in separate gaols and a fine of 500l. They were subsequently informed that if a pledge were given by them to abstain in future from attacks on the regent it would insure them a remission of both the imprisonment and the fine. This was indignantly rejected, and the two brothers went to prison, John to Clerkenwell and Leigh to Surrey gaol. Leigh was then in delicate health. With his invincible cheerfulness he had the walls of his room papered with a trellis of roses, the ceiling painted with sky and clouds, the windows furnished with Venetian blinds, and an unfailing supply of flowers. He had the companionship of his books, busts, and a pianoforte. He was not debarred from the society of his wife and friends. Charles Lamb declared there was no other such room, except in a fairy tale. Moore, a frequent visitor to the gaol, brought Byron with him in May 1813, and Hunt's intimacy with Byron was thus begun (Moore, Life, ii. 204). Shelley had made him 'a princely offer,' which was declined immediately after the sentence was pronounced (Autobiog. i. 221). When Jeremy Bentham came to see him he found him playing at battledore. During his imprisonment he wrote 'The Descent of Liberty: a Masque, dealing with the downfall of Napoleon, published in 1815, and dedicated to his friend Barnes. All through his imprisonment he continued to edit the 'Examiner.' He left prison in February 1815, and, after a year's lodging in the Edgware Road, went to live at Hampstead, where Shelley, who had just sent him a sum of money, was his guest in December 1816. About the same time Charles Cowden Clarke introduced Keats to him, and Hunt was the means of bringing Keats and Shelley together for the first time (ib. i. 224 228). An article by Hunt on 'Young Poets, published in the 'Examiner,' 1 Dec. 1816, first made the genius of Shelley and Keats known to the public. To both Hunt was a true friend, and both recorded their gratitude. Hunt addressed three sonnets to Keats, and afterwards devoted many pages of his 'Indicator' to a lengthened and glowing criticism of one of the young poet's volumes. Keats stayed with him at Hampstead shortly before leaving for Italy. Shelley made him many handsome gifts; often invited him and his wife to stay with him at Marlow in 1817; and dedicated his 'Cenci' to him in 1819. Keats thought that Hunt afterwards neglected him, though Hunt disclaimed the imputation in an article in the 'Examiner.'
In 1816 appeared 'The Story of Rimini,' a poem. It was dedicated to Lord Byron. The greater part of it was written during his imprisonment. The subject of it was Dante's love-story of Paolo and Francesca. It is conceived in the spirit of Chaucer and has in it lines worthy of Dryden. In conformity with the strictures of some of his critics he rewrote the poem some years later, but it is questionable whether he improved it. When he wrote it, he had not been in Italy, and afterwards he corrected some mistakes in the scenery, and restored its true historical conclusion. At this time Hunt became the object of the most bitter attacks on the part of many tory writers. His close friendship with Shelley, whom he actively assisted in the difficulties consequent on his desertion of his first wife, and whom he vigorously defended from the onslaughts of the 'Quarterly' in the 'Examiner' (September–October 1819), caused him to be identified with some opinions which he himself did not entertain. He was bitterly attacked in 'Blackwood's Magazine' and the 'Quarterly Review.' In the words of Carlyle, he suffered 'obloquy and calumny through the tory press—perhaps a greater quantity of baseness, persevering, implacable calumny, than any other living writer has undergone, which long course of hostility … may be regarded as the beginning of his other worst distresses, and a main cause of them down to this day.' The 'Quarterly Review' nearly fifty years later gave utterance, through the pen of Bulwer, to a generous recognition of the genius of both Hunt and Hazlitt, whom it had similarly attacked, and fifteen years afterwards Wilson in 'Blackwood' made a graceful reference to him in one of the 'Noctes,' the concluding words of which were 'the animosities are mortal, the humanities live for ever.' Wilson even invited him to write for the magazine, but Hunt declined the offer.
In 1818 appeared 'Foliage; or Poems, Original and Translated.' This was followed in 1819 by 'The Literary Pocket-book,' a kind of pocket and memorandum book for men of intellectual and literary tastes. Three more numbers of it appeared, viz. in 1820, 1821, and 1822. The articles in the 'Pocket-book' for 1819 descriptive of the successive beauties of the year were printed with considerable additions in a separate volume in 1821, under the title of 'The Months.' In 1819 Hunt also published 'Hero and Leander' and 'Bacchus and Ariadne.' A new journalistic venture, 'The Indicator,' in which some of his finest essays appeared, commenced in October 1819. During the seventy-six weeks of its existence his papers on literature, life, manners, morals, and nature were all characterised by subtle and delicate criticisms, kindly cheerfulness, and sympathy with nature and art. 'Amyntas, a Tale of the Woods; from the Italian of Torquato Tasso,' appeared in 1820.
In 1821 a proposal was made to Hunt by Shelley and Byron, who were then in Italy, to join them in the establishment of a quarterly liberal magazine, the profits to be divided between Hunt and Byron. The 'Examiner' was declining in circulation, and Hunt was in delicate health. He had been compelled to discontinue the 'Indicator,' 'having,' as he said, 'almost died over the last number.' He set sail with his wife and seven children on 15 Nov. 1821. After a tremendous storm the vessel was driven into Dartmouth, where they relanded and passed on to Plymouth. Here they remained for several months. Shelley sent Hunt 150l. in January 1822, and urged him to secure some means of support other than the projected quarterly before finally leaving England. In May, however, the Hunts sailed for Leghorn, where they arrived at length at the close of June. They were joined by Shelley, and removed to Pisa, Hunt and his family occupying rooms on the ground floor of Byron's house there. Shelley was drowned on 8 July 1822, and Hunt was present at the burning of his body, and wrote the epitaph for his tomb in the protestant cemetery at Rome. Byron's interest in the projected magazine had already begun to cool. Hunt's reliance on its speedy appearance was frustrated by Byron's procrastination, and he was thus compelled to unwilling inactivity, and to the humiliation of having to ask for pecuniary assistance. The two men were thoroughly uncongenial, and their relations mutually vexatious [see under Byron, George Gordon]. The 'Liberal' lived through four numbers (1822–3). Hunt had left Pisa with Byron in September 1822 for Genoa. In 1823 he removed to Florence, and remained there till his return to England two years later. After Byron's departure for Greece in 1823, Hunt and his family were left in a foreign country without the means of support, and much suffering ensued. He produced during that period 'Ultra-Crepidarius; a Satire on William Gifford,' and 'Bacchus in Tuscany, a Dithyrambic Poem from the Italian of Francesco Redi, with Notes, original and select.' He also issued the 'Literary Examiner,' an unstamped weekly paper, extending to twenty-seven numbers; and wrote 'The Wishing Cap,' a series of papers which appeared in the 'Examiner;' and a number of papers in the 'New Monthly Magazine,' called 'The Family Journal,' signed 'Harry Honeycomb.' To the 'New Monthly' he also contributed many essays at later dates. Hunt left Italy in September 1825, one of his reasons for returning to England being a litigation with his brother John. He settled on Highgate Hill, and energetically continued his journalistic work, but in 1828 he committed the great blunder of his life by writing and publishing 'Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries, with Recollections of the Author's Life, and of his visit to Italy, with Portraits.' Although everything stated in the book was undoubtedly true, it ought never to have been written, far less printed. He himself afterwards regretted the imprudent act. 'I had been goaded,' he wrote, 'to the task by misrepresentation …,' and added that he might have said more 'but for common humanity.' At a later period he admitted that he had been 'agitated by anger and grief,' though he had said nothing in which he did not believe. The book has its historical value, however improper it may have been that one who was under obligations to Byron and had been Byron's guest should publish it.
In 1828, while living at Highgate, he issued, under the title of 'The Companion,' a weekly periodical in the style of the 'Indicator.' It extended to twenty-eight numbers, and consisted of criticisms on books, the theatres, and public events. 'They contained some of what afterwards turned out to be my most popular writings.' In the 'Keepsake,' one of the annuals of 1828, there are two articles from his pen; one on 'Pocket-books and Keepsakes,' and the other 'Dreams on the Borderlands of the Land of Poetry' (cf. for extracts from these articles art. in Temple Bar for 1873). In 1828 he went to live at Epsom, where he started a periodical called 'The Chat of the Week,' which ceased with the thirteenth number, owing to difficulties connected with the compulsory stamp on periodicals containing news. He thereupon undertook the laborious task of issuing a daily sheet of four pages folio, called 'The Tatler,' devoted to literature and the stage, entirely written by himself. It commenced on 4 Oct. 1830, and ended 13 Feb. 1832. 'I did it all myself,' he writes, 'except when too ill; and illness seldom hindered me either from supplying the review of a book, going every night to the play, or writing the notice of the play the same night at the printing-office.' The work, he adds, almost killed him, and left a feeling of fatigue for a year and a half. Still he was never in better spirits or wrote such good theatrical criticisms. He was living at this period in London, successively at Old Brompton, St. John's Wood, and the New (now Euston) Road. While at Epsom he had commenced writing 'Sir Ralph Esher; or Memoirs of a Gentleman of the Court of Charles the Second, including those of his Friend, Sir Philip Herne.' It was published in 1832, and in 1836 reached a third edition. In 1832, by the pecuniary assistance of his intimate friend John Forster, he printed for private circulation among friends a thin volume, entitled 'Christianism; being Exercises and Meditations. "Mercy and Truth have met together; Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other." Not for sale—only 75 copies printed.' It was written while in Italy. It was printed in an enlarged form in 1853, under the title of 'The Religion of the Heart.' He sent a copy of 'Christianism' to Thomas Carlyle, which led to an interview, and ultimately to a lifelong friendship. In 1832 there was published by subscription in a handsome volume the first collected edition of his poems, with a preface of fifty-eight pages. A list of the subscribers appeared in the 'Times,' comprising names of all shades of opinion, some of his sharpest personal antagonists being included. The prejudices against him had to a great extent died away. In the same year Shelley's 'Masque of Anarchy' appeared with a preface by Leigh Hunt of thirty pages.
Hunt settled in 1833 at 4 Cheyne Row, next door to Carlyle, where he remained till 1840. In 1833 he contributed six articles to 'Tait's Magazine,' being a new series of 'The Wishing Cap.' Between 1838 and 1841 he wrote five articles in the 'Monthly Chronicle,' a magazine which had among its contributors Sir E. L. Bulwer and Dr. Lardner. In the same year he wrote reviews of new books in the 'True Sun,' a daily newspaper. His health was at this time so feeble that he had for some time to be taken daily in a coach to the office. He then made the acquaintance of Laman Blanchard [q.v.], to whom he pays a tribute in his 'Autobiography.' In 1834 appeared two volumes with the title 'The Indicator and the Companion; a Miscellany for the Fields and the Fireside.' They contained a selection of the best papers in these periodicals written in 1819–21 and in 1828. The publisher afterwards issued these volumes in two parts, double columns, at a moderate price, and they were several times reprinted. His next venture, one of the best-known of his periodicals, was 'Leigh Hunt's London Journal,' begun in 1834—'To Assist the Inquiring, Animate the Struggling, and Sympathise with All.' Partly modelled on Chambers's 'Edinburgh Journal' (established in 1832), it was a miscellany of essays, sketches, criticisms, striking passages from books, anecdotes, poems, translations, and romantic short stories of real life. Admirable in every way, it was, unhappily, too literary and refined for ordinary tastes, and ceased on 26 Dec. 1835. Christopher North praised it warmly in 'Blackwood's Magazine.' In 1835 Hunt published a poem called 'Captain Sword and Captain Pen; with some Remarks on War and Military Statesmen.' It is chiefly remarkable for its vivid descriptions of the horrors of war. He succeeded William Johnson Fox [q.v.] as editor, and contributed to the 'Monthly Repository' (July 1837 to March 1838). In it appeared his poem, 'Blue-Stocking Revels, or The Feast of the Violets,' a sort of female 'Feast of the Poets,' which was well spoken of by Rogers and Lord Holland. In 1840 was published 'The Seer, or Common-Places Refreshed,' consisting of selections from the 'London Journal,' the 'Liberal,' the 'Tatler,' the 'Monthly Repository,' and the 'Round Table.' The preface concludes: 'Given at our suburban abode, with a fire on one side of us, and a vine at the window of the other, this 19th day of October 1840, and in the very green and invincible year of our life, the 56th.' From 1840 to 1851 he lived in Edwardes Square, Kensington.
On 7 Feb. 1840 Hunt's fine play, in five acts, 'A Legend of Florence,' was brought out at Covent Garden Theatre. Its poetical qualities and brilliant dialogue secured for it a deserved success. During its first season it was witnessed two or three times by the queen. It was revived ten years later at Sadler's Wells, and in 1852 it was performed at Windsor Castle by her majesty's command. In a letter to the present writer, who had informed Hunt of its favourable reception in Manchester, he described with great satisfaction how highly the queen had praised it. In 1840 he wrote 'Introductory Biographical and Critical Notices to Moxon's Edition of the Dramatic Works of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar.' He took great pains with these prefaces, which are written in his best style. Macaulay's essay on 'The Dramatists of the Restoration' was suggested by this volume. He also at this time wrote a 'Biographical and Critical Sketch of Sheridan,' prefixed to Moxon's edition of the works of that dramatist. In 1842 appeared 'The Palfrey; a Love-Story of Old Times,' with illustrations; a variation of one of the most amusing of the old French narrative poems, treated with great freshness and originality and unbounded animal spirits. In 1843 he published 'One Hundred Romances of Real Life, comprising Remarkable Historical and Domestic Facts illustrative of Human Nature.' These had appeared in his 'London Journal' in 1834–5. In 1844 his poetical works, containing many pieces hitherto uncollected, were published in a neat pocket-volume. In the same year appeared 'Imagination and Fancy, or Selections from the English Poets illustrative of those First Requisites of their Art; with Markings of the best Passages, Critical Notices of the Writers, and an Essay in answer to the Question, "What is Poetry?"' The prefatory essay gives a masterly and subtle definition of the nature and requisites of poetry. In 1846 he produced 'Wit and Humour, selected from the English Poets; with an Illustrative Essay and Critical Comments.' In the same year was published 'Stories from the Italian Poets, with Lives of the Writers,' 2 vols. These volumes summarised in prose the 'Commedia' of Dante, and the most celebrated narratives of Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso, with comments throughout, occasional passages versified, and critical notices of the lives and genius of the authors. In 1847 he contributed a set of papers to the 'Atlas' newspaper, which were afterwards collected and published under the title of 'A Saunter through the West-End.' A very delightful collection of his papers in two volumes was published in 1847, entitled 'Men, Women, and Books; a Selection of Sketches, Essays, and Critical Memoirs, from the Author's uncollected Prose Writings.' They consist of contributions to the 'Edinburgh' and 'Westminster' reviews, the 'New Monthly Magazine,' 'Tait's Edinburgh Magazine,' 'Ainsworth's Magazine,' and the 'Monthly Chronicle.'
Thornton Hunt tells us that between 1834 and 1840 his father's embarrassments were at their worst. He was in perpetual difficulties. On more than one occasion he was literally without bread. He wrote to friends to get some of his books sold, so that he and his family may have something to eat. There were gaps of total destitution, in which every available source had been absolutely exhausted. He suffered, too, from bodily and mental ailments, and had 'great family sufferings apart from considerations of fortune,' of which some hint is given in his correspondence (Autobiog. ii. i. 164, 268). Macaulay, who writing to Napier in 1841 suggested that in case of Southey's death Hunt would make a suitable poet laureate, obtained for him some reviewing in the 'Edinburgh.' His personal, friends, aware of his struggles, were anxious to see some provision made for his declining years. Already on two occasions a royal grant of 200l. had been secured for him, and a pension of 120l. was settled upon him by Sir Percy Shelley upon succeeding to the family estates in 1844. Among those who urged Hunt's claims to a moderate public provision most earnestly, was his friend Carlyle. The characteristic paper which Carlyle drew up on the subject eulogised Hunt with admirable clearness and force. On 22 June 1847 the prime minister, Lord John Russell, wrote to Hunt that a pension of 200l. a year would be settled upon him. During the summer of 1847 Charles Dickens, with a company of amateur comedians, chiefly men of letters and artists, gave two performances of Ben Jonson's 'Every Man in his Humour' for Hunt's benefit, in Manchester and Liverpool, by which 900l. was raised.
In 1848 appeared 'A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, illustrated by Richard Doyle.' The substance of the volume had appeared in 'Ainsworth's Magazine' in 1844. It includes a retrospect of the mythology, history, and biography of Sicily, and ancient legends and examples of pastoral poetry selected from Greece, Italy, and Britain, with illustrative criticisms, including a notice of Theocritus, with translated specimens. In the same year appeared 'The Town: its Memorable Characters and Events—St. Paul's to St. James's—with 45 Illustrations,' in 2 vols., containing an account of London, partly topographical and historical, but chiefly memoirs of remarkable characters and events associated with the streets between St. Paul's and St. James's. The principal portion of the work had appeared thirteen years before in 'Leigh Hunt's London Journal.' His next work was 'A Book for a Corner, or Selections in Prose and Verse from Authors the best suited to that mode of enjoyment, with Comments on each, and a General Introduction, with 80 Wood Engravings.' In 1849 he issued 'Readings for Railways, or Anecdotes and other Short Stories, Reflections, Maxims, Characteristics, Passages of Wit, Humour, Poetry, &c., together with Points of Information on Matters of General Interest, collected in the course of his own reading.' In 1850 he gave to the world 'The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, with Reminiscences of A revised edition, brought down to near his death (1859), with an introduction by his eldest son, Thornton, was published in 1860. A new edition, edited by Roger Ingpen, appeared in 1903. The book is one of the most graceful and genial chronicles of its kind. Carlyle reckoned it only second to Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' and called it (in a letter to Hunt which belonged to the present writer) 'a pious, ingenious, altogether human, and worthy book, imaging with graceful honesty and free felicity many interesting objects and persons on your life-path, and imaging throughout what is best of all, a gifted, gentle, patient, and valiant human soul as it buffets its way through the billows of the time, and will not drown, though often in danger cannot be drowned, but conquers and leaves a tract of radiance behind it. …' Between 1845 and 1850 there appeared several poems by Hunt in 'Ainsworth's Magazine' and the 'New Monthly Magazine.' In 1851 was issued 'Table-Talk, to which are added Imaginary Conversations of Pope and Swift.' The matter consisted partly of short pieces first published under the head of 'Table-Talk' in the 'Atlas ' newspaper, and partly of passages scattered in periodicals, and never before collected. In 1850 he revived an old venture under the slightly changed title of 'Leigh Hunt's Journal: xx Miscellany for the Cultivation of the Memorable, the Progressive, and the Beautiful.' Carlyle contributed to it three articles. It was discontinued in March 1851, failing 'chiefly from the smallness of the means which the originators of it had thought sufficient for its establishment.' In 1852 his youngest son, Vincent, died. In the same year Dickens wrote 'Bleak House,' in which Harold Skimpole was generally understood to represent Hunt. But Dickens categorically denied in 'All the Year Round' (24 Dec. 1859) that Hunt's character had suggested any of the unpleasant features of the portrait. 'In the midst of the sorest temptations,' Dickens wrote of Hunt, 'He maintained his honesty unblemished by a single stain. He was in all public and private transactions the very soul of truth and honour.'
'The Old Court Suburb, or Memorials of Kensington—Royal, Critical, and Anecdotical,' 2 vols., appeared in 1855. The book is full of historical and literary anecdotes. There followed in the same year 'Beaumont and Fletcher, or the finest Scenes, Lyrics, and other Beauties of these two Poets now first selected from the whole of their works, to the exclusion of whatever is morally objectionable; with Opinions of distinguished Critics, Notes explanatory and otherwise, and a General Introductory Preface.' It was dedicated to Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall). The volume is somewhat on the plan of 'Lamb's Specimens of the Old Dramatists,' but gives whole scenes as well as separate passages. In 1855 appeared 'Stories in Verse, now first collected.' All his narrative poems are here reprinted. In the story of 'Rimini' he has restored the omitted and altered passages. His wife died in 1857, at the age of 69. In 1857 an American edition of his poems appeared in 2 vols., 'The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt, now first entirely collected, revised by himself, and edited with an introduction by S. Adams Lee, Boston.' It contains all the verses that he had published, with the exception of such as were rejected by him in the course of reperusal. This edition contains his play 'Lovers' Amazements,' which is not given in any English edition. In 1859 he contributed two poems to 'Fraser's Magazine,' in the manner of Chaucer and Spenser, viz. 'The Tapiser's Tale' and 'The Shewe of Fair Seeming.' Three of Chaucer's poems, 'The Manciple's Tale,' 'The Friar's Tale,' and 'The Squire's Tale,' had been modernised by him in 1841, in a volume by various writers, entitled 'The Poems of Chaucer Modernised.' The last product of his pen was a series of papers in the 'Spectator' in 1859, under the title of 'The Occasional,' the last of which appeared about a week before his death.
For about two years he had been declining in health, but he still retained a keen interest in life. Early in August 1859 he went for a change of air to his old friend Charles Reynell at Putney, carrying with him his work and the books he needed, and there he quietly sank to rest on the 28th. His death was simply exhaustion. His latest words were in the shape of eager questions about the vicissitudes and growing hopes of Italy, in inquiries from the children and friends around him for news of those he loved, and messages to the absent who loved him. He had lived in his later years at Phillimore Terrace,whence he removed in 1853 to 7 Cornwall Road, Hammersmith, his last residence. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. Ten years later a bust, executed by Joseph Durham [q.v.], was placed over his grave, with the motto, from his own poem, 'Abou-ben-Adhem,' 'Write me as one who loves his fellow-men.' The memorial was unveiled on 19 Oct. 1869 by Lord Houghton.
Not many months after his death there appeared in 'Fraser's Magazine' a reply by Hunt to Cardinal Wiseman, who had in a lecture charged Chaucer and Spenser with occasional indecency. In 1860 was published 'The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt, now finally collected, revised by himself, and edited by his Son, Thornton Hunt.' In 1862 was published 'The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, edited by his Eldest Son, with a Portrait,' 2 vols. A number of his letters, not included in these volumes, were published in 1878 by Mr. and Mrs. Cowden Clarke in their 'Recollections of Writers.' In 1867 appeared 'The Book of the Sonnet, edited by Leigh Hunt and S. Adams Lee,' 2 vols. It was published simultaneously in London and Boston, U.S. This volume is entirely devoted to the history and literature of the sonnet, with specimens by English and American authors. An introductory letter of four pages, and an essay of ninety-one pages are prefixed.
Despite the numerous collections of his scattered essays and articles published by himself, very many of Leigh Hunt's contributions to periodical literature have never been reprinted. The most interesting of these are his papers in the 'New Monthly Magazine' for 1825-6 (the present writer possesses a number of revised proofs of unreprinted articles of this date; others are in the Forster library at South Kensington); 'A Rustic Walk and Dinner,' a poem, in the 'Monthly Magazine,' 1842; a series of articles in the 'Musical World,' called first 'Words for Composers,' and afterwards 'The Musician's Poetical Companion,' 1838-9; two articles in the 'Edinburgh Review' (on the Colman family, October 1841, and George Selwyn, July 1844); and eight articles in the 'Musical Times,' 1853-4.
His son Thornton [q.v.] bequeathed some unpublished manuscript by his father to Mr. Townshend Mayer, but none of it was of sufficient importance to warrant publication.
Leigh Hunt takes high rank as an essayist and critic. The spirit of his writings is eminently cheerful and humanising. He is perhaps the best teacher in our literature of the contentment which flows from a recognition of everyday joys and blessings. A belief in all that is good and beautiful, and in the ultimate success of every true and honest endeavour, and a tender consideration for mistake and circumstance, are the pervading spirit of all his writings. Cheap and simple enjoyments, true taste leading to true economy, the companionship of books and the pleasures of friendly intercourse, were the constant themes of his pen. He knew much suffering, physical and mental, and experienced many cares and sorrows; but his cheerful courage, imperturbable sweetness of temper, and unfailing love and power of forgiveness never deserted him.
It is in the familiar essay that he shows to greatest advantage. Criticism, speculation, literary gossip, romantic stories from real life, and descriptions of country pleasures, are charmingly mingled in his pages; he can be grave as well as gay, and speak consolation to friends in trouble. 'No man,' says Mr. Lowell, 'has ever understood the delicacies and luxuries of language better than he; and his thoughts often have all the rounded grace and shifting lustre 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.'
As a poet Leigh Hunt showed much tenderness, a delicate and vivid fancy, and an entire freedom from any morbid strain of introspection. His verses never lack the sense and expression of quick, keen delight in all things naturally and wholesomely delightful. But an occasional mannerism, bordering on affectation, detracts somewhat from the merits of his poetry. His narrative poems, such as 'The Story of Kimini,' are, however, among the very best in the language. He is most successful in the heroic couplet. His exquisite little fable 'Abou ben Adhem' has assured him a permanent place in the records of the English language.
'In appearance,' says his son, 'Leigh Hunt was tall and straight as an arrow, and looked slenderer than he really was. His hair was black and shining, and slightly inclined to wave. His head was high, his forehead straight and white, under which beamed a pair of eyes, dark, brilliant, reflecting, gay, and kind, with a certain look of observant humour. His general complexion was dark. There was in his whole carriage and manner an extraordinary degree of life. His whole existence and habit of mind were essentially literary. He was a hard and conscientious worker, and most painstaking as regards accuracy. He would often spend hours in verifying some fact or event which he had only stated parenthetically. Few men were more attractive in society, whether in a large company or over the fireside. His manner was particularly animated, his conversation varied, ranging over a great field of subjects. There was a spontaneous courtesy in him that never failed, and a considerateness derived from a ceaseless kindness of heart that invariably fascinated.' Hawthorne and Emerson have left on record the delightful impression he made when they visited him. He led a singularly plain life. His customary drink was water, and his food of the plainest and simplest kind; bread alone was what he took for luncheon or supper. His personal friendships embraced men of every party, and among those who have eloquently testified to his high character as a man and an author are Carlyle, Lytton, Shelley, Macaulay, Dickens, Thackeray, Lord Houghton, Forster, Macready, Jerrold, W. J. Fox, Miss Martineau, and Miss Mitford.
A portrait of Hunt by Haydon is in the National Portrait Gallery. There is a portrait by Maclise in 'Fraser's Magazine.'[The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, a new Edition, revised by the Author, with further Revision, and an Introduction by his Eldest Son, 1860; The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, edited by his Eldest Son, with a Portrait, 2 vols. 1862; Recollections of Writers, by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke, with Letters of Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Douglas Jerrold, and Charles Dickens, and a Preface by Mary Cowden Clarke, 1878; Professor Dowden's Life of Shelley; Moore's Life of Byron; List of the Writings of William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, chronologically arranged,with Notes, descriptive, critical, and explanatory, by Alexander Ireland, 1868 (two hundred copies printed); Characteristics of Leigh Hunt as exhibited in that typical Literary Periodical Leigh Hunt's London Journal, 1834-5, with Illustrative Notes by Lancelot Cross (Frank Carr), 1878. References to Leigh Hunt occur in the writings of his contemporaries William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and Barry Cornwall (Bryan Waller Procter), and in the Reminiscences and Letters of Thomas Carlyle. Selections from his writings have been made by Edmund Oilier, with introduction and notes, 1869; by Arthur Symons, with useful introduction and notes, 1887; by Charles Kent, with a biographical introduction and portrait, 1889, and chiefly from the poems, by Reginald Brimley Johnson, in the Temple Library, 1891, with a biographical and critical introduction and portrait from an unpublished sketch, and views of his birthplace and the various houses inhabited by him; A Life of Hunt, by Cosmo Monkhouse, in the Great Writers series, is in preparation.]
Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.163
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line
|268||i||15f.e.||Hunt, James H. Leigh:for More than once read Thrice|
|13f.e.||for in each case read in two cases|
|269||ii||22f.e.||for at the close of June. read on 1 July.|
Sitting, last winter, among my books, and walled round with all the comfort and protection which they and my fireside could afford me,—to wit, a table of high-piled books at my back, my writing-desk on one side of me, some shelves on the other, and the feeling of the warm fire at my feet,—I began to consider how I loved the authors of those books; how I loved them, too, not only for the imaginative pleasures they afforded me, but for their making me love the very books themselves, and delight to be in contact with them. I looked sideways at my Spenser, my Theocritus, and my Arabian Nights; then above them at my Italian poets’ then behind me at my Dryden and Pope, my romances, and my Boccaccio’ then on my left side at ray Chaucer, who lay on a writing-desk’ and thought how natural it was in C. L. to give a kiss to an old folio, as I once saw him do to Chapman’s Homer. At the same time I wondered how he could sit in that front room of his with nothing but a few unfeeling tables and chairs, or at best a few engravings in trim frames, instead of putting a couple of arm-chairs into the back-room with the books in it, where there is but one window. Would I were there, with both the chairs properly filled, and one or two more besides “We had talk, sir,”—the only talk capable of making one forget the books.
I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather. If the wind comes through a passage, I look about to see how I can fence it off by a better disposition of my movables’ if a melancholy thought is importunate, I give another glance at my Spenser. When I speak of being in contact with my books, I mean it literally. I like to lean my head against them. Living in a southern climate, though in a part sufficiently northern to feel the winter, I was obliged, during that season, to take some of the books out of the study, and hang them up near the fireplace in the sitting-room, which is the only room that has such a convenience. I therefore walled myself in, as well as I could, in the manner above mentioned I took a walk every day, to the astonishment of the Genoese, who used to huddle against a piece of sunny wall, like flies on a chimney-piece’ but I did this only that I might so much the more enjoy my English evening. The fire was a wood fire instead of a coal’ but I imagined myself in the country. I remember at the very worst that one end of my native land was not nearer the other than England is to Italy.
While writing this article I am in my study again. Like the rooms in all houses in this country which are not hovels, it is handsome and ornamented. On one side it looks towards a garden and the mountains’ on another to the mountains and the sea. What signifies all this? I turn my back upon the sea’ I shut up even one of the side windows looking upon the mountains, and retain no prospect but that of the trees. On the right and left of me are book-shelves’ a bookcase is affectionately open in front of me’ and thus kindly enclosed with my books and the green leaves, I write If all this is too luxurious and effeminate, of all luxuries it is the one that leaves you the most strength. And this is to be said for scholarship in general. It unfits a man for activity, for his bodily part in the world’ but it often doubles both the power and the sense of his mental duties’ and with much indignation against his body, and more against those who tyrannise over the intellectual claims of mankind, the man of letters, like the magician of old, is prepared “to play the devil” with the great men of this world, in a style that astonishes both the sword and the toga.
I do not like this fine large study. I like elegance. I like room to breathe in, and even walk about, when I want to breathe and walk about. I like a great library next my study; but for the study itself, give me a small snug place, almost entirely walled with books. There should be only one window in it, looking upon trees. Some prefer a place with few or no books at all—nothing but a chair or a table, like Epictetus’ but I should say that these were philosophers, not lovers of books, if I did not recollect that Montaigne was both. He had a study in a round tower, walled as aforesaid. It is true, one forgets one’s books while writing—at least they say so. For my part, I think I have them in a sort of side- long mind’s-eye’ like a second thought, which is none—like a waterfall or a whispering wind.
I dislike a grand library to study in. I mean an immense apartment, with books all in Museum order, especially wire-safed. I say nothing against the Museum itself, or public libraries. They are capital places to go to, but not to sit in: and talking of this, I hate to read in public, and in strange company. The jealous silence,—the dissatisfied looks of the messengers, the inability to help yourself’ the not knowing whether you really ought to trouble the messengers, much less the gentleman in black, or brown, who is, perhaps, half a trustee’ with a variety of other jarrings between privacy and publicity, prevent one’s settling heartily to work. They say “they manage these things better in France’ “and I dare say they do’ but I think I should feel still more distrait in France, in spite of the benevolence of the servitors, and the generous profusion of pen, ink, and paper. I should feel as if I were doing nothing but interchanging amenities with polite writers.
A grand private library, which the master of the house also makes his study, never looks to me like a real place of books, much less of authorship. I cannot take kindly to it. It is certainly not out of envy’ for three parts of the books are generally trash, and I can seldom think of the rest and the proprietor together. It reminds me of a fine gentleman, of a collector, of a patron, of Gil Bias and the Marquis of Marialva; of anything but genius and comfort. 1 have a particular hatred of a round table (not the Round Table, for that was a dining one) covered and irradiated with books, and never met with one in the house of a clever man but once. It is the reverse of Montaigne’s Round Tower. Instead of bringing the books around you, they all seem turning another way, and eluding your hands.
Conscious of my propriety and comfort in these matters, I take an interest in the bookcases as well as the books of my friends. I long to meddle and dispose them after my own notions. When they see this confession, they will acknowledge the virtue I have practised. I believe I did mention his book-room to C. L., and I think he told me that he often sat there when alone. It would be hard not to believe him. His library, though not abounding in Greek or Latin (which are the only things to help some persons to an idea of literature), is anything but superficial. The depth of philosophy and poetry are there, the inner- most passages of the human heart. It has some Latin too. It has also a handsome contempt for appearance. It looks like what it is, a selection made at precious intervals from the book-stalls,—now a Chaucer at nine and twopence, now a Montaigne or a Sir Thomas Browne at two shillings, now a Jeremy Taylor, a Spinoza, an old English Dramatist, Prior, and Sir Philip Sidney, and the books are “neat as imported.” The very perusal of the backs is a “discipline of humanity.” There Mr. Southey takes his place again with an old Radical friend: there Jeremy Collier is at peace with Dryden: there the lion, Martin Luther, lies down with the Quaker lamb, Sewell: there Guzman d’Alfarache thinks himself fit company for Sir Charles Grandison, and has his claims admitted. Even the “high fantastical” Duchess of Newcastle, with her laurel on her head, is received with grave honours, and not the less for declining to trouble herself with the constitutions of her maids. There is an approach to this in the library of W. C., who also includes Italian among his humanities. W. H., I believe, has no books, except mine, but he has Shakespeare and Rousseau by heart. N., who, though not a book-man by profession, is fond of those who are, and who loves his volume enough to read it across the fields, has his library in the common sitting-room, which is hospitable. H. R.’s books are all too modern and finely bound, which however, is not his fault, for they were left him by will,—not the most kindly act of the testator. Suppose a man were to bequeath us a great japan chest three feet by four, with an injunction that it was always to stand on the tea-table. I remember borrowing a book of H. R., which, having lost, I replaced with a copy equally well bound. I am not sure I should have been in such haste, even to return the book, had it been a common-looking volume’ but the splendour of the loss dazzled me into this ostentatious piece of propriety. I set about restoring it as if I had diminished his fortunes, and waived the privilege a friend has to use a man’s things as his own. I may venture upon this ultra-liberal theory, not only because candour compels me to say that I hold it to a greater extent, with Montaigne, but because I have been a meek son in the family of book- losers. I may affirm, upon a moderate calculation, that I have lent and lost in my time (and I am eight-and-thirty), half-a-dozen decent-sized libraries,—I mean books enough to fill so many ordinary bookcases. I have never complained’ and self-love, as well as gratitude, makes me love those who do not complain of me.
I own I borrow books with as much facility as I lend. I cannot see a work that interests me on another person’s shelf, without a wish to carry it off; but, I repeat, that I have been much more sinned against than sinning in the article of non-return, and am scrupulous in the article of intention. I never had a felonious intent upon a book but once, and then I shall only say, it was under circumstances so peculiar, that I cannot but look upon the conscience that induced me to restore it, as having sacrificed the spirit of its very self to the letter’ and I have a grudge against it accordingly. Some people are unwilling to lend their books. I have a special grudge against them, particularly those who accompany their unwillingness with uneasy professions to the contrary, and smiles like Sir Fretful Plagiary. The friend who helped to spoil my notions of property, or rather to make them too good for the world “as it goes,” taught me also to undervalue my squeamishness in refusing to avail myself of the books of these gentlemen. He showed me how it was doing good to all parties to put an ordinary face on the matter’ though I know his own blushed not a little sometimes in doing it, even when the good to be done was for another. I feel, in truth, that even when anger inclines me to exercise this privilege of philosophy, it is more out of revenge than contempt. I fear that in allowing myself to borrow books, I sometimes make extremes meet in a very sinful manner, and do it out of a refined revenge. It is like eating a miser’s beef at him.
I yield to none in my love of bookstall urbanity. I have spent as happy moments over the stalls as any literary apprentice boy who ought to be moving onwards. But I confess my weakness in liking to see some of my favourite purchases neatly bound. The books I like to have about me most are—Spenser, Chaucer, the minor poems of Milton, the Arabian Nights, Theocritus, Ariosto, and such old good-natured speculations as Plutarch’s Morals. For most of these I like a plain, good, old binding, never mind how old, provided it wears well’ but my Arabian Nights may be bound in as fine and flowery a style as possible, and I should love an engraving to every dozen pages. Book- prints of all sorts, bad and good, take with me as much as when I was a child : and I think some books, such as Prior’s Poems, ought always to have portraits of the authors. Prior’s airy face with his cap on is like having his company. Prom early association, no edition of Milton pleases me so much as that in which there are pictures of the Devil with brute ears, dressed like a Roman General: nor of Bunyan, as the one containing the print of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, with the Devil whispering in Christian’s ear, or old Pope by the wayside, and
Vanity Fair, With the Pilgrims suffering there,
I delight in the recollection of the puzzle I used to have with the frontispiece of the Tail of a Tub, of my real horror at the sight of that crawling old man, representing Avarice, at the beginning of Enfield’s Speaker, the Looking -Glass, or some such book’ and even of the careless school-boy hats, and the prim stomachers and cottage bonnets, of such golden-age antiquities as the Village School. The oldest and most worn-out woodcut, representing King Pippin, Goody Two Shoes, or the grim Soldan, sitting with three staring blots for his eyes and mouth, his sceptre in one hand, and his other five fingers raised and spread in admiration at the feats of the Gallant London ‘Prentice, cannot excite in me a feeling of ingratitude. Cooke’s edition of the British Poets and Novelists came out when I was at school: for which reason I never could put up with Suttaby’s or Walker’s publications, except in the case of such works as the Fairy Tales—which Mr. Cooke did not publish. Besides, they are too cramped, thick, and mercenary, and the pictures are all frontispieces. They do not come in at the proper places. Cooke realised the old woman’s beau ideal of a prayer-book,—“A little book, with a great deal of matter, and a large type:”—for the type was really largo for so small a volume. Shall I ever forget his Collins and his Gray, books at once so “superbly ornamented “and so inconceivably cheap—Sixpence could procure much before’ but never could it procure so much as then, or was at once so much respected, and so little Cared for. His artist Kirk was the best artist, except Stothard, that ever designed for periodical works’ and I will venture to add (if his name rightly announces his country) the best artist Scotland ever produced, except Wilkie, but he unfortunately had not enough of his country in him to keep him from dying young. His designs for Milton and the Arabian Nights—his female extricated from the water in the Tales of the Genii, and his old hag issuing out of the chest of the Merchant Abadah in the same book, are before me now, as vividly as they were then. He possessed elegance and the sense of beauty in no ordinary degree’ though they sometimes played a trick or so of foppery. I shall never forget the gratitude with which I received an odd number of Akenside, value sixpence, one of the set of that poet, which a boarder distributed among three or four of us, “with his mother’s compliments.” The present might have been more lavish, but I hardly thought of that. I remember my number. It was the one in which there is a picture of the poet on a sofa, with Cupid coming to him, and the words underneath, “Tempt me no more, insidious love! “The picture and the number appeared to me equally divine. I cannot help thinking to this day, that it is right and natural in a gentleman to sit in a stage dress, on that particular kind of sofa, though on no other, with that exclusive hat and feathers on his head, telling Cupid to begone with a tragic air.
I love an author the more for having been himself a lover of books. The idea of an ancient library perplexes our sympathy by its map-like volumes, rolled upon cylinders. Our imagination cannot take kindly to a yard of wit, or to thirty inches of moral observation, rolled out like linen in a draper’s shop. But we conceive of Plato as of a lover of books, of Aristotle certainly, of Plutarch, Pliny, Horace, Julian, and Marcus Aurelius. Virgil, too, must have been one’ and, after a fashion, Martial. May I confess, that the passage which I recollect with the greatest pleasure in Cicero, is where he says that books delight us at home, and are no impediment abroad, travel with us, ruralise with us. His period is rounded off to some purpose: “Delectant dome non impediunt loris, pereffrinanturj rusticantur.” I am so much of this opinion that I do not care to be anywhere without having a book or books at hand, and like Dr. Orkbome, in the novel of Camilla—stuff the coach or post-chaise with them whenever I travel As books, however, become ancient, the love of them becomes more unequivocal and conspicuous. The ancients had little of what we call learning. They made it. They were also no very eminent buyers of books—they made books for posterity. It is true, that it is not at all necessary to love many books, in order to love them much. The scholar, in Chaucer, who would rather have
At his beddes head
A twenty bokes, clothed, in black and red.
Of Aristotle and his philosophy,
Than robes rich, or fiddle, or psaltry,—
doubtless beat all our modern collectors in his passion for reading, but books must at least exist, and have acquired an eminence, before their lovers can make themselves known. There must be a possession, also, to perfect the communion, and the mere contact is much, even when our mistress speaks an unknown language. Dante puts Homer, the great ancient, in his Elysium upon trust, but a few years afterwards. Homer—the book, made its appearance in Italy, and Petrarch, in a transport, put it upon his book-shelves, where he adored it, like “the unknown God.” Petrarch ought to be the god of the bibliomaniacs, for he was a collector and a man of genius, which is a union that does not often happen. He copied out, with his own precious hand, the manuscripts he rescued from time, and then produced others for time to reverence. With his head upon a book he died. Boccaccio, his friend, was another’ nor can one look upon the longest and most tiresome works he wrote (for he did write some tiresome ones, in spite of the gaiety of his Decameron)—without thinking, that in that resuscitation of the world of letters it must have been natural to a man of genius to add to the existing stock of volumes, at whatsoever price. I always pitch my completest idea of a lover of books, either in those dark ages, as they are called,
(“Cui cieco a torto il cieco volgo appella—”)
or in the gay town days of Charles II, or a little afterwards. In both times the portrait comes out by the force of contrast. In the first, I imagine an age of iron warfare and energy, with solitary retreats, in which the monk or the hooded scholar walks forth to meditate, his precious volume under his arm. In the other, I have a triumphant example of the power of books and wit to contest the victory with sensual pleasure:—Rochester, staggering home to pen a satire in the style of Monsieur Boileau; Butler, cramming his jolly duodecimo with all the learning that he laughed at; and a new race of book poets come up, who, in spite of their periwigs and petit-maitres, talk as romantically of “the bays,” as if they were priests of Delphos. It was a victorious thing in books to beguile even the old French of their egotism, or at least to share it with them. Nature never pretended to do as much. And here is the difference between the two ages, or between any two ages in which genius and art predominate. In the one, books are loved because they are the records of Nature and her energies’ in the other, because they are the records of those records, or evidences of the importance of the individuals, and proofs of our descent in the new imperishable aristocracy. This is the reason why rank (with few exceptions) is so jealous of literature, and loves to appropriate or withhold the honours of it, as if they were so many toys and ribbons, like its own. It has an instinct that the two pretensions are incompatible. When Montaigne (a real lover of books) affected the order of St. Michael, and pleased himself with possessing that fugitive little piece of importance, he did it because he would pretend to be above nothing that he really felt, or that was felt by men in general’ but at the same time he vindicated his natural superiority over this weakness by praising and loving all higher and lasting things, and by placing his best glory in doing homage to the geniuses that had gone before him. He did not endeavour to think that an immortal renown was a fashion, like that of the cut of his scarf’ or that by undervaluing the one, he should go shining down to posterity in the other, perpetual lord of Montaigne and of the ascendant.
There is a period of modern times, at which the love of books appears to have been of a more decided nature than at either of these—I mean the age just before and after the Reformation, or rather all that period when book-writing was confined to the learned languages. Erasmus is the god of it. Bacon, a mighty bookman, saw, among his other sights, the great advantage of loosening the vernacular tongue, and wrote both Latin and English. I allow this is the greatest closeted age of books \ of old scholars sitting in dusty studies’ of heaps of “illustrious obscure,” rendering themselves more illustrious and more obscure by retreating from the “thorny queaches” of Dutch and German names into the “vacant interlunar caves “of appellations latinised or translated. I think I see all their volumes now, filling the shelves of a dozen German convents. The authors are bearded men, sitting in old woodcuts, in caps and gowns, and their books are dedicated to princes and statesmen, as illustrious as themselves. My old friend Wierus, who wrote a thick book, De Preftigiis Danrnonum was one of them, and had a fancy worthy of his sedentary stomach. I will confess, once for all, that I have a liking for them all. It is my link with the bibliomaniacs, whom I admit into our relationship, because my love is large, and my family pride nothing. But still I take my idea of books read with a gusto, of companions for bed and board, from the two ages before mentioned. The other is of too bookworm a description. There must be both a judgment and a fervor; a discrimination and a boyish eagerness; and (with all due humility) something of a point of contact between authors worth reading and the reader. How can I take Juvenal into the fields, or Valcarenghius De Aortce Aneurismate to bed with me? How could I expect to walk before the face of nature with the one; to tire my elbow properly with the other, before I put out my candle, and turn round deliciously on the right side? Or how could I stick up Coke upon Littleton against something on the dinner-table, and be divided between a fresh paragraph and a mouthful of salad!
I take our four great English poets to have all been fond of reading. Milton and Chaucer proclaim themselves for hard sitters at books. Spenser’s reading is evident by his learning’ and if there were nothing else to show for it in Shakespeare, his retiring to his native town, long before old age, would be a proof of it. It is impossible for a man to live in solitude without such assistance, unless he is a metaphysician or mathematician, or the dullest of mankind \ and any country town would be solitude to Shakespeare, after the bustle of a metropolis and a theatre. Doubtless he divided his time between his books, and his bowling-green, and his daughter Susanna. It is pretty certain, also, that he planted, and rode on horseback; and there is evidence of all sorts to make it clear, that he must have occasionally joked with the blacksmith, and stood godfather for his neighbours’ children. Chaucer’s account of himself must be quoted, for the delight and sympathy of all true readers :—
“And as for me, though that I can but lite, On bookes for to rede I me delite, And to hem yeve I faith and full credence, And in mine herte have hem in reverence So hearty, that there is game none, That fro my bookes maketh me to gone, But it is seldome on the holy dale’ Save certainly whan that the month of May Is comen, and that I hear the foules sing, And that the flour^s ginnen for to spring. Farewell my booke and my devocion.” — The Legend of Good Women.
And again, in the second book of his House of Fame where the eagle addresses him:—
——Thou wilt make
At night full oft thine head to ake,
And in thy study as thou writest,
And evermore of Love enditest.
In honour of him and his praisings.
And in his folk’s furtherings,
And in his matter all devisest,
And not him ne his folke despisest,
Although thou mayst go in the daunse
Of hem, that him list not advance;
Therefore as I said, ywis,
Jupiter considreth well this.
And also, beausire, of other things;
That is, thou hast no tidings
Of Love’s folke, if they be glade,
Ne of nothing else that God made,
And not only fro ferre countree.
But no tidings commen to thee,
Not of thy very neighbouris,
That dwellen almost at thy dores;
Thou hearest neither that ne this,
Por whan thy labour all done is,
And hast made all thy rekenings.
Instead of rest and of new things,
Thou goest home to thine house anone,
And all so dombe as anie stone,
Thou sittest at another booke,
Till fully dazed is thy looke.
After I think of the bookishness of Chaucer and Milton, I always make a great leap to Prior and Fenton. Prior was first noticed, when a boy, by Lord Dorset, sitting in his uncle’s tavern, and reading Horace. He describes himself, years after, when Secretary of Embassy at the Hague, as taking the same author with him in the Saturday’s chaise, in which he and his mistress used to escape from town cares into the country, to the admiration of Dutch beholders. Fenton was a martyr to contented scholarship (including a sirloin and a bottle of wine), and died among his books, of inactivity. “He rose late,” says Johnson, “and when he had risen, sat down to his books and papers.” A woman that once waited on him in a lodging, told him, as she said, that he would “lie a-bed and be fed with a spoon.” He must have had an enviable liver, if he was happy. I must own (if my conscience would let me), that I should like to lead, half the year, just such a life (woman included, though not that woman), the other half being passed in the fields and woods, with a cottage just big enough to hold us. Dacier and his wife had a pleasant time of it; both fond of books, both scholars, both amiable, both wrapt up in the ancient world, and helping one another at their tasks. If they were not happy, matrimony would be a rule even without an exception. Pope does not strike me as being a bookman’ he was curious rather than enthusiastic’ more nice than wise’ he dabbled in modern Latin poetry, which is a bad symptom. Swift was decidedly a reader’ the Tale of a Tub in its fashion as well as substance, is the work of a scholarly wit’ the Battle of Books is the fancy of a lover of libraries. Addison and Steele were too much given up to Button’s and the town. Periodical writing, though its demands seem otherwise, is not favourable to reading; it becomes too much a matter of business, and will either be attended to at the expense of the writer’s books, or books, the very admonishers of his industry, will make him idle. Besides, a periodical work, to be suitable to its character, and warrant its regular recurrence, must involve something of a gossiping nature, and proceed upon experiences familiar to the existing community, or at least likely to be received by them in consequence of some previous tinge of inclination. You do not pay weekly visits to your friends to lecture them, whatever good you may do their minds. There will be something compulsory in reading the Bamblers as there is in going to church. Addison and Steele undertook to regulate the minor morals of society, and effected a world of good, with which scholarship had little to do. Gray was a bookman; he wished to be always lying on sofas, reading “eternal new novels of Crebillon and Marivaux.” This is a true hand. The elaborate and scientific look of the rest of his reading was owing to the necessity of employing himself: he had not health and spirits for the literary voluptuousness he desired. Collins, for the same reason, could not employ himself’ he was obliged to dream over Arabian tales, to let the light of the supernatural world half in upon his eyes. “He loved,” as Johnson says (in that strain of music, inspired by tender- ness), “fairies, genii, giants, and monsters’ he delighted to rove through the meanders of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens.” If Collins had had a better constitution, I do not believe that he would have written his projected work upon the Restoration of Literature, fit as he was by scholarship for the task, but he would have been the greatest poet since the days of Milton. If his friend Thomas Warton had had a little more of his delicacy of organisation, the love of books would almost have made him a poet. His edition of the minor poems of Milton is a wilderness of sweets. It is the only one in which a true lover of the original can pardon an exuberance of annotation, though I confess I am inclined enough to pardon any notes that resemble it, however numerous. The “builded rhyme” stands at the top of the page, like a fair edifice, with all sorts of flowers and fresh waters at its foot. The young poet lives there, served by the nymphs and fauns.
Hinc atque hinc glomerantur Oreades.
Hue ades, o formose puer: tibi lilia plenis
Ecce ferunt nymphae calathia: tibi Candida Nais
Pallentes violas et summa papavera carpens,
Narcissum et florem jungit bene olentis anethi.
Among the old writers I must not forget Ben Jonson and Donne. Cowley has been already mentioned. His boyish love of books, like all the other inclinations of his early life, stuck to him to the last, which is the greatest reward of virtue. I would mention Izaak Walton, if I had not a grudge against him. His brother fishermen, the divines, were also great fishers of books. I have a grudge against them and their divinity. They talked much of the devil and divine right, and yet forgot what Shakespeare says of the devil’s friend Nero, that he is “an angler in the lake of darkness.” Selden was called “the walking library of our nation.” It is not the pleasantest idea of him’ but the library included poetry, and wit, as well as heraldry and the Jewish doctors. His Table Talk is equally pithy and pleasant, and truly worthy of the name, for it implies other speakers. Indeed, it was actually what it is called, and treasured up by his friends. Selden wrote com- plimentary verses to his friends the poets, and a commentary on Draytons Polyolhion. Drayton was himself a reader, addicted to all the luxuries of scholarship. Chapman sat among his books, like an astrologer among his spheres and altitudes.
How pleasant it is to reflect, that all those lovers of books have themselves become books ! What better metamorphosis could Pythagoras have desired? How Ovid and Horace exulted in anticipating theirs! And how the world have justified their exultation! They had a right to triumph over brass and marble. It is the only visible change which changes no farther’ which generates and yet is not destroyed. Consider: mines themselves are exhausted; cities perish; kingdoms are swept away, and man weeps with indignation to think that his own body is not immortal.
Muoiono le citta, muoiono i regni,
E l’uom d’esser mortal par che si sdegni.
Yet this little body of thought, that lies before me in the shape of a book, has existed thousands of years, nor since the invention of the press can anything short of an universal convulsion of nature abolish it. To a shape like this, so small yet so comprehensive, so slight yet so lasting, so insignificant yet so venerable, turns the mighty activity of Homer, and so turning, is enabled to live and warm us for ever. To a shape like this turns the placid sage of Academus: to a shape like this the grandeur of Milton, the exuberance of Spenser, the pungent elegance of Pope, and the volatility of Prior. In one small room, like the compressed spirits of Milton, can be gathered together
The assembled souls of all that men held wise.
May I hope to become the meanest of these existences? This is a question which every author who is a lover of books asks himself some time in his life’ and which must be pardoned, because it cannot be helped. I know not I cannot exclaim with the poet,
Oh that my name were number’d among theirs, Then gladly would I end my mortal days.
For my mortal days, few and feeble as the rest of them may be, are of consequence to others. But I should like to remain visible in this shape. The little of myself that pleases myself, I could wish to be accounted worth pleasing others. I should like to survive so, were it only for the sake of those who love me in private, knowing as I do what a treasure is the possession of a friend’s mind when be is no more. At all events, nothing while I live and think can deprive me of my value for such treasures. I can help the appreciation of them while I last, and love them till I die; and perhaps, if fortune turns her face once more in kindness upon me before I go, I may chance, some quiet day, to lay my overheating temples on a book, and so have the death I most envy.
Hunt, Leigh. “My books.” 1823. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 May 2015. 14 Mar 2018 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hunt/my_books/>.