Essays by Leigh Hunt
In studying the prose of Leigh Huntt, we make the acquaintance of what may be regarded as an intermediate territory between the older and the newer styles of essay-writing. His youthful productions had a smack of the eighteenth century and yet we're not of it; his more mature works were distinguished in a great degree by the characteristics of today, and yet were in some measure different.
His first ideas of literature were formed while the Johnsonian style was still dominant before the French Revolution had had time to rouse the mind of Europe (or at least of England) out of its pseudo-scholastic lethargy, before the war with Buonaparte had come to confront the nation with the stem truths of a new state of things, and while yet the great inventions of our own day were unsuspected, except by a few thoughtful brains.
It was the worst period that our literature has ever known. The great dictator of Fleet Street had gone, leaving behind him a host of feeble satellites, Some small portions of this Introduction have already appeared in other places
who made the vices of his style apparent in their vapid and insincere imitations. Those who did not mimic Johnson did worse; for they wrote in a tone that had not even the show of strength. Burke and Gibbon, indeed, were still living; but they stood almost alone.
In poetry, the Delia Cruscan manner prevailed, with its false simplicity and real tinsel, its lachrymose tenderness and sham romance. Wordsworth and Coleridge had not yet risen above the horizon, and, in the dearth of original genius,
Hayley was looked upon as a prodigy. It is true that Cowper kept alive the feeling of a better day, but even his poems were to some extent imbued with the faults of the time. It was in the midst of these influences that Leigh Hunt's earliest literary style was fashioned. The age was one of pretence, and the young poet and essayist suffered in the first instance from the mistakes of others. He had " a good old aunt," who used to encourage him "to write fine letters," and on whom he composed an elegy after her death, in which he called her " a nymph "! In our days, none but a boy could commit such an absurdity; but at that time the boy simply followed the example of his elders, who in such affairs were probably not his superiors.
The old lady herself, who was so fond of "fine letters," would doubtless have considered her translation into the nymphal state a perfectly proper thing — in poetry. In the same artificial and sophisticated strain, Leigh Hunt, when a boy, wrote " an Ode in praise of the Duke of York's victory at Dunkirk, which," he relates, " I was afterwards excessively mortified to find had been a defeat. I compared him to Alexander, or rather dismissed Alexander with contempt in the exordium." In a letter to one of his daughters, he says that he described the Duke as " galloping about through the field of battle, shooting the Frenchmen in the eye I " When he had shaken himself free of this rubbish, Leigh Hunt be-came one of the most natural writers that ever lived; but it was not until after some years that he corrected the false literary education of his youth.
His experiences at the Blue-coat School were not of a character to set him on the right road. The master, Boyer, seems to have been a pedant, without any appreciation of the spirit of classical learning, which he apparently regarded as an affair of grammar and of mechanical forms.
The boy saw through and disliked the formalism, and he fled for refuge to the poets of his own country — but generally to the poorest and weakest of them.
He forsook one kind of conventionality for another; he bathed his mind in the poetry of the period immediately succeeding Pope and appears to have regarded the contributors to " Dodsley's Miscellany" as the greatest masters of verse. So true to him were the most sickly pretences of the so-called pastoral school of poetry, that he and some of his school-fellows would occasionally row up the river to Richmond, in order that they might enact, literally and in good faith, Collins's extravagant lines about Thomson's grave in his Ode on the death of that poet: — " Remembrance oft shall haunt the shore
When the Thames in summer wreaths is dressed, And oft suspend the dashing oar, To bid his gentle spirit rest." Such was the style which he then believed in and reverenced; such was the style in which his earliest volume of poems, called " Juvenilia," was composed. It was towards the close of the year 1799 that he quitted the Blue-coat School, and "Juvenilia" appeared in 1802. Six years later than that — namely, in 1808 — the Exami7ier commenced; but, in the meanwhile, the young author had been trying his wings in a variety of ways, though chiefly in the direction of essay-writing and theatrical criticism.
The eighteenth-century style was still in the ascendant, and some of the men whom we are accustomed to associating with that century almost exclusively were yet living and composing. Sheridan had several years of life before him; Arthur Murphy, the friend and biographer of Johnson, might have been among the readers of Leigh Hunt's early pro- ductions; Mrs Piozzi, whose portrait had been painted by Hogarth, was alert and vigorous; so was Hannah More; Person was astounding Europe with his learning, and rejoicing his boon companions with his wit in the Cider Cellars of Maiden Lane; and Burke, Gibbon, Cowper, and Horace Walpole were but newly dead.
The prose writings of Leigh Hunt in those days were in a great degree modelled on a book which was then a favourite of his, and for which, indeed, he retained a regard to the end of his existence — the Connoisseur of Colman the Elder and Bonnell Thornton.
It was a collection of periodical essays in the manner of Addison's and Steele's Tatler and Spectator and was distinguished by a vein of pleasant humour and wit, though wanting the freshness and originality of its prototypes. Its influence over Leigh Hunt was marked. The first set of essays he ever wrote in public — for there must have been many predecessors in private — were contributed to the Traveller evening newspaper (now united with the Globe), under the signature of " Mr Town, junior, Critic and Censogeneral; " which, with the omission of the " junior," was the designation of the assumed author of the Connoisseur.
James Henry Leigh Hunt, best known as Leigh Hunt, was an English critic, essayist and poet. Hunt co-founded The Examiner, a leading intellectual journal expounding radical principles. He was the centre of the Hampstead-based group that included William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, known as the "Hunt circle
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