English essayist and miscellaneous writer, was born at Southgate, Middlesex, on the 19th of October 1784, His father, the son of a West Indian clergyman, had settled as a lawyer in Philadelphia, and his mother was the daughter of a merchant there. Having embraced the loyalist side, Leigh Hunt's father was compelled to fly to England, where he took orders, and acquired some reputation as a popular preacher, but want of steadiness, want of orthodoxy, and want of interest conspired to prevent his obtaining any preferment. He was engaged by James Brydges, 3rd duke of Chandos, to act as tutor to his nephew, James Henry Leigh, after whom Leigh Hunt was called. The boy was educated at Christ's Hospital, of which school he has left a lively account in his autobiography. As a boy at school he was an ardent admirer of Gray and Collins, writing many verses in imitation of them. An impediment in his speech, afterwards removed, prevented his being sent to the university. "For some time after I left school," he says, "I did nothing but visit my school-fellows, haunt the book-stalls and write verses." These latter were published in 1801 under the title of "Juvenilia," and contributed to introduce him into literary and theatrical society. He began to write for the newspapers, and published in 1807 a volume of theatrical criticisms, and a series of "Classic Tales" with critical essays on the authors.
In 1808 he quitted the War Office, where he had for some time been a clerk, to become editor of the "Examiner" newspaper, a speculation of his brother John. The new journal with which Leigh Hunt was connected for thirteen years soon acquired a high reputation. It was perhaps the only newspaper of the time which owed no allegiance to any political party, but assailed whatever seemed amiss, "from a principle of taste," as Keats happily expressed it. The taste of the attack itself, indeed, was not always unexceptionable; and one upon the Prince Regent, the chief sting of which lay in its substantial truth, occasioned a prosecution and a sentence of two years' imprisonment for each of the brothers. The effect was to give a political direction to what should have been the career of a man of letters. But the cheerfulness and gaiety with which Leigh Hunt bore his imprisonment attracted general attention and sympathy, and brought him visits from Byron, Moore, Brougham and others, whose acquaintance exerted much influence on his future destiny.
In 1810-1811 he edited for his brother John a quarterly magazine, the "Reflector," for which he wrote "The Feast of the Poets," a satire which gave offense to many contemporary poets, and particularly offended William Gifford of the "Quarterly." The essays afterwards published under the title of the "Round Table," conjointly with William Hazlitt, appeared in the "Examiner." In 1816 he made a permanent mark in English literature by the publication of his "Story of Rimini." There is perhaps no other instance of a poem short of the highest excellence having produced so important and durable an effect in modifying the accepted standards of literary composition. The secret of Hunt's success consists less in superiority of genius than of taste. His refined critical perception had detected the superiority of Chaucer's versification, as adapted to the present state of the language by Dryden, over the sententious epigrammatic couplet of Pope which had superseded it. By a simple return to the old manner he effected for English poetry in the comparatively restricted domain of metrical art what Wordsworth had already effected in the domain of nature; his is an achievement of the same class, though not of the same calibre. His poem is also a triumph in the art of poetical narrative, abounds with verbal felicities, and is pervaded throughout by a free, cheerful and animated spirit, notwithstanding the tragic nature of the subject. It has been remarked that it does not contain one hackneyed or conventional rhyme. But the writer's occasional flippancy and familiarity, not seldom degenerating into the ludicrous, made him a mark for ridicule and parody on the part of his opponents, whose animosity, however, was rather political than literary.
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