The Wit in the Dungeon: The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt—Poet, Revolutionary, and the Last of the Romantics
On March 22, 1812, Leigh Hunt (1784– 1859) and his elder brother, John, finally went too far. In the Examiner, “A New Sunday Paper Upon Politics, Domestic Economy and Theatricals,” which both brothers had launched in 1808 but to which Leigh was the chief contributor, an article by him appeared under the title “The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day.” A scathing reaction to the fulsome eulogy of the Prince Regent (the future George IV) just published in the Tory press, it pointed out that this so-called patron of learning and the arts, eloquent recipient of universal trust and adoration, personally (moreover) “an Adonis in loveliness,” was actually a “corpulent gentleman of fifty” who not only did nothing for deserving British writers and painters and could not string together even a few extempore sentences of his own, but was
a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and 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!
The fact that these were all widely acknowledged truths could not save the editors of the Examiner. They had already been dragged into the courts on three previous occasions to answer libel charges arising from articles deploring the barbaric practice of flogging British soldiers and sailors—sometimes to death—for small breaches of discipline, corruption in the matter of promotions in the military service, and the regent’s abandonment not only of his former Whig allies but of the Irish Catholics in their struggle for emancipation. Each time, to the surprise of the Hunts’ own defense counsel, the jury (although strategically packed by the opposition) refused to convict. At the December 1812 trial, however, the brothers’ luck ran out. They were fined heavily and sentenced to spend two years each in separate London prisons. Almost overnight, they became national heroes.
John seems to have managed to make himself tolerably comfortable during his incarceration. The Examiner continued publication. It was Leigh, however, with the help of a friendly jailor, who created something extraordinary out of the two old washrooms he occupied within the infirmary of his prison in Southwark. There he not only went on contributing articles to the Examiner and managed to complete poems already begun and write new ones, but transformed his immediate surroundings into something that Charles Lamb opined had its like only in a fairy tale. After papering his walls with a pattern of trellised roses, Hunt had the ceiling painted to represent a blue summer sky with light clouds scudding across it. After that he introduced a substantial number of books, some portraits, a few busts, fresh flowers and greenery, and a piano. The small yard outside his windows, in which he was allowed to exercise, soon acquired a lawn, flower beds, and some semi-mature fruit trees. (In the second year of his imprisonment he was proudly consuming his “own” apples.)
Although Hunt could not help but hear the distant clanking of less fortunate felons’ chains, or the occasional preparations for an execution, it was scarcely like being in Guantánamo Bay or Wormwood Scrubs. His wife, Marianne, and their ever-increasing brood of children (one was actually born in the jail, and delivered by her father) were even permitted before long to join him. When Marianne needed to get away to the fresh air of the seaside, her place was supplied by her older sister, Bessy, whose sexual favors Hunt may then have enjoyed in an adulterous and incestuous relationship oddly like that of the lovers in his own narrative poem The Story of Rimini. (Nicholas Roe, in his new biography Fiery Heart, is inclined, as were some of Hunt’s contemporaries, to think that he did. Anthony Holden, by contrast, whose The Wit in the Dungeon sometimes verges on the comical in its eagerness to stifle any criticism of its hero, brushes the possibility aside.)
More important, however, than the wallpaper, the flowers, the piano, the books, and even the new poems (although they all certainly facilitated what occurred) was the fact that for two years, in this externally unpromising locale, Leigh Hunt in effect held court. Some of his many distinguished visitors (they included William Hazlitt, Maria Edgeworth, Charles and Mary Lamb, the painter Benjamin Haydon, the musician Vincent Novello, Jeremy Bentham, and the Irish poet Thomas Moore) were previous acquaintances. Others were new—chief and most consequential among them the young Lord Byron, recently returned from his eastern travels and, as the author of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, London’s current literary lion.
It was Moore who persuaded his friend Byron in May 1813 to accompany him on a visit to the man Byron instantly dubbed “the wit in the dungeon.” The phrase was to become and remain virtually mandatory in subsequent accounts of Hunt’s life, including those which, like Holden’s, go on to sanction what became Hunt’s own later and vicious animus against his lordship. In 1813 and 1814, however, that breach was many years in the future.
At the time, the two men got on well. Byron repeated his visits, sometimes bearing gifts, including pheasants, partridges, and hares for Hunt’s dinner table (a largesse Hunt later chose to forget, along with several others, when he accused Byron of a lifelong lack of generosity). In return, Hunt spoke up for Byron when the scandal broke in 1816 over his legal separation from his wife, Annabella. She accused him of cruelty, infidelity, and “a total dereliction of principle,” in addition to which dark rumors were circulating about incest with his half-sister Augusta and an “unnatural” attraction to boys.
Hunt even proceeded to dedicate The Story of Rimini, a reimagining and extension of the Paolo and Francesca episode in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, to Byron—a dedication the latter was happy to accept, although like many readers then (and now) he was not entirely happy with Hunt’s insistent colloquialisms—as in the line describing the heroine as having “stout notions on the marrying score”—or his unconventional handling of the heroic couplet.
Finally released in February 1815, Hunt settled briefly with his family in London’s Maida Vale (where he was visited by Wordsworth), then in his beloved and still rural Hampstead, on the outskirts of the city. For a time, he suffered acutely from agoraphobia. Like Byron’s far more sorely tried prisoner of Chillon in his late 1816 poem by that name (and it is interesting to speculate that Byron was thinking of Hunt here) he “regain’d [his] freedom with a sigh,” finding the openness and throng of people in the thoroughfares of central London dizzying and oppressive.
Hampstead, however, for a while made amends—not only by providing Hunt with green countryside in which to take the exercise he so greatly valued and depended upon for his health but by luring to him there Byron and other of his faithful prison visitors as well as a number of new ones: among them Keats and (most important of all) Shelley. Hunt had met Shelley briefly in 1811 when the latter was only eighteen, but it was now that their friendship ripened. (It would eventually, on Hunt’s part, border on idolatry.) Meanwhile, in 1817, when yet another son was born to the Hunts, he was unhesitatingly christened Percy Bysshe Shelley Hunt.
It seems to have been Byron who casually suggested to Shelley several years later, when both men were living in Italy—Shelley with his second wife, Mary Godwin, and Byron with the Countess Guiccioli—that Hunt with his entire family should come out to join them, in order to collaborate on the Liberal, a periodical to be published by John Hunt back in London, and filled with new works of poetry and prose. Sales of the Examiner were by now falling off, Hunt had tired of the other (increasingly literary) journals with which he became briefly involved, he was missing Shelley, and this seemed a good and indeed exciting idea.
Unfortunately, things went badly wrong from the start. Hunt, Marianne, their six children, and the unfortunate goat dragged along to provide breakfast milk were continually turned back upon the shores of England by bad weather at sea. They did not arrive in Genoa until mid-June 1822, having set out on their journey in November of the preceding year. Worse was to follow. Comfortably installed at last on the ground floor of the Casa Lanfranchi, Byron’s residence in Pisa, Hunt enjoyed a few days of rapturous reunion with Shelley. Then, on July 8, Shelley drowned in a sea storm off Leghorn.
The Liberal was to survive through four issues, and to offer its readers not only Shelley’s translation of an episode in Goethe’s Faust but Byron’s magnificent satire The Vision of Judgement (which his customary publisher John Murray was too frightened to print), the verse drama Heaven and Earth, and his translation from Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore, together with a few other new works. Without the mediating presence of Shelley, however, the temperamental gulf that had always existed between Hunt and Byron rapidly widened. Byron’s very conscious sense of his own aristocratic status was bound sooner or later to grate on Hunt and his wife, as was the personal fastidiousness that made him insist on having a bath every morning and object strenuously to the dirt and disorder of the Hunt children, who ran wild about the Casa Lanfranchi and defaced its walls.
They were poles apart too in many of their literary and musical tastes, especially with regard to Hunt’s beloved Spenser, in whom Byron could see “nothing,” and told Hunt so. Hunt, for his part, could see nothing in Rossini, whose airs Byron was often heard singing. What was becoming an intolerable situation between the two men was resolved only by Byron’s departure in July 1823 for Greece, to participate in the struggle to free that country from Turkish domination, and his death there in April 1824. After a brief tour of the continent, the Hunts returned (overland) to London, arriving there in December 1825.
It is at this point that Nicholas Roe’s biography of Hunt comes to an end. His subtitle—The First Life of Leigh Hunt—does not, as the reader may initially suppose, claim that this will be the first biography of him, which of course it is not. It reflects Roe’s belief that Hunt’s life falls into two distinct parts: the first beginning with an account of Hunt’s childhood in London as the son of an immigrant American preacher, then his education as a charity boy at Christ’s Hospital, and ending with Shelley’s death and Hunt’s return to England, the second extending from 1825 to Hunt’s own death in 1859.
Roe has apparently no plans for a second volume covering these later years, and one can see why. Hunt himself, in the brilliant Autobiography first published in 1850, devotes far less space to them than to the first thirty-eight years of what was to be a comparatively long life. It was not that he failed to attract literary protégés and admirers in a rapidly changing Victorian world. Tennyson, Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both the Brownings, Macaulay, and Dickens were new faces among his visitors. Even Emerson and Hawthorne came to see him in England. Hazlitt and Charles Lamb were still around until 1830 and 1834 respectively. None, however, could replace the associates he had lost—Keats in particular and, most grievously, Shelley. Hunt’s life, although somewhat more tranquil, also became steadily less interesting. Even Anthony Holden, who doggedly follows it through to the end, seems to be flagging in the second half of his long book.