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 …