James Henry Leigh Hunt (19 October 1784 – 28 August 1859), 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’. Hunt also introduced John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson to the public.
Hunt’s presence at Shelley’s funeral on the beach near Viareggio was immortalised in the painting by Louis Édouard Fournier, although in reality Hunt did not stand by the pyre, as portrayed. Hunt was the inspiration for the Harold Skimpole character in Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House.
In 1816, Hunt published the poem Story of Rimini. This work was based on the tragic episode of Francesca da Rimini as told in Dante’s Inferno.
Hunt’s preference was decidedly for Chaucer’s verse style, as adapted to modern English by John Dryden. This was in contrast to the epigrammatic couplet of Alexander Pope. The Story of Rimini is an optimistic narrative which runs contrary to the tragic nature of its subject. Hunt’s flippancy and familiarity, often degenerating into the ludicrous, subsequently made him a target for ridicule and parody.
In 1818, Hunt published a collection of poems entitled Foliage, followed in 1819 by Hero and Leander, and Bacchus and Ariadne. In the same year he reprinted The Story of Rimini and The Descent of Liberty with the title of Poetical Works. Hunt also started the Indicator.
Both Keats and Shelley belonged to a literary group that gathered around Hunt at Hampstead. The Hunt Circle also included Hazlitt, Lamb, Bryan Procter, Benjamin Haydon, Charles Cowden Clarke, C. W. Dilke, Walter Coulson and John Hamilton Reynolds. This group was known pejoratively as the Cockney School.
Some of Hunt’s most popular poems are “Jenny kiss’d Me”, “Abou Ben Adhem” and “A Night-Rain in Summer”.