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Leigh Hunt
Memoir of Mr. James Henry Leigh Hunt. Written by Himself.
Monthly Magazine  Vol. NS 7  (April 1810)  243-48.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH




APRIL, 1810.

(With a Portrait.)


Dear Sir, Examiner Office, April 20, 1810.

You know my opinions respecting the biography of living persons, especially of those who either deserve no such notice, or may wish to deserve it better: but you have succeeded in persuading me, that a public writer, who pays attention to the drama, is a person of some interest to your readers; and as an author, on these occasions, must be an assisting party to what is said of him, I have thought it best to say quite as much as need be said, in my own person; and thus perform the task as frankly and decently as possible. Addison has observed, in corroboration of your arguments, “that a reader seldom peruses a book with pleasure, till he knows whether the writers of it be a black or a fair man, of a mild or choleric disposition, married or a bachelor, with other particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an author.” (Spec. No. I.) And it was said of Tom Brown, I think, when the second edition of his poems did not sell, that the joke was lost, because he omitted the portrait. Now, as my first wish is to be well understood, I would not willingly lose any help towards that valuable qualification. I should be very sorry were the reader puzzled with any opinion of mine, from his ignorance of my having a dark complexion, or
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the ladies inclined to doubt my sensibility, for want of knowing that I am very happily married. Thus I fairly disclose these two important secrets to the public; and that no possible joke may be lost, the artists, you see, have produced a very good likeness of my face.

Of birth, &c. you tell me it is absolutely necessary to say something. Well:—I was born at Southgate, in October, 1784. My parents were the late Rev. I. Hunt, at that time tutor in the Duke of Chandos’s family, and Mary, daughter of Stephen Shewell, merchant of Philadelphia, whose sister is the lady of Mr. President West. Here indeed I could enlarge, both seriously and proudly; for if any one circumstance of my life could give me cause for boasting, it would be that of having had such a mother. She was indeed a mother in every exalted sense of the word, in piety, in sound teaching, in patient care, in spotless example. Married at an early age, and commencing from that time a life of sorrow, the world afflicted, but it could not change her: no rigid œconomy could hide the native generosity of her heart, no sophistical and skulking example injure her fine sense or her contempt of worldly-mindedness, no unmerited sorrow convert her resignation into bitterness. But let me not hurt the noble simplicity of her character by a declamation, however involuntary. At the time when she died, the recollection of her sufferings and virtues tended to embitter the loss; but knowing what she was, and believing where she is, I know feel her memory as a serene and inspiring influence, that comes over my social moments, only to temper cheerfulness, and over my reflecting ones, to animate me in the love of truth. At seven, I was admitted into the grammar-school of Christ’s Hospital, where I remained till fifteen, and received a good foundation in the Greek and Latin languages. On my departure from school, a collection of verses, consisting of some school-exercises, and some larger pieces, written during the first part of 1800, was published that year under the title of Juvenilia, and in a manner, which, however I may have regretted it, it does not become me, perhaps, to reprobate. My verses were my own, but not my will. The pieces were written with sufficient imi-
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enthusiasm, but that is all:—I had read Gray, and I must write something like Gray; I admired Collins, and I must write something like Collins; I adored Spenser, and I must write a long allegorical poem, filled with “ne’s” “whiloms,” and personifications, like Spenser. I say thus much upon the subject, because as I was a sort of rhyming young Roscius, and tended to lead astray other youths, who mistook reading for inspiration, as in fact has been the case, I wish to deprecate these precocious performances in public, which are always dangerous to the taste, and in general dissatisfactory to the recollection. After spending some time in that gloomiest of all “darkness palpable,” a lawyer’s office—and plunging, when I left it, into alternate study and morbid idleness, studious all night, and hypochondriac all day, to the great and reprehensible injury of my health and spirits, it fell into my way to commence theatrical critic in a newly established paper, called the News, and I did so with an ardour proportioned to the want of honest newspaper criticism, and to the insufferable dramatic nonsense which then rioted in public favour. In 1805, an amiable nobleman, at that time high in office, procured me an humble situation in a government office. This office, in January, 1809, I voluntarily gave up, not only from habitual disinclination, but from certain hints, futile enough in themselves yet sufficiently annoying, respecting the feelings of the higher orders, who could not contemplate with pleasure a new paper called the Examiner, which, in concert with one of my brothers, I had commenced the year before, and in which I pursued the very uncourtly plan of caring for nothing but the truth. This paper, which it is our pleasure to manage as well as we can, and our pride to keep as independent as we ought, is now my only regular employment; but I contrive to make it a part of other literary studies, which may at a future time, by God’s blessing, enable me to do something better for the good opinion of the public; and as to its profits—with constitutional reform for its object, and a stubborn consistency for its merit, it promises, in spite of the wretched efforts of the wretched men in power, to procure
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for me all that I wish to acquire, a good name and a decent competency.

I find I have been getting serious on this magnificent subject; but a man’s muscles unconsciously return to their gravity when employed in talking of his own affairs, and few persons have enjoyed a more effectual round of flatteries than myself, who have been abused and vilified by every publication that has had the least pretension to infamy;—not to mention the grateful things said of me by the writers of “comedy,” to whom I have been teaching grammar any time these six years,—or the epithets lavished upon my head by our prepossessing Attorney General, who has twice brought me into court as “a malicious and ill disposed person,” purely to shew that he could not prove his accusation. It is in vain, however, that I write as clearly as I can for the comprehension of the ministerialists: nothing can persuade them or their writers, that all I desire is an honest reputation on my own part, and a little sense and decency on theirs. It is to no purpose that I have preserved a singleness of conduct, and even kept myself studiously aloof from public men whom I admire, in order to write at all times just as I think. The corruptionists will have it, that I am a turbulent demagogue, a factious, ferocious, and diabolical republican, a wretch who “horrifies the pure and amiable nature” of royal personages, a plotter with Cobbett whom I never saw in my life, and an instrument of the designs of Horne Tooke whom I never wish to see. It is equally in vain that I have taken such pains to secure the gratitude of the dramatists. I understand, they never could be brought to regard me in the proper light; and a variety of criticisms, as well as the reports of my “good-natured friends,” have conveyed to me, at divers times, the most positive assurances that I was an uninformed, an unwarrantable, and an unfeeling critic,—a malignant critic,—a bad critic,—no critic at all,—nay, a black-hearted being who delighted in tormenting—a sort of critical Rhynwick Williams who went about slashing in the dark,—and in fine,—what I must
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confess I really was, at one period of my life—a boy. The worst publications that attacked me, I abstained from noticing, not only from a proper respect to myself, but upon the principle that their own vices had already given them their death-blow. However, they still continued fighting, like the vivacious deceased in the romance, who had not time, you know, to discover he was dead:—

Il pover’ uomo che non sen era accorto,
Andava combattendo, ed era morto.

But you see they die off, one after the other. The process is the same, though slower, with those “living dead men,” the dramatists: and even the Attorney-general and his right honourable friends whose vigour consists in the persecution of news-papers, and whose genius is the waste of their country’s blood, will recollect, I trust, that the inevitable hour awaits them also, and a much more serious one than can be contemplated in jest.

But enough of this egregious history. Disinclined as I was at first to the publication of this little memoir, I am at length not dissatisfied, I confess, with having an opportunity of contradicting, under my name, all those motives of envy or of ill-temper, to which my humble efforts in the cause of taste and reason may have been attributed. To envy Mr. Cherry or Mr. Dibdin is no easy task; but to feel a personal ill-will against bad writers would be, I trust, a still harder with me, if possible. If such persons lose their reputation or their profits, and become bye-words for bad writing, they must attribute the misfortune to its real cause, and make the plain shoulder-shrugging confession which the other day escaped Mr. Reynolds, who has now given the town not only a fair warning, but a better proof of his sense than all his comedies put together. The just severity of criticism regards nothing but what is public; and had I made any answer to those poor reprobates, who when they could find nothing personal to a-
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ttack in me, attacked the character of those who were related to me, I should have challenged them to produce a single passage, in which I had made any personal attack on the deformities, morals, or hearts of those whom I criticized. Political stricture is another thing; and to be bitterly severe on men who grow wealthy and wanton in the lavishment of English blood, requires nothing but to be commonly virtuous. But I have heard that even some of our present rulers cut a very good figure at their fire-sides, and I have no doubt that our bad writers cut much better. So far from meddling with either of them there, who would not wish them there, wrapped up forever in social enjoyment? The dramatists would at once make the proper use of their talents by fitting up baby-theatres for their children; and
Mr. Perceval , instead of sending his countrymen to prisons and graves, would hit the exact pitch of his genius in the forging of cherry-stone chains and the blowing of bubbles. But as criticism is not to invade the privacies of men, so private considerations are never to issue out upon and obstruct public criticism; still less are they to be sacred in the defence of political character, when they are so continually brought into play by the politicians themselves, and elevated to the room and to the rank of public virtue. As I began therefore, I shall proceed. I am not conscious of ever having given praise for policy’s sake, or blame for malignity’s; and I never will. A strict adherence to truth, and recurrence to first principles, are the only things calculated to bring back the happier times of our literature and constitution; and however humble as an individual, I have found myself formidable as a lover of truth, and shall never cease to exert myself in its cause, as long as the sensible will endure my writings, and the honest appreciate my intentions.

Yours, my dear Sir, very sincerely,
Leigh Hunt.