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Autobiography of Leigh Hunt.
Art. VI.—The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt, with Reminis
cences of his Friends and Contemporaries. 3 vols. London, 1850.
It can make no difference when or by whom a pleasant book is written, and volumes of autobiography are always pleasant. Of all books, the pleasantest, perhaps, is the volume that contains the Essays of Montaigne-the book which most charms us out of ourselves. With Montaigne the sympathy is not entire, as we are not allowed to forget any, the minutest incident of his position. It is not our sympathy with the highest order of minds,—that in which we identify ourselves with them, in which their objects become ours, and in which both they and we are almost forgotten as individuals. Something of this sympathy is commanded by Byron and Alfieri, and it does not require the passionate nature, or the burning ambition of either mind, to have our own identity altogether lost in theirs. These are the books that have an irresistible charm for the young, and their heroes or authors are the madmen who make others mad. There is something in the romance, in the actual adventure of such lives; but the charm is not in this. Take the case exhibited in the remarkable poem in which Byron relates his life under the similitude of a dream :
“ The boy was sprung to manhood. In the wilds
He was girt
A part of all.” The crowding mass of images would be nothing but for the one image seen among all, and felt as a part of the dreamer's own being. A strong power, of the same kind with that of Byron's biography-we mean his works—letters, and poems—for what are they but his biography-is in Rousseau ; less in the parts professedly biographical than in the rest, for Rousseau's autobiography exhibits much that is revoltingly odious, mean, malignant, much that, in spite of his insanity, which accounts for a good deal, it is not very easy to believe, even on his own authority, stating his acts, and anatomizing his motives. The
biography is a stupid, as well as a bad book ; but all whose sympathy has not been repelled by first falling in with it, and who know Rousseau but by his other works, feel themselves even inore identified with this strange demoniac than with Byron or Alfieri, and no longer regard it as wonderful that, as far as an individual can produce such effects, the whole destinies of a people were affected for all after ages by this troubled spirit. To his mind, to his writings, more than to all other causes, is to be ascribed the total upturning of society in the early days of the French Revolution.
We will not be understood to think of the author whose book is now on our table with the men whom we have last nanied. With him, as with Montaigne, the sympathy is never perfect. He is a lively and brilliant essayist, a graceful poet, a happy critic, giving pleasure, and disposed to be pleased. The book is a good-hunioured, good-natured, garrulous book. It is the life of a man who was a few years ago elderly,” but who now says “ he is old.” Perhaps so; but there is in the book sparkling vivacity, and we should think there must be a good many years of life before the author. We hope so, for his books have done not a little to add to the sources of domestic enjoyment.
“ The name of Hunt is found among the gentry, but I suspect it is oftener a plebeian name.” This is scarce fair. There is something of mock modesty in it. Hunt was and is a good name, and we have no notion of this kind of disclaimer. It would have gratified us more had he been diligently working at the index of his Gwillim, and telling us what the coat-armour of all the Hunts of some half-dozen counties was. Hunt's “immediate progenitors were clergymen.” Barbadoes was the native place of the tribe.
“ The tradition in the family is, that we descend from Tory cavaliers, (a wide designation,) who fled to the West Indies from the ascendency of Cromwell; and on the female side, amidst a curious mixture of quakers and soldiers, we derive ourselves not only from gentry, but from kings-that is to say, Irish kings! personages (not to say it disrespectfully to the wit and misfortunes of the sister-island) who rank pretty much on a par with the negro chief, surrounded by half a dozen lords in ragged shirts, who asked the traveller what his brother kings thought of him in Europe. I take our main stock to have been mercantile.”— Vol. i. p. 3.
An ancestress of Hunt's was an O'Brien, and hence his dream of a descent from Irish kings, of whom he should not have spoken so irreverently.
Hunt's father and grandfather, and, he believes, his greatgrandfather, were clergymen.
Hunt's Father- Tarring and Feathering.
“My father went to college at Philadelphia, and became the scapegrace who smuggled in the wine, and became the brunt of the tutors. He took the degree of Master of Arts, both at Philadelphia and New York. When he spoke the farewell oration on leaving college, two young ladies fell in love with him, one of whom he afterwards married. He was fair and handsome, with delicate features, a small aquiline nose, and blue eyes. To a graceful address he joined a remarkably fine voice, which he modulated with great effect. It was in reading with this voice the poets and other classics of England that be completed the conquest of my mother's heart. He used to spend his evenings in this manner with her and her family—a noble way
and my grandmother became so hearty in his cause that she succeeded in carrying it against her husband, who wished his daughter to marry a wealthy neighbour.
“ My father was intended, I ve, to carry on the race of clergymen, as he afterwards did; but he went, in the first instance, into the law. The Americans united the practice of attorney and barrister. My father studied the law under articles to one of the chief persons in the profession; and afterwards practised with distinction himself. At this period (by which time all my brothers, now living, were born) the Revolution broke out; and he entered with so much zeal into the cause of the British Government, that, besides pleading for loyalists with great fervour at the bar, he wrote pamphlets equally full of party warmth, which drew on him the popular odium. His fortunes then came to a crisis in America. Early one morning, a great concourse of people appeared before his house. He came out; or was brought. They put him into a cart prepared for the purpose, (conceive the anxiety of his wife !) and, after parading him about the streets, were joined by a party of the revolutionary soldiers with drum and fife. The multitude then went with him to the house of Dr. Kearsley, a staunch Tory, who shut up the windows, and endeavoured to prevent their getting in. The Doctor had his hand pierced by a bayonet, as it entered between the shutters behind which he had planted himself. He was dragged out, and put into the cart, all over blood; but he lost none of his intrepidity, for he answered their reproaches and outrage with vehement reprehensions; and, by way of retaliation on the · Rogue's March,' struck up ‘God save the King.' My father gave way as little as the Doctor. He would say nothing that was dictated to him, nor renounce a single opinion; but, on the other hand, he maintained a tranquil air, and endeavoured to persuade his companion not to add to their irritation. This was to no purpose. Dr. Kearsley continued infuriate, and more than once fainted from loss of blood and the violence of his feelings. The two loyalists narrowly escaped tarring and feathering. A tub of tar, which had been set in a conspicuous place in one of the streets for that purpose, was overturned by an officer intimate with our family. My father, however, did not entirely escape from personal injury. One of the stones thrown by the mob gave him such a severe blow on the head, as not only laid him swooning in the cart, but dimmed VOL. XIV. NO, XXVII.
his sight for life, so as to oblige him from that time to wear spectacles. At length, after being carried through every street in Philadelphia, the two captives were deposited, in the evening, in a prison in Market Street. What became of Dr. Kearsley, I cannot say. My father, by means of a large sum of money given to the sentinel who had charge of him, was enabled to escape at midnight. He went immediately on board a ship in the Delaware, that belonged to my grandfather, and was bound for the West Indies. She dropped down the river that same night; and my father went first to Barbadoes, and afterwards to England, where he settled.”—Vol. i. pp. 7-12.
Hunt's mother followed to England in a few months. She was surprised to find her husband an ordained clergyman, and a favourite preacher of charity sermons. Lowth, the Bishop of London, who had ordained him, was displeased at seeing his name for ever in advertisements. His going into the Church as a means of life, arose from his thinking meanly of the stage, for to this he first thought of directing his ambition. In the pulpit, and at the reading-desk, his manner was more theatrical than suited the sobriety of English taste. Thomas Sheridan was so pleased with it, that he went into the vestry one Sunday, and complimented him on having profited so well from reading his “ Treatise on Reading the Liturgy.” “My father was obliged to tell him he had never seen it.”
The preacher, if not dissolute, was fond of society, and of wine. He published sermons, “ in which there is little but eloquence of diction and graceful morality.” He rented a fashionable chapel, but did not pay the rent. Friends assisted, but the assistance did not suffice. The then Duke of Chandos took a fancy to his preaching, and employed him as a private tutor to his nephew. He appears to have scattered his children with one friend or another, and to have resided for some years with the Duke's family. We are not sure whether they became again reunited before the period to which the son's narrative next brings us; but the first room of which Leigh Hunt retains any recollection is a prison, which had become his father's residence. West the painter came to the rescue.
“ Mr. West (which was doubly kind in a man by nature cautious and timid) again and again took the liberty of representing my father's circumstances to the King. It is well known that this artist enjoyed the confidence of his Majesty in no ordinary degree. The King would converse half a day at a time with him while he was painting. His Majesty said, he would speak to the bishops; and again, on a second application, he said, my father should be provided for. My father himself also presented a petition ; but all that was ever done for him, was putting his name on the Loyalist Pension List for a hundred a year; a sum which he thought not only extremely inadequate
for the loss of seven or eight times as much in America, a cheaper country, but which he felt to be a poor acknowledgment even for the active zeal he had evinced, and the things he had said and written ; especially as it came late, and he was already involved. Small as it was, he was obliged to mortgage it; and from this time, till the arrival of some relations from the West Indies, several years afterwards, he underwent a series of mortifications and distresses, not without reason for self-reproach. Unfortunately for others, it might be said of him, what Lady Mary Wortley said of her kinsman, Henry Fielding, 'that, give him his leg of mutton and bottle of wine, and in the very thick of calamity, he would be happy for the time being.' Too well able to seize a passing moment of enjoyment, he was always scheming, never performing; always looking forward with some romantic plan which was sure to succeed, and never put in practice. I believe he wrote more titles of non-existing boo Rabelais. At length he found his mistake. My poor father! He grew deeply acquainted with prisons, and began to lose his graces and his good name, and became irritable with conscious error, and almost took hope out of the heart that loved him, and was too often glad to escape out of its society. Yet such an art had he of making his home comfortable when he chose, and of settling himself to the most tranquil pleasures, that if she could have ceased to look forward about her children, I believe, with all his faults, those evenings would have brought unmingled satisfaction to her, when, after settling the little apartment, brightening the fire, and bringing out the coffee, my mother knew that her husband was going to read Saurin or Barrow to her, with his fine voice, and unequivocal enjoyment." - Vol. i. pp. 17-19.
Leigh Hunt describes his father as having narrowly missed a bishopric. We do not know how this was, but the Church had no loss. He seems to have sought to enjoy as fully as he could such snatches of comfort as the present moment brought, while he lived in dreains of expectation. For a while his difficulties were relieved or lightened. A sister, with some property which she spent among her brother's family, came from Barbadoes, and my father's West Indian sun was again warm on him. The sister died, and poverty entered the door again. Things, however, were somewhat better than of old. The poor man had the enjoyment of his pipe; and, if he did not preach, he read out sermons.
Hunt's recollections of his childhood are too much mingled with speculations of a later period of life. They possess little interest, except for such as are acquainted already with the author's books, and his ways of thinking. The book itself is well worth reading for these things, but they can form no part of our account of it, as we should be supposed to assent to his views, if we recorded them without comment of our own, or—to avoid this -be compelled to interrupt our narrative by perpetual commentary. A good deal that was original-novel at least at the time