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The Wit in the Dungeon    by Anthony Holden order for
Wit in the Dungeon
by Anthony Holden
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Anthony Holden provides a well-researched and comprehensive chronicle of the life of (James Henry) Leigh Hunt. He was a poet, essayist (he defended Romanticism), editor, critic, translator, political reformist, author, and supporter of many notables of his day. Hunt was born at Southgate, London in 1784. He married Marianne Kent and sired sons and daughters. It was he who first recognized the talents of Shelley and Byron (the latter dubbed Hunt 'the wit in the dungeon'). Leigh joined his brother John, who established the Examiner in 1806 as a liberal weekly, known for its political articles. Said publication cast aspersions on the Prince Regent, leading to the Hunts' trial and imprisonment from 1813-1815. Even though in different cells, Leigh and John continued to edit the Examiner from the inside.

From Italy, where he joined Shelley and Byron, Hunt launched the Liberal in 1822 with only minor success. He also contributed to the Indicator, the Tatler, Leigh Hunt's London Journal, and the Reflector. He won literary fame for essays and lyrics, such as Abou ben Adhem, Jenny Kissed Me, The Story of Rimini (a lengthy poem), and a witty autobiography in 1850 (which Thornton Hunt edited after his father's death in 1859.) I enjoyed Jenny Kissed Me: 'Jenny kiss'd me when we met, / Jumping from the chair she sat in ... Say I'm weary, say I'm sad, / Say that health and wealth have miss'd me, / Say I'm growing old, but add, / Jenny kiss'd me.' Often short of funds, Hunt was supported by notables who gathered at his Hampstead home, including Keats, Shelley, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and John Hamilton Reynolds. Leigh's tremendous capacity for friendship brought together diverse writers. Their high-spirited conversation focused on 'progressive political causes'. A significant accomplishment of Hunt's lies in the area of theater criticism, his method being carried forward to this day.

Holden's informative 'portrait of one of the longest-lived members of the Romantic era' brings into the limelight a great 19th-century British literary figure. Alfred Lord Tennyson called Hunt 'a genuine young poet ... our best living poet, next to Wordsworth'. Irish poet Allingham wrote in his Athenaeum: 'Our dear Leigh Hunt, whose earth lies here in earth ... These words, methinks, Leigh Hunt, from thine own pen: 'Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.' ... a man like thee / Is proof enough of immortality.' The Wit in the Dungeon, penned by a distinguished author (Holden also wrote biographies of Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Laurence Olivier, and Prince Charles), will be enjoyed by readers of biography, as well as by those interested in theater and critiques.

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