Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859
Charles Lamb declared “there was no such other room, except in a fairy tale”. He was referring to the chaise longue, bust of Spenser, piano-forte, sky-coloured ceiling and rose-trellised wall paper with which Romantic journalist and poet Leigh Hunt transformed his enforced quarters in Horsemonger Lane Gaol into a site of extravagent protest.
Master of the rhetorical flourish, Hunt was imprisoned in February 1813 after years of assailing repressive British governments in inventively colourful terms from the pages of his political newspaper, The Examiner. Recurring themes in Hunt’s articles – signed with his deictic symbol, the pointed index finger – were government secrecy, cronyism, financial mismanagement, military abuse, widening surveillance and lack of accountability. In Hunt’s own words, his quarrel was with the “servile, the corrupt, the grasping, the wasters of human and natural life”.
Hunt’s sparklingly implacable journalism was aimed at the “dull-headed”, “cold-blooded” and increasingly high-handed administrations whose contours were shaped by the first war on “Terror” – a word that, as David Simpson points out in a new book, Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger, had acquired its first “urgent circulation” in the wake of the French Revolution. Hunt chose dangerous times to practice his art. Habeas Corpus, the legal safeguard that requires those arrested to be tried within a certain number of days, had been suspended in 1794 and would be again in 1817. In addition, the period saw the introduction of draconian legislation aimed at criminalizing political assembly and gagging the press.
Prince Regent & "Romantic Hackers" video lecture link
What finally led to Hunt’s incarceration, though, wasn’t his watchful dispatches on corruption, cover-up and “intolerable tyranny”, but rather a careless “foul and malignant libel” on the Prince Regent. Unable as always to resist an euphonious phrase, Hunt called the profligate, feckless son of George III, future King of England, a “fat Adonis of fifty”. He received two years in prison, and a fine of £50,000 aimed at shutting down his newspapers.
History shows that what Hunt called System tends to be ill-disposed towards those who feel promoted within themselves to lay bare examples of egregious abuse inside it. Certainly, recent events confirm that whistleblowers are more likely to be pursued, and with a vengeance, than those responsible for the misdeeds themselves. In so far as the Hunt who emerged from his fairy-tale cell in 1815 was a quieter man, who dared less, the temptation must be great for those with the means to do so to use prisons to remove inconvenient voices from the debate.
Coldbath Fields, 1819
Leigh Hunt survived the 730 days he spent in disease-ridden Horsemonger Lane Gaol for “showing truth to flatter’d state”, as his admirer Keats put it in a sonnet composed to mark the journalist's release. While conditions were squalid, Hunt was at least allowed to see his family, as well as other visitors to his notorious cell, including Romantic luminaries such as Byron, who dubbed him the “Wit in the Dungeon”. Smuggling in bottles of claret, they held drunken soirees and often submitted to being locked in overnight and let out the following morning by the turnkey. Hunt was also spared the lawless nightmare of torture and solitary confinement (many Romantic political prisoners such as the radical orator John Thelwall, friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, were not).
On his release on 3 February 1815, Hunt was more or less left to get on with things. Today’s journalistic prisoners, including Bradley Manning – who on Monday will have served his 1000th day in prison without trial – and Julian Assange, whose jailhouse room in the Ecuadorean embassy perhaps most closely resembles Hunt’s fairy-tale cell, are facing more uncertain futures. It behooves us as enthusiasts of Romanticism this weekend to reflect on the principled underpinnings of the Romantic movement. We remember Hunt, who began his prison sentence 200 years ago this month, and we also call to mind his political inheritors.
Horsemonger Lane Gaol
Hunt had no shortage of faults, as letters from exasperated friends testify – but they didn’t disqualify him from criticizing “wasters of human and natural life”, two abuses that still go hand in hand. Hunt accepted the personal cost of protesting against institutional cover-ups, and his stand inspired some of the "great spirits" of his age, notably his similarly fair-minded protégé, that most humane of poets, John Keats. Also, and this might offer today’s "minions of grandeur" food for thought: it was precisely the attempt to avoid further political prosecutions that led Romantic writers like Keats to express discomfort with what they saw as the misdirection of Power in more oblique, but ultimately more resonant ways. The fruits of such slant commentary include Keats’s ode “To Autumn”, a meditation on the social effects of agricultural privatization, and one of the language’s most enduring – and enduringly urgent – works of literature (see earlier blogs).
I’ll end with Hunt’s remarks from later life on war. Sending “thousands of our fellow-creatures to cut one another to bits, often for what they have no concern in, nor understand”, he suggested optimistically, “would one day be reckoned far more absurd than if people were to settle an argument over the dinner-table with their knives”.