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  You are in: Home > Literary Criticism > Leigh Hunt and What is Poetry?  

Leigh Hunt and What is Poetry?
Romanticism and the Purpose of Poetry

Flemming Olsen

Flemming Olsen was for many years Reader in English Literature and The Teaching of Literature at the University of Copenhagen. His courses included Shakespeare, Fielding, Wordsworth, Arnold, and Eliot. He has written several books and articles, including: Elements of Textual Analysis, Active Grammar, and Thomas Arnold the Teacher. In 2008 the University Press of Denmark published his Between Positivism and T. S. Eliot: Imagism and T. E. Hulme.


To most literary historians, the name of Leigh Hunt does not rank very high: he is mostly known as an idiosyncratic and mediocre poet, a versatile but slightly superficial critic, a man who taxed his friends’ patience to the utmost, and – probably most of all – the man who exercised an evil influence on Keats. However, there is much more to Hunt than has hitherto been written about him. He was a voracious reader who had a well-developed literary taste, and was a true democrat in that he wanted “the interested layman” to share the enthusiasm which the reading and apprehension of poetry had given him. Hence his essay What Is Poetry?, which, apart from comments of a more theoretical kind, contains numerous examples from several ages and languages of what in his opinion qualified as fine poetry.

His essay is inscribed in the line of theoretical writing on poetry that inspired Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth to write their well-known treatises. Hunt distinguishes himself from those three in that his main emphasis is on the reader. What Is Poetry? is gently didactic in that it hopes that the reader would follow and benefit from his advice. Although not a text of sustained theoretical discussion, What Is Poetry? is, in its own idiosyncratic way, a valuable contribution to early 19th century literary criticism. Flemming Olsen provides a long overdue analysis and critique of the essay, which even today is widely read and available, and of Hunt’s place in the Romantic movement as it sought to engage with the wider public. Hunt’s achievement – apart from his gift as a talent scout and his altruistic assistance to budding geniuses – was that he strove to put his enormous, if erratic, learning at the disposal of ordinary people. This book is essential reading for all those engaged with poetry.


I The Man

II Hunt’s Relationship with Some of the Romantic Poets

III Hunt’s What is Poetry?
Imagination and Fancy
Feeling and Thought
The Purpose of Poetry
Nature vs. Convention
The Poet
Other Subjects

IV A Critque of What is Poetry?

V Hunt’s Literary Credo



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Publication Details

Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
96 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
December 2010
  Illustrated:   No
Paperback Price:
£16.95 / $24.95

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