To Leigh Hunt: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of To Leigh Hunt

Keats laments that the ideal beauties of the classical past have now passed away. No incense rises from altars dedicated to the gods, there are no nymphs to decorate Flora’s shrine. However, the modern age does have its compensations. Even though no one seeks the god Pan any more, Keats still obtains immense pleasure from the feeling that he can offer up his poems (his ‘poor offerings’) to his friend Leigh Hunt.

Commentary on To Leigh Hunt

Leigh HuntLeigh Hunt was a poet and essayist. He edited The Examiner, a periodical which became a focus of liberal opinion and attracted a number of leading writers to write articles for it. He was imprisoned (1813-15) with his brother for two years for a libel on the Prince Regent, the future George IV.

Keats met Leigh Hunt in the autumn of 1816. Leigh Hunt wrote of his first meeting with Keats:

The impression made upon me by the exuberant specimens of genuine though young poetry that were laid before me, and the promise of which was seconded by the fine fervid countenance of the writer. We became intimate on the spot, and I found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination.

Cowden Clarke recalled that from that day until the end of his life Keats was welcomed as a ‘familiar of the [Hunts’] household’ in Hampstead, a world filled with books, paintings, music, liberal politics and opportunities to meet some of the most significant thinkers of the age.

This poem was written in 1817, probably in February, as the dedicatory poem to the volume of Keats’ Poems published in that year. Apparently it was written extremely quickly. The final pages of the proof copy of Poems were handed to him at a party held in his lodgings in Cornhill and Keats was told that if he wanted to supply a dedicatory poem he would have to produce it then and there.

In the words of his friend Cowden Clarke, Keats:

drew to a side-table, and in the buzz of a mixed conversation … he composed and brought to Charles Ollier, the publisher, the Dedication Sonnet to Leigh Hunt. If the original manuscript of that poem – a legitimate sonnet – with every restriction of rhyme and metre - could now be produced, and the time recorded in which it was written, it would be pronounced an extraordinary performance: added to which the non-alteration of a single word in the poem (a circumstance that was noted at the time) claims for it a merit with a very rare parallel.


incense: a resin that is burned for the sweet smell it produces, frequently associated with worship and prayer

nymphs: mythological nature spirits, imagined as beautiful maidens inhabiting rivers, woods, or other locations

Flora: in Roman mythology, the goddess of flowering plants

Pan: a god of flocks and herds, typically represented with the horns, ears and legs of a goat on a man’s body

offerings: things offered as a religious sacrifice or a token of devotion.

Investigating commentary on To Leigh Hunt...

  • Why do you think there are so many references to the classical world in this poem addressed to Keats’ friend?
  • Is it essential to know the biographical context of this poem – or would it still work if one knew nothing of the relationship between Keats and Hunt?
  • What features of the poem make the speed of its writing particularly surprising?


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