Leigh Hunt

October 19

Leigh Hunt (1784)

It was on this date, October 19, 1784, that English writer James Leigh Hunt was born in Southgate, Middlesex. His father was a clergyman, but got into financial difficulties and ended up in a debtor's prison, leaving Leigh Hunt in the care of his mother. Early on, Hunt developed a twin passion for poetry and politics and befriended other young poets who favored political reform, including Thomas Barnes, Henry Brougham, Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In 1808, with his brother John, Hunt started a political journal called The Examiner that supported radicals in Parliament such as Brougham and Francis Burdett, as well as the political ideas of reformer Robert Owen and jurist Jeremy Bentham, both Atheists.

The journal got Hunt into trouble: he was prosecuted three times for attacking egregious official abuses in its pages. After criticizing the Prince Regent, Hunt was jailed for libel, but continued to edit The Examiner from prison. In 1822, Hunt traveled to Italy with Byron and Shelley and created a radical political journal called The Liberal, but without the danger of arrest in England. There were only four editions, but the first included writings from William Hazlitt and Mary Shelley. The project was abandoned and Hunt returned to England in 1823. Five years later he published Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828).

He died at age 74 on 28 August 1859. Leigh Hunt was a Deist, and strongly opposed Christianity, as evidenced in his Religion of the Heart. It has been suggested that Leigh Hunt was the model for Harold Skimpole in Charles Dickens' Bleak House, but Dickens denied this. Indeed, he described Hunt as "the very soul of honour and truth."*

* Dictionary of National Biography.

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Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne (1605)

It was also on this date, October 19, 1605, that British writer Sir Thomas Browne was born in London, the son of a prosperous silk merchant who died when he was eight. Browne nevertheless studied at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he took his B.A. in 1626 and his M.A. three years later. He earned an M.D. from the University of Leiden in 1633. He practiced medicine in Norwich and was affiliated with the Church of England.

While supported by his medical practice, he published on a wide variety of topics, including religion and science. His Religio Medici, which translated from the Latin means "The Religion of a Physician," written in English, ran through at least eight editions while he was alive. It was translated into most European languages in his day, and is often described as a fine piece of religious literature, but it was put on the Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books, all the same.

Although usually taken to be a Christian, in such works as Hydriotaphia — often called Discourse on Sepulchral Urns or simply Urn Burial (1648) and Pseudodoxia epidemica, Browne shows that he was a Deist and a skeptic regarding immortality. In Urn Burial he says that "a dialogue between two infants in the womb concerning the state of this world might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next," and "I perceive the wisest heads prove, at last, almost all skeptics."*

He was knighted by King Charles II in 1671. Thomas Browne died on his 77th birthday in 1682. It was Browne who said, "As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine."**

* Thomas Browne, Discourse on Sepulchral Urns, 1648, p. 158 (1886 ed.).
** Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1642. (pia mater refers to the "innermost of the three membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.")

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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