About Leigh Hunt’s religious views there is room for debate. Cosmo Monkhouse observes that throughout his life he hovered
between agnosticism and atheism. The latter he never touched, preserving through life a vague but strong faith in the ultimate working of all things for good, under the guidance of a supreme and benevolent power. If we say that he had a strong belief that there was a God, and that God was good, we shall come perhaps as closely as possible to his religion and rule of life. 1Martin Priestman’s assessment is somewhat different:
A notorious infidel who had been imprisoned for his radical politics, Hunt was an important figure in establishing an aesthetic that deliberately stood outside Christian frames of reference in order to explore the goals of human desire in other terms. As he expressed it in a sonnet To Percy Shelley, on the Degrading Notions of Deity’ (1818), the ‘search for the old golden age’ on which we should be engaged is directly opposed by the Christian God, who is really only a projection of human bigotry. 2The presence or absence of Shelley when Hunt discourses about religion is a factor behind these differing but equally tenable assessments, as indeed is that of Queen Victoria, who, with her power of bestowing the poet laureateship, seems to preside over the softer, less combative religious tone of the Autobiography. That Hunt played down his religious convictions in Shelley’s presence can be deduced from the letter he wrote to him after the death of his son, William, a letter that anticipates Shelley’s incredulous smiles at the ‘Christianist’ consolation it adduces. At the same time, there is, as Monkhouse suggests, his tenacious sense throughout his life, and through all the slight adjustments of his point of view, that the world is controlled by a ‘Beneficence’ and a personal beneficence at that—as witness the humanising pronoun in The Religion of the Heart that gracefully and ambiguously elides into an impersonal one, ‘blessed be his Beneficence, working toward its purposes’. This phrase occurs in a deistic adaptation of Compline and Evensong that forms part of The Religion of the Heart, a devotional book that, though published in 1853, none the less recycled materials from Hunt’s earlier Christianism, or Belief and Unbelief Reconciled (1832).