How did he get it done?

John Jones

  • Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt by Nicholas Roe
    Pimlico, 428 pp, £14.99, January 2005, ISBN 0 7126 0224 0
  • The Wit in the Dungeon: A Life of Leigh Hunt by Anthony Holden
    Little, Brown, 448 pp, £20.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 316 85927 3

Leigh Hunt was a poet, playwright (tragic and comic), masque composer, translator (from Latin, French and Italian), satirist, anthologist, biographer and autobiographer, magazine editor, political journalist, theatre and literary critic, occasional essayist, philosopher of religion. He was also a jailbird and redcoat volunteer, flautist and War Office clerk, dandy (blue frock-coat and orange gloves) and sloven among slovens, chronic debtor and philanthropist, vagrant and on-the-spot accoucheur, free love enthusiast and original of Dickens’s Harold Skimpole.

The other day he surprised me at second-hand. There he was, dark and mistrustful, eyeing me through a bookshop window. Benjamin Haydon’s touching and slightly impertinent young likeness (the original is in the National Portrait Gallery) graced a book called Fiery Heart. No surprise there. Many people call their books things like that. But then I saw the subtitle: ‘The First Life of Leigh Hunt’.

That stopped me in my tracks, and it also sent me back many years to a crash course in Japanese organised for the Royal Navy by the School of Oriental and African Studies. One day – I was really only a child – I shot off a letter in Japanese to a retired Oxford professor whom I loved and who had been unimaginably kind to me. He, H.W. Garrod, sent it back corrected like a Greek prose – which puzzled me because I knew he had no Japanese. Then I discovered that he had taken my silly show-off letter across the quad to Edmund Blunden, who had spent some years in Japan and now translated my faulty attempt for him. My interest roused – I had thought of Blunden as England’s cricket-country poet – I read Undertones of War and then, with rather less admiration, Leigh Hunt: A Biography, which was first published in 1930.

The author and publisher of Fiery Heart didn’t mean to mislead: the intention of the subtitle is to draw a very firm line between the two halves of Leigh Hunt’s life and to ignore the second. Hunt was born in 1784, and the halfway mark is deemed to come with Shelley’s drowning and beach cremation in 1822. Hunt died in 1859. Nicholas Roe’s book is not the place to go for news of the Victorian Leigh Hunt and his relations with the young Tennyson, the Brownings, Dickens, Macaulay, Carlyle; but it welcomes inquiries after the friend of Byron and Shelley and Keats, and the collaborator-friend of Lamb and Hazlitt. Indeed Fiery Heart begins before the beginning: it follows the family through two centuries, and from England to the Caribbean and North America and back again. As he approaches his subject’s birth this method presents Roe with a difficulty which remains throughout the book: the dense intertwining of private and public themes.

Isaac Hunt, Leigh’s father, found himself in Philadelphia in the years before the Declaration of Independence. He got embroiled in politics – he needed no encouragement – and as a true Briton attacked the ‘Bigot Teachers’ and ‘Piss-Brute-tarians’ (Presbyterians) who were preaching disloyalty to the mother country. Not surprisingly these satirical assaults damaged his legal career, and he wrote to Benjamin Franklin about his problems. Franklin replied that if he could steel himself to be ‘indefatigably diligent’ and ‘frugal’ and ‘temperate’ and ‘abstemious’ he would live to ‘walk over the graves’ of his enemies. Isaac Hunt could not bring himself to be any of those things. Nor could his son. But they were both brave men.

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