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.

Hunt fils became a combative and wide-ranging political journalist. This won him liberal friends but it also provoked hostility in the highest places, leading to relentless judicial harassment, including prison. The entanglement of public with private can therefore scarcely be avoided. Roe chose to describe the American colonies, and Philadelphia in particular, on the brink of Independence, but he is more or less compelled to give us pre-Reform Bill England. Where to start? Parliamentary reform? Habeas corpus, repeatedly suspended? Military corruption – the selling of commissions and so on? The horrors of flogging in the army and navy which landed Hunt in court charged with seditious libel following vigorous protest in his journal, the Examiner? The universities and their ‘vile subserviency to the times’? The Corn Laws, which occasioned some of Hunt’s best prose, carefully argued yet passionate? The mad old king? The prince regent for whom bad is not bad enough? Hunt was at his most recklessly brave in his treatment of the monarchy and the government. Regarding Waterloo, with the nation gripped by jingoistic frenzy, Hunt asked: ‘What to us are questions of policy, the satisfactions of revenge . . . when we think of all the human creatures that have suffered in this dreadful business?’

This broad and deep sense of human woe informs much of Hunt’s writing. The same pitying gaze apprehends a soldier flogged to death and the helpless, unrepresented poor in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Roe gets this crucial matter right, and the following thoughts are sharp little forays at the edge of his achievement.

He tends to misjudge his readership. He thinks we need telling that libertas is ‘from the Latin word for freedom’, but on the same page introduces the poet Bryan Waller Proctor without adding that he wrote under the pseudonym Barry Cornwall. He has an unprofessorial habit of vague assertion: ‘At the close of the 18th century the economic status of the middle class was insecure.’ His logical grasp can’t be relied on. ‘Hunt had certainly not read a word of Blake’s Milton’; ‘Hunt knew that King Arthur had never existed outside “the brain of a poet”’; ‘Not meeting Hunt in 1815 ensured that Keats went on to his medical training at Guy’s Hospital.’ These are everyday misapplications of certainty and knowledge and the ensuring of one thing by another.

When Roe turns to Leigh Hunt the poet his book goes out on a limb, away from received opinion. He argues that Hunt’s was a voice of decisive genius which ‘updated’ the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge and offered the world ‘an alternative Romantic temperament’. This argument proceeds in part by putting down. Wordsworthian Nature is all very fine, but, quoting Hunt, ‘what do we meet there? Idiot Boys, Mad Mothers, Wandering Jews.’ This is knockabout stuff, polemically silent about the Leech-Gatherer, the Cumberland Beggar, the Solitary Reaper – ‘Will no one tell me what she sings?’ – the Discharged Soldier, the Danish Boy. Silent, too, about Lucy, ‘the joy of my desire’.

But Roe also promotes Hunt’s poetry. Whereas Wordsworth risks finding himself ‘master of a barren, solitary patch while life continues elsewhere’, Hunt is companionable, unafraid of crowds; his ‘urban scene is bursting with narrative possibilities’. Roe is right about the ‘narrative possibilities’ of Hunt’s verse:

Already in the streets the stir grows loud
Of expectation and the bustling crowd.
With feet and voice the gathering hum contends,
The deep talk heaves, the ready laugh ascends;
Callings and clapping doors . . .

This is from ‘The Story of Rimini’, perhaps Hunt’s best poem, caught happily between 18th-century and Victoria’s England, between Pope:

And now the Chappel’s silver bell you hear
That summons you to all the Pride of Pray’r:
Light quirks of Musick, broken and uneven,
Make the soul dance

and Browning:

No more wine? Then we’ll push back chairs and talk.
A final glass for me, though.

You may find a minor Byron here and there in Hunt, but that is the nearest you’ll get to the great Romantic poet proposed by Roe.

In writing about the ‘first life’ of his subtitle, the life that ended with Shelley’s drowning the year after Keats was killed by consumption, Roe wants to discuss Hunt’s relations with the younger men, his achievement as discoverer, encourager, inspirer, almost as guardian angel, of what, writing in the Examiner, he called a ‘new school of poetry’ aspiring after ‘real nature’.

‘Real nature’ is of course nonsense. At the same time it is hard to overpraise Hunt’s perceptive and largely selfless efforts on behalf of his friends’ reputations. Here Roe does his subject full justice, though occasionally a reference is missing. When, for example, and where did Shelley advise Keats ‘not to publish’ his first volume of poems? In the world of Roe’s book this looks like a significant moment. What did Shelley say?

It is when he moves beyond these matters and presents Hunt as a direct and profound influence on their poetry that Roe and I part company. Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’ shows what is at issue. Keats went for a walk in the fields outside Winchester and two days later wrote to a friend: ‘I never liked stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’ Roe doesn’t mention this letter but turns in two other directions, towards the Peterloo Massacre which took place after a crowd assembled to demand parliamentary reform and the abolition of the Corn Laws, and, with a glance at an early poem, towards Hunt’s journalism. Peterloo gives him an ode written in its ‘aftermath’ and ‘against a backdrop of real bloodshed’; Hunt’s piece in the Examiner gives him the harvest month of September lying under the constellation Libra, the pair of scales which symbolises Justice. Together they give him a socially alert Keats ‘profoundly influenced by Hunt’, transposing this alertness and concern into the lyric justice of ‘To Autumn’, evenly poised, Roe says, ‘between summer and winter, warmth and chill, fruitfulness and decay, life and death’.

This is to overstate grossly Hunt’s influence, and it’s also the case that the ‘poise’ is by no means even, though the poem is touched by winter, chill, death. It’s not even touched by decay. It seems to me that Roe’s concentration on Hunt’s ‘first life’ has led him, here and elsewhere, to pull that life together and bind the relations within it more tightly than the truth allows. Not that this has prevented him writing a considerable book.

Anthony Holden deals with both halves of Hunt’s life in The Wit in the Dungeon, the title a pleasant theft from Byron, one of Leigh Hunt’s many visitors in prison. One says of an improvident friend or spendthrift offspring that he doesn’t know the meaning of money, and it’s clear from Holden’s book that with Hunt this expression carried literal force, as if it indicated an imbecile patch of consciousness. Selfishness implies a focus where there was none. The much rarer serene altruism of the Gospel is nearer but still not right. Hunt gave what was not his to give, and he also took what was not his to take – like those who removed his bust from Kensal Green Cemetery. Don’t be tempted to apply the Marxist rationale that property is theft. Rather, a moral weightlessness seems to have been involved, as his son Thornton perhaps suggested: ‘He seldom viewed anything as it really was.’ And Byron, pressing paradox into oxymoron, styled Hunt an ‘honest charlatan’.

But Byron also moved in the light of common day and common sense, and described trying to help Hunt as ‘like pulling a man out of a river who directly throws himself in again’. Hunt fathered ten children. He had rather more than twenty London addresses in his adult life. The only way he could keep one bailiff quiet was to house him. An unpaid washerwoman distrained the family laundry. Byron on the Hunt children: ‘What they can’t destroy with their filth they will with their fingers . . . Was there ever such a kraal out of the Hottentot country?’ Carlyle reports: ‘a violent hornpipe . . . egg-shells, scissors, and last night when I was there, the torn half of a quartern-loaf’. And Hunt’s wife wrote sombrely of ‘great privation’, without ‘means to provide for the coming week. Such is the fact.

She wrote begging letters behind his back – not that he was laggard on his own account. The air hummed with supplication, reckless promises, unrealistic proposals. Relations with friends, Shelley and Byron in particular, were damaged and distorted, although the saddest story is that of his brother John. They both went to prison for libelling the prince regent, John as publisher and Leigh as editor of the Examiner. Politically, John was as radical as Leigh, and they were very close. (In prison the authorities were careful to keep them apart.) Leigh asked a lot. For example – it is only one example – he planned to start married life in John’s house without even telling him that a wedding was in prospect. He was feckless beyond bearing, and John was almost inexhaustibly patient in his efforts to make his brother see the simplest sense. This comes across uninsistently in Holden’s book.

There were better times, of course, but Hunt was never firmly in the clear. His son Thornton reckoned 1834 to 1840 the worst stretch, with his father in deep middle age. All of which not merely raises but presses on us the question: how did he get his work done? That question is unanswerable, but the first step is to clear the ground of what is relatively obvious. Hunt was a fast worker judged by volume of output. He allowed deadlines, often self-imposed, to affect quality. (Not very much of his work is negligible, but enough to make him, and us, bewail the pressure of time.) He was an inveterate reissuer of things he judged, or even faintly hoped, would stand a second airing, straight or rejigged.

This is the man who wrote a three-volume Autobiography, much of it admirable, and a book about Byron and others, untypically malicious yet copious. The man who edited a whole clutch of journals, sometimes more than one at a time, sometimes holding the fort as main contributor and seeing off rival mags as ‘in their dotage’ or ‘returned to the infancy of their species – to pattern-drawing, doll-dressing, and a song about Phillis’. The man whose theatre criticism stands out in its courage and quality against the corrupt – I mean bribeable – rubbish of the day. The man who was foremost in transforming the 18th-century magazine essay into the occasional piece as we know it: current affairs, real life sketches, odds and ends ranging from ‘Dolphins’ to ‘Hats, New and Ancient’. The man whose invective still conjures a shout of pleasure, as when he replied to the Morning Post’s fawning address to the prince regent – ‘You are an Adonis in Loveliness!’ – with: ‘a corpulent gentleman of fifty . . . a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, a companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity’.

Hunt was often ill. His trouble is impossible to pin down. Nausea, giddiness, blurred vision, palpitations, tight chest, heat flushes, night terrors, breathlessness, insomnia, depression, agoraphobia, fear of dropping dead – they all turn up, sometimes encapsulated in ‘nervous disorder’. He thought mental toil was a rebuff to illness, rather as he thought pregnancy made for his wife’s wellbeing; so he drove himself in the spirit of his freezing baths and hideous dieting. Some, like Shelley, observed that Hunt had ‘a very hard skull to crack’. Others groped for some whimsical, even mystic secret that set him apart. ‘Not exactly of the present age,’ Byron said. Carlyle sensed something ‘indescribable, dreamlike’ at the heart of the household’s ‘sordid collapse’. Again and again people scanned an ill-defined area between the childlike and the evanescent. ‘Above all other things,’ Dickens wrote amid the contortions of the Harold Skimpole saga, ‘the airy quality’ was the thing to go for.

On one journey to Italy, in some of the worst weather in living memory, the cabin was shared by Hunt and his wife, who slept on the floor, the maid in a cupboard, six children and a goat. Hunt is disposing of the goat’s droppings. The baby’s nappies are drying overhead, swinging in tune with the tempest. For the last time I ask how any work got done, except by the goat who provides the breakfast milk. Her reward will be to have an ear bitten off by Byron’s dog.