On March 22, 1812, Leigh Hunt (1784– 1859) and his elder brother, John, finally went too far. In the Examiner, “A New Sunday Paper Upon Politics, Domestic Economy and Theatricals,” which both brothers had launched in 1808 but to which Leigh was the chief contributor, an article by him appeared under the title “The Prince on St. Patrick’s Day.” A scathing reaction to the fulsome eulogy of the Prince Regent (the future George IV) just published in the Tory press, it pointed out that this so-called patron of learning and the arts, eloquent recipient of universal trust and adoration, personally (moreover) “an Adonis in loveliness,” was actually a “corpulent gentleman of fifty” who not only did nothing for deserving British writers and painters and could not string together even a few extempore sentences of his own, but was
a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the 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!
The fact that these were all widely acknowledged truths could not save the editors of the Examiner. They had already been dragged into the courts on three previous occasions to answer libel charges arising from articles deploring the barbaric practice of flogging British soldiers and sailors—sometimes to death—for small breaches of discipline, corruption in the matter of promotions in the military service, and the regent’s abandonment not only of his former Whig allies but of the Irish Catholics in their struggle for emancipation. Each time, to the surprise of the Hunts’ own defense counsel, the jury (although strategically packed by the opposition) refused to convict. At the December 1812 trial, however, the brothers’ luck ran out. They were fined heavily and sentenced to spend two years each in separate London prisons. Almost overnight, they became national heroes.
John seems to have managed to make himself tolerably comfortable during his incarceration. The Examiner continued publication. It was Leigh, however, with the help of a friendly jailor, who created something extraordinary out of the two old washrooms he occupied within the infirmary of his prison in Southwark. There he not only went on contributing articles to the Examiner and managed to complete poems already begun and write new ones, but transformed his immediate surroundings into something that Charles Lamb opined had its like only in a fairy tale. After papering his walls with a pattern of trellised roses, Hunt had the ceiling painted to represent a blue summer sky with light clouds scudding across it. After that he introduced a substantial number of books, some portraits, a few busts, fresh flowers and greenery, and a piano. The small yard outside his windows, in which he was allowed to exercise, soon acquired a lawn, flower beds, and some semi-mature fruit trees. (In the second year of his imprisonment he was proudly consuming his “own” apples.)
Although Hunt could not help but hear the distant clanking of less fortunate felons’ chains, or the occasional preparations for an execution, it was scarcely like being in Guantánamo Bay or Wormwood Scrubs. His wife, Marianne, and their ever-increasing brood of children (one was actually born in the jail, and delivered by her father) were even permitted before long to join him. When Marianne needed to get away to the fresh air of the seaside, her place was supplied by her older sister, Bessy, whose sexual favors Hunt may then have enjoyed in an adulterous and incestuous relationship oddly like that of the lovers in his own narrative poem The Story of Rimini. (Nicholas Roe, in his new biography Fiery Heart, is inclined, as were some of Hunt’s contemporaries, to think that he did. Anthony Holden, by contrast, whose The Wit in the Dungeon sometimes verges on the comical in its eagerness to stifle any criticism of its hero, brushes the possibility aside.)
More important, however, than the wallpaper, the flowers, the piano, the books, and even the new poems (although they all certainly facilitated what occurred) was the fact that for two years, in this externally unpromising locale, Leigh Hunt in effect held court. Some of his many distinguished visitors (they included William Hazlitt, Maria Edgeworth, Charles and Mary Lamb, the painter Benjamin Haydon, the musician Vincent Novello, Jeremy Bentham, and the Irish poet Thomas Moore) were previous acquaintances. Others were new—chief and most consequential among them the young Lord Byron, recently returned from his eastern travels and, as the author of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, London’s current literary lion.
It was Moore who persuaded his friend Byron in May 1813 to accompany him on a visit to the man Byron instantly dubbed “the wit in the dungeon.” The phrase was to become and remain virtually mandatory in subsequent accounts of Hunt’s life, including those which, like Holden’s, go on to sanction what became Hunt’s own later and vicious animus against his lordship. In 1813 and 1814, however, that breach was many years in the future.
At the time, the two men got on well. Byron repeated his visits, sometimes bearing gifts, including pheasants, partridges, and hares for Hunt’s dinner table (a largesse Hunt later chose to forget, along with several others, when he accused Byron of a lifelong lack of generosity). In return, Hunt spoke up for Byron when the scandal broke in 1816 over his legal separation from his wife, Annabella. She accused him of cruelty, infidelity, and “a total dereliction of principle,” in addition to which dark rumors were circulating about incest with his half-sister Augusta and an “unnatural” attraction to boys.
Hunt even proceeded to dedicate The Story of Rimini, a reimagining and extension of the Paolo and Francesca episode in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, to Byron—a dedication the latter was happy to accept, although like many readers then (and now) he was not entirely happy with Hunt’s insistent colloquialisms—as in the line describing the heroine as having “stout notions on the marrying score”—or his unconventional handling of the heroic couplet.
Finally released in February 1815, Hunt settled briefly with his family in London’s Maida Vale (where he was visited by Wordsworth), then in his beloved and still rural Hampstead, on the outskirts of the city. For a time, he suffered acutely from agoraphobia. Like Byron’s far more sorely tried prisoner of Chillon in his late 1816 poem by that name (and it is interesting to speculate that Byron was thinking of Hunt here) he “regain’d [his] freedom with a sigh,” finding the openness and throng of people in the thoroughfares of central London dizzying and oppressive.
Hampstead, however, for a while made amends—not only by providing Hunt with green countryside in which to take the exercise he so greatly valued and depended upon for his health but by luring to him there Byron and other of his faithful prison visitors as well as a number of new ones: among them Keats and (most important of all) Shelley. Hunt had met Shelley briefly in 1811 when the latter was only eighteen, but it was now that their friendship ripened. (It would eventually, on Hunt’s part, border on idolatry.) Meanwhile, in 1817, when yet another son was born to the Hunts, he was unhesitatingly christened Percy Bysshe Shelley Hunt.
It seems to have been Byron who casually suggested to Shelley several years later, when both men were living in Italy—Shelley with his second wife, Mary Godwin, and Byron with the Countess Guiccioli—that Hunt with his entire family should come out to join them, in order to collaborate on the Liberal, a periodical to be published by John Hunt back in London, and filled with new works of poetry and prose. Sales of the Examiner were by now falling off, Hunt had tired of the other (increasingly literary) journals with which he became briefly involved, he was missing Shelley, and this seemed a good and indeed exciting idea.
Unfortunately, things went badly wrong from the start. Hunt, Marianne, their six children, and the unfortunate goat dragged along to provide breakfast milk were continually turned back upon the shores of England by bad weather at sea. They did not arrive in Genoa until mid-June 1822, having set out on their journey in November of the preceding year. Worse was to follow. Comfortably installed at last on the ground floor of the Casa Lanfranchi, Byron’s residence in Pisa, Hunt enjoyed a few days of rapturous reunion with Shelley. Then, on July 8, Shelley drowned in a sea storm off Leghorn.
The Liberal was to survive through four issues, and to offer its readers not only Shelley’s translation of an episode in Goethe’s Faust but Byron’s magnificent satire The Vision of Judgement (which his customary publisher John Murray was too frightened to print), the verse drama Heaven and Earth, and his translation from Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore, together with a few other new works. Without the mediating presence of Shelley, however, the temperamental gulf that had always existed between Hunt and Byron rapidly widened. Byron’s very conscious sense of his own aristocratic status was bound sooner or later to grate on Hunt and his wife, as was the personal fastidiousness that made him insist on having a bath every morning and object strenuously to the dirt and disorder of the Hunt children, who ran wild about the Casa Lanfranchi and defaced its walls.
They were poles apart too in many of their literary and musical tastes, especially with regard to Hunt’s beloved Spenser, in whom Byron could see “nothing,” and told Hunt so. Hunt, for his part, could see nothing in Rossini, whose airs Byron was often heard singing. What was becoming an intolerable situation between the two men was resolved only by Byron’s departure in July 1823 for Greece, to participate in the struggle to free that country from Turkish domination, and his death there in April 1824. After a brief tour of the continent, the Hunts returned (overland) to London, arriving there in December 1825.
It is at this point that Nicholas Roe’s biography of Hunt comes to an end. His subtitle—The First Life of Leigh Hunt—does not, as the reader may initially suppose, claim that this will be the first biography of him, which of course it is not. It reflects Roe’s belief that Hunt’s life falls into two distinct parts: the first beginning with an account of Hunt’s childhood in London as the son of an immigrant American preacher, then his education as a charity boy at Christ’s Hospital, and ending with Shelley’s death and Hunt’s return to England, the second extending from 1825 to Hunt’s own death in 1859.
Roe has apparently no plans for a second volume covering these later years, and one can see why. Hunt himself, in the brilliant Autobiography first published in 1850, devotes far less space to them than to the first thirty-eight years of what was to be a comparatively long life. It was not that he failed to attract literary protégés and admirers in a rapidly changing Victorian world. Tennyson, Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both the Brownings, Macaulay, and Dickens were new faces among his visitors. Even Emerson and Hawthorne came to see him in England. Hazlitt and Charles Lamb were still around until 1830 and 1834 respectively. None, however, could replace the associates he had lost—Keats in particular and, most grievously, Shelley. Hunt’s life, although somewhat more tranquil, also became steadily less interesting. Even Anthony Holden, who doggedly follows it through to the end, seems to be flagging in the second half of his long book.
Roe’s biography, despite its cut-off point, is almost exactly as long as Holden’s. That is partly because it presents a far more detailed and comprehensive account of Hunt’s social and political milieu, and partly because Roe, unlike Holden, pays serious and discriminating attention to the qualities and claims of his prose and verse. Roe’s analysis, for instance, of Hunt’s “vision of domestic life” in the essay “A Day by the Fire” is masterly in its appreciation of what he calls “a remarkable lyrical sensitivity” to “the worth of little pleasures,” “the visual imagination of a painter and, perhaps, an intelligence that anticipates the techniques of cinematic art.” He is perceptive too about the much-debated The Story of Rimini, identifying in Hunt’s “free-flowing, impressionistic verse…a stylistic equivalent of his liberal politics.”
Roe’s book as a whole provides an admirable introduction to Hunt’s work as well as to his life, and helps to explain why both should continue to matter. There is inevitably the occasional slip (e.g., it is not Hamlet but the watchman Marcellus who talks about the hallowed and gracious time of Christ’s birth in the first scene.) Roe is persuasive about Hunt’s ability to write verse in “the spoken language” of “real feeling,” and about his crucial part in establishing an appreciative audience for Wordsworth, who also aimed to do this. But it is possible to wish he had tempered the contrast he draws initially on page 209 between Wordsworth’s repulsion from the “thickening hubbub” of urban crowds, as expressed in Book VII of The Prelude (“The face of everyone/That passes by me is a mystery”), and Hunt’s delight in “human community” and, in The Story of Rimini, the city’s rich narrative possibilities.
Roe does admit glancingly on page 225 that Hunt’s antipathy to London crowds after his release from jail, his half-conscious wish thereafter to re-create the seclusion and quiet of his prison cell, ironically brought him close to Wordsworth’s negative vision. But one would have liked to hear more about Wordsworth’s ideals of human “community” (in Home at Grasmere, for instance) as compared with Hunt’s. These, however, are minor cavils. Roe’s biography has been a number of years in the making, and this shows everywhere in the depth and quality of the research. Scholarly, wide-ranging, and acute, it is an important contribution to what is now the burgeoning field of Hunt studies.
In 2003 Roe had already brought out Leigh Hunt: Life, Poetics, Politics, a collection of new essays by different hands, with an introduction by him.* It seems to be part of the same major and ongoing reassessment that 2004 should see the sudden reappearance of a small book entitled The Rebellion of the Beasts, or, The Ass Is Dead! Long Live the Ass!!! Published originally in 1825 by Leigh Hunt’s older brother, John, and ascribed then to an anonymous “late Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge,” it has been reissued now with Leigh Hunt’s name conspicuous on both dust jacket and title page. Whether it really can be claimed for Hunt seems (as even its present editor half admits) more than a little doubtful. Hunt himself makes no reference to such a work, either during his years in Italy or thereafter.
Even more telling, the book itself displays an intimate knowledge of Cambridge colleges and topography of a kind Hunt was unlikely to have acquired during the barely more than one week he spent there in December 1811. It is also difficult to detect in his work generally the kind of sympathy for the sufferings of brute creation at the hands of tyrant man that informs the first part of The Rebellion, and makes it so painful to read. Hunt did spare a thought for the misery of the poultry kept on the deck of the ship taking him to Italy, continually washed over by high seas, and he was sympathetic to Shelley’s vegetarianism, but he never committed himself to it.
Otherwise, there is only one poem, “The Fish, the Man and the Spirit,” in which Hunt imagines what the perspective of a nonhuman being might be, and gives one of them speech. Insulted by a passerby as belonging to a “strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced” tribe, “scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,” the fish unexpectedly gives back at least as good as it got:
Amazing monster! that for aught I know,
With the first sight of thee didst make our race
For ever stare! O flat andshocking face,
Grimly divided from the breast below!
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
With a split body and most ridiculous pace,
Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finned, haired,upright, unwet, slow!
O breather of unbreathable, sword-sharp air,
How canst exist? How bear thyself, thou dry
And dreary sloth? What particle canst share
Of the only blessed life, thewatery?
I sometimes see of ye an actual pair
Go by! linked fin by fin! most odiously.
It is a good poem—better than Hunt’s endlessly anthologized “Abou Ben Adhem” and “Jenny Kissed Me”—but it scarcely suggests the sensibility of the unknown writer who allows gasping trout on a fish stall in the fens, eels being skinned alive, and live lobsters grimly surveying the rows of their already cooked friends, “all dead and of an unnatural colour,” to articulate what they so horribly suffer and see.
In the second part of the book, all the beasts in the world, including fish and insects, join together, overthrow humans, and set up their own government. And that is where the trouble starts, as their initial republic slides first into a dictatorship headed by a donkey the human narrator first encountered on Cambridge’s Parker’s Piece, then into a tyrannical class system, and finally into an absolute and appallingly corrupt monarchy in which the ass rules without any parliamentary check.
It is a brilliant and scarifying little book, and one wonders if George Orwell conceivably happened upon it (although copies of the 1825 edition are extremely rare) before writing Animal Farm. Was that “late fellow of St. John’s College” himself aware of a predecessor in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat of 1553, in which a magic potion also enables the human narrator to understand animal speech—in this case, that of an assembly of cats in judicial session outside his window? (Baldwin’s cats make a far better job of their admittedly more limited political responsibility.) In any case, one must be grateful to the current Hunt revival for plucking The Rebellion of the Beasts from obscurity—even if, as seems likely, he did not in fact write it.
The Rebellion of the Beasts is pessimistic about revolutions, however justified at their outset—and also about the sustainability of republics. Here it certainly is in accord with Hunt’s own opinions. The son of a father who narrowly escaped being tarred and feathered in Philadelphia, on the eve of the American War of Independence, because of his stubborn loyalty to the British Crown, Leigh adhered to the ideal of constitutional monarchy, whatever the individual failings of George III and IV, and seems never to have wavered. (In his Autobiography, he frequently reiterates it and expresses his personal devotion to Queen Victoria.) This fact makes Anthony Holden’s subtitle—The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt: Poet, Revolutionary and the Last of the Romantics—doubly suspect. Although certainly a radical and a reformer, Hunt was no revolutionary. (He also has less of a claim to be the “last of the Romantics” than John Clare, who died in 1864.) These, however, are far from being the only, or the worst, inaccuracies in Holden’s book.
Most but by no means all of them seem to have been generated by a rather unlovely desire to celebrate Hunt by denigrating Byron in every possible and impossible way. Unlike Roe, Holden gives little space to the poetry and prose (whether Byron’s, Shelley’s, or Hunt’s) produced by the people about whom he writes. When he does, he frequently gets it wrong. To describe Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo,” for instance, as he does on page 148, as depicting Shelley’s considerable “personal difficulties with Byron” is to suggest that Holden has never in fact read this wonderful poem, with its warm account of the friendship between Julian/Shelley and Maddalo/Byron (even though the first believes in the perfectibility of man, and the second is far less sanguine) and their mutual compassion—and generosity—for the poor lunatic incarcerated in the madhouse of Venice.
Other misreadings stem from Holden’s inexplicable reliance upon the old and long outdated Prothero edition of Byron’s letters and journals (or upon quotations drawn from Moore’s contemporary life of Byron) as opposed to the great and now standard thirteen-volume Leslie Marchand edition (1973–1994). Had he consulted Marchand, who transcribed all the extant documents afresh, he might have thought twice about sneering at Byron, on page 154, for a sentence the latter never wrote. He would also have been better informed about the “unknown” date and recipient of the Byron letter he quotes at length (somewhat inaccurately) on pages 222–223.
Sometimes almost as eager to vilify Byron as Hunt was himself when he wrote Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828)—a book whose ill-temper Hunt later had the grace, in his Autobiography, to regret—Holden is especially unreliable when discussing the life of the two men in Italy. He refers persistently to Byron’s “divorce” from his wife, when it was only a legal separation, claims that Byron deliberately upset and mortified the grieving Hunt by “hijacking” Shelley’s pet name (“Leontius”) for Hunt, when Byron in fact had habitually used it before Shelley’s death, and persuades himself that it was Byron’s “outlandish life-style” and connection with the Gamba family, described by Holden as “a prototype of latter-day Mafioso brigands,” that made the Austrian authorities eager to get him out of Tuscany. In truth, whatever Byron’s earlier excesses in Venice, once he had established himself as cavalier servente to Teresa Guiccioli he confined himself (as he said in a letter to his banker Kinnaird) “to the strictest adultery.” There was nothing “outlandish,” at least by Italian standards of the time, about his liaison with Teresa.
As for her father and brother, the Gambas, they were noblemen and patriots, associated with the secret Carbonari society—which Byron also joined—in the effort to free Italy from Austrian rule. The Austrian government, which was hand in glove with the papacy, did indeed want Byron out of the country. Its secret police had been spying on him ever since he arrived in Italy and (probably) also engineering such minor outbreaks of violence as the notorious “Pisan affray” involving his household retainers. That, however, was because of his reputation as a dangerous political liberal, not because his lifestyle was in any way “decadent” or morally offensive.
It is a relief to turn from Holden’s (and Hunt’s) account of Byron’s life in Italy to the one written by Teresa Guiccioli herself. Her Vie de Lord Byron en Italie has languished far too long in a manuscript, kept in Ravenna, that only a few scholars have seen. Translated excellently now by Michael Rees as Lord Byron’s Life in Italy, and superbly edited and introduced by Peter Cochran, it provides a very different and more attractive perspective. Teresa, who began writing her book about 1848, but did not want it published until after her death, which occurred in 1873, is understandably more positive and generous about the man with whom she commenced an affair in Venice in 1819 that was to end only in July 1823 with Byron’s departure for Greece.
Married off at twenty to the intolerable and much older Count Alessandro Guiccioli, who had already buried two wives as well as fathering numerous illegitimate children, she seems to have had a brief extramarital fling with one Cristoforo Ferri before becoming involved with Byron. After the latter’s death, she would take Henry Fox and then Lord Fitzharris as lovers before finally marrying the Marquis de Boissy in 1847—a man who apparently was accustomed to refer to her proudly as “my wife, formerly the mistress of Lord Byron.”
It was customary in nineteenth-century Italy for young women trapped in an arranged and loveless marriage, as Teresa originally was, to seek love and understanding elsewhere. Her family, society in general, and often the husband as well turned a blind eye. Teresa, however, maintains firmly throughout Lord Byron’s Life in Italy (and elsewhere) that her relationship with England’s great and charismatic poet was purely platonic, a union of souls, in which sex played no part. (She even refers to herself inveterately as “the Countess” and Byron as “Lord Byron,” as if to establish a formal distance between them.) This, of course, was all nonsense. As Byron’s letters to her and to others, and even some of her own to him, amply attest, they were passionate lovers. What she wanted, however, was to be seen by posterity as the chaste Laura to his Petrarch, the Beatrice of his Dante. (Characteristically, she hated his great poem Don Juan and even, for a time, made him stop writing it.)
Fortunately, this transparent fiction, beautifully illuminated as such by Cochran’s extensive commentary, does not invalidate what Teresa has to say about the nonsexual aspects of her relationship with Byron, or about the life she shared with him (and, to some extent, her friendly and acquiescent father and brother) in Italy. The book is invaluable in the detailed information it provides not only about that but, along the way, about Italy under the Austrian yoke—where just to be called a “Romantic” poet was taken by the authorities as a code name for “Roma/Antica” and hence an indication of dangerous republicanism.
Teresa did not read Hunt’s Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries until some years after its publication in 1828. (Mary Shelley warned her not to.) Her reaction, when she finally did, was predictably furious and, though emotional, understandable. She had clearly disliked what she saw of Hunt even before reading his attack on the man she loved and continued to mourn. To learn now, in addition, that she herself reminded Hunt of “a buxom parlour boarder” who was not very intelligent and (worst of all) had never really loved Byron, or he her, was deeply wounding. Hunt never took her feelings into account when he wrote what he did, knowing that she might well see it, any more than he did those of Coleridge, who did not die until 1834, when he dismissed him contemptuously in the same book as a man who “had less right to begin his zeal in the favour of liberty, than he had to leave it off. He should have bethought himself first, whether he had the courage not to get fat.” There was a certain rude justice at work when, many years later, in 1852–1853, Hunt had the uncomfortable experience of seeing himself recognizably portrayed as the irresponsible financial sponger Harold Skimpole in his friend Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House.
“Every autobiographer,” Hunt wrote just weeks before the end of his life, in the revised version of his Autobiography,
must of necessity be better known to his readers than to himself, let him have written what he may, and…that better knowledge is not likely to lead to his advantage. So be it. The best will judge me kindliest, and I shall be more than content with their conclusions.
Teresa Guiccioli’s Lord Byron’s Life in Italy, also a kind of autobiography, invites and rewards that sort of kindly, divinatory reading. We can forgive her for what she so palpably leaves out or obscures because in the end we like her, and because both consciously and inadvertently she tells us so much.
Hunt’s first attempt at an autobiography, that “tissue of lies” as Teresa with some justice called it, is harder to judge kindly—and not only in the Byron section. His second Autobiography is a very different matter. It is a splendid book, for what it says even more than for what the reader intuits. One of the best things that might come out of the current revival of interest in Hunt would be a new, readily available edition of this book, arguably the most interesting and important work of a man who for over fifty years lived at the center of the cultural life of England.
December 15, 2005