Leigh Hunt

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Leigh Hunt

Paganini-6th Caprice, preceded by Leigh Hunt’s ‘Paganini’ live at the NPG


Leigh Hunt was the great nephew of the great painter of historic tableau, Benjamin West: ‘the mild and quiet artist at his work; happy, for he thought himself immortal.’’ He immortalised the the instrumentalists and singers that he heard in concerts and in the various salons of which he was an habitué,  both in prose, sometimes viciously critical and verse, of which the description of Paganini stands supreme. Of course, music criticism was only a small part of his work, whose radicalism landed in prison on one occasion. He was, for all that, a Patriot – attacking Humphrey Davy for accepting the Prix Napoleon in Paris: ‘Ah, there is the great philosophe, Davie! – See here the interesting Chevalier Humphrey.’

He was a habitué of the musica salons held Vincent Novello’s drawing room at 240 Oxford Street, along with the Lambs, Keats, Shelley, and Hazlitt. He wrote a sonnet commemorating the gatherings. With this went a great passion for Mozart, whose serious music was still comparatively unappreciated. He needed little persuasion to sing Don Octavian’s arias from Don Giovanni:

‘Nature had endowed him with an intense dramatic perception, an exquisite ear for music, and a voice of extraordinary compass, power, flexibility and beauty.’[Thornton]

Hunt was certainly seen as a little ‘below the salt’ by those of bon ton. In December 1822, Lord Byron wrote Annabella Byron:

‘You must not believe the nonsense about the Hunts &c. residing with me – I do not see them three times in a month, and they reside at some distance, and if you came to Nice and I went there, they would probably be in Tuscany, at any rate not near me.’

Mr and Mrs Charles Mathews, aka Charles Mathews Junior and Eliza Vestris,  gave Hunt an advance of £100 for his play A Legend of Florence. Madame Vestris believed that the adance entitled her to make changes to the structure and plot:

“Now, Hunt” she ventured, “if you will change the movement and close of the last act, it will be far more popular and profitable…your play will run for a hundred nights.”

Hunt published works by Keats, especially La Belle Dame sans Merci in The Indicator, his joint publishing venture with Lord Bryon, this also featured new works by Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt. His music criticism appeared in his other periodical, Tatler,  founded in 1830. His best known poem, Abou ben adem, was once learning for every English schoolboy, including me, but he was best known as a polemicist, and essayist. He himself wrote that he said that his purpose in writing was to ‘reap pleasure from every object in creation.”

When I first read Leigh Hunt’s poetic appreciaton of Paganini, I was astonished. It seemed to be the greatest poem about a violinist that I had ever read since Ted Hughes’s The Cadenza.

‘So play’d of late to every passing thought

With finest change (might I but half as well

So write) the pale magician of the bow,

Who brought from Italy the tales, made true,

Of Grecian lyres; and on his sphery hand,

Loading the air with dumb expectancy,

Suspended, ere it fell, a nation’s breath;

Of witches’ dance, ghastly with whinings thin,

That vision with a show’r of notes like hail;

On viewless points, till laugh took leave of him.

Marvellous as witchcraft he would overthrow

Into some utmost tip of minute sound,

In downward leaps like swords; now rising fine

From whence he stepp’d into a higher and higher

Flashing the sharp tones now,

And then with show of skill mechanical,

And palsied nods–mirth, wicked, sad, and weak;

Then from one chord of his amazing shell

Would he fetch out the voice of quires, and weight

Of the built organ; or some twofold strain

Moving before him like some sweet-going yoke,

Ride like an Eastern conqueror, round whose state

Some light Morisco leaps with his guitar;

And ever and anon o’er these he’d throw

Jets of small notes like pearl.”

In his autobiography, Hunt explained the origin of the poem. This provides a wonderful description of the experience of a concert in the early 1830s from the cheap seats, so ‘squeezed’ that he ‘happened to catch the first sight of his face through the arm akimbo of a man who was perched up before me, as though through a perspective glass’:

‘It was about this time that I projected a poem of a very different sort, which was to be called ‘A Day with a Reader.’ /I proposed to invite the reader to breakfast, dine and sup with me, partly at home and partly at a country inn, in order to vary the circumstances. It was to be written both gravely and gaily, in an exalted or in a lowly strain, according to the topics of which it treated. The fragment of ‘Paganini’ was part of the exordium-// ‘So played of later to every passing thought/With finest change (might I but half a well/ So write ! ) the pale magician of the bow, etc.// I wished to write in the same manner because Paganini with his violin could move both the tears and the laughter of his audience, and (as I have described him doing in the verses) would now give you the notes of birds in the trees, and even hens feeding in a farmyard (which was a corner into which I meant to take my companion), and now melt you into grief and pity, or mystify you with witchcraft, or put you into a state of lofty triumph like a conqueror. That phrase of ‘smiting’ the chords-//He smote; and clinging to the serious chords/With godlike ravishment, etc.-//was no classical commonplace; nor, in respect to impression on the mind, was it exaggeration to say that from a single chord he would fetch out//The voice of quires, and weight/Of the built organ.//Paganini, the first time I saw and heard him, and the first moment he struck a note, seemed literally to strike it; to give it a blow. The house was so crammed that , being among the squeezers in ‘standing room’ at the side of the pit, I happened toh catch the first sight of his face through the arm akimbo of a man who was perched up before me, as though through a perspective glass, were the face, bust, and raised hand of the wonderful musician, with his instrument at his chin, just going to commence, and looking exactly as I have described him-// His hand/Loading the air with dumb expectancy,/Suspending, ere it fell, a nation’s breath. He smote; …[Autobiography 1828-50]

Hunt contributed a series of eight essays to the Muscial Times on various subjects between December 1853 and November 1854. The titles included: Eating Songs, An Organ in the House and An effusion upon cream! He was not alone in feeling that he was qualified in expressing his musical opinions forcibly. John Keats was hypersensitive to musical harmony, and Charlotte Reynolds, who as a young girl would play the fortepiano to him whilst he wrote, recorded his exasperation at bad performances, which he felt, were all too common. He would like, she wrote, to ‘go down into the orchestra and smash all the fiddles.”

On the 17th May, Leigh Hunt dedicated a set of poetry  to his ‘noble namesake, the Hon. James Henry Leigh’.  Leigh Hunt’s Juvenilia; or, A Collection of Poems Written between the ages of Twelve and Sixteen by JH L Hunt, Late of the Grammar School of Christ’s Hospital . It enjoyed three reprintings in three year. The list of subscribers grew, and, by the 4th edition, of 1804, included ‘none other than Lord Nelson.’

Hunt is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, near his friend Thackeray, Brunel, and Trollope; he is monument number 13650, square 121, row 3.

NPG 4505; James Henry Leigh Hunt by Thomas Charles Wageman