Abou Ben Adhem
by James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:–
Exceeding peace had made Abou Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”– the vision raised it`s head,
And with a look made with all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who loved the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem`s name led all the rest.
If anyone knows of Leigh Hunt nowadays it`s because of who he knew, rather than the fame of his own name. Yet, during the Regency period, he drew great writers to the flame of his politically dissenting reputation like moths blinded by his spotless, incorruptible intellectual brilliance. Shelley, Keats and Byron all succumbed, courted and paid homage, like star struck satellites orbiting a celestial giant, unable to resist it`s gravitational attraction. And yet, by the time Shelley had died in 1822, Hunt was a busted flush: yesterday`s man, still with 37 long years of interminable, feckless mediocrity ahead of him. A man whose character is incomplete, half finished, as if his race has been run before he had even woken up to his time in the sun having drifted into the shadows. Time had not been kind enough to stand still and allow him the pleasure of an eternal Regency: they were the days of his pomp and influence over young, inquiring and fertile minds, ripe for social and political revolution and the overthrow of the time honoured reactionary ruling elite and it`s servile apparatchchiks. His conversation was inventive, brilliant and incisive; products of a mind constantly on the move, edgy, looking into the dark crevices of corrupt political power and finding it`s soul diseased and ripe for intellectual dissection. For character defamation of the corpulent and incompetent Prince Regent in 1813, he was thrown into Surrey Prison on London`s South Bank for a two year stretch, where he held court to all the revolutionary literary young bloods of the time: this was the high water mark of his reputation; his name was hated and feared by governmental reactionaries, and lauded and showered with the love and admiration of his followers and close friends. For his friends were of the genuine variety, unlike the Byronic variety, who was invited to social soirees simply so that people could view him as if he were a popular spectator sport, then one could boast “Yes, I saw Byron.”
To think of Leigh Hunt languishing in a harsh prison environment is mistaking it for the dehumanized, regimented modern variety; English county gaols of this period were established as flourishing businesses, with inmates living in and around it`s premises with their families, the prison governor being the epitome of capitalist free enterprise par excellence. Prisoners were charged on a sliding scale commensurate with ability to pay for particular services rendered at extortionate rates by prison staff, with the governor receiving the biggest cut of the financial pickings. And inmates were indeed picked and plucked of their money in order to make their stay as pleasant as possible: prostitutes, ale, removal of chains and friends and family allowed to bring in comfortable furnishings, food and money; all were turned a blind eye to by the ever helpful staff — at a price. Leigh Hunt even cultivated his own little garden plot, complete with garden furniture and trellises, where he would meet and greet his friends and admirers of a balmy summer evening.
Hunt`s radical dissension against iron fisted, self serving authority was forged in the oppressive environment of Christ`s Hospital School for eight interminable years of hell, which he later referred to as being run according to “a system of alternate slavery and tyranny, fitted to make alternate slaves and tyrants in the political world.” It was a system designed to inculcate the clean mental slate of impressionable youth with the working practices of a repressive, reactionary ruling elite intent solely on the status quo of those that have, rule, and those that haven`t, serve in blind bovine obedience. To a rebellious intellect, fertile ground for seditious and revolutionary concepts, the English Public School system was complete anathema. When he grew into adulthood, he would ensure that he plunged the sharp edged bile of his hatred deep into the morally corrupt heart of this self serving system of political and social repression. And so, in 1808, along with his brother, he set up a newspaper called The Examiner, which with it`s erudite arguments for political reform, poisonous attacks on leading politicians and sundry other articles of interest to the socially informed chattering classes, became the bane of reactionary politicians and made Hunt public enemy number one.
It was while in command of The Examiner that he published Hazlitt, and launched the genius of Keats and Shelley into the public spotlight. If the establishment thought they would silence him by “fitting him up” with a libel charge against the Prince Regent, well, he had other ideas, and proceeded to write, edit and publish articles for his newspaper from his comfortable prison cell, where he became a magnet for all left leaning writers and intellectuals; and upon his release, he continued to write, mock the government, nurture and promote others work in the furtherance of the cause of social justice. But unknown to him, the worm was slowly turning; the world he reveled in was changing it`s mood music; the Regency was drawing to a close, the establishment was closing ranks by increasing oppression, and nailing down the opposition in an attempt to sideline liberal thought and action. Hunt left England with Byron along with Percy and Mary Shelley, perhaps hoping to start afresh and continue the fight in a new land under a new banner. But history tells us his life started to unravel: the dream turns sour; arguments, lack of money, muddled lives and finances, illness and eventually Shelly laying on a funeral pyre at Lerici. Keats by this time was also dead; Mary Shelley was distraught at having allowed her husband to leave for that fateful last journey with a certain coldness in her heart, and did not have room in her life for Hunt`s health and financial problems; and Byron was already looking elsewhere for emotional and intellectual succor. Shelley and Hunt had shared a special link with each other which had ignited mutual interests and needs, but now the glue which held them all together was gone forever, and Hunt quickly slides into the role of bit-player to the great and good; a forgotten footnote in literary history as the spark which ignited a thousand and one intellectual fires, but who did not have the solid emotional foundations to keep his own home fires burning.
What he leaves us is a handful of good poems, magazine articles, and friendships with like minded liberal movers and shakers. His fractured personality was perhaps not complete enough to stand as the one solid individual which would have gifted him genius: his lasting legacy is to have been chiefly remembered as the man who saw genius in others, gave them a voice and acted as their inspiration. In the end though, if you are going to be remembered as one of the gods on Olympus like Shelley………… As Neil Young once wrote about Kurt Cobain……………….”It`s better to burn out than fade away.”
If only Hunt could have followed that script.