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Leigh Hunt: A Remonstrance


"The sense of beauty and gentleness, of moral beauty and faithful
gentleness, grew upon him as the clear evening closed in. When he
went to visit his relative at Putney, he still carried with him his
work, and the books he more immediately wanted. Although his bodily
powers had been giving way, his most conspicuous qualities, his
memory for books, and his affection remained; and when his hair was
white, when his ample chest had grown slender, when the very
proportion of his height had visibly lessened, his step was still
ready, and his dark eyes brightened at every happy expression, and
at every thought of kindness. His death was simply exhaustion; he
broke off his work to lie down and repose. So gentle was the final
approach, that he scarcely recognised it till the very last, and
then it came without terrors. His physical suffering had not been
severe; at the latest hour he said that his only uneasiness was
failing breath. And that failing breath was used to express his
sense of the inexhaustible kindness he had received from the family
who had been so unexpectedly made his nurses,--to draw from one of
his sons, by minute, eager, and searching questions, all that he
could learn about the latest vicissitudes and growing hopes of
Italy,--to ask the friends and children around him for news of those
whom he loved,--and to send love and messages to the absent who
loved him."


Thus, with a manly simplicity and filial affection, writes the
eldest son of Leigh Hunt in recording his father's death. These are
the closing words of a new edition of The Autobiography of Leigh
Hunt, published by Messrs. Smith and Elder, of Cornhill, revised by
that son, and enriched with an introductory chapter of remarkable
beauty and tenderness. The son's first presentation of his father
to the reader, "rather tall, straight as an arrow, looking slenderer
than he really was; his hair black and shining, and slightly
inclined to wave; his head high, his forehead straight and white,
his eyes black and sparkling, his general complexion dark; in his
whole carriage and manner an extraordinary degree of life,"
completes the picture. It is the picture of the flourishing and
fading away of man that is born of a woman and hath but a short time
to live.

In his presentation of his father's moral nature and intellectual
qualities, Mr Hunt is no less faithful and no less touching. Those
who knew Leigh Hunt, will see the bright face and hear the musical
voice again, when he is recalled to them in this passage: "Even at
seasons of the greatest depression in his fortunes, he always
attracted many visitors, but still not so much for any repute that
attended him as for his personal qualities. Few men were more
attractive, in society, whether in a large company or over the
fireside. His manners were peculiarly animated; his conversation,
varied, ranging over a great field of subjects, was moved and called
forth by the response of his companion, be that companion
philosopher or student, sage or boy, man or woman; and he was
equally ready for the most lively topics or for the gravest
reflections--his expression easily adapting itself to the tone of
his companion's mind. With much freedom of manners, he combined a
spontaneous courtesy that never failed, and a considerateness
derived from a ceaseless kindness of heart that invariably
fascinated even strangers." Or in this: "His animation, his
sympathy with what was gay and pleasurable; his avowed doctrine of
cultivating cheerfulness, were manifest on the surface, and could be
appreciated by those who knew him in society, most probably even
exaggerated as salient traits, on which he himself insisted WITH A
SORT OF GAY AND OSTENTATIOUS WILFULNESS."

The last words describe one of the most captivating peculiarities of
a most original and engaging man, better than any other words could.
The reader is besought to observe them, for a reason that shall
presently be given. Lastly: "The anxiety to recognise the right of
others, the tendency to 'refine', which was noted by an early school
companion, and the propensity to elaborate every thought, made him,
along with the direct argument by which he sustained his own
conviction, recognise and almost admit all that might be said on the
opposite side". For these reasons, and for others suggested with
equal felicity, and with equal fidelity, the son writes of the
father, "It is most desirable that his qualities should be known as
they were; for such deficiencies as he had are the honest
explanation of his mistakes; while, as the reader may see from his
writings and his conduct, they are not, as the faults of which he
was accused would be, incompatible with the noblest faculties both
of head and heart. To know Leigh Hunt as he was, was to hold him in
reverence and love."

These quotations are made here, with a special object. It is not,
that the personal testimony of one who knew Leigh Hunt well, may be
borne to their truthfulness. It is not, that it may be recorded in
these pages, as in his son's introductory chapter, that his life was
of the most amiable and domestic kind, that his wants were few, that
his way of life was frugal, that he was a man of small expenses, no
ostentations, a diligent labourer, and a secluded man of letters.
It is not, that the inconsiderate and forgetful may be reminded of
his wrongs and sufferings in the days of the Regency, and of the
national disgrace of his imprisonment. It is not, that their
forbearance may be entreated for his grave, in right of his graceful
fancy or his political labours and endurances, though -


Not only we, the latest seed of Time,
New men, that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, not only we, that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well.


It is, that a duty may be done in the most direct way possible. An
act of plain, clear duty.

Four or five years ago, the writer of these lines was much pained by
accidentally encountering a printed statement, "that Mr. Leigh Hunt
was the original of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House". The writer of
these lines, is the author of that book. The statement came from
America. It is no disrespect to that country, in which the writer
has, perhaps, as many friends and as true an interest as any man
that lives, good-humouredly to state the fact, that he has, now and
then, been the subject of paragraphs in Transatlantic newspapers,
more surprisingly destitute of all foundation in truth than the
wildest delusions of the wildest lunatics. For reasons born of this
experience, he let the thing go by.

But, since Mr. Leigh Hunt's death, the statement has been revived in
England. The delicacy and generosity evinced in its revival, are
for the rather late consideration of its revivers. The fact is
this:

Exactly those graces and charms of manner which are remembered in
the words we have quoted, were remembered by the author of the work
of fiction in question, when he drew the character in question.
Above all other things, that "sort of gay and ostentatious
wilfulness" in the humouring of a subject, which had many a time
delighted him, and impressed him as being unspeakably whimsical and
attractive, was the airy quality he wanted for the man he invented.
Partly for this reason, and partly (he has since often grieved to
think) for the pleasure it afforded him to find that delightful
manner reproducing itself under his hand, he yielded to the
temptation of too often making the character SPEAK like his old
friend. He no more thought, God forgive him! that the admired
original would ever be charged with the imaginary vices of the
fictitious creature, than he has himself ever thought of charging
the blood of Desdemona and Othello, on the innocent Academy model
who sat for Iago's leg in the picture. Even as to the mere
occasional manner, he meant to be so cautious and conscientious,
that he privately referred the proof sheets of the first number of
that book to two intimate literary friends of Leigh Hunt (both still
living), and altered the whole of that part of the text on their
discovering too strong a resemblance to his "way".

He cannot see the son lay this wreath on the father's tomb, and
leave him to the possibility of ever thinking that the present words
might have righted the father's memory and were left unwritten. He
cannot know that his own son may have to explain his father when
folly or malice can wound his heart no more, and leave this task
undone.

Charles Dickens

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