Hunting for Hunt: poets in Hampstead

I MUST CONFESS THAT I knew nothing about Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) until I became interested in the history of Hampstead in North London. What triggered my interest in Hunt was seeing a house named Vale Lodge in a part of Hampstead called The Vale of Health. Vale Lodge, a late Georgian (early 19th century, pre-1831) house modernised in the 20th century, is difficult to see from the lane by which it stands because it is surrounded by a high wall.

Vale Lodge

People, who have lived in Vale Lodge include the writer Edgar Wallace (1875-1932); the Russian-born industrialist Sir Leon Bagrit (1902-1979); and the banker Sir Paul Chambers (1904-1981). One source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379083) mentions that Vale Lodge was:

“… home of Edgar Wallace, writer, and probably also the residence of Leigh Hunt, poet.”

Well, that got me interested because I had read that Leigh Hunt lived in the Vale of Health from 1816 onwards for a few years.

Hunt, a radical, was a critic, essayist, and poet. He was a co-founder and/or collaborator of several periodicals including “The Examiner”, “The Reflector”, “The Indicator”, and “The Companion”. In about 1812/13, Hunt and his two brothers, also involved with “The Examiner”, were imprisoned for libelling the Prince Regent (the future King George IV). Whilst incarcerated in the Surrey County Jail, Hunt was visited by his eminent friends including:

“…Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Lord Henry Brougham, and Charles Lamb … When Jeremy Bentham called on him, he found Hunt playing battledore.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leigh_Hunt).

On his release from prison in 1815, Leigh:

“… went to live in the Vale where he stayed until 1819, returning again for a brief period in 1820-1.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73)

Hunt’s home in the Vale of Health not only inspired him to write some poetry extolling the virtues of Hampstead, but also attracted several of his contemporaries who were notable literary figures. These included the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Bryan Waller Procter (1787-1874) and John Keats (1795-1821) as well as the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) and the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830). When I was studying at University College, I read some of Hazlitt’s essays. Some words he wrote about the fear of death made a great impression on me:

“Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?” (from “Table Talk”, published in 1821).

The poet Keats, who had slept in Leigh Hunt’s home in the Vale of Health, took a great liking to Hampstead and settled there in 1817. He lived in Wentworth House, which was later renamed ‘Keats House’. The house was built in about 1815 (https://keatsfoundation.com/keats-house-hampstead/) and divided in two as is common with modern semi-detached houses. One half was occupied by Charles Armitage Brown (1787-1842), a poet and friend of Leigh Hunt and the other half by Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789–1864), a literary associate of Hunt and a visitor to his home in the Vale of Health. Keats became Brown’s lodger. Keats had first visited the house when the poet and playwright John Hamilton Reynolds (1784-1852), who was part of Leigh Hunt’s circle of friends, introduced him to Dilke, Brown’s friend and neighbour.

While living in Hampstead, Keats wrote much poetry including “Ode to a Nightingale” (and other “Odes”), “Isabella”, Hyperion”, “St Agnes”, “La Belle dame sans Merci”, and began working on “Endymion”.  It has been suggested that Keat’s poem “I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill” was inspired by his experience of Hampstead (www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/rare-keats-handwritten-poem-inspired-by-hampstead-heath-goes-up-3438636). Another of his works, “Dedication. To Leigh Hunt esq” relates directly to his friend Hunt (words: www.bartleby.com/126/1.html). His poem “Sleep and Poetry”, according to Leigh Hunt (http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=36069):

“… originated in sleeping in a room adorned with busts and pictures … ‘On Sleep and Poetry,’ was occasioned by his sleeping in one of the cottages in the Vale of Health, the first one that fronts the valley, beginning from the same quarter.”

The house was that of Leigh Hunt (https://www.bartleby.com/126/1000.html#31).

There is no doubt that many now famous literary and artistic people congregated around Leigh Hunt while he has living in the Vale of Health, but there appears to be some uncertainty as where exactly he resided. One suggestion, already mentioned, is Vale Lodge. However, a 19th century writer, William Howitt, wrote of Hunt’s residence in his “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869):

“The house, which he occupied … was pulled down to make way for the great hotel just mentioned.”

The site of the hotel, which has also been pulled down, is now occupied by a block of flats called Spencer House. If that is the case, then Vale Lodge can be remembered for at least one literary figure, Edgar Wallace, if not also Leigh Hunt.

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