Poetry on a wall

Yesterday, Sunday the 15th of August 2021, we noticed an attractive wall painting not far from the large Liberty shop on Great Marlborough Street. It is the Soho Mural in Noel Street, the eastern continuation of Great Marlborough Street. With the title “Ode to the West Wind”, it was created in 1989 by Louise Vines and The London wall Mural Group, whose telephone number (on the circular blue patch) was then 01 737 4948 (now, the number would begin with 0207 instead of 01).

More information about this mural and its quote from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley can be found at http://londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/…/ode-west-wind/

A poet to the rescue

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822), the poet, was a friend of the literary critic and essayist James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived at various times in Hampstead, north London. Shelley’s poetry and other writing attracted the attention of radical thinkers including, for example, Karl Marx, who wrote:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois. They grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1888/04/shelley-socialism.htm)

Hunt, who knew him well, wrote of the poet:

“Shelley was not only anxious for the good of mankind in general. We have seen what he proposed on the subject of Reform in Parliament, and he was always very desirous of the national welfare.”

I mention this about Shelley because it chimes with what is to follow.

The Vale of Health, Hampstead, north London

A few months ago, I acquired a copy of Leigh Hunt’s wordy but fascinating autobiography. After being released from a spell in prison in 1815 having libelled the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, Hunt moved to the Vale of Health in Hampstead. Shelley often used to visit Hunt there, sometimes staying at his home for several days. Hunt wrote that Shelley:

“… delighted in the natural broken ground, and in the fresh air of the place … Here also he swam his paper boats on the ponds, and delighted to play with my children…”

Hunt was returning to his home in the Vale of Health one evening after having been to the opera when he heard a woman shrieking and a man’s voice coming from within his house. The woman’s voice was that of a lady, whom Shelley had found lying:

“… near the top of the hill, in fits. It was a fierce winter night, with snow upon the ground; and winter loses nothing of its fierceness in Hampstead. My friend, always the promptest and the most pitying on these occasions, knocked on the first house he could reach, in order to have the woman taken in.”

Shelley’s request was turned down. Hunt continued:

“The poor woman was in convulsions; her son, a young man, lamenting over her. At last my friend sees a carriage driving up to a house at a little distance. The knock is given; the warm door opens; servants and lights pour forth…”

And Shelley asks for help employing the voice:

“… which anybody might recognise for that of the highest gentleman as well as of an interesting individual …”

He relates his story to the elderly gentleman emerging from his carriage and asks whether he will go and see the distressed female. The passenger replies:

“No, sir; there’s no necessity for that sort of thing, depend on it. Impostors swarm everywhere: the thing cannot be done; sir, your conduct is extraordinary.”

To which Shelley replied to the astonishment of the man who refused to provide assistance:

“Sir, I am very sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary; and if my own seems to amaze you, I will tell you something that will amaze you a little more, and I hope will frighten you. It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you: – you will have your house, that you refuse to put the miserable woman into, burnt over your head.”

By ‘convulsion’ Shelley meant revolution, something that England did not suffer as had France or later Russia and elsewhere. Leigh’s reporting of what Shelley said may help to show that whatever Marx saw in his writings was in harmony with his own ideas.

As for the poor woman, she was:

“… brought to our house, which was at some distance, and down a bleak path (it was in the Vale of Health); and Shelley and her son were obliged to hold her till the doctor could arrive.”

In case you are wondering how the woman got into such a sad state, Hunt informs us:

“It appeared that she had been attending this son in London, on a criminal charge made against him, the agitation of which had thrown her into fits on her return. The doctor said that she would have perished, had she laid there a short time longer.”

Now, I am no reader of poetry. I find that I enjoy it more if it is read to me. Further, I must confess that I am unfamiliar with Shelley’s works, but this story related by Hunt, has begun to endear the poet to me. Shelley not only met Hunt in Hampstead but also in Italy on the 1st of July 1822, where they, along with Lord Byron, made plans to start a new journal “The Liberal”. On the 8th of July, Shelley died at sea when the boat he was travelling in sunk.

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.