I have been reading Anthony Holden’s excellent biography of Leigh Hunt titled THE WIT IN THE DUNGEON: The remarkable life of Leigh Hunt, Poet, Revolutionary, and the Last of the Romantics (2005). When I finish it, I shall review it for The Quizzing Glass.
Though Hunt was a well-respected author during the Regency and later, his works have not found the place in English literature that are held by his friends John Keats, Percy B. Shelley, and Lord Byron.
Yet when I came across this letter Hunt wrote to Joseph Severn, who was close to the dying Keats in Rome, I fully understood why his contemporaries admired Hunt’s writing. The following is one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve ever read:
If he [Keats] can bear to hear of us, pray tell him – but he knows it already, and can put it into better language than any man. I hear that he does not like to be told that he may get better; nor is it to be wondered at, considering his firm persuasion that he shall not recover. He can only regard it as a puerile thing, and an insinuation that he cannot bear to think he shall die.
But if his persuasion should happen to be no longer so strong upon him, or if he can now put up with such attempts to console him, tell him of what I have said a thousand times, and what I still (upon my honour, Severn) think always, that I have seen too many instances of recovery from apparently desperate cases of consumption not to be in hope to the very last.
If he cannot bear this, tell him – tell that great poet and noble-hearted man – that we shall all bear his memory in the most precious part of our hearts, and that the world shall bow their heads to it, as our loves do.
Or if this, again, will trouble his spirit, tell him that we shall never cease to remember and love him; and that the most skeptical of us has faith enough in the high things that nature puts into our heads to think all who are of one accord in mind or heart are journeying to one and the same place, and shall unite somewhere or other again, face to face, mutually conscious, mutually delighted.
Tell him he is only before us on the road, as he was in everything else; or whether you tell him the latter or no, tell him the former, and add that we shall never forget that he was so, and we are coming after him. The tears are again in my eyes, and I must not afford to shed them.
Keats was never told any of these things Hunt wished to impart to him. The letter was dated 8 March 1821. Keats had died in Italy on February 23. He was 25.