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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Number 63: James Henry Leigh Hunt "Abou Ben Adhem"

Abou Ben Adhem

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 Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered "The names of those who love 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 that 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.

--James Henry Leigh Hunt

Hap Notes: Here's our poet Leigh Hunt's (1784-1859) most anthologized poem. There really was an Abou Ben Adhem, a Sufi mystic and Muslim saint who was a king who gave up his throne (such as it was- more of a title than anything else or as we say in Texas, it was "all hat and no cattle") to lead the life of an ascetic. His full name was Sultan Abrahim Bin Adham, Bin Mansur al-Balkhi al-Ijli, Abu Ishaq (Saint Abraham, son of Adham- yes- I had to look that up.) The Sufi poet Rumi wrote about him, also.

Hunt was writing about "The Night of Records," an Islamic belief that on the 15th night, in the month of Sha'ban, Allah takes his golden book and crosses off the names of those he will call to him in the coming year and those whom he loves. Islam uses a lunar calendar so the time year of Sha'ban shifts constantly-if you are wondering when the book will be opened this year it will be July 17. Sha'ban is July 2-July 31 this year. (2011 is 1432 A.H.- the Muslim calendar starts from the year Mohammad moved from Mecca to Medina.)

Hunt was practically always in dire financial straits. The largesse of Shelley saved him from ruin several times and after Shelley died (1822) he was somewhat dependent on Lord Byron (who was known to be a bit stingy with his pals) since Hunt, Shelley and Byron were in the process of starting a magazine before Shelley died. Hunt wrote some pretty sharp criticism on Byron later on which many feel was because of Byron's penny pinching. (It is pretty well known that Dickens based the character Horace Skimpole in Bleak House on Hunt. It's a good book and apparently a very good picture of Hunt although he wasn't nearly as much of a weasel as Skimpole is. Skimpole is characterized as a leech on his friend's finances.)

Hunt labored on in poverty, writing and editing, and Shelley saved him again (even though he was dead!) when Mary Shelley inherited the Shelley estates. She gave Hunt an annuity which certainly helped him. Hunt had introduced Shelley to Keats and while the two are always thought of together, they were more professional acquaintances than deep friends. Shelley admired Keats and was a little envious- and protective!-of his natural genius.

Hunt's poetry is very charming to read. It won't burn in your memory for a deft turn of phrase and it's just a bit deeper than a pond. You probably won't get that "ocean" experience from his work but, then, he had to write for a living and that slows a writer down. It may sound odd to say this but when one works as a writer, one does not work solely on projects that are near to the heart- sometimes it's about what will sell. An excellent professional writer said to me that you write "one for yourself and one for the paycheck" when you work as a writer. Hunt's financial difficulties were such that he had to write more than one for the paycheck before he could write for himself. He loved poetry and wrote it from an early age. You mightn't get the resounding soul vibrations of a good poem from his work but neither will you sneer at its dull wittedness.

I'm very fond of Hunt. He's a good read with a cup of cocoa on a winter's night. His story poems are a joy to read. What he lacks in depth, he makes up for with charm. Which, now that I think on it, may have been his trouble. He is too easily charming, he needed more rigor in his writing habits. He could have been, with a little help, a great poet. I think Shelley was hoping to do this. Who knows what could have happened had Shelley lived longer?

Here's a good Hunt quote: “If you are ever at a loss to support a flagging conversation, introduce the subject of eating.”

and another:
“It is books that teach us to refine our pleasures when young, and to recall them with satisfaction when we are old.”

You can find more Hunt here:

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