HUNT, LEIGH (1784-1859)
AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF HIS CELEBRATED POEM 'ABOU BEN ADHEM', signed with initials ('L.H.'), 18 lines, with an unrelated autograph letter signed by B.W. Proctor to Leigh Hunt asking him to write out 'Abou Ben Adhem' so that he can send it with something of his own to New York and to be sure to sign it, the unrelated letter 1 page, 16mo, 8 December 1858, the poem 2 pages, octavo, not dated
Abou Ben Adhem & the Angel.
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, & 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 rais'd its head,
And, in a tone made of all sweet accord,
Answer'd, "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 cheerily still, and said "I pray thee then,
Write me, as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote, & vanish'd. -- The next night
It came again, with a great wakening light
And showed the names whom love of God had bless'd,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.
ONE OF HUNT'S TWO MOST ANTHOLOGISED AND WIDELY KNOWN POEMS, 'JENNY KISSED ME' BEING THE OTHER.
'Abou Ben Adhem', written out in, and perhaps for, Mrs S.C. Hall's album, was first published by her husband in a gift book, The Amulet, in 1834. There 'Abou' appears consistently as 'Abon', an understandable misreading even in Hunt's notably legible (called 'exquisite copperplate' by Charles Ollier), though sometimes very tiny, handwriting. Other than in punctuation and elision, the major differences between the texts in The Amulet, the present manuscript and The Poetical Works (1923) are that in the first two the title is extended to '& the Angel'; in this manuscript the ninth line begins 'And, in a tone' where elsewhere it starts 'And with a look'; and in The Amulet the fourteenth line reads 'Write me for [not as] one who loves his fellow men.'
Hunt's source for the poem, based on the Islamic belief that on the night of Nous Sha'aban God takes the golden book of mankind and crosses off the names of those he is calling to him in the coming year (that is, those whom he loves), was d'Herbelot, Bibliothèque Orientale, 1781.
'On rapporte de lui (Abou-Ishak-Ben-Adhem), qu'il vit en songe un ange qui écrivoit, et que lui ayant demandé ce qu'il faisot, cet ange lui répondit: "J'écris le nom de ceux qui aiment sincèrement Dieu, tels que sont Malek-Ben-Dinar, Thaber-al-Benani, Aioud-al-Sakhtiani; &c." Alors il dit à l'ange, "Ne suis-je point parmi ces gens-là?" -- "Non," lui répondit l'ange. "Hé bien," répliqua-t-il, "écrivez-moi, je vous prie, pour l'amour d'eux, en qualité d'ami de ceux qui aiment Dieu." L'on ajoute, que le même ange lui révéla bientôt après, qu'il avoit reçu ordre de Dieu de le mettre à la tête de tous les autres"' (Milford, p. 707).
The point has been made that while he used his source fairly closely, the real significance of the poem lies in the slight twist that Hunt gave to the story by making Abou ask to be written down 'as one that loves his fellow-men' when told that his was not among the 'names of those who love the Lord.' Hunt, it has been said, 'deserves the credit for making him, in the best sense, the complete humanitarian'.
Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, in his stimulating if sometimes laborious study of Leigh Hunt's poetry, seems unnecessarily critical of the poem, which, while recognising it to be Hunt's most famous, he castigates as one of his least distinguished: '...its weakness lies in its nerveless, sagging metre. In "Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom" the stress on "and" fractures the dactyls, but fails to establish an iambic force of its own. Only at one point does the meter rise to the challenge: the point where it rolls out its great creedal statement: "Write me as one that loves his fellow-men"...'
Only two manuscripts (one in indifferent condition) of this famous poem have been sold at auction in the last forty years at least.
PROVENANCE: John Wilson.
REFERENCES: Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt, edited by H.S. Milford, 1923; Edmund Blunden, Leigh Hunt: a Biography, 1930; Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, Leigh Hunt and the Poetry of Fancy, 1994; Ann Blainey, Immortal Boy: a Portrait of Leigh Hunt, 1985; Timothy Lulofs and Hans Ostrom, Leigh Hunt: a Reference Guide, 1985; Ernest Leisy, 'Hunt's Abou Ben Adhem', The Explicator 5 (1946), item 9; T.O. Mabbott, 'Hunt's Abou Ben Adhem', The Explicator 5 (1946), item 39; Joseph and Linda Wolfe, 'An Earlier Version of 'Abou', Notes and Queries, 105 (1960): 113; The Correspondence of Leigh Hunt, edited by Thornton Hunt, 1862.