Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets with your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that wealth and health have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.
Leigh Hunt’s poem ‘Jenny kiss’d me’ is so innocuously written that one could almost pass it by for a sweet, comic reflection on a little kiss which the speaker received at one moment in his life. The simple ababcdcd rhyme scheme, regular metre, and extensive use of parallelism makes it sonorously blur together. But much like the poet himself, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Leigh Hunt was a remarkable figure of the late Georgian and early Victorian era. Primarily an essayist, critic, and social commentator, he counted several talented poets as close friends – including Keats and Shelley. He introduced Keats to Shelley and perhaps did as much as anyone to make them known to the public, as well as publishing the works of Byron regularly through the various journals and magazines he edited (the most famous being The Examiner). He also moved in high circles, most notably the ‘Hunt Circle’ which included top critics of the day such as William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. He was not a man who shied from controversy, and was imprisoned for two years following The Examiner’s attack on the future King George IV. William Blake didn’t hesitate to identify The Examiner as a “nest of villains” (presumably Hunt was the chief villain). He even inspired a character in Dickens’s Bleak House.
He shared the Romantics’ aim to reclaim emotion and subjectivity from the Enlightenment’s emphasis on Reason, but Hunt’s central aesthetic interest was to get rid of the tired neo-classicism of writers like Alexander Pope, who seemed to pay endless homage to the Romans and Greeks through the heroic couplet and other such cheap literary tricks. The iconoclastic radicalism within him sought to displace the banal witticisms which arguably did little to actually hold the status quo’s feet to the fire and, as innovators often do, he found himself returning to the past to do so. Dante and Chaucerian verse, for example, were keen interests of his own, and for his friends Keats and Shelley there was, for example, a keen return to the Sonnet (Stuart Curran notes how, astonishingly, ‘the sonnet virtually disappeared from British shores in the century after Milton’s death’). The reinvigoration of the past and a keen intertextuality with literatures beyond the English were constantly at work within Hunt’s Romantic milieu and his own ‘Jenny kiss’d me’ is no exception to this phenomenon.
Written in the Rondeau, a medieval French form (the other major form being the ballade), there is something in the form that already mirrors the recovery which forms the poem’s subject. It has a wonderful, sprightly tone. In many ways it is a simple poem: it has a single point of view, a single apostrophe (address), two apparent characters, and very little plot. But beneath this simplicity, there lies a profound investigation into the nature of time and love. The first two lines indicate the scene with Jenny, the pace of the narrative which itself ‘jumps’ straight in being contrasted with the lengthy. There is then a shift to the present tense, moving into an accusatory tone. Quickly we find the apostrophe, to a personified ‘Time’, is immediately further personified by being labelled a ‘thief’ – ‘time as thief’, of course, a recurring motif in Western thought. The pace of the narrative compared to that of the ‘story-time’ is one parallel in which the question of time is also to be found. 16 of the 50 words are actually focused on action which is rooted in movement and show some sign of development (the first two lines and the final line), whilst the other 36 words have a fundamentally static quality about them, using repetition, parallelism, and even in the initial apostrophe to time a considerably long subordinate clause. There is a coiling up in tension throughout this section, a temporal delay as we recognise that each ‘say’ is building up to the point where we realise what Hunt’s speaker actually wants to say to time.
The anaphora of ‘say’, combined with its sibilance, provides both an overwhelming sense of desperation – especially in the use of the verb ‘say’ which is mimetic to the way in which we read the poem: we ourselves begin to ‘say’ precisely what the speaker is saying, participating in a sense in his very petition. The ‘say’ provides almost a breathlessness and a futility which marks the weariness of the speaker and the final ‘but add / Jenny kiss’d me’ seems ambiguously poised between what could either be a triumphant assertion over time, or on the other hand a final futile desire from a speaker who has breathlessly not only repeated himself but also revealed himself (‘I’m weary’, ‘I’m sad’, ‘wealth and health have missed me’, ‘I’m growing old’). Perhaps there lies the ultimate sadness of time, the fact that it leaves us futile in our attempts to reclaim the past and reveals those features of age; or perhaps it is only attempting to assert those memories that can ever truly defy time and leave a stamp, however small, which reaches out into eternity. I don’t think the poem gives us an answer, and that is part of the beguiling achievement which Hunt has here produced.