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"Jenny Kissed Me" by Leigh Hunt, A Discussion of the Poem and the Poet
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me.
Leigh Hunt was a 19th century English essayist, critic, poet, and publisher. Hunt was not a renowned poet, though his “Jenny Kissed Me” has been enjoyed and often quoted for nearly two centuries. However, Hunt lived during an age of English Romanticism and was influential in the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats. He was also contemporary with Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens. Such great company has given Leigh Hunt a distinguished status.
About “Jenny Kissed Me”
In 1835 Leigh Hunt and his large family moved to Chelsea in London and became neighbor to poet and author, Thomas Carlyle, at his suggestion. The two became close friends and Hunt’s home was always open to his circle of friends, of which there were many.
Two stories exist. One story is that Leigh Hunt visited the Carlyles to deliver the news that he was going to publish one of Thomas Carlyle’s poems. When the news was delivered to Carlyle’s wife, Jane, she jumped up and kissed him.
The other story is that during one winter Hunt was sick with influenza and absent for so long that when he finally recovered and went to visit the Carlyles, Jane jumped up and kissed him as soon as he appeared at the door. Two days later one of the Hunt servants delivered a note, addressed, “From Mr. Hunt to Mrs. Carlyle.” It contained the poem, “Jenny Kissed Me.”
The second story is the one most often repeated.
Thankfully, Hunt was a wise editor, because in the original draft Jenny was Nelly and the word “jaundiced” was used instead of “weary” in the fifth line.
Reputedly, Leigh Hunt was a flirtatious man, often in trouble with his wife. Also reputedly, Jane Carlyle was a bit sour and better known for her acid tongue than for impulsive affection.
The poem, “Jenny Kissed Me” has been described variously as whimsical, charming, simple, and unaffected. Many readers encounter it for the first time during their school-age years and remember it all their lives. Numerous girls have been named “Jenny” as a result of the fond memory of the poem.
The first striking structural feature of “Jenny Kissed Me” is the trochaic meter. This is characterized by a foot that contains an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one. This meter is not commonly used in formal English poetry because it can sound singsong.
The trochaic meter is more common in children’s nursery rhymes where a singsong rhythm is welcome. Think of “Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are.”
The singsong effect is offset by the abab rhyme scheme in the poem, as opposed to an aabb rhyme scheme. The former rhyme scheme produces a four line verse as the basic unit of the poem, as in “Jenny Kissed Me.” The latter rhyme scheme produces two line couplets which enhance the singsong effect, as in children’s nursery rhymes.
Trochaic meter can also sound solemn or heavy due to the fact that the trochaic foot has a falling pattern (stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable). However, “Jenny Kissed Me” is a lighthearted poem and is supported by the use of feminine rhymes.
Lines that end with a stressed syllable are said to be masculine and lines that end with an unstressed syllable are said to be feminine. In “Jenny Kissed Me” lines 1, 3, 5, and 7 are masculine, but that rhyme pattern is not carried throughout the poem. Lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 are feminine, helping to offset the masculine rhymes and helping to make the poem feel lighter and brighter.
The insightful ending to “Jenny Kissed Me” invariably brings a smile to the reader’s face.
About Leigh Hunt
James Henry Leigh Hunt was born in England in 1784 and died in 1859. Many English poets and writers were contemporaries of Leigh Hunt, including Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Dickens, Carlyle, Jeremy Bentham, and Charles Darwin.
During Hunt’s lifetime England engaged in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 with America, and the 23 year period of the Napoleonic Wars with France. During Hunt’s lifetime the French Revolution occurred and Napoleon became Emperor of France. Later, steam engines created an industrial revolution, and Darwin sailed to the Galapagos Islands and reported his findings. During a three year period Hunt’s friends and supporters, Keats, Shelley, and Byron all died at young ages.
Leigh Hunt was born into a poor family near London in 1784 and attended school in London at Christ’s Hospital, a school founded 240 years earlier for the education of poor children. Following his schooling, Hunt took a job as a clerk in the war office.
In 1805 Hunt partnered with his older brother, John, a printer, to establish a newspaper called The News. Three years later the brothers abandoned the newspaper and created a political weekly that established their liberal reputation called the Examiner. Among other topics, the Examiner called for many reforms in Parliament, criticized King George III, and called for the abolition of slavery.
The power of journalism came of age during this period of English history with the publishing of numerous critical newspapers which collectively became known as the “radical press.” Consequently, the government became very busy, though mostly unsuccessfully, prosecuting the “radical press” for seditious libel.
In 1812 the Hunts wrote an article in the Examiner that called the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, “a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps.” As a result, John and Leigh Hunt were convicted by a jury of libel and sentenced to two years in prison.
Though he continued to write for the Examiner while in prison, Leigh Hunt’s separation from his family convinced him to turn away from political writing and to focus on literary writing.
Shortly after being released from prison, Leigh Hunt moved into his favorite house in Hampstead where he was able to spend precious time with his wife and three children and with his literary friends. Among those friends who stayed with Hunt for periods of time in his Hampstead house were Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.
Hunt had earlier introduced the world to the writings of Keats and Shelley in the pages of the Examiner. His section on “Young Poets” gave Keats and Shelley access to valuable space where some of their first works were published.
Keats welcomed Hunt’s tutelage for about a year. He broke away from Hunt when a critic labeled Hunt and Keats as members of “The Cockney School of Poetry.”
In 1818 Shelley and his family decided to move to Italy for health and financial reasons. His friend, Lord Byron, was living in Italy at the time and the two corresponded for several years while each lived in different parts of Italy.
In 1821, when Shelley and Byron were both located in Pisa, Shelley envisioned a new magazine called The Liberal, which Shelley, Byron, and friend, Leigh Hunt, would publish in Italy. Shelley sent money and an invitation to Hunt and promised to provide a house and income for Hunt and his large family.
Hunt liked the prospect of joining Shelley and Byron in Italy and took his family to Genoa and then to Leghorn to meet Shelley. After their meeting Hunt and his family went to Pisa to join Byron, and Shelley set sail in his boat, the “Don Juan,” for his home up the coast at Casa Magni.
Shelley’s boat was caught in a thunderstorm and sank. Shelley’s body and his crew washed ashore in Corsica a few days later. Local health laws prohibited the moving of the bodies to Rome or Pisa, so a month later Hunt, Byron, and family members attended a cremation of Shelley’s body. After the cremation Hunt ended up in possession of Shelley’s heart, which he eventually returned to Shelley’s wife, Mary.
Lord Byron was not interested in The Liberal and soon left Italy to take a commanding interest in the civil war unfolding in Greece. Byron died in Greece of respiratory disease in 1823.
Hunt and his family were left in Italy without their friends and without an income. Hunt published a few editions of The Liberal, but it lacked heart and soul and failed. Hunt received an advance for literary works and took his family, which now included seven children, back to England.
Hunt was impoverished most of the rest of his life. Charles Dickens was instrumental in agitating the government for the grant of a pension to be paid to England’s needy authors. In 1847 Hunt began receiving the pension which eased, but did not eliminate, his financial constraints.
Shortly after returning from Italy, Hunt moved to Chelsea, where, as he had done at the Hampstead house, he opened his home to his literary friends.
The publication of Dickens’ novel, Bleak House, considered by some critics to be his finest work, though certainly not his most popular, included a character said to be modeled after Leigh Hunt. The book caused a rift to develop between Dickens and Hunt.
The Bleak House character, Harold Skimpole, was described as “airy, improvident and objectionable.” Skimpole claims to be a child when it comes to finances and manages to have everyone else pay his way through life.
Though Dickens denied that this was a characterization of Hunt and offered apologies, Hunt and his literary friends were offended.
Leigh Hunt died at age 75, well-remembered by his many friends. William Hazlitt, the painter and writer, said that “in conversation he is all life and animation, combining the vivacity of the school-boy with the resources of the wit and the taste of the scholar.”
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