University of Connecticut
At the beginning of 1818, Leigh Hunt was at the height of his career as the charismatic editor of the Examiner and critical champion of young poets such as Keats and Shelley. His profile was such that when Blackwood's took aim at the factitious "Cockney School" in 1817-19, Hunt was recognized as its ringleader and excoriated accordingly. By the end of 1822, however, Hunt was nearly forgotten: sales of the Examiner had fallen off precipitously; he had been seemingly abandoned by many of the young talents he had gathered around him in Hampstead; and he had resigned the editorship of the paper late in 1821 upon embarking for Italy and the ill-fated partnership (with Shelley and Byron) of the Liberal. The popular, heroic libeler of the Regent in 1812--the "wit in the dungeon"--was little more than the deposed and exiled "King of the Cockneys" in 1822. Whereas the paper's first five years, 1808-12, were highlighted by the series of ex officio informations filed against it for seditious libel (culminating in the Hunts' notorious trial and conviction in 1812), and the second five years, 1813-17, were dramatized by its transformation from a political weekly into a broader vehicle for reform in cultural as well as political matters (enlivened most noticeably by the regular contributions of Hazlitt and the introduction of the "Literary Notices" in 1816), these last five years under Hunt witness the erosion of both the paper's appeal and the stature of its editor: Hunt was regularly either overworked or too ill to work; circulation fell so low that a page of advertisements was begun in 1820; and when John Hunt was imprisoned and Leigh was en route to Italy in 1822, the paper often consisted in little more than numerous extracts from other publications. Nevertheless, these volumes--the third and final installment in Pickering & Chatto's invaluable reprint of the first fifteen years of the Examiner--are crucial to our understanding of the literary and political culture of Regency England. However unsystematic the paper's political principles may have been, the Examiner stood--liberally, unstintingly, invariably--for Reform, as articulated by a critic who steadfastly championed the vital and renovating consequences of literature for political change. And when chastening the Quarterly Review for its abuse of Keats and Shelley, upbraiding the ministerial press for its coverage of Peterloo, defending Queen Caroline, or denouncing the cant and hypocrisy of a corrupt Parliament, the Examiner succeeded time and again in "telling the Truth to Power" with its provocative combination of political intransigence and literary virtuosity.
The Examiner is increasingly Hunt's paper during these years: Hazlitt had stopped contributing regular literary and theatrical reviews, as well as political commentary, in 1817; the poetry of Shelley and Keats figured prominently in 1818 but rarely thereafter; and it fell to Hunt to write not only the "Political Examiner" and the theatre reviews but also the ever-more ambitious literary notices. When John Gibson Lockhart, alias "Z," initiated his series of attacks on the "Cockney School" in the first number of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (October 1817), he went after Hunt precisely because of his multifaceted cultural prominence. As the acclaimed poet of The Story of Rimini (favorably appraised in the Edinburgh Review in 1816), the prominent editor of a vital anti-ministerial weekly, and the arbiter of a "new school" of poetry (see "Young Poets," 1 December 1816), Hunt presented an irresistible target for a high-handed Tory critic. Dismissing Hunt as "a man certainly of some talents, of extravagant pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking and manners in all respects," Lockhart contested Hunt's qualifications for founding a "school" of any sort, then proceeded to expose and ridicule his literary-critical delusions. Equal parts vicious character assassination and astute criticism of Rimini, Lockhart's denunciations testify to Hunt's political prominence as well as to his literary dilettantism. While it is due to Hunt's public profile as editor of the Examiner that Lockhart is concerned about the "success with which his influence seems to be extending itself among a pretty numerous, though certainly a very paltry and pitiful, set of readers," this influence is all the more troublesome precisely because Hunt's "shallow and impotent pretensions, tenets, and attempts" are now poised to influence not only political but also literary tastes.
How are we to understand the fact of Lockhart devoting so many pages to the Examiner and the aesthetic ideology of the "Cockney School" (six articles plus two critical epistles addressed to Leigh Hunt) at a time when it had ostensibly been eclipsed in Reformist circles by, among others, Cobbett's Political Register and Hone's Reformist's Register? Lockhart's unremitting attacks in fact testify to the continuing relevance as well as the increasing vulnerability of the Hunts' paper, and succinctly underline its public role in the years just before and after Peterloo. Unlike, say, the earlier denunciations of the Examiner and its writers for their seditious politics and inflammatory rhetoric (by the Quarterly's Robert Southey or William Gifford), Lockhart's critique focuses principally on the literary-critical pretensions of the "Cockney School." That is to say: by late 1817, the Hunts' paper was no longer construed as a nuisance due to its relentless exposure of the Regent's personal shortcomings and the corruption of the Court and Parliament, but due to its irritating pretensions to literary prominence. From 1817 through 1822, if the Examiner was still radical enough to threaten entrenched Tory power, it was no longer regarding matters of state so much as regarding the state of taste: as Hunt had previously embraced Reform and defended it against all assailants in the political realm, he was now advocating a renovation of belles lettres and defending his authors against their critical attackers in the ministerial press. Indeed, these final years of the Examiner in Pickering & Chatto's fifteen-volume set reveal a high-stakes civil war in the periodical press between the Hunts' papers--including the Black Dwarf (1818), the Indicator (1819-21), and the Liberal (1822-23)--and the high Tory Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Magazine, book-ended by Leigh Hunt's skirmishing with Lockhart and John Hunt's defense of the first numbers of the Liberal.
After thrice challenging Lockhart--alias "Z"--to come forward and avow himself (2 and 16 November, 14 December 1817), Hunt did not deign to acknowledge the continuing harassment until April 12, 1818, when he ran a detailed column recounting the "Attack on the Editor in a Magazine." Characterizing the initial attack as a libel, Hunt disingenuously--or impudently --suggested that since he had never disguised himself from the reading public, he assumed that "Z" would "have spirit enough remaining to avow himself and come forward." But "Z" did not: "He contented himself, instead, with addressing to me a letter ["Letter from Z. to Mr Leigh Hunt," January 1818], in which, after a certain growling and mean fashion, he recanted; --that is to say, in which he had the face to pretend that he had not attacked me in my private character and person, -- in which, with habits of falsehood equally disgusting, he pretended to confound all the absurd particulars of his libel with some general questions equally ridiculous . . . ." Lockhart's next assault was again presented as a letter, this time to "Leigh Hunt, King of the Cockneys" (May 1818), in which he exulted that "In spite and in pity of your wild yells of 'Coward! Coward!' I am, at this present moment, writing incog. And I purpose doing so, till it may suit my own convenience to affront, 'in angry parle,' the offended majesty of Lisson Grove." Responding to Hunt's charges of libel with an epistle to Hunt in his capacity as a monarch, Lockhart blithely replays the dynamic of Hunt's own most notorious indictment on charges of seditious libel: his ridicule of the Regent's "Princely Qualities" in 1812. Lockhart's strategy here is doubly effective, for he pointedly blurs the line between the "public" and the "private" Hunt (between the "poet" and the "man," much as Hunt himself did in his satires on the Regent) and, through refusing to identify himself, precludes Hunt from responding in kind. And Hunt, accustomed as he was to satirizing Southey, Croker, Gifford, and others by name (e.g. "Death and Funeral of the Late Mr Southey, 13 April 1817), was unable either to repudiate or to counter "Z." In this way, Blackwood's would prove to be a far more dangerous nemesis than the Quarterly. (In 1818, when the latter reviewed Keats's Endymion, Hunt could quickly turn it to account, first congratulating Keats "on the involuntary homage that, we understand, has been paid to his undoubted genius, in an article full of groveling abuse" [27 September], then reprinting an article from the Morning Chronicle [presumably written by John Hamilton Reynolds] on the arrogance and sycophancy that characterized Gifford's editorship of the Quarterly [11 October].) Unchecked, the Blackwood's critics would continue their attacks throughout 1818 and 1819, eventually moving to Hunt's more recent poetry in Foliage (1818; reviewed October 1819 as "The Cockney School of Poetry No. VI") and a new venture from the same period, the Literary Pocket-Books of 1818 and 1819 (reviewed by John Wilson, December 1819).
The Literary Pocket-Book (published annually, 1818-22) along with a new weekly, the Indicator (October 1819-March 1821), attest to both Hunt's sense of the richness of the literary climate of 1819 and to his own financial adversities at the same time. Both endeavors reveal the apparent decline of Hunt's interest in the Examiner as a political newspaper, and announce a variety of topics and genres which he would pursue in the numerous periodicals he would write and edit after his return from Italy. While the former consisted of a miscellany of lists "Connected with Science, Literature, and the Arts," a "Calendar of Nature," original prose, and such odds-and-ends as "Brummelliana" and walks through London, the latter announced itself quite explicitly as a retreat: "The Examiner is Hunt's tavern-room for politics, for political pleasantry, for criticism upon the theatres and living writers. The Indicator is his private room, his study, his retreat from public care and criticism, with the reader who chuses to accompany him." And in 1819, there seemed to be more than enough material for all three publications: in the Examiner alone, Hunt ranged in the Literary Notices over Thomas Moore's Selection of Irish Melodies (3 and 17 January), Hazlitt's Letter to William Gifford (7 and 14 March) as well as his Lectures on the English Comic Writers (18 April and 6 June), Lamb's Works (21 and 28 March), Wordsworth's Peter Bell (2 May), Shelley's Rosalind and Helen (9 May), the first two cantos of Byron's Don Juan (31 October), Hannah More's Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners (19 December), and, in addition, defended Shelley's Revolt of Islam (reviewed in the Examiner 1, 22 February and 1 March, 1818) against the Quarterly's "malignant" misrepresentation of Shelley and his poetry (26 September, 3 and 10 October).
So "literary" is the tenor of the Examiner at this time that even its coverage of the "Disturbances at Manchester"--the Peterloo Massacre--is subsumed within its ongoing war with the ministerial press, as it first ridicules the Courier's specious defense of the behavior of the yeomanry (22 and 29 August), then lashes out at Gifford and the Quarterly over the question of Henry Hunt's "coarseness" (5 September). After having been detained seven days on a charge of high treason, "Orator" Hunt was released to stand trial on a misdemeanor (as the Examiner gleefully noted, "a fault of the same class with that of his judges; for wrong imprisonment is a misdemeanour"). Acknowledging the great popularity which Henry Hunt had acquired as a result of his role at Manchester, "for the bold and intelligent manner in which he has conducted himself," the Examiner proceeded to note, "We wish indeed that without lowering a jot his tone of contempt for the usurpers of the constitution, he could be a little less coarse; but it would be a much greater fault in us, in a public point of view, if we did not let our fastidiousness give way to a sense of his present conduct rather than some of his former words." Furthermore (and this is the moment at which Hunt's editorial pivots from a defense of Henry Hunt to an assault on his detractors), "the charge of coarseness itself is contemptible from the mouths of his aristocratical enemies," some of whom "and of course the noisiest pretenders among them, are men of low origin, who set a most ungrateful example of the effects resulting from the diffusion of literature. If we wished to sophisticate against that diffusion, and to warn the poorer orders against the consequences of getting above their station, we should tell them to look at the proprietor of the Courier, who was a tailor, and at the pensioned editor of the Quarterly Review, who was apprenticed to a shoemaker" (5 September). What is at stake here is no longer (or not simply) the sufferings of the Reformers in the years after Waterloo, or whether or not the Riot Act was read at St. Peter's field before the yeomanry advanced, but "the effects resulting from the diffusion of literature." Hunt's objection to a sycophantic Tory's (Gifford's) representation of Henry Hunt as "coarse" shapes itself as a "defense" of literature--whether or not "literature" makes any difference in the quality of an individual's life, and then not in terms of a polite accomplishment but as a vital part of one's existence. For Hunt, as is apparent here, Reform is tantamount to cultural literacy, to extending the franchise of literature and thus diffusing its salutary effects amongst those from whom the Giffords of the world would withhold it.
Nor is it insignificant that Hunt's animadversions on Gifford occur under the aegis of a "Political Examiner" prompted by Henry Hunt's role at Manchester, for it is under this heading in particular that we can glimpse Hunt's most characteristic prose style, assimilating as it does the politics of the day in the crucible of his own distinctly literary sensibility. Consider the remainder of his jeremiad against Gifford, "in every respect one of the coarsest minds in England":
He is an adroit retailer of common-places, and prefers the dirtiest. There is more vulgarity in an epistle of his to PETER PINDAR, than in all of Bristol HUNT'S speeches put together. His criticism is specifically fond of maltreating women; and when he turns commentator and translator, it is upon the fiercest, coarsest, and most ribald men of genius he can find, --BEN JONSON, DECKER, and JUVENAL. This man abuses the poor upon the principle on which that little canting egoist Pamela is represented by Fielding as remonstrating with her brother Joseph Andrews upon the impropriety of lowering a family which her dear master Mr. B. had raised, --that is to say, of marrying an honest country girl, because her husband had married his maid-servant. Thus Mr. GIFFORD would have nobody elevated but after his own servile fashion. He is the male coquet of servility, -- Pamelo, or Virtue Rewarded, --"only not handsome." (5 September)
This is Hunt at his best: witty, facetious, and urbane as he discourses on the matters of the day in a disconcertingly rambling fashion, astonishingly free in ranging over topics, and oftentimes unpredictably literary in its allusions. (It is also in fact a remarkably Hazlittian quotation, with its attention to Gifford's wanton misogyny and ribaldry, as Hazlitt pointed out earlier the same year in his Letter to William Gifford. The astonishing turn to Richardson is reminiscent of Hazlitt's comparison [in the second of the "Illustrations of the Times Newspaper"] of the Lake poets' political ingenuousness to Clarissa's self-defense with a pen-knife when trapped in a house of ill-repute.) Who but Hunt--or Hazlitt--would have the imagination and impudence to cast Gifford as a latter-day "Pamelo," her wagered chastity recast as his canting servility?
The Examiner's regular assaults--on both Gifford in particular (held out above as a warning to "poorer orders") and the ministerial press at large--successfully invert a charge which had been systematically made against the radical press for years: that it was an incendiary "engine of mischief" responsible for exploiting the discontent of the poor, sowing the seeds of rebellion, and palliating insurrection. (As Southey had queried in the Quarterly in 1817, "We have laws to prevent the exposure of unwholesome meat in our markets, and the mixture of deleterious drugs in beer. --We have laws also against poisoning the minds of the people, by exciting discontent and disaffection; --why are not these laws rendered effectual and enforced as well as the former?") In his first commentary on Peterloo, for example, Hunt was quick to "remind our readers of the taunts and provocations thrown out by the Government papers, in consequence of the peaceableness of the Smithfield meeting. That peaceableness was called cowardice. The grossest political ill-treatment, joined with starvation, was not enough for the poorer part of the Reformers. They were to be insulted with charges of cowardice, in proportion to their very patience. Never let this be forgotten, when tumult is talked of" (22 August). Hunt's charge here--that the "criminals" had been taunted and badgered into committing their "crime" by the wanton exercise of ministerial power, that the ministerial press was itself responsible in this instance for "exciting discontent and disaffection" amongst the Reformers--gains additional force in the paper's coverage of two signal events from 1820: the Cato Street conspiracy and the trial of Queen Caroline. Regarding the former, Hunt was quick to note, "Let [the conspirators] be as they may in other respects, one thing seems clear, that they are paupers driven to desperation in unconstitutional times. . . . Let not perpetual provocation be treated tenderly; and nothing left to be said in extenuation of despair" (5 March). Hunt's emphasis here on "unconstitutional times" underlines a common emphasis in the year after Peterloo on the incursions of the Ministers on individual liberties. Used here to contextualize the desperate conduct of the conspirators, it will also be turned against both the ministers who deployed the spy Edwards first to foment then expose the Cato Street plot (30 April: Hunt's suggestion that the government provided the munitions it then purported to "discover" in the hands of the conspirators), and those who micromanaged the "Milan Commission" to investigate and report on Queen Caroline's "irregular life" while on the Continent (9 July: "the means taken by the agents of the powerful Party--the Green Bag, the Secret Committee, &c.--are the identical means which were lately used by the Oligarchy to deprive the people of their dearest rights"). And just as the conspirators were "driven to desperation" by repeated taunts and temptations, so might Queen Caroline be said to have succumbed to a similar pattern of provocation and betrayal at the hands of the ministry.
The paper's coverage of these two conspiracies is really its last great flourish under Leigh Hunt's editorship. In both instances, the Hunts were able to advance their campaign against the ministerial press while returning to the topic which had originally driven the Examiner: pressing for a Reform in Parliament. Not surprisingly, the paper was once again prosecuted by the Attorney General for libel, in this case on the House of Commons. While the offending piece was written by John Hunt in July, the paper had been publishing questionably libelous comments on the lower house since its coverage of Cato Street. Noting in an early editorial that "We are not to go on practicing courtesies towards all the violence and wrong exercised by men in power, and then trample in abhorrence upon the first men who are accused of meditating a violence in return" (5 March), Hunt later went so far as to charge the parliamentary "Boroughmongers" responsible for the plot's "cold-blooded entrapping of human beings" with having "given men further cause at once to fear and despise the system, whose long corruptions compel it to encourage such disgraceful sacrifices of blood, in order to divert the pressure of the popular demands" (30 April; see also the paper's coverage of an attempt to introduce a bill in the House of Commons against the government spy, Edwards, on 28 May). If, as according to Blackstone, the principal criterion for evaluating a libel is its tendency "to create animosities, and to disturb the public peace," then Hunt's denunciation of hypocrisy, lying, entrapment, and state-sponsored violence against its citizens would certainly seem to qualify it as such. Nevertheless, it was not until more pointed accusations were made against the House of Commons apropos its zeal in taking up the Regent's personal agenda against his wife, Caroline of Brunswick (now that he was about to be coronated as George IV, after the death of George III in January, 1820), that the paper actually went so far as to denounce its members as "criminals." In a long letter to the editor titled "Royal Differences" and signed by one "Ch. Fitzpaine," John Hunt took issue with the ministers' reliance on spies to scavenge for evidence against Caroline ("But if such are among the Agents, what, Sir, must be the Employers of such emissaries?"), in order to suggest that neither such spying nor the ensuing trial would have been permitted by a "real Representation of the People of England," properly occupied with "the great business of the Nation." The letter continues: "but when that House, for the main part, is composed of venal boroughmongers, grasping placemen, greedy adventurers and aspiring title-hunters, --or the representatives of such worthies, --a body, in short, containing a far greater portion of Public Criminals than Public Guardians, --what can be expected from it, but -- just what we have seen it so readily perform" (23 July). Less than a month later, Castlereagh cited these remarks in the House (see "Lord Castlereagh's Attack on the Examiner," 6 August), and on 26 November it was reported that the Attorney General had filed an ex officio information against the Examiner.
Unlike earlier criminal proceedings against the paper, John Hunt was sole defendant in this instance. (Leigh Hunt had previously renounced his share in the proprietorship in order that, should the paper again be prosecuted, the Attorney General could not convict both Hunts and imprison them both simultaneously.) Also unlike the case of The Prince Regent v. The Examiner, this proceeding failed to reinvigorate either the paper's flagging sales or its political energies. Leigh Hunt had taken a leave of absence for reasons of health as of 19 November 1820, and it was only John Hunt's conviction in February, 1821, that prompted him to return to the paper (25 February). In June, John Hunt was sentenced and imprisoned (one year, £1000 surety); later that summer Leigh Hunt acceded to Shelley's repeated invitations to join him in Italy (now made possible by the scheme for the Liberal); in October he edited his last number of the paper; and in November, set sail with his family for Genoa. 1821 is a low point in any trajectory of the Examiner: with John Hunt in prison and Leigh Hunt often ill or otherwise absent from the paper, the "Political Examiner" lacks bite (with a few notable exceptions, such as a detailed critique of Southey's Vision of Judgment [29 April, signed "Q"] and John Hunt's address after his sentencing, "To the British Reformers" [3 June]); the literary notices are brief (one column alone for Don Juan III, IV, and V [26 August]); and an unusual number of extracts from other newspapers pad the columns, lending it the air of a repository for abridgements and bin-ends.
Indirectly, it was in fact Leigh Hunt's departure for Italy which eventually revitalized the paper in 1822: first, with his series of "Letters to the Readers of the Examiner" during his voyage (May-July, principally on Byron and Shelley), then with John Hunt's promotion and defense of the Liberal (October-December). Hunt's first letter under this heading underscores his sense of freedom from his established persona as editor of the Examiner, one whose ubiquity in England had become such that "You cannot be sure that somebody is not disputing with you, criticising you, abusing you, or at any rate talking of you in some way or another." He presents himself to his readers from afar as one old acquaintance running into another in their "favourite club-room," the pages of the Examiner, and explains his choice of an epistolary mode in a similar vein: "The letters are addressed solely to those who feel a pleasure in imagining a more than ordinary intimacy between the author and his readers: and indeed, if I should sometimes write to you on subjects which do not seem important enough to warrant a public address, this kind of intimacy will vindicate me, and I shall have the usual privilege of a correspondent as to be as trifling and immaterial as I please" (26 May). Liberated from the burdens of editorship as well as from his "enemies" in the ministerial press, Hunt's voice can here be heard to assume the sort of fireside intimacy which he would cultivate so successfully upon his return from Italy--and which marks his signature contribution to the familiar essay--in, for instance, "The Wishing-Cap Papers," the Indicator, and the Tatler.
What Hunt refers to at this time as "the other work in which I am about to be engaged" is of course the Liberal, irrevocably altered by Shelley's untimely death just weeks after Hunt's arrival in Italy in July. Published in England by John Hunt, the first two numbers of the Liberal received copious attention in the Examiner (13 October, 29 December). After championing it as a periodical whose title alone "conveys in the most comprehensive manner the spirit in which the work is written, and falls in happily with the general progress of opinion (we do not mean in a political so much as a general sense) throughout Europe" (6 October), Hunt ran detailed extracts from the Preface and its notorious first offering, Byron's Vision of Judgment, as "Suggested by the Composition so entitled by the Author of Wat Tyler" (13 October). When both Byron's Vision and his epigrams on Castlereagh's suicide were vilified in the ministerial press, Hunt devoted two editorials (3 and 10 November) to defending Byron and exposing the cant of those "ultras" who took umbrage at Byron's epigrams ("So Castlereagh has cut his throat! -- The worst / Of this is, -- that his own was not the first") while not hesitating for a moment to get as much mileage as possible out of Shelley's death ("Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned," proclaimed the Courier; "now he knows whether there is a God or no"). "Liberal," it turns out, stands opposed to "legitimate" not only on political but also on aesthetic and moral grounds. Or, as Leigh Hunt states in the Preface, "The object of our work is not political, except inasmuch as all writing now-a-days must involve something to that effect, the connexion between politics and all other subjects of interest to mankind having been discovered, never again to be done away" (13 October).
"Liberal" also denotes the editorial practice and appeal of the Examiner over the course of these first fifteen years: open to and openly supportive of proposals for reform, unstinting in its generosity toward the new and innovative, and certainly free from restraint in its outspoken attacks on what it perceived to be the ministerial organs of servility, hypocrisy, and cant, the Examiner forged a new role for the periodical press in charting the course of Reform politics and in extending the franchise of literature through an "infusion of literary taste into all subjects whatsoever." No one knew this or formulated it better than Hazlitt, who, in assembling a comprehensive critique of the periodical press in 1823 for the Edinburgh Review, wrote:
The Examiner stands next to Cobbett in talent; and is much before him in moderation and steadiness of principle. It has also a much greater variety of tact and subject. Indeed, an agreeable rambling scope and freedom is so much in the author's way that the reader is at a loss under what department of the paper to look for any particular topic. A literary criticism, perhaps, insinuates itself under the head of the Political Examiner; and the theatrical critic, or lover of the Fine Arts, is stultified by a tirade against the Bourbons. If the dishes are there, it does not much signify in what order they are placed. With the exception of a little egotism and twaddle, and flippancy and dogmatism about religion or morals, and mawkishness about firesides and furious Bonapartism, and a vein of sickly sonnet-writing, we suspect the Examiner must be allowed (whether we look to the design or the execution of the general run of articles in it) to be the ablest and most respectable of the publications that issue from the weekly press.
And he was right: Hazlitt catches the essence of the paper's liberality, in both the "rambling scope and freedom" of the topics covered, and the unusual, occasionally disconcerting tone in which Hunt managed to address everything from Bonapartes and Bourbons to sonnets and firesides in Hampstead. All the dishes are here, immaculately re-presented in this invaluable, remarkably legible reprint of the Examiner's first fifteen years. Thanks are due to Pickering & Chatto for having so handsomely renewed our subscription.