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Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School

by Jeffrey N. Cox

Chapter 1: The 'Cockney School' attacks: or the anti-romantic ideology

  Faced with his period?s insistence on the ideological valence of cultural acts, Hunt made a virtue of necessity. As he wrote in the first issue of the Reflector ([ 1811], 5), ?? Politics, in times like these, should naturally take the lead in periodical discussion, because they have an importance almost unexampled in history, and because they are now, in their turn, exhibiting their reaction upon literature, as literature in the preceding age exhibited its action upon them.?? In the Examiner (24 March 1811), commenting on the open chancellorship at Cambridge, Hunt notes that those who deny the ?? connection between politics and literature?? either reduce politics to ?? their common-place light of news and party-struggles?? or have been deceived by the ?? utter neglect with which the English Ministers have treated?? the arts; he contends that ?? no doubt?? of such a connection ?? was ever entertained on the subject by men of enlarged minds?? (p. 177). For Hunt, politics is less about the daily struggle for party control of the government (the Examiner, with its motto ?? Party is the madness of many for the gain of a few,?? distances itself from both Whig and Tory) than it is about the total, complex set of relations between people that includes, among many other things, religion, the organization of sexuality, and culture. He sought an integrated vision of life that brought together the political, the social, the cultural, as when he argued in the preface to the first issue of the Liberal for a link between the ?? liberalities in the shape of Poetry, Essays, Tales, Translations?? and liberal, even radical political opinion.

  Of course, from Cobbett?s claim in the Political Register (28 [1815], 196) that Hunt ?? kissed the rod with the most filial weakness?? after his imprisonment, to Kevin Gilmartin?s recent argument in his excellent Print Politics that Hunt by 1830 represented ?? the end of radical opposition?? in the press,[27] Hunt?s critics have found him at some point failing to match radical credentials with Wooler or Carlile or Cobbett himself. While it is true that by the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832 Hunt believed many of his political battles won, and while it is the case that he wrote to and for an urban intelligentsia rather than for a plebeian public sphere, I find no wavering in Hunt?s political stand during the years that his circle was active, that is roughly between 1816 and 1822. If anything, Hunt was further radicalized by moments such as Peterloo (when he supported mass meetings and defended Richard Carlile) and by his involvement with Shelley and Byron in the Liberal. Gilmartin skillfully analyzes the tensions in Hunt?s positions ? between opposition to governmental power and his belief in a reformed government, between his hatred for ?? money-getting?? and his defense of a kind of middle-class professionalism, between his principle of independent opposition and his need to connect with a political community, and, most important, between his desire to write straightforwardly and honestly about politics and his penchant for a mannered, allusive literary style. For Gilmartin, Hunt, caught in these tensions, descends into an apologist for the middle class, for its political reforms, its economic gains, its literary taste. For me, Hunt, during the years between Waterloo and the deaths of Keats and Shelley, aspires to a resolution of these tensions through the group itself, as a site where the independent, detached examiner finds a community, where his mannered style could speak across class lines as a ?? Cockney?? poetics that could still engage the aristocratic Shelley, where the circle itself ? with its embrace of liberty, sociality, sexuality ? could model a utopian republicanism. While it is somewhat easy now to laugh at Hunt?s supposedly shabby genteel dilettantism and his suburban radicalism, at the time the Hunt circle was perceived as a threatening political force. Blackwood?s was appalled by the Hunt circle?s views on political reform, its attitude towards religion, its handling of sexuality, and its assault on traditional literary style and the hierarchy of genres. These linked issues will be explored, with regard to the poetry produced by the group, elsewhere in this book; here, though, it will be useful briefly to rehearse these attacks on the group in order to see that they do in fact point to important features of the circle?s vision.

  The most visible issue of the day was reform of Parliament, and Hunt?s circle and the Examiner made clear their commitment; as Hunt said as late as his often tempered Autobiography, the Examiner ?? began with being of no party; but Reform soon gave it one?? (p. 214). While the journal is now often found to be a bit too moderate, it was a powerful voice for the left at the time; as Edmund Blunden says of John Hunt, who ran the Examiner, he ?? was a reformist no less courageous though less conspicuous than Cobbett,??[28] and Shelley writing to Peacock on 24 August 1819 ? when the Examiner was supposedly more timid, less radical ? says, ?? The Examiners I receive. ? Hunt as a political writer pleases me more & more?? (SL, II: 115). Attacking corruption in the army, flogging in the navy, Methodism, the Regent, and anything else that smacked of oppression, superstition, and canting pretension, the Examiner was repeatedly prosecuted by the government, eventually leading of course to the imprisonment of the Hunts. Blackwood?s recognized its ideological enemy in saying of Hunt?s politics that it was ?? a crude, vague, ineffectual, and sour Jacobinism?? (2 [October 1817], 39).

  One popular way of questioning Hunt?s politics was to link him with his namesake, Henry ?? Orator?? Hunt of Bristol, as in a piece in the ?? Christopher North?? series, where ?? Hampstead Hunt?? is decried as a Cockney poet while ?? Bristol Hunt?? is attacked as a Cockney politician (Blackwood?s 5 [September 1819], 640). The attack on Keats notes that ?? Keats belongs to the Cockney School of Politics, as well as the Cockney School of Poetry?? (Blackwood?s 3 [August 1818], 524). When Keats published his second volume, Endymion too was found to be ?? jacobinical?? by the British Critic (N.S. 9 [ June 1818], 652).[29] Gold?s London Magazine (1 [April 1820], 401? 7) complains that ?? Among the professors of the cockney school, Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelly is one of the most conspicuous?? in that he has ?? contempt for all institutions, moral and divine, with secret yearnings for aught that is degrading to human nature, or revolting to decency.??

  Equally upsetting to their ideological opponents was the Hunt circle?s treatment of religion and their use of mythological materials. Blackwood?s again sounded the charge, attacking Hunt?s religious position as ?? a poor tame dilution of the blasphemies of the Encyclopaedie?? (2 [October 1817], 39). The Imperial Magazine (4 [1822], 1139? 40) was appalled by the ?? irreligion?? of Byron, Hunt, and Shelley?s Liberal: ?? The Liberal is a publication which assumes this name, because its benevolence is extended to infidelity ? to licentiousness of manners ? to the open ridicule of what is awful and sacred ? and to the destruction of moral principle.?? I will discuss at greater length in chapter 5 and throughout the book the use to which these writers put classical materials, but we need to see how ideologically charged their use of Greco-Roman myth was. The sexual message of Hunt?s school of poetry, already mentioned, was immediately connected with the group?s attitudes towards religion and its use of pagan myth. The Quarterly Review (18 [January 1818], 327), in attacking Hunt?s Foliage and in particular his sonnet ?? On the Degrading Notions of Deity,?? addressed to Shelley, fulminated against the effort by ?? many of those with whom [Hunt] has recorded his sympathy and agreement in this volume?? to bring about a ?? systematic revival of Epicureanism . . . Lucretius is the philosopher whom these men profess most to admire; and their leading tenet is, that the enjoyment of the pleasures of intellect and sense is not to be considered as the permitted, and regulated use of God?s blessings, but the great object, and duty of life.?? The Eclectic Review (2nd ser., 10 [November 1818], 484? 93) was also troubled by what it saw as Hunt?s ?? creed of the heathen and the morals of the libertine?? (p. 485). Again, it calls ?? childish?? the mythological poems of the circle in its review (2nd ser., 14 [September 1820], 158? 71) of Keats?s 1820 volume: ?What better name can we bestow on the nonsense that Mr. Keats, and Mr. Leigh Hunt, and Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelley, and some of the poets about town, have been talking of ?the beautiful mythology of Greece?? To some persons . . . that mythology comes recommended chiefly by its grossness ? its alliance to the sensitive pleasures which belong to the animal?? (p. 169). Such critics were alive, as we have once again become, to the polemical, ideological charge of the myths used by the second-generation poets. The attacks do not so much reveal flaws in the poetry of a Keats or a Hunt as they uncover arenas of ideological conflict. This was not primarily a debate over aesthetics; it was a struggle over the definition of post-Napoleonic culture and society.

  The problem is that the Cockney School attacks were extremely successful ? then and now. They infuriated Hunt, who demanded in the pages of the Examiner that Z. identify himself; the assault worried Byron?s London handlers concerning his links with Hunt; and the criticism hurt Keats, if not to the extent imagined by Shelley.[30] While I have focused on Blackwood?s, the group also warred with the Quarterly Review ? Hazlitt?s A Letter to William Gifford, Esq. (1819) and Hunt?s Ultra-Crepidarius (1823) were skirmishes in that battle ? and many journals followed the lead of these powerful conservative reviews. The New Monthly Magazine (10 [September 1818], 162? 63) not only borrowed from Blackwood?s the designation of the group as the Cockney School but quoted at length from Z.?s article. Gold?s London Magazine (2 [August 1820], 160) finds that the Keats of the 1820 volume ?? belongs to the Cockney School of Poetry ? a school, we suppose, so denominated, from that fact of its writers having been educated in the city, and taking their pictures of rural life from its immediate environs.?? The Literary Gazette (4 [April 1818], 210), in reviling Hunt?s Foliage, attacks the idea of any poetic school, ?? whether given to the watery, cockney, be-natural, or sentimental Bards of these times.?? Josiah Conder, reviewing Hunt?s Foliage in the Eclectic Review (2nd ser. 10 [November 1818], 492), adopts the term cockneyism. The Literary Register (19 [July 1823], 40) refers to Hazlitt as the ?? Proteus of cockneyism.?? John Bull (98 [27 October 1822], 781) extends the attack to Hunt and Byron?s Liberal, which is called an ?? Italianized Cockney Magazine?? (which, of course, was true, for the Liberal published work by many members of the circle ? Hunt, the Shelleys, Byron, Hazlitt, Horace Smith, Charles Armitage Brown, and Thomas Jefferson Hogg).[31] Such attacks were not, of course, simply a matter of literary rivalry or contention. They were part of a broader conservative attack on liberal and radical writers that led to the imprisonment of the Hunts, Hone, and Wooler, among others. Hunt was never in any doubt about the government?s treatment of him. Writing to Henry L. Hunt from Italy, about sending the Liberal through the post ?? like a newspaper,?? he says, ?? As to their opening it, that they will always do; & doubtless they also open our letters. No matter. Our doings, literary & political, have always been open enough already, not to fear any scrutiny.??[32]

  The continuing impact of the Blackwood?s articles is seen, I believe, in the struggle of Keats scholars in particular to distance their poet from the ?? King of the Cockneys.?? It has become so important to prove that Keats developed, both personally and poetically, away from Hunt that we forget that he returned to live with the Hunts in the summer of 1820 when he was so ill, that at this time Keats and Hunt worked together on the Indicator and that Hunt issued his translation of Amyntas with its dedication to Keats; we, unlike Keats?s contemporaries, have been unable to see the Cockney features that persisted into the 1820 volume. While it has been less of an issue in Shelley and Byron criticism to separate them from Hunt, for no one has ever accused them of being Hunt?s ??élève,?? it has been the case that Shelley?s friendship with Hunt, perhaps the most important in his life, has not often enough been seen as having a profound impact on his poetry or his thought; and Byron has been seen as condescending nobly when dealing with the plebeian poet in terms that would surely please the Blackwood?s hatchetmen. However, from Byron?s becoming inspired to write his first volume of poetry after reading Hunt?s Juvenalia to his visit to Hunt in prison until his departure for Greece, from Shelley?s first letter to Hunt as editor of the Examiner until his death, these two poets were also deeply tied to Hunt. Shelley, like Keats, turned before he died to Hunt, bringing him to Italy to edit the Liberal. And Byron, who clearly came to dislike Hunt,[33] tried to make the Liberal work and turned from his publisher of long standing, John Murray, to have Hunt?s brother publish the final cantos of Don Juan.

  The strategy of isolating Hunt was already used by Blackwood?s and other reviews, which lamented Byron?s links to Hunt, opined that Shelley as an aristocrat must surely have more genius than his Cockney connections, and even suggested that Keats might improve if he divorced himself from Hunt.[34] It was, in fact, in the changing treatment of Keats by contemporary conservatives that the pattern of the future reception history of these poets and their group was set. As Keats, then Shelley, then Byron died, Blackwood?s and other reviews had to begin moderating their venom. They also had to respond to Shelley?s Adonais, which I will argue in the final chapter celebrates in poetry his failed attempt to recreate at Pisa the London Hunt circle, and to Hunt?s Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries (1828), also an attempt to view the second-generation romantics collectively. As G. M. Matthews argues in reviewing the treatment of Keats by Blackwood?s, ?? In 1828 it was wise to begin changing the line a little, and Haydon had recently supplied a new one. ?That poor youth? had been ruined, not by his enemies, but by his friends.??[35] Matthews quotes John Wilson from his response to Hunt?s memoir: ?? But we killed Keates. There again you ? lie. Hunt, Hazlitt, and the godless gang, slavered him to death. Bitterly did he confess that, in his last days, in language stronger than we wish to use?? (Blackwood?s 25 [September 1829], 525). In response to Shelley?s myth that Keats was killed by the conservative reviewers, Blackwood?s, drawing upon an unpublished essay by Haydon attacking Hunt, created a countermyth in which Keats was undone by his friendship with Hunt. To rebut Hunt?s attempt to link himself with Keats, Byron, and Shelley as members of a unified group, Blackwood?s had to argue that Byron, Shelley, and even Keats rose above the Cockney School. The dead Keats, along with Byron and Shelley, is saved in order to continue the attack upon the living Hunt.

  The denigration of the Cockney School in the service of praising individual great poets continues, but we need to see that one of the greatest creations of these writers was the group itself which in turn inspired and nurtured their writing. We still do not have an adequate sense of the importance of this group, of the Cockney School, to both the creation and the reception of what we, more neutrally, call second-generation romantic writing. One goal of this book is to retrieve the Hunt circle from the Cockney School attacks and even from the praise of the more benign critical inheritors of the Blackwood?s essayists.

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