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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


QUEEN-BEAUTY of the Night ? pale and alone ?
  Eye not so coldly Love?s brief happiness;
But look as once when thou didst leave thy throne,
  In garb and gait a sylvan huntress,
  And with bright, buskined limbs, through dew and flowers,
Lightly, on sprightly feet and agile, bounded,
  With fawn-like leaps, among the Latmian bowers;
While the wide dome of farthest heaven resounded
  With the shrill shouts of thee and thy nymph-rovers,
When the hard chace of victory was won,
  And changed Actaeon by his hounds was torn.
But then thou hadst not seen Endymion,
  Nor knew the pain and coldness of his scorn; ?
Yet, if thy love was dear to thee, be dear to lovers!
  Coming across these lines without any identifying mark, one might reasonably wonder with Sidney Colvin whether one had found a previously unknown poem by Keats or perhaps an uncollected sonnet by Leigh Hunt.[1] The story of the love between Endymion and the goddess of the moon was a favorite of Keats?s, treated both in the opening long piece of his Poems of 1817 and in his longest poem, Endymion (1818). This sonnet ? with its ?? Latmian bowers,?? with its somewhat jarring compound coinage ?? nymph-rovers,?? with its description of a mythological subject in what could be called slangy diction, as when the goddess is seen ?? In garb and gait a sylvan huntress,?? and with its argument for the erotic joy of ?? Love?s brief happiness?? ? might very well strike us as the work of the early Keats. It was, after all, for writing such poetry that Keats was ridiculed in the Blackwood?s Cockney School attacks. It is for writing such poetry that the early ?? weak-sided?? Keats, seen as too much the follower of Leigh Hunt, is still criticized. What such criticism both then and now reveals ? as does the closeness of this sonnet to something Keats might have written ? is that Keats, along with many other writers of his day, was in fact part of a school or circle around Hunt.

  This sonnet was not, of course, written by Keats or Hunt but by another figure in their group who shared their poetic procedures and ideological interests, Cornelius Webb, who included these lines in his Sonnets, Amatory, Incidental and Descriptive; with Other Poems (1820). Born perhaps in 1789 and dying most likely after 1848, Cornelius Francis Webb or Webbe is virtually unknown, yet he played a part in a key moment in the reception history of what we call the second generation of romantic poets, who were then known as the Cockney School.[2] Webb himself was a minor but extremely active writer during the period, a contributor to such journals as the New Monthly Magazine, the Literary Gazette, the New European Magazine, the Gentleman?s Magazine, and the London Magazine as well as the author of Heath Flowers (1817), the above-mentioned Sonnets, Summer; An Invocation to Sleep; Fairy Revels; and Songs and Sonnets (1821), and some later books of verse and prose, including a volume with the appropriately Cockney title of Glances at Life in City and Suburb (1836).[3] Despite some success ? as George Marsh notes, the reviews were generally good and his poems frequently republished, indicating ?? a certain popularity?? ? Webb would turn from poetry to other literary labors. The ?? Note ? To the Reader?? in Sonnets complains that ?? Circumstances unfavourable to literary studies have compelled the Author to lay down his pen,?? but ?? If these few pieces are received favourably, it will induce the Author to publish some larger poems??; in other words, like John Hamilton Reynolds or Horace Smith or, for that matter, Keats, Webb felt a tension between his commitment to poetry and his need to earn a living. Seeking in poetry a professional career open to talent, Webb is typical of the poets in the circle of which Keats was a part.

  When we read Webb and hear something of Keats or when we read, say, Horace Smith and find something of Shelley, we begin to realize that these writers were part of a collective poetic practice, a shared cultural project. We can see such links in other aspects of Webb?s literary work. Webb?s early books of poetry look like Keats?s Poems of 1817 or Hunt?s Foliage of 1818. (Keats apparently gave Webb a copy of his 1817 poems as a gift, and Webb wrote a typical Hunt-circle response in ?? To John Keats, on His First Poems.??)[4] Like these better-known books, Webb?s are organized by genre and touch on many of the same subjects and images as more famous volumes: there is an ?? Invocation to Sleep?? that could be linked to Keats?s ?? Sleep and Poetry??; there are sonnets on a nightingale, on the grasshopper, on indolence, and on Italy; there are many Keatsian bowers in these poems and numerous Huntian nymphs. A volume announced in February 1817 (and reviewed in the Theatrical Inquisitor [April 1817] but so far undiscovered) was given the title Heath Flowers, which is reminiscent of Hunt?s later Foliage, as is Webb?s 1832 Lyric Leaves.

  Webb?s literary career was linked to the work of the circle around Hunt, and not just by the Blackwood?s attack.[5] Hunt included a series of sonnets by Webb in his Literary Pocket Book for 1822 that later appeared in Lyric Leaves; Hunt, of course, also published Keats, Shelley, and other members of their group such as Bryan Waller Procter (?? Barry Cornwall??), Charles Cowden Clarke,[6] and Charles Ollier in his pocket books. Webb?s second volume of poetry was issued by Charles Ollier and his brother, who had published volumes by Keats, Hunt, and Shelley. Later, Webb would be taken up by another acquaintance of Hunt?s, for Douglas Jerrold would adapt a play from a story in Webb?s Posthumous Papers ? Two Eyes between Two; or, Pay Me for My Eye: A Tale of Baghdad: A Broad Extravaganza, in One Act (performed at the Royal Coburg, 1828). As late as 1836, Webb was still being attacked as a Cockney (Monthly Review N.S. 3 [October 1836], 223? 30), but most of his reviews were surprisingly favorable. Interestingly, in an issue of the Monthly Magazine (50 [1 September 1820], 166), Keats?s famous 1820 volume and Webb?s Sonnets are reviewed on the same page, the journal finding Keats to be ?? equally high in the estimation of poetic opinion, as the author of Rimini [Hunt], or as he (Barry Cornwall) of the Dramatic Scenes,?? while saying of Webb?s poems that ?? There is much fancy and strong poetical enthusiasm displayed in some of these sonnets, which has rarely been equalled, and by no means surpassed by any of our living poets.??

  Despite such contemporary praise, the only piece of verse by Webb that anyone today is likely to know did not appear in these early books but on the pages of Blackwood?s Edinburgh Magazine as the epigraph for the infamous Cockney School attacks ? attacks, of course, that placed Keats, as well as Shelley and Byron, in a context that included Webb, Hunt, Cornwall, Reynolds, and Smith. Keats, concerned about the insults in Blackwood?s, wrote to Benjamin Bailey (3 November 1817, KL, I: 180) of ?? one Cornelius Webb Poetaster ? who unfortunately was of our Party occasionally at Hampstead and took it into his head to write the following ? something about ? ?we?ll talk on Wordsworth Byron ? a theme we never tire on? and so forth till he comes to Hunt and Keats. In the Motto they have put Hunt and Keats in large letters.?? In praising his colleagues in strong terms, Webb brought down abuse upon himself and them, for Blackwood?s and its conservative allies could not allow a claim for cultural power by the liberal Hunt circle to go unchallenged. The lines as quoted in Blackwood?s are as follows:
Our talk shall be (a theme we never tire on)
Of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, Byron,
(Our England?s Dante) ? Wordsworth ? HUNT, and KEATS,
The Muses? son of promise; and of what feats
He yet may do.      Blackwood?s 2 (October 1817), 38
John Gibson Lockhart, writing as ?? Z.?? in Blackwood?s, used these lines in order to ridicule Hunt and Keats, who would often be mockingly referred to as the ?? Muses? son of promise.?? Webb ? or ?? Corny Webb?? as Blackwood?s sometimes calls him ? was never the subject of a full-blown assault in the review, despite Z.?s proclamation to Hunt that he would ?? relieve my main attack upon you, by a diversion against some of your younger and less important auxiliaries, the Keateses [sic], the Shellys [sic], and the Webbes?? (?? Letter from Z., to Mr. Leigh Hunt,?? Blackwood?s 2 [January 1818], 415).

  Z., in fact, used the series primarily to attack Hunt along with Hazlitt and Keats, but Blackwood?s, the Quarterly Review, and many other journals of the day kept up the assault on the larger group of writers who came to be known as the Cockney School, a group organized around Hunt that was in various pieces seen to include besides Keats and Hazlitt, Mary and Percy Shelley, sometimes Charles Lamb, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Vincent Novello, ?? Arthur Brooke?? ( John Chalke Claris), ?? Barry Cornwall?? (Bryan Waller Procter), and even Byron. Thus, Blackwood?s called Hazlitt the ?? Cockney Aristotle?? (5 [April 1819], 97) and viciously attacked him for his Liber Amoris, labelling him ?? a COCKNEY and ?a LIBERAL??? (13 [June 1823], 645). While in 1818 Blackwood?s found that ?? Mr Lamb?s Parnassus is not in the kingdom of Cockaigne?? (3 [August 1818], 599), it later labelled Lamb a ?? Cockney Scribbler?? (5 [November 1820], 208), and, in ridiculing Lamb?s response to Southey?s attack on his religion, claimed that ?? even cockneys blush for you?? (14 [October 1823], 505); Nicholas Roe has transcribed two letters from Alaric Watts to William Blackwood in which Lamb is again linked to the Cockneys, in one of which he is listed with ?? Procter, Hazlitt, Hunt, Peacock, Chas Ollier, Talford, Reynolds cum multis aliis,?? who ?? boast of their freedom from the shackles of religious sentiment of every kind.??[7] The painter Haydon was referred to as the ?? Cockney Raphael?? by Blackwood?s (5 [April 1819], 97); Haydon, Novello, and Keats are named Hunt?s executors in an attack upon Hunt in which he is imagined to be dead (6 [October 1819], 70? 76). Claris, a friend of Hunt and Horace Smith, was attacked for his elegy on Shelley, dedicated to Hunt, in the Weekly Literary Register and Review of the Fine Arts, Sciences, and Belles Lettres (21 September 1822, n.p.). ?? Barry Cornwall?? was repeatedly targeted as a Cockney, as in a review of his Flood of Thessaly volume in Blackwood?s (13 [May 1823], 532? 41). Cornwall and Hunt were denigrated as ?? Metropolitan poets?? in Honeycomb (5 [15 July 1820], 33? 37), while Cornwall was lumped together with Hunt and Keats by the Imperial Magazine (3 [November 1821], 969). In a review of Mary Shelley?s Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823)inBlackwood?s (13 [March 1823], 290), her portrayal of female characters is linked to the work of a ?? certain school.??[8] Byron was repeatedly grouped with the Cockneys in, for example, attacks on the Liberal (e.g. ?? On the Cockney School. No. VII. Hunt?s Art of Love,?? Blackwood?s 12 [December 1822], 781) as well as in parodies of the Liberal, the Illiberal, and the London Liberal, or the attack on Cantos VI?VIII of Don Juan that contends ?? his lordship must have taken the Examiner, the Liberal, the Rimini, the Round Table, as his model?? and claims that his rhymes begin to remind them of Barry Cornwall, Keats, and Hunt (Blackwood?s 14 [August 1823], 88, 91).

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