We normally associate writing about the city with a line of continental writers from Baudelaire to Benjamin and beyond. However, there was an earlier account of the city in the writers identified with the Cockney School and in particular Leigh Hunt. Hunt’s Wishing Cap Papers are a striking instance of an attempt to write about the city from the perspective of someone who is, on the one hand, below the circles that control the city, and, on the other hand, capable of imagining a world beyond the city as it exists in the present. While our image of Hunt in the city might begin and end with Dickens’ Skimpole, we can recover behind that savage portrait an engaged city-dweller trying to imagine the urban space remade by pleasure. This is part of the Cockney attempt to create a cosmopolitanism that moves from the local to the global in order to bypass the nation.
Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives begins in Mexico City with a university student who has been asked to join an avant-garde group of writers who call themselves visceral realists. The novel’s itinerary follows a group of characters around the world, mainly as they meet in what Burroughs calls in Naked Lunch the “bars of all the world cities” (89). Burroughs’ bars are “existentialist,” he tells us, way-stations in the narco-cosmopolitan interzone, where one can attend Interzone University to hear the Professor lecture on Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner along with the sexual behavior of the baboon and an innovative form of psychoanalysis in which the analyst does all the talking (84-88). These are the same bars inhabited by the characters of Pynchon’s V, the “whole sick crew” as it wanders around the world to find itself time and again in Pynchon’s version of the zone, the Street, where they pursue their form of avant garde art, catatonyic expressionism, and another new version of psychoanalysis, soul dentistry. These novels, and the literary and intellectual movements within them, look back to surrealist imaginings of the city as marked by literary and psychological innovation in works such as André Breton’s Nadja or Louis Aragon’s Peasant of Paris and beyond that to the experimental French literature of the nineteenth century, Lautréament, Mallarmé, Rimbaud and then, maybe particularly, Baudelaire. With Bolaño, Pynchon, and Burroughs all moving their characters from the Western hemisphere to Europe and to various parts of Africa, these novels would seem to posit a modern tradition of a kind of transatlantic flâneur, an outsider to everyday life but an insider to new ways of thinking the interior life and of making art, someone not so much at home in the world as equally alienated in Luanda, the capital of Angola, as in the Mexico City of Savage Detectives or in V.’s Alexandria as in her Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century.
We are most likely to read these novels of experimental poetry and of life lived as an experiment with Baudelaire and Benjamin at our elbow, but I want to suggest another, odder ancestry for this tradition. These novels seem centered in the cosmopolitanism of all the world cities, but their defining characters—whether the addicts of Naked Lunch, or the sailors of V. or the exiles and outcasts of Bolaño—are not a globe-trotting elite but a gathering of those who have lived on the margins; and these novels, while moving through urban spaces, tend to move towards another space, as V. ends not in the New York of the catatonic expressionists but on the shore of Malta or as Naked Lunch closes with a destroyed city needing eternal reconstruction or as Bolaño’s poets spend the end of the novel traveling through the ultimate ex-urb of the small towns and cross-roads of the Sonoran dessert. I want to suggest that these marginal figures trying to forge experimental art at the edges of a global urban environment are our Cockneys and that it is not just Baudelaire and Benjamin but also Hunt and Hazlitt who might help us to understand them. The Cockney School created a literature of the city before Baudelaire, and their leader Leigh Hunt can help us to explore a cosmopolitanism that seems now to plant its flag firmly in the metropole and now to follow a banner leading ever further beyond the urban but that never salutes the national colors. Hunt’s writings on London enable us to think through a modern celebration of living in and out of the city as a way of commemorating culture without endorsing the social, political, and economic powers that built that city and support that culture: the city, source of problems and pleasures, can become the site of a utopian vision. To get a glimpse of what the city means to the Cockneys, I will first explore Hunt’s writings on London, in particular to see why it has been so easy to dismiss this work, before briefly suggesting the power of a Cockney urbanity.
I. Skimpole’s London
I must have either antiquity to remind me of the past generations, or something busy and going on to warm my heart with the present.Wishing Cap Papers, 47
Dickens’ savage portrait of Hunt as Skimpole in Bleak House has created an image of the older poet in most people’s minds that makes him out to be both an unfit companion for experimental poets such Keats and Shelley—even though he was the leader of the avant-garde Cockney School—and an unlikely guide to the modern world—even though he with his circle tried to imagine a new way of living. Skimpole is said to be a “damaged young man, [rather] than a well-preserved elderly one” (49), as he is robbed of both youthful vitality and the wisdom of age. He appears as a “romantic youth who had undergone some unique process of depreciation”; and the “depreciation” he has undergone, we are told, “struck me as being not at all like the manner or appearance of a man who had advanced in life by the usual road of years, cares, experiences” (49). Dickens goes on to create a character who, for all his ability to enjoy things, for all his willingness to let others enjoy, is morally reprehensible because he has not learned through experience to take responsibility for the sorrows of life; unlike Goethe’s Faust, he has never allowed Care into his life, so he has sought a multitude of experiences without ever being able to say that he is experienced. He lacks the quality that Anthony Winner has identified in characters such as Dickens’ Jaggers from Great Expectations, a kind of “fallen omniscience,” a knowledge—like that of Goethe’s Mephisto—that would be absolute if it were not limited to a totalizing knowledge of the fallen world. If Jaggers and not Skimpole is to be our guide to London, then the pleasure principle is rejected as providing any thread through the labyrinth of the modern world. One needs to have sampled the flowers of evil to know that the capital of nineteenth century is what Paul Éluard called the capital of pain.
Dickens did not, of course, create Skimpole out of whole cloth. It is possible to find evidence of Skimpole-like characteristics in Hunt. Critics now and then have doubted the seriousness of a man who wrote about the power of “cheerfulness” in poetry. One can point to his relationship with his wife’s sister that made Haydon and Hazlitt uncomfortable. One can detail the chaos of his household, where bills were not always paid and a letter from Fanny Brawne to Keats could end up in the hands of one of the Hunt children, causing Keats to leave the house in a huff. Of course, one could just as well point to Haydon’s financial problems or Hazlitt’s erotic mishaps or Keats’s own Huntian assertions that poetry is a friend to man or that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Hunt has become the object of so much critical scorn, then and now, it seems to me, in order to inoculate other artists from the Cockney contagion: we need to abject Hunt in order to save a Keats or a Hazlitt.
Hunt’s often whimsical essayistic tours of London can appear Skimpolian, or, more simply, in writing about London, Hunt might seem a rather overly enthusiastic tour guide, delighting in Covent Garden because it has a green market at its heart, because it has an agreeable Grecian style church, because there is a contrast between spacious streets and the narrower ones around the theaters filled with book-stalls. Hunt may sound like Dickens’ character ignoring the more difficult side of life when he claims that, in surveying a city, “There are three things that give a pleasant look to the most ordinary commonplaces: health, imagination, and coming from abroad” (22). It is this childlike enthusiasm that many find annoying in Hunt’s writings. Surely, one way to denigrate Hunt and the Cockneys in general has been to find them to be mere pleasure-seeking tourists wandering through landscapes that, if they were only Wordsworth, would reveal deep moral truths. Andrew Motion, for example, in his fine biography of Keats finds Hunt and his circle as tourists at Hampstead where they find nature “as a set of enclosed and sheltered spaces—somewhere to visit but not to stay, a source of picturesque pleasure rather than moral clarity” (106). Mere samplers of sights, pursuers of pleasure not purveyors of morality, all the Cockneys here become Skimpoles. Hunt in particular becomes a target for the slings and arrows of his friends as well as his enemies, because he is so resolutely cheerful, so insistent that life is meant to be enjoyed, that fancy is a better way to approach the world than fallen omniscience.
There were other ways than Dickens’ to read Hunt’s apparent youthfulness and his joy in exercising the fancy. Carlyle, for example, wrote that Hunt was
a Man of Genius in a very strict sense of that word, and in all senses which it bears or implies; of brilliant, varied gifts; of graceful fertility; of clearness, lovingness, truthfulness; of childlike [emphasis added] open character; also of most pure and even exemplary private deportment; a man who can be other than loved only by those who have not seen him, or seen him from a distance through a false medium.“Memoranda Concerning Mr. Leigh Hunt,” June 1846?, The Carlyle Letters Online
Hazlitt’s portrait of Hunt in The Spirit of the Age seems to answer Dickens in advance. He admits that in Hunt’s writing “there is certainly an exuberance of satisfaction in his manner which more than strict logical premises warrant” and that “He perhaps takes too little pains, and indulges in too much wayward caprice,” but he defends what Dickens sees as childishness and simplicity: “His natural gaiety and sprightliness of manner, his high animal spirits, and the vinous quality of his mind, produce an immediate fascination and intoxication in those who come in contact with him” (227-28). For Hazlitt as for Carlyle, the man completes the poet:
From great sanguineness of temper, from great quickness and unsuspecting simplicity, he runs on to the public as he does at his own fire-side, and talks about himself, forgetting that he is not always among friends. His look, his tone are required to point many things he says: his frank, cordial manner reconciles you instantly to a little over-bearing, over-weening self-complacency. . . . He sometimes trifles with his readers, or tires of a subject . . . but 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. . . . he has only been a visionary in humanity, the fool of virtue.228-29
Hazlitt would find behind Dickens’ amoral innocent an intoxicating visionary who ignores the worst of what is only to imagine the best we might become. If Hunt seen through Dickens’ eyes is deluded, Dickens from a Huntian perspective is too ready to bury potential futures in a depiction of the way things are.
We can find what Hazlitt sees as boyish energy, joyous wit, and scholarly knowledge on display in Hunt’s fanciful series of walks around London detailed in his Wishing Cap Papers, which as Paul Westover has recently argued is just the most notable in a large group of writings on London by Hunt that appeared in such journals as The Indicator, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, The Weekly True Sun, Leigh Hunt’s London Journal, and The Atlas. We need to rescue these writings from their dismissal as mere touristic self-indulgence and instead find within them a typically Cockney attempt to find a path to the future in the twisted byways that the present has inherited from the past.
The Wishing Cap Papers were a series Hunt agreed to write for the Examiner from Italy. At the heart of these contributions are descriptions of London neighborhoods, written from abroad, with this distant retrospect reminding us how much of the experience of urban life is described from the position of the exile, whether the wanderer abroad longing for home or the uprooted traveler finding herself in a foreign city. Hunt’s introduction to the papers is a typical example of his flights of fancy, as he claims he can transport himself anywhere:
’I think, therefore I am,” said the French philosopher: now I think I am in Arabia, therefore I am there. I beg to know the difference between these two propositions.
I pitch myself wherever I please, like a rocket or a falling star.14
This ability to imagine oneself in Arabia might strike us like Skimpole’s ability to imagine, while listening to Mrs. Jellyby, that he is “float[ing] along an African river, embracing all the natives I meet, as sensible of the deep silence, and sketching the dense overhanging tropical growth as accurately as if I were there” (50); but while Skimpole admits, “I don’t know that it’s of any direct use my doing so” (50), Hunt makes clear that his ability to be elsewhere in thought is of direct use to art, to culture. He is able to move imaginatively through the world, he tells us, by using his own unique wishing cap, one of several in existence able to bridge space and time: he notes that the famous Wishing-Cap of Fortunatus is in the possession of Sir Walter Scott along with Fortunatus’ Purse; Lamb has the cap of a Shakespearean fool, Wordsworth and Coleridge have the “two finest Wishing-Caps,” and even Southey is found to have one which allows him to take “some pretty long flights into the East. I wish he would relate his travels in prose instead of verse” (15). Where Skimpole likes to imagine himself elsewhere watching someone else do good, Hunt wants to use his wishing cap in order to help us do good here. His cap frees him from our “age of mechanism and manufacture” when “they say, there can be no longer anything fanciful.” While Lamb’s cap is “fit for the wisest head in England, provided the rain is to rain every day,” Hunt “for my part, must still endeavor, till I die, to push the world a little farther into the sunshine. It is for this reason I am in all parts of it; one of hundreds of beings who are trying to furnish philosophers with a lever” (15). Like Shelley in Queen Mab, he hopes to use fancy to change the world, to find in thought an Archimedean lever to move the powers that be.
Flying imaginatively from abroad, Hunt first finds himself at Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, contending, “To the list of human pleasures I have to add the satisfaction which arises from traversing a dirty lane” (22). He does not care for the spot because of his personal experience—the Examiner office was once there—nor because of its institutional history—the Royal Academy once held its meetings on the Lane. He even dismisses the charms of the Cider Cellar at 20 Maiden Lane, where Hazlitt, in his local version of an all the world city bar, would match rounds with the war correspondent and former United Irishman Peter Finnerty, who had been imprisoned for his reporting on the disastrous Walcheren expedition (Roe, 191). Rather than for any of these reasons, Hunt instead loves Maiden Lane for its familiarity, its booksellers, and, perhaps most importantly, because Voltaire lived there. Time and again, as he traverses London, Hunt draws power from the presence of prior writers, for example, noting that Voltaire lived near “Congreve and other wits”: “My head is filled with them all” (22). Again, taking a walk near St. Paul’s, he notes, “The City and the Borough contain the most classical ground in the metropolis. In the former, besides Pope and Gray, were born three out of the four great English poets,—Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton . . . and Shakespeare’s theatre was over the water by the Borough. . . From the Borough Chaucer set out on the journey to Canterbury with his Pilgrims. I have touched upon these matters before; but I repeat them here, partly for the pleasure of doing so, and partly to remark how the celebrity arising from authorship survives every other” (45).
As this claim for the power of literature might suggest, Hunt’s is largely a literary London. Paul Westover has argued for the ways in which Hunt is a founding father of London’s literary tourism, and I want to second his insight, but I want also to suggest some other ways in which Hunt is interested in a textualized London. In the first instance, he takes up London literally as a text, a word. The introduction to The Town includes a long excursus on the etymology of the name, London. After considering whether London had first been a new home founded by fleeing Trojans, he speculates that the “fiction of Troynovant, or new Troy, appears to have arisen from the word Trinobantes in Caesar, a name given by the historian to the inhabitants of a district which included the London banks of the Thames” (6). He then goes on to list more than twenty “aliases” for the city, including the “City of Ludd,” before focusing on disputes between Welsh and Old German origins of the name. He takes up various derivations of the name, wondering whether it meant Lake-City or Ship-City or Grove-City, as the words lead to speculations on material history until he decides the matter is undecidable, though delightful as word play.
As a newspaper man, Hunt is also on the lookout for signs of London’s print culture, noticing not only the homes and haunts of authors but the locations of printers, publishers, and book sellers. Like many in his day and ours, he connects the rise of print culture to the French Revolution:
During the reign of George the Third, the whole mind of Europe was shaken up more vehemently than ever by the French Revolution; and, as the consequence is after such tempestuous innovations, men began to look about them, to see what had stood the test of it, and how they might improve their condition still further. After a great many disputes, natural on all sides, and a singular proof of the omnipotence of public opinion over the most extraordinary military power, it may be safely asserted, that the essence of that opinion, or the intellectual part of it is secretly acknowledged as the great regulator of society, even by those who appear to regulate it themselves; and who never show their sense to more advantage, than when they lead where they must have followed. This is the most remarkable era, perhaps, in the history of mankind; and experiment, and promise, are of a piece with it. Everybody is now more or less educated; the extension of the graces of life does away with sordidness, and teaches people that men do not live by “bread alone;” there is a reading public, let the jealousies of secluded scholarship say what they will; the mighty hands which Bacon set free are in full action; the Press reports and assists them, and utters a thousand voices daily, not to be put an end to by anything short of a convulsion of the globe. Time and space themselves are comparatively annihilated by the inventions of the steam-engine and the electric telegraph. The corn-laws have gone, opening still wider the prospects of mankind; and improvements may be looked for in society, so much to the benefit of all classes, that the most reasonable observer will decline stating the amount of his expectations, lest they should be thought extravagant, as old times would have thought the telegraph just mentioned, or the publication of those thousands of volumes a day called Newspapers.18-19
With trains and telegraphs supplying a real wishing cap able to annihilate time and space, with newspapers and public opinion carrying out the work of transformation begun with the French Revolution and doing it by peaceful rather than military means, with reforms of various kinds in progress, Hunt sees his era as a time of “experiment, and promise,” that is, a time marked by both the hope for a future and the practical experiments in the present that will make that hope a reality.
While he looks from the present to the future, it is the presence of the past that most fills Hunt’s vision as he wanders around the city. This is partially a matter of personal reminiscence, as the London streets supply Hunt with the memory places that the Lake District offered to Wordsworth. He finds that “The more I loiter about my old places of abode, the more I long to stay” (52). So, Hunt delights in the area around St. Paul’s because he used to go the house of Joseph Johnson’s successor, Rowland Hunt, to dine with the members of Johnson’s 1790s circle such as Godwin and Fuseli (43-44). However, it is less personal than cultural history that arrests him as he wanders London’s streets. In the introduction to The Town, he notes that many claim “that the past is not in our possession; that we are sure only of what we can realize, and that the present and future afford enough contemplation for any man” (3). In response, he again invokes the idea of an expansive imagination:
the human mind, being a thing infinitely greater than the circumstances which confine and cabin it in its present mode of existence, seeks to extend itself on all sides, past, present, and to come. If it puts on wings angelical, and pitches itself in the grand obscurity of the future, it runs back also on the more visible line of the past. Even the present, which is the great business of life, is chiefly great, inasmuch as it regards the interests of the many who are to come, and is built up of the experiences of those who have gone by. The past is the heir-loom of the world.Town, 4
Hunt stands against the modern mechanical age that would insist on contemplating only what is immediately before us. He constantly sees a past that provides the present scene with its significance, its atmosphere, its aura. Urban landscapes become palimpsests, moving from the present back into the past, as when Hunt describes St. Paul’s Cathedral in The Town as
a place in which you may get the last new novel, and find remains of the ancient Britons and of the sea. There, also in the cathedral, lie painters, patriots, humanists, the greatest warriors and some of the best men; and there, in St. Paul’s School, was educated England’s epic poet, who hoped that his native country would never forget her privilege of “teaching the nations how to live”.4
As Hazlitt’s visionary humanist, Hunt grounds his glimpses of the future in his scholarly knowledge of the past and his boyish delights in the scenes around him. It is certainly true that Hunt’s London is closer to Skimpole’s than to, say, Fagan’s or Jaggers’ city, but that is perhaps simply to say that Hunt believes that knowledge of the city is not limited to a total understanding of a fallen present; instead, by studying London’s past we can gain glimpses of another future, find the lever to alter the way things are and teach the nation how to live.
II. Cockaigne, Capital of the Nineteenth Century
Modern London occupies an area of above eighteen square miles; and all this space, deducting not quite two miles for the river, is filled up with houses and public buildings, with a population of perhaps two million of souls, and with riches from all parts of the globe. In this respect London may justly be said to be the ‘metropolis of the world’; though Paris has the advance of it in some others.The Town, 18
This machinery [of Fourier’s phalanstery], formed of men, produced Schlaraffenland [“the land of Cockaigne”; “the land of milk and honey”], primal wish-symbol, that Fourier’s Utopia had filled with new life.“Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, New Left Review translation, 7; Arcades Project translation, 5
It is tempting, and I guess I have already succumbed to the temptation, to see Hunt as a flâneur, wandering the streets of London, both part of the culture and commercial life that surrounds him and apart from it. One can certainly find parallels between passages in Hunt and key documents in the history of the flâneur from Baudelaire to Simmel and on to Benjamin’s Arcades project. If Benjamin famously talks of the arcades as a key moment in the material history of modernity, Hunt, crossing modern London, notices shops, observing that an Inigo Jones portico had been converted into shops for milliners (47) or that at Paternoster-Row, “There are now many shops of mercers, silkmen, eminent printers, booksellers, and publishers” (The Town, 57). As he states more generally, “In the City, shops and a certain bustle are fitting” (Wishing Cap Papers, 46). Earlier, we have heard Hunt speak of finding at St. Paul’s the ability to travel back in time to find not just the ancient Britons but the sea that was once there, and in The Town, he uses recent archeological discoveries of “creatures vaster than any now on dry land” to speculate on a “race of pre-Adamite kings, not entirely human” (5). We might compare such fanciful flights to Benjamin: “The street conducts the flâneur into a vanished time. For him, every street is precipitous. It leads downward—if not to the mythical Mothers, then into a past that can be all the more spellbinding because it is not his own, not private” (Arcades, 416). In both Benjamin and Hunt, the cityscape opens itself upon a deep history that goes beyond any personal memory, perhaps beyond human memory as we know it. Again, one might want to link Benjamin on fashion to Hazlitt on Beau Brummel, or if Simmel says that the flâneur experiences the city through the activity of the eye rather than the ear, we may note that Hunt prefers sight over hearsay, first-hand experience over second-had accounts (The Town, 11). More fancifully, we may wish to take Baudelaire’s famous address to his hypocrite reader as a brother, a twin (“—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère”), and put it next to Hunt’s appeal to his reader in The Wishing Cap Papers:
Reader, if there is any man who has offended you, and whom you find it hard to forgive, forgive him, I entreat you; for I forgive you, and you are the most provoking person I have known a long time. I could knock the paper out of your hand. . . . But, lo! my Wishing-Cap is on me in all its glory. The very mention of your name makes me present. I am with you; walk with you, talk with you. It was I who sighed just now while you were reading.—Reader, we are reconciled and together.77-78
Despite these parallels, I do not believe, in the end, that Hunt fits the profile for Benjamin’s flâneur, with the differences at first appearing slight but being, to my mind, determinative. For example, Benjamin offers this definition of the flâneur’s status: he observes the city with “the gaze of the alienated man. . . . whose way of life still conceals behind a mitigating nimbus the coming desolation of the big-city dweller. The flâneur still stands on the threshold—of the metropolis as of the middle class. Neither has him in its power yet. In neither is he at home. He seeks refuge in the crowd” (Arcades, 10). Hunt might appear at a similar threshold, desiring to dissolve in the crowd, when he writes, “I must have either antiquity to remind me of the past generations, or something busy and going on to warm my heart with the present” (47); but I do not hear the voice of alienation here: Hunt claims both to continue the cultural traditions he inherits and to embrace the busy-ness/business of the present. This is not to say that Hunt, who used The Examiner and other venues to battle the “spirit of money-getting” he believed defined what we would call capitalism, embraces the middle-class which the flâneur observes. Rather, while Benjamin’s flâneur is at the borders of the rising middle class, Hazlitt’s Hunt is on the outskirts of a declining aristocratic culture, linked to “Sir John Suckling or Killigrew or Carew”; “Mr Hunt ought to have been a gentleman born, and to have patronized men of letters. He might then have played, and sung, and laughed, and talked his life away; have written manly prose, elegant verse; and his Story of Rimini would have been praised by Mr Blackwood” (228). Hunt is not so much on the threshold of the urban dwelling as by its fireside, and able, with his wishing cap on, to seem at home everywhere and every-when, appreciating, for example, the great tradition and nurturing an experimental one. His dream is of a cultural revolution to match the political one experienced in France and across Europe, a revolution that would put aristocratic culture into the hands of everyone, with that extension of cultural capital to cockneys transforming the tradition they inherit, as he rewrites Dante or Keats reworks Milton or Shelley reimagines the Greeks.
Perhaps what I am saying is that Hunt is not so much Baudelaire’s brother as a great uncle of Benjamin’s. It is the utopian turn of Hunt’s writings on London that I find links him to Benjamin’s Arcades project, as they both seek to unlock the future from the past’s grip on the present. Quoting Michelet to the effect that “Each epoch dreams the one that follows,” Benjamin offers an analysis of residual and developing forms that illuminates Hunt while looking forward to Raymond Williams:
Corresponding to the form of the new means of production, which in the beginning is still ruled by the form of the old (Marx), are images in the collective consciousness in which the new is permeated with the old. These images are wish images; in them the collective seeks both to overcome and to transfigure the immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization of production. At the same time, what emerges in these wish images is the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated—which includes, however, the recent past. These tendencies deflect the imagination (which is given impetus by the new) back upon the primal past. In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history [Urgeschichte]—that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society—as stored in the unconscious of the collective—engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions.Arcades, 4-5
Hunt, seeking his lesson for the nation, his lever to lift the present into a better future, is engaged in finding glimpses of utopia in the primal elements of history as well as in the “gigantic shows which futurity casts upon the present” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 535). As Benjamin puts it, “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening” (13). Hunt urges this awakening when he finds the entire city, even inanimate objects alive with possibility—“Everything ought to be alive,—the pavement, the windows, the prospect” (Wishing-Cap Papers, 46); or when he argues that all poets, if not poor themselves, sympathize with the poor—“It is his sympathies with the many that keeps him poor,—and the most honorable of all poverties” (Wishing Cap Papers, 60); or when he reimagines a part of the London cityscape through the poets who have touched it, perhaps most touchingly when he recalls poets of his own acquaintance. In a much reused passage on Millfield Lane in Hampstead, which appears in different forms in The Literary Examiner of 1823, in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries, and in the Wishing-Cap Papers, Hunt notes the antiquity of the road, as the old Roman Road “praised by Camden for the beauty of its prospects” (Wishing-Cap Papers, 238). He identifies pine trees transplanted by Lord Erskine from Italy, as well nine elm trees under which Pope and Lord Mansfield used to sit. He reminds us that at the “fine seat of the Mansfields” at Caen Wood, “there is a portrait of Betterton the player, which is said to be from the hand of Pope.” Having recalled the place’s primal and “classical” history, he turns to more recent memories:
It was in the beautiful lane, running from the road between Hampstead and Highgate, that, meeting me one day, he [Keats] first gave me the volume [of his 1817 Poems]. If the admirer of Mr. Keats’s poetry does not know the lane in question, he ought to become acquainted with it, both on his author’s account and its own. It has been also paced by Mr. Lamb and Mr. Hazlitt, and frequented, like the rest of the beautiful neighbourhood, by Mr. Coleridge; so that instead of Millfield lane, which is the name it is known by ‘on earth,’ it has sometimes been called Poets’ Lane, which is an appellation it richly deserves”.Lord Byron, 249-50
Asking the reader about this spot, “who knows it better than yourself?” Hunt adds, “But you like me to repeat it” (Wishing-Cap, 238), for in doing so he traces one of those “thousand configurations of life” that offer a glimpse of hope, of a utopian possibility, where places are known not as property but as the haunts of poets.
Hunt, writing the Wishing-Cap Papers from Italy, is unlike the flâneur who actually walks amidst “the temptations of shops, of bistros, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next streetcorner,” until the city “opens up to him as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room” (417). For Hunt’s very distance from the city he loves allows him to create a phantasmal London that is not bound by the way things are known on earth but that is instead open to reformation by the fancy. And, perhaps ironically, this very distance allows him to locate utopia not in a no-place but in an exact spot, in Hampstead, on Poets’ Lane, with Keats. Where Benjamin’s Angel of History must always face a past as a catastrophe propelling us into the future, where his Angel can never pause, like Goethe’s Faust, over a moment so fair, Hunt, on his wings angelical, defeats the Mephistos of a mechanical world view to find in every fair moment with friends a trace of a future made up not of catastrophes, including those that in fact struck Keats, but of love and fancy.
Dreaming of Hampstead from Italy, Hunt also awakens his readers to the larger world. He is able to imagine himself not only in London but Arabia. Speaking of women bathing in a lake near Florence, he can find himself thinking of Boccaccio, of the classical Damon catching sight of the bathing Musidora in Thomson’s “Summer,” or of a woman bathing, like Saint-Pierre’s Virginia, on the rocks of a West Indian island (Wishing-Cap Papers, 100-101). Again, one uncovers traces of the wider world as Hunt traverses London. People of color appear at the margins of his view, as in his ballad from Juvenalia, “The Negro Boy,” or as he recalls a black cymbal player in a band at St. James’s Park (The Town, 438), or the Africans who appear in an anecdote from Boswell (The Town, 135), or the image of a black servant from Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode (WC, 396)—and we should not forget that he came from what Nick Roe has called the “Transatlantic Hunts” and that his own appearance was often coded as “West Indian” or, in the words of his friend Proctor, as a “half-caste American[s]” (Roe, 6). The people he knows in London have lived around the world, such as the Italian Novellos, “the most Catholic of Catholics, for their spirit embraced the whole world” (Wishing-Cap, 41), or Englishmen who have lived abroad, from the West Indies (WC, 101) to India itself (WC, 443). While he would seem thus to travel the itinerary of empire, he does not seem to have much sympathy for that imperial mission, having decried such ambitions in The Examiner and elsewhere at the same time as he celebrated liberation movements in South America and diversity everywhere. In The Town, as we have seen, the name of London has a polyglot origin—perhaps arising from the Trojan Middle East or from Caesar’s Latin or from German or Welsh—and in the notes to his translation of Bacchus in Tuscany, another product of his Italian sojourn, he again notes the hybridized nature of all languages, as he is particularly interested in cases where English has exported its vocabulary: "English ships and English comforts carry new words all over the Globe” (89). Hunt wishes to distinguish such cultural imports and exports from the products of empire. In a note to Bacchus in Tuscany on Helen's Nepenthe, he enters into a long discussion of the impact of the opium trade on England, citing both his sister-in-law Elizabeth Kent's Flora Domestica and De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He argues that the importation of opium comprises a third of the East India Company's revenues and that this lucrative traffic is destroying England, and particularly its disadvantaged classes (107-13). Hunt tries in the note to establish an opposition between a community driven by economic hardship and a harsh methodistical ideology into taking opium and a community saved by the liberality of a kinswoman of John Wilkes. Noting the Italian's hatred of opium and preference for wine and drawing upon a repeated parallel between wine and song, Hunt offers the intoxication of poetry, the imagined paradise of his poem, in the place of the false paradise of both the methodist and the opium eater. The economy of money getting is replaced with an economy of pleasure, of surfeit. Hunt seeks to replace a global imperialist economy with an equally global economy of freely given words, shared wine, binding pleasures. Like the characters in Burroughs, Pynchon, or Bolaño, this transatlantic wanderer is less the creature of actual department stores than of an imaginative bazaar.
One can find other Cockney explorations of London as the metropolis of the world. We could follow Hazlitt as he searches through the streets of London for a coach to get him to a fight near Bath or as he delights in the Indian Jugglers at the Olympic New Theater in the Strand or the rope-dancer Richer at Sadler’s Wells. We could trace the environs of Hampstead in Keats’s lyrics or of the city itself in The Jealousies, and we could follow Byron’s Don Juan through the splendors and miseries of upper class London. We could plumb the depths of London as hell in Shelley’s Peter Bell the Third, while at the same time we can find in Shelley’s Letter to Maria Gisborne that, though London is a “great sea whose ebb and flow / At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore / Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more. /Yet in its depth what treasures!”—in particular, Godwin, Peacock, Horace Smith, and Hunt himself. What we find each of these authors doing is discovering London as an amazing source of energy that might now be viewed, as Jaggers might, as “A populous and a smoky city; / There are all sorts of people undone / And there is little or no fun done; Small justice shewn, and still less pity” (Peter Bell the Third, ll. 148-51), but that now should be imagined with Hunt’s Skimpolian joy as a “fairy-land, teeming with wonder, with life and interest to his [Lamb’s] retrospective glance,” as Hazlitt describe Lamb’s London (“Elia, and Geoffrey Crayon,” Spirit of the Age, 233).
What I want to suggest is that there is insight in Skimpole’s blindness, that behind Dickens’ portrait of the irresponsible consumer of pleasing things is the actual Hunt who imagines a world remade by pleasure. We can accept the limits of what we see, or we can try to see further, as the pictogram of a rectangle made up dashes with the caption “What’s outside the window?” that concludes Bolaño’s Savage Detectives might suggest to the characters wandering the Sonoran desert (648); we can bow to the oppression of the present or we might find a vision of comfort, as the audience that sits in a theater destined to be hit by a rocket at the end of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow seeks the touch of “the person next to you” and sings a song “They never taught anyone to sing” (887). Hunt, like these figures, always seeks to find the fairy-land disguised by the smoky, populous city. He is their precursor in finding that moving in and out of the city one can reimagine the desolation of the modern city as the land of milk and honey, the land of Cockaigne.
Jeffrey N. Cox is Professor of English, of Comparative Literature, and of Humanities at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he is also Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Affairs. His work has focused on romantic era drama and the culture of post-Waterloo London. His publications include In the Shadows of Romance: Romantic Tragic Drama in Germany, England, and France (1987; rpt. 2011), Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Shelley, Keats, Hunt, and their Circle (1998), and Keats’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition (2008).
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