This essay examines Leigh Hunt’s attitude towards sport, a subject about which he had mixed feelings. On the one hand Hunt strongly denounced violent and death-dealing sports such as boxing, shooting and angling, and on the other he idealised those pastimes which seemed to him to call back a lost world of ‘Merry Old England’: cricket, quarterstaff and bowls. Hunt saw sports as ethics-in-action; to him they offered moral lessons, some malign (the corrupting effects of pugilism) others benign (the healthy influence of the sports of the village green). The essay also examines how Hunt’s examination of sport was made in gendered terms of ‘manliness’ and ‘effeminacy’, and concludes by arguing that Blackwood’s attack on Hunt and the so-called ‘Cockney’ school might usefully be read in the context of the contemporary satirical tradition of the ‘Cockney sportsman’.
We do not normally think of Leigh Hunt as a fellow interested in sport, unlike that other great Romantic-era essayist, and, indeed, his friend and collaborator, William Hazlitt, the author of that fine meditation on pugilism ‘The Fight’, which was first published in the New Monthly Magazine in February 1822. This latter author, a ‘furious racket player’ as his own friend and first biographer B. W. Proctor (‘Barry Waller’) put it, declared that his favourite pastime, fives (a predecessor of modern-day squash), was ‘the finest exercise for the body, and the best relaxation for the mind’ (VIII: 87). In the post-Napoleonic period, the great iconoclast took care of himself, especially after he had foresworn the bottle of which he had once been overfond; ‘The accomplishments of the body’, declared Hazlitt in a footnote to his essay ‘On the Qualifications Necessary to Success in Life’ (1820), ‘are obvious and clear to all: those of the mind are recondite and doubtful’ (XII: 207).
Leigh Hunt, on the other hand, has generally been seen as someone uninterested in ‘the accomplishments of the body’, especially in the light of the Blackwood’s caricature of him as an effeminate aesthete, the yellow-breeched, piano-playing, tea-drinking, boxing-hating, Hampstead-frequenting, hey-nonny-no-ing ‘Liunto’. Boxing-hating – this last was a particular fault to John Wilson and the ‘Maga’ gang, who cherished contemporary bareknuckle and its literary representation in such works as Pierce Egan’s Boxiana (1812-29), and it was grounded in truth. Hunt detested pugilism and explicitly forbade it from the pages of the Examiner, seeing the sport as no more than a refuge for ‘miserable ruffians’. This activity, like Hunt’s other sporting bête noire, angling, had too much of cruelty and pain about it for the great pacifist to endure it. However, I want to argue here that this was not a universal blind eye; our author was interested in other sports, albeit as spurs to philosophical reflection rather than in acting as a participant. Hunt’s work contains interesting meditations on bowls, cricket, golf, even billiards and the medieval pastime of quarterstaff, and he also praised Hazlitt’s favourite fives game. This essay examines the poet’s relationship with sport, whether antipathetic or approbative, and it also reexamines one of the most notorious literary sparring matches of the Romantic period, in arguing that the famous sneer of Blackwood’s against Hunt and his poetic cohorts - ‘Cockney’ - had a context in the contemporary literature of sport which has not hitherto been fully examined.
Leigh Hunt, poet, essayist and radical pressman, was a lifelong opponent of bloody sports - of angling, cock-fighting, hunting and, most particularly, boxing. Indeed, in the first issue of his most notable journal, the Examiner, he barred the very mention of activities such as these. In the 1808 ‘Prospectus’ to the newspaper, Hunt set out his stall, sketching the character of the weekly in terms of exclusion as well as inclusion, in stressing what the paper would not cover almost as much as what it might include. Banishing them alongside ‘quack’ advertisements, Hunt declared that there would be no coverage of cruel sports practised by ‘selfish and vulgar cowards, whether jockies, who will run a horse to death, or cock-fighters, who sit down to a table on which fowls are served up alive’ (Selected Writings, I: 111). Allied in perfidy to the despised cockers and racers in the ‘Prospectus’ are the pugilists, ‘those miserable ruffians’ as it unflatteringly labels them; they too will be denied admittance to the pages of the new journal.
Let us initially focus on boxing, Leigh Hunt’s least favourite sport. Hunt’s antipathy to pugilism was, perhaps, predictable. In his Autobiography (1860), Hunt writes of his ‘objections to pugnacity’ when he was at a child at Christ’s Hospital. The ‘sight of boys fighting’, he recalled, ‘frightened me as something devilish’ (Autobiography, 50). At school he cherished ‘moral courage’ rather than its physical equivalent. Nonetheless, Hunt was no weakling; his son Thornton describes his father as a young man as possessing ‘a robust frame’, with the body of ‘a man cut out for action - a soldier’ (88). That said, says the younger Hunt, ‘he shrank from physical contest’. In the Autobiography, Hunt attributes his physical ‘timidity’ (Thornton’s term) to his mother’s squeamishness at the sight of ‘discord and quarreling, particularly when it came to blows in the street’. This ‘gave me’, writes Hunt, ‘an ultra-sympathy with the least show of pain and suffering’ (51) (instead of punch-ups, at school Hunt preferred less violent amusements, particularly ‘bathing in the New River, and boating in the Thames’ (120), and as an adult he praised the ‘amusement and excitement … of cricket, and golf, and boating, and other sports’ (‘A Country Lodging’, 329)).
Small wonder then, considering his personal history, that Leigh Hunt objected to fighting for money. Writing in his ‘Prospectus’ of ‘the Fancy’, the term then applied to the fraternity at the heart of contemporary pugilism, the moneyed, often aristocratic patron-gamblers alongside the rough-hewn, decidedly unpatrician fighters, Hunt divides admirers of boxing into two categories: ‘the ornaments of a gaol or the disgracers of a noble house’. These former, the boxers themselves, prioritise the brute vigour of the body over the intellectual accomplishments of the mind, being men who ‘thank God for giving them strength to annihilate the strength of others [and] value themselves upon a few bones’ (Selected Writings, I: 111).
It is unsurprising that such a consistent opponent of philosophical materialism should quarrel with the valorization of pure corporeality in terms of the physical frame embraced by contemporary literary advocates of pugilism, and equally unsurprising that the author of arguably the greatest anti-war poem of the nineteenth century, Captain Sword and Captain Pen (1837), should object to the temper of war incarnate in contemporary sport and the way in which pugilism was defended as the very epitome of the British spirit. During and immediately after the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the skilled violence of pugilism, with its mixture of sustained courage and real danger, held a special appeal, providing a new outlet for narratives of male bravery and national superiority. The most notable literary proponent of this view was the novelist and sporting journalist Pierce Egan (c. 1774-1849), especially after the publication of the first two, highly successful, volumes of his pugilistic history Boxiana; or Sketches of Modern Pugilism (1812 and 1818). Egan declares in the first volume of Boxiana that boxing was ‘a national trait’: ‘we feel no hesitation in declaring, that it is wholly – BRITISH!’ (3) ‘The manly art of boxing’, according to Egan, has conditioned the martial spirit of the nation - warlike but humane, fierce but honourable - having ‘infused that true heroic courage, blended with humanity into the heart of Britons’ (3). Whereas the perfidious continental, simultaneously murderous and effeminate, pulls out a poniard to settle a quarrel, the noble Briton decides a fight only with his fists, and shakes hands thereafter like an honest, laughter-loving lad. Pierce Egan saw boxing as a socially unifying ‘One Nation’ sport followed by sporting gent and dustbin man alike: the Fancy, he declared in 1824, was a ‘union of all ranks, from the brilliant of the highest class in the circle of Corinthians, down to the Dusty Bob gradation in society’ (quoted in Reid 17).
In this context of heavily politicised contemporary notions of pugilism, Leigh Hunt’s critique of boxing, though brief, is comprehensive, and it engages directly with the sport’s central ethical self-presentations, incarnate in Pierce Egan though evident years before in sporting periodicals such as the Sporting Magazine (established in October 1792) and in the philosophically-tinged musings on boxing of literary figures from Dr Johnson to William Cobbett. Even though Hunt was well aware of the social span of the Prize Ring, the author saw no metaphorical democracy within it; five years before he, too, became the ‘ornament of a gaol’, Hunt labels the lower-class members of the Fancy a criminal fraternity of rogues and black-legs who shared the company of a disreputable crew of ungentlemanly gentlemen. The latter are the off-scourings of high society who ought to know better than to demean themselves in such low company. To the mind of a middle-class Radical writer such as Leigh Hunt, rough sportsmen themselves were hopeless cases. The Examiner ‘Prospectus’ sees boxing enthusiasts as oafs and illiterates who were beyond even satire’s correctional potency: as for those who ‘call fighting for a few guineas English spirit, they are most probably out of the reach of literary ridicule, which must be read before it is felt’ (I: 111). Squaring up to the boxing apologists on their key ground, Hunt maintains that to claim a link between boxing and the ‘English spirit’ - as the sport’s partisans did so frequently - was beyond contempt. Boxing is violent and meretricious, and issues of nationhood have nothing to do with it.
Forty years later, in his London travelogue A Saunter through the West End (serialised in the Atlas in 1847 and published in book form in 1861), Leigh Hunt revisited this notion in his account of ‘the Boxing Academy of the famous Broughton, the prize-fighter’ (113). From the early 1740s onwards Jack Broughton (c.1703-89), former champion of England, taught boxing to all comers at his school, nay ‘amphitheatre’ - as he heroically styled it - of pugilism in the Haymarket. Armed with the superiority complex of contemporary partisans of English boxing, the advertising copy for Broughton’s boxing shop jeered, says Hunt, at the ‘ill-contrived’ and ‘effeminate’ French: ‘In one of his bills, “Frenchmen” were requested “to bring smelling bottles”’. ‘This anti-Gallican insult’ - and later anti-Cockney insult it might be pointed out - writes Hunt, ‘was inspired by the long series of Marlborough victories’ in the War of the Spanish Succession. Boxing, to Hunt’s mind, reinforced xenophobia; the sport was not ethically healthy, inculcating as it did contempt for one’s neighbours and a national self-aggrandisement. This was a self-confidence, Hunt claims, which learnt hard lessons when the supposedly ‘effeminate’ French demonstrated their own martial prowess after 1793:
Boxing encouraged the same ill manners in us up to the period of the revolutionary wars; when, after taunting the French for half a century with their ‘wooden shoes’, and their servility to the ‘Grand Monarque’ … we discovered, that to calumniate a great nation any longer was neither worthy of us, nor very easy.114
Leigh Hunt attacked pugilism in both magazine polemic and in vigorously opinionated verse. Fifteen years after the ‘Prospectus’ to the Examiner, he returned to the subject of boxing in one of his finest poetic achievements, ‘The Choice’, first published in the Liberal in 1823. It may be that this poem is, in part, one more response to the loathed Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which had enthusiastically embraced boxing, especially after the publication of the second volume of Egan’s Boxiana in 1818. John Wilson wrote in Blackwood’s in March 1820 that ‘The man who has not read “Boxiana” is ignorant of the power of the English language’ (March 1820: 611) and contributed an elephantine nine-essay review of Boxiana 2 (into which he interpolated his own musings on pugilism and boxing-related parodies and satires) to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine between July 1819 and October 1822. To Wilson, Egan’s work was ‘pregnant with fancy’; Boxiana and contemporary pugilism were both ‘overflowing with the most manly sensibilities - everywhere animated with a true British spirit’ (October 1820: 60). In attacking boxing in the Liberal, Hunt was, to my mind, returning once again to the quarrel with ‘Maga’.
Hunt’s version of pastoral in ‘The Choice’ meditates on the nature of the rural life and the proper, and best, way in which it might be lived. Sports play an important part in Hunt’s Georgic: some, such as cricket and golf, are admitted to the garden; others are forbidden Eden. Death-dealing amusements such as angling (‘Fishing I hate’) and hare coursing are renounced, and so, unsurprisingly, is boxing:
Selected Writings, VI: 26
But as for prize-fights, with their butchering shows,
And crowds of black-legs, I’d have none of those;
I am not bold in other people’s blows.
Hunt takes no delight in concussive sport conducted before an audience which he saw as principally composed of unsavoury characters of every description, nor in its attendant swindling and betting. In its stead, the honest man should engage in more healthsome and vigorous outdoor pursuits:
All manly games I’d play at, - golf and quoits,
And cricket, to set lungs and limbs to rights,
And make me conscious, with a due respect,
Of muscles one forgets by long neglect.
Interestingly, Hunt still endorses the notion of sporting manliness so widely evident amongst literary enthusiasts for sport. Nonetheless, he attempts, as he had with the notion of the ‘British spirit’, to separate masculine exercise from pugilism, a morally suspect sport, as he saw it, tainted by bloodlust and inextricably wedded to gambling.
In place of the corruptions of unsavoury pugilism, Hunt, prompted by his medievalism and the fascination which he possessed for the tales of Robin Hood (whom he had romanticised as a kind of Tom Paine in green tights in a series of poems published in the Indicator in 1820), endorsed the merry sports of old England, even including the belligerent diversion of quarterstaff, as practised, supposedly, by Little John and the leader of the Merry Men himself. Leigh Hunt, who golfed in imagination, here portrayed himself in another unlikely sporting role, participating in the manly exercise of the verdant green:
I’d do my best to force a handsome laugh
Under a ruddy crack from quarter staff
Nor think I had a right to walk my woods,
Coy of a science that was Robin Hood’s.
‘Tis healthy, and a man’s.
In ‘The Choice’, skull-cracking with sticks, unlike boxing, is portrayed as an acceptable form of masculine physical self-expression. Interestingly, both Hunt and Blackwood’s agree on the necessity for manly exercise and endorse rough and tumble sports; only the nature of those sports differ.
‘Liunto’s’ bout of sporting literary machismo in the Liberal was too much for Blackwood’sEdinburgh Magazine to resist. ‘Mr North’s Lecture on “The Choice”, a Poem recently Written by Leigh Hunt’ interpolated within the eleventh of the Noctes Ambrosianae (August 1823), a collaboration between Wilson, J. G. Lockhart and William Maginn, advised Blackwood’s ‘Vice-Laureate’ Hunt that if he would but ‘consider the matter for a minute or two, he would be sensible of the extreme ludicrousness of the most remote comparison between himself and Robin Hood. He - with his yellow breeches … silk hat, red slippers, and shabby-genteel surtout, picking his steps, within sound of the dinner-bell, among a few beds of tulips and peony-roses, or selecting a dry spot of his “turf and trees”, that he might “on the grass go rhyme”, or scribble a literary Examiner - and that immortal Bowman of the Forest!’ (August 1823: 244) Leigh Hunt’s gesture to ruddy manliness is repudiated in the standard Blackwood’s caricature of the poet as an effeminate, tea-swilling dandy who would faint in the presence of a rough-handed pugilist. The ultra-sympathist’s objections to pugilism were seen by Maga as no more than a foolish parade of self-regarding feeling and of empty compassion. In one of his Boxiana papers John Wilson ostentatiously mocked Hunt’s banishing of pugilism from the pages of his newspaper:
Mr Leigh Hunt thinks it cruel - and brutal - and unworthy of the pages of the Examiner. No doubt, Mr Leigh Hunt would be entitled to complain of the cruelty of boxing, were Little Puss to tip him a stomacher while meditating a crisp sonnet in some farmy field, in front of Hampstead. But who would talk of the cruelty of giving a facer to the champion of England?March 1820: 609
‘Little Puss’ was the nickname of the boxer Henry Abrahams, by the way, rather than a pantomime cat. Punching Tom Cribb, the All England champ, was no more cruel to Blackwood’s than a ‘ruddy crack from a quarter staff’ was to Leigh Hunt in ‘The Choice’.
‘All manly games I’d play at’, wrote Hunt in the Liberal. Sport was one place where the author could parade the masculinity which Wilson’s northern crowd continually put under question. This is not to imply that Hunt was a kind of Lady Macbeth in such protestations; he was both genuine and consistent in his search for what he saw as a decent sporting manliness rather than the ugly ruffianism of boxing. Several things inform Leigh Hunt’s view of sport: a cultural nostalgia for a lost world of ‘merry old England’ (as per his longing for the days of Robin of Sherwood), a yearning for the outdoors and the rural, and this central desire for an honourable form of masculinity. Take the conceptualisation of what he described as ‘the manly and graceful game’ of cricket (a sporting pursuit, indeed, previously praised as ‘manly’ in ‘The Choice’) in his essay ‘Cricket and Exercise in General (Written in May)’, the leading article in Leigh Hunt’s London Journal on 21 May 1834:
The fine, hard, flat, verdant floors are now preparing in the cricket-grounds for this manly and graceful game, and the village-greens (where they can) are no less getting ready, though not quite so perfect. No matter for that. A true cricketer is not the man to be put out by a trifle. He serves an apprenticeship to patience after her handsomest fashion.57
Ignoring the fact that there were as many men with bookmakers’ satchels at Lord’s Cricket Ground as at any prize fight, Hunt offers an idealised portrait of the sport. Unlike the oafish pugilist, the cricketer of the early nineteenth century, with his ‘apprenticeship to patience’, learns commendable moral lessons from his sport. He is also, it might be said - like the Romantic poets of the day - attuned to nature:
He is a sensible, hearty fellow, too wise not to take proper precautions … to take care of his health, and be stirring. Nature is stirring, and so is he. Nature is healthy, and so is he. Nature, in a hundred thousand parts to a fraction, is made up of air, and fields, and country, and out-of-doors, and a strong teeming earth, and a good-natured sky, and so is the strong heart of the cricketer.57
Cricket is at the ‘heart’ of English sport to Leigh Hunt, its vigorous pulse, so to speak, as opposed to boxing’s sclerotic malignity.
There is another important reason why cricket was a Huntian sport. Against the extreme individualism of boxing, the cricketer is a team player; his sport is a sociable game and his form of athletic masculinity an admirable one. In his fine study Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School (1999), Jeffrey N. Cox writes of Hunt and his colleagues that ‘Against violence in society despondency in culture they pitted sociability’ (60). Similarly, against the violence of boxing, a sport frequently portrayed in the late Georgian era as the very incarnation of the martial spirit, the leader of the Cockney School pitted cricket. Hunt suggests that the noble spirit and physical and moral benefits inculcated by the sport should be widespread amongst the male population, envisaging a time when all would take up the bat and ball: ‘We should like to see a time when every man played at cricket, and had a sound sleep after it, and health, work, and leisure’ (‘Cricket’, 57). Interestingly, Pierce Egan’s vision of boxing as a unifying social force - a ‘union of all ranks’ - is echoed here in Hunt’s version of cricket as a game for ‘every man’. Similarly, where Egan had ‘no hesitation in declaring that [boxing] is wholly BRITISH!’, Leigh Hunt endorsed the notion that ‘The game of cricket … is thoroughly British’ (‘Recollections of Cricket’, 58). Though their choices of sports differed, the sporting journalist and the radical author both endorsed the sense of the excellence of British masculinity which was conventional in contemporary sports writing.
As well as saluting cricket as ‘manly’ and ‘British’, ‘Cricket and Exercise in General’ portrays the sport of the village green as something more, as a contemporary vision of a ‘green merry England … peopled by fellows in white sleeves’. This imagining of an energetic merriness evident in the sociality of sport was nothing new in Leigh Hunt’s work, which frequently valorizes a mythical medieval past. In his fine December 1817 Examiner meditation on ‘Christmas and other old National Merry-Makings’ Hunt offers the following peroration:
Merry Old England died in the country a great while ago; and the sports, the pastimes, the holidays, the Christmas greens and gambols, the archeries, the May-mornings, the May-poles, the country-dances, the masks, the harvest-homes, the hobby-horses, the new-year’s-gifts, the gallantries, the golden means, the poetries, the pleasures, the leisures, the real treasures, - were all buried with her. Heaven send the race be revived!‘Christmas’, 802
‘Sports’ are part of the lost birthright of ‘merry old England’, ‘the memory of lost content’ in Nicholas Roe’s fine phrase, ‘the English paradise, a land of equality and justice’ (‘Green, Unpleasant Land’, 36). Alongside ‘revels, dancing and masks’, at the time of Christmas ‘various sports and gambols took place among high and low’ (and ‘all the rustic games that could be played in winter-time, were in requisition’); sport was an important manifestation of the vanished organic unity of English society. Whether such an age of gold ever existed in British history is, of course, highly debatable, but that matters not; ‘Merry Old England’ is presented as a prelapsarian world before modern capitalism (‘our … counting house times’), enclosure, pitiless Toryism and, latterly, industrialisation changed English society unutterably for the worse.
In this essay, Hunt describes ‘the country bill of fare’ attendant to ‘the sports [and] pastimes’ of the medieval feast of St Nicholas by quoting from Thomas Tusser’s recipe for seasonal merriment in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1557): ‘Good drinke, a blazing fire in the hall, brawne, pudding and souse, and mustard withal; beef, mutton, and pork, shred or minced pies … pig, veal, goose, capon, and turkey; cheese, apples, and nuts’. This is by no means a diet for Olympians, as Hunt acknowledges, but its plenitude was, he maintains, sanctioned by the vigorous lifestyles of past times:
If some of all this plenty appears a little alarming to the weaker digestions of our times, it is to be recollected that the eaters of it were great exercisers; and that the leaping and vaulting, and other sports of the country people; the hawking and hunting of the gentry, and the perpetual dancings of the ladies - to say nothing of the archeries and the Mayings, &c. &c. completely kept off the night-mares of our sickly, indoor, and counting house times.802
Modern society is suffering from a malaise in turning its back on good, honest exercise.
Embedded within this debate is a gendered discourse that associated sickliness with a vapid, courtly femininity. Mary Wollstonecraft famously attacked what she saw as the depredations of ‘a sickly delicacy’ (Works, V: 76) all too evident in modern femininity. William Cobbett, another believer in modern day degeneracy, used the term ‘national effeminacy’ for the ‘sickly, indoor’ nature of contemporary society (though his solution was to the problem was a different set of ‘the sports of the country people’ to Leigh Hunt’s: contests of cock-fighting, boxing matches and drinking beer). Hunt’s medieval ladies, however, are decidedly vigorous. That said, in ‘Cricket and Exercise in General (Written in May)’ Hunt makes the charge of effeminacy explicitly in his rebuke of ‘Those who have suffered themselves to become … sickly’ for want of exercise:
People stop in doors, and render themselves liable to all ‘the skiey influences’, and then out of the same thoughtless effeminacy of self-indulgence, they expose themselves to the catching of colds and fevers and the beautiful Spring is blamed, and ‘fine Mays make fat church-yards’. The gypsies, we will be bound, have no such proverbs. The cricketer has none such.57
Like Wollstonecraft before him, Hunt argues that women need to shed this particular ‘sickly’ form of femininity and recapture the physical vigour of their medieval forebears in taking exercise and in getting themselves out of doors:
As to our sickly friends … all we shall say to them is, what was said by an abrupt but benevolent friend of ours, to the startled ears of a fine lady - ‘Get out’. … the lady was not only a fine lady, but a shrewd woman; so she ‘got out’, and was a goer out afterwards, and lived happily enough to benefit others by her example.57
‘Cricket and Exercise’ also manifests the cultural yearning for ‘the English paradise’ evident in Hunt’s ‘Merry-Makings’ piece, and his desire for national revival is similarly re-articulated there. The essay explicitly links the sport with what the Examiner had called ‘Merry Old England’:
It would be a pretty world, if we all had something to do, just to make leisure the pleasanter, and green merry England were sprinkled all over, ‘of afternoons’, with gallant fellows in white sleeves, who threshed the earth and air of their cricket-grounds into a crop of health and spirits.57
Cricket, a part of folk culture far removed from boxing’s moral stain, was one way of ensuring that merry England might ‘be revived’. In his great essay ‘An Earth upon Heaven’ (published in the Companion in 1828), Hunt disapproves of ‘Milton’s heaven, with the armed youth exercising themselves in military games’ (162); far better in his paradisiacal imagination for young men to play ‘cricket … after which they should read, laugh, love, and be honourable and happy beings, bringing God’s work to its perfection, and suiting the divine creation they live in’ (‘Cricket’, 57) (as William Hazlitt writes in his own account of ‘Merry England’ (1819), ‘There is no place where trap-ball, fives, prison-base, foot-ball, quoits, bowls are better understood or more successfully practised; and the very names of a cricket bat and ball make English fingers tingle’ (XVII: 154)). In Hunt’s account of sport one reaps what one sows: in his idealised view of cricket batters and bowlers alike come into ‘a crop of health and spirits’, while the unsavoury pugilists get the chaff of broken jaws, gambling losses and moral delinquency.
In a phrase much quoted in the nineteenth century, the poet Juvenal famously writes in his tenth Satire ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ (‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’). ‘The mind may undoubtedly affect the body’ as Hunt wrote in his 1819 Indicator essay ‘To Any One whom Bad Weather Depresses’, ‘but the body also affects the mind’ (33). A key aspect of Romantic era writing about sports was its attention to their moral impact, particularly in the attention to the ethics of ‘manly’ games evident in Hunt and everywhere else in such writing. It was also much preoccupied with its influence on children (though upon boys most particularly). What, in Hunt’s account, would sport do for the juvenile mind? Let us address this question by returning to his preoccupation with the man of Sherwood. In ‘Robin Hood. A Child’ (1820), Hood is described as ‘Merriest’ - that root again - ‘of merry boys’. A key part of the future outlaw’s boyish education is sport: Robin is expert ‘At wrestling, running, and archery’, and boldly laughs off pain: ‘Yet he cared not for a fall’ (Selected Writings, VI: 198). This youthful sporting education in bravery and manliness-in-action, Hunt implies, made the leader of the greenwood fellowship what he was.
Sport was an educative force; Leigh Hunt, who envisaged himself playing Hood’s game of quarter staff in ‘The Choice’, argued that all children should have the same moral and physical opportunities as honest Robin. In ‘Of Our Duties Towards Children’, published in The Religion of the Heart (1853), Hunt argued that the young should ‘have plenty of exercise and recreation, particularly in the open air’ (36). He also maintains that it was the duty of parents to play healthsome sports with their children; they ‘must enter as much as possible into their sports and satisfactions, which is doing ourselves a good; and above all (which cannot be too often repeated), must make them strong in body, and sociable and affectionate in mind’ (37). Again, what ‘National Merry-Makings’ calls ‘sociality’ is seen as the key to benevolent human development; as Hunt writes in the ‘Cricket and Exercise in General’ essay, ‘Healthy and graceful example makes healthy and graceful children, makes cheerful tempers, [and] makes grateful and loving friends’ (57).
‘Particularly in the open air’ insists Religion on the Heart’s meditation on the best form of youthful sport. This notion of al fresco exercise was very important to Hunt’s conceptualization of physical activity. The ‘open air’, he frequently maintained, would ward off the effects of what the Examiner essay of 1817 labelled as the ‘Sickly, indoor’ world. The house was no place for exercise; in his West End Saunter, Hunt gently mocked billiard players who thought that a stroll around a table was healthy exercise. Though ‘Billiards is a good game, and as healthy as the house will let it be’, Hunt wryly maintained that it was ‘amusing to hear what philosophical things a player will say of it, in commendation of the “wonderful exercise” it causes him to take, and the “miles” he walks in so many turns about the table’ (80). ‘Exercise in the air’, declares Hunt, ‘is better’. Billiards, he argues, is a kind of sporting cuckoo in the nest which has displaced the fine old game of bowls:
Bowls, as an amusement of the gentry appear to have given way to billiards … it is impossible not to regret the loss of whatever tended to keep people more in the open air, and associate their amusements with the country. It is melancholy to see the bowling-greens that are still to be met with in the grounds of some old family mansions - fine large pieces of turf, looking like natural billiard tables on a gigantic scale, and now never used.80
Bowls is in danger of going the way of quarter staff and the like. This is another version of the Fall, as per the ‘Merry-Makings’ essay, with Hunt lamenting yet more evidence of the decay of the old amusements.
This was not the first time Hunt (who in ‘The Choice’ dreams that ‘Around my house I’ll have a bowling green’ (Selected Writings, VI: 26)) had written elegiacally about bowls. In an article on ‘Cricket, Tennis, Fives and Bowling’, published in Leigh Hunt’s London Journal in July 1834, the editor writes of ‘the merits of tennis and fives, and all other manly games’, and claimed that ‘bowls has this advantage over most of them, that it can be played in almost any place, and suits people of all ages, sizes, and conditions’. But this was a ‘now despised, but once fashionable game’ mourns Hunt, in words which clearly anticipate his lamentations of 1847:
Bowls, the pastime of the wits of the court of Charles the Second, and the nobler spirits of his father’s court, and of Cromwell’s, - now reduced to the exclusive patronage of the frequenters of public houses; and very lucky and sensible they are in retaining it. It is a game that may be practised, in all weathers, rain or shine, under cover or out of it, and by all sorts of people, robust or delicate; for even the weakest, who could not stoop, might have the bowl fetched to them; and in a little time they would feel their strength returning. We have seen the beautiful bowling-greens still existing in the venerable old grounds of the most celebrated English families, and have mourned to think how melancholy they looked in their forlornness.99
Royalist and Roundhead; all once took to the greens, but now the grounds are deserted, ‘melancholy’, forlorn. Here again an outdoor game of ‘venerable old’ England has fallen into desuetude, and here again Leigh Hunt calls for its renewal - ‘Heaven send the race be revived!’
Let us return from Hunt’s sublime to his ridiculous, and to two other sports which - unlike bowls and manly cricket - he despised alongside the Prize Ring, namely shooting and angling. Both of these pastimes were objected to because there was enough ‘pain in the world already’, as Hunt put it in his combative attack on hunting ‘A Country Lodging. Dialogue with a Sportsman’, published in the New Monthly Magazine in 1825. Hunt’s story, one of the ‘Harry Honeycomb’ series, contains much satire on shooting as an activity which turned ‘pain into a pleasure’. In this tale, Honeycomb, incapacited in a riding accident, spends several days in a country dwelling house where he engages in a number of Socratic dialogues with one Jack Tomkins, an enthusiastic shooter, on the ethics of his sport. Tomkins, who has been out shooting partridge, and is chided ironically for his tremendous battle with the feathered race: ‘The partridge, too, is a fierce bird, and can defend itself. It’s a gallant thing, a fight with a partridge!’ Honeycomb‘s ‘defence of the bird creation’ leads Tomkins to challenge his host, reminding him that ‘You eat poultry. What do you say to that? You eat chicken’, to which he receives the implacable reply: ‘I could give up poultry too; but death is common to all: a fowl is soon dispatched; and many a fowl would not exist, if death for the dinner-table were not part of his charter’ (328). A quick and clean death for a broiler destined for the cooking pot is one thing; ‘making a sport of cruelty’ by ‘breaking the bones and hearts of fellow-creatures’ is quite another.
‘The hearts of woodcocks and partridges!’ scoffs the sporter in reply: ‘Pooh, pooh! Birds don't feel as we do. They’re not Christians. They are not reasoning beings’ (328). (Defenders of slavery had mustered the same arguments about slaves; Hunt applied the same philanthropic register as abolitionists in addressing issues to do with what we would now call animal rights). The smart narrator responds by inviting young Tomkins to imagine him being the object of a predatorial hunter armed with a ferocious ‘manning-piece’ (the equivalent of a ‘fowling- piece, when it is men that are to be brought down’):
‘Here’, says I, ‘is Mr John Tomkins coming’; or, ‘Here is a Tomkins. Look at him. He’s in fine coat and waistcoat (we can't say feather, you know): keep close … you shall see how I’ll pepper him’. ‘Pray don’t,' says my companion. ‘A Tomkins is a Tomkins after all, and has his feelings as we have’. ‘Stuff!’ says I: ‘Tomkinses don’t feel as we do. They’re not Christians … They’re not made of the same sort of stuff; and so, if they bleed, it does not signify; - if they die of a torturing fracture, who cares. In short, it’s no use talking. There’s no end of these things. So here goes. Now, if I hit him, he is killed outright, which is no harm to any body; and if I wound him, why, he only goes groaning and writhing for three or four days; and who cares for that?329
This is both Shakespearean in its echo of The Merchant of Venice (‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’) and arguably anticipates the descriptions of the post-battle agonies of wounded soldiers after the battle of Waterloo in Captain Sword and Captain Pen (‘men left in cold and misery all night, writhing with torture … frenzied men, the other day the darlings of their friends, dying, two and even several days after the battle, of famine’ (Selected Writings, VI: 125)). Leaving irony aside, Honeycomb bluntly maintains that: ‘To bring them down, and then be obliged to kill them, is butcherly enough; but to lame, and dislocate, and shatter the joints and bodies of so many that fly off, and leave them to die a lingering death in their agony’ (330).
Tomkins, tempted to give up killing animals for pleasure by his interrogator’s words, regrets that this would entail a ‘want of amusement and excitement’ in his life. He is reminded that there are healthier diversions: ‘cricket, and golf, and boating, and other sports’. And if pain is necessary to the young man’s enjoyment of sport, asks Honeycomb, then ‘are there no such things to be had as quarter-staves, single-stick, and broken heads? A good handsome pain there is a gallant thing, and strengthens the soul as well as the body’ (329). Better to break heads than to derive pleasure from massacring the dumb creation: ‘If there must be a certain portion of pain in the world, these were the ways to share it. But to sneak about, safe one’s-self, with a gun and a dog, and inflict all sorts of wounds and torments upon a parcel of little helpless birds –’ (329)
In this moral tale, Hunt has his mouthpiece Honeycomb explicitly attack contemporary apologists for bloodsports: it is ‘unworthy’, he maintains, ‘of some philosophers and teachers [to] talk of the “sport” and the “amusement” [of] cruelty’. No-one should pay heed to those who argue that ‘we may, with a perfect conscience, lame, lacerate, mash, and blow their legs and beaks away, and leave [birds] God knows where, to perish of neglect and torture’ (331). ‘Birds have flesh and blood like ourselves’, says Honeycomb, and ‘they afford similar evidences of feeling and suffering’ (331). Then, sounding very much like Leigh Hunt himself, he maintains that ‘our own regulated feelings and instructed benevolence, are a part of the general action of Providence, a consequence and furtherance of the Divine Spirit’. ‘Humanity’, Hunt/Honeycomb concludes, ‘is the most visible putting forth of the Deity’s hand; the noblest tool it works with’ (332), and it is sullied by participating in cruel and morally demeaning sports.
Another death-dealing sport to which Hunt strongly objected was that of angling. Though this had been a sport of a decidedly literary bent since the publication of Izaak Walton’s great seventeenth-century meditation on the subject, The Compleat Angler (1653-76), Hunt had no time for it. In ‘Angling’, first published in The Indicator in November 1819, Hunt finds anglers guilty of a lack of thought about the nature of their game:
We do not say, that all anglers are of a cruel nature; many of them, doubtless, are amiable men in other matters. They have only never thought perhaps on that side of the question or have been accustomed from childhood to blink it.47
This is despite the fact that literary anglers tended to pride themselves on their thoughtful natures. The subtitle of Walton’s Book - The Contemplative Man’s Recreation - is indicative of this meditative style (he maintains that ‘the very sitting by the river’s side is not only the quietist and fittest place for contemplation, but will invite a man to it’), yet Hunt explicitly denies the very notion of anglers as a contemplative breed: ‘They pique themselves on their meditative faculties; and yet their only excuse is a want of thought. It is this that puzzles us’ (44).
While Romantic period post-Waltonian writing stresses the innocence of angling as a pastime – William Wordsworth writes of it as a ‘blameless sport’ in the first of the two sonnets he composed in Walton’s memory (the lines ‘Written upon a Blank Leaf in “The Complete Angler”’ (1819) and ‘Walton’s Book of Lives’ (1822)) - Hunt is having none of it: ‘the anglers boast of the innocence of their pastime; yet it puts fellow-creatures to the torture’ (44). When anglers do confront the sanguinary nature of their sport, Hunt declares the argument ‘about fishes being made for “man’s pleasure and diet”’ is ‘all that anglers have to say for the innocence of their sport’. He finds this a ‘rank sophistication’:
To kill fish outright is a different matter, Death is common to all; and a trout, speedily killed by a man, may suffer no worse fate than from the jaws of a pike. It is the mode, the lingering cat-like cruelty of the angler’s sport, that renders it unworthy.46
‘Death is common to all’; these words, as we have seen, were also used in the passage on fowling in ‘A Country Lodging’ in which Honeycomb defended eating chicken. Unlike his friend Shelley, Hunt was no vegetarian; his wish is for the humane treatment of animals, including those destined to be eaten, and the end of sport as a method of producing food.
Aware of the centrality of Walton to the angling literature of the day (Hunt explicitly labels him the ‘patriarch’ of fishing authors in ‘Angling’), the essayist ponders on the nature of The Compleat Angler:
The book of Isaac[sic] Walton upon angling is a delightful performance in some respects. It smells of the country air, and of the flowers in cottage windows. Its pictures of rural scenery, its simplicity, its snatches of old songs, are all good and refreshing; and his prodigious relish of a dressed fish would not be grudged him, if he had killed it a little more decently.45
The contrast drawn by Hunt - between Walton’s piety and his indecent treatment of the creation - appears frequently in contemporary anti-angling rhetoric. Indeed, Hunt goes so far as to call fishing ‘torture’, provocatively arguing that Walton, the ‘patriarch’ of angling literature, with his writhing frog baits, impaled worms and hooked fish-jaws, was actually little more than a trout-fishing Thames Torquemada:
Old Isaac Walton, their patriarch, speaking of his inquisitorial abstractions on the banks of a river, says,
Here we may
Think and pray,
Stops our breath.
Are but toys,
And to be lamented.
So saying, he ‘stops the breath’ of a trout, by plucking him up into an element too thin to respire, with a hook and a tortured worm in his jaws –
are but toys.
If you ride, walk, or skate, or play at cricket, or at rackets, or enjoy a ball or a concert, it is ‘to be lamented’ … But to put a hook into the gills of a carp – there you attain the end of a reasonable being; there you show yourself truly a lord of creation. 44-5
Putting irony aside, Hunt proceeds to load his discussion of angling with further philosophical and political significance. Fishing is cruel and unnatural and, building upon his notion of Walton as Inquisitor, Hunt implies that it might well be seen as a metaphor for human cruelty in a wider sense: if men can torment the brute creation then it is but a small step to the torture of mankind: ‘If fish were made to be so treated, then men were also made to be racked and throttled by inquisitors’ (46). The cruelty and violence which Hunt saw as inherent in the political system of post-Napoleonic Europe is symbolised in this favourite sport of the ruling caste. For the radical Hunt, angling is by implication a Tory sport, and he goes on to read seventeenth-century angling in similarly political terms. Walton’s Toryism and overtly Royalist sympathies during the Civil War are of a piece with his thoughtless and relentless cruelty. The Compleat Angler inculcates a slavish, politically quietist submission to authority:
The anglers of those times … were great fallers-in with passive obedience. They seemed to think … that the great had as much right to prey upon men, as the small had upon fishes; only the men, luckily, had not hooks put into their jaws, and the sides of their cheeks torn to pieces.46
Walton’s protégé, the poet Charles Cotton, who contributed the section on fly fishing to the final edition of The Compleat Angler (1676), is equally culpable as his master in inculcating this meek submission to the great. Hunt quotes some jovial doggerel of Cotton’s as evidence:
Indeed, among other advantages of angling, Cotton reckons up a tame, fish-like acquiescence to whatever the powerful choose to inflict.46
We scratch not our prates,
Nor repine at the rates
Our superiors impose on our living;
But do frankly submit,
Knowing they have more wit
In demanding, than we have in giving.
Whilst quiet we sit,
We conclude all things fit,
Acquiescence with hearty submission, &c.
And this was no pastoral fiction.
The Tory angler resembles a fish limp on the line, refusing to struggle and accepting of whatever fate the mighty might afford him. Here Walton’s famed ‘meekness’ is reinterpreted in ideological terms; what Walton and Cotton offer is acquiescence, quietism and submission to cruel authority.
In ‘Angling’, Leigh Hunt concludes with an ingenious variation on this theme with a final rhetorical flourish against Izaak Walton, playing the old game of reductio ad absurdum with the author of The Compleat Angler, and playing it expertly. Just as Honeycomb invites Tomkins to imagine being shot with a ‘manning-piece’, Hunt asks how would the author of what one of Wordsworth’s praise poems called a ‘gentle book’ like to be treated as he does his prey?:
Let us imagine ourselves, for instance, a sort of human fish. Air is but a rarer fluid; and at present, in this November weather, a supernatural being who should look down upon us from a higher atmosphere would have some reason to regard us as a kind of pedestrian carp. Now, fancy a Genius fishing for us. Fancy him baiting a great hook with pickled salmon, and twitching up old Isaac Walton from the banks of the river Lee with the hook through his ear. How he would go up, roaring and screaming, and thinking the devil had got him!46-7
Are but toys.
Hunt’s fine conceit is echoed in the aforementioned ‘The Choice’, a poem on the rural life which also targets angling. Hunt begins, as he did four years previously in The Indicator, by stressing the unthinking nature of the angler:
Selected Writings, VI, 26-7
Fishing I hate, because I think about it,
Which makes it right that I should do without it.
Eating fish is acceptable, but not those caught by the angler’s cruelty:
A dinner, or a death, might not be much:
But cruelty’s a rod I dare not touch.
I own I cannot see my right to feel
For my own jaws, and tear a carp’s with steel;
To troll him here and there, and spike, and strain,
And let him loose to jerk him back again.
Reverend gentlemen do not abuse their clerks with pitiless cruelty, so why should they treat fish with such implacable brutality?:
Suppose a parson at this sort of work,
Not with his carp or salmon, but his clerk:
The clerk he snatches at a tempting bit,
And, hah! an ear-ache with a knife in it!
That there is pain and evil is no rule
That I should make it greater, like a fool.
Hunt then retreats from the label ‘fools’, given the literary excellence of many fishing authors and their ‘deity’ Walton. However, perhaps this makes their implacability worse. Praising angling is a waste of literary talent, mere ‘sophistry’ which glosses over the inexcusable nature of the pursuit. Hunt imagines himself as a fish and Walton ‘tearing his face’:
Nay, ‘fool’s’ a word my pen unjustly writes,
Knowing what hearts and brains have dozed o’er ‘bites’;
The next conclusion to be drawn, might be,
That higher beings made a carp of me;
Which I would rather should not be the case,
Though ‘Izaak’ were the saint to tear my face,
And, stooping from his heaven with rod and line,
Made the damn’d sport, with his old dreams divine,
As pleasant to his taste, as rough to mine.
Such sophistry, no doubt, saves half the hell,
And fish would have preferr’d his reasoning well,
And, if my gills concern’d him, so should I.
The dog, I grant, is in that ‘equal sky’,
But, Heaven be prais’d, he’s not my deity!
Angling is no fit way to exercise; Hunt refuses to ‘rid me of my rust [in] so vile a way’. Instead, as we have seen, he vows to indulge in ‘manly play’, the noble and health-giving sports such as cricket and bowls discussed above, activities which inculcate both physical health and moral vigour and are the ethical opposite of the ‘butchering shows’ of boxing, shooting, and indeed, angling.
Blackwood’s attacks on ‘Mr Examiner Hunt’ by J. G. Lockhart and others are well known to us all, and have been brilliantly discussed in recent years by Jeffrey Cox, Nicholas Roe and Kim Wheatley and others. Borrowing the term ‘cockney’ from the Quarterly, Blackwood’s conducted an entertaining if spiteful series of attacks on Hunt, Keats and others as members of the ‘Cockney School’, that unfair though memorable notion. I want to argue here that some of the contemporary resonance of the term is rooted in the contemporary satirical tradition of the cockney sportsman, though I want to come at the debate in a slightly tangential manner by looking at a book published several decades after the Blackwood’s controversies. In The Book of the Sonnet (1867), the posthumously-published anthology upon which he collaborated with the American S. Adams Lee - a work both scrapbook and incisive critical commentary - the section on the poets of the New World praises an 1838 attempt at drollery by the American poet Park Benjamin, Sr (1809–1864), the sonnet ‘Sport’, which is quoted in full:
To see a fellow of a summer’s morning,
With a large fox-hound of a slumberous eye,
And a slim gun, go slowly lounging by,
About to give the feathered bipeds warning,
That probably they may be shot hereafter,
Excites in me a quiet kind of laughter;
For though I am no lover of the sport
Of harmless murder, yet it is to me
Almost the funniest thing on earth to see
A corpulent person breathing with a snort,
Go on a shooting frolic all alone;
For well I know that when he’s out of town,
He, and his dog, and gun will all lie down,
And undestructive sleep till game and light are flown!
‘Mr Park Benjamin’, Adams’s commentary goes, ‘was the first American, so far as I can learn, who employed the sonnet as a vehicle of humorous description’. In ‘Sport’, he declares, ‘a keen sense of the absurd and bizarre is displayed’ (I: 118).
The foolish and unathletic would-be sportsman in this sonnet, a citizen ‘out of town’ is no threat to any attendant birds. The notion of the comedic value in hapless, hopeless sportsmen, baffled and foolish out of their element, may have - like the use of the sonnet for drollery - been something novel in American literature in the 1830s, but it was certainly not new in Leigh Hunt’s homeland. From the 1780s onwards, there were a great many caricatures of the ‘sporting cit.’ or ‘cockney sportsman’, buffoons falling off horses, shooting innocent bystanders and losing control of their horses. All of the most significant caricaturists of the day - James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, the brothers Cruikshank, Robert Seymour - produced work in the genre, showing the ‘sporting frolics’ of the ridiculous bourgeoisie copying - badly - the manners of their more gentlemanly betters. Figures 1 and 2 shows examples by Gillray, ‘Hounds in Full Cry’ and ‘Cockney Sportsmen Marking Game’ (both 1800). [CAPTION FOR FIGURES: Fig. 1. James Gillray. ‘Hounds in Full Cry’. From Hounds Finding (8 April 1800); Fig. 2. James Gillray. ‘Cockney Sportsmen Marking Game’. From Cockney Sportsmen (12 November 1800).]
In the post-Napoleonic age, the most notable sporting humourist was Henry Alken (1785-1851), in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘the dominant sporting artist of the early nineteenth century’. He was also the favourite artist in this line for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine which declared in 1824 that ‘happily for England and for art, HENRY ALKEN shines, and shines like a star of the first magnitude’ (221). Witless cockneys were Alken’s favourite comic subject (figure 3 shows one of his illustrations from Ideas (1826) in which two cockneys are about to be thrown from their ‘orses). Alken also collaborated on a number of short books in which he illustrated comical verse letterpress. We might take as a particular example of his work in this area the Cockney’s Shooting Season in Suffolk, Containing the Memorable Adventures that Actually Occurred to a Young Cit on a Visit to His Friends in that Country (1822). This depicts, in graphic and verse satire, the misadventures of one Peter Pop, the son of a pawnbroker who aspires to become a sportsman: ‘To become a great shot had become his great pride’. Meeting up with a friend, the amusingly-monickered Sam Slop, the two young cits head for the country in search of sporting amusement. Pop and Slop, comical bunglers in the cockney sporters tradition - the forebears of Nathaniel Winkle - are fish out of water five miles from St Paul’s, though still utterly convinced of their sporting skills. On their first day’s hunting, they contrive to shoot their own hunting dog stone dead. On the second, they pepper with shot the boy whom they have hired as a beater, though he manages to escape with his life:
The lad was scarce mounted and fix’d in his seat,
Ere the cock was put up from its shelter’d retreat;
Whirr! Whirr! – ‘Mark that thing with long Bill!’ Peter cried,
His gun was full cock’d but at rest by his side;
He starts – by mechanical impulse his claw,
Like a goose’s contracted, the trigger does draw;
Off it goes, and the shot (an unfortunate case!)
Sadly wounds the boy’s head and disfigured his face.
‘O Lord! You have kill’d me!’ roars the young clown
And then from the bough like a stone he dropp’d down:
Cries Peter, ‘He’s dead sure enough, and I’ve made
A pretty day’s sport - would I’d stuck to my trade!’
[INSERT FIGURE 3: Henry Alken. ‘Thrown Off’. From Ideas. Accidental and Incidental to Hunting (1826). [The letterpress reads ‘My high [eye] Tom, I have an IDEA we shall soon be off, for my Orse seems to understand it. So does mine … don’t your ART beat Joe?’]
Messrs Pop and Slop are ‘Two as bright Cockney Sportsmen as ever left town’, meaning not very bright. That they have ‘left town’, and that their misadventures are outwith the sound of Bow Bells is typical, for the Londoner in those days was generally depicted as someone ill at ease outwith the metropolis. In part a ‘cockney’ meant a man out of town and the very term was sometimes defined as such; John Bellenden Ker’s The Archaeology of Our Popular Phrases (1837) declares that ‘Cockney’ is a word used of ‘a Londoner, or rather of a London citizen when in the country or from home’ (131). (Hunt knew this, writing as he did in his Autobiography of the Blackwood’s spat that ‘The jests about Londoners and Cockneys did not affect me in the least … They might as well have said that … Chaucer and Milton were Cockneys when they went out of London to lie on the grass and look at the daisies’ (405)).
‘A Cockney’, wrote John Malcolm in 1829, ‘out of London is out of his element; of all beyond its precincts he is the most ignorant of human beings … the general march of his mind as well as body has been bounded by Tower-Hill and Temple-Bar’ (188). This is certainly true in the Shooting Season, where the two dimwits discharge their pieces at an elderly lady, when taking aim, as cockneys do, at a crowd of sparrows. They are taken before the bench for this last atrocity, before Pop’s father, summoned from his shop in the metropolis, bails out his son and his imbecile companion from the country justices:
Old Pop paid the money, though sore ‘gainst the grain,
And his prodigal son came to London again;
Where he took a great oath with a gun ne’er to pop,
But, as long as life lasted, to stick to his shop.
‘Back to the shop, Mr Pop’, as Z might have said. The young men have learned, as Blackwood’s Omega might also have written, that ‘It is a better and a wiser thing to be a shopwalker at liberty than a sportsman in a country gaol’.
J. G. Lockhart, let us not forget, in the fourth ‘Cockney School’ essay, published in Blackwood’s in August 1818 urges Keats ‘Back to the shop Mr John, back to plasters, pills and ointment boxes’. Keats, he maintains, was intended for the worthy trade of apothecary but instead, ventured out of his natural element, as cockneys do, and made a mock of himself, as cockneys do. John Keats, ‘bound apprentice … in town’, has metaphorically ventured out of town, with predictably comical results. Blackwood’s cruel genius, it might be pointed out, knew what he was doing in co-opting the ‘Cockney’ slur in the fight with Leigh Hunt and his literary cohorts. We have perhaps forgotten that Lockhart summons up a then well-known sporting convention in his attacks on the metropolitans. Some of the satirical potency of Blackwood’s slight against Hunt and his cohorts - ‘cockney’ - lies in the fact that the word instantly conjured up the notion of hapless fools not knowing their place, aping their betters and constantly making a laughing stock of themselves as a consequence of their being out of their natural element. Mr John Keats should remain an apothecary and Mr Leigh Hunt take up some more ‘respectable trade’ more suitable to his talents than poetry, say man-millinery. Such menial if essential activities are what the two Londoners are best suited to; take them into the literary ‘realms of gold’ or the world of classical languages and culture and they are as lost as two clueless cockneys in a field in Suffolk.
John Strachan is Professor of English at Bath Spa University. His research interests focus on British Romanticism, with a particular attention to Romantic-era popular culture, parody and satire, literary magazines and the work of Leigh Hunt, John Keats and William Wordsworth. Strachan also works on Irish literature, especially that of the Revival period, and Irish cultural history. He is fascinated by the relationship between literature and advertising, the subject of his monographs, Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and Advertising, Literature and Print Culture in Ireland, 1891-1922 (co-written with Claire Nally; Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Boswell recalls Johnson declaring in the early 1770s that ‘I am sorry that prize-fighting is gone out; every art should be preserved, and the art of defence is surely important’. In particular, Johnson felt that boxing had real utility in inuring its participants to pain: ‘Prize-fighting made people accustomed not to be alarmed at seeing their own blood, or feeling a little pain from a wound’. Writing in the Political Register in 1805, Cobbett counselled that readers should not get ‘carried away by the cry of “Brutality”, latterly set up against boxing’. For him, pugilism is a noble and a manly sport which operates on the ‘generous principle that with the battle ceases the cause whence it arose’. Cobbett writes that it is ‘the political view of this subject which appears to me to be most worthy of attention’ and launches a jeremiad against attacks on the sport:
Commerce, Opulence, Luxury, Effeminacy, Cowardice, Slavery: these are the stages of national degradation. We are in the fourth … Of the symptoms of effeminacy none is so certain as a change from athletic and hardy sports, or exercises, to those requiring less bodily strength, and exposing the persons engaged in them to less bodily suffering; and, when this change takes place, be assured that national cowardice is at no great distance … Bravery, as indeed the word imports, consists not in a readiness to kill … but in a readiness and a capacity to venture and brave the consequences. As sports or exercises approach nearer and nearer to real combats, the greater … is our admiration.
In ‘The Choice’, Hunt envisaged himself playing golf. The author’s attachment to the sport was romantic rather than practical, however. Golf was a part of a distant but fascinating Celtic world of his imagination; in his 1833 Tait’sEdinburgh Magazine essay, ‘The World of Books’, Hunt declared that though he had never been in Scotland in a physical sense he had visited the country in his mind’s eye, ‘in the manner of a thing spiritual, our souls being pitched out of ourselves like rockets or meteors’. In this sense he was ‘intimate with the very best parts of Scotland’, its characteristic literary men and its key cultural signifiers: ‘Burns, Allan Ramsay, Walter Scott, Smollett [and] Ossian … mist, second sight, or the kirk, the cutty-stool, or golf and hurling, or the Border, or Bruce and Wallace, or bagpipes’ (I: 130). Golf is part of the cultural geography of romantic Scotland (I quote here from the essay’s republication in Men, Women and Books, 2 vols (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1847).
Even the habitual contrarian William Hazlitt had no strikingly innovative sense of what made a good sportsman arguing, with conventional opinion, that he should be ‘a fine, sensible, manly player’ such as his friend the fives nonpareil John Cavanagh, whose obituary he composed for the Examiner in 1819.
See note 1 above.
It might be pointed out that The Compleat Angler clearly attributes this poem to John Chalkhill rather than to Walton himself.
The ‘Cockney’ charge against Keats now seems foolish. However, what Z and his cohorts did not know of was demonstrable evidence of the poet’s cockneyism. In December 1818, during the composition of his mythological epic Hyperion, Keats wrote to his brother and sister-in-law George and Georgiana, then resident in the United States, recording a sporting adventure at the Vale of Health which he had undertaken with his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke: ‘I must not forget to tell you that a few days since I went with Dilke a shooting on the heath and shot a Tomtit. – There were as many guns abroad as birds’. J. G. Lockhart would have cherished the knowledge. Nearly one hundred years later, in his compendious John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame (1917), Sidney Colvin comments on this correspondence: Keats tells ‘how he has been shooting with Dilke on Hampstead Heath and shot a tomtit, - a feat which for a moment calls up this divine poet to our minds in the guise of one of the cockney sportsmen of Seymour’s caricatures. Never mind: he can afford it’ (326).
- Alken, Henry. ACockney’s Shooting Season in Suffolk, Containing the Memorable Adventures that Actually Occurred to a Young Cit on a Visit to His Friends in that Country. London: Thomas M’Lean, 1822. Print.
- Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Shelley, Keats, Hunt, and their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
- Egan, Pierce. Boxiana. London: Smeeton, 1812. Print.
- Hazlitt, William. Complete Works. Ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. Toronto: Dent, 1930-4. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘A Country Lodging. Dialogue with a Sportsman’. New Monthly Magazine, 10 (October 1825), 323-32. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘An Earth upon Heaven’. The Companion (1828), 161-65. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘Angling’. Indicator (17 November 1819), 44-7. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. A Saunter through the West End. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1861. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘Christmas and other old National Merry-Makings’. Examiner (21 December 1817), 802. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘Cricket and Exercise in General (Written in May)’. Leigh Hunt’s London Journal. 8 (21 May 1834), 57. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘Cricket, Tennis, Fives and Bowling’. Leigh Hunt’s London Journal. 8 (July 1834), 108. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh, Men, Women and Books. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1847. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. ‘Recollections of Cricket’. Leigh Hunt’s London Journal 8 (21 May 1834), 58-9. Print.
- Hunt, Leigh. Selected Writings. Gen. eds Robert Morrison and Michael Eberle-Sinatra. 6 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003. Print.
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