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When Leigh Hunt looked back upon the cultural scene of early-nineteenth-century Britain in his 1850 Autobiography, he still felt the intense grip of the Cockney/Laker school wars and proudly declared his continuing membership in what he called the 'illustrious . . . Cockney school of poetry,' whose ancestry he traced to Milton, Spenser, and Chaucer. [1] That recollection, summoned long after the cessation of print hostilities and when most of the figures once prominent in both so-called 'schools' were deceased, reveals how deeply the concept and actual practices of coterie dynamics conditioned the shape of Romanticism's literary culture. Recent critiques of the Romantic ideology of solitary genius have provoked a keen critical interest in these communal modes of cultural fashioning, particularly as they assembled around oppositional representations of the Lake School and what we are beginning to identify as its Cockney Other. Important new studies by Nicholas Roe and Jeffrey Cox have demonstrated, in fact, that recognizing the Cockney alternative as a forceful if loosely defined community gathered around Hunt can substantially modify our understanding of the overall formation of Romantic cultural history. Cox expands considerably on his article discussions of the importance of Cockneyism and Romantic coterie culture in his new book, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and their Circle. Other useful recent studies of Hunt and Cockney controversies, though not focused specifically on the politics of Cockney coterie dynamics, include essays by Wheatley, Wu, and de Montluzin. [2] Much as we are learning about the significance of Cockney dynamics, however, many of the group's material forms of interaction remain unexamined, prompting Jeffrey Cox in a recent essay on 'Keats in the Cockney School' to call for a 'Cockney class reunion'. [3] Notwithstanding the uproarious disposition of such a prospect, Cox has pointed out in another recent essay an intriguing scholarly focus for this enterprise—the extravagantly decorated prison cell where Hunt staged what might be considered the introductory sessions of the Cockney School. [4] The outlandish coterie gatherings in Hunt's cell during the two-year period of his incarceration for political libel (3 February 1813-3 February 1815) are usually dismissed as part of an amusing but rather trivial and dilettantish literary legend. [5] I would like to reassess that fantastic scene in the dungeon, suggesting how its activities helped foster a group identity and a cultural project that strongly affected the course of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century while establishing an important model of progressive gender relations among the period's second generation of writers.

Many students of British Romanticism will be familiar with the details of Hunt's prison experience, but their incredible character merits at least a brief rehearsal. [6] On 22 March 1812, Hunt culminated a series of provocative attacks on the Tory government in The Examiner with a scathing outburst against the flagrant vices of the Prince Regent, who had just been praised fulsomely by the Morning Post as a 'Conqueror of hearts' . . . 'Exciter of desire,' an 'Adonis in loveliness.' In response to this sycophantic excess, Hunt thundered:

What person, unacquainted with the true state of the case, would imagine, in reading these astounding eulogies, that this 'Glory of the People' was the subject of millions of shrugs and reproaches! . . . this 'Exciter of desire'—this 'Adonis in loveliness', was a corpulent man of fifty!—in short, this delightful, blissful, wise, pleasurable, honourable, virtuous, true, and immortal prince, was a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who had just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country, or the respect of posterity! [7]

22 March 1812, p. 179

This memorable diatribe enabled the government, which had already brought several ineffective prosecutions against The Examiner, to engineer a successful case of political libel against Hunt and his brother John, printer and co-proprietor of The Examiner. With an egregiously biased Chief Justice, Lord Ellenborough, presiding over the case, the Hunts were sentenced on 3 February 1813 to two years in separate prisons, commencing that very day, and fined 500 pounds each along with an equal amount as security against their good behavior for five years after their release. The stiffness of the penalty genuinely shocked Hunt, and he passed several agonizing weeks at the start of his incarceration mostly alone in a dingy cell at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Surrey. By mid-March, however, he moved to a two-room suite in the prison infirmary, where he was allowed to resettle his family and receive visitors. This move inspired him to become the Prospero of the Gaol, transforming his outer room into an aesthetic bower of bliss featuring wall paper of trellised roses, a sky-blue painted ceiling dotted with meandering clouds, Venetian blinds over the barred windows, wall portraits of Milton and John Hunt, a lute, a piano forte, busts of poets, multiple bookcases, couches, and flowers, flowers everywhere. 'There was not a handsomer room on that side the water,' Hunt proclaimed, and Charles Lamb declared 'there was no other such room except in a fairy tale' (Autobiography 243). To complete the effect of enchantment, Hunt turned the small yard outside of this room into a pleasure garden, bordered by green palings adorned with a trellis and stocked profusely with scarlet-runners, young trees, and what Hunt called the abundance of a 'flowery investment' (Autobiography 244). Thus ensconced in this improbable haven of aesthetic delight, the 'amazing prisoner,' as Hunt christened himself (Autobiography 246), took one of his greatest pleasures in the flabbergasted looks of nearly everyone who glanced in, including the head gaoler, Ives, who repeatedly gaped at the entire astonishing scene and the equally spectacular parade of visitors trooping into it.

They came in droves—relatives, friends, liberal sympathizers—partly out of concern for Hunt's well-being and partly because his fantastic cell quickly became something like the fashionable place to be seen in reformist circles; and their antic behavior further enriched the preposterous character of the scene. Prominent figures like Bentham, Brougham, Byron, Haydon, Hazlitt, Moore, Edgeworth, the Lambs, John Scott, and Sir John Swinburne regularly joined Hunt's family members, various relatives, friends, and former Christ's Hospital schoolmates in meals, conversation, children's games, poetry readings, music, singing, and drinking late into the night. Visitors often did not leave until the 10 PM curfew, when they frequently went on to continue the soiree at the nearby home of the journalist Thomas Alsager. It was not even uncommon for some to spend the night, sprawling on the sofas as if the cell were, in the words of a recent Hunt biographer, 'a tolerant lodging house'. [8] The pace of these prison revels grew breathtaking at times, with multiple parties of visitors dropping in throughout the day and Hunt presiding over it all with a brilliant vivacity whose renown inspired Byron to dash off these epistolary lines of doggerel to Tom Moore in anticipation of his own first visit to Horsemonger Lane Gaol:

But now to my letter—to yours 'tis an answer—

Tomorrow be with me, as soon as you can sir,

Already dress'd for proceeding to sponge on

(According to compact) the wit in the dungeon. [9]

With Byron, Moore, and so many other brilliant guests joining the sparkling salon of this incarcerated 'wit'—while others, like Shelley, participated vicariously through letters or, like a very young Keats, by hearing about the phenomenon from friends and reading about it in the Examiner pages—Hunt's outrageous dungeon brought together some of the essential ingredients and many of the core personalities of what eventually became known as the Cockney School of Poetry and Politics. Accounts of the prison ambience look remarkably similar, in fact, to the convivial scene at Hunt's Vale of Health Hampstead cottage that Keats memorably recorded several years later at the end of Sleep and Poetry.

Now much as Byron and others admired 'the wit in the dungeon,' there is more than a little dismissive irony in the moniker; Byron also considered the incarcerated Hunt something of a dandified charlatan, calling him 'Sir Oracle,' and it is not difficult to see why generations of bemused scholars have passed over the dungeon interlude lightly. For those suspicious of Romantic ideology, Hunt's aesthetic frolics within the government's site of discipline might seem like a primary embodiment of Romantic escapism. There was much more substance and political self-consciousness to Hunt's prison experience, however, than the decorative excess and revelry might imply. Confinement also visited great physical and emotional trauma upon him, which moved him to make copious markings of descriptions of 'hard distresse' in his copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene, now located in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library. [10] The most heavily marked sequences in these volumes trace Redcrosse's miserable decay of body and spirit beginning in his 'dungeon deep' (FQ 1.9.45) and worsening in the Cave of Despair. Hunt never stopped blaming a viciously unjust government for his own sorrows in prison, and his implacable determination to resist political tyranny informed much of his prison experience, including his most highly aestheticized indulgences. Although his love of Spenserian luxuries was notorious by this time, inspiring Keats to imagine him in prison dreamily straying through Spenser's 'bowers fair, / Culling enchanted flowers' ('Written on the Day that Leigh Hunt left Prison' 9-10), he spent considerable time making extensive notes in his Spenser volumes on the insidious despotism of Queen Elizabeth's government. This preoccupation with political malfeasance drove his weekly contributions to the Examiner, which he poured out, remarkably enough, throughout his incarceration in relentless attacks upon Britain's legal and political institutions. It also helped motivate a striking burst of poetic productivity sustained throughout the prison years, much of which, like The Descent of Liberty and The Story of Rimini, assails repressive social and political hierarchies. If Hunt cultivated mirth and aesthetic luxury for his prison coterie, he also integrated those pleasures into a 'culture of dissent,' as that term is understood in Nicholas Roe's groundbreaking book on Keats's political contexts. To trace the modes in which Hunt's prison dissent took shape, particularly through its aesthetic eccentricities, is thus to recover an important blueprint for the strategies of Cockney poetry and politics.

The most characteristic attitude of dissent Hunt cultivated in prison entailed a kind of gleeful, luxurious insolence toward Power projected from margins that lay provocatively close to institutional centers. Hunt was always attracted to the marginal status of cultural outsiders, fascinated particularly by his own family's Caribbean background and his father's renegade politics and religion; and largely because hostile reviewers tried to exile him to social and class hinterlands, we often identify him and Cockney culture generally with distantly marginal spaces perilously inhabited in an iron time of conservative political retrenchment. But the kind of marginality Hunt cultivated, usually with cocky, aestheticized impertinence, brought him right into the centers of authority and establishment where he did not ostensibly belong. [11] That sense of transgressive social positioning may have originated with his childhood experience in debtor's prison, which produced his earliest memories. But it certainly took hold at Christ's Hospital school, where he developed early strategies of insubordination, through aesthetic indulgence, to the established practices of fagging and the prescribed regimens of study. When his masters tormented him with dull translation exercises and pompous lectures on 'pig iron,' he took 'comfort' and 'consolation,' as he later recalled, in furtive snatches of Spenser, Collins, and Gray, which he deliciously consumed as if they were 'buttered crumpets' (Autobiography 77). Christ's Hospital, itself, as Hunt liked to regard it, was an upstart institution in its own right, boasting a long heritage going back to the reign of Edward the Sixth and a distinguished pedigree of graduates yet historically chartered as a charity school and comprising a student body of mostly poor, unprivileged boys. Hunt identified strongly with the intermediate status of this institution, intrigued by its physical proximity to Newgate Prison and its cultural function as an entryway to university and professional careers. He also linked himself to an imagined, highly cultivated community of graduates who achieved a similarly liminal status in their public careers, noting in his copy of The Faerie Queene, for instance, that Spenser, as an impoverished child, had probably gone to Christ's Hospital before acquiring fame within an Elizabethan court that simultaneously honored and abused him. [12] This type of sustained self-fashioning as a kind of insidiously marginal insider became realized in a full-blown material form of insolence with Hunt's first steady job, a clerkship in the government's War Office, which he incredibly managed to hold onto for a year while lambasting government policy in The Examiner.

Hunt's incarceration, then, undesirable as it may have been in some ways, provided an opportunity for a broader, even more dramatic realization of this identity as an insolent insider. Confined within the bowels of government, he could mobilize audacious excesses of aesthetic delight and raucous sociability to push against the pressures of state discipline - a maneuver that Roe and Cox have traced in the republican politics of his exuberantly lush nature poetry, his 'leafy bowers.' That Hunt self-consciously formulated this mode of impertinent dissent during his years inside may be gathered from the Examiner essays that punctuated and publicized his insolent stance in jail, of which the following example is pointedly representative. Less than two weeks after he entered prison, Hunt fired off another Examiner attack on the venal excesses of the Prince Regent and the corrupt protection afforded by his ministers, followed by this wonderfully provoking allegory:

[In] the land of Geniie, where every living creature was gifted with speech . . . there was a territory governed by a sultan of the name of Jee-Awj, who had under him a counsellor . . . called El-En-Burrah. . . . [The sultan] was a Raic [and] the counsellor a sycophant [who promoted] this remarkable maxim above all others; that it was better to poison than to say anything against poisoning. Now the Prince unfortunately met him on this ground, for he had a way of amusing himself with scattering a certain strong poison called Badex-Ampel in a river near his palace, the fishes of which were daily infected by it. The effect at last became so violent, that two of them, who had a knack of speaking their minds, could no longer forbear, but rising on the surface of the water, delivered themselves after this manner:—'. . . if he goes on in this manner, this whole territory may be infected, and he himself die by the contagion. . . . [W]e think it necessary to advise him ourselves, and do accordingly protest, as strongly as fishes can, against his continuance of this fatal amusement.' Jee-Awj was astonished at this remonstrance. . . .

14 February 1813, pp.98-99

This extraordinary conceit of the piscatory Hunt brothers, eyes bulging, rising from the deep to harangue Jee-Awj with eloquent political protests, takes on the special character of the insolent insider when linked to Leigh Hunt's previous Examiner critique of a lavish banquet for the Regent featuring an elaborately constructed display on the dinner table of a cascading rivulet stocked with live fish. Such a play of allusions thus figures a shocked Regent, amid all the appurtenances of royal splendor, getting hailed as 'Jee-Awj' and then slimed by articulate Cockney fish. Add to that Hunt's mock apology to Lord Ellenborough a few weeks earlier for 'disturb[ing]' his Sunday breakfast with an Examiner attack (6 December 1812, p. 769), and we can begin to see how Hunt fashioned his prison cell, his political identity, and his overall dissenting practices in terms of aesthetically fantastic, mocking intrusions on the innermost centers, the stomach, of established and astonished authority.

That the strategy caused various kinds of upset is evident from the outraged responses to what Hunt's political enemies, from Lord Ellenborough to Z, repeatedly decried as so many forms of impudent intrusiveness: Hunt's 'audacious arrogance,' his 'shameless irreverence,' his 'vulgar insolence,' his 'pert' loquaciousness,' his 'shocking levity,' his 'bold front,' his offensive incursions into private spaces like the family home and the bedchamber (R 84, 86, 85, 81, 51, 88, 84; The Examiner, 20 December 1812, p. 801). [13] Z clearly associated this insolent disposition with Hunt's extravagant behavior in prison and the aesthetic extremism of the poetry he produced there, repeatedly chastising the 'indecent attitudes' of his poetry and his vociferous refusal to keep quiet 'repentance' within 'the solitude of a cell' (R 58, 83, 86, 81). The specific cultural threat posed by this 'noisy' (R 82) intruder registers in Z's relentless harangues against the very image of the flagrantly excessive, insolent insider that Hunt had shaped for himself in Horsemonger Lane Gaol: he appears variously in Blackwood's Cockney School reviews as a 'vulgar man . . . perpetually labouring to be genteel'; a gawking subordinate who manages to 'look for a moment from the antichamber into the saloon'; a 'puny drunkard at a village wake, "shewing fight" to a sober man'; a 'wicked Cockney' who insinuates himself into the pages of reputable journals; 'a city lady looking down at a dinner from the gallery at Guildhall'; 'a kept-mistress' putting on false airs amid respectable company (R 50, 82, 89, 57, 86). Despite the scornful tone of these caricatures, Z's compulsive habit of imagining Hunt's ubiquitous and seemingly uncontainable violations of social, class, and sexual boundaries suggests just how deeply his brand of insider insolence—'ever thrusting itself,' as Z complained, 'upon the public attention' (R 51)—galled his political opponents.

What seemed to disturb them the most was the parodic manner of his insolent intrusiveness, the insidious 'mockery' and 'sarcasms' denounced by Z (R 56, 83), which frequently closed the gap with authority even tighter in order to undermine its superiority and legitimacy. The kangaroo court in prison, with all of its excesses, deliberately functioned as a parody of Jee-Awj's court and ministry, a point Hunt emphasized in his many Examiner critiques of government 'burlesque,' 'puns,' 'theatrical effort[s],' 'unwholesome shews,' 'licentious example[s]' (20 December 1812, p. 802; 18 April 1813, p.241; 25 July 1813, p.467). His 'flowery investment' in prison, much as he may have genuinely relished it, was strategically artificial, part of a pattern of what he called 'ruralities' [14] that mocked the still greater and even more artificial court extravaganzas. These mockeries not only dissolved political distinctions and hierarchies, they also implicitly highlighted critical differences between court and Cockney revels, much to the disadvantage of the government. For the prison shows were built out of music, painting, poetry, and the heroic traditions of republican politics. At the bottom of government theatricals, as Hunt portrayed them, lay nothing but poisoned fish, cantankerous Cockneys, and a disenchanted populace. It is probably because of these disturbing insinuations that Z labored so intensively to restore the distinctions that Hunt collapsed, pinning the very terms of the Examiner critiques of government—'vulgar,' 'infected,' 'artificial,' 'licentious,' 'effeminate'—back on Hunt. [15] But Z's reliance on Hunt's own language suggests, as Kim Wheatley insightfully argues, how difficult it was to escape from Cockney parody. Calling Hunt the 'King of the Cockneys' (R 80) only reinforced those dungeon mockeries of legitimate royalty. And the powerful impact of that doubling consequence, which Wheatley traces throughout Z's paranoid rhetoric, suggests how politically unsettling Hunt's mode of insider insolence could become.

Recognizing how pervasively that strategy informed the poetry as well as the political journalism Hunt wrote in jail can help resolve one of the most contentious issues in current debates about Cockney aesthetics and second-generation Romanticism—the degree to which Hunt's poetic eccentricities conduct political critiques through interrelated subversive strategies adapted by other members of his circle, particularly Keats. Arguing for the disruptive political character of the masque Hunt composed in prison, The Descent of Liberty, Jeffrey Cox maps a series of poetic and political inversions very similar to the kind of insider parodies I have outlined. Hunt inhabits an aristocratic poetic genre, the masque, in order to unsettle its hierarchical literary and political structures, making the antimasque commoners—a group of shepherds—the dignified heroes rather than the comic buffoons of the piece. He accomplishes these reversals with high Cockney bravura, moreover, by situating the fantastic machinery of the masque in a 'suburb[an] . . . pleasure ground'—read Hampstead, or the prison garden—while featuring himself as one of the principal shepherds, Philaret, who bounds over a 'stile'—one of Hunt's favorite Hampstead activities—to join the group celebrating the end of political tyranny. [16] Hunt performs a similar kind of strategic parody in the puns, jaunty rhymes, spry neologisms, and loosened couplets of his other major prison poem, The Story of Rimini, all of which excesses intrude upon the stateliness of the poem's formal measure, the heroic couplet, while forwarding various critiques of aristocratic hierarchy and established moral propriety. Roe and Cox, following the earlier work of William Keach, have made controversial arguments for the political substance of these stylistic eccentricities and their strategic incorporation into both early and later poems by Keats. If we trace such practices back to the communal setting of Hunt's prison, we can more fully appreciate their political vigor and better determine how widely they infiltrated not only Cockney coterie writing but also the defensive imaginations of Blackwood's reviewers and government ministers.

Perhaps the most far-reaching theoretical implications of such a revisionary approach to Cockneys in jail involves the way Hunt's destabilizing methods also tested his era's conventional gender boundaries—one of the major sources of uneasiness for Z, as Susan Wolfson has recently argued, [17] manifested in recurrent tirades against the effeminacy of Hunt and Keats. Now Hunt's record on gender relations is far from unproblematic, given his domineering treatment of his wife, his interests in other women—particularly his sister-in-law—and his frequent recourse to charges of effeminacy for his own political critiques of aristocratic men. However, his general tendency in prison to confuse divisions of rank and prestige included provocative blurrings of gender distinctions. His published complaints of illness and nervousness in jail, for instance, placed him in a feminized position he always associated with his mother's frail bodily constitution. His pronounced cultivation of family routines in jail whose details of spousal affection, parental fondness, even childbirth he assiduously featured in The Examiner, centered him throughout his incarceration, despite all the Cockney revels, in a feminized, domestic space. In fact, his strongest outcries against the government arose from his initial anguish at the prospect of enforced separation from his wife and children. To 'one . . . who is accustomed to have his wife and children constantly with him, hardly ever out of his sight,' he announced in his first Examiner essay from prison, 'the very idea of solitary hours is a blow that may reasonably shake the better part of his nature' (7 February 1813, p. 83). Hunt's integrations of domestic concerns with discussions of public policy in The Examiner became habitual during the prison years, actually dominating the paper throughout the 1813 crisis in the royal marriage and thus establishing one of Romanticism's strongest working models for the kind of family politic Mary Wollstonecraft had envisioned back in the early 1790s. 'It should be the great end of the English nation, and . . . it has always been the peculiar object of this journal,' Hunt summarized on 13 June 1813, 'to keep the public interests and the domestic feelings of the community identified as much as possible' (p. 369). That object, lived out on a daily basis in the editorial office of The Examiner at the Hunt family home in Horsemonger Lane Gaol, put the Cockney School, whatever its biases and limitations, near the vanguard of the progressive gender politics of its time. How our recognition of that positioning may affect our reading of the gender dynamics of second-generation Romanticism on the whole, and particularly within the Hunt-Shelley-Byron-Keats circles that grew out of Horsemonger Lane, remains one of the most, among many, compelling incentives to stage a Cockney class reunion in jail.