Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School presents the second generation English Romantics as a 'single school' of writers and painters centred in the eighteen-teens on Leigh Hunt, Hampstead and London. Well-known associates of Hunt like Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, Vincent Novello, Charles and Mary Lamb, Horace Smith, and Benjamin Haydon all sought deliberately at various times to relate themselves to 'group endeavours'. But Jeffrey Cox alerts us to the much wider gathering that shared Hunt as 'chief organiser', including Hunt's brothers John and Robert, Hunt's sister-in-law Elizabeth ('Bessy') Kent, John Hamilton Reynolds, Charles Brown, the Ollier brothers, Horace and James Smith, Charles and Mary (Novello) Cowden Clarke, Barry Cornwall, 'I.C.T.', Thomas Alsager, Thomas Barnes, Thomas Love Peacock, Acrasia Wragg, William Hazlitt, Edward Holmes, Cornelius Webb, William Godwin, Charles Dilke, Barron Field, Joseph Severn - and still more.
By appearing collaboratively in publications like The Round Table, and concertedly in journals like The Reflector, The Examiner, The Indicator and The Liberal, Hunt and his associates were readily identified by contemporaries as a distinct coterie. This is apparent from evidence internal to the group such as Hunt's announcement of a 'new school' in his 'Young Poets' essay (Examiner 1 December 1816), from Reynolds's observation - in defence of Keats - that 'we live far from the world of letters' (Examiner, 11 October 1818, my emphasis), and from external perceptions like Z's 'Cockney School' essays in Blackwood's Magazine and other hostile notices that Jeffrey Cox documents in detail. Having established 'the contemporary insistence that these writers - whom we see as offering different visions and verse - were part of a single school' (p. 20), Cox proposes that many of their productions will speak to us most forcefully if heard in relation to the group associated with Leigh Hunt. Meticulous research enables Cox to recover in detail the social presence of poems which circulated in manuscripts, in letters, in albums, and commonplace books; together the poems make up a literary community which 'recreate[es] in the text', as Cox says, 'the bonds - personal, poetic, political - that held the group together in life' (p. 72).
Obvious examples of this 'lived intertextuality' are Hunt's sonnet-writing competitions on themes like Grasshoppers and Crickets, and the River Nile. These have been cited as evidence of Hunt's shallow, dilettantish taste as a poet - usually by way of affirming Shelley's or Keats's poetic greatness. But Cox argues that they were much more than parlour games; 'they suggest instead', he writes, a 'connection between the verse of the Hunt circle and the lived life' giving rise to a poetry of genial rivalry but also of social 'companionship' and shared ideals (p. 66). Much more ambitiously Cox argues that canonical Romantic texts like Prometheus Unbound and Ode on a Grecian Urn should be read not as uniquely original ('Romantic') poems nor as the transcendent retreats of 'Romantic Ideology', but as 'High Cockney' - that is, intensely socialised poetry contributing to 'generic experiments and ideological arguments' shared among writers associated with Hunt (p. 14). Elsewhere, in volumes like Keats's 1817 Poems, or Hunt's brilliant collection, Foliage (1818), a much wider, public readership was drawn into the 'socialized, collaborative, [and] interactive' culture of the Cockneys.
One of the Hunt circle writers was the now forgotten poet, Cornelius 'man about town' Webb, regarded by contemporary reviewers as every bit as promising as young Johnny Keats. Webb's sonnet 'Queen-beauty of the night' is quoted in full by Cox on page sixteen. Here is the poem:
QUEEN-BEAUTY of the Night - pale and alone -
Eye not so coldly Love's brief happiness;
But look as once when thou didst leave thy throne,
In garb and gait a sylvan huntress,
And with bright, buskined limbs, through dew and flowers,
Lightly, on sprightly feet and agile, bounded,
With fawn-like leaps, among the Latmian bowers;
While the wide dome of farthest heaven resounded
With the shrill shouts of thee and thy nymph-rovers,
When the hard chace of victory was won,
And changed Actaeon by his hound was torn.
But then thou hadst not seen Endymion,
Nor knew the pain and coldness of his scorn; -
Yet, if thy love was dear to thee, be dear to lovers!
Webb's 'sylvan huntress', 'fawn-like leaps' and 'Latmian bowers' are tokens of the cockney classicism developed at full-length in Keats's Endymion; also typical of Endymion is the Keatsy roundaboutness of 'changed Actaeon by his hound was torn'. There seem to be verbal anticipations of 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' in Webb's sonnet too, suggesting that the poetic relationship of Keats and Webb was by no means all one-way (with Webb the debtor). Is it possible that Keats to some extent had modelled his own lyrical voice on Webb's? Perhaps Keats's readiness to dismiss Webb, when he heard they had both been targeted by Z, arose not from his sense of Webb's inferiority as a poet but from Keats's awareness of their 'sylvan' affinity.
Cox alerts us to the efforts of scholars to distance Keats from Hunt (and Webb), by way of ensuring Keats's singular status as a canonical English romantic poet. He argues that we need to see beyond the differences of class and economics (pp. 47-52) to comprehend how 'deeply tied' - in personal, poetic and intellectual terms - Keats, Byron, and Shelley were to Hunt. Certainly, Hunt was unstinting in his support for Shelley after the death of Harriet Westbrook, and for Byron during the trials of his separation. Generous in his personal relationships, Hunt was also the most prominent and active representative of a cultural avant-garde 'offering in its own communal organisation a model for a society remade' (p. 61).
Second generation romanticism emerges in Jeffrey Cox's book as 'the Hunt era'. Hunt's public profile was highest in the Examiner newspaper, and this year the fifteen-volume Pickering and Chatto facsimile reprint of the Examiner (1808-1822) has been completed with the appearance of the five volumes for 1818-1822. In the Examiner Hunt functioned as a cultural impresario whose political journalism and literary experiments were widely and productively influential. In the period 1818-1822 the Examiner continued its blend of political - literary commentary, publishing Shelley's 'Ozymandias' (11 January 1818) and an extract from The Revolt of Islam (25 January 1818), reporting Hazlitt's Surrey Institution lectures, and reviewing Keats's Lamia volume (30 July 1820), and Shelley's Revolt of Islam, Rosalind and Helen, and Prometheus Unbound (1 February 1818; 9 May 1819; 16 and 23 June 1822). Such literary contributions often amounted to an imaginative interpretation of Hunt's and Hazlitt's political journalism. For example, on 1 February 1818 Hunt published a leading article, 'The Speech', attacking the Lord Chancellor's 'State of the Nation' address for failing to confront the alarming state of the country and international affairs:
What do we learn of any actual circumstances or questions between the Foreign Powers and us, by being told of their 'strong assurances' of friendliness? What are the grounds of confidence in the stability of our resources, in the mere expression of that confidence? What of improvements of our condition, and defeat of the machinations of the disaffected?
In the same issue Hunt included a second sonnet entitled 'Ozymandias', this one being written by Horace Smith:
In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desart knows: -
'I am great OZYMANDIAS', saith the stone,
'The King of Kings; this mighty city shows
'The wonders of my hand.' - The City's gone, -
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, - and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
The 'gigantic Leg' apparently identifies George III as Smith's 'King of Kings': George was held to have remarkably robust legs, and was also something of a hunter. With the help of the Pickering facsimile edition of the Examiner, we can see how Smith's response to Shelley also answers Hunt's leading article on the 'groundless confidence' of the government by looking forward - like Anna Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven- to a time when 'unrecorded', 'annihilated' Georgian London will be but a 'wild surmise'.
William Hazlitt wrote in the Examiner, 15 December 1816, 'The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves'. The 'social poetry' which characterised the epistles and sonnets in Poems, by John Keats was a confident, joyful, frequently an erotic affirmation of liberalism - against the 'despondency' of post-Napoleonic England, and the white room (with black curtains) of egotistical, ascetic Christianity in Wordsworth's Excursion. Informing the argument in the third chapter of Jeffrey Cox's book is work by Marilyn Butler, David Pirie and others, although Cox has fresh insights about the politics and poetics of the poem which opens the 1817 volume. The posey/poesy of 'luxuries bright, milky, soft and rosy' in 'I stood tip-toe' is a sensual, sensational Keatsy polemic: by awakening imagination and passionate, sensual energy, Keats's poetry of community and 'erotic contact' reanimates the 'bodily frame' that Wordsworth's poetry - at least since 1798 - had sought to 'lay asleep' in order to become a 'living soul'. But Keats's early poems are not just a quarrel with Wordsworth; rather, as Cox says, 'through the pleasure we take in the world [Keats's poetry] images the way back into a society made new through pleasure, a society remade through sexual love, not political violence' (p. 121). The Cockney School, in this sense, foreshadowed 1960's 'swinging London': at the Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert in 1969 Mick Jagger commemorated Brian Jones, the 'pale flower' of his own group, by reading in amplified, estuary English Shelley's Adonais.
In focusing on the period following Napoleon's abdication, April 1814, Cox's fourth chapter investigates 'mythologising drama' in the Hunt circle as less of 'a rejection of the stage [than] an attempt to remake it' (p. 124) through recourse to 'alternative sources of cultural authority'. Hunt led the way with his Descent of Liberty, written while he was incarcerated south of the river in his Spenserian cell at Surrey County Gaol. Cox is surely right to stress that Hunt's situation here was less dilettantish than heroic, an attempt to 'create - in life as well as in vision - a utopia of peace in a world at war, of pleasure in a culture of money-getting, of communality in a society deeply divided' (p. 145). The Descent of Liberty opened the way for Mary Shelley's Midas and Proserpine, 'dramatic sketches' of various kinds by Barry Cornwall, Horace Smith's Amarynthus the Nympholept and Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. In drawing attention to the 'countercultural' possibilities of the masque as suited to the wider aims of the Hunt circle - especially civic and erotic liberty - Cox shows how the form was adapted to 'extend the cultural franchise, cultural literacy, across traditional boundaries'. By way of substantiating the group enterprise, he links Smith's Amarynthus with Hunt's and Keats's efforts to redress Wordsworthian despondency and Coleridgean abstraction through the pretty paganism of 'social mirth, / And unpolluted human happiness' (Amarynthus, I.1). A striking account of Prometheus Unbound shows how Shelley's lyrical drama was the 'culmination' of the Hunt circle's exploration of mythological drama, and that its rhythm and movement were derived from Hunt's masque of 1814.
Cox's fifth chapter, 'Cockney Classicism: History with Footnotes', responds to Cleanth Brooks's a-historical approach to Keats with a close reading of Ode on a Grecian Urn in relation to the eroticised (Catullan) classicism and 'fair attitudes' of Emma Hamilton's scandalous 'poses plastiques'. Rowlandson's caricatures of Emma Hamilton (illustrated in some happily accommodating attitudes) place Keats's classicism is relation to the wider testing of the boundary between the erotic and the pornographic. In what is very much a tour de force of historicist reading, Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn is situated in relation to contemporary mass-market reproductions of classical art (like the Wedgwood 'Portland Vase', and Tassie's Gems), as 'part of the Cockney School's attempt to define the classic as the pagan, the passionate, and the politically radical' (p. 185).
By giving close scholarly and imaginative attention to the Hunt circle, this outstanding book has recovered fresh and at times startling personal and cultural contexts for later English Romanticism. Major poets like Hunt, Keats, and Shelley are replaced alongside contemporary writers long-since lost to us - many of whom are still unrepresented in recent, revisionary anthologies of Romanticism. In 1821 Shelley was keen to reassemble the Hunt circle at Pisa, and to direct its political-literary energies into the Liberal magazine. The plan did not work, for reasons which we all know. But in the reading of Adonais, which concludes Jeffrey Cox's book, Shelley is summoned by Adonais/Keats to give universal life to the ideals of the Hunt circle. Leigh Hunt's 'social smile', the inspiring sociable focus of the group, now appears as a radiant force, the 'Light whose smile kindles the Universe'. Suburban Hampstead and Hunt's home in the Vale of Health prove at last to be the scene of Elysium, where
burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.