'The Wit in the Dungeon': Leigh Hunt and the Insolent Politics of Cockney Coteries [Notice]

  • Greg Kucich

…plus d’informations

  • Greg Kucich
    University of Notre Dame

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. 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. 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'. 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. 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. 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. 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: 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 …

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