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The Romantic period was a time of unprecedented social mobility when a newly forged class of people —the middling sort—attempted to move up the professional and political ladder. With their growing economic power and presence, the affluent commercial middle classes had been struggling for hegemony throughout the eighteenth century. Their social ambition was, not surprisingly, met with furious objections from the established strata of society. While the new middling and mercantile people laid claim to political and cultural legitimacy, the old gentry and aristocracy loudly denounced them as parvenus. In the first age of an information explosion when an increasing number of books, journals, pamphlets and newspapers were published daily, the ideological battle for cultural supremacy between the upwardly mobile new middle class and the traditional elite took the form of paper warfare. Such a war of words was impregnated, almost without exception, with a particular language—that is, gendered language.

Take, for example, the eighteenth-century controversy over the idea and ideology of luxury. [1] As the locus of the fierce ideological class struggle, the concept of luxury had then undergone a drastic revaluation. Whereas luxury was identified with sin and depravity in the classical and early Christian paradigm, it came to be regarded as a positive good in eighteenth-century England. As the nation changed into a modern consumer society with the expansion of the capitalist mode of production, the meaning of luxury became divested of its associations with degeneracy, and transformed to an admirable end in itself. Defenders of luxury, including Daniel Defoe, Bernard Mandeville, David Hume and Adam Smith, tried to downplay the moral dangers of luxury to foreground its economic and thus public benefits, arguing that luxury could increase and redistribute wealth, and ultimately contributed to the prosperity of the nation. Since the dramatic rise in luxurious consumption throughout the eighteenth century was predominantly a bourgeois phenomenon, those defenders of luxury were also defenders of the commercial ethos of the new middle class. However, the classical ethics of luxury did not by any means become extinct. In classical and Christian thought, luxury was indicted for fostering effeminacy and thus undermining individual morality and social order. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the first woman Eve committed the archetypal sin of luxury (that fatally led to the Fall of Man). Thus gendered as feminine and identified with transgression, luxury was considered to corrupt, indeed effeminise, moral, military and masculine virtue. In order to curb the surge in the pecuniary and political power of the mercantile middle class, upholders of the traditional social order fully exploited this moralistic view of luxury, attacking the trading people for their excessive luxury and the consequent effeminacy.

Thus while the concept of luxury was changing 'from an essential, general element of moral theory to a minor, technical element of economic theory' (Sekora 112), luxury's associations with effeminacy, enervation, envy and all sorts of evils continued to be widespread. In his English Malady (1833), George Cheyne argued that the middle and upper classes were equally afflicted by the peculiarly English—luxury-induced —disease consisting of such nervous disorders as madness, melancholia, weakness and effeminacy. Indeed, the political struggle between the traditional ruling class and the upwardly mobile middle class was often conducted as 'a moral debate in which each attacked the other for its ''luxury''' (Sekora 113). Defoe, champion of the mercantile middle class, censured 'the upper Part of Mankind' for its 'Pride, Luxury, Ambition and Envy'. [2] In the eyes of Defoe, the gentry and aristocracy were debased and debilitated by the luxury of land and leisure. From the viewpoint of landed men, however, tradesmen were effeminised and corrupted by an excess of new money. In defence, Defoe strenuously maintained that tradesmen were virtuous and vigorous men of labour, in marked contrast to the idle and effeminate men of land. In his Complete English Tradesman (1726), Defoe presented the mercantile people as the 'trading gentry' comprised of sturdy, industrious, and manly citizens.

Like Defoe, Edmund Burke also eagerly sought to vindicate the manly and moral integrity of tradesmen. He published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757; with an added introduction, 1759) in the decisive phase of the revaluation of luxury, when those who upheld traditional values fought a rearguard action against the unabated luxury of monied interests. While A Philosophical Enquiry served to facilitate the popular vogue for sublime and picturesque tours, it also directly contributed to the hegemonic struggle of the rising middle class in the first half of the eighteenth century. Tom Furniss argues that what appeared to be a mutually exclusive relation between the sublime and the beautiful provided an aesthetic and philosophical underpinning to the political and economic project of establishing the authenticity and authority of the new commercial middle class. In constructing the hierarchical binary opposition between labour and luxury, pain and pleasure, masculine and feminine, Burke sought to create an image of a masculine bourgeois subject as a heroic and virtuous labourer, whose sublime ambition and upward mobility were distinct from—and superior to—the debilitating luxury and corruption of the aristocracy. Attempting to vindicate middle-class commerce as the locus of individual effort and virtue, however, Burke needed to repress any association of the bourgeois self-made man with the object of this very effort, namely the material ease and luxury for which he worked so hard. As Furniss remarks,

Burke's account of the sublime enables the endeavours of economic individualism to appear as the very apotheosis of sublimity by shunning a particular figuration of the beautiful which associates it with sloth and indulgence. [3]

The beautiful associated with luxury and relaxation in Burke may be said to have represented the vitiating downside of the middle-class meritocratic ethos itself, for commerce was potentially the locus of corruption resulting from the material luxury which commercial endeavours produce. Hence Burke's strategy to expunge luxury's enervating and effeminising effects from the terrain of sublime and masculine labour of commerce was inevitably in constant danger of turning out to be a precarious fiction.

The eighteenth-century political and ideological class struggle between the landed establishment and the newly monied middle class was waged as a battle between manly virtue and effeminate corruption. In the Western mind, indeed, manliness had always been identified with goodness and restraint, while effeminacy had commonly been associated with evil and excess. Romantic England also witnessed a heated debate in which everyone, or rather every (literate) man, sought to vindicate his social and cultural status through gender-based (or biased) language, thereby clothing himself with manly values. In the kaleidoscope of competing gendered discourses, the new middle class attacked the traditional elite for its effeminacy, and vice versa. In this essay, I shall examine how Cockney writers—chiefly Leigh Hunt and John Keats—adopted and appropriated ubiquitous gendered language in order to legitimise their bourgeois poetics and politics.


Most of us would now accept that Hunt and Keats were equally 'Cockney' writers whose vociferous promotion of liberal middle-class values scandalised the upper section of the literary establishment. [4] Hunt's circle of friends, who frequently gathered at his cottage on Hampstead Heath, both embodied and catered for the taste of the metropolitan middle class. As members of the rising middle class with a modest affluence, they were eager to live a leisured life of literary pursuits. In fact, most of Hunt's friends—Charles Cowden Clarke, John Keats, Charles Lamb, John Hamilton Reynolds, Bryan Waller Procter, James and Horace Smith, and many more—were part-time writers. While their daytime professions were as diverse as apprentice, clerk, lawyer and speculator, the members of Hunt's coterie turned into poets, dramatists, novelists, essayists and literary reviewers in their leisure hours. In the eyes of conservative critics, however, these self-styled men of letters in London suburbia were nothing less than a band of subversive 'Cockney' poetasters and scribblers.

From 1816 to 1821 during which Keats associated himself with the Hampstead literary circle, Hunt was most successful as a poet and proponent of his bourgeois poetics. [5] When Keats entered Hunt's coterie, quite a few of its members had also been established as men of letters of some note. Most of them shared Hunt's belief that poetry had to be offered as a form of 'luxury', that is, an object of aesthetic pleasure. Hunt's poetry, characterised by a familiar and descriptive style, was an easy and enjoyable read. Unlike neo-classical poetry, it did not require a university education to be appreciated. Instead of making intellectual demands on the reader, Hunt's poetry encouraged free enjoyment of 'poetic luxuries'. The major purpose of Hunt's poetic project was thus to transform poetry from an aristocratic accomplishment into a popular pursuit. Just as the bourgeois consumer ethics of luxury enabled the rising middle class to climb the social ladder, Hunt's poetics of luxury qualified his reader to enter the world of high culture—formerly the preserve of the aristocracy. Born the son of a livery stable owner in north London, Keats was eager to join the literary club in suburban countryside, for becoming a man of belles-lettres amounted to a considerable social and cultural upgrading for him. Indeed, it was Keats among the members of Hunt's circle who most faithfully embraced the bourgeois poetics of luxury. [6] It may be argued that both Hunt and Keats employed the word 'luxury' as a synonym for 'pleasure'. Yet although 'luxury' could be equated with pleasure as the activity of enjoyment, 'luxury' as an abstract noun presupposes concrete material possessions which are additional to the basic necessaries of life. Whereas pleasure is customarily opposed to work, otium and negotium are traditionally considered to be complementary. In the binary opposition between luxuries and necessaries, however, luxury is always regarded as superfluous, dispensable and nonessential. In his Manual of Political Economy, Jeremy Bentham defined luxury as 'an inseparable accompaniment to opulence' (cited in OED). Pleasure and luxury could be semantically interchangeable, but the word 'luxury' always implies material wealth, whereas 'pleasure' need not. Hence in the historical context of bourgeois consumer revolution discussed above, Hunt and Keats's use of 'luxury' may be argued to have implied their desire for affluence as well as for pleasure.

Hunt promoted his poetics in avowed opposition to Pope and his neo-classical followers. As the hallmark of upper-class cultivation, neo-classical poetry presupposed the knowledge of rules and precepts prescribed in Aristotle's Poetics. Placing natural sensibility above acquired learning, however, Hunt celebrated a new breed of poetry whose freer and more idiomatic language had superseded the 'cold and artificial compositions' of neo-classical verse (Foliage 9). Yet Hunt staked his claim not as the originator of a new poetical school but as a restorer of the indigenous cultural tradition, namely Elizabethan poetry. He hailed the Elizabethans as '[o]ur wisest ancestors,—those of Shakespeare's time [...] whom we begin to understand better than any of their posterity.' [7] In the eyes of Hunt, a proponent of middle-class values and no less an English patriot, neo-classical poets were not only exclusively upper class but also unabashedly Frenchified. France culturally dominated the whole of Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but meanwhile England was progressively gaining confidence in her economic, political and cultural superiority. As the 'universal' authority of French neo-classicism was gradually eroded in the English consciousness, the rediscovery of the native cultural heritage was in steady progress throughout the last half of the eighteenth century. [8] The constant threat of invasion during the Napoleonic war (1805-15) brought about a consolidation of national identity, which further reinforced an increasing tendency to prefer indigenous over neo-classical literature. By the first decades of the nineteenth century, England had witnessed, as Hunt put it, 'the revived inclination for our older and great school of poetry' (Foliage 10). In 1824, Hazlitt edited an anthology of English poetry, the professed purpose of which was 'to silence the objections of foreigners, who are too ready to treat us as behindhand with themselves in all that relates to the arts of refinement and elegance'. [9] Hazlitt's reference to 'foreigners' here evidently meant the French. Thus Pope and his peers came to be seen as servile and subservient to the foreign—French—authority, and scornfully branded as 'the French school' by Hunt. [10]

England and France had been historic enemies since the days of Sir Philip Sidney, who called his neighbouring country 'sweet enemy'. By the early nineteenth century, however, the French were construed as an effeminate Other whose revolutionary excesses were thought to be totally foreign and much inferior to the manly, rational patriotism of the English. Indeed, 'manliness' had been firmly established as a civic virtue, in conscious opposition to French excess and effeminacy. [11] Employing the gendered language of patriotic discourse, Hunt castigated Pope for being Frenchified and thus effeminised. In marked contrast to the masculine vigour of Elizabethan poetry, Pope's emasculated verse was repeatedly condemned as a set of 'toys for ladies', of 'smooth little toys', and of 'school-boy common-places which it was thought manly to give up' (Foliage 21, 32, 23-4). Like Hunt, Keats ridiculed and reprimanded neo-classical poets for being effeminate, puerile, and even infantile in his 'Sleep and Poetry':

with a puling infant's force

They sway'd about upon a rocking horse,

And thought it Pegasus. Ah dismal soul'd! [12]


Keats wholeheartedly embraced Hunt's view that the neo-classical period was 'a very ''periwig-pated'' age', an anomaly in the history of English poetry (Foliage 22). In 'Sleep and Poetry', Keats branded the age of Pope as 'a schism / Nurtured by foppery and barbarism' (181-2), and gladly witnessed the restoration of the Elizabethan poetical ethos (206-29). Similarly, Hunt described the recent Elizabethan revival as follows:

It is no longer a new observation, that poetry has of late years undergone a very great change, or rather, to speak properly, poetry has undergone no change, but something which was not poetry has made way for the return of something which is.

Examiner [1 June 1817] 345

Hunt considered Keats to be a reviver of 'the true and abundant poets of the older time' (Examiner [1 June 1817] 345). In praising Keats, Reynolds echoed Hunt's view of English poetical history nearly verbatim: '[t]he author [...] is likely to make a great addition to those who would overthrow that artificial taste which French criticism has long planted among us' (Champion [9 March 1817] 78). Thus Hunt and his adherents reinstated Elizabethan poets as great English forefathers whose natural, original (i.e., indigenous) and robust manliness was far superior to the artificial, imitative (of the French) and frigid effeminacy of neo-classical versifiers. Publicly claiming to be the successors to the manly Elizabethans, Cockney writers attempted to assert their cultural authority.

Hunt's bourgeois poetics and politics were precariously poised between domestic and international power struggles. The former was an aristocracy-bourgeois class battle for social superiority; the latter a French-English war for cultural hegemony. Identifying himself with the manly English patriot, Hunt regarded the neo-classical elite as Frenchified fops:

Pope distilled as much real poetry as could be got from the drawing-room world in which the art then lived,—from the flowers and luxuries of artificial life,— into that exquisite little toilet-bottle of essence, the Rape of the Lock.

Examiner [1 June 1817] 345

Ironically, however, a socially illegitimate middle-class Hunt had no choice but to imitate aristocratic manners in order to lay claim to his cultural authenticity. Hence while attacking the French refinement of polite society, Hunt himself embraced the culture of politeness which was originally imported from France in the early eighteenth century. Politeness—a refined sociability in mixed company—was then considered to be an essential prerequisite for the English gentleman. As the notion of politeness eventually permeated the whole society, the enterprising new middle-class people became anxious to gentrify themselves by cultivating sociability. Having inherited the cultural ethos of his bourgeois predecessors, Hunt did not hesitate to pursue gentlemanly politeness in his own circle. Indeed, the living room of Hunt's suburban cottage was a bourgeois equivalent of the aristocratic salon in a country house. Under the name of 'a love of sociality', Hunt, Keats and other members published a considerable number of epistles and sonnets dedicated to one another. [13]

Yet though widely accepted as a means of fashioning the English gentleman, practices of sociability modelled on those of France were already called into question in the mid-eighteenth century. English aristocrats felt increasingly uneasy about the effeminising effect of politeness, for a young Englishman, who had been sent to Paris, often turned into an over-refined fop rather than an accomplished gentleman (Cohen 60-3). Consequently, French politeness was replaced by English patriotism as a sine qua non of gentlemanly education. In fact, politeness and manliness were incompatible desires, for the former could only be acquired and polished in the company of the other sex. The fops (also called beaus, or coxcombs) were characterized by 'their Frenchified manners and language, and their predilection for the company of women', and hence censured for being doubly effeminised (Cohen 38). Being blissfully ignorant of all this, Hunt advocated French-style politeness under the banner of 'a love of sociality'. Just like Frenchified fops, Hunt unabashedly publicised his social intercourse with women as a mark of politeness. In the dedication of Foliage (which contained a number of references to women around him), Hunt addressed Sir John Edward Swinburne as one who enjoyed mixed society: 'you think that a knowledge of the finest voices it [this world] has uttered, ancient as well as modern, ought, even in gratitude, to be shared by the sex that has inspired so many of them' (Foliage 7). Such an explicit fondness for the company of women did not pass unnoticed. Hunt's short poem 'The Summer of 1818', typically descriptive of a suburban landscape adorned with female presence, became an easy target for ridicule and reproach:

The lasses in the gardens

Shew forth their heads of hair,

With rosiness and lightsomeness

A chasing here and there. [14]


Patronisingly calling the poem 'really amiable and pretty', John Wilson sneered that 'his flirtation in the garden has something about it rather Miss-Molly-ish' (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 6 [December 1819] 239). Yet while Wilson rebuked Hunt's sociability for being effeminate, Hunt regarded 'social sentiment' as 'wisdom amiable and useful' (Foliage 11). Like Wilson, Burke gendered the relaxing pleasures of mixed society as feminine, as opposed to masculine self-preservation in the sublime solitude. [15] Whereas Burke argued that the social, affectionate and amiable qualities undermined the masculine identity, Hunt associated, or even identified, amiable sociability with manliness. He praised his 'manly and amiable' friend Sir Swinburne for his tender and affectionate character as well as for his 'rational piety' and 'manly patriotism' (Foliage 7-8). Thus in Hunt's politics of politeness, feminine attributes such as politeness, affection and tenderness were not contradictory but complementary to manly patriotism. This coupling of the feminine and the masculine may also be found in Hunt's poetics. He defined his poetics of pleasure as 'the finer and manlier knowledge' than pleasure-denying Christianity (The Months 135). Here again, Hunt combined manliness with what was commonly perceived to be a feminine or effeminate quality, 'fineness'. The word 'fine' signifies not only being 'consummate in quality', but also 'exquisitely fashioned; delicately beautiful', and more specifically 'polished, dainty, refined, fastidious' (OED). Hence 'a fine gentleman' denotes 'a gentleman of polished manners and refined tastes' (OED). A fine gentleman, in short, is a fop. One may recall that Byron perceived the 'finery' and foppery of the Cockney poets to be utterly intolerable. Both Byron and Lockhart repeatedly branded Hunt as 'a great coxcomb' or 'a Sunday beau'. A decade later, Wordsworth also called Hunt a complete 'Coxcomb'.

Although his polite gesture was vulnerable to the charge of effeminate foppery, Hunt assuredly presented himself as a manly English patriot, in implied opposition to effeminate Others such as the French and Frenchified neo-classicists. Hunt's writings were studded with gendered language in which 'manliness' was always employed as a positive attribute. He praised the late Sheridan for having been 'the advocate of what was tasteful, liberal, and manly', and called Byron 'one single manly mind', the one who 'behaved with a manliness'. [16] In The Feast of the Poets, Apollo proclaimed that '[m]y feasts are for masculine tastes, and for men'. [17] In Hunt's poetics of pleasure, however, the manly Elizabethans were endowed with feminine qualities:

from the time of Milton till lately, scarcely a tree had been planted that could be called a poet's own. People got shoots from France, that ended in nothing but a little barren wood, from which they made flutes for young gentlemen and fan-sticks for ladies. The rich and enchanted ground of real poetry, fertile with all that English succulance [sic] could produce [...] had become invisible to mortal eyes.

Examiner [1 June 1817] 345

Here Elizabethan poets were praised for their abundance, succulence and fertility (positive attributes of femininity), in perceived contrast to the frigidity and infertility (negative aspects of femininity) of the French school of poetasters. Hunt repeatedly, and almost paradoxically, rendered the Elizabethans as pleasure-loving (feminine or potentially effeminate) and vigorous (masculine) at the same time: 'the age of Shakespeare was at once the most wise and lively, the most dancing, rural, and manly period of our English history' (Foliage 20). This led Hunt to an awkward defence of the French excellence in 'music and dancing [...] two of the most natural and pastoral of pleasures', for he was well aware of 'the notion of effeminacy in pleasures of this kind' (Foliage 19, 20). In order to justify the luxurious Elizabethans, Hunt cunningly attributed the recent political catastrophe in France not to their effeminacy-engendered-by-luxury but to what he thought of as typically French bad taste. Thus in Hunt's poetics of luxury, pleasure was neither exclusively feminine nor effeminising; on the contrary, a propensity for pleasure was considered to be manly and healthy.


The Cockney poetics and politics were liable to effeminacy by virtue of their promotion of pleasure and politeness. Yet it is curious to note that the denouncers of the Cockney poets generally attacked Keats, rather than Hunt, as 'effeminate'. Whereas Hunt was condemned particularly for his immorality, Keats was censured primarily for his immaturity (i.e., effeminacy). Hunt's pursuit of politeness was generally associated not so much with effeminacy as with moral depravity:

His poetry resembles that of a man who has kept company with kept-mistresses. His muse talks indelicately like a tea-sipping milliner girl. [...] Surely they who are connected with Mr Hunt by the tender relations of society, have good reason to complain that his muse should have been so prostituted.

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 2 [October 1817] 40

Hunt was here presented as (a bourgeois version of) a master who seduced a lower-class servant girl. Although morally corrupt, Hunt was thought to have had no problem of male potency. In perceived contrast, Keats was constantly attacked for his infantility and lack of masculinity: 'Mr Hunt is a small poet, but he is a clever man. Mr Keats is a still smaller poet, and he is only a boy of pretty abilities' (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 3 [August 1818] 522). The public image of Keats was at best a young poet of promise, and at worst, as Keats himself wearily put it, 'a versifying Pet-lamb' or 'a weaver boy'. [18] Conservative critics all ferociously preyed on the young poet. John Wilson Croker condescendingly referred to Keats as 'of an age and temper which imperiously require mental discipline' (Quarterly Review, 19 [April 1818] 205). Wilson patronisingly called him 'a very amiable, silly, lisping, and pragmatical young gentleman' (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 6 [December 1819] 240). Similarly, John Gibson Lockhart branded Keats as a naive and callow youth whose 'too susceptible mind' was, just like that of a milliner girl, easily swayed and seduced by his master Hunt (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 3 [August 1818] 519). Hence Keats's assault on Pope provoked a greater outcry than Hunt's. Although declining in popularity by the early nineteenth century, Pope's translation of Homer had been originally rendered as 'a guide to manliness' in the context of 'contemporary attempts to produce manly citizens by the transmission of classical (or ''manly'') learning'. [19] And there still remained a number of staunch upholders of Pope in the upper crust of the literary world, notably Lord Byron. Hunt's attack on neo-classical poets was considered to be impudent, for he was merely a suburban coxcomb. Yet Keats's abuse of Pope was thought to be even more impudent, given that he was himself only an 'amiable but infatuated bardling' (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 3 [May 1818] 197). While Byron conceded that Hunt was 'a good man, with some poetical elements in his chaos', he took no mercy on Keats, whose poetry was described and decried as 'the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin'. [20] Keats had his defenders, too. Unfortunately, however, even the sympathetic reviewers, including his own close friends Hunt and Reynolds, presented Keats as puerile and effeminate, in an attempt to draw some compassion from the reader. [21]

While Hunt contented himself with pursuing poetic luxuries, Keats became painfully aware of the link between effeminacy and luxury. Keats regarded excessive indulgence in luxury (the word derives from Latin luxus, i.e., 'excess') as adolescence, and strove to reach adulthood in both poetic and personal terms. In his famous letter on human life as 'a large Mansion of Many Apartments', Keats charted the gendered development of man's identity:

The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think [...] we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight. [...] This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages.

Letters I, 280-1

It is worth noting that Keats expressed man's maturing process as a growth from an infant, through a maiden, and finally to a man. In the first Chamber, an infant is 'thoughtless', and hence not yet sexualised. In the second Chamber, his intellectual power in embryo endows him only with 'Maiden-Thought'. It seems that woman is not required (or allowed) to go further, for the female domain is marked by little intellect and luxurious sensibility. Being male, Keats was required (and expected) to proceed from effeminate adolescence into manly adulthood. In fact, the effeminate Keats fully internalised the patriarchal paradigm of male maturation, while the manly Hunt happily lingered about the realm of aesthetic pleasure. However, even in his most 'masculine' Hyperion poems, Keats could not reach the third Chamber of mature intellect. Arguably, Keats remained unable to wean himself from the notion of poetry as an object of luxurious consumption, right until the end of his short career. [22] Reviewing both volumes Endymion and Lamia, Francis Jeffrey observed that 'Mr Keats is still a very young man; and his whole works, indeed, bear evidence enough of the fact' (Edinburgh Review, 34 [August 1820] 203). Throughout his short poetic life, Keats was known as the 'AUTHOR OF ENDYMION' (as inscribed on the title page of the Lamia volume). In the preface to Endymion, Keats, at once defensively and defiantly, presented himself as a feverish adolescent whose 'inexperience', 'immaturity' and 'mawkishness' constituted the whole poem. It was his self-acknowledged lack of maturity and masculinity that easily invited criticism and contempt.

Keats's self-image as an effeminate adolescent largely derived from his sense of sexual inadequacy. [23] Unlike Hunt, Keats nmver felt comfortable with the presence of women. As early as 1815 (or 1816), Keats's ambivalence about the other sex found expression in 'Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain'. The whole poem is composed of three sonnets, through each of which the poet explores his conception of the opposite sex. In the first sonnet-stanza, Keats perceives woman to be

flippant, vain,

Inconstant, childish, proud, and full of fancies;

Without that modest softening that enhances

The downcast eye, repentant of the pain

That its mild light creates to heal again.

My emphasis, 1-5

Although she is devoid of all womanly virtues, the poet is still irresistibly attracted to her. Yet Keats imagines his most desirable woman to be 'meek, and kind, and tender' (my emphasis, 9), and these 'winning graces' (11) would kindle his masculine, or rather, boyish desire:

to be thy defender

I hotly burn—to be a Calidore—

A very Red Cross Knight—a stout Leander—

Might I be loved by thee like these of yore.


Here Keats wishfully identifies himself with Red Cross Knight who honourably and courageously protects his lady Una. In the second stanza, however, a more sexualised male gaze on the external beauties of a real woman replaces the chivalric or mythological idealization of the male-female relationship:

Light feet, dark violet eyes, and parted hair;

Soft dimpled hands, white neck, and creamy breast,

Are things on which the dazzled senses rest

Till the fond, fixed eyes forget they stare.


Keats cannot turn his eyes away from her, though he knows that such beauties are all surface, and 'not drest / In lovely modesty, and virtues rare' (my emphasis, 21-2). In the sestet, he is aroused not by her sight but by her voice whose charm 'with mild intelligences shine' (my emphasis, 26). Here the poet seems to place woman's intellect above her appearance, but her intellect is still 'mild', hence weaker than man's intelligence. What is immediately apparent in the first two stanzas is that Keats had a rather stereotyped, or what we now call sexist conception of what woman ought to be—meek, mild, modest with downcast eyes. In the third and last stanza, what first appears to be a coquette is domesticated and reduced to an object of male desire. While she is now docile and innocent 'like a milk-white lamb that bleats / For man's protection' (31-2), the poet fashions himself as an aggressive (and not so honourable) suitor 'who intreats / Such innocence to ruin,—who vilely cheats / A dove-like bosom' (34-6). Yet in the end he cannot exert masculine authority on the object of his sexual desire. On the contrary, he relapses and regresses into a tearful and tender Calidore, whose puerile adoration for women enervates and effeminises him.

It is well known that Keats felt rather embarrassed by his lack of stature (a manly attribute). Having entered Hunt's 'society' in late 1816, Keats became even more self-conscious about his height: 'I do think better of Womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet hight [sic] likes them or not' (Letters I, 342). In the summer of 1818, Keats confessed to having become 'full of Suspicions' in the company of women (Letters I, 341). This feeling of insecurity about his manhood persisted into Keats's later career, when his intense love for Fanny Brawne seems to have endangered his masculine identity even more. Keats's misogyny manifested itself not only in his everyday life but also in his perception of the literary world. While most contemporary writers expressed their frustrated feelings about the literary market, Keats's resentment was particularly directed to women readers (who did not buy his poetical volumes) and women writers (whose books sold better than his). Keats complained about the power which women held over the literary taste:

The world, and especially our England, has within the last thirty year's [sic] been vexed and teased by a set of Devils, whom I detest so much that I almost hunger after an acherontic promotion to a Torturer, purposely for their accomodation [sic]; These Devils are a set of Women, who having taken a snack or Luncheon of Literary scraps, set themselves up for towers of Babel in Languages Sapphos in Poetry—Euclids in Geometry—and everything in nothing. Among such the Name of Montague has been preeminent. The thing has made a very uncomfortable impression on me.—I had longed for some real feminine Modesty in these things.

Letters I, 163; my emphasis

The passage reveals not only Keats's misogyny but also the high cultural status that Blue Stocking Ladies still seemed to hold in early nineteenth-century English society. Impressed by Elizabeth Montagu, Samuel Johnson dubbed her 'Queen of the Blues'. In fact, the Blue Stocking Circle included such male literary personages as Johnson, David Garrick, James Boswell, Horace Walpole, Sir Josua Reynolds, Samuel Richardson and James Beattie. The female members were equally intelligent, learned, sociable, and (to Keats's great annoyance) upper class. Keats wished to become their 'Torturer' so that he could 'accommodate' those insolent women to their original environment (i.e., home). These educated and intelligent women made the insecure Keats feel even more 'uncomfortable', and hence he demanded them to show 'feminine Modesty' in man's domain (i.e., the world of high literature). This may be called a classic example of male chauvinism. When Jane Porter wished to make the acquaintance of the author of Endymion, Keats affected indifferent aloofness towards this 'Lady Romancer': 'I shall certainly see a new race of People—I shall more certainly have no time for them' (Letters II, 10-1). However, Porter was a best-selling writer whose sales and status were far beyond the reach of Keats. Her first novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), based on the contemporary Polish struggle against Russia in the 1790s, turned out to be 'the book of the year in 1803', and even a real hero of this topical event Tadeusz Kosciouszko was 'so delighted with the book that he wrote to the authoress to thank her'. [24] One may recall that Keats also wrote a sonnet 'To Kosciousko', but this icon of liberty returned nothing for the homage of a little-known young English poet. Keats's male chauvinistic attitude towards the Blue Stockings and Jane Porter was rather impotent. Although Keats dismissed women as 'children to whom I would rather give a Sugar Plum than my time' (Letters I, 404), in reality the 'amiable Johnny Keats' was grouped with middle- and lower-class women. Yet these women were far from being as powerless as Keats was. They constituted a substantial part of the reading public, dominating the popular taste. Hence Keats's hostility towards the public was intermingled with his hostility towards women: 'I equally dislike the favour of the public with the love of a woman—they are both a cloying treacle to the wings of independence' (Letters II, 144).

In the spring of 1819, when his public image was already established as an effeminate bardling, Keats composed a sonnet 'On Fame'. He repeatedly figured poetic fame as a flippant, inconstant and recalcitrant female—'a wayward girl', 'a gipsey', '[a] jilt', and '[a] very gipsey' (1, 5, 7, 9). The sonnet, though half comically, conveyed Keats's sense of poetic failure and frustration, projecting him into a jilted wooer. For Keats, gaining poetic fame was closely linked to gaining mature sexual identity. Becoming a successful poet should have enabled him to become a respectable English gentleman. Yet his poetry did not sell, or worse, it was publicly ridiculed. However hard he tried to attain poetic manhood, everything went against Keats: his lack of age, of manly stature, of social status, and of popular sales. The public perception of Keats as a young poet of everlasting promise (i.e., permanently delayed manly achievement) contrasted most markedly with that of Byron as an 'accomplished' poet and a paragon of English manliness. Keats's references to Byron were permeated with envy and enmity. In 'Sleep and Poetry', Keats attacked Byron's poetry (whose 'themes / Are ugly clubs') for being too masculine: 'strength alone though of the Muses born / Is like a fallen angel' (233-4, 241-2). Yet just like his sexist attitudes, Keats's sense of rivalry with the philandering lord turned out to be ineffectual. In his letter to George, Keats painfully reported that 'I heard that Mr L Said [...] ''O, he is quite the little Poet'' [...] You see what it is to be under six foot and not a lord' (Letters II, 61).

Interestingly, Hunt figured (and identified himself with) England as masculine, while Keats, no less of a patriot, objectified and gendered his country as feminine. In his epistle 'To Lord Byron on his Departure for Italy and Greece', Hunt calls Italy 'Enchantress' and 'Queen of Europe' (34, 39). Italy has been most of all a muse to 'all the four great Masters of our Song' such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton (64):

Her genius is more soft, harmonious, fine;

Ours bolder, deeper, and more masculine:

In short, as woman's sweetness to man's force,

Less grand, but softening by the intercourse,

So the two countries are,—so may they be,—

England the high-souled man, the charmer Italy.


Although being described as an enchantress, queen and charmer, Italy is tamed and domesticated in the feminine sphere of social intercourse, and ultimately subjugated to the masculine authority of England. In marked contrast, Keats genders not only Italy but also England as feminine in his sonnet 'Happy is England!'. In the octave, neither is gendered yet: 'Happy is England! I could be content / To see no other verdure than its own' (my emphasis, 1-2). The poet himself is portrayed implicitly as a feminine figure who feels 'a languishment / For skies Italian' (5-6). In the sestet, both England and Italy become feminised but in different ways:

Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;

Enough their simple loveliness for me,

Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:

Yet do I often warmly burn to see

Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,

And float with them about the summer waters.


Here English muses are described as simple and meek daughters, reminiscent of Diana's attendants. With their voices silenced (by Keats), they are too docile to be the objects of masculine desire. Yet Italy is imagined to be a throng of Sirens whose alluring 'deeper glance' and singing voice stir up the poet's passion. Keats even wishes to succumb to their seduction, dissipating his manhood in the voluptuous overflow of feminine sexuality. Such a voluntary submission to sensuality is the total opposite of manly self-preservation. While Hunt fashioned himself as a bold and brave Englishman who subjugated women, Keats could neither possess the objects of his desire nor identify with the authoritative masculine subject. In fact, Keats projected poetic fame as a teasing coquette. To Keats who could not attain mature and manly sexual identity after all, poetic fame remained the feminine and ultimately 'strange' Other.


In modern Keats criticism, Hunt is without exception grouped with the feminine or effeminate. It is taken for granted that while Keats was manfully striding into the epic quest, Hunt had been left behind in the realm of the pastoral goddess Flora. In referring to his lack of intellectual and theoretical power, modern academics are implicitly criticising Hunt for his effeminacy. [25] From F. R. Leavis to Harold Bloom, twentieth-century critics have made every effort to masculinise and hence canonise Keats. Meanwhile, Hunt was increasingly dismissed as minor, effeminate and Cockney. It is noteworthy that Keats became established as a major Romantic poet, at precisely the time when the academic discipline of English Literature emerged as a 'serious' and respectable field of scholarship in universities. According to Brian Doyle, the major institutional elevation and transformation of English occurred between 1880 and 1930, from 'a female domestic ''accomplishment''' to 'a distinctly male domain, having its own professional modes of research and teaching and ways of controlling admission'. [26] It was indeed during the first decades of the twentieth century that Keats was transformed from a poet of effeminate luxury to a poet of masculine intellect. Thus, one can argue that the gendered institutionalising of English paralleled the gendered canonical selection. And that during the process of literary canonisation, the contemporary gendered perceptions of Hunt and Keats were totally reversed.