'The Hunt Era'Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0 521 63100 9. Price: £40 ($59.95).The Examiner, 1818-1822. Introduced by Yasuo Deguchi, 5 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 1998. ISBN: 1 85196 427 4. Price: £550.[Notice]

  • Nicholas Roe

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  • Nicholas Roe
    St. Andrews University

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: 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 …