The Cockney School Essay - Critical Essays

The Cockney School


The Cockney School

Consisting of a group of literary figures who generally shared political and literary views, the Cockney School of poetry included such writers as Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), William Hazlitt (1778-1830), John Keats (1795-1821), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Condemned and despised by conservative Tory critics who claimed that the low birth of the Cockneys engendered their liberal politics and colloquial verse, the Cockney School centered around the Whig poet and editor Hunt, who with his brother John established in 1808 the Examiner, a weekly liberal newspaper whose attacks on the Prince Regent earned them each jail sentences. During his imprisonment Leigh Hunt was visited by several important figures, including Lord Byron (1788-1824), Thomas Moore (1779-1852), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and Charles Lamb (1775-1834), and upon his release Hunt became more eagerly engaged in poetry. His The Story of Rimini (1816)—an adaptation of the Paolo and Francesca story from Dante's Divine Comedy—was well received, and the preface, which calls for "a freer spirit of versification," inspired a number of other writers, most notably Shelley and Keats.

Although Hunt's political views attracted like-minded liberals, and his thoughts on a freer and more colloquial style strongly influenced Hazlitt's familiar essays and Keats' early poetry, critics who endorsed the traditional Augustan couplet and political conservativism resisted what they took to be a denigration of poetry. John Gibson Lockhart, editor and contributor to the Tory periodical Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, labeled the group "The Cockney School" in 1817 and, in a series of articles published over the next eight years, assailed Keats and Hunt in particular for their political beliefs and, indirectly, for their inferior education and upbringing. Along with other critics such as John Wilson Croker (known as the "slashing critic") of the Quarterly Review, Lockhart—writing under the pseudonym "Z"—criticized the unaccomplished work of the Cockney poets, which they claimed revealed the "low birth and low habits" of its authors and whose couplets they claimed only rhymed in a Cockney accent.

The literary careers of the Cockney writers, especially Hazlitt and Keats, were dominated at one point or another by public feuds with their Tory critics. Hazlitt was successful in a libel lawsuit against Blackwood's, and Keats' early reputation was dominated by two hostile, unsigned reviews of his allegorical poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818), one by Lockhart and the other by Croker. Lockhart attacked not only Keats' poem, which he abhorred on artistic and moral grounds, but also the poet's lack of taste, education, and upbringing. Furthermore, although Croker was neither as vitriolic nor as personally cutting as Lockhart, his essay was singled out as damaging and unjust by Keats' supporters. While Keats was apparently disturbed only temporarily by these attacks, the story circulated after his death that his demise had been caused, or at least hastened, by Lockhart's and especially Croker's reviews. A chief perpetrator of this notion was Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose famous work Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821) was published with a bitter preface implicating Croker as the murderer of Keats.

The political views and radical poetics expressed by Hunt's literary circle were thus largely defined by their most adamant detractors, but the Cockney School nonetheless was highly influential beyond its liberal sympathizers. Hunt pioneered the evolution of the contemporary journal; Hazlitt's familiar essay, characterized by conversational diction and personal opinion, recast the character of the personal essay; and Keats and Shelley, whose impassioned tone and sensual imagery appeared shockingly effusive to critics schooled in the poetics of the eighteenth century, helped to liberate English poetry from the constraints of neoclassicism. Along with the Lake poets, the Cockney School marks a major Romantic shift in British letters and has indelibly changed the course of modern literature.

Representative Works

William Hazlitt

Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (criticism) 1817

The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Litera ture, Men, and Manners. 2 vols. [with Leigh Hunt] (essays) 1817

Table-Talk. 2 vols. (essays) 1821-22

Leigh Hunt

The Feast of the Poets, with Notes, and Other Pieces in Verse (poetry) 1814

The Story of Rimini (poetry) 1816

Foliage: or, Poems Original and Translated (poetry) 1818

John Keats

Poems (poetry) 1817

Endymion: A Poetic Romance (poetry) 1818

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Queen Mab (poetry) 1813

The Cenci [first publication] (verse drama) 1819

Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems (verse drama and poetry) 1820

Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (poetry) 1821


T. Hall Caine (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: "Leigh Hunt," in Cobwebs of Criticism: A Review of the First Reviewers of the 'Lake,' 'Satanic,' and Cockney' Schools, Elliot Stock, 1883, pp. 123-57.

[In the excerpt that follows, Caine recounts how the Cockney School writers came to be grouped together, chronicling the contemporary critical appraisal of the writers and their works in such periodicals as the Examiner and Blackwood's Magazine.]

It will be remembered that Southey attempted, late in life, to repudiate the allegation that he had ever been concerned with Wordsworth in the formation of a new school of poetry; and that Coleridge said the only thing he claimed to possess in common with either of these poets was good sense, confirmed by long study of the best models of Greece, Italy, and England. It is nevertheless not too much to say that all three were influenced by exactly the same forces of rational conviction, and that, notwithstanding their personal opposition to such classification, they may properly be named together as leaders of a single poetic school. Urged doubtless by kindred motives to those which operated in the cases of Southey and Coleridge in their attitude towards Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley endeavoured to repudiate the charge of having been concerned with Leigh Hunt in the formation of a school of poetry. It will be easy to show that in the latter case, unlike the former one, there was ample justification for such repudiation, and that, therefore, it is to some extent injudicious and injurious to class together these three poets under the name by which they were known to the great body of their contemporaries. Accident, not special poetic affinity, brought them together; and they never had much more in common than is usually the case between any three poets who are the creatures of any single age. Certainly their several theories of poetry were dissimilar, if not in absolute antagonism; and there cannot be shown to exist in "Rimini," "Endymion," and "The Revolt of Islam" any such kinship of purpose and contrast of means as gave unity of aim to the associated pieces in the first "Lyrical Ballads." Indeed, so much were these men at variance as to the true mission of poetry, that Keats went the rather audacious length of advising Shelley to put aside a little of his exuberant magnanimity, and trouble himself more to load every rift of his work with ore; and Shelley's last warm tribute to the genius of his friend did not go forth without a side-reference to the author's known repugnance to the principles of art on which Keats's best work had been constructed. With so many and such emphatic points of difference, it may be asked with proper surprise how, at any time, the three poets came to be classed together; and the answer is one that must be sought for where poetry plays no part. The story that requires to be told is short, and is full of interest and suggestion.

In 1816, Leigh Hunt was editor of the Examiner, then a sixteen-page Sunday paper, devoted chiefly to politics and plays. Towards the close of that year the journal developed a literary character, and began to review poetry with peculiar animation. One of the last issues of 1816 contained an article entitled "Three Young Poets," treating of inedited poetry by three unknown writers—Cornelius Webb, Percy B. Shelley, and John Keats. Internal evidence pointed to the editor as author; and certainly the little paper was characterized by the confidential personal tone out of which Leigh Hunt's enemies made so much. Subsequent issues of the Examiner contained sonnets and lyrical pieces by all three authors dealt with in the article in question; and so the inference remained an obvious one that a little coterie had been formed, of which the office in London of the Sunday journal formed the rallying-point.

A few months later (April, 1817), Blackwood's Magazine was founded in Edinburgh. The new periodical venture was established primarily to break the supremacy of the Edinburgh Review in politics; but this was not mooted in the prospectus that preceded it. One of the new features of the magazine was announced to be 'Notices of the most celebrated publications, and the contents of minor journals.'

Blackwood's first issues contained little or no political matter; but it was not the less easy on that account to see that party bias lay at the root of all its criticisms of men and books. Sweltering as it was under the full rigour of united northern Toryism and northern Puritanism, the Examiner speedily fell in its way; and the number of Blackwood (October, 1817) which contained the justly celebrated jeu d'esprit entitled "Chaldee Manuscript" (an allegorical account, in Scriptural language, of the quarrels of the founders of the magazine), contained also the first of a series of audacious attacks on the little band of London poets, of whom Leigh Hunt was at the time the only notable public figure. No two articles could be more dissimilar in spirit than the two in question. The one has been said to be worthy of a permanent place in literature by reason of its felicitous humour; the other has, not unjustly, been stigmatized as one of the most cowardly and malignant assaults that ever disgraced the annals of literature.

The first article of the series began playfully enough:

While the whole critical world is occupied with balancing the merits, whether in theory or in execution, of what is commonly called the Lake School, it is strange that no one seems to think it necessary to say a single word about another new school of poetry which has of late sprung up amongst us. The school has not, I believe, received any name; but if I may be permitted to have the honour of christening it, it may henceforth be referred to by the designation of the Cockney School. Its chief doctor and professor is Mr. Leigh Hunt, a man certainly of some talent, of extraordinary pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking, and manners in all respects.

One of the characteristics of these childish persons was, according to Blackwood, the restless interest which they summoned the public to take in everything belonging to their own triviality. The critic says:

If Mrs. Robinson's dog had a bad night's repose, it was duly announced to the world; Mr. Merry's accident in paring his nails solicited a similar sympathy; the falling off of Mrs. R.'s patch at the last ball, or the stains on Mr. M.'s full-dress coat, from the dropping of a chandelier, came before the earth with praiseworthy promptitude.

Keats's volume of poems had appeared, containing an address to Leigh Hunt, as well as the well-known sonnet, beginning,

Great spirits now on earth are sojourning,

and ending,

Listen awhile, ye nations, and be dumb.

On the latter line, Blackwood says:

The nations are to listen and be dumb! And why, good Johnny Keats? because Leigh Hunt is editor of the Examiner, and Haydon has painted the "Judgment of Solomon," and you and Cornelius Webb, and a few more city sparks are pleased to look upon yourselves as so many future Shakspeares and Miltons?

This may, so far, be harmless banter enough, calculated rather to make the victims laugh than cry, and capable of giving serious offence only to the thickest of skulls and the thinnest of skins. Not to blink the facts, it is quite true that the young poets did render themselves liable to much good-humoured chaff. There was a deal of effeminacy in their social relations; they presented each other with wreaths of bay, bouquets of roses, locks of hair, shells and sea-weed; and wrote laudatory verses each to each, anticipatory of the renown they were soon to win:

We'll talk of . . . Keats
The muse's son of promise, and what feats
He yet may do.

Naturally, such behaviour called down the wrath of robust Scotch masculinity. Blackwood said:

None of them are men of genius—none of them are men of solitary habits . . . Why then do they perpetually chatter about themselves? Why is it they seem to think the world has no right to hear one single word about any other persons than Hunt, the cockney Homer; Hazlitt, the cockney Aristotle; and Haydon, the cockney Raphael. These are all very eminent men in their own eyes. . . . Mr. Hazlitt cannot look round him at the Surrey, without resting his smart eye on the idiot admiring grin of several dozens of aspiring apprentices and critical clerks. Mr. Hunt cannot be at home at Hampstead, without having his Johnny Keatses and his Corny Webbs to cram sonnets into his waistcoat-pockets, and crown his majestic brows with

'The wreath that DANTE wore!!!'

Good-humoured raillery was not prominent among the accomplishments of the Edinburgh writer who made it his business to 'wither and blast' the young London poets; so playful chaff had speedily to make way for scalding invective:

It is quite ridiculous to see how the vanity of these Cockneys makes them over-rate their own importance, even in the eyes of us that have always expressed such plain unvarnished contempt for them, and who do feel for them all a contempt too calm and profound to admit of any admixture of anything like anger or personal spleen. We should just as soon think of being wroth with vermin, independently of their coming into our apartment, as we should about having any feelings at all about any of these people, other than what are excited by seeing them in the shape of authors.

And again, four years later:

There is but one word—of many melancholy and miserable meanings—and which we should not dare to apply to any of our brethren; but it may be applied, not only innocently but rightfully, to a Cockney; that one word is—Fool!

After saying that between thirty or forty years ago the Della Crusca school was in great force, pouring out monthly, weekly and daily the whole fulness of...

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Blackwood's Magazine And The Contemporary Critical Response

John Gibson Lockhart (review date 1817)

SOURCE: "On the Cockney School of Poetry," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. II, No. 7, October, 1817, pp. 38-41.

[In the following review, Lockhart criticizes Leigh Hunt, founder of what Lockhart dubs the "Cockney School," for his obviously low class and improper poetry. He also compares Hunt unfavorably with the Lake poets, especially William Wordsworth, and laments his literary influence.]

Our talk shall be (a theme we never tire on)
Of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, Byron,
(Our England's Dante)—Wordsworth—HUNT, and KEATS,
The Muses' son...

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The Political And Social Import Of The Cockneys And Their Critics

Percy B. Shelley (preface date 1821)

SOURCE: Preface to Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, Etc., by Percy B. Shelley, Pisa, 1821, pp. 3-5.

[The following is Shelley's Preface to his poem Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which Shelley laments Keats ' early death. Although Shelley does not mention John Wilson Croker by name in the Preface, he accuses the Quarterly Review criticwhose ''savage criticism " of Keats ' Endymion "produced the most violent effect on [Keats'] susceptible mind"of precipitating the young poet's untimely death.]

It is my...

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Further Reading

Baker, Herschel. "Politics and Literature." In his William Hazlitt, pp. 320-81. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Discusses Hazlitt's political commentary, especially in the Examiner, and his responses to politically motivated attacks by the Blackwood critics.

Barnard, John. "Charles Cowden Clarke's 'Cockney' Commonplace Book." In Keats and History, edited by Nicholas Roe, pp. 65-87. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Considers Keats' poetry and political views as deeply indebted to the influence of Charles Cowden Clarke.


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