The Cockney School Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.