John Hamilton Reynolds Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Hamilton Reynolds 1794-1852

English poet, satirist, critic, and playwright.

Reynolds is best remembered as a close friend and correspondent of the Romantic poet John Keats, whose letters to Reynolds constitute a significant body of his poetic thought. At the time of their friendship, however, Reynolds was regarded as a poet with as much promise and talent as Keats himself. He published widely in literary periodicals, and his critical writings reveal a discriminating appreciation of poetry, particularly in his admiration for William Wordsworth at a time when the elder poet was not widely respected. While Reynolds became successful as a satirist later in his career, the poetic talent heralded by Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt remained unfulfilled.

Biographical Information

Reynolds was born in Shrewsbury to George Reynolds and Charlotte Cox Reynolds. His father was a school teacher; his mother was related to the Hamilton family (from which Reynolds received his middle name), which included the Gothic writer William Beckford. Reynolds attended the Shrewsbury school where his father taught, then enrolled at St. Paul's in London when the family moved in 1806. He graduated from St. Paul's in 1810, completing his formal education. He took a junior clerkship in an insurance office, the Amicable Society for Perpetual Insurance, working there at least through 1816. In the meantime, he pursued his self-education by reading widely in classical and English literature and also began writing poetry. He was encouraged in his literary interests by his friend John F. M. Dovaston, a former student of Reynolds's father. Reynolds's first published poem, “Ode to Friendship, Inscribed to J. F. M. Dovaston of West Felton,” appeared in Gentleman's Magazine in 1812. He continued publishing poems and articles in such periodicals as Repository of Literature, Arts, and Sciences, Gentleman's Magazine, and Ladies' Museum, then released his first major work, the long poem Safie; An Eastern Tale, in 1814. Only twenty years old at the time, Reynolds received favorable notice from a number of critics and poets, including Lord Byron, whose work Reynolds had closely imitated. Later that year, he published The Eden of Imagination, this time imitating Wordsworth, who also encouraged the younger writer. He published these poems under the auspices of his friend John Martin, who also hired Reynolds as a poetry editor for the Inquirer. In 1815 Reynolds moved on to the Champion, where he was the literary and theater editor until 1817. Both journals provided Reynolds with a ready forum for his poetry, literary criticism, and theater reviews. With the publication of The Naiad: A Tale. With Other Poems in 1816, Reynolds took a step forward in his poetry by moving away from purely imitative efforts. Also during this period, Reynolds became associated with a literary circle formed around a family of young women in Devon. Mary, Sarah, and Thomasine Leigh often entertained Reynolds's friends Benjamin Bailey and James Rice, and Reynolds joined the group sometime in 1815. The friends warmly encouraged Reynolds as the true poet of the group, which spent hours together writing, copying verses, and discussing poetry. His friend Leigh Hunt also supported his writing and introduced him to another young poet Hunt greatly admired, the then unknown John Keats. Keats and Reynolds became fast friends, encouraging and challenging each other in their quest for literary recognition. In 1816, Reynolds took the bold step of leaving his clerkship to live solely by his writing. This endeavor was short lived, and by late 1817 Reynolds began practicing law when his friend Rice took him on as a partner in his father's firm. Biographers speculate that Reynolds's decision was motivated by his plans to marry Eliza Powell Drewe and the need to set up a household with a reliable income. Nevertheless, he continued writing and published Peter Bell, a parody of Wordsworth, in 1819; The Fancy in 1820; and The Garden of Florence and Other Poems, the fruit of his friendship with Keats, in 1821. He also wrote for several periodicals, including the Yellow Dwarf, London Magazine, Edinburgh Magazine, and the Edinburgh Review. After a lengthy engagement, he married Eliza Drewe in 1822, which led to a friendship and literary collaboration with her brother-in-law, Thomas Hood. Together the two wrote several comic and satirical pieces, signed and unsigned, the most popular of which was Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825). This was Reynolds's last publication in book form during his lifetime. He began writing non-literary prose for the magazine Athenaeum and produced a handful of theatrical scripts. Money was becoming a problem, as his attention to his primary career, the law, was sporadic at best, and tragedy struck in 1835 when his ten-year-old daughter Lucy died. He was bankrupt in 1838 but continued eking out a small income writing for Bentley's Miscellany, the New Monthly, and other magazines. In 1847, Reynolds gave up the law completely and subsequently moved to the Isle of Wight to work as an assistant clerk in a county court. Most biographical accounts suggest that at this point in his life Reynolds was depressed and drinking heavily, although he was not without friends and admirers to the end. He died in Newport on the Isle of Wight in 1852.

Major Works

Reynolds best known poetic works are derivative of the canonical poets of his age. Chief among these is Peter Bell, a parody of a poem by Wordsworth. As a lyric poet, Reynolds was indebted to Wordsworth, and his comic mockery of the greater author demonstrates that he was not an unthinking or uncritical admirer. His parody exaggerated the least appealing aspects of Wordsworth's poetry, particularly his expressions of self-satisfaction and his romanticizing of the lower classes. Peter Bell was a tremendous success for Reynolds when it was first published and continues to be his most widely read work. His other satirical works, particularly The Fancy and Odes and Addresses, also won the favor of contemporary audiences, but their subjects—obscure figures in London society and sports—are generally too topical to allow modern readers to enjoy them. A number of critics and scholars have advocated that greater attention be given to Reynolds's serious poetry, which has been overshadowed by his association with his close friend Keats and by his imitations of Wordsworth. His strongest collections are The Eden of the Imagination, which owed much to Wordsworth's An Evening Walk, and The Garden of Florence. The latter collection features one of Reynolds's best serious poems, “Devon,” a reflection on his time among the Rice-Bailey-Leigh circle. The Garden of Florence also contains “The Romance of Youth,” a poem written during his intense collaboration with Keats, marking the high point of Reynolds's ambitions to be a serious poet. A prolific periodical contributor, Reynolds did not make a lasting name for himself as a prose writer, although he proved to be an astute and witty literary critic. Two 1816 essays from the Champion stand out: “The Pilgrimage of Living Poets to the Stream of Castaly” and “Boswell's Visit.” Reynolds also wrote a series of fictitious letters on current events for London Magazine from 1820 to 1824. The letters of “Edward Herbert” were extremely popular in their time, even if, like most journalistic writing, they now hold little interest for any but the most serious scholars. Reynolds's personal correspondence remains his most significant contribution to literature, not for its own intrinsic merit but for Reynolds's ability to illuminate the lives of Keats and other writers of the time.

Critical Reception

Early reviews of Reynolds's works predict the position he would eventually occupy in literary history: a poet of great potential that was never realized. Critics of Safie and The Naiad were quick to point out Reynolds's failures of imagination and poetic craft, but they did so while encouraging the poet to improve upon his faults and publish again. With some exceptions, modern critics have focused primarily on the Keats connection. One of Reynolds's first twentieth-century champions was George L. Marsh, who also edited a collected edition of Reynolds's works. Marsh identified several unsigned periodical contributions as those of Reynolds, and through his research was able to pull together several details of Reynolds's biography. His assessment of Reynolds's career suggests that although Reynolds was inconsistent as a poet, the body of criticism, satire, and poetry he produced have earned him a literary ranking higher than that of merely “Keats's close friend.” In the second half of the twentieth century, the scholar Leonidas M. Jones published multiple studies heralding the importance of Reynolds in the study of early nineteenth-century literature. Jones completed the work of Marsh, releasing a full biography of Reynolds as well as a collection of Reynolds's letters, further detailing the portrait of Reynolds as a central figure in the literary scene of his time. Both Jones and John Barnard have also argued that although Keats was perhaps the greater talent, the influence and encouragement of Reynolds was a factor in Keats's artistic development. Despite the assertions of Marsh and Jones that Reynolds deserves to be more highly esteemed for his own works, comparatively little scholarship exists that does not emphasize either Reynolds's artistic ties to Wordsworth or his friendship with Keats, and his correspondence continues to receive at least as much attention as his best literary writings.