In December of 1811, Leigh Hunt’s Examiner featured the gruesome news of two families murdered near Ratcliff Highway, in London’s East End. These murders attracted prolonged public attention: The Examiner and The London Times, for example, both followed the “Horrid Murders” from December 8th through January of the following year and invoked them over the next decade as a standard against which all other horrific crimes were measured. The murders also inspired a satiric essay by Thomas de Quincey, first published in 1827 in Blackwood’s Magazine, entitled “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In it, he describes murder as an art form and the Ratcliff murders as the pièce de résistance. The Regency’s public interest in this crime has an uncanny cousin in our modern-day fascination with police procedural TV shows, and I’d like to suggest that we can see the newspapers’ representation of this moment—particularly because of de Quincey’s essay—as an early exploration of a “True Crime” genre that, narratively, features the same foundations as the serial television shows many are drawn to today.
First, a note about De Quincey’s essay. It features a transcribed lecture presented by a member of the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder—I’ll refer to him as SCM here. These members “profess to be curious in homicide; amateurs and dilettanti in the various modes of bloodshed” and “criticise [murders] as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art” (1, 2). After the murder is “over and done,” SCM—quoting anecdotes from Coleridge and Wordsworth for support—claims that we can “make the best of a bad matter” and “treat it aesthetically” (12). An aesthetic treatment of murder involves examining its “design, [. . .] grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment” (5), and SCM has elaborate rules for the characterization of the murder’s victim, place, and time. He calls the early nineteenth century the “Augustan age of murder” (40), and he lionizes Williams—the man accused of committing the Ratcliff murders—as the Milton or Michelangelo of murder, claiming that his crimes are “the sublimest and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed” (54).
Hello and happy summer! Since I last blogged, I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams and spent two weeks in England. I presented at the Keats and his Circle conference along with my fellow blogger, Arden Hegele, and of course the conference was everything a Keatsian (or Romanticist) could wish it to be. Our weekend at Wentworth Place came complete with three days of really smart and innovative Keats studies, phenomenal featured lectures, and a “Keats walk” through Hampstead. But what I will talk about today is what I learned in the week after the conference. Continue reading Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle→
When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in England for a semester, and as part of my Modern British Poetry class, I took a literary pilgrimage to Wentworth Place, Keats’s home in Hampstead. This trip was genuinely transformative for me, as it fueled a fantasy that I was John Keats’s lover in another life (hey, we all have our literary crushes). And more importantly it began my creative and scholarly work on the poet. As I wandered room to room, swooning over the handwritten manuscript of “Ode to a Nightingale” in the corridor and tearing up at the death mask encased in the library, I hadn’t a thought of my future with the poet. But this week I received an acceptance to the first ever Keats Foundation conference at the Hampstead house. And I began to reflect back on my 20-year-old self and how she would laugh to know that she would return to Wentworth Place as a career Keatsian almost a decade later.
Over the last month, I have been thinking a lot about how identity gets organized, both my own as I am beginning to define myself as a young scholar and that of the poets I study. This all came about as I prepared proposals for the Keats and His Circle conference in Hampstead and NASSR 2014. For each of these, I am looking to begin some foundational dissertation work that looks at identity organization in the Cockney School.
Journalist, poet, and radical Leigh Hunt attempts to organize the second generation of Romantic poets in his creative works and his weekly newspaper The Examiner. Though he never writes an overt manifesto and never claims the emergent artists of Romanticism’s second generation as “his” school, I believe he constructs a clear political and artistic mission for himself and his friends. In The Examiner on December 1, 1816, Leigh Hunt published the “Young Poets” article, which announced a new school of poetry led by Percy Shelley, John Hamilton Reynolds, and John Keats (with a nod to Lord Byron). As he writes here and elsewhere, this new school was not innovative so much as restorative, returning the focus of modern poetry to “true” nature and more genuine understandings of “human nature.”
Hunt organizes their poetic identity both as an extension of and reaction to the first generation (esp. after the publication of Wordsworth’s Excursion, lambasted by Byron, Hunt, and Hazlitt as the mark of Wordsworth’s establishment allegiance). He says the new poets are continuing the cultural work begun with the linguistic and political experiments of Lyrical Ballads, a project he believes the now conservative first generation has abandoned. As he defines the cultural work to be done by his school of artists and political reformers, he touts the revolutionary power of loose versification and conversational language (he maintains that the language of conversation is the language of “true nature” and “nativeness”), but he also touts cheerfulness and sociality, as opposed to the Wordsworthian egotistical sublime–poetic insight emerging through solitude. Hunt and crew value brotherly love, charity, and a mutual support of fellow beings. And they uphold these virtues in contrast to the modern vices of extreme individualism, commercial interests, and exploitation of the disenfranchised.
As applied to this circle, the term “Cockney School” in itself demonstrates the ways in which identity gets imposed upon a person or group. Famously, “Z,” a semi-anonymous critic for the Edinburgh Review, printed a series of vicious essays on this group of liberal (and often dissenting) intellectuals from the London suburbs, titled “On the Cockney School of Poetry.” According to Z, the school was headed by Leigh Hunt, and included such figures as Keats, Webb, Haydon, and Hazlitt. His reviews frequently digressed from the work of this school, using ad hominem attacks to belittle the men with their shortcomings in class–all with the intent to discredit this second generation of Romantic artists because of their politics. Intriguingly, pieces of this class prejudice against Cockneys precedes the era, and the stereotype can be seen today in the classic appropriation of Liza Doolittle style Cockney accents in parodies of the English. A particular favorite of mine in the last year has been Fred Armisen’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II as a sort of Cockney thug on Saturday Night Live.
Nevertheless, the Hunt circle appropriated the qualities of this pejorative stereotype and other labels applied to them, reading into these intended delimitations a revolutionary power for greater liberty. Z complained of their inferior education, their limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, but for Cockneys like Hunt, Keats, and Reynolds translations and retellings proved more democratic, opening new worlds of knowledge and opportunity for people of middle and working class backgrounds. Chapman’s Homer introduces Keats to new peaks, new oceans, new planets, horizons previously inaccessible. Z complained of their vulgarity and obscenity, but Hunt, Keats, and Shelley celebrated sensual overflow and freedom of expression. Their poems portray this liberty literally by catalogues of sensory images and metaphorically by unconventional representations of love (sympathetic idolaters, demon lovers, love triangles, etc.).
In a trend I find problematic, Keats scholars of the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries perpetuate a prejudice against Keats’s supposed Cockney roots, often undervaluing the politically engaged young Keats of 1816-1817. Moreover, they divorce his later work from Hunt’s influence (rightly so, perhaps, as Keats distanced himself from Hunt for numerous personal and professional reasons). As a young scholar just beginning my work on Keats’s Cockney roots, I don’t know yet to what extent I agree that Keats’s work transcends his Cockney identity. Though his 1820 volume may demonstrate sophistication well beyond the wrenched rhymes or weak adverbial descriptors of Huntian style, his thematic concerns remain deeply Cockneyfied. Romances like Isabella; Or the Pot of Basil and Lamia betray his continued resistance against a modern capitalist economy that exploits both human and nonhuman resources. And even his great ode sequence, which ostensibly celebrates a pure aestheticism, carries the taint of political agenda and historicity. The nightingale disappears, the poet awakes. He returns to a historical reality of the Six Acts, the Corn Law Protests, Peterloo, disenfranchisement, disease, and personal loss. To say the least, his 1820 volume shows a conflicted relationship with the Hunt school (perhaps a topic for another post).
I feel immensely fortunate to have the opportunity to explore London and its suburbs again, as a slightly more seasoned romanticist, Keatsian, and anglophile. And while I will not adopt a phony Cockney accent for the duration of my visit, I will expand upon my original pilgrimage, exploring the sites that were key to the school’s development. On the list thus far, other than Hampstead Heath, of course: Edmonton, Enfield, Guy’s Hospital, and the Vale of Health. I will keep you apprised of my plans for exploration as well as archival research as the reality of this trip continues to set in.
At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.
Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.
We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.
“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”
I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”
At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”
After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.
Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.
I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.
Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.
In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.
Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).
Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.
Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.