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.