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Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle.

Jeffrey N. Cox. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xviii+278. $59.95.

We have been using the notion of a group or "circle" of individuals in romantic studies for decades--for example, in the title of Hyder Rollins' collection of papers centered on Keats (The Keats Circle, 1948), in the title of Kenneth Cameron and Donald Reiman's more elaborate assemblage centered on the Shelleys (Shelley and His Circle, 1961--), and in such routine phrasings as show up in the headnote to the Keats-Shelley Journal's annual bibliography covering "articles, reviews, and book-length studies of Byron, Hazlitt, Hunt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, John Keats, and their circles." But until quite recently, these circles have designated little more than an accumulation of superficial connections among people who corresponded with one another, or lived in the same town or neighborhood, or worked in the same office, or published with the same journal or press. The ways in which the group as a whole might have influenced a writer's style and thinking have not been much considered, and the writer's style and thinking have not been much considered, and the writers have continued to be read and studied (and taught) as solitary geniuses, as if the group never existed.

All this is rapidly changing, as the romantic version of New Historicism, in the work of Jerome McGann, Marjorie Levinson, Nicholas Roe, Alan Liu, and others, exerts its good influence on all aspects of literary study from the top down, affecting the work of senior scholars, their younger colleagues, graduate students, and, as it gets into the day-to-day business of lectures and classroom discussions, undergraduates as well (some of whom will grow up, one hopes, to become "general readers"). We all recognize contingencies of group dynamics that operate on us practically every minute of our waking lives; it is a welcome development that critics have--albeit belatedly--become readier to project this awareness backward, imaginatively, into the historical circumstances they are trying to recover.

Jeffrey Cox's new project--which began and took shape in the ambience of a circle of its own, the Interdisciplinary Group for Historical Literary Study at Texas A&M--is a fine example of this more acute way of doing history. Cox's thesis, plainly stated near the beginning of the introduction, is that "what we call the second generation of romantic poets is not merely a temporal gathering of distinct voices but a self-consciously defined group, an association of intellectuals that centered on Leigh Hunt and that came to be known as the Cockney School" (4-5). It represents a fresh and invigorating approach, since one of the principal tasks of romantic scholars over the years has been to dissociate the canonical poets, Keats and Shelley in particular, from Hunt and the other lesser figures, as if the lesser were some kind of contaminating influence that the canonicals had to outgrow--in effect, decontaminate themselves from--in order to fulfill their destiny. Cox assembles an impressive quantity of concrete evidence to argue that, on the contrary, these "bad" connections were pervasive, long-lasting, and extremely beneficial, and that it is a serious mistake to leave them out of the picture.

After a brief introduction, in which he theorizes about the problems of historicism and explains his idea of "group" and its importance in rethinking literary history, Cox uses chapters 1 and 2 first to establish the existence of the Cockney School--starting with the pervasively political Blackwood's attacks of 1818 and the seemingly nonpolitical (but in Cox's reading decidedly radical) pastoralism and fantasy life of the writings being attacked--and next to enumerate and illustrate the facts and relationships connecting a great many people (forty-one of whom are named on page 46 alone) into a circle around Hunt and The Examiner. These are men and women who were regularly seeing and corresponding with one another, reading, copying, and criticizing one another's manuscripts, competing in poetry-writing contests, and coauthoring literary works. Chapter 3, "John Keats, Coterie Poet," begins a series of practical applications of the theorizing and facts established in the introduction and chapters 1 and 2. The focus is Keats's first volume, the Poems of 1817, with illuminating commentary on the coterie interests, motifs, and sources that show up in the "Great spirits" and Chapman's Homer sonnets, the epistles to George Felton Mathew, George Keats, and Charles Cowden Clarke, the sonnets to Kosciusko and Haydon, Sleep and Poetry, and, at length, I stood tip-toe. Chapter 4 takes up the genres, ideas, and mythicizing of the drama produced by members of the Hunt circle--minor stuff when the spotlight is on Hunt's The Descent of Liberty, Horace Smith's Amarynthus, and Mary Shelley's Midas and Proserpine but suddenly major when the genres and myths of these productions are brought to bear on Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Chapter 5, "Cockney Classicism: History with Footnotes," gives us a 40-page reading of Ode on a Grecian Urn, starting with the Portland Vase in the British Museum (one of the urns less often mentioned in discussions of the poem) and the politics of its owners, Lord and Lady Hamilton (the latter was Nelson's Emma), and going on to Lady Hamilton's famous "attitudes" (highly publicized performances of costumed poses to illustrate emotions) in connection with the "Fair attitude" of Keats's final stanza. I'm doubtful about this last ("attitude" was well established as a technical term in the fine arts at least a century before the curtains opened on Lady Hamilton, and the urn is pointedly cold marble at the beginning of this final stanza), but these historical materials, including the context of first publication in Annals of the Fine Arts and the Tory reviewers' repeated attacks on Keats's classicism, are quite enlightening. The final chapter, subtitled "Keats and Shelley on the Wealth of the Imagination," shows how Keats's famous letter to Shelley of 16 August 1820 (advising him to "curb [his] magnanimity and be more of an artist, and `load every rift' of [his] subject with ore") influenced specific wording and ideas of Shelley's De. fence of Poetry and, more generally, Shelley's portrayal of Keats in Adonais.

I read this book shortly after returning from the 1999 MLA meeting in Chicago, where the sessions that I attended and the new books that I examined in the publishers' exhibits, along with the several hundred dossiers-plus-writing-samples that I had read before the meeting from applicants seeking jobs in my department, had made me rather gloomy about the general state of our profession. Cox's work was a timely remedy for my gloom, in effect restoring my faith in the practical uses of scholarship and criticism, showing that it is still possible (even after all the work that has already been done by scholars--for, now, more than a century--on these same writers and texts) to do worthwhile historical research. Some intelligent reviewers of the book (in particular Michael O'Neill in TLS, 8 October 1999, and Robert Ryan in The Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 1999) have raised questions about Cox's overly facile generalizations, fondness for reductive dichotomies, and tendency to downplay (or even suppress) the discords and tensions that existed among members of the Hunt circle. My own reaction was pleasant surprise, on practically every page, at how Cox's use of biographical, historical, and textual materials freshly illuminated matters in Keats's life, poems, and letters that I've known and used all my professional life. I shall recommend it to my next graduate seminar to show that it is still possible to do something new and interesting with materials that one might have thought were pretty well exhausted.

This book is the thirty-first volume in the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, a series that began in 1993 and contains some of the brightest and most interesting recent work in the field. The general editors, Marilyn Butler and James Chandler, deserve our gratitude and congratulations on the high quality of the series.

JACK STILLINGER is Center for Advanced Study Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His most recent book is Reading "The Eve of St. Agnes": The Multiples of Complex Literary Transaction (Oxford UP, 1999).
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Stillinger, Jack
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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