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John Gibson Lockhart:
The Cockney School of Poetry

On the Cockney School of Poetry. No. I
On the Cockney School of Poetry. No. II
The Cockney School of Poetry. No. III
On the Cockney School of Poetry. No. IV
On the Cockney School of Poetry. No. V
On the Cockney School of Poetry. No. VI
On the Cockney School No. VII
On the Cockney School of Poetry. No. VIII

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The eight “Cockney School” essays in Blackwood’s are among the most notorious pieces of invective in English literature. In some ways it is easy to see why this is so: the spectacle of someone inflicting pain inspires little love for the chastiser—the less so when those receiving the chastisement are objects of admiration. If Pope’s Dunciad is now admired and Lockhart’s essays are not, it may be because Lockhart was an inferior satirist or it may be that (as used to be the case with Pope) he is so effective as to arouse revulsion. Few writers approach Lockhart’s placid, clear-eyed, withering, milk-curdling, disdain.

The “Cockney” essays, however, were not singled out for particular opprobrium until the death of Keats and subsequent drum-beat of attacks on his “murderers.” Blackwood’s detractors were more upset about attacks on respectable Whigs like like Professor John Playfair. Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt, being in the detraction business themselves, had few defenders and what Z had to say about the faults of Keats’s juvenile poetry was true enough. What gave offense was the “personality” that Blackwood’s detractors regarded as the chief reason for its success.

It is difficult to see why a literary public that admired original genius in poetry would object to personality in criticism: invert the charges Lockhart lays against Hunt and one has a pretty good approximation of what was most admired in a writer. If a great poet could sway the temper of the times, so too might a bad poet—a bad poet of genius. Had Hunt been merely incompetent he would not have attracted serious criticism. If Blackwood’s were merely another scandal-sheet, it would not have attracted vicious criticism in turn. The contest between the poet and the periodical was and remains of interest because “personality” is a vital component of romantic literature.

The sentiments and much of the satire in the “Cockney School” essays were quite traditional; one has only to imagine Leigh Hunt as a latter-day Colley Cibber ensconced in the metropolis, good-humored and tasteless, sentimental and ignorant, witlessly dispensing novelty and corruption to a gullible public. What differentiates Lockhart from Pope’s assault on the earlier generation of Whig writers (and what unites him to Hunt) is his sense that politics and morality—the ostensible objects of contention—are epiphenomena of something deeper, an informing spirit or genius stamping a uniform character on its diverse productions. While his motives are transparently political Lockhart has little to say about Hunt’s politics; instead he writes about religion, sexuality, food, fashion, and landscape, the constituent components of what would later be called culture. Hunt is presented as the leader of a cult.

In this respect the choice of title was brilliant, “Cockney” suggesting a provincial barbarism specific to the Hunt coterie that might be attached to Londoners more generally: Leigh Hunt becomes the genius of the place. Lockhart takes advantage of the perspectival qualities in cultural discourse to describe London as through the wrong end of a telescope: just as Hampstead is a rural suburb of London, so literary culture in London seems insular in comparison to cosmopolitan Edinburgh. Hunt seems like a great man to his Cockney followers because in their ignorance and self-absorbtion they have nothing to compare him to. The same criticism was directed at the Lakers.

The Story of Rimini is not wicked because it is about incest (which as Lockhart points out had been treated in many admired works) but because it is not about incest: the poem barely touches upon the breach of faith which is the basis for the original story. Instead the reader is overwhelmed by fine feelings and decorative descriptions. In order to break the spell, Lockhart runs widdershins about the poem, offering up nasty feelings and ugly descriptions: “How could any man of high original genius ever stoop publicly, at the present day, to dip his fingers in the least of those glittering and rancid obscenities which float on the surface of Mr Hunt’s Hippocrene?” (No. I). Compare these painted words to Jeffrey’s plain “This will never do” or the terseness of Wordsworth’s “Pretty piece of paganism” and Lockhart’s inverted resemblance to Hunt becomes apparent.

If aesthetic genius (good or bad) is taken to be the force behind social affections, satire, like poetry, becomes a matter of moral sensibility. Feelings that link “original genius” to the common mind spread contagiously. And so it is that Lockhart believes that he can and should write “personality” without being personal. It is not what Hunt does that matters, it is what he feels and expresses imaginatively that is the threat: “There can be no radical distinction allowed between the private and public character of a poet. If a poet sympathizes with and justifies wickedness in his poetry, he is a wicked man. It matters not that his private life may be free from wicked actions. Corrupt his moral principles must be,—and if his conduct has not been flagrantly immoral, the cause must be looked for in constitution, &c. but not in conscience. It is therefore of little or no importance, whether Leigh Hunt be or be not a bad private character” (No. III.)

While their appearance was occasional, there seems to have been some design behind the series. Lockhart invented the waspish “Z” character for the purpose and maintained it to the end. The first three installments form a group which Lockhart distinguished from his personal addresses to Hunt in the letters of January and May 1818. Of the remaining five, four are reviews: of Keats’s Poems and Endymion (IV), Hunt’s Foliage (VI), The Liberal (VII) and Bacchus in Tuscany (VIII). Number V burlesques Hunt’s mannerisms in prose and verse. Having made his case in the first three, ”Z” seems to have waited upon Hunt’s publications to appear; as Hunt became more desultory, so did the series. The tone becomes noticeably less acerbic as Hunt became less of a political force to contend with, and in the last the tone, while still mocking, becomes almost affectionate. Hunt’s translation of Redi’s Bacchus is quoted at great length; it is a piece of Pindaric doggrel not out of place in Blackwood’s; to close the series Hunt is imaginatively transported from Italy to Edinburgh where the tipsy reveler is sent to bed in the Cherry Chamber at Ambrose’s.

If Leigh Hunt was emotionally wounded by Lockhart’s brutal attacks he did not respond as he later would to Byron’s personal slights. Nor is there reason to think that Lockhart had any particular animus against Hunt: they were both political journalists accustomed to giving and receiving dents. Hunt did not answer in kind, which was probably wise, but he did respond in the Examiner. The first piece (16 November 1817), which seems to threaten a challenge or law suit against the anonymous assailant, he later said was the idea of his brother John. The second (14 December 1817), expressing pity for the “poor wretched lying and cowardly creature” and thanking his defenders in Edinburgh (where Blackwood’s was undergoing a furious counter-attack) sounds more like Hunt. He mocks Z’s misrepresentations of his domestic life in an essay on political calumny (28 June 1818). In a political essay on Tory satirists published 21 October 1821 he offers a meandering non-explanation for why he has not responded to Z and acknowledges the work John Scott of the London Magazine had done to expose Blackwood’s.

Textual changes are good indications of social pressure being brought to bear. In addition to removing the “Chaldee Manuscript,” later editions of the October 1817 number have an airbrushed version of the passage in which Z questions the effects Hunt’s libertine attitudes might have on his wife and family. Political figures were regarded as fair game but their families were not.

Lockhart expressed regret for the unmannerly behavior of Blackwood’s Magazine, both at the time and afterwards, with what sincerity it is difficult to know. His slanderous essays were not easy to defend (what credit is to be gained by doing a bad thing well?), the usual defense being that the other side was doing the same (which was true, though not done so well or so memorably). In Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School (1998) Jeffrey N. Cox demonstrated the value of taking the Tory attacks seriously as a way of understanding why Leigh Hunt mattered to his contemporaries. The same claim could be made for Whig attacks on Blackwoods, which played an even more influential role in shaping modern cultural politics.

David Hill Radcliffe