Blackwood's Magazine/On the Cockney School of Poetry I
|On the Cockney School of Poetry I (1817)
|Published in Blackwood's Magazine, October 1817, under the pseudonym 'Z'|
Our talk shall be (a theme we never tire on) Of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, (Our England'* Dante) Wordsworth HUNT, and KEATS, The Muses son of promise; and of what feats He yet may do.
WHILE the whole critical world is occupied with, balancing the merits, whether in theory or in execution, of what is commonly called THE LAKE- SCHOOL, it is strange that no one seems to think it at all necessary to say a single word about another new school of poetry which has of late sprung up among us. This school has not, I believe, as yet received any name ; but if I may be permitted to have the honour of christening it, it may henceforth be referred to by the designation of THE COCKNEY SCHOOL. Its chief Doctor and Professor is Mr Leigh Hunt, a man certainly of some talents, of extravagant pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking and manners in all respects. He is a man of little education. He knows absolutely no- thing of Greek, almost nothing of Latin, and his knowledge of Italian literature is confined to a few of the most popular of Petrarch's sonnets, and an imperfect acquaintance with Ariosto, through the medium of Mr Hoole. As to the French poets, he, dismisses them in the mass as a set of prim, precise, unnatural pretenders. The truth is, he is in a state of happy ignorance about them and all that they have done. He has never read Zaire nor Phedre. To those great German poets who have illuminated the last fifty years with a splendour to which this country has, for a long time, seen nothing comparable, Mr Hunt is an absolute stranger. Of Spanish books he has read Don Quixote (in the translation of Motteux), and some poems of Lope de Vega in the imita* tions of my Lord Holland. Of all the great critical writers, either of ancient or of modern times, he is utterly ig- norant, excepting only Mr Je'nrey among ourselves.
With this stock of knowledge, Mr Hunt presumes to become the founder of a new school of poetry, and throws away entirely the chance which he might have had of gaining some true P oetica l & e > had he been less lofty in his pretensions. The story of Rimini is not wholly undeserving of praise. It possesses some tolerable passages, which are all quoted in the Edinburgh Reviewer's account of the poem, and not one of which is quoted in the very illiberal attack upon it in the Quar- terly. But such is the wretched taste in which the greater part of the work is executed,, that most certainly no man who reads it once will ever be able to prevail upon himself to read it again. One feels the same disgust at the idea of opening Rimini, that im- presses itself on the mind of a man of fashion, when he is invited to enter, for a second time, the gilded drawing- room of a little mincing boarding- school mistress, who would fain have an At Home in her house. Every thing is pretence, affectation, finery, and gaudiness. The beaux are attor- neys' apprentices, with chapeau bras and Limerick gloves fiddlers, harp teachers, and clerks of genius : the belles are faded fan-twinkling spin- sters, prurient vulgar misses from school, and enormous citizens' wives. The company are entertained with lukewarm negus, and the sounds of a paltry piano forte.
All the great poets of our country have been men of some rank in so- ciety, and there is no vulgarity in any of their writings ; but Mr Hunt can- not utter a dedication, or even a note, without betraying the Shibboleth of low birth and low habits. He is the ideal of a Cockney Poet. He raves perpetually abou t ' ' green fields," "jaunty streams, and " o'er-arching leafiness," exactly as a Cheapside shop-keeper does about the beauties of his box on the Cam- berwell road. Mr Hunt is altogether unacquainted with the face of nature in her magnificent scenes; he has never seen any mountain higher than Highgate-hill, nor reclined by any stream more pastoral than the Serpen- tine River. But he is determined to be a poet eminently rural, and he rings the changes till one is sick of him, on the beauties of the different " high views" which he has taken of God and nature, in the course of some Sunday dinner parties, at which he has assisted in the neighbourhood of Lon- don. His books are indeed not known in the country ; his fame as a poet (and I might almost say, as a politi- cian too) is entirely confined to the young attorneys and embryo-barris- ters about town. In the opinion of these competent judges, London is the world and Hunt is a Homer.
Mr Hunt is not disqualified by his ignorance and vulgarity alone, for be- ing the founder of a respectable sect in poetry. He labours under the bur- den of a sin more deadly than either of these. The two great elements of all dignified poetry, religious feeling, and patriotic feeling, have no place in his writings. His religion is a poor tame dilution of the blasphemies of the Encyclopcedie his patriotism a crude, vague, ineffectual, and sour Jacobin- ism. His works exhibit no reverence either for God or man ; neither altar nor throne have any dignity in his eyes. He speaks well of nobody but two or three great dead poets, and in so speaking of them he does well; but, alas! Mr Hunt is no conjurer Template:Missing greek. He pretends, indeed, to be an admirer of Spenser and Chaucer, but what he praises in them is never what is most deserving of praise it is only that which he hum- bly conceives, bears some resemblance to the more perfect productions of Mr Leigh Hunt ; and we can always dis- cover, in the midst of his most violent ravings about the Court of Elizabeth, and the days of Sir Philip Sidney, and the Fairy Queen that the real objects of his admiration are the Coterie of Hampstead and the Editor of the Ex- aminer. When he talks about chi- valry and King Arthur, he is always thinking of himself, and " a small party of friends, who meet once a-week at a Round Table, to discuss the merits of a leg of mutton, and of the subjects upon which we are to write." Mr Leigh Hunt's ideas concerning the su- blime, and concerning his own powers, bear a considerable resemblance to those of his friend Bottom, the weaver, on the same subjects ; " I will roar, that it shall do any man's heart good to hear me." " I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale."
The poetry of Mr Hunt is such as might be expected from the personal character and habits of its author. As a vulgar man is perpetually labouring to be genteel in like manner, the poetry of this man is always on the stretch to be grand. He has been allowed to look for a moment from the antichamber into the saloon, and mis- taken the waving of feathers and the painted floor for the sine qua non's of elegant society. He would fain be al- ways tripping and waltzing, and is sorry that he cannot be allowed to walk about in the morning with yel- low breeches and flesh-coloured silk stockings. He sticks an artificial rose- bud into his button hole in the midst of winter. He wears no neckcloth, and cuts his hair in imitation of the Prints of Petrarch. In his versus he is always desirous of being airy, graceful, easy, courtly, and ITALIAN. If he had the smallest acquaintance with the great demi-gods of Italian poetry, he could never fancy that the style in which he writes, bears any, even the most remote resemblance to the severe and simple manner of Dante the tender stillness of the lover of Laura or the sprightly and good-na- tured unconscious elegance of the in- imitable Ariosto. He has gone into a strange delusion about himself, and is just as absurd in supposing that he resembles the Italian Poets as a greater Quack still (Mr Coleridge) is, in im- agining that he is a Philosopher after the manner of Kant or Mendelshon and that " the eye of Lessing bears a remarkable likeness to MINE," i. e. the eye of Mr Samuel Coleridge.
The extreme moral depravity of the Cockney School is another thing which is for ever thrusting itself upon the public attention, and convincing every man of sense who looks into their pro- ductions, that they who sport such sentiments can never be great poets. How could any man of high original genius ever stoop publicly, at the pre- sent day, to dip his fingers in the least of those glittering and rancid ob- scenities which float on the surface of Mr Hunt's Hippccrene? His poetry resembles that of a man who has kept company with kept-mistresses. His muse talks indelicately like a tea-sip- ping milliner girl. Some excuse for her there might have been, had she been hurried away by imagination or passion ; but with her, indecency seems a disease, she appears to speak un- clean things from perfect inanition. Surely they who are connected with Mr Hunt by the tender relations of society, have good reason to complain that his muse should have been so prostituted. In Rimini a deadly wound is aimed at the dearest confi- dences of domestic bliss. The author has voluntarily chosen a subject not of simple seduction alcne rone in which his mind seems absolutely to gloat over all the details of adultery and incest.
The unhealthy and jaundiced me- dium through which the Founder of the Cockney School views every thing like moral truth, is apparent, not only from his obscenity, but also from his want of respect for all that numerous class of plain upright men, and un- pretending women, in which the real worth and excellence of human socie- ty consists. Every man is, according to Mr Hunt, a dull potato-eating blockhead of no greater value to God or man than any ox or dray- horse who is not an admirer of Voltaire's romans, a worshipper of Lord Holland and Mr Haydon, and a quoter of John Buncle and Chaucer's Flower and Leaf. Every woman is use- ful only as a breeding machine, unless she is fond of reading Launcelot of the Lake, in an antique summer-house.
How such an indelicate writer as Mr Hunt can pretend to be an ad- mirer of Mr Wordsworth, is to us a thing altogether inexplicable. One great charm of Wordsworth's noble compositions consists in the dignifi- ed purity of thought, and the pa- triarchal simplicity of feeling, with which they are throughout penetrated and imbued. We can conceive a vicious man admiring with distant awe the spectacle of virtue and purity ; but if he does so sincerely, he must also do so with the profoundest feel- ing of the error of his own ways, and the resolution to umend them. His admiration must be humble and silent, not pert and loquacious. Mr Hunt praises the purity of Wordsworth as if he himself were pure, his dignity as if he also were dignified. He is al- ways like the ball of Dung in the fa- ble, pleasing himself, and amusing bye-standers with his " nos poma na- tamus." For the person who writes Rimini, to admire the Excursion, is just as impossible as it would be for a Chinese polisher of cherry-stones, or gilder of tea-cups, to burst into tears at the sight of the Theseus or the Torso.
The Founder of the Cockney School would fain claim poetical kindred with Lord Byron and Thomas Moore. Such a connexion would be as unsuit- able for them as for William Words- worth. The days of Mr Moore's follies are long since over ; and, as he is a thorough gentleman, he must ne- cessarily entertain the greatest con- tempt for such an under-bred person as Mr Leigh Hunt. But Lord By- ron ! How must the haughty spirit of Lara and Harold contemn the subal- tern sneaking of our modern tuft- hunter. The insult which he offered to Lord Byron in the dedication of Rimini,, in which he, a paltry cock- ney newspaper scribbler, had the as- surance to address one of the most nobly-born of English Patricians, and one of the first geniuses whom the world ever produced, as " My dear Byron," although it may have been forgotten and despised by the illus- trious person whom it most nearly concerned, excited a feeling of utter loathing and disgust in the public mind, which will always be remem- bered whenever the name of Leigh Hunt is mentioned. We dare say Mr Hunt has some fine dreams about the true nobility being the nobility of ta- lent, and flatters himself, that with those who acknowledge only that sort of rank, he himself passes for being the peer of Byron. He is sadly mis- taken. He is as completely a Ple- beian in his mind as he is in his rank and station in society. To that high- est and unalienable nobility which the great Roman satirist styles " sola at- que unica," we fear his pretensions would be equally unavailing.
The shallow and impotent, preten- sions, tenets, and attempts, of this man, and the success with which his influence seems to be extending itself among a pretty numerous, though certainly a very paltry and pitiful, set of readers, have for the last two or three years been considered by us with the most sickening aver- sion. The very culpable manner in which his chief poem was reviewed in the Edinburgh Review (we believe it is no secret, at his own impatient and feverish request, by his partner in the Round Table), was matter of concern to more readers than our- selves. The masterly pen which in- flicted such signal chastisement on the early licentiousness of Moore, should not have been idle on that oc- casion. Mr Jeffrey does ill when he delegates his important functions into such hands as those of Mr Hazlitt. It was chiefly in consequence of that gentleman's allowing Leigh Hunt to pass unpunished through a scene of slaughter, which his execution might so highly have graced, that we came to the resolution of laying before our readers a series of essays on the Cock" ney School of which here termin- ates the first. Z.
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|
- Mr V/ordsworth (meaning, we presume, to pay Mr Coleridge a compliment,) makes him look very absurdly,
- 4 A noticeable man, with lyrge grey eyes."