Hottentot in Jackboots

John Bayley

  • Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School by Jeffrey Cox
    Cambridge, 287 pp, £37.50, January 1999, ISBN 0 521 63100 9

The Politicisation of poetry can sometimes bring back to vivid life the poet’s original outlook and preconceptions: it can also misunderstand them. A poem that comes off, and takes off, does so in terms of its own language, irrespective of ideological impulses and overtones. Time, as Auden observed,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

Auden is talking here in terms of the political correctness of his own time, to which on behalf of Yeats (and of himself) he pretends with affected humility to be too ‘silly’ to subscribe. He knew quite well, though, that those early poems of his, with their electrifying message of doom and hope for ‘this England where nobody is well’, carried in their real words a quite different message, a message from the world of his own poetically unique imagination. And it was this thrill that poetry-lovers of the period understood and responded to.

But it is always dangerous to speak of ‘poetry-lovers’. In its enthusiasm for language time can do, and in the past has done, rather too thorough a job on the uplift of a poet’s language at the expense of the more down-to-earth world of his politics. During the 19th century the intensity and precision of Shelley’s radicalism was largely lost on ‘lovers’ of his poetry, and on ladies carried away by the afflatus of the Wild West Wind. The sour and defensive defeatism of the mature Wordsworth was overlooked in the same way. Investigative criticism of any poetic background, and that of the Romantics in particular, can do an important job, and Jeffrey Cox’s study is a good example of what can be done, for he avoids the hunt-the-slipper determination which has caused some zealous critics to see a covert political message lurking in every heartfelt Romantic line. There is no likelihood at all that Wordsworth was actually thinking of the revolutionary Tree of Liberty when the vanished magic of his boyhood reminds him of ‘a tree, of many, one’. The Immortality Ode is a recollection of childhood and his regrets about it.

Nor is it really plausible to claim, as at least one critic has done, that Keats had the Cato Street Conspiracy in mind when he refers to Autumn as ‘close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,/Conspiring with him...’ Meaningful innuendo can be injected into any sentence if we add ‘as the Bishop said to the Actress’, or vice versa, and Professor Cox is too sensible to indulge in such aberrations. The tone of his book does show, none the less, how it is that so much state-of-the-art literary criticism has come to disregard the enjoyment of a poem, in Auden’s sense, for its political hinterland. Wordsworth deplored the idea of having a ‘taste’ for poetry; and yet such a taste is exactly what is needed in order to become a connoisseur of a poet’s language, just as a good ear is necessary for the understanding of music. But there’s no need to have a ‘taste’ for ideology in order to understand its historical significance for poets and poetry. Hence it is simpler for students and academics alike to see poetry as sociology. The results can be unfortunate, not only for poetry but for the academic’s own prose.

I like to think of this book as avoiding some of abstraction’s pitfalls in order to move us closer to understanding the ways in which a literary work is a complex social act as both a product and producer of a web of human relations, relations that are both local and wide-ranging, from the personal link a seduction poem may both draw upon and forge with the person being seduced to the more distant connection a text makes when a reader, contemplating the work long decades after it was written, is himself or herself moved to write about it. I am most interested in how and why particular literary texts arise in particularised interpersonal circumstances.

And so on. What Cox seems to be saying here is that poetry should be studied as an exercise in sociological enquiry.

In historical terms he has a point, and he has chosen the right group for his example. It was Blackwood who coined the term ‘Cockney School’ to discredit the republican principles of Leigh Hunt and his following by associating them with the morals and behaviour of a class who were not quite gentlemen. Byron (not quoted by Cox) goes to the root of the matter with the forceful impartiality characteristic of a man wholly confident of his own social status. ‘The grand distinction of the Under forms of the New School of poetry is their vulgarity. By this I do not mean that they are coarse ... A man may be coarse and yet not vulgar.’ Just so. The trouble with Leigh Hunt and young Keats and their coterie was that they and their verses were irredeemably vulgar, the badge of the rising underclass of Byron’s ‘would-be gentlemen’ or ‘Sunday Bloods’. What Blackwood and Co. craftily insinuated was that if a man’s verse and habits were vulgar his politics must be vulgar too.

But what neither Byron nor Blackwood saw, and Cox gives no indication of seeing either, is that it was precisely the vulgarity of Keats’s language, its Keatsianness so to speak, that time would come to worship and confirm as a true new voice in English poetry. I once attempted in a critical book and essay to analyse the splendours of Keatsian linguistic vulgarity, and to establish that Leigh Hunt was not only the father and forerunner of Keats’s untrammelled inspiration but his best and most discerning critic. Byron patronised Keats by praising ‘Hyperion’ as a worthy attempt in the proper classic mode. But Hunt saw, and claimed in one of the best early essays on the poet, that it is in ‘Isabella’, the Odes and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ that one finds the true and complex voice of Keatsian vulgarity, which as surely as the excitement of Auden’s own early lines made a wholly novel impact.

Blackwood’s coinage distinguished the Cockney School from the Lake School. It was not only in their language that Cockney poets differed sharply from Lakers and classicists alike but in their nature worship as well. For Leigh Hunt and Keats, nature was of the Greenbelt Garden City variety: they would have felt quite at home in Mr Wemmick’s wonderful little garden, adorned with silver globes, goldfish in miniature grottoes and flowers in Grecian urns. As Elizabeth Jones writes in ‘Keats in the Suburbs’,[*] the genius of this style of gardening was the great horticulturalist John Claudius Loudoun (a road in St John’s Wood is named after him), who in 1838 published his Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion. Loudoun’s idea was the ‘gardenesque’, and his rhetorical style, very much in the mode of Leigh Hunt, promoted self-advancement through the cultivation of a miniature estate which might ensure to humbler folk ‘everything that is worth having of the enjoyments of the wealthier classes’.

The background of Keats’s Odes is the villa garden, which could include Grecian urns (produced in unlimited quantity by the Wedgwood factory) and real nightingales singing ‘in the next valley glades’ – which might mean in the garden next door. Blackwood’s produced its inevitable sneer at the ‘craze of the Cockney to be Greekish’. A ‘classical Cockney’ was on a par with a ‘hottentot in jackboots’. William Hamilton brought home the Barbarini Vase in 1783, and running short of cash, sold it to the Duchess of Portland. The renamed Portland Vase began to exist in a host of reproductions, in some of which the nude figures were suitably draped. In her novel The Volcano Lover Susan Sontag imagined Hamilton’s horror at this endless reproduction of his beloved vase. ‘Everyone could have, should have, a Portland Vase’ – but who could really love a vase which had become a mere ‘notion’?

An ironic paradox is that while the real classicists of the 18th century, up to those like Landor in Keats’s time, were still producing a stereotyped and linguistically mass-produced poetic diction, it took the genius of Cockney Keats to find for his ‘Grecian Urn’ a style as richly unique as the vase itself had once been. Keats’s poem inherits the true immortality which the vase itself had once seemed to possess. Perhaps it was in a fury of frustration at the fate to which Wedgwood had brought a once beloved object that a young man in 1845 went out of his mind, ran into the British Museum, where the vase was exhibited and smashed it to atoms. Reconstructed by craftsmen who had to take the Wedgwood reproductions for their model, the vase was never seen as quite the same again. Keats’s poem, however, has remained inviolate.

The creation of a new class with its own values, political, moral and aesthetic, was bound to cause repercussions in every aspect of life and ideas. The cocky republican hopefulness of Hunt’s circle, widening and increasing as it travelled through society, shocked the old royalist gentry more deeply than did the outcry of the ‘mob’, as they would still have thought of it, even though that mob was now beginning to organise itself along more formidable lines in the new industrial areas. Cockney culture and aspiration helped to bring about the Reform Bill, as well as offering an escape route from the disillusionment which had succeeded the hopes roused by the French Revolution. As Cox observes, ‘where Wordsworth argued that this despair was the necessary punishment for revolutionary hubris that could be combated only by a quietist return to nature and nature’s God, the Hunt circle would attempt to combat despair with continued revolutionary hope.’ Shelley’s preface to The Revolt of lslam had argued against despair in the face of setbacks to reform, and Hunt remarked in the Examiner that he would have recommended it to the Lake Poets ‘were they not now as dogmatic in their despair as they used to be in their hope’.

What Cox does not draw enough attention to is the engaging inconsistency of the new Cockney culture and its values. He emphasises their sense of community – writing verses together, running sonnet competitions, designing garden bowers and planning Sunday outings – but overlooks the brash new ethos: old-fashioned possessiveness and pride in being cock of one’s own castle. This was to run deep in 19th-century class values, as was the new gentility of escapism, of getting away from it all. However much Keats admired and participated in the values of the Hunt circle the deeper instinct in his poetry leads towards the kind of solitary sexual daydream which would later find its expression in the cinema, and to his wish for a poetry that would ‘flap away’ daily cares (a wonderful image from the Cockney domesticity of feather dusters) and ‘simply tell the most heart-easing things’.

Nelson’s column in commemoration of Trafalgar was being designed at this time, and a monument for the Duke of Wellington was also in prospect. Although Parliament voted in 1816 for two monuments, for Nelson’s Navy and Wellington’s Army, the latter project was a good deal more controversial. In the first volume of Annals of the Fine Arts John Galt argued for a giant sarcophagus, ‘a companionable form’ to the funerary urn, to commemorate not the prowess of the commander but the memory of the slain. The following year in the same periodical the editor James Elmes came out in favour of a copy of the Athenian temple to Theseus, a copy that would in a sense have echoed the already innumerable copies of the Portland Vase. Annals of the Fine Arts, chief promoter of ‘Romantic Classicism’, first published Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, thus unwittingly securing something that not in the least resembled a copy of any kind, but which invented what might be described as the Cockney Grand Style. Significantly, it was also an ode to Keats’s buried instinct for escape and tranquillity, that ‘still unravish’d bride of quietness’, to be found in the new secluded retreats of Hampstead, Perivale or St John’s Wood.

[*] The essay appears in The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats, edited by Robert Ryan and Ronald Sharp (Massachusetts, 223 pp., £27, 8 November 1998, 155849 175 9).