Cockneyism

Gregory Dart

At first Dickens tried to deny that Harold Skimpole, the parasitical aesthete of Bleak House, had been based on his friend Leigh Hunt; but later he confessed, not a little proudly, that the character was ‘the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words . . . it is an absolute reproduction of a real man.’ Skimpole is a corrosive presence in the novel, a serene-faced sponger who claims to know nothing of ‘the world’. ‘I am a child you know,’ he tells the young wards of John Jarndyce. ‘You are designing people compared with me.’ Skimpole’s main similarity to his real-life source, apart from a talent for accepting handouts, is his conversational manner, which is peculiarly fanciful, fluent and charming, but there are other connections, too. Like the Hunt of the 1850s, he has been used to presiding over a large, disorderly household of befuddled and beautiful do-nothings; also like Hunt (whose earliest recollection was of his father’s room in the King’s Bench prison in 1784), he seems to have spent his entire life in debt.

A century and a half after the publication of Bleak House, the shadow of Skimpole is lifting. Whatever Hunt’s faults, he was manifestly neither an idler nor a scoundrel, and there is a growing awareness of the significant contribution he made to poetry and belles-lettres, and, most important of all, a belated realisation that, as editor of his brother John’s Examiner newspaper between 1808 and 1822, he was one of the most important radical journalists of the early 19th century.

Tall, with dark skin and dark brown hair, Leigh Hunt attributed his colouring to the influence of the West Indian sun on his paternal ancestors: his grandfather had been a clergyman in Barbados. His father, Isaac Hunt, trained as a lawyer in Philadelphia, and when the American War of Independence broke out, he wrote a series of pamphlets on the loyalist side. Threatened with political persecution, he fled to England in 1776, where he was soon joined by his young wife and family. In London he followed an unsuccessful career as a preacher, and fell frequently into debt. But he remained an exotic, ebullient character, and imparted a strong dose of New World optimism to his surviving children. Of these, Henry Leigh Hunt was the youngest son, a shy, bookish child who got a rigorous, one might almost say republican, education at Christ’s Hospital in the City of London, where he was a friend of Thomas Barnes, a future editor of the Times, and a younger contemporary of Lamb and Coleridge.

John and Leigh Hunt brought a new idealism to English journalism when they launched the Examiner in 1808. At a time when most polite journals were still tied to the Whig or Tory parties, it was genuinely independent. And from the Peninsular War to the Peterloo Massacre, its charismatic editor remained a champion of progressive opinion, fearlessly opposing the repressive policies of successive Tory Governments. Recognising the importance of Hunt’s early political journalism, the Pickering and Chatto editors have devoted nearly two volumes of the new Selected Writings to the work he did during the Examiner period. And the editors of these volumes, Greg Kucich and Jeffrey Cox, have done a superb job of setting it in context, offering a compelling re-evaluative essay by way of an introduction, and prefacing every article with a detailed explanatory note.

These articles cover all the major issues of the Regency (Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna, Waterloo, English factory conditions, Methodism, postwar radical agitation etc), and one cannot help but be impressed by the range and quality of Hunt’s polemical writing. The editors are right to point to a bitterly satirical vein in his anti-government diatribes, especially since this has not been sufficiently acknowledged, but his style is characterised by its playfulness, fluency and invention. From the most exasperating circumstances, Hunt regularly succeeded in drawing out a good deal of humour as well as indignation, and his criticisms were often all the more effective for being delivered with a subtle mixture of sympathy and disdain.

As a critic of power, Hunt was not as penetrating as his longtime friend and fellow radical Hazlitt; nor did he cultivate the same guillotine style. But given his position as the editor of a weekly newspaper, and one of the leaders of progressive opinion in England, it is not surprising that he preferred to be sociable rather than sublime. It was not enough for him to snipe at power from the sidelines as Hazlitt did. Lacking Hazlitt’s intellectual background, Hunt was not given to obsessing about philosophical differences between the Whigs, the radicals, the Romantic liberals and the utilitarians; he believed the reform movement was a broad church, whatever his misgivings about working-class agitators such as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and Cobbett. Most touching of all, he displayed a fervent belief in ‘improvement’, the idea that society would gradually but inevitably become freer and fairer through the development of public opinion. ‘The advancement is going on,’ he wrote in 1828. ‘If government is not in earnest, society is.’ In contrast to Hazlitt, who was six years older than him, Hunt never grew nostalgic about the French Revolutionary moment, considering that its polarisation of the political debate had done nothing but hinder the cause of reform; instead, he remained resolutely forward-looking and consensus-seeking, unfailingly optimistic that time would tell.

Hunt tended to view politics through the lens of literature (he never had any political works on his shelves, he said, only poetry and essays). As he said in his Autobiography, ‘the main objects of the Examiner were to assist in producing Reform in parliament, liberality of opinion in general (especially freedom from superstition), and a fusion of literary taste into all subjects whatsoever.’ What this meant in practice was that Hunt brought a high level of literary pertinacity and playfulness to his political articles (as when he made fun of the Prince Regent’s bad grammar), and a corresponding degree of political awareness to his literary ones – as in his highly politicised recommendations of Keats and Shelley.

Hunt’s first love had been poetry, and during the 1810s the pages of the Examiner were regularly sprinkled with his witty, well-turned verses (political allegories and satires, verse epistles, sonnets on Hampstead etc). He was also an admirer of the Spectator-style essay. What he liked about the form was its familiarity. ‘Familiar’ was a favourite word of Hunt’s, conjuring up everything that was natural and informal and friendly, capturing the easy, quasi-domestic relationship that he aspired to have with his readers. Throughout his life he wrote essays with such titles as ‘A Day by the Fire – Practically and Poetically Considered’, ‘Fine Days in January and February’, ‘Bad Weather’, ‘Breakfast in Summer’, ‘Getting Up on Cold Mornings’ and ‘Walks Home by Night’. Such pieces generally began with a description of an everyday physical experience that would have been common to all, regardless of class or condition. And once this common ground had been established, the essay would wander off, often in the most apparently artless manner, into a series of literary or personal reminiscences, relaxed reflections on art and life. At their worst, these pieces can seem impertinent, as Hazlitt was the first to recognise, arguing that Hunt ‘runs on to the public as he does at his own fireside, and talks about himself, forgetting that he is not always among friends’. At their best, however, they offer an ideal vehicle for the informal dissemination of liberal opinion, and for dramatising the free play of liberal thought. ‘Some Thoughts on Sleep’, for example, an essay that Hunt wrote for the Indicator (a kind of sister paper to the Examiner), begins with a series of flimsy meditations on what it’s like to fall asleep in different places and postures, but concludes with an inspired peroration that echoes the message of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

Sleep plays the petrifying magician. He arrests the proudest lord as well as the humblest clown in the most ridiculous postures: so that if you could draw a grandee from his bed without waking him, no limb-twisting fool in a pantomime could create wilder laughter. The toy with the string between its legs is hardly a posture-master more extravagant. Imagine a despot lifted up to the gaze of his valets, with his eyes shut, his mouth open, his left hand under his right ear, his other twisted and hanging helplessly before him like an idiot, one knee lifted up, and the other stretched out, or both knees huddled up together; – what a scarecrow to lodge majestic power in!

Effortlessly fluent across a range of genres, Hunt cut a heroic figure in the late 1810s. He was fighting Lord Liverpool’s Government with one hand, and producing a seemingly endless stream of essays and poetic romances with the other. He was also a perceptive critic, who did much to champion the work of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and – eventually – Wordsworth; less brilliant than Hazlitt, he was also less envious of the brilliance of others, which meant that his critical enthusiasm was more generous and open-handed.

This isn’t to say that Hunt didn’t possess his own kind of vanity, ‘a little over-bearing, over-weening self-complacency’, as Hazlitt described it. When he and his brother John were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in 1812 for libelling the Prince Regent, Hunt offered a teasingly serene, not to say Skimpolean face to the public: ‘Our Prosecutors will expect us to be exceedingly downcast at the event,’ he wrote, ‘but we cannot oblige them by saying we are.’ Once in Surrey Gaol, in Southwark, he kept his spirits up by reading and writing poetry, and contributing his usual articles to the Examiner. He also spent a considerable amount of money decorating his room. ‘I papered the walls with a trellis of roses,’ he wrote in his Autobiography, ‘and had the ceiling coloured with clouds and sky; the barred windows I screened with Venetian blinds; and when my bookcases were set up with their busts and flowers and a pianoforte made their appearance, perhaps there was not a handsomer room on that side of the water.’ He rounded off this description, with no perceptible sense of irony: ‘Charles Lamb declared there was no other such room, except in a fairytale.’

There is something heroic about this determination to make the best of things, and it is pleasant to think of him in his little painted garden, receiving visits from all the leading reformers of the day: Jeremy Bentham, Lord Brougham, Shelley, Byron. But there is something slightly preposterous about it, too, a ludicrous if endearing blindness to the lack of fit between aspiration and actuality, and to the vulgarity of indulging in boundless imaginings in a cramped setting.

To Hunt’s Tory antagonists his poems and essays were exactly like his room in the Surrey Gaol, full of fake busts and trellises. They were the embarrassing fantasies of a radical upstart trying to pass himself off as a man of taste. But they were worried by these productions, too, for they could see that his insouciant reworking of polite literary forms threatened to blur the traditional boundary between high and low culture.

In 1817 J.G. Lockhart wrote an anonymous article in Blackwood’s attacking what he called ‘The Cockney School of Poetry’, the main targets of which were Hazlitt, Keats and, above all, Leigh Hunt. Lockhart was using the term ‘Cockney’ in a slightly different sense from the one we’re familiar with. He wasn’t addressing Hunt and his circle as members of the London working class – it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the meaning of the word became fixed in that direction. Instead, he was drawing on a satirical tradition, going back at least as far as the 1500s, of the ‘Cockney’ as a metropolitan miscreant, a misfit, a pampered and effeminate child of the city. Which is not to say that Lockhart wasn’t accusing Hunt of being ‘low’ – quite the contrary – but the thing that really vexed him was the amphibious quality of Hunt’s writing, the way it sauntered between the polite and the plebeian.

Of Hunt’s 1816 poem The Story of Rimini, a lively retelling of the story of Paolo and Francesca from the Inferno, Lockhart remarked that ‘everything is pretence, affectation, finery and gaudiness. The beaux are attorneys’ apprentices, with chapeau-bras and Limerick gloves – fiddlers, harp teachers and clerks of genius: the belles are faded fan-twinkling spinsters, prurient vulgar misses from school, and enormous citizens’ wives.’ The charge was not simply that Hunt had been far too familiar with a great poet, translating a sublime and tragic episode from Dante into his own jauntily modern terms, but that in doing so he had pandered to the tastes – and vanities – of a specifically Cockney readership, a readership Lockhart imagined to be made up of semi-educated and fashion-obsessed grotesques. Much of this was snobbery – and political spite – but it did latch onto something unusually democratic in the perspective of the poem. In Canto I, for example, Hunt makes an aside at the moment when Francesca first appears before the Florentine crowd:

What need I tell of lovely lips and eyes,

A clipsome waist, and bosom’s balmy rise,

The dress of bridal white, and the dark curls

Bedding an airy coronet of pearls?

There’s not in all that crowd one gallant being,

Who if his heart were whole, and rank

agreeing,

It would not fire to twice of what he is,

To clasp her to his heart, and call her his.

This is characteristic of Hunt’s modernity: sunny and sensual, there is a pleasant variety in the versification, and it is full of startling little images and neologisms, such as ‘clipsome’, meaning ‘embraceable’. And, despite the disclaimer about ‘rank agreeing’, it is unmistakably inclusive in its notion that, regardless of class or background, the desire to win Francesca would have ennobled any man. But to the conservatively minded, such lines must have seemed offensively informal and tactile. And it is true enough that Hunt’s poetry doesn’t know its place. It is forever breaking down the distance between writer and reader, commoner and noble. It also collapses the difference between the ideal realm of antiquity and the perky, presumptuous present. Like Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Hunt’s art is decidedly non-classical. Witness, for example, a characteristic moment in ‘Hero and Leander’ (1819) when Hunt confides to the reader:

Sweet Hero’s eyes, three thousand years ago,

Were made precisely like the best we know.

Look’d the same looks, and spoke no other

Greek

Than eyes of honey-moons begun last week.

In 1820 Hunt’s fame – or notoriety – was at its zenith; but during the following decade his career took a series of turns for the worse. Depressed at the reform movement’s apparent loss of momentum, and exhausted by his Examiner work, he took himself and his family off to Italy in 1822, where the plan was to start a new journal, the Liberal, with Byron and Shelley. But after Shelley’s death, and the subsequent deterioration in Hunt’s relationship with Byron, the Liberal folded after just four issues, and Hunt’s literary life settled into an unpredictable pattern of desultory magazine work and short-lived personal projects. Long after the Blackwood’s attacks were over, the charge of Cockneyism continued to frighten the booksellers; and by the early 1830s, Hunt found himself deeply in debt (he had always been spectacularly careless with money), and with a large and unruly family to support. ‘His house,’ Carlyle wrote, shortly after Hunt, Marianne and the children had moved to Chelsea,

excels all you have ever read of; a ‘poetical Tinkerdom’ without parallel even in literature . . . half a dozen old rickety chairs gathered from half a dozen different hucksters . . . over the dusty table and ragged carpet, lie all kinds of litter; books, papers, eggshells, pillows and the torn heart of a quartern loaf! His own room above stairs, into which alone I strive to enter, he keeps it cleaner; it has only two chairs, a bookcase and a writing table; yet the noble Hunt receives you in his Tinkerdom with the spirit of a King; apologises for nothing; places you in the best seat; takes a window-sill himself, if there is no other, and then folding closer his loose-flowing ‘muslin cloud’ of a printed nightgown (in which he always writes), commences the liveliest dialogue on Philosophy and the Prospects of Man (who is to be beyond measure, ‘happy’ yet).

Having lost the weekly platform that had once been supplied by the Examiner (which had by this time fallen into other hands), Hunt had fewer opportunities to write on politics. This meant that his relaxed, convivial essay-writing persona came to assume prominence in the contemporary reader’s mind. In 1837 the Brighton Patriot even accused him of being ‘lukewarm and philosophic’ in the cause of reform, to which Hunt responded passionately: ‘Nay, hardly that either. For the thick of the fight was in old times, long before the Patriot was born.’ He had reason to be proud of his record during the Regency, but no sooner had he invoked this heroic moment than he sought some distance from it, preferring to characterise himself as a poetic zealot who was no longer egotistical enough to engage in politics:

There was a good deal of mere antagonism in our former efforts; of the petulance and pride of the will, and of the show of fancied superiority; and hence the good that suffering did us, in driving us from self-estimation into the arms of the good and beauty to be found anywhere, and everywhere, else; – a possession so infinite, that we have ever since been hot with a zeal to make everybody partake of it.

Much of Hunt’s later work is in this celebratory mode – the metropolitan sketches in Leigh Hunt’s London Journal, the critical anthologies, the essays on old books and ancient festivals. And if, in defending this kind of writing, Hunt did sound a little like Harold Skimpole, he was at least a Skimpole in earnest, a Skimpole who really had suffered at the hands of ‘the world’ (in this case, the world of politics and political egotism, which had done him considerable commercial as well as personal damage), and whose retreat into the realm of the aesthetic was a sincere and deliberate attempt to find consolation in a new mission, and not (as Dickens was suggesting) a devious pose.

Like that other long-lived Romantic, Thomas De Quincey, Hunt produced a huge body of writing, and in attempting to squeeze everything into six volumes, the Pickering editors have had to make some difficult decisions. Most notably, they have chosen to omit Hunt’s two major memoirs, Lord Byron and His Contemporaries and the Autobiography, both of which are full of anecdotes of the Romantic generation. The poetry has fared well, with two splendidly introduced and annotated volumes by John Strachan, which include both versions of The Story of Rimini (the poem was heavily revised in 1844) and the vivid anti-war poem Captain Sword and Captain Pen (1835). Robert Morrison’s volume on the piecemeal journalism of 1822-38 gives a very good sense of Hunt the critic, showing his extraordinary eye for new talent (the reviews of the young Carlyle, Browning and Tennyson are particularly insightful). Charles Mahoney’s volume on the critical anthologies of the 1840s confirms this gift, demonstrating Hunt’s abilities as a close reader of poetry. My only slight quarrel is with the curious omission of some of Hunt’s familiar but influential essays from the 1810s and early 1820s. Given that, as the editors admit, the Indicator contained much of Hunt’s ‘best and most characteristic prose’, and that it was so popular among his Romantic contemporaries, it is a little strange that it is not better represented. Another odd omission is Hunt’s most controversial essay – ‘On Washerwomen’ from The Round Table – a performance that was endlessly parodied and pilloried during the late 1810s, and was a major target for those who charged him with Cockneyism.

It’s hard to read ‘On Washerwomen’, which contains a preface on the literary interest of humble subjects followed by a coyly amusing prose poem of metropolitan servant life, without speculating on how much the young Dickens may have owed to Hunt. In relation to such ‘Cockney’ subjects, both writers displayed a delicate play of the sympathetic and the facetious, and an imagination that was, to a startling degree, urban (i.e. fanciful, artificial, deliciously contrived). And one is reminded in reading such things that it was not Hunt’s writings that Dickens objected to, but his life. For Dickens, Hunt’s fecklessness was an affront to the dignity of literature, as well as a painful reminder of his own father’s improvidence. It was a throwback to the bad habits of a bygone, bohemian age. Hence the punitive element in Dickens’s characterisation of Skimpole, hence the lingering suspicion that it is the skewed judgment of a High Victorian on a late survivor of the Romantic age. More sympathetic, though in its way just as provoking, is T.H. Hill’s extraordinary anecdote of a trip that Hunt made to the Bank of England in his later years:

Hunt’s publishers, Smith, Elder and Co., gave him a cheque for £100; he didn’t know what to do with it and did not understand ‘presenting it’ at a bank, so they cashed it for him and gave him bank-notes, which he put in an envelope. On reaching home he threw it on the table and his wife later flung it into the fire. He told Smith about the incident, and they took him to the Bank of England; on the way he purchased a little statue of Psyche which he nursed on his arm. In the course of the Bank interview he walked up to one of the officials and said: ‘And this is the Bank of England. And do you sit here all day and never see the green woods and the trees and the flowers and the charming country? Are you contented with such a life?’ And all the time he nursed his little Psyche.