Letter #33: To Benjamin Bailey, 3 November 1817

And so the dark times begin… In today’s letter to Bailey, Keats briefly discusses the appearance of what he calls “a flaming attack upon Hunt in the Endinburgh Magazine.” That attack was, of course, the first battle in the notorious “Cockney School of Poetry” flamewars. After six months of a tepid debut, the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, edited by Thomas Pringle and James Cleghorn, was relaunched in October 1817 with William Blackwood, John Wilson, and John Gibson Lockhart leading the way in a more combative, playful, and sensationalist manner. Lockhart’s “Cockney School of Poetry No. I,” written under the sign of “Z,” became one of several incendiary pieces in that first issue which showed that the Blackwood’s crew was bringing artillery to a knife fight.

It’s a funny thing to reflect back on Blackwood’s from the perspective of 2017, when an insult like Z’s of Hunt, that “He talks indelicately like tea-sipping milliner girl,” seems tame in comparison to precisely 97.3% of all content on Twitter (*not an actual statistic*). But if the KLP might for a moment defend Blackwood’s and Twitter, as much as both might sometimes feel like cesspools of the worst human affects, they also contain their fair shares of brilliant wit, savvy self-reflexivity, and incisive cultural analysis. As Nicholas Mason writes in his response to today’s letter, it ought to be possible for us to appreciate both Blackwood’s and Keats, even as the former ends up treating the latter with such virulent nastiness.

That said, it is true that the Cockney School attacks cast a long shadow over the reception of Keats across the nineteenth century (and, arguably, continuing into today). With that in mind, the KLP shares Mason’s sense that it’s important to remember that Keats himself was much more upset by an injustice done to his friend Bailey–he spends the greater part of the letter on that topic–than by Z’s promise to place Keats in his cross-hairs next. He writes here, “I dont mind the thing much,” and in late 1818 after Cockney School No. IV does take up Keats in full, he makes his famous declaration to George and Georgiana, “This is a mere matter of the moment–I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.” If Keats doesn’t feel too bad about Blackwood’s and Z, then perhaps we can move on as well. After all, Keats was right about being among the English Poets! Take that, Z!

As mentioned, today’s response comes from Nicholas Mason, who uses an appropriately-time sporting metaphor (the World Series having just concluded) to delve into the Blackwood’s context. Images of the letter come courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library (the letter is partially crossed, so have fun with that!). The reading edition from Harry Buxton Forman includes only a portion of the letter (the portion in which Keats discusses Blackwood’s). Bailey sent just one leaf of the letter to John Taylor in 1821, presumably keeping the other to himself since it concerned only Bailey’s personal matters. That portion of the letter remained in Bailey’s family (and, thus, must have traveled with him to Sri Lanka and remained there for many years–see the previous letter to Bailey). It was not until 1953 that the first leaf was reunited with the second when it was presented to Harvard.

Page 1 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

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