University of Pennsylvania
Re: Keats’s 25 March 1817 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke
As Jayme Peacock’s response to the September 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke outlines, Keats’s correspondent pays testament to the importance of his friendships to his conception of himself as a poet. In today’s short letter to Clarke, Keats writes from Hampstead, inviting his friend to an evening party on behalf of their mutual friend, composer and organist Vincent Novello. But the letter is more than a simple invitation—it traces a web of social connections through different places and artistic projects. The invitation itself indicates an earlier circuit of communication through the group, where “Mr Novello requested Mr Hunt to invite you per Letter the which I offered to do” (126). “So we shall meet you there tomorrow evening,” Keats asks, predicts, or commands, promising the entertainment of Hunt’s new poem on the Nymphs, his own poetic response to The Story of Rimini, and a hymn composed by Hunt (which H.S. Milford has since identified as “To the Spirit Great and Good”). This triad of literary pleasures serves to invoke Cowden Clarke’s presence at the party, Keats offers his own poem, “which I will copy for your against tomorrow”—a party-favour promised to the anticipated guest.
In my on-going research, I have been interested in the public representation of these kinds of poetic communities, from Francis Jeffrey’s attacks on the social isolation of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District as a shrinking from “the collision of equal minds” (3) to the representation of precisely the kind of party Cowden Clarke is invited to in the London Magazine writings of Charles Lamb’s “Elia” or in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s Noctes Ambrosianae. So, it is exciting to consider a letter like this one, which offers not the fantasy, nightmare, or simulacrum of such a meeting of poets, periodical writers, and artists, but rather its promise. The list of poetic productions with which the letter closes offers itself not as printed words but as the anticipation of a shared experience, one that calls on and requires not only the presence but the participation of each of the parties named. Keats’s postscript—“N.B. we shall have a Hymn of Mr H.’s composing 4 Voices—go it!” (127) seems to demand that Cowden Clarke take up his place in the song alongside the voices of the other three confirmed guests. The collaborative nature of Keats’s artistic circle is presented as a direct and unpretentious invitation. The hymn for four voices offers an artistic world in which there is place for all, without excess or shortfall.
For the Romantic literary mainstream this is a shocking assertion. Book reviewers in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews had long lamented the surplus of texts that inundated them, objecting to the bad example of publication. In 1808 for instance, the Edinburgh complained that “not a merchant’s clerk now-a-days can cross the seas as supercargo, or exchange his Birmingham razors for silver shaving-basins at Buenos Ayres, but he must print, under the name of a voyage, his captain’s log-book, and his own accounts of sales, in order to add the wages of authorship to the profits of his venture” (Review of Bolingbroke’s Voyage, 411). The private circulation of verses, meanwhile, was represented as at best a “venial and amiable indulgence of vanity” which should be reserved, even then, for “the man of leisure and education” (Review of Mant’s Poems, 171). Reading Keats’s letter offers us, then, a hopeful alternative to this classism and pessimism, a place outside these anxieties where there is a need for all voices.
Yet reading this short letter, I am preoccupied with a sense of doom: I know that in mere months—beginning in October 1817—Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine will begin a series of attacks on precisely this group, branding them the “Cockney School of Poetry.” These attacks would conjure new versions of their domestic spaces, for instance comparing the experience of reading Hunt’s poems to entering “the gilded drawing-room of a little mincing boarding-school mistress, who would fain have an At Home in her house” (“On the Cockney School,” 39). Reading this letter with a sense of what is to come, I am struck by how this private letter, unseen by the writers of the Blackwood’s attacks, contains the seeds of the “Cockney” playfulness with genre and gender against which periodicals like Blackwood’s Magazine would recoil. The Blackwood’s attacks, however cruel, appear to have apprehended the texture of Keats’s social world. What they diagnose as dangerous and socially disruptive is present here, but present as generative, recreative engagement with both the literary and the social world.
Before issuing his invitation to Cowden Clarke, Keats employs his opening lines to rewrite the beginning of Macbeth, adapting for his friend the greeting of the witches at their meeting during Duncan’s battle against the treacherous Thane of Glamis. But where the witches situated themselves in the natural world of thunder, lightning, and rain, barely removed from the hurly-burly of the battle that will set the political plot of the play in motion, Keats rewrites the lines to meditate on his separation from his friend, representing their friendship as one that spans both a metaphysical and a resolutely Cockney terrain: “When shall we see each other again? In Heaven or in Hell, or in deep Places? In crooked Lane are we to meet or on Salisbury Plain? Or jumbled together at Drury Lane Door?”(126).
Keats plays with the cluster of tropes that would define the Cockney poets for their detractors. From this choice of literary allusion, to catalogue of cosmological and urban places, Keats produces the kind of mixture that reviewers found so unsettling in the poetry of his circle. He freely adapts Shakespeare, moreover, fracturing the metre and rhyme of the original—not so much a rewriting as a riff on the lines of the play. In his choice of literary allusion, Keats privately enacts the transgression of his poetry, what Blackwood’s baulked at as a Cockney inclination to “look upon yourselves as so many future Shakespeares and Miltons” (“Cockney School No. IV,” 520). Representing himself and his friends as the witches, Keats claims for them at once a supernatural power, and an equivocal gender—representing under a playful aegis what his critics would blast as effeminacy.
In his catalogue of meeting-places, meanwhile, Keats effects a particularly Cockney slippage from the metaphysical to the mundane. Thus, from the “deep Places” beyond Heaven and Hell, he moves to a trio of locations that characterizes the London poet. The crooked lane, evidently, signals urban spaces, as does the more specific Drury Lane Door. In placing himself and Cowden Clarke at the door a of a Drury Lane theatre, moreover, Keats invokes not merely the urban but the site of his friends’ periodical labour: Leigh Hunt wrote theatre criticism for The News between 1805 and 1807 as well as in his own Examiner, while William Hazlitt contributed the same to The Morning Chronicle beginning in 1813 and published Characters of Shakspear’s Plays in 1817. Finally, Salisbury plain, while not as resolutely Cockney as Hampstead Heath, nevertheless invokes the city with its geographic proximity. Unlike the very literal movement of the witches, Keats grants to himself and his friend a movement that pivots between reality and ideality, proposing a meeting of the minds and souls as somehow interchangeable with the everyday movement of the poet through the London streets.
At this moment before the worst of the attacks on Keats, Hunt, and their literary friends, before the storm of personal invective and classist derision, Keats’s letter offers a moment of potential, where the poetic world imagined is one that incorporates rather than rejects the mundane, one that has a hymn for each of the voices and calls us, each, to “go it.”
Jeffrey, Francis. “Review of Wordsworth’s Excursion.” Edinburgh Review. Vol. 24, no. 47 (October 1814): 100-117.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821. Vol. 1. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge University Press, 1958.
Lockhart, John Gibson. “On the Cockney School of Poetry.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. 2, no. 7 (October 1817): 38-41.
—. “Cockney School of Poetry. No. IV.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. 3, no. 17 (August 1818): 519-524.
“Review of Bolingbroke’s Voyage to the Demerary.” Edinburgh Review. Vol. 12, no. 24 (July 1808): 410-416.
“Review of Mant’s Poems.” Edinburgh Review. Vol. 11, no. 21 (October 1807): 167-171.