On the Difficulty of Loving Keats AND Blackwood’s

Nicholas Mason
Brigham Young University

Re: Keats’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey.

As a long-time fan of both John Keats and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reading the poet’s 3 Nov 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey is a bit like watching two favorite sports teams duke it out on the field. The undeniable – and only slightly guilty – pleasures of seeing the Blackwood’s gang clobber would-be laureates from the “Leg of Mutton School” (country-house poets whose chief aim is landing a spot at the local squire’s dinner table) and the “Sable School” (specialists in boot blacking jingles) vanish altogether when the object of the magazine’s derision is as sympathetic, and, in 1817, vulnerable as Keats. In real ways, it’s as squirm-inducing a spectacle as witnessing your plucky little hometown team endure a six-touchdown beat-down at the hands of the powerhouse team of your youth.

If we are to believe the popular blogger and podcaster Bill Simmons, such confusing and traumatic fan experiences might easily be avoided in the realm of sports if boosters were to stop violating one cardinal commandment: don’t practice “sports bigamy.” In Simmons’s mind, “Sports teams are just like wives … you can only have one wife, you can only have one sports team.” Needless to say, then, this transgression goes from lamentable to positively heinous when the second spouse is a long-time rival of your first. A special place in hell, it would seem, is reserved for the Yankees fan who carries a flame for the Red Sox or the Celtic supporter who owns a stitch of Rangers apparel.

Compared to the strict monogamy Simmons prescribes for the truly orthodox sports fan, the diehard enthusiast for particular artists has it relatively easy. Here the commitments are comparatively lax, as–to follow the nuptials metaphor–open marriages, polygamy, and even free love aren’t altogether prohibited. Within this code, adoring Elena Ferrante not only doesn’t preclude buying the complete works of Karl Ove Knaussgard but might even incentivize it. Likewise, immersing oneself in Joyce is an entirely natural gateway to falling head over heels for Beckett or Woolf.

Still, it’s not a complete love-in, as taboos against rooting for a hated rival can be as strict in the arts world as in sports. Contemporary popular culture offers a slew of famous feuds – think, for instance, of East Coast vs. West Coast, Stars Wars vs. Star Trek, Oasis vs. Blur, Team Edward vs. Team Jacob – spilling over from the page, disc, or screen to the middle-school hallway or the streets. Yet high-brow literature can be just as prone to high-profile spats that force fans to choose teams. Just ask those queuing up at a Jennifer Weiner book signing about their enthusiasm for the new Jonathan Franzen novel, or poll John le Carré diehards about the genius and nobility of Salman Rushdie.

Fortunately, any prohibitions against reading or, worse, enjoying a favorite authors’ rivals tend to go to the grave with the writers in question. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that legions of Gore Vidal readers still refuse to read Norman Mailer. And it’s equally unlikely that the Samuel Richardson scholar might risk imperiling his or her reputation by admitting a fondness for Henry Fielding.

Even so, certain rivalries fade more slowly than others, and the Cockneys vs. Blackwood’s spat is a prime example of how long such feuds can continue infecting the organisms of literary history. During the lifetimes of the principal combatants – John Gibson Lockhart (the “Z.” of the original Cockney School attack), John Wilson, and William Maginn on the one side and Keats, Leigh Hunt, and William Hazlitt on the other – roughly equal numbers of readers and commentators sided with either group, with the divide largely falling on partisan lines (i.e., conservatives siding with Blackwood’s and liberals with the Cockneys).

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century, however, when the literary reputations of Keats, Shelley, and Hazlitt were ascendant and those of Lockhart, Wilson, and Maginn were rapidly waning, admission to the Keatsian or Hazlittean fraternity seemingly required swearing eternal enmity toward Blackwood’s. Leading literary anthologies and histories uncritically propagated the Shelleyan myth that Keats’s was a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of Tory reviewers – never mind the tuberculosis or Keats’s admirable inclination to take the Blackwood’s attacks in stride. Much to the poet’s credit, in fact, in his 3 November 1817 letter to Bailey, he is much more splenetic over his friend’s being denied a promised curacy (“I cannot express how I despise the Man who would wrong or be impertinent to you”) than his own rough treatment at the hands of the mysterious “Z.” (“I don’t mind the thing much”).

Paradoxically, though, Keats’s refusal to follow Leigh Hunt’s lead in using the Examiner to excoriate Blackwood’s or sending William Blackwood cease-and-desist letters seems to have resulted in his supporters feeling compelled to avenge his honor well beyond the standard statute of limitations. While the Treaty of the Canon Wars might have brought an ecumenicalism to literary studies whereby few writers have committed genuinely unforgivable ideological or aesthetic sins, Keats partisans remain unusually disinclined to extend such grace to Blackwood’s.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs that even this literary equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys feud might be headed toward rapprochement. In my experience, the very same scholars who passionately articulate how the field of British Romanticism has impoverished itself by neglecting the age’s most ingenious literary magazine are quick to acknowledge how sneaky, misleading, and heartless Blackwood’s leading lights could be when pursuing a cause.

On the other side of the divide, important studies like Jeffrey Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School have begun demonstrating that the fair-minded scholar can respect the memories of Keats and Hunt while simultaneously appreciating the ideological, professional, and aesthetic imperatives that drove Blackwood’s to declare war on the Cockneys. At the end of the day, then, while it’s completely human to wince at the Blackwoodian bullying that threatened Keats’s poetic career before it had even begun, we might finally have arrived at the moment when one can declare allegiance to both the London and Edinburgh squads without risking charges of literary bigamy.


Contributor bio:
Nicholas Mason is Professor of English at Brigham Young University. He served as the general editor of
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817-1825: Selections from Maga’s Infancy (Pickering and Chatto, 2006), a six-volume scholarly edition that offers annotated versions of the entire Cockney School series and includes various other reviews and parodies of Keats, Hunt, and their circle. Mason also touches on the Cockney School debates in his recent monograph, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (Johns Hopkins UP, 2013), where he contextualizes Blackwood’s‘ attacks in terms of the magazine’s disdain for widespread self-reviewing within the Hunt circle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *