- 1817:The Birth of the Cockney
1817 was a bad year for John Keats, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt. That year Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine launched its first in a series of attacks on the "Cockney School of Poetry and Prose." Over the ensuing years, the Tory press systematically ridiculed Cockney occupations, Cockney literary aspirations, and even Cockney bodies. This article traces the surprising transvaluation of the Cockney from the pejorative epithet slung at the above-mentioned authors to a positive model for periodical writers and their ingenuity. It will explore how Blackwood's respondent the London Magazine made a virtue out of declassé Cockney consumerism, rebranding it as a mode of self-expression, and the process by which Blackwood's eventually adopted this positive, creative sense of the Cockney, with some issues bizarrely featuring the positive use right alongside the adversarial one. Paradoxically, then, "Cockneyism" is ascribed alike to Blackwood's writers and their targets, suggesting, in fact, that Cockneydom and the condition of periodical authorship might, indeed, be synonymous.
These infamous and much-commented attacks were published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine primarily between 1817 and 1824. Spearheaded by John Gibson Lockhart, writing as "Z," but taken up by other key members of the Blackwood's coterie including John Wilson and William Maginn, these attacks branded Hunt, Hazlitt, and Keats as a collective entity, much as The Edinburgh Review's Francis Jeffrey had in 1802 branded William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the "Lake School."1 These attacks capitalized on an existing stereotype. Like the eighteenth-century "cit," the Cockney was a "city-dweller" who "reveals his trade origins in his fervour for 'tasteful' 'countrified' pursuits."2 The Cockney was a figure familiar to Romantic-period readers from previous representations such as James Gillray's 1790s images of Cockney ineptitude in aping genteel pursuits like hunting. To Blackwood's readers, then, [End Page 110] Cockneys were already-established comic figures, whose social gaffes provided easy laughs to consumers of both image and text.
Scholars David Stewart and Gregory Dart have stressed this urban component of Cockney identity. For Dart the Cockney can be defined as "a metropolitan miscreant, a pampered and effeminate child of the city,"3 while for Stewart this figure mirrors the representational problems of urban space: like the unmappable metropolis, the Cockney "prompted the feeling that it had become impossible to discover a clear pattern to social and aesthetic judgements" (p. 93). Yet both Dart and Stewart also note a connection to the periodical sphere embedded in the Cockney figure: "The newly expanded field of periodical journalism might itself be seen as a kind of Cockney realm," Dart explains, "liberal and open in some respects, but also superficial and fashion hungry in others" (205). Stewart, too, detects the contradictions of the city in the periodical: "Magazines, much like the city, derive a power that is simultaneously unstable and enjoyable" (pp. 93–94). This connection between the Cockney figure and periodical authorship runs far deeper than the analogical mode in which Stewart and Dart have framed their observations. As the following pages will argue, the Cockney figure emerges in Romantic periodicals specifically as a type of author, and it is in this respect that the figure is most illustrative of the conditions of Romantic-era periodical culture.
Blackwood's attacks established the Cockney author as a figure of ridicule, whose "manifold sins" included "vulgar vanity, … audacious arrogance, … conceited coxcombry, … [and] ignorant pedantry."4 As Jeffrey Cox has established, this characterization served a political purpose, as "an attempt to isolate the Hunt circle as an other in terms of status, rank, and cultural literacy."5 Significantly, this process of isolation functioned by focusing minute attention on the Cockney authors' clothing, deportment, and even embodiment, paradoxically rendering them more recognizable as an authorial type. In October 1817, Blackwood's fired its first volley along these lines at representative Cockney, Leigh Hunt: [End Page 111]
The poetry of Mr. Hunt is such as might be expected from the personal character and habits of its author. As a vulgar man is perpetually labouring to be genteel—in like manner, the poetry of this man...