Rise of the Cockney School

“Cockney School” is a term assigned by Blackwood’s Magazine to a coterie of English writers and artists centered on Leigh Hunt. Conservative Tories attacked them for their vulgarity, loose metrics, and Cockney rhymes and considered them as political as well as artistic radicals whose aesthetic and sociopolitical theories bordered on sedition.

Summary of Event

In 1811, the radical writer and editor Leigh Hunt began formulating his new poetics. Instead of ascribing to French school poetics, he advocated those of the Italian school and the poetics of the Italian Renaissance and the English writers Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton. He included notions of “a freer spirit of versification” and the use of “actual” language—not far from William Wordsworth’s “language of the common man.” Literature;Cockney School
Cockney School
Poetry;and Cockney School[Cockney School]
Blackwood’s Magazine[Blackwoods Magazine]
[kw]Rise of the Cockney School (Dec., 1816)
[kw]Cockney School, Rise of the (Dec., 1816)
[kw]School, Rise of the Cockney (Dec., 1816)
Literature;Cockney School
Cockney School
Poetry;and Cockney School[Cockney School]
Blackwood’s Magazine[Blackwoods Magazine]
[g]Great Britain;Dec., 1816: Rise of the Cockney School[0890]
[c]Literature;Dec., 1816: Rise of the Cockney School[0890]
Hunt, Leigh
Keats, John
Hazlitt, William
Shelley, Percy Bysshe
Lockhart, John Gibson

In December of 1816, Hunt published a review essay, “Young Poets,” in the Examiner, announcing the formation of a new school of poetry and introducing Percy Bysshe Shelley Shelley, Percy Bysshe , John Keats Keats, John , and John Hamilton Reynolds. It was soon followed in 1817 by William Hazlitt’s Hazlitt, William edited volume The Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Manners
Round Table: A Collection of Essays on Literature, Men, and Manners, The (Hazlitt) . This “new school” shared a belief that poetics and politics of the new generation had to progress beyond those of the older generation of poets such as Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, whom Hazlitt had dubbed the Lake School. He objected to their sociopolitical beliefs, finding that those who had been idealistic in the early days of the French Revolution (1789) had become conservative and reactionary.

The anxiety felt by the cultural establishment concerning Jacobinism, Jacobinism;and literature[Literature] anticlericalism, and other social and political threats extended to periodical literature. Because of advances in print technology and an expanding middle-class readership, periodical literature was flourishing. Whereas quarterly periodicals had been addressed to well-educated readers, the new “magazines” sought to gain wider audiences without losing their older reading public. Among those who were writing for these new readers were Leigh Hunt Hunt, Leigh and his suburban London associates. Conservatives regarded these writers as radicals, whose unorthodox lifestyles, subversiveness, and aesthetic assaults on tradition threatened to undermine established culture.

In October, 1817, John Gibson Lockhart Lockhart, John Gibson , writing as “Z,” Z (John Lockhart) launched a series of articles in Blackwood’s Magazine
Blackwood’s Magazine[Blackwoods Magazine] attacking Hunt and other writers. He challenged Hunt’s qualifications to found any school, his aesthetic and political pretensions, his lack of taste, and his vulgarity. Lockhart labeled Hunt a “man of little education” who knew no Latin or Greek, who read no great French authors yet denigrated French literature, and who had to read both classical and contemporary authors in translation. Pointing to Hunt’s presumptions, Lockhart called his coterie the Cockney School and designated Hunt its “chief Doctor and Professor.” Of Hunt’s The Story of Rimini
Story of Rimini, The (Hunt) (1816), a poem that crystallized Cockney aesthetics, Lockhart charged that it amounted to nothing but “pretence, affectation, finery, and gaudiness.” Even in an age of caustic wit, Lockhart’s essays were exceptionally vitriolic.

One may ask what Hunt had done to deserve such opprobrium and why Lockhart was so hysterical. It had to do with the print revolution, social class, politics, literary gatekeeping, and suburban population growth. According to Lockhart, Hunt was not a gentleman. British writers had always been men of rank and, as such, would evince no “vulgarity” in their work. Not so Hunt Hunt, Leigh , whose lack of station and breeding and his “low habits”—according to Lockhart—were apparent in whatever he did. Lockhart regarded Hunt as a Londoner whose nature poetry derived merely from a city dweller’s acquaintance with gardens rather than from true rural landscapes. He charged that Hunt’s poetry could be appreciated only by other Londoners—“the young attorneys and embryo-barristers around town.” What Lockhart regarded as Hunt’s worst “sin,” however, was his lack of “religious” and “patriotic feeling.” In Lockhart’s eyes, Hunt was guilty of the dreaded anticlericalism and radicalism that he detected in the Cockney School—always excepting the aristocratic Byron and Shelley Shelley, Percy Bysshe . In short, the Cockneys were usurping the cultural preeminence of the educated upper classes.

Lockhart Lockhart, John Gibson seemed equally disconcerted by what he saw as the “moral depravity” of the Cockney School. Referring to Hunt’s The Story of Rimini, he charged that its indecency would undermine the institution of marriage. Marriage;and indecency[Indecency] He also contrasted Hunt’s license with Wordsworth’s “dignified purity of thought.” Of Hunt’s connections with Lord Byron and Thomas Moore, Lockhart was especially ungenerous, regarding the association as “unsuitable” for both. Moore, a gentleman, could not possibly esteem someone of so little breeding as Hunt. Lockhart was also upset with Hunt’s dedicating of a book to Byron, whom he regarded as “the most nobly born of English Patricians, and one of the first geniuses whom the world ever produced.” He regarded Hunt’s act as so audacious that it incited public disgust and called Hunt “a paltry cockney newspaper scribbler” who should have minded his station.

Within six months of Lockhart’s attack, Hunt Hunt, Leigh published Foliage
Foliage (Hunt) (1818). Prefaced by a statement advocating greater personal, political, and aesthetic freedom, this book was an essential document in the formation of the Cockney School. Its preface announced the school’s agenda, and its sonnets named people and places to announce the school’s membership.

Hunt may not have been born an English aristocrat or a “gentleman,” but to Lockhart Lockhart, John Gibson and others, his purported radicalism may have been even worse than his birth into the amorphous middle class. At the time Lockhart attacked Hunt, Great Britain had been at war with France for two decades, and the memory of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror French Revolution (1789);Reign of Terror had not faded. The English Tory establishment feared Jacobinism Jacobinism;and literature[Literature] and any social protests that smacked of antigovernment sentiment. Blackwood’s Magazine
Blackwood’s Magazine[Blackwoods Magazine] called Hunt “the most fierce democrat and demagogue.”

Hunt, Keats, Byron, and Shelley Shelley, Percy Bysshe were young and idealistic at the time of Lockhart’s attacks. They advocated social change and the amelioration of the oppressed. The sociopolitical radicalism of the Cockneys represented a dogged determination on the part of many second-generation Romantics to maintain revolutionary ideals and to eschew the disillusionment and resultant conservatism of the older generation. Hunt Hunt, Leigh set as the Cockney agenda the democratization of poetry and the Cockney aesthetic of “cheerfulness” and “sociality.”

The Tory establishment saw almost everything that the Cockneys did as a challenge to tradition, especially the Cockneys’ poetic theory and practice. Their poetics seemed unabashedly luxuriant and luxurious, sensual and personal in a rather public way; their writing was disturbing. Z noted “Cockney rhymes” and “jargon” with disdain. Instead of respecting the boundaries of the traditional poetic form, which used closed couplets as Alexander Pope had with two lines of rhymed iambic pentameter providing impact at the close of the second line, Cockneys enjambed the couplets, running over the second lines, as though writing rhymed blank verse without the magisterial tone and appropriate subject matter. They also violated “standard” vowel sounds in verse (or so it seems from the distance of two centuries). They introduced the trivial and the mundane into letters at a time when the subject matter of Romanticism Romanticism;English was reaching ever more toward the sublime.

Cockney poetics, which Hunt Hunt, Leigh deemed “free and idiomatic,” injected common descriptions of experience and common disruptions of literary language in ways that most jarred conservative sensibilities. One contemporary critic labeled Hunt’s writing style “confectionary.” It would be a misconception, however, to think of the Cockneys as a coherent school. Byron’s early castigation of Keats’s Keats, John work is well known, though Byron came to admire Keats, believing his early writing “spoilt by Cockneyfying and Suburbing.”

At a time when the subject matter of what was regarded as the greatest poetry was the sublime and affecting forms of nature, elevating nature to the status of a deity, the Cockneys were seen as worse than urban—they were suburban, centered on Hunt’s Hampstead residence north of central London. Being suburban at that time meant many things. With socioeconomic changes, the population of England had increased geometrically, causing urban overcrowding and migration to the suburbs. Historically, the suburbs of London had hardly been enclaves of gentility, so the fact that Hunt, Keats, and their fellows were from the suburbs allowed Z to cast them as unsophisticated on one hand and as lacking in country virtues on the other.

“Nature” in Cockney life and literature was redolent not of Grasmere or Windemere but of the home garden. In the suburbs, newly comfortable middle-class families could live in a degree of affluence that, for Z, came dangerously close to rivaling that of their social betters. In his third essay, Z accused Hunt of an intent “to spread the infection of a loathsome licentiousness,” asserting that the Cockneys, through their lifestyle, aesthetics, and politics, would bring down the very time-honored institutions of English life.

By the 1830’s, anti-Cockmey sentiment was dissipating, possibly due to the passage of reforming legislation that averted in Great Britain the threat of political upheaval occurring on the Continent. Nevertheless, “Cockney” remained a pejorative term. By midcentury, it had come to refer merely to working-class Londoners born within the sound of Bow Bells.


Cockney cockiness—in blending colloquialisms and slang with the rhetorical registers of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and the Renaissance Italians, in intruding the profane and ridiculous into the sacred and sublime—may have incurred the wrath of conservative Tory periodical culture. However, it may also be seen as a breakthrough that led to the poetics of Robert Browning, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning Browning, Elizabeth Barrett and later to the juxtapositions of modernism, evident in T. S. Eliot’s intermingled voices in The Waste Land (1922). Keats’s Keats, John early imitations of Italian Renaissance models gave him the foundation on which to write some of the greatest lyrics in the English language. Hunt Hunt, Leigh was long marginalized, but he is now regarded as a seminal figure in second-generation Romanticism. Romanticism;English

Further Reading

  • Cox, Jeffrey. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Cox makes a case for Romantics as coterie writers.
  • Dawson, P. M. S. “Byron, Shelley, and the ’New School.’” In Shelley Revalued: Essays from the Gregynog Conference, edited by Kelvin Everest. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983. Discusses the relationship of aristocratic writers to the Cockney School.
  • Jones, Elizabeth. “The Cockney School of Poetry: Keats in the Suburbs.” In The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats, edited by Robert M. Ryan. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Discusses the suburban phenomenon in English literary history.
  • Roe, Nicholas, ed. Leigh Hunt: Life, Poetics, Politics. New York: Routledge, 2003. An essential collection of articles on Leigh Hunt that also provides a valuable bibliography.
  • Wu, Duncan. “Keats and the ’Cockney School.’” In The Cambridge Companion to Keats, edited by Susan J. Wolfson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Observes Keats as a Cockney writer, although an ambivalent one.

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