Regency Critics: Thanksgiving, Part II

In January 1817, the Prince Regent survived an attack on his carriage as he was being driven to the opening of Parliament.

War had ended the year before, but transitioning to a peacetime economy had vexed the Government and there was much suffering. The Prince Regent was blamed in part for the situation. Nevertheless, a special Thanksgiving prayer was ordered to be said in chapels throughout the Church of England:

The Prince Regent, by Lawrence. Someone once said he looks like Ted Koppel.

The Prince Regent, by Lawrence. The observation has been made that His Royal Highness resembles Ted Koppel.

Merciful God, who, in compassion to a sinful Nation, hast defeated the designs of desperate Men, and hast protected from the base and barbarous assaults of a lawless multitude, the Regent of this United Kingdom, accept our praise and thanksgiving. Continue, we implore Thee, Thy protection of his Royal Person. Shield him from the arrow that flieth by day, and from the pestilence that walketh in darkness; from the secret designs of treason, and from the madness of the People.

A sinful Nation. The madness of the People.

Who are the People, it was demanded, and why should they, slandered for being mad and treasonous, give thanks that Prinny survived?

These sentiments were masterfully uttered by William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830) a man of many talents, including art and literary criticism. He had been a contributor to Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review and his published commentaries on English literature made him a favorite of Leigh Hunt.

Blackwood’s was quite in charity with him as well:

“When Mr. Hazlitt’s taste and judgment are left to themselves, we think him among the very best, if not the very best, living critic on our national literature.”

Then came his remarkable Political Essays, with Sketches of Public Characters in 1819, criticizing, among others, the poet Southey and his lust for muzzling the press, but the Prince Regent as well, for being such an unworthy object of the people’s thanks:

“What have hereditary Monarchs..ever done for the people?”

“For one regicide committed by the People, there have been thousands committed by Kings themselves.”

Oh! Ungrateful wretch.

In less than a month, Blackwood’s threw Hazlitt under the bus, labelling him an “unprincipled blunderer.” One month more and the Leopard himself (under the pseudonym ‘old friend with a new face’) produced a scathing so-called cross-examination of “pimpled” Hazlitt. Unperturbed, Hazlitt responded to this article with his own letter refuting much of the allegations made against him, notably,

“And I am NOT pimpled, but remarkably pale and sallow.”

A self-portrait of young Hazlitt, sans pimples

A self-portrait of young Hazlitt, sans pimples

Something to be thankful for.

 

Regency Critics: ‘No Such Things as Ghosts’

James Hogg (1770-1835) was the son of a tenant farmer and largely self-taught, the Bible being his primer. He worked as a sheep drover for another farmer, Laidlaw, who gave him more books to read and his son Will as companion. He began to write plays and pastoral poems, taking walking tours in the summers.

So things might have remained thus but for the approach of that ‘Wizard of the North:’ Sir Walter Scott.

This was 1802 and well before Scott singlehandedly rescued Scotland’s literary past from an undeserved reputation for being “provincial and antiquated.” As the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was to later do for English folk music (I’m listening to his Symphony No. 3 even now), Scott immortalized the history of Scotland’s literature, collecting rural ballads and other oral traditions of the countryside for publication.

He was doing so ostensibly to feed the growing appetite for Romanticism, but he was quite keen to seek out the rustic and historical, preferably from the lips of old women and, you guessed it, shepherds. What he got instead was a poem Auld Maitland, so finely written that it could not have had its birth among the hills and forests of the Borders.

Jamie in his plaid.

Jamie in his plaid.

The author was “Jamie the Poeter,” who was promptly fetched from the sheep herds “down Ettrick break.” When Hogg was brought into Scott’s presence, he was a braw young man, tall and guid-looking. No’ unlike the fair hero of Gabaldon’s Outlander when he took off his bonnet, ‘from which fell a mighty cataract of fine red hair that flooded his back and shoulders.’*

Still, he was a peasant with coarse manners. Worse, he was not in the least cowed by being among those better educated than he. Above all, he insisted the ballad of Auld Maitland was genuine, having been sung by his mother. Indeed, he was verra proud of his parentage:

“This Hogg came of interesting stock, for there had been witches on the paternal side, and his maternal grandfather, Will o’ Phawhope, was the last man on the Border who had spoken with the fairies.” — Sir Walter Scott, John Buchan (1932)

Having met with Scott’s approval, the shepherd was engaged to collect more ballads and continue his fledgling career as a published poet. Between lovers and financial troubles, this man of the earth with unrefined tastes eventually found himself taken up by Blackwood’s Magazine to co-author the infamous Chaldee Manuscript, the very work which threw Whig society in an uproar.

He might not have fully understood the scandal and subsequent withdrawal of something deemed libelous. In his mind, the satire that was Manuscript was a fine piece. Moreover, he was basking in the glow of working with powerful critics such as John Lockhart and John Wilson. Indeed, he became quite caught up in the whirlwind of satire and duplicity that was attendant in working with those fellows. It was exhilarating at first, even if he was rather spooked by Lockhart’s personality, so like that of a mischievous brownie:

‘I dreaded his eye terribly,’ (Hogg) says, ‘and it was not without reason, for he was very fond of playing tricks on me..’

Christopher North, A Memoir of John Wilson, by Mary Gordon (1862)

But if his forthright mind could not immediately perceive what was happening, his friends became rather alarmed, particularly as they recognized Hogg’s  Shepherd persona with broad Scots accent and buffoonery being used rather liberally to amuse others at his expense. It was becoming clear he was no match for the Scorpion and the Leopard, their cleverness confounding him. So he left the critics to return to writing of the countryside’s mysterious, dark beauty, with its abandoned towers and glimpses of fairies, and the supernatural stories he’d heard at his mother’s knee.

His collection of those stories was bound in a volume he entitled Shepherd’s Calendar — so well-received he was finally able to retire much of his debts and happily ignore the caricature his former colleagues had created of him, a character which went on years afterwards delighting readers of Maga. Let them make sport of him, for he was to turn the tables, publicly chiding them for their false pride and superiority.

One of the tales Hogg included in his Calendar concerned the strange spectre of a lovely girl. She wore a green bonnet, its crown could be seen bobbing just over the horizon of a lonely path but would disappear as her pursuer approached, a wealthy, landed gentleman who would have fit in well among posh Edinburgh society. He was thwarted, bewitched by that which he didn’t understand, trying to catch a phantom old women warned him to stay away from, a warning he ignored, leading to a frustration and fear ending in madness:

“A great number of people now-a-days are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts or spiritual beings visible to mortal sight. Even Sir Walter Scott is turned renegade, and, with his stories made up half-and-half, like Nathaniel Gow’s toddy, is trying to throw cold water on the most certain, though most impalpable, phenomena of human nature.” — The Mysterious Bride

It was a different kind of literary criticism, and readers found delight in how the Shepherd’s characters, without regard to their education or their sophistication, would fall prey to the supernatural that still lurked in the country he loved.

* (as reported in Carswell’s Sir Walter, a Four Part Study in Biography)

Ettrick Forest Castle

Regency Critics: the Scorpion

 

It is perhaps appropriate, in the aftermath of the Referendum on Scottish Independence, that we turn to another Scot, a patriot to his birthplace, and famous Regency-era critic.

John Gibson Lockhart (1794 – 1854) was born to a clergyman and a clergyman’s daughter at the manse (rectory) of Cambusnethan House in the Scottish Lowlands. (Today, the place is marked by a rather haunting ruin in the Gothic revival style.) Lockhart was precocious at languages early on, and became somewhat of a specialist in translating the classics.

A self-portrait of the Scorpion--he was also an able caricaturist

A self-portrait of “Z”–he was also an able caricaturist

The publisher Blackwood took him up ostensibly to translate various German works for his magazine. He revealed his real purpose in a manger that reminds me of Dickens’ Fezziwig, as he wasted little time in introducing Lockhart to that other clever fellow he’d hired–John Wilson.

They were to be a team, but there were great differences between the two. Wilson was a ruddy blond, friendly and open-faced, if a little retiring. Lockhart, on the other hand, was not only dark in complexion, he was “cold, haughty and supercilious in manner,” such that even his own friends weren’t sure of his regard for them.

Even in their collaborations, the differences were stark:

“When (Wilson) impaled a victim, he did it..not vindictively, but as if he loved him. Lockhart, on the other hand, though susceptible of deep emotions, and gifted with a most playful wit, had no scruple in wounding to the very quick, and no thrill of compassion ever held back his hand when he had made up his mind to strike.”

— Christopher North, A Memoir, Mary Gordon (1864)

Lockhart became the Scorpion to Wilson’s Leopard. He also called himself, on occasion, “Z.”

The first attack he launched fell upon what he derisively christened the “Cockney School of Poetry.” Critics thought this was a mean-spirited jab at the artistic endeavors of the lower classes–particularly the poetry and other works by Keats, Hazlitt and Hunt. It certainly seemed that the Scorpion reserved his greatest sting for works that appealed to milkmaids and footmen longing to be poets themselves.

Of John Keats, he said:

“We venture to make one small prophecy, that his bookseller will not a second time venture 50 quid upon any thing he can write.  It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,”& c.  But, for Heaven’s sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry..”

The attack devastated Keats. Some said it killed him.

Lockhart despised William Hazlitt’s social and literary commentaries, as well as his philosophizing on politics. Hazlitt was ‘pimpled’ and scarcely capable of any credible observation on the works of such ‘divine beings’ as Shakespeare and Spenser. Moreover, he was a member of ‘the vilest vermin that ever dared creep upon the hem of the majestic garment of the English muse.’

Zounds!

Hazlitt was not about to take this criticism lying down, (not like poor Keats, who was very, very ill). He vowed to sue Blackwood’s for libel and began his counter-assault by threatening the magazine’s agent in England, John Murray. The latter resided in London and was particularly sensitive about alienating the Scottish periodical’s London audience, naturally quite in charity with those “Cockney” poets.

Unabashed, Lockhart responded that attacking the poet was a necessary part to criticizing the poet’s work. (For more on this subject, see David Hill Radcliffe’s excellent overview of the Scorpion’s Cockney articles.)

John Gibson Lockhart as himself

“Mr. Gibson Lockhart, alias Baron Lauerwinkel, alias William Wastle, alias Dr. Ulrick Sternstare, alias Dr. Peter Morris, etc. as sketched by himself.”

Lockhart could not abide literary work that was put forth in bad faith, that was lazily executed or written only to satisfy what was fashionable. He felt that the literary scene in Scotland was far more sophisticated and diverse than that of London, concerned that the typical hand-in-glove, “wink-wink” collaboration common in England would corrupt Scottish artists and shackle them in English (translate Whig) style to politically connected, well-established magazines like Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review. 

Perhaps that was why his most famous victim became Leigh Hunt, whose labors he described were like those of:

“a vulgar man (who) is perpetually labouring to be genteel — in like manner, the poetry of this man is always on the stretch to be grand.” Blackwood’s, October 1817

Nevertheless, the Scorpion was forced to bow to his employer’s business concerns and retracted most of what he’d written in those early days. He did so reluctantly, quoting Tacitus, “rara temporum felicitas ubi sentire quae valis et quae sentias dicere licet” (rare felicity of the times when it is permitted to think as you like and say what you think).

Still, the scorn he heaped on the poet was simply diverted to the poet’s labors. Leigh Hunt, that darling of the Review, had written The Story of Rimini. Lockhart was convinced Hunt was forever dangling after favorable reviews from his Whig friends and he made certain to set the record straight on Hunt’s poetry, if not his character:

“The revisions became the most strained when they had to deal with the most personally flagrant aspect of the first article about the Cockney school: its insinuations about Hunt’s domestic life and sexual morality.

Z had written, ‘The very concubine of so impure a wretch as Leigh Hunt would be to be pitied, but alas! for the wife of such a husband!’

This was revised to read, ‘Surely they who are connected with Mr. Hunt by the tender relations of society, have good reason to complain that his muse should have been so prostituted. In Rimini, a deadly wound is aimed at the dearest confidence of domestic bliss.’ ”

— Romanticism and Blackwood’s Magazine: ‘An Unprecedented Phenomenon,’ edited by Robert Morrison and Daniel Roberts (2013)

Interestingly, Lockhart’s early description of Hunt’s personality was prescient. A later writer, and a good deal more famous, used Leigh Hunt as a model for that famous “sponger of friends,” Harold Skimpole of Bleak House.

It is him, I vow–to the life!

But as for London and its “Cockney” influence, he remained an implacable foe, viewing it as a scourge upon the Scottish literary scene. It was in this role that he caught the eye of Scotland’s literary giant, Sir Walter Scott, and, more importantly, the poet’s daughter–a lovely lass called Sophia. They married and lived together in a little cottage on her father’s estate. With her, he could give his heart its liberty and:

“speak of the chief ornament and delight at all these simple meetings—she to whose love I owed my own place in them.”

The Life and Letters of John Gibson Lockhart, Andrew Lang (1897)

Lauder's portrait of Sophia and John--painted after she died. Note the prominence of her wedding ring, her countenance light while her surviving husband's remains in shadow.

Lauder’s portrait of Sophia and John–painted after she died. Note the prominence of her wedding ring, her beloved countenance placed in the light while that of her surviving husband, the Scorpion, remains in shadow.

 

 

Regency Critics: the Leopard

John WilsonBlackwood’s Magazine, or “Maga,” first appeared in 1817, “breaking upon the startled gaze of Edinburgh Whigdom.” It soon gained a notoriety for being, more than anything, an affront to the Edinburgh Review, subject of this blog’s previous post.

This rivalry served to give Blackwood’s popularity a boost throughout Regency Britain, along with the curious way its writers adopted numerous pseudonyms; a practice that probably began with one John Wilson.

He was born a gentleman, with a comfortable fortune and had only dabbled in writing because of crippling self-doubt about his literary abilities, bringing himself to publish only a few of his poems. Then one day he discovered that his inheritance, made from the manufacture of paisley, had been speculated away, thanks to the efforts of an unscrupulous uncle.

With a wife and children to support, Wilson was forced to move into his mother’s house on Queen’s Street in Edinburgh and seek employment. Blackwood’s was hiring writers–the previous ones having been sacked by Mr. Blackwood for producing a dull first volume. Reluctantly, Wilson accepted the job, girding himself against his old insecurities by assuming a pseudonym, an alter ego that would serve as a cloak once he sallied forth with his fellow literary critics to assail (some called it assassinate) the characters and careers of those beloved by the Review and its editor Francis Jeffrey.

Wilson became known as the notorious Christopher North, that “beautiful Leopard from the valley of the palm trees.” The power of his criticism, some said, was like a force unleashed by “animal spirits:”

Of Coleridge and his Biographia Literaria: “a most execrable performance” by someone who possessed both “egotism and malignity.”

On Leigh Hunt: “a profligate creature..without reverence either for God or man.”

It must have felt positively delicious, this new-found freedom that came from masquerading as another. Indeed, the other critics at Blackwood’s adopted Wilson’s penchant for fake names, if for no other reason than to “perplex the public.” Some of these appellations were mystical, some were just ridiculous–Timothy Tikler, Baron Lauerwinkle, William Wastle and Dr. Ulrick Sternstare.

The pretension was carried even further when writers adopted the real names of ordinary Edinburgh citizens, preferably those far removed from the literary scene, and made them father articles of great distinction. One dentist became very well-known as a respected contributor to Blackwood’s, to his friends’ amazement. Even the doctor himself began to believe those clever jokes and observations were his, for they very often contained his own expressions and identified many of his acquaintances:

“The doctor’s fame when far beyond Edinburgh. Happening to pay a visit to Liverpool, he was immediately welcomed by the literary society of the town as the glorious “Odontist” of Blackwood’s Magazine, and received a complimentary dinner.”

— Christopher North: a Memoir of John Wilson, by his daughter, Mary Gordon  the Odontist

Pretense became deception, in the manner of a very wicked joke on poor Leigh Hunt. Blackwood’s was fond of targeting this darling of the Review and often accused the poet of badgering the Whig periodical to include favorable reviews of his work in its pages. This might have gone unnoticed by Hunt had he not received letter from one John Dalyell apologizing for the terrible things he’d written about the poet in Blackwood’s. Hunt scratched his head, perplexed, wondering who the devil Dalyall was. He sought the advice of the Review’s editor, who instantly recognized the name of the apologist.

Dalyell was appalled and furious. Of course he hadn’t written any such thing about Leigh or his poetry. He hated Blackwood’s. He had to sue them for libel once.

“Oh, the villainy of these fellows!” he declared. He’d been made a figure of fun. Everyone in Edinburgh knew John Dalyell–he was the most  prominent Whig in Edinburgh. Now they knew him as a contributor to a wretched Tory magazine.

As amusing as Blackwood’s was, John Wilson eventually wearied of writing as someone other than himself. Escape came in the form of a professorship of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University.

He was happy to leave the hurly-burly world of literary society to a place, however dull, where his insecurities could be soothed–the ivory tower.