Regency Critics: A Christmas Tale

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) wrote Zapolya in 1817. He was imitating Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, he claimed, hoping:

“I will be well content if my readers will take it up, read it and judge it, as a Christmas tale.”

Coleridge by Allston

Coleridge by Allston

There is little in the work itself that is decidedly Christmas apart from a mother fleeing with her infant. Instead, there are thrones usurped, sunken caves and werewolves(!) Despite these dramatic motifs, gaining Shakespeare’s lofty status proved elusive.

Writing a good drama was (and still is) hard–even for Coleridge, that “giant among dwarves.”

Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review, Volume 80, was unstinting in its review:

1) Don’t be boring.

“In its present shape, we conceive (Zapolya) has about it that indescribable something, which, if not the dead weight of mediocrity will sink it, will ensure a speedy neglect from the bulk of readers.”

2) Convoluted plots are right out!

“To understand its plot and keep in view its progress, the reader must take some pains, and this is what no reader will ever do.”

3) Show. Don’t Tell.

“Much of the most striking parts of his story is related, and not acted…Enforce these with the exact sentiment which is to body them forth…pushing on the story, that purpose of dramatic action..”

4) Kill the darlings. Kill them.

Zapolya, then, as a drama, will never succeed. Nor, as a tale, is there anything in it to captivate. It must exist as a poem; and even in that case, we think it is decidedly too long.”

A Christmas gift to writers, if you will.

 

 

The Lake District of England, where Coleridge resided among other "giants" of English literature, all of whom were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review as the "Lake Poets."

The Lake District of England, where Coleridge resided among other “giants” of English literature, all of whom were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review as the “Lake Poets.”

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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: 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.