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.