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The Examiner 1808–1822, Vols. 6–10 (1813–1817), introduced by Yasuo Deguchi

Tuesday, December 1, 1998 - 07:07
The Examiner 1808–1822. Vols. 6–10 (1813–1817). Introduction by Yasuo Deguchi. London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 1997. 4,240pp. £550.00/$850.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-85196-426-6).

Reviewed by
Charles Mahoney
University of Connecticut

Keats saved his back issues to send to his brother George in America; in Florence, Shelley learned of the Peterloo massacre when his copy arrived; John Gibson Lockhart ridiculed it in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine as but the "Cockney Court-Gazette"; and Southey not only censured it in The Quarterly Review but also fumed to Lord Lonsdale that its editor ought to be transported to Botany Bay. Whether inclined to subscribe to or proscribe it, you could not ignore The Examiner in the 1810s. And now, with Pickering & Chatto's invaluble reprint of its first fifteen years, 1808–1822, it is once again possible to understand why, week after week, The Examiner was and is the indispensable index of the political and literary culture of Regency England. The volumes before us here, 1813–1817, constitute the second installment of Pickering & Chatto's three-year project: the first five volumes (1808–1812, culminating in the Hunts' trial and conviction on charges of libel), were published in 1996, and the last five (1818–1822, from the height of its literary influence through Leigh Hunt's resignation of the editorship), are scheduled to appear in December, 1998. Pickering & Chatto's impressively legible reprint (made from the Cambridge University Library set) has already begun to provide scholars of Romantic studies with a timely opportunity to recalibrate their understanding of "political Romanticism" in terms of the effects of the Regency, the Napoleonic Wars, and their catastrophic aftermath on English prospects for Reform. When complete, The Examiner, 1808–1822 will again be available to radicals and apostates alike as (according to The Edinburgh Review in 1823) "the ablest and most respectable of the publications that issue from the weekly press."

As the most liberal as well as literary of the radical weeklies from the Convention of Cintra to the death of George III, The Examiner's history is in innumerable ways also the history of the second generation of English Romantic writers, politicians, and artists: Brougham's political career was implicated in The Examiner long after he defended the Hunts against charges of seditious libel in 1811 and again in 1812; Haydon's painting was passionately championed by Hunt from the earliest days of the Regency; Hazlitt emerged as an irascibly prescient literary, dramatic, and political critic in his reviews here from 1814 forward; Keats published his first poetry in its pages in 1816; and Shelley published poetry, reviewed books, and composed editorials for it before leaving for Italy in 1818. And of course it is in The Examiner that we can find the most trenchant analyses of the political apostasies of the first generation: Hunt's critique of the office of the Poet Laureate and Southey's appointment to it in 1813; Hazlitt's reviews of The Excursion in 1814; Hunt's demystification of Southey and Wordsworth's writing on Waterloo in 1816; and, throughout the winter of 1816–17, Hazlitt's unremitting exposure and ridicule of the political shufflings of Coleridge and Southey attendant upon the publication of The Statesman's Manual and Wat Tyler, accompanied by Hunt's mock "burial" of "the late Mr. Southey."

The years under review here, 1813–1817, are crucial to an understanding of The Examiner's development from an independent weekly newspaper advocating Reform, principally through exposing the vices and corruptions of the Court, into an increasingly literary review, one intent upon advancing its cadre of house writers while cultivating its own agenda for English letters. (The Examiner's weekly sales fell dramatically during this period—from close to 10,000 during the height of interest in the Hunts' trial in 1812, to an average of 4,000 in 1817—but throughout, its objectives remained, as Hunt recalled in the Autobiography, "to assist in producing Reform in Parliament, liberality of opinion in general . . . , and a fusion of literary taste into all subjects whatsoever.") While it has long been commonplace to observe that, by the time of the Hunts' release from prison in 1815, The Examiner was no longer as feisty as it had been, the changes were not nearly so deleterious as Edmund Blunden (Hunt's biographer, and the most notable advocate of this line of criticism) has represented them to have been. According to this story, imprisonment numbed Leigh Hunt: he lost his editorial enthusiasm for (as well as influence over) political causes during these middle years and, consequently, precipitated the paper's slide from political independence to literary partisanship, from the high-minded espousal of Reform to a middlebrow indulgence in belles-lettres, until it eventually emerged as, according to Blunden, "a journal for poets and amateurs of literature" (Leigh Hunt: A Biography [London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1930], 96). This is neither accurate nor compelling. Yes, Leigh Hunt did make over his persona during his imprisonment—from upright patriotic editor into sybaritic Italianate poetaster—but the paper's broader scope and appeal did not diminish so much as enhance its political potency. It wasn't until 1817, after all, that Southey denounced "Mr. Examiner" in The Quarterly Review for his seditious, licentious "patriotism" (see "The Rise and Progress of Popular Disaffection," 1818); and Lockhart did not launch his 1817–18 Blackwood's attacks on the factitious "Cockney School" at a weekly poetry review for "amateurs," but at a dangerously influential venue for liberalism in politics and literary taste. Nevertheless, Hunt's increasing attention to "literary taste" and the "spirit of literature" has routinely been cited as an opportunity either to champion (Blunden) or denigrate (E. P. Thompson) the paper as more properly belles-lettristic than political, more middlebrow than radical. But when we consider that, as Hunt himself noted, "many intelligent persons of both sexes, who would, perhaps, never have attended to politics under other circumstances" read The Examiner, the emphasis on things literary suddenly appears decidedly political.

Louis Landré (still The Examiner's ablest reader) presents a more complicated and, not surprisingly, more compelling account, arguing that The Examiner did not suffer but in fact thrived due to Hunt's imprisonment, for, during these years, "Hunt applied himself to the paper with greater zeal, assured himself of brilliant collaborators, and advantageously identified himself with the paper to which he owed his incarceration" (Leigh Hunt: contribution à l'histoire du Romanticísme Anglais, 2 vols. [Paris: Société d'éditions, 1936], 1: 81). Indeed, the Hunts' imprisonment may be said to have resulted in an even more radical paper. From the start, Hunt had aspired to shape a paper that would not only stand apart from similar publications but that would also have the last word: "The Examiner had been quickly affirmed as a politically avant-garde journal, and eventually it was bound to occupy an analogous position in the literary world" (1: 92). Whether criticizing politics, the theater, or contemporary literature, The Examiner was committed throughout to articulating a provocative, vigilant independence of opinion on all matters—not an amateur but a decidedly avant-garde tenet.

A number of closely related events at this time conspired to produce a paper that was radical in its literary as well as its political opinions: the appointment of Southey as Poet Laureate in 1813; the addition of Hazlitt as a regular contributor the following year; the creation of regular "Literary Notices" early in 1816 (a consequence of Hazlitt's lengthy critique of The Excursion, the first substantial "book review" to run in The Examiner); and Hunt's friendships with Shelley and Keats following his notice of their work in his December, 1816, article "Young Poets." Though Hunt had been motivated from the start to refine the vulgar and corrupt style of political writing through proceeding according to "a diligent respect for the opinion of literary readers" (as he announced in the Preface to the bound volume for 1808), it was really only with his two-year imprisonment that he was able to bring to English literature (including his own poetry, as he revised The Feast of the Poets and completed The Story of Rimini) the same degree of attention he had previously given to contemporary English politics. It is from this period forward that the "Political Examiner" (the lead article of the week) is increasingly indistinguishable from the "Literary Notice" (Hazlitt's four-part series of 1816–17, "Illustrations of The Times Newspaper," for example, was run under both headings) as The Examiner grew increasingly liberal in both the range and tenor of its coverage. Indeed, it is precisely this collusion of the literary with the political that makes so much of the ostensibly "political" writing of the 1810s so unpredictably "literary," and nowhere more so than in the volatile pages of The Examiner.

In order to reconfigure our understanding of The Examiner's transformation between 1813 and 1817, let us return to and take our cues from the decisive moment of the 1812 trial. It is here, in the Hunts' criticisms of the presiding judge, Lord Ellenborough, that we can glimpse a political reasoning which will inform both Leigh Hunt's and Hazlitt's indictments of the Lake poets (as well as, more generally, the "office" of the poet) in the years to come. Merely a few days before their conclusive trial on charges of libel in December, 1812, the Hunts addressed an open letter to Lord Ellenborough in the "Political Examiner" of 6 December, in lieu of entering a direct protest on the day of the trial against Ellenborough's position on the Bench. Having accepted a position on the Regent's Privy Council, Hunt pointed out, Ellenborough had compromised the necessary independence a judge ought to be able to claim and was, therefore, unfit to preside over a case alleging a libel against the Regent. Hunt's reasoning on the matter—that a court has a "pernicious effect on any individual's independence," which "consideration alone should have persuaded your Lordship not to unite two offices in one person, each of which prevents the proper discharge of the other and the just reputation of both"—is characteristic of The Examiner's emphasis on sturdy individual "common sense" and, more particularly, "independence" of judgment. "Will your Lordship venture to assure us," Hunt queried, "that there has been no real change of late years in your character and opinions,—no change between Mr. Law and Lord Ellenborough,—no change from the untitled advocate, who vindicated the general cause of independence and resisted the overbearing temper of his superiors, to the titled Judge, who is for promulgating the most aristocratical and unconstitutional opinions . . . ?" In confronting Ellenborough thus, Hunt was himself bluntly "vindicating the general cause of independence," as he would do after his sentencing in refusing all offers of monetary assistance to alleviate the weight of the fines levied by the court. In the weeks following the sentencing on 5 February 1813 (the Hunts were fined £500, imprisoned separately for two years apiece, and ordered to provide another £500 upon the expiration of the sentence as surety for future good behavior), Hunt produced a series of editorials on their sentencing, culminating in a summary listing of their objections to the whole of the proceedings on 28 February (including the arbitrary method of accusation as well as the impropriety of both the packed jury and the judge).

In confronting Ellenborough with his ostensible loss of independence, Hunt challenged the judge in terms similar to those he would use less than a year later in objecting to Southey's acceptance of the laureatship. In each case, it is the luxurious attractions of the Court that pose the most dangerous obstacle for anyone who would retain his liberty of opinion. Dismissing the office as "an absurdity degrading both to the political and poetical character of the country" (29 August 1813), Hunt argued that it compromised the characteristic "English spirit of independence" through binding the poet who accepts it to "be a panegyrist whether he really admires the object of his panegyric or not" (15 August), thus reducing him to a literary sycophant who has bartered his verses for laurels. When the author of Joan of Arc and the Botany Bay Eclogues then accepted the position in September, Hunt denounced Southey for having abandoned his poetic and political independence for "the pleasant path of preferment." How can Southey vindicate himself, Hunt demanded, "from the charge of having forfeited his proper sense of what is exemplary and free, and of sliding into the man of the world?" (26 September 1813). For Hunt (as well as Hazlitt, covering the appointment for The Morning Chronicle), Southey could not, and his acceptance of the tainted laurels branded him an apostate at the same time as it precipitated an increasingly public interrogation of the relations between literary and political power that would reach its climax with the pirated publication of Wat Tyler in 1817. Hunt's reflections on the laureatship gain additional resonance when we recall not only that he was imprisoned at this time as the price for exercising The Examiner's own "proper sense of what is exemplary and free," but also that he was engaged in revising The Feast of the Poets (with its sharp, impatient pronouncements upon contemporary poets) as well as resuming work on The Story of Rimini. In taking it upon himself to defend the practice of poetry against the temptations (indeed, the charges) of servility, Hunt had begun to formulate the tenets of his own defense of the increasingly literary nature of The Examiner.

After its spirited denunciation of Southey's apostasy in 1813, The Examiner only briefly noted his first commission, the "Carmen Triumphale; or Ode for the New Year," on 16 January 1814, dismissing it in passing for its mercenary loyalties and commonplace prosody. It wasn't until Hazlitt's tripartite consideration of The Excursion (21, 28 August; 2 October 1814) that The Examiner began to devote any substantial energy to the criticism of contemporary literature. Hazlitt had begun writing for the paper in May, 1814 (contributing pieces on Shakespeare's posthumous fame, Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode, and Kean's Iago), and this review marks his first published evaluation of Wordsworth, not to mention (aside from brief remarks on Southey occasioned by his acceptance of the laureatship) his first criticism of contemporary poetry. By the end of the year, Hazlitt was sufficiently established with the paper that Hunt promised his readers that The Examiner would continue the "occasional articles on Literary and Philosophical Subjects" by one "W.H." (25 December 1814).

Hunt's remarks appear in what was billed as the "New Prospectus of The Examiner" (25 December 1814), simultaneously an appraisal of the paper's evolution from 1808 and a notification of its continuing makeover as the Hunts readied themselves for their release from prison in February, 1815. Both less idealizing and more evasive than its 1807 predecessor, this curious programme-statement does not reiterate (as habitual readers might expect) the paper's commitment to exposing corruption in Court and Parliament, but emphasizes instead that its "main intention is the preservation of that Public Spirit, popularly and properly so called, which priding itself on the independent exercise of a sturdy common sense . . . , tends to keep the community in proper condition." As Landré has remarked of this turning-point, Hunt wanted, without abandoning the principles that had sustained him until then, to give the paper both a more discriminating manner and a more literary character (1: 91). To that end, though Hunt reassured his readers that The Examiner would continue to maintain "an absolute freedom from all Newspaper corruption and trickery" in demonstrating that "Politics are as triable by the touchstone of common sense and virtue as everything else," those same readers would, nevertheless, "not meet in the Examiner with the more customary subjects of political writing." As becomes increasingly apparent from 1815 forward, the spirits of the community envisioned by Hunt will require ever greater distillates from fashionable and literary topics, such as Hunt's sonnets on Hampstead, the "Round Table" series to which both he and Hazlitt contributed, and of course the "Literary Notices." The Examiner was not abandoning political writing so much as renegotiating the definitions of what constituted its "customary subjects," and no one writer would prove more influential in shaping the paper's political profile in this regard than Hazlitt.

In the first number for 1815, the proposed "General Examiner" (announced in the prospectus as a series of articles on "subjects of Miscellaneous Interest, Literature, Manners, &c.") was renamed and initiated as "The Round Table," loosely conceived at that moment as a modern counterpart to the eighteenth-century periodical essay, though preferring a "plain, straight-forward behavior" to the disguises and assumed characters developed by Addison and Steele (1 January 1815). Hunt, the self-appointed "president" of the knights of this round table, announced the following week that their subjects would encompass "Manners, or the surface of society, Morals, metaphysically considered . . . , and Taste, or right feeling upon things both external and internal" (8 January 1815). "Taste" commanded Hunt's attention more explicitly than either morals or manners and entailed, first and foremost, the appreciation of poetry—whether regarding Chaucer, Milton, and Dryden (all topics of the first year's papers), Hunt's own (as he continued his mawkish series of sonnets on Hampstead), or a decidedly Wordsworthian poetics (further endorsed in the expanded notes to Feast of the Poets)—which in turn required that the arbiters of this table "wean the general taste, as far as we can, from the lingering influence of the French school back again to that of the English, or in other words, from the poetry of modes and fashions to that of fancy, and feeling, and all-surviving Nature" (8 January 1815). As in the earlier prospectus, Hunt was attempting in these first two numbers to distinguish The Examiner as a paper that would be recognized for its innovative cultural criticism as well as for its liberal politics. Crucial to this enterprise was Hazlitt, who in the first year alone contributed 13 papers (on topics as diverse as Milton's versification, John Buncle, and the love of power) to Hunt's nine, and continued to dominate this column through early 1817.

When the Hunts were released from prison on 3 February, The Examiner passed over the occasion with surprising alacrity. No sooner had Hunt begun facetiously to speculate as to what personal expenses of the Regent their £1000 surety may have helped to defray, than he brought himself up short: "But in truth, as fertile as the subject is, we are glad to get rid even of jesting upon it, now that the public end we had in view has been obtained" (5 February 1815). And after stating his pride that their imprisonment had been the means of accomplishing two things (preventing an unbecoming spirit of foppery from spreading out of the Court, and affording an example of unyieldingness to the rest of the press), "Mr. Examiner" was silent on all customary political matters until the end of the month, preferring instead to write a lengthy "Theatrical Examiner" on contemporary actors (5 February), defend the female character in a "Round Table" (19 February), and remark wearily that "we are really at a loss this week how to vary the old intelligence, or rather non-intelligence, to which the readers of newspapers have been accustomed of late" (12 February). With the exception of a fine series of editorials on "The Gloomy State of Things in France" (3 September–31 December 1815, analysing the altogether disheartening proceedings of the Congress of Vienna), Hunt was less and less of a factor in determining any recognizably political character for The Examiner. When Wordsworth visited him at home the same day as Hazlitt had denounced Wordsworth's decidedly un-Miltonic political shuffling in obeisance to infirm monarchs (in a review of a production of Comus that ran in The Examiner [11 June 1815]), Hunt did his best to distance himself from Hazlitt's criticisms, despite the fact that they appeared in a paper over which he at least putatively presided.

From 1814 through 1817, it is increasingly Hazlitt's writing, far more than Hunt's, that both preserves The Examiner's much vaunted political "independence" and shapes its radical literary criticism. Whereas "The Round Table" was recognized as Hunt's venue (despite the number of contributions from Hazlitt), the "Literary Notices" were decidedly Hazlitt's. From June, 1816, forward, it is here that we can read some of Hazlitt's most characteristic writing, the heady mix of unremitting bitterness regarding the poets of the first generation coupled with remarkable critical insight into the effects of their apostasies on their writing. Hazlitt reviewed Coleridge's "Christabel" in the first number of the "Literary Notices" (2 June 1816) before ruthlessly exposing the shortcomings of Southey's "The Lay of the Laureate" (7, 14 July). Remarking bluntly that "the poetry of the Lay is beneath criticism" ("It is the Namby-Pamby of the Tabernacle; a Methodist sermon turned into doggerel verse. It is a gossiping confession of Mr. Southey's political faith"), Hazlitt proceeds to denounce Southey as, surprisingly enough, a Jacobin. Hazlitt's comments here are worth citing at length, for they succinctly provide us with both the tenor and the terms of The Examiner's haughty critique of the Lake poets' apostasies over the course of the following winter. "If we had ever doubted the good old adage before, 'Once a Jacobin and always a Jacobin,'" Hazlitt explains, "since reading 'The Lay of the Laureate,' we are sure of it. A Jacobin is one who would have his single opinion govern the world, and overturn every thing in it. Such a one is Mr. Southey . . . , [whose] sentiments everywhere betray the old Jacobinical leaven, the same unimpaired desperate unprincipled spirit of partisanship, regardless of time, place, and circumstance, and of every thing but its own headstrong will." The Jacobinism that Hazlitt finds lurking in Southey's productions as laureate has nothing to do with the libertarian politics of radical gallic democracy, but is characterized instead by the righteous and unprincipled egotism that Hazlitt will later denounce as "Literary Jacobinism." What Hazlitt objects to in this writing is the apostate's insistence on "overturning" and proscribing every opinion but his own (as if it weren't enough for the apostate to have overturned and turned away from his own), as well as the profane egotism attendant upon such maneuvrings (in a similar vein, see Hunt's "Political Examiner" for 18 February 1816, "Heaven Made a Party to Earthly Disputes—Mr. Wordsworth's Sonnets on Waterloo"). Hazlitt would continue to force the apostates to "look their old opinions in the face" while making his paradoxical argument for their fundamental consistency of opinion in his reviews of Coleridge's Lay Sermon (8 September and 29 December 1816), the four-part "Illustrations of The Times Newspaper" (1, 15, 22 December 1816; 12 January 1817), and, conclusively, his lashings of both Coleridge and Southey à propos the Wat Tyler scandal (9, 30 March; 4, 11, 18 May 1817).

At the same time as The Examiner was chastising one generation of poets, it was promoting another. On 1 December 1816, the eighteenth number of the "Literary Notices" began with Hazlitt's first "Illustrations" only to conclude with Hunt's "Young Poets," in which, acknowledging The Edinburgh Review's recent dismissal of "the old school" of the Lake poets, he took it upon himself to "introduce" J. H. Reynolds, Shelley, and Keats as "a considerable addition of strength to the new school." Hunt had presented Keats's sonnet "Solitude" the preceeding spring (5 May; Keats's first published writing) and, after printing "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" in "Young Poets," proceeded to publish an increasing variety of poetry, including Keats's sonnets on the Elgin Marbles (9 March 1817), Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (19 January 1817), and those sonnets of his own that emerged from the informal "sonnet contests" at his Hampstead home, "The Vale of Health." In introducing a "new school" of poetry, Hunt was of course presuming to announce his own role as arbiter of its tastes, and in a far more prominent capacity than he had been able to do two years earlier in the "New Prospectus" of 1814.

Along with the Preface to The Story of Rimini (published earlier in 1816 and conspicuously noticed in The Edinburgh Review the following year), Hunt's desultory critical statements regarding the school he sought to usher in can be found most immediately in his tripartite review of Keats's Poems (1 June; 6, 13 July 1817). In fact, there's little here that's "new": after a tepid and somewhat self-serving sketch of the ascendancy of the Romantic imagination over eighteenth-century wit, Hunt simply defines "real poetry" as "rich and enchanted . . . , fertile with all that English succulence could produce, bright with all that Italian sunshine could lend, and haunted with exquisite humanities" (1 June 1817), an observation that is far more relevant, of course, to The Story of Rimini than to the lyrics in Keats's first volume. When he finally condescends to notice Keats's poetry, he isolates its two principal faults as "a tendency to notice every thing too indiscriminately and without an eye to natural proportion and effect; and . . . a sense of the proper variety of versification without a due consideration of its principles" (6 July 1817). Again, what is noteworthy (indeed, embarrassing) about Hunt's criticism is its provincial relevance for his work and his work alone: critics as varied as John Wilson Croker (in the Quarterly Review), Lockhart (in Blackwood's), and the Edinburgh reviewer (either Francis Jeffrey or Hazlitt) were unanimous in faulting Hunt's Rimini for its indiscriminate sense of both tone and proportion, as well as for its vulgar and oftentimes ridiculous prosody. Despite Hunt's pretensions as both a poet and a critic in directing the "new" Examiner, he was coming up short. Shelley and Keats quickly moved on from Hampstead sonneteering to more ambitious poetic schemes, and Hazlitt had already eclipsed him as the dramatic and literary critic of the day.

It was precisely these literary ambitions that prompted Lockhart's series on the "Cockney School" in Blackwood's beginning in October, 1817 (see Hunt's challenge to "Z," as Lockhart signed himself, on 16 November 1817). Dismissing Hunt as "a man certainly of some talents, of extravagant pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking and manners in all respects," Lockhart contested Hunt's qualifications for founding a "school" of any sort before proceeding to expose and ridicule his literary-critical delusions. Equal parts vicious character assassination and astute criticism of Rimini, Lockhart's denuncations testify to Hunt's political prominence as well as to his literary dilettantism; while it is due to Hunt's public profile as editor of The Examiner that Lockhart is concerned about the "success with which his influence seems to be extending itself among a pretty numerous, though certainly a very paltry and pitiful, set of readers," this is all the more troublesome since his "shallow and impotent pretensions, tenets, and attempts" are now poised to influence not only political but also literary tastes.

How are we to understand the fact of Lockhart devoting so many pages to The Examiner (six articles plus an open letter to "Leigh Hunt, the King of the Cockneys") at a time when it had ostensibly been eclipsed by, among others, Cobbett's Political Register and Hone's Reformist's Register? Does Lockhart's unremitting attack testify to the continuing relevance or the increasing vulnerability of the Hunts' paper? Unlike, say, Southey or Gifford's denunciations in the Quarterly of The Examiner and its writers, Lockhart's critique focuses principally on the literary-critical pretensions of the "Cockney School." While this is merely a pretense, of course, for a thorough-going denunciation of Hunt's political and moral depravity, the fact remains that, in late 1817, The Examiner was being considered and positioned as a literary rather than a political newspaper: the Hunts' paper was no longer construed as a nuisance due to its relentless exposure of the Regent's personal shortcomings and the corruption of the Court but due to its irritating pretensions to literary prominence. From 1817 until Leigh Hunt's resignation of the editorship and departure for Italy in 1821, if The Examiner was still radical enough to threaten entrenched Tory power, it was no longer regarding matters of state so much as the state of taste.