Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent
University of Warwick
Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent is a substantial contribution to the on-going debate about Keats's politics. As Roe notes in his discussion, Jerome McGann's 1979 article, "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism" (Modern Language Notes 94 [988–1032]), and Marjorie Levinson's subsequent Keats's Life of Allegory: the Origins of a Style (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1988) developed a historico-political reading of Keats's poetics in the context of class culture and politics. But it was the discussion of Keatsian stylistics presented by William Keach in a 1986 Studies in Romanticism forum on "Keats and Politics" that may well be a more crucial inspiration for Roe's thorough and wide-ranging study of the elements that together add up to the political-poetics of the "Cockney School." For the main investigation of Roe's study is how "Z"'s Blackwood's articles shaped a set of erroneous critical commonplaces about Keats (which, Roe wryly argues, underpin the greater part of twentieth-century Keats criticism, including the ostensibly demystificatory approach), but also, paradoxically, accurately responded to the force of a coherent political grouping. But if Roe shows us how we came to have a version of Keats that has until recently dominated the critical tradition, he also opens up the questions of Keats's own literary and political inheritance by looking closely at his formation in the culture of Dissent. So Roe is able to place Keats within a consistent narrative of the trajectory of the liberal intellectual tradition from the 1780s through the 1820s.
The conceptual center of the study is the assertion that "Cockney School" poetics is deeply indebted to the cultural milieu of Dissent. I think the title of the study is slightly misleading in that Roe doesn't appear to be interested in tracing the history or literary ramifications of Dissenting religious doctrine or principle within the reformist and radical politics of the period; rather, he is concerned with the impact of Dissent on the formation of secular liberalism. But by linking the circles of 1790s Dissent with those of the post-1815 liberal London intellectual scene, Roe offers access to a more accurate recognition of how 1790s radical generation (and their teachers and mentors, such as Mrs. Barbauld, who were radicalized in the 1790s) influenced the political poetics of the younger romantics. By articulating the links between the Dissenting and the "Cockney" sets, Roe also makes it clearer how Keats belongs to the historical and geographical groupings within London poetic and political radicalism that have been investigated in recent years by scholars such as David Worrall (Radical Culture: Discourse Resistance and Surveillance [Wayne State University Press, 1992]), Marcus Wood (Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790–1822 [Oxford University Press, 1994]), and Kevin Gilmartin (Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England [Cambridge University Press, 1996]). Roe's volume convinces one of Keats's secure place in a version of the romantic canon that narrates the complex formation of liberalism.
The major scholarly contribution of the book involves the presentation of the world of the Enfield School and the influence of Charles Cowden Clarke on Keats's formation. Recent attention to the issue of education (e.g., Alan Richardson's Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as a Social Practice, 1780–1832 [Cambridge University Press, 1994]) has made the meaning of romantic conceptions of childhood more understandable through study of those institutions which generated the social model of childhood, and Roe's presentation of the life and concerns of Enfield is a significant addition to that discussion. Roe places Enfield in an intellectual network of impressive proportions and makes it clear why Tory critics would later have found an easy target in a product of the Enfield educational method. And the importance of Charles Cowden Clarke both as an influence on Keats and as a complicated conduit towards Hunt is impressively articulated. But here I felt that Roe owed us more information and speculation about how the religious politics of Dissent influenced Keats; and if they did not, why.
Roe is an impressive literary historian. By focusing on how the Enfield circle was socially linked to the Dissenting radicalism of those in Cambridge and before them to the Warrington Academy, we get both a fuller feel for not only the manner in which Dissenting intellectual life was disseminated into a growing articulation of liberalism, but as well for the links between Keats and the generation before him. Roe's attention to George Dyer (about whom he has also written in the very useful article, "Radical George: Dyer in the 1790's," Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s. 49 ,17–46.) may help bring that poet and poetical theorist into more recognition, and though Roe doesn't develop this point in his study, it seems likely that Keats was himself influenced by Dyer's democratic theories of lyricism. Roe's work of making a central intellectual place for Charles Cowden Clarke proves to complicate Keats's relationship to Hunt in particularly interesting ways, allowing us to see Keats as more independently minded and with a fuller complement of already formed opinions and positions than our myths of his youth have allowed.
Roe brings together many of strands of recent critical attention, and works them into a fabric that we can now really see as a "Cockney School" poetics: the liberal politics of classicism is very nicely discussed in a chapter on "Cosmopolitics"; the important links between liberalism and contemporary medicine are brilliantly presented in a chapter on "The Pharmapolitical Poet," which acknowledges the work of Hermione de Alemeida (Romantic Medicine and John Keats [Oxford University Press, 1991]) and others, but brings close attention to bear on the importance to Keats's intellectual formation of the Guy's teacher and surgeon, Astley Cooper. Cooper, a friend of John Thewall, had gone to France with him in 1792. Roe wants to make Thelwall a prefiguration of Keats, which doesn't quite work, but the evocation of an ambiance which includes medicine, Dissent, and radical politics is brilliantly conveyed. Keats as student of medicine is now more clearly fused into his life as a student of ideas and politics.
Roe's contributions to literary history are unmistakable: I found his literary interpretations somewhat less rewarding. There are some forced readings of poems, aiming to show rather too direct a connection between the intellectual milieu and its preoccupations and the particular trope or affective representation at hand. But in his discussion of the "green" Keats, and of the way Keats worked up the myth of Robin Hood and the politics of greenery, Roe is wonderful to read. Here he shows how intellectual history and poetic interpretation can work together to defamiliarise and so renew our understanding of the human structure of the romantic landscape. The chapters "'Soft Humanity Put on': The Poetry and Politics of Sociality 1789–1818" and "Songs from the Woods; or Outlaw Lyrics" together give a powerful reading of the tradition of radical vernal sociability, linking oppositional politics, the vernal, and the antiquarian. Roe gives all this a precise psycho-geographical location in relation to metropolitan poetics, conveying the atmosphere of London and its suburbs, with a valuable discussion of the very political meaning of the idea of the suburbia itself. Roe shows how "Z"'s "Cockney School" articles make an argument about suburbia and liberalism which offers a distorted mirror to Keats's working up of vernal imagery. Together with Christopher Hill's essays on "Robin Hood" this material should be part of any course on "green poetics."
I greatly admire Roe's accomplishment in this volume. He shows how "Z"'s derogatory naming of Keats's poetic milieu as the "Cockney School" can as well be understood as the "Culture of Dissent," as Roe calls it. He has given us new information about Keats's world and about the overlapping circles of metropolitan sociability in the romantic period. He has shown, by following through the daily to-ings and fro-ings of the chief actors, how permeable were the boundaries between medicine, poetics, and politics.