Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Poetry of Experience and the Cockney Profession of Poetry

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Poetry of Experience and the Cockney Profession of Poetry

Article excerpt

When Alfred de Musset's Fantasio first appears in the play that bears his name, he asked his friend, Spark, "has it ever occurred to you that we have nothing to do--no profession, no pursuit?" (10) While the imaginative, poetic--and, well, fantastic--Fantasio briefly pursues a career as a court jester, he closes the play proclaiming that even though jesting "As jobs go" is the one he prefers "to any other," "I really can't hold any job" (44). Fie leaves the play without a profession and without the woman who at first appears to serve as his love interest. While Fantasio might appear as another romantic Flamlet who has something within that passes the show of the conventional roles of career and marriage, the incessant concern in the play with Fantasio's debts suggests something more mundane: that a modern world of business has no place for poetic souls, that the imagination does not figure into the cash nexus.

There are many such children of the century. From Schiller's Karl Moor to Ibsen's Fledda Gabier, the potentially great or creative or simply different dramatic subject finds no objective roles in the modern world to show to others that which passes within. While in the drama, this gap between subjective ideals and external constraints produces a kind of modern tragic drama, the novel exploring this trajectory appears as a kind of failed bildungsroman. One thinks of Stendhal's Julien Sorel, who dreams of being another Napoleon, but who must make his way as a tutor and a secretary. One could even think of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, imagining himself a superman but having only a petty murder to commit. More usefully, one should consider Dickens' Pip, seeking his great expectations, perhaps hoping for a life in a country estate with his dream girl Estella, but ending up in Jaggers' London, secretly bankrolled by a convict and living with Herbert Pocket, who is always "looking about me" for a prospect of making a fortune in spices or tobacco or elephant tusks, and who gives Pip the more imaginative name of Handel as a sign of their desire to rise above their current state. As Pip notes of Pocket, "There was something wonderfully hopeful about his general air, and something that at the same time whispered to me he would never be very successful or rich" (190). Of course, Pip also returns from being a dreaming Handel back to his identity as the boy who once helped an escaped convict. In the original ending to the book, Pip concludes life as a kind of burn-out case, having made his way in the trade in India, where he "lived happily with Herbert and his wife, and lived frugally, and paid my debts" (520). He sees Estella one last time only to reinforce that their differing dreams of success and of love have come to naught. Pip may have learned what constitutes a real gentleman, but, like Fantasio, he finds neither a great career nor a fulfilling love.

While I do not want to reduce these powerful narratives, which presumably reveal something about the massive social transformations of the 19th century that identified with the rise of the middling ranks, to a portrait of the artist as a feckless young man, I do want to suggest that they can help one think about the ways in which Keats and other writers around him struggled between making poetry and making money. While, among others, I have repeatedly argued for a sense of company in the Keats circle or the Cockney school as sociability and communal creativity, I now want to think of company in the business sense. I want to explore the tension between the Cockney School's great poetic expectations and the need of most of its members to make a living. The periodical, The Dejeune; or, Companion for the Breakfast Table, insisted in 1820 that "we cannot serve God and Mammon; we cannot be an author and any thing else" (December 12, 1820: 357), hut the Cockneys knew it was not that simple. They may all want to be Fantasio, able to walk away from any job other than imagining a better life, but they live in the world of Herbert Pocket. …

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