Bright Stars: John Keats, Barry Cornwall and Romantic Literary Culture

By McDowell, Stacey | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Bright Stars: John Keats, Barry Cornwall and Romantic Literary Culture


McDowell, Stacey, The Byron Journal


BRIGHT STARS: JOHN KEATS, BARRY CORNWALL AND ROMANTIC LITERARY CULTURE. By Richard Marggraf Turley. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009. Pp. 256. ISBN 978 1 84631 211 3. £65.00.

We might be forgiven, I think, for feeling tempted to smirk ever so slightly in response to a poet who opted to re-brand himself 'Barry'. Richard Marggraf Turley concedes as much in this book, before going on to demonstrate that Barry Cornwall (penname of Brian Waller Procter) is a writer who deserves to be taken seriously in Romantic Studies. Although currently overlooked, Cornwall once enjoyed a literary stardom that far outshone that of John Keats. Bright Stars compares the two poets in order to ask why their popularity should have undergone such a reversal. Romantic audiences, at least, were accustomed to thinking of the pair in connection and their work often turns out to have surprising similarities, but, within their crucial disparities, Marggraf Turley pinpoints some of the elusive yet essential qualities that have helped Keats to achieve posthumous fame where Cornwall was only to enjoy fleeting celebrity. Rather than dismissing Cornwall as simply the lesser poet by today's standards, Marggraf Turley explores the machinations behind the pair's change in fortunes and, in doing so, raises questions about the nature of poetic fame, the culture of reading and reviewing in the Romantic period and the development of trends in literary reception.

Chapter 1 focuses on the complex mutuality of the two poets. Taking Bourdieu as a point of departure, it presents their work as 'the mutual bearing of two expressions of Romanticism: a high-ceilinged, intellectually rigorous articulation in Keats and its more popular anti-type in Cornwall'. But the divide is never quite so neat, as Marggraf Turley shows, with each poet both attracted and repulsed by the other. From Keats's perspective, it is suggested, Cornwall forms 'a possible self, his easily digested work a version of what Keats's poetry always threatens to become'. The extent to which the two can be viewed as 'literary doubles' is nicely illustrated using an occasion upon which the two appeared side-by-side in print: when Keats's 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' was first published in the Annals of the Fine Arts, printed alongside it was Cornwall's sonnet 'To Michel Agnolo'. 'Whom can I place beside thee - not descending?' asks the last line of Cornwall's work, as if providentially placed for Marggraf Turley's benefit. The joint publication of these poems provides the perfect context for a comparative reading that proves mutually revealing: where Keats presents an unsettling, challenging aesthetic, Cornwall offers something more reassuring and more palatable to popular taste. A similar contrast is apparent in the pair's alternative rendering of Boccaccio. Cornwall's A Sicilian Story demonstrates his skill in dramatic narrative, the same skill that saw him achieve commercial success in the Covent Garden production of Mirandola. But such crowd-pleasing feats left him open to charges of sensationalism, as captured in Charles Brown's pert rebranding of the play as 'Mire and O La!'. That popularity was something to be shunned rather than courted, and that art which appealed to the masses was in some sense degraded, engages with Andrew Bennett's account of Romantic posterity. Based on the belief that present neglect is the necessary condition of future fame, Keats's approach becomes a deliberate artistic strategy, a calculated gamble on posterity that sees him refusing to settle, as Cornwall does, for the more immediate pay off.

Chapter 2 opens with the intriguing proposal that an anonymous review in defence of Keats in the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany was not written by Reynolds, as has been previously assumed, but by Cornwall, thus implicating him in turning the tide of his rival's reputation. The chapter sensitively explores the intricacies and ambivalences of rivalry, influence and plagiarism in Keats's famous 'Bright Star' sonnet and a sonnet by Cornwall published in 1820 (i. …

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