Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang

Appendix i

Reynolds’s Peter Bell

When the article on John Hamilton Reynolds (“A Friend of Keats”) was written, I had not seen his “Peter Bell” (Taylor and Hessey, London, 1888). This “Lyrical Ballad” is described in a letter of Keats’s published by Mr. Sidney Colvin in Macmillan’s Magazine, August, 1888. The point of Reynolds’s joke was to produce a parody before the original. Reynolds was annoyed by what Hood called “The Betty Foybles” of Wordsworth, and by the demeanour of a poet who was serious, not only in season, but out of season. Moreover, Wordsworth had damned “a pretty piece of heathenism” by Keats, with praise which was faint even from Wordsworth to a contemporary. In the circumstances, as Wordsworth was not yet a kind of solemn shade, whom we see haunting the hills, and hear chanting the swan song of the dying England, perhaps Reynolds’s parody scarce needs excuse. Mr. Ainger calls it “insolent,” meaning that it has an unkind tone of personal attack. That is, unluckily, true, but to myself the parody appears remarkably funny, and quite worthy of “the sneering brothers, the vile Smiths,” as Lamb calls the authors of “Rejected Addresses.” Lamb wrote to tell Wordsworth that he did not see the fun of the parody — perhaps it is as well that we should fail to see the fun of jests broken on our friends. But will any Wordsworthian deny today the humour of this? —

“He is rurally related;

Peter Bell hath country cousins,

(He had once a worthy mother),

Bells and Peters by the dozens,

But Peter Bell he hath no brothers,

Not a brother owneth he,

Peter Bell he hath no brother;

His mother had no other son,

No other son e’er called her ‘mother,’

Peter Bell hath brother none.”

As Keats says in a review he wrote for The Examiner, “there is a pestilent humour in the rhymes, and an inveterate cadence in some of the stanzas that must be lamented.” In his review Keats tried to hurt neither side, but his heart was with Reynolds; “it would be just as well to trounce Lord Byron in the same manner.”

People still make an outcry over the trouncing of Keats. It was bludgeonly done, but only part of a game, a kind of horseplay at which most men of letters of the age were playing. Who but regrets that, in his “Life of Keats,” Mr. Colvin should speak as if Sir Walter Scott had, perhaps, a guilty knowledge of the review of Keats in Blackwood! There is but a tittle of published evidence to the truth of a theory in itself utterly detestable, and, to every one who understands the character of Scott, wholly beyond possibility of belief. Even if Lockhart was the reviewer, and if Scott came to know it, was Scott responsible for what Lockhart did in 1819 or 1820, the very time when Mrs. Shelley thought he was defending Shelley in Blackwood (where he had praised her Frankenstein), and when she spoke of Sir Walter as “the only liberal man in the faction”? Unluckily Keats died, and his death was absurdly attributed to a pair of reviews which may have irritated him, and which were coarse, and cruel even for that period of robust reviewing. But Keats knew very well the value of these critiques, and probably resented them not much more than a football player resents being “hacked” in the course of the game. He was very willing to see Byron and Wordsworth “trounced,” and as ready as Peter Corcoran in his friend’s poem to “take punishment” himself. The character of Keats was plucky, and his estimate of his own genius was perfectly sane. He knew that he was in the thick of a literary “scrimmage,” and he was not the man to flinch or to repine at the consequences.


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