Cockney Keats?

“Keats Speaks,” my essay about whether the real Keats spoke the way the one in the recent Jane Campion movie does, appears in the 1 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

You can read the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article that accused Keats of “Cockney rhymes” here (though signed “Z.,” it was by John Gibson Lockhart, and it appeared in the August 1818 issue). Just as infamous was a similar attack in the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker (though the issue was dated April 1818, it actually appeared in September).

4 thoughts on “Cockney Keats?”

  1. On Keats's rhymes in your NY Times magazine article; actually "parsons" does rhyme with "fastens", which, for most of the 20th century at least was pronounced "farsons" (the o as schwa) by the English upper crust. And in the English I speak, having been formed there,"shorter" and "water" as well as "fawn" and "yawn" rhyme. (The English are notoriously averse to pronouncing their embedded and terminal "rs")

  2. Indeed, that's Lynda Mugglestone's point, that they rhymed for well-educated English speakers in Keats's day, too. They don't, however, rhyme in American English, which creates ambiguity in the minds of speakers like me. And Blackwood's must have had some justification in mind when they accused Keats of a lapse from orthoepy, and that's the grounds for a more substantive ambiguity. Mugglestone points for explanation to the spellings of the words, which didn't change with their pronunciations and don't "rhyme" visually, and quotes Hopkins, who called these rhymes of Keats's "offensive, not indeed to the ear, but to the mind."

  3. I was in a poetry workshop recently with a group of published English poets, where half the group considered a word ending in "alm" to be a "perfect rhyme"with one ending "arm."

  4. Hi there Caleb, & sorry to have come in with one terse riposte and then left… actually, I printed out your NYT piece and took copies to my weekly workshop group, it was so interesting; and we had a very lively talk about language, London, the nature of rhyme – people trying out their "orn" and "awn" sounds – and Keats vs Wordsworth on natural language, etc.

    I think the accent thing is simply unavoidable – there are likewise rhymes that would work perfectly in American (one that came up recently was "seer" and "mirror") which would leave an English person completely mystified, you just can;t say there's such a thing as "standard" if people are writing to mimic speech sounds.

    And THAT will be the crux – because formal written English was based on a set of rules that owed more to writing than to speech. So even though Keats' diction was highflown and fancifully archaic (which is the Gothic side of the Romantic coin), he was writing in a vernacular style (which is the Wordsworthian side of it) – and this is what the reviewers will have picked up.

    I think.

    Anyway, thanks! Great piece. I haven't seen the movie yet but I will.

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