Boyd Tonkin: 'Back to the shop, Mr John': snobbery lives

The Week In Books

As a rule, emotional climaxes in the cinema take place before the closing credits roll. Yet many viewers may come away from Bright Star, Jane Campion's beautiful film about John Keats and Fanny Brawne, believing that none of the perfectly-pitched scenes that precede it could match the final reading of "Ode to a Nightingale" over a blank screen studded with the usual litany of Best Boys and Foley Recordists. Part of Campion's achievement is make us feel the power of Keats's verse so keenly that only his undecorated words can make sense of "the weariness, the fever and the fret" that her film portrays.

The movies in general make such a sorry hash of poetry and poets that Bright Star will shine almost alone. For the new admirers Campion will recruit, Penguin Classics has smartly issued a selection of Keats's Fanny-inspired poems and letters under the title So Bright and Delicate (£7.99). With luck, the film ought also to ignite curiosity about other aspects of Keats's career.

We briefly glimpse the critical opprobrium that slapped down this "Cockney" whipper-snapper when, in 1818, he began to publish poems of passion, mystery and romance in modes that only a proper gentleman should wear. Any new fan who inquires further into the obstacles Keats met will – I hope – be shaken to the core by the venomous snobbery that stood in his way.

In the Quarterly magazine, John Wilson Croker defined "Cockney poetry" as the high-falutin' style of pretentious counter-jumpers with ideas above their station. In Blackwood's, also in 1818, John Gibson Lockhart perpetrated a notorious review that took aim at "uneducated and flimsy striplings... fanciful dreaming tea-drinkers, who, without logic enough to analyse a single idea, or imagination enough to form one original image, or learning enough to distinguish between the written language of Englishmen and the spoken jargon of Cockneys, presume to talk with contempt of some of the most exquisite spirits the world ever produced": in other words, gentlemen poets.

After he berates Keats for daring in Endymion to "profane and vulgarise" Greek culture, Lockhart (a Scot, by the way), ends with a swipe at the low-born apothecary that chills the blood. So "back to the shop, Mr John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes, &c. But, for Heaven's sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry."

"Back to the shop, Mr John": does that note of pure class hatred ever sound in British literary culture now? It did until quite recently. More than a century and a half after Keats's death, the Leeds baker's son Tony Harrison – fully aware of the ironies – dramatised a schoolroom humiliation after reading "Ode to a Nightingale" in his natural voice in his poem "Them & [Uz]". Harrison has made the poetic takeover of classical traditions by talents from the margins an abiding motif in his work. Last week, accepting part of the first PEN/ Pinter Prize in honour of the late playwright's work, he affirmed in a lecture that he always casts "my vote in favour of the dumb or the silenced being given a voice".

No one, let's hope, would ever try to silence a new Keats, or Harrison, via class-based mockery today. We have subtler methods now. Among them is an almost unconscious assumption that writers from a non-elite background ought to stick to modes and registers that suit their origins. That means, in many eyes, social comedy or documentary realism or problem drama. Keats, remember, incurred the special wrath of the snobs and nobs for choosing "high" rather than "low" forms. Write about the truth you know, runs the suffocating mantra of literary courses.

Would it sound as subversive in 2009 as in 1819 to tell students that they can break the chains of the local and actual, because "Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"? Yes, it would.

P.S.At last! Jeffrey Archer (left) has won a literary prize. Last week he accepted the international award at the Prix Polar crime-fiction event in Cognac, France for A Prisoner of Birth. "The rest of the evening," he writes on his truly inimitable blog, "went by in a bit of a haze, surrounded by bearded French men wearing sweaters and smoking Gauloises, chattering at me in their native tongue." In their native tongue, in Cognac? How eccentric! His triumph follows strong reviews for his re-telling of the Mallory-Irvine Everest climb in Paths of Glory and wide acclaim for the three volumes of dairies written by the former guest of Her Majesty number FF8282. In the days when Lord Archer walked tall in the Tory party, his Home Office colleagues had a popular slogan about the administration of justice. How did it go? Ah, yes: "Prison works".

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