Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


PROCTER, BRYAN WALLER (1787-1874), English poet, was born at Leeds on the 21st of November 1787. He was educated at Harrow, where he had for contemporaries Lord Byron and Sir Robert Peel. On leaving school he was placed in the office of a solicitor at Calne, Wiltshire, remaining there until about 1807, when he returned to London to study law. By the death of his father in 1816 he became possessed of a small property, and soon after entered into partnership with a solicitor; but in 1820 the partnership was dissolved, and he began to write under the pseudonym of Barry Cornwall. After his marriage in 1824 to Miss Skepper, a daughter of Mrs Basil Montague, he returned to his professional work as conveyancer, and was called to the bar in 1831. In the following year he was appointed, metropolitan commissioner of lunacy—an appointement annually renewed until his election to the permanent commission constituted by the act of 1842. He resigned office in 1861. He died on the 5th of October 1874. Most of his verse was composed between 1815, when he began to contribute to the Literary Gazette, and 1823, or at latest 1832.

His principal poetical works were: Dramatic Scenes and other Poems (1819), A Sicilian Story (1820), Mirandola a tragedy performed at Convent Garden with Macready, Charles Kemble and Miss Foote in the leading parts (1821), The Flood of Thessaly (1823), and English Songs (1832). He was also the author of Effigies poetica (1824), Life of Edmund Kean (1835), Essays and Tales in Prose (1851), Charles Lamb; a Memoir (1866), and of memoirs of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare for editions of their works. A posthumous autobiographical fragment with notes of his literary friends, of whom he had a wide range from Bowles to Browning, was published in 1877, with some additions by Coventry Patmore. Charles Lamb gave the highest possible praise to his friendʼs Dramatic Sketches when he said that had he found them as anonymous manuscript in the Garrick collection he would have had no hesitation about including them in his Dramatic Specimens. He was perhaps not an impartial critic. Barry Cornwallʼs genius cannot be said to have been entirely mimetic, but his works are full of subdued echoes. His songs have caught some notes from the Elizabethan and Cavalier lyrics, and blended them with others from the leading poets of his own time; and his dramatic fragments show a similar infusion of the early Victorian spirit into pre-Restoration forms and cadences. The results are somewhat heterogeneous, and lack the impress of a pervading and dominant personality to give them unit, but they abount in pleasant touches, with here and there the flash of a higher, though casual, inspiration.

His daughter, ADELAIDE ANNE PROCTER (1825-1864), also a poet, was born on the 30th of October 1825. She began to contribute to Household Words in 1853. She adopted the name of Mary Berwick, so that the editor, Charles Dickens, should not be prejudiced by his friendship for the Procters. Her principal work is Legends and Lyrics, of which a first series, published in 1858, ran through nine editions in seven years, while a second series issued in 1860 met with a similar success. Her unambitious verses dealing with simple emotional themes in a simple manner have a charm which is scarcely explicable on the ground of high literary merit, but which is due rather to the fact that they are the cultured expression of an earnest and beneficent life. Among the best known of her poems are The Angelʼs Story, The Legend of Bregenz and The Legend of Provence. Many of her songs and hymns are very popular. Latterly she became a convert to Roman Catholicism, and her philanthropic zeal appears to have hastened her death, which took place on the 2nd of February 1864.

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

PROCTER, Bryan Waller [“Barry Cornwall”] (1787-1874) by Richard Marggraf-Turley

By 1911, Romantic poet Bryan Waller Procter, who wrote pseudonymously as Barry Cornwall to protect his reputation as a solicitor, had all but slipped out of public recall. If remembered at all, it was for his personal recollections of more illustrious nineteenth-century literary figures, among them John Keats, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Certainly, the 1910-1911 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica has little to say about Procter’s own writing other than to damn it with the faintest of praise: his poems contain the odd pleasant touch; are lifted here and there by evidence of higher, though casual, inspiration; and while full of subdued echoes of his age’s leading poets, are not entirely mimetic. These ex-cathedra judgments set the tone for subsequent early twentieth-century evaluations of Procter’s work: in 1922, André Koszul labelled Barry Cornwall a deservedly obscure poet; in 1930, Edmund Blunden dismissed him as an elegant but watery imitator of Percy Shelley and Keats; and in 1935, such sniffy adjudications resurfaced in Richard Willard Armour’s biography of Procter, whose verse was dubbed sweet but forceless.

Bryan Waller Procter
Brockedon, William. Bryan Waller Procter (Barry Cornwall). 1830, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Recent years have seen efforts to rehabilitate Barry Cornwall in relation to canonical Romantic writers, including the first full-length critical study (my own) of the author’s curious pas de deux with Keats (Bright Stars: John Keats, ‘Barry Cornwall’ and Romantic Literary Culture, 2009), Heather Jackson’s fascinating reappraisal in Those Who Write for Immortality (2015) of Procter’s relationship with his (now) more distinguished contemporaries, and an essay on Keats and Procter in Norbert Lennartz’s The Lost Romantics (2020). Nevertheless, EB11’s verdict has largely been endorsed by modern Romantic Studies. Against the canon-expanding grain of contemporary scholarship, Barry Cornwall has dropped out of Romantic teaching anthologies, and the waters of literary history have all but closed over his head.

At his acme of celebrity in the early 1820s, however, Procter was one of the most successful Romantic poets after Felicia Hemans and Byron. His third volume—an intense and experimental psychological study of male violence and madness, Marcian Colonna (1820)—outsold the entire lifetime sales (roughly 500 copies) of his stylistically closest rival John Keats in a single morning. Procter also ignited the imaginations of playgoers with a tragedy, Mirandola (1821), which, to the chagrin of would-be popular dramatists Keats and Percy Shelley, secured a sixteen-night run at Covent Garden. In 1822, a reviewer for The Album caught the mood of excitement by observing that Procter rose to the heights of fame with a rapidity of which we have scarcely any precedent.

Today we value Keats almost infinitely above Procter, and genuinely struggle to comprehend the age’s predilection for the latter. In one sense, though, Barry Cornwall was the Keats (who found few readers) of his day. He sounded similar, taking his poetic cues, like his younger rival, from Leigh Hunt’s Cockney School primer, The Story of Rimini (1816). Like Keats, he turned out a series of voguishly medieval Italianate romances aimed squarely at eager new readers with a taste for racy narratives with gothic edges. And on occasion, the two men even wrote on identical subjects, as when—prompted by Hazlitt—both chose to retell Boccaccio’s pot of basil tale from The Decameron.

Those competing adaptations offer an instructive insight into the contours of public taste in the mid-1810s to early 1820s. Procter’s A Sicilian Story, in reviewers’ hands in December 1819, beat Keats to press. It furnished readers with a strategically sanitised version of Boccaccio’s original that shared DNA with Keats’s delayed Isabella, published the following July, but wisely steered clear of anything like Keats’s medically inflected excesses: resurrection men-like exhumation, surgical decapitation, fetishistic devotion, putrefying flesh. Swapping his heroine’s object of devotion from severed head to sentimental heart, Procter cannily addressed his poem directly to the sweet ladies whom Keats put off with his dark fascinations. Whereas Byron, detecting the whiff of adolescent prurience, was not alone in accusing Keats of mental masturbation, the poet-solicitor’s more cautious eroticism meant that his 7- or 8-shilling volumes were available to a newly flush female readership. His success in this burgeoning market was confirmed by the London Magazine, which declared Procter one of Woman’s distinguished favourites.

In part, Procter’s sales were possible because, insulated by his class (he was a Harrow schoolmate of Byron), he managed, initially at least, to evade the charge of political Cockneyism. His affiliation with political persona non grata, Leigh Hunt, finally caught up with him on the publication of The Flood of Thessaly (1823), however, after which—apart from a brief flash of second celebrity as the author of English Songs (1832)—he suffered a precipitous decline in literary fortune. To the writer of the Britannica entry, and to André Koszul, Edmund Blunden, Richard Willard Amour, as well as more recent critics, Procter’s fall from grace might seem inevitable. Just, even—given that in his own day the popularity of Procter’s Keats-lite verse presented additional problems for his more gifted rival (by the time Keats’s Isabella appeared, A Sicilian Story had already enjoyed a second edition and the reading public were tired of the subject). All the same, to a reader in 1820, the suggestion that Barry Cornwall would one day be forgotten, moreover that Keats’s poetry would utterly displace him, is likely to have been met with incredulity. In the opinion of Gold’s London Magazine in 1821, even Percy Shelley was surpassed very far indeed by Barry Cornwall.

The EB11 entry remembers its subject primarily for his work as a Metropolitan Commissioner of Lunacy (Procter was one of the architects of the 1845 Lunacy Act), and for throwing a sidelight on his more significant literary peers. In addition, one of the three paragraphs about Procter is actually about his daughter, Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864), who was also a successful poet—though, the entry notes, a simple one. The encyclopedia, like modern Romantic Studies, largely overlooks the role Procter played in the revolutionary, democratising poetic culture of second-generation Romanticism. Still, discursively, at times textually, entangled with his friends and rivals, particularly Keats, Barry Cornwall reminds us of the dangers of reading the preferences of the current age (for irony-laden complexities) into those of the past, dangers that remain even within the self-consciously relativistic excavations of New Historicism. To be sure, we run the risk of elevating Procter precisely to find new things to say about Keats. But we also open intriguing apertures on would-be popular Romantic writers when we recognise Procter as a key component of their reticular contexts, an energising presence in their intricate webs of support, rivalry and literary and political exchange.

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