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You can’t prove I meant XClare Bucknell
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Vol. 42 No. 8 · 16 April 2020

You can’t prove I meant X

Clare Bucknell

4355 words
Poetics of the Pillory: English Literature and Seditious Libel, 1660-1820 
by Thomas Keymer.
Oxford, 352 pp., £25, October 2019, 978 0 19 874449 8
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William Godwin’s​ attack on aristocratic oppression in the Enquiry concerning Political Justice didn’t pull its punches. ‘Each man,’ he wrote, ‘should be wise enough to govern himself, without the intervention of any compulsory restraint; and, since government, even in its best state, is an evil, the object principally to be aimed at is, that we should have as little of it, as the general peace of society will permit.’ The publication of such sentiments in February 1793, a few weeks after the execution of Louis XVI, seemed to have more than mere philosophical speculation in mind. The Enquiry was discussed by Pitt’s cabinet in May, but although the book might have been expected to encounter the full force of the law – as Paine’s similarly argued Rights of Man (1791) had done two years earlier – Godwin wasn’t prosecuted. ‘A three-guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare,’ Pitt is reported to have said. The men who had most to gain from the idea that subjects should judge the value of political institutions for themselves would never be able to afford Godwin’s book.

If the Enquiry concerning Political Justice didn’t count as sedition, what did? When the Licensing Act wasn’t renewed in 1695, pre-publication censorship was replaced by post-publication scrutiny and prosecution under the common law of libel. As far as successive governments during the long 18th century were concerned, whether or not a publication was classed as seditious had as much to do with its medium as its message, with its accessibility to a wide readership and the likelihood of its being socially disruptive. It was also a matter of the clarity and explicitness of the text’s argument and whether it seemed to call for urgent action. The broadside Nero the Second (1715), written by an unwise former mayor of Leeds called William Cookson, was actionable on all counts: at a time of intense alarm around the first Jacobite Rising, it compared George I to Nero, threatened his destruction and called for the reinstatement of the ‘real’ royal line across the water. ‘Let us in Justice rival ancient ROME;/Let NERO’s Vices meet with NERO’s Doom,/And speed’ly call King JAMES from Exile Home.’ Cookson spent a winter in Newgate Prison.

Using a loathed historical or literary figure as a stand-in for an unpopular contemporary one was a favourite trick of early modern writers who wanted to print sedition and get away with it (Cookson didn’t pull it off, not least because he mentioned George by name to make it clear who he really meant by ‘NERO’). The idea, in imitation of the classical writers who had developed sophisticated methods of conveying hostile political commentary, was to encode one’s writing just enough to provide a get-out clause if necessary (or to save those in charge from feeling they had no choice but to prosecute). As Quintilian explained, ‘you can speak as openly as you like against … tyrants, as long as you can be understood differently.’

Analogy – Nero for George I, say, or the Roman imperial enforcer Sejanus for Sir Robert Walpole – was one way of speaking in order to be understood differently. Others were allusion, ellipsis, circumlocution, irony (including mock forms such as mock epideixis, elaborately praising something unpraiseworthy so as to undermine it) and functional ambiguity – the intentional exploitation of indeterminacy or contradiction in language and syntax (‘this sentence could mean y as well as x so you can’t prove I meant x’). Internal encoding could be supplemented by external trickery: methods of producing and transmitting dissident work designed to ensure that even if seditious meaning were provable it would be hard to trace to a particular author or publisher. Texts were circulated clandestinely in manuscript rather than being printed; they were anonymised or attributed to someone else (Marvell’s anti-ministerial ‘Advice to a Painter’ satires were absurdly attributed to the royalist poet John Denham); and in the case of published books, the printer’s name and location could be disguised by the use of a false imprint.

For Thomas Keymer in his beautifully detailed history, such strategies of evasion are one of the things that make seditious literary texts worth reading, forms of energetic ‘creativity and rhetorical complexity’ for which, perhaps counterintuitively, we have the early modern political state to thank. As Annabel Patterson put it in 1984, in Censorship and Interpretation, ‘“literature” in the early modern period was conceived in part as the way around censorship.’ The group of texts we think of as canonical took on their complex shapes under the ‘enabling discipline’ of state pressure, as successive governments attempted to keep pace with the dance of the libellers and the ‘Hieroglyphicks’ they invented. There’s a reason, to put it another way, that we still read Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682), with its delicate possible parallel between the dunce writer Richard Flecknoe and Charles II, but not Nero the Second. Charles can’t be twinned with Flecknoe as straightforwardly as George I with Nero but, as Keymer shows, it’s the non-straightforwardness of the parallel – the way it’s built up from detail to detail (Flecknoe and Charles II are both ‘like’ Augustus; in their different realms both are ‘absolute’; both have sons and possible heirs of dubious intelligence – that enables and intensifies the political mischief. Hints about the king seem subordinate to the ostensible subject matter of the poem – Dryden’s literary conflict with Flecknoe’s heir, Thomas Shadwell – but sometimes it’s the subordinate clauses that matter most. When Dryden tells us that Shadwell ‘seems designed for thoughtless majesty’, the accusation is intended to set up the dangerous and insubordinate simile that follows: ‘Thoughtless as monarch oaks that shade the plain,/And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.’

‘If a figure betrays itself, it ceases to be a figure,’ Quintilian wrote. When poets or printers weren’t clever enough with their ambiguities and disguises, the law moved in. Until the second quarter of the 19th century, those convicted of seditious libel – or obscene or blasphemous libel, which prosecutors often used as proxy charges –could end up in the pillory, their neck and hands held in a wooden frame fixed on a platform several feet above the ground. This ‘wooden cravat’, ‘the exact point between ornament and strangulation’, as Charles Lamb imagined it, which exposed its victims to whatever filth the crowd might want to hurl at them, was used to punish Daniel Defoe in 1703 for his provocative pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (‘a Seditious, pernicious and Diabolical Libel’); it haunted Dryden during the Exclusion Crisis (1679-82), when the temporary lapse of the Licensing Act made ‘every Street a Grove of Pillories’; and, in the mid-18th century, it alarmed John Wilkes sufficiently for him to flee to France to escape retribution for seditious and obscene libel (he’d written a pornographic parody of Pope’s An Essay on Man). Hogarth, who despised Wilkes, took great pleasure in imagining him in the pillory: the second plate of his satire The Times (1762-63) shows Wilkes being casually urinated on by a small boy, ignored by the milling crowd of beggar musicians and cripples.

In extreme cases, mutilation was part of the punishment: ‘slit Noses, branded Faces’ and – as in the case of the Puritan William Prynne, found guilty of sedition by Charles I’s Star Chamber for a treatise attacking court plays – lopped-off ears. (The 1668 verse libel The Session of the Poets suggested similar treatment for the playwright William Davenant, on the grounds that it might make his syphilis-ravaged face less noticeable: ‘the pill’ry should crop off his ears/And make them more suitable unto his nose.’) There was also the danger of violence from onlookers, sometimes orchestrated by Tory or Whig mobs out for revenge on a political opponent. But not all mobs were hostile, and the spectacle of the pillory could be used for the purposes of resistance as well as punishment. At the pillorying of John Williams, prosecuted for reprinting Wilkes’s seditious attack on George III in the 45th number of the North Briton in 1765, a vast crowd cheered Williams, passed him flowers and orchestrated a public ‘execution’ of clothing intended to symbolise the hated former prime minister Lord Bute. For the arch-Tory John Shebbeare, whose Sixth Letter to the People of England (1757) despaired of the ‘Sloth, Pusillanimity and Dishonour’ into which England had sunk and blamed it on ‘insatiate Germans’ and ‘H – – – n [Hanoverian] Harpies’, being pilloried was a rather comfortable experience. A sympathetic under-sheriff permitted him to stand behind the frame rather than being imprisoned in it; he could ‘occasionally lounge forward to rest at ease on the lower board’ while his footman protected him from the rain with an umbrella.

Provided a book wasn’t banned outright – though even this could be got around with a little ingenuity on the part of booksellers, who could make such texts reappear in the form of putative refutations that quoted extensively from the original – few things helped sales prospects more than a libel conviction and a decent spell in the pillory. ‘One of my Books had the Honour of being presented for a Libel, by the Grand-Jury, and another was made a Burnt-Offering by the Hands of the Common Hangman,’ the satirist Richard Savage boasted, writing in character as ‘Iscariot Hackney’, a hack writer offering his services on the basis of proven seditious abilities. Tobias Smollett prefaced The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) with reassurances from a fictional bookseller that nothing but good could come from an actionable publication. ‘If you should be sentenced to the pillory, your fortune is made … As for flagellation, you have nothing to fear, and nothing to hope, on that head.’ Pilloried authors delighted in reissuing their offending publications with commemorative frontispieces reminding readers of their status as book-trade martyrs; plays banned from performance by Walpole’s 1737 Stage Licensing Act sold all the better in print for their illicit history. ‘The Representation of this Tragedy, on the Stage, was prohibited in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty-Nine,’ an ‘Advertisement’ for James Thomson’s Edward and Eleonora read.

Suggestive historical allegories like Edward and Eleonora, which put a superficial medieval gloss on its attacks on ‘corrupting Ministers’ and foreign kingship, or indeed any texts that seemed to invite more than one way of reading, aroused interest because they proposed a distinction that was flattering to some: between those who could see past surface meaning and those who couldn’t. The most audacious writers turned this to account by issuing pseudonymous pamphlets pretending to decode their own work, a technique Richard Sheridan termed the ‘PUFF COLLUSIVE’. Early readers may have enjoyed Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1714) as an innocent tale, but after the appearance of A Key to the Lock (1715), in which the poet exposed his own treasonous intentions in the persona of a mysterious Hanoverian apothecary called ‘Esdras Barnivelt’, they were prompted to look again. ‘It is not to be expected we should find the Clue at first sight,’ Barnivelt cautioned, ‘but when once we have laid hold on that, we shall trace this our Author through all the Labyrinths, Doublings and Turnings of this intricate Composition.’ By getting hold of entirely the wrong clue (that Belinda’s lost lock of hair symbolised the Tory government’s watering-down of the Barrier Treaty between Britain and the Dutch Republic), Barnivelt left any genuine subtext of Pope’s untouched, while recommending the poem as thrillingly illicit. ‘This Author,’ he concluded, ‘has ridiculed both the present Mi[nist]try and the last; abused great Statesmen and great Generals; nay the Treaties of whole Nations have not escaped him.’

Sympathetic journalists colluded with ruses like these. ‘Satirical Strokes upon Ministers, Courtiers and Great Men, in general, abound in every Part of this most insolent Performance,’ the opposition paper the Craftsman proclaimed of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728), doing Gay’s advertising for him. There was risky fun to be had from running rings round a slow-footed administration and sending up its methods of textual interrogation. Shakespeare was admonished in the Craftsman for his shameless attacks on the Hanoverian monarchy in the history plays (‘Shakespeare hath put several Speeches in her Mouth, which are capable of very bad Applications’); while, in the Champion, Henry Fielding ridiculed the ever expanding category of the unsayable with absurd elliptical contractions: ‘RT HNBL’ (‘right honourable’), ‘STTT’ (‘statute’) and ‘CVNT GRDN’ (no translation required).

Jokes like these riffed on the rules of the game without proposing how they might be changed. Far more dangerous was the kind of writing which, particularly during periods of political or sectarian conflict (the Exclusion Crisis, the two Jacobite uprisings, the challenge posed by Wilkes to aristocratic government, the counter-revolutionary 1790s), advocated specific forms of redress and went beyond anti-ministerial sentiment to mount attacks on the monarchy. The government, as Keymer notes, was probably as keen to suppress anti-ministerial writing as invectives against the Hanoverians, but texts that encouraged Jacobite insurrection or stirred up republican feeling provided a more solid pretext for state action and were more likely to be banned by the courts. Shebbeare’s first five ‘Letters to the People of England’ attacked the conduct of the government with reckless abandon, but it was only after the publication of the sixth – which equated the heraldic white horse of Hanover with the ‘pale horse’ of Death in the Book of Revelation – that he was prosecuted.

Under​ the Treason Act of 1351, which set the punishment for high treason as hanging, drawing and quartering, a person could be found guilty not only of killing the king or raising a war against him but of ‘compassing’ or ‘imagining’ his death. To ‘imagine’ regicide in the archaic sense – what John Barrell called the verb’s ‘strong’ sense – meant to conceive it ‘in the mind as a thing to be performed’, to ‘plot’ or ‘plan’ it. Difficulties arose in the grey area between different kinds of imagining, since by the 18th century the strong sense of the verb had been superseded by the modern sense of fantasising or forming a mental picture of something that wasn’t real – ‘merely’ imagining, in Barrell’s distinction. If a writer seemed to intend the death of the monarch ironically, or to conceive it in a fictional voice, was his imagining still treasonable?

In 1713, when fears about the childless Queen Anne’s declining health made it clear just how unpopular the Hanoverian succession would be, Defoe published three pamphlets that purported to be written by a helpful Jacobite, explaining carefully why the succession of the Protestant Elector of Hanover would be unwise and dangerous and why the accession of the Pretender James Stuart, ‘our Rightful Sovereign’, would bring many advantages (after all, who needed shoes or the ‘Trifle we call Liberty’?). Each of the pamphlets imagined Anne’s death more or less explicitly, since she had to be dead to be succeeded; the most provocative of the three, An Answer to a Question That No Body Thinks of, viz., But What if the Queen Should Die?, repeatedly asked the question that everybody was thinking about but didn’t dare say aloud. When he was hauled before the authorities for treasonously affirming the Pretender’s right, Defoe petitioned the queen for clemency, explaining that in ‘Ironicall Writeing’ the ‘Intencion of the Author’ wasn’t what the text seemed to suggest it was, and that by adopting the voice of a Jacobite to imagine her death and the unlawful accession of James Stuart he had only sought to betray the real imaginings (‘designs’) of the enemy.

Defoe got away with it because he grovelled. In 1739, Samuel Johnson – at this point far from being a pillar of the establishment – fled to an ‘obscure’ house in Lambeth to escape arrest. His verse satire on the Walpole ministry, London, hadn’t elicited legal action the previous year, even though it contained hints that Johnson saw the king as part of the problem and would prefer him out of the way. (A line about ‘Ropes’ being wanted ‘To rig another Convoy for the K–g’ referred on the face of it to the convoys of ships leeching British wealth into Hanover, but in the context of a verse paragraph about ‘Hemp’, ‘Gallows’ and ‘Tyburn’ seemed to wish for a different kind of rope rigging.) What drove Johnson into hiding in 1739 was a prose pamphlet called Marmor Norfolciense (‘The Norfolk Marble’), purportedly written by ‘Probus Britannicus’, an amateur scholar who had happened across a dire verse prophecy carved into a stone in a Norfolk field. The prophecy’s lightly encoded warnings of impending doom under Hanoverian rule would have been decipherable to most readers without a gloss: ‘swarms’ of rapacious ‘scarlet reptiles’ represent George II’s standing army; spreading ‘lilies’ herald the growing power of Louis XV; and, at the poem’s climax, a Hanoverian ‘horse’ (the ‘pale horse’ that would reappear in Shebbeare’s sixth letter) slowly drains the blood of the ‘lion’ of Britain.

Johnson could have published the prophecy as a mysterious ‘found poem’ for readers to interpret as they saw fit. Like Defoe, though, he enjoyed the idea of making a ventriloquised representative of the enemy tie himself up in seditious knots. ‘Probus Britannicus’ is a loyal citizen and a brainwashed reader of Walpole’s paper, the Gazetteer, but when he tries to decipher the prophecy he gives voice to treasonous imaginings that follow on seductively from one to the next:

I might observe that a horse is borne in the arms of the house of H – . But, how then does the horse suck the lion’s blood? Money is the blood of the body politic. – But my zeal for the present happy establishment will not suffer me to pursue a train of thought that leads to such shocking conclusions. The idea is detestable, and such as, it ought to be hoped, can enter into the mind of none but a violent Republican, or bloody Jacobite.

That such ideas weren’t confined to the ‘violent’ brains of Jacobites or republicans was the trump card in the hands of prosecuted libellers and their defence lawyers. Government agents could always be accused of imagining the king’s death themselves as they sought to pin it on others – ‘vicariously, by imagining that others were imagining it’, as Barrell writes. A version of this argument was deployed by the lawyer Nicholas Fazakerley in 1731, when he defended the printing of an incendiary letter in the Craftsman accusing ‘certain Ministers’ of underhand diplomatic dealings. How, Fazakerley asked, had the diseased imaginations of the prosecution managed to conflate the wicked nameless ministers in the letter with Walpole and his well-intentioned colleagues? The text as it had been written, he argued, wasn’t a libel; it had been made into one by the seditious prosecutors.

The most celebrated use of the ‘projection’ defence occurred in relation to a text that explicitly imagined – or seemed to imagine – the death of the king: John Thelwall’s fable ‘King Chaunticlere; or, The Fate of Tyranny’ (1793), published in Daniel Isaac Eaton’s journal Politics for the People. Chaunticlere the gamecock is a ‘fine majestic kind of animal’ with an ‘ermine spotted breast’ and a ‘crown, or coxcomb, I believe you call it’ on his head, who devours ‘by far the greater part of the grain’ Thelwall scatters for his birds. Growing tired of the ‘barefaced despotism’ of this ‘haughty, sanguinary tyrant’, Thelwall drags him ‘to the block’ and beheads him: ‘If guillotines had been in fashion, I should certainly have guillotined him.’ Given the brazenness of the regal language and the contemporaneity of the guillotine reference – which tiptoed beyond ‘merely’ imagining the king’s death into the territory of compassing it – securing Eaton’s conviction for sedition must have seemed straightforward. According to his defence counsel, John Gurney, however, it was up to the prosecution to prove that the alleged seditious meaning really existed, and since in Thelwall’s fable nothing specific tied Chaunticlere to George III (the cock was actually the emblem of the French king), any connection must come from the minds of the king’s lawyers. ‘Why is it to be supposed,’ Gurney asked, ‘that this gamecock, which is described as an haughty and sanguinary tyrant, nursed from his infancy in blood and slaughter, must necessarily mean the present mild and merciful king of Great Britain?’ In drawing up Eaton’s indictment – complete with legal innuendos that sought to pin down the target of Thelwall’s analogy – the prosecution, according to Gurney, had engaged in a version of literary criticism, inventing meaning where none existed. It had seen what it wanted to see; its reading of the fable reflected the seditious bent of its own ‘wanton’ and ‘heated’ imagination.

Securing a conviction now required lawyers to negotiate the awkward fact that to prosecute on the grounds of a supposed analogy was to acknowledge that it was applicable. The viability of the charge in Rex v. Eaton depended on the same tacit consensus about kingship in general and George III in particular that Thelwall’s satire needed in order to work as a text – the sense that the Chaunticlere-George parallel, even if exaggerated, was still plausible. The beauty of the legal situation, as libellers discovered, was that texts that were so exaggerated as not to be plausible actually had a better chance of avoiding conviction. The grosser and more outrageous the behaviour attributed to kings or tyrants, the more wary prosecutors would be of claiming any relevance to George. Well-placed escape clauses helped to force the issue. ‘My omitting to say all kings, demonstrates that I mean to exclude some,’ Gurney argued, pushing his opposite number to take the step of insisting that George was among those included. Sixty years earlier, Swift had shown how cynically this line could be used:

But now, go search all Europe round
Among the savage monsters crown’d,
With vice polluting every throne
(I mean all kings except our own).

Looking back on the previous century, Romantic writers found much to admire in the outspokenness of the opposition satirists under Walpole. Pope’s scarred, elliptical fragment One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty was first published by Joseph Warton in 1797, accompanied by a note praising the satire’s bold manoeuvres under the ‘Argus Eye’ of the authorities. For Byron in the early 1820s, no radical publications of recent years could match the virulence and courage of Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743): ‘had he lived now he would have been denounced … as the grand Mouth-piece and Factionary of the revolutionists.’ The 17th and early 18th centuries were remembered as periods in which the pillory was an object of real terror for libellers, rather than an unreliable form of public theatre likely to backfire on its instigators. (In 1812, Eaton was the subject of a particularly famous counterproductive pillorying: the slowly rotating scaffold, intended to increase the victim’s humiliation, instead allowed him to greet an applauding crowd of thousands on all sides; one spectator placed a commemorative cockerel at the pillory’s foot.) The gradual separating-off of ‘literature’ as a privileged category of writing at the end of the 18th century widened the gap between political and literary kinds of imagining, protecting – but also neutering – the seditious verse of Coleridge, Byron and Shelley in ways that would have made little sense to Pope or Defoe. At a dinner party in 1803, Sir Walter Scott, a Tory, launched into an admiring recitation of Coleridge’s vicious anti-Pitt eclogue ‘Fire, Famine and Slaughter’ (1798), demonstrating that it was possible to think of even this most determined piece of invective as a literary performance.

For Keymer, the fact that Shelley’s openly seditious ‘England in 1819’ could be published without revision in 1839 in Mary Shelley’s edition of his Poetical Works is a salutary reminder of the freedom won in the two hundred years since Prynne lost his ears in the pillory. But, he adds, ‘one may also detect an accompanying sense of loss: loss of the rhetorical power that flowed from conscious strategies of indirection or disguise.’ It’s certainly true that not being able to speak directly prompted writers into brilliant circumlocutions. How else to think about the ‘superficially tactless, profoundly calculated verbal choices’ that Keymer finds in Dryden’s 1659 elegy for Cromwell, where lines that look just enough like panegyric to pass also contain dark words that blow up like little landmines (‘our best notes are treason to his fame’)? Sometimes the need to defend a piece of writing in the dock gave rise to dazzling theoretical innovation. During his 1818 blasphemy trial, William Hone dodged conviction by proving that there was a difference between parodies that ridiculed the texts they were based on and parodies that ‘conveyed ludicrous or ridiculous ideas relative to some other subject’, turning the courtroom into a seminar on satiric incongruity.

Rhetorical ingenuity – as it reveals itself in cleverly worked ironies, analogies or other kinds of encoding – will always appeal to close reading critics more than straightforwardness, because it offers a puzzle-box problem that yields to technical skill. The desire for puzzles that have solutions lies somewhere beneath the New Critical fondness for tropes that work like codes, where the pleasure comes in reverseengineering a writer’s ingenious construction. The ‘conscious strategies of indirection or disguise’ that Keymer illuminates are examples of such puzzles, and both the way they operate and the way they bear analysis are fascinating. But it must matter that they exist because the writers who came up with them felt they had no other choice, just as it matters that under the same political conditions Pope destroyed his possibly Jacobite juvenile epic Alcander, Prince of Rhodes, abandoned a projected satire on ‘the Sins of Thirty-nine’ and inserted so many ellipses and hieroglyphs into One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty as to make it unreadable. Decipherable figures were no longer sufficient. ‘Bad men were grown so shameless and so powerful, that Ridicule was become as unsafe as it was ineffectual.’

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