Dodging the Censor

March 20, 2020   •   By Jake Fuchs

Poetics of the Pillory

Thomas Keymer

IN POETICS OF THE PILLORY, Thomas Keymer, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, traverses in great detail the evolving relationship in England between censors, alert to any trace of sedition in literary texts, and writers and publishers. The historical period covered is the “long eighteenth century,” generally thought to have begun in 1660, the Restoration year, but whose closing date is not widely agreed upon. Keymer takes it as far as 1820.

Keymer acknowledges that “censorship” (taking the term somewhat broadly) did not sharply decline after 1695, even though in that year the Licensing Act of 1662 — a law that mandated the censoring of books before their publication — finally ceased to be renewed. He points out that, while pre-publication censorship now lacked legal sanction, those empowered to censor could and did issue judgment after publication, moving to suppress the text. Punishment of writers and publishers found guilty of violating community standards might then follow, ranging from a substantial fine to confinement in the pillory, with holes conveniently provided for the miscreant’s head, neck, and wrists.

Keymer is undoubtedly right in stating that such a prospect would suffice to make any writer or printer cautious. As a public spectacle, confinement in the pillory was even more shameful than hanging, and there was always the threat of injury or death from stones and other missiles hurled by amusement-seeking mobs. Although Daniel Defoe was the only canonical writer sentenced to the pillory (for The Shortest Way with the Dissenters [1702]), Keymer finds that “a startling number of authors, printers, and publishers endured the pillory, while many more feared its embrace.” Moreover, the pillory was handed down more often for sedition than for other literary offenses.

Those holding cultural power at the time wished to keep that power secure. Perhaps, as Keymer suggests, they thought of seditious writers as akin to “sexual deviants,” who were also frequently sent to the pillory. As such people allegedly perverted nature, perhaps the authors were likewise thought to pervert “truth” (Keymer’s term). The possibility is interesting, but the idea would have benefited from further discussion. This is hardly a major fault, however, in a book that says very much, says it well, and answers many questions.

After Poetics of the Pillory there can be no doubt that censorship, in its post-publication form, did persist after 1695 and that the threat of the pillory and lesser punishments did affect decisions made by authors and printers as they readied work for publication. The two modes of censorship could have similar effects. Pre-publication censorship accounts for the delay in printing John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682), which subtly attacked King Charles II, as well as Dryden’s rival, Thomas Shadwell. But, much later, the threat of legal prosecution after publication was strong enough to deter Leigh Hunt from publishing Shelley’s “England in 1819,” whose initial line pictures “[a]n old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king.” Mary Shelley had the nerve to publish it, but not until years afterward.

In what may seem an incongruous precaution in one known for combativeness, Alexander Pope deleted from the printed version of Windsor Forest (1713) a couplet present in manuscript: “Oh may no more a foreign Master’s Rage / With wrongs yet Legal, curse a future Age!” While on the poem’s surface William the Conqueror is conceived as the foreign master, the obvious contemporary reference (for Pope too obvious a reference) is to William III, also foreign and a recent and much admired king. Pope didn’t find a place for the couplet in print until an edition in 1736, when William’s memory had faded.

The impulse to express seditious sentiments while avoiding the pillory could affect the contours of an entire text. Keymer provides an interesting example in Samuel Johnson’s satire London (1738), an “imitation” of the third satire of Juvenal, whose characters and themes Johnson replaced with contemporary equivalents. What impresses Keymer is that Johnson chose not to imitate the entire Latin poem but “discard[ed] parts irrelevant to his purpose,” which was to “focus on venality and ministerial peculation.” The focus on “ministerial peculation” points directly at Robert Walpole, the eminently bribable prime minister (in effect if not in title). Walpole might have chosen to impose post-publication censorship on London, but Juvenal stood in his way, since Johnson or his publisher could have argued that he was simply imitating the Latin satire.

Just as subtle, though in a different way, is Johnson’s consistent use of the word “gold” in its several forms, as in “golden coach” or “Slaves to Gold.” Keymer calls it the poem’s “presiding term,” for the lust for gold has contaminated the culture in which Walpole has risen to the top. The reason for this verbal subtlety, according to Keymer, is the pillory, or the promise of it. Johnson cannot be too explicit when voicing what might be taken as sedition.

This constant concern led authors to wield language more radically than Johnson does. One of the most suggestive elements in Poetics of the Pillory is that the constant threat of post-publication censorship actually forced authors of the period to resort to “literary ambiguity,” which they could manipulate as they chose. Keymer offers several examples. One is a couplet in the Epistle to Bathurst (1733), by that master of “anti-Hanoverian touches,” Alexander Pope. A supporter of George II toasts the king’s majesty: “’Tis George and Liberty that crowns the cup, / And Zeal for that great House which eats him up.” There are two opposed meanings here than can’t be reconciled. The loyal toast-maker is consumed by patriotic zeal for the House of Hanover and the present king, but house and king are also said to be consuming him and, by a kind of synecdoche, laying waste to Britain. This, of course, is the meaning Pope intends, but the pro-Hanoverian reading can’t be dismissed. What was a court-appointed censor supposed to do with this? Pope was not prosecuted.

Nor was Henry Fielding for his novel Jonathan Wild (1743), even though Fielding’s protagonist, in history a master criminal, is a thinly veiled caricature of Walpole. But Fielding was clever enough, in Keymer’s reading, to make his hero a bit of a sociologist, delivering himself of cultural assessments that “are hard to map on to Walpole specifically” and puzzling to potential censors. The satire is blurred.

Certainly the existence of post-publication censorship was a “determinant” in these instances of literary ambiguity. But there are other causes that affected authors, and perhaps Keymer should have discussed them more than he does. One example that might have interested readers is the persistence of neoclassicism, which influenced writers to imitate classical models and follow classics-derived rules while simultaneously rejecting these practices as restrictions on their freedom to write as they wished. The frequent result, it seems to me, is literary ambiguity.

Another factor influencing writers of this period, though one that does not have this particular effect, is the increasing monetary value placed on the printed word. Keymer alludes to this influence but doesn’t focus on it, because his intention is to describe the progress, and then sudden decline, of seditious writing as a source of income.

Keymer relates an interesting story, which begins with Walpole forcing the suppression of John Gay’s play Polly (1729) for having satirized him. Other dramatists joined with Gay in the “campaign against Walpole” that inevitably led to the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, which pursued the same strategy as the Licensing Act of 1662. While the older mode of censorship preceded print, the later one preceded stage performance.

Gay could not have been terribly concerned that his play was banned from production, as it proceeded to become a best seller in print, its forcible departure from the stage serving him very well as free publicity. Other dramatists took note and, after pre-performance censorship became mandatory in 1737, wrote plays they hoped to have banned so as to generate interest in the printed versions. Keymer singles out James Thompson, who added extra doses of sedition to his completed Edward and Eleanora lest it be judged legal to be performed.

But this sort of salesmanship was not always feasible, as sedition would not always pay. The person ultimately responsible for this development was Robert Southey, who successively served three kings and a queen as England’s poet laureate, from 1813 until his death in 1843. A staunch political conservative for most of his life, Southey, like other, better known literary figures of his generation, had been a radical as a younger man. In 1794, Keymer tells us, he wrote and tried to have published the tragedy Wat Tyler, based on the exploits of the historical figure who led the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Contemporary applications were obvious. After some negotiations with a publisher, no deal was struck. Southey subsequently aged out of radicalism. Then, in 1817, the laureate was blind-sided — and horrified — by the publication “without authority” of his old tragedy.

Although he never denied that Wat Tyler was his work, Southey labeled it “a piece of sedition” and insisted that it be suppressed for that reason. Finding no satisfaction there, he sought to have this product of youthful enthusiasm “suppressed not for seditious libel, but for infringement of literary property,” or violation of copyright. To everyone’s surprise, the official in charge, Lord Chancellor Eldon, ruled against Southey on the grounds that seditious material, being “publicly injurious,” did not deserve copyright. This became precedent, and as a consequence, “the trade of libelling — seditious writing and publishing as a business strategy — was at an end.”

Income, of course, was not the only motive for writing and publishing such material. But while the revolutionaries of Southey’s generation continued to write and take their chances with post-publication censorship, once they died out, there were no successors. Why this happened is a complex question that Keymer does not consider at length. Nor need he. His book has enough to say: there is a wealth of learning here.


A former professor of English, Jake Fuchs has written scholarly books and fiction, including two satiric mystery novels, a send-up of academe, and the semi-autobiographical novel Conrad in Beverly Hills (2010).