Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hone and Cruikshank on Censorship, The Man in the Moon

'The body of the people, I do think,
     are loyal still,'
But pray, My L—ds and G—tl—n,
      don't shrink
From exercising all your care
      and skill,
Here, and at home,
      Whose very looks—
Vile 'two-p'nny trash,'
      bespeak abomination.
Oh! they are full of blasphemies
      and libels,
And people read them
     oftener than their bibles.

George Cruikshank's engraving illustrates a passage from William Hone's The Man in the Moon, a political pamphlet published in very late 1819 or very early 1820 just weeks before the death of King George III. It was a tense and divisive moment in English history. In August of 1819, a large political demonstration in Manchester had been brutally suppressed by the yeoman cavalry with serious loss of life. The event, which came to be known as the "Manchester Massacre" or "Peterloo," served as a watershed moment in English political history. Like the Kent State shootings during the Vietnam era in the United States, here was an instance of lethal military force employed against fellow citizens engaged in peaceful protest. The result, predictably enough, was a highly polarized political environment in which radicals and reformers called for a restructuring of the whole political system while conservatives sought to maintain the traditional structure and organization. In effect, this was a later and more intense version of the debate that had developed in the wake of the French Revolution and that I've commented on in other postings here on Romanticism@UAB. (See, for example, the notes on Smith, Burke, and even Austen; also, a full-text annotated copy of The Man in the Moon is available on the William Hone BioText.)
One of the government's responses to the post-Peterloo tensions was a heightened surveillance of and attempts to control or even silence the press. The reasoning is simple enough to see: from the conservative perspective, masses of disaffected people were being organized and politicized for the purpose of insurrection and possibly even French-style revolution. This was possible because of the demagoguery of popular radical speakers (such as Henry Hunt, the headline speaker at the Manchester meeting) and because of the "circulation of little books," to borrow a phrase from the passage above. The reference is probably a general observation about the prevalence of cheap, politically inflammatory publications (e.g. the "Vile 'two-p'nny trash'"), but it might also be a more specific reference to Hone's extremely popular Political House that Jack Built (1819), another Cruikshank-illustrated squib that for a few months in late 1819 expressed, clarified, and gave voice to the radical interpretation of Peterloo.
The Man in the Moon was written in response to the Tory administration's effort to control such discourse through Parliamentary action. Political tensions had reached such a pitch in the autumn of 1819 that the Prince Regent called a special session of Parliament for the expressed purpose of debating and then passing the so-called "Six Acts"--a package of draconian legislation that was intended to stifle popular political discussion and reformist/radical publications. Hone's pamphlet--from which the focal passage has been taken--consists mainly of a parody of the Regent's opening speech to this Parliamentary session. This specific passage is Hone's parodic rewriting of the closing lines of the real Prince Regent's speech:
Upon the loyalty of the great body of the people I have the most confident reliance; but it will require your utmost vigilance and exertion, collectively and individually, to check the dissemination of the doctrines of treason and impiety, and to impress upon the minds of all classes of his Majesty's subjects, that it is from the cultivation of the principles of religion, and from a just subordination to lawful authority, that we can alone expect the continuance of that divine favour and protection which have hitherto been so signally experienced by this kingdom.
Using a rhetorical strategy often employed by Hone, the parody serves to deflate and make absurd the assumed authority of the Regent and his pompous language, skewering the future king and his ministers alike with ridicule and laughter. Having snickered at Hone's comical verse and Cruikshank's decidedly unflattering caricatures of the Regent and his ministers, it would be difficult for a contemporary audience to attend to the monarch with the sort of unalloyed reverence that his official rhetoric seems to command.
Such is the discursive strategy of Hone's parodic rhetoric. But, as Cruikshank's engraving makes amply clear, the point is anything but laughable. The image shows three prominent members of the Tory administration--Castlereagh (holding the axe and noose), Canning (with the dagger), and Sidmouth (with the chain)--all working at the violent subjugation of the female figure of Liberty who is holding a staff topped with a liberty cap, the symbol of the reform movement during the Regency period. It's an image that, to my eye at any rate, looks like something between torture and rape--maybe both. The Liberty figure responds with her right hand raised as if simultaneously to fend off Castlereagh's advance and to defend herself and the printing press from his raised axe. The image as a whole, then, depicts in baldly graphic terms the naked use of force to suppress both Liberty and the free press.
Of course, there is nothing particularly surprising in the political dynamics exhibited in such a passage. Powerful regimes--especially authoritarian regimes--almost invariably have a vexed relationship with the press, and most make some effort to curtail the liberty of public speech. But, one might ask, what does this commonly exhibited tension in political speech have to do with literature? In other words, what does censorship have to do with Romanticism? One might argue, in Northrop Frye's words, that censorship "has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice" (Anatomy of Criticism, "Polemical Introduction"). But I would argue that the mode of direct political censorship illustrated in The Man in the Moon is only a surface manifestation of an underlying ideological structure that is pervasive in the lives and works of "literary" romantics. Indeed, even setting aside such prominent events as the treason trials of the 1790s or the trials of Leigh and John Hunt, William Hone, (and many other radical writers and publishers) in the 1810s, a glance at the canonical romantics reveals a pattern of suppression or near-suppression. Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their earlier years, were spied on by agents of the government; Blake was tried for sedition; many of Byron's works were suppressed or heavily censored at publication, and not always for their libertarian sexual mores; Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing The Necessity of Atheism, and his most politically popular, influential, and potentially inflammatory poem, Queen Mab, was suppressed (as was his Masque of Anarchy). The list could be much longer, and these are only the works about which we have some record. The number of works which were written but then deemed "too dangerous" to publish can never really be known.
I dwell on the issue because Romanticism is in many ways a discourse of revolutionary dissent, a discourse of challenge to political, religious, social, and aesthetic orthodoxies. Modern readers tend to look back at this body of writing, viewing it as if all political statements were uttered in a context of the free and open exchange of ideas, as though the ideological struggles between, say, Burke and Paine in particular or the conservatives and the radicals more generally were purely discursive affairs in which all views could be uttered and the outcome of the dispute depended solely on the persuasive strength of the arguments forwarded on both sides. But such an ideal and free arena for the exchange of ideas did not exist. The fact and the threat of censorship--with the attendent risk of fines, imprisonment, and even deportation or capital punishment--served always to shape both the form and the content of public speech. Hone's comic parodic rhetoric is but one of many highly inventive responses to this very unequal arena of public writing.