Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Will the Public Please Step Forward? Libel Law and Public Opinion in Byron's the Vision of Judgment

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Will the Public Please Step Forward? Libel Law and Public Opinion in Byron's the Vision of Judgment

Article excerpt

THE LEGAL REPERCUSSIONS OF BYRON'S THE VISION OF JUDGMENT ARE well known. John Hunt, who had published the poem in the first issue of The Liberal, was tried for libel, found guilty by jury, and sentenced to pay one hundred pounds as well as to enter into securities for five years. (1) In many ways, the prosecution was typical of the period. Decided by special jury, the trial involved a pair of witnesses and hinged on a reading of the charged material. But there was a distinctive irony to targeting the work for prosecution: The Vision of Judgment is a poem about the limitations of judgment, the inadequacy of representation, and the prohibitive heterogeneity of public opinion.

Considering his low opinion of the English legal system, we might reasonably wonder why Byron retains the judicial framework employed by his satirical target Robert Southey in A Vision of Judgement--complete with recognizable legal language and protocol--to censure the Laureate and condemn the late king. But whereas Southey employs the framework to legitimize his "judgment" of George ill, the trial Byron stages is deliberately abortive. The arguments are inconclusive, the witnesses fail to provide any definitive testimony, and the trial ultimately disintegrates, derailed as much by a defective process as by discordant poetry. While this result reflects on the English legal system more broadly, the poem engages with a specific judicial problem, one that was highlighted by the slew of libel trials that led up to the publication of The Vision: the disconnect between public opinion and courtroom invocations of "the people." In his Vision, Byron is not simply repudiating Southey's verdict, but reimagining the relationship between the courtroom and the public. By conspicuously failing to represent public opinion fully in the heavenly trial, The Vision of Judgment underscores the representational limitations of the judicial process--limitations that had become especially prominent in 1821. Criticism of libel law was intense when Byron conceived the poem, in part because shifts in the interpretation and prosecution of libel law had fundamentally compromised its application in the courtroom. The gradual implementation of the 1792 Libel Act, which allowed the jury to determine whether or not a work was libellous in nature, made trials increasingly dependent on the invocation of public opinion. But in practice, effectively representing the reading public in the courtroom proved impossible, and libel prosecutions were required to make expansive claims (both implicit and explicit) to speak for the English people--claims that were unavoidably specious and unsubstantiated. In his Vision, Byron deliberately reproduces the central defect of contemporary libel trials, crucially premising the heavenly trial on an abortive invocation of "the people." A "universal shoal of shades" is called to voice the public attitude against the late king, but conclusively representing the sentiments of this motley crowd proves impossible, as neither Wilkes, Junius, nor Southey can move beyond their own private priorities and concerns. Accentuating the failure of these key witnesses, The Vision of Judgment foregrounds the disjunction between the individual witness and the multifarious multitude, demonstrating that public opinion cannot be effectively reduced to "one or two persons." (2)

Though Byron's poem mirrors the English legal system, none of the existing scholarship on The Vision of Judgment has considered the poem's jurisprudential subtexts. For most of the twentieth century, critics typically situated the poem within a biographical narrative, treating it first and foremost as a satirical response to Robert Southey's A Vision of Judgement (1821). (3) "The best introduction to Byron's The Vision of Judgment of 1822," commentators have regularly suggested, "is the laureate poem which inspired it." (4) While this approach helped explain the origins of the poem, it necessarily left the intellectual and historical contexts of The Vision comparatively neglected. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.