Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"An Alembick of Innuendos": Satire, Libel, and the Craftsman

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"An Alembick of Innuendos": Satire, Libel, and the Craftsman

Article excerpt

In familiar lines from the Imitations of Horace, Sat. ii, no. 1 (1733), Alexander Pope insists that he is the author of "grave Epistles, bringing Vice to light," not "Libels and Satires! lawless Things indeed!" Pope's lawyer, Fortescue, answers half in jest that "The Case is alter'd--you may then proceed. / In such a Cause the Plaintiff will be hiss'd / My Lords the Judges laugh, and you're dismiss'd." (1) A number of central concerns are compressed in this particular exchange, including the assumption, common to almost all Augustan satirists, that there was an important distinction (both literary and legal) between libel and satire, and therefore "grave Epistles" or general satires ought somehow to be immune from prosecution. There was some legal basis for this belief. In the libel trial of Henry Carr (1680, 32 Car. II), Sir Francis Winnington, counsel for the defense, argued that since Carr was thought to be "a Satyrist against Popery," he could hardly have libeled members of the government and should not be prosecuted. (2) We find further evidence of the belief that satire offered immunity from prosecution in Defoe's response to the indictment of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) for seditious libel. In his Brief Explanation of a Late Pamphlet Entituled, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters ... (1703), written before his trial, Defoe argued that he had done no more than to imitate or parody the sentiments of High Churchmen, " tho' not in Words so plain, and at length, and by an Irony, not Unusual',' sentiments suggesting that Defoe also considered irony to be a defense against charges of libel. (3) He was mistaken. Convinced by his lawyer to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court, Defoe discovered to his distress that none of his arguments concerning irony or impersonation carried any weight. Indeed invocations of general satire as a defense against prosecution became almost pro forma, as satirists seemingly came to accept that the avoidance of prosecution would require a more complex battery of satirical techniques.

According to one summary of eighteenth-century libel law, "a paper may be a libel whether the charges in it be true or false, against a good or a bad man, the living, or the dead; nay, that the truth of it is even an aggravation of the crime; that every libel is, by construction of law, even against the peace, and (in very late times) that it is an actual breach of the peace." If one accepted this definition that a libel might be true or false, addressed to the living or the dead, touching upon either the wicked or the righteous, then what form of writing was not potentially libelous? When was any writer, a political satirist in particular, ever safe? The author of this pamphlet was understandably concerned to discover "by what certain signs one can know whether any particular pamphlet or paper will induce any body to commit a breach of the peace," (4) and thus inspire prosecution for libel.

Writers maintained, of course, that there was a distinction between legitimate satire and libel. Dryden condemned lampoons as "a dangerous sort of Weapon, and for the most part Unlawful. We have no Moral Right on the Reputation of other Men. 'Tis taking from them, what we cannot restore to them." (5) But because it corrected vice or misbehavior, the argument went, satire served as an adjunct to the law and ought not to be prosecuted. Addison contends that "tis an action of virtue to make examples of vicious men." Even so, he concedes that he "cannot but look upon the finest Strokes of Satyr which are aimed at particular Persons, and which are supported even with the Appearances of Truth, to be the Marks of an evil Mind, and highly Criminal in themselves." (6) Dryden observes that libel laws had been issued during the reign of Augustus Caesar, who, in order to protect his own reputation, had made an "Edict against Lampoons and Satires," which Tacitus had described as "famosos libellos. …

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