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  • Lovelace and the "barbed Censurers":Lucasta and Civil War Censorship
  • Randy Robertson

Thou art a mailéd warrior in youth and  strength completeArmed cap-a-pieFull fair to see;Unknowing fear,Undreading loss,A gallant cavalier,Sans peur et sans reproche,In sunlight and in shadow,The Bayard of the meadow.

—Alfred Tennyson, "The Grasshopper," 1830

The middle of the seventeenth century saw England rent asunder by civil war; beleaguered, the Cavalier poet Richard Love-lace sought with his exquisite lyrics to brace the tottering royalist cause. His work has a quietly polemical thrust—its smooth surface is deceptive, a product of the censorship that fell athwart royalist writers of the period. In this article, I will canvass the ways in which Lovelace's curved style in Lucasta (1649), as well as his strategic alliance with select parliamentarians, allowed him to circumvent the Puritan censorship that stood in his way. The text and context of Lucasta illustrate the methods that early modern writers used to negotiate censorship and to forge political consensus in times of crisis.1 [End Page 465]

Lovelace wrote most of the poems in Lucasta during the civil wars of the 1640s. Although royal censorship had collapsed in 1641, a new licensing regime soon took its place. Parliament introduced a modicum of order into the licensing system by passing a series of printing measures in 1642, culminating in the famous printing ordinance of June 1643—the ordinance to which Milton objected in Areopagitica.2 Fredrick Siebert summarizes the edict this way: "Parliament substituted itself and its appointed committees for the Star Chamber and High Commission. . . . The old alliance with the Stationers Company whereby that body agreed in return for the protection of its monopolies and property in copies to assist in the enforcement was continued. The [old] licensing system was revived although with Parliamentary and Presbyterian licensers in place of the royal and Episcopal censors."3 The licensing machinery was not always very efficient, but at certain junctures the government was able to derail the royalist press. In 1649, the year of the king's execution and of Lucasta's publication, the young republic's Council of State implemented a severe censorship.4 [End Page 466]

Such an atmosphere fostered caution: many took cover under anonymity; others, like Lovelace, took refuge in indirection. Lovelace's modern editor, C. H. Wilkinson, claims that the poet "is often careless and obscure because of his carelessness"; a moment later Wilkinson claims that "his elliptical style is difficult."5 The two statements jar with each other somehow: surely ellipsis can lead to obscurity, but an elliptical style requires care. We need to entertain the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that Lovelace's obscurity was deliberate, a stylistic choice rather than an unhappy accident or a glitch in his art. After all, the poet had six months in prison to ruminate on his work and refine it for the press.6

Despite William Rudyerd's compliment in his commendatory piece that Lovelace's poetry is unmarred by "Metaphors packt up and crowded close" (7), Lucasta is neither straightforward nor predominantly literal. John Needler's remark in his commendatory poem that "The world shall now no longer mourne, nor vex / For the obliquity of cross-grain'd sex" (ibid.) is apropos here. As Needler's figure suggests, Lucasta is part "Amazon," part soft and retiring beauty: her weapons, and Lovelace's, are not "Armes" but paper bullets shot obliquely at the enemy.

From a distance, the publication of Lovelace's poetry would appear to confirm Annabel Patterson's "social contract" or "cultural bargain" model of censorship, according to which the government brooked writings [End Page 467] critical of the administration so long as authors rendered their criticisms artfully.7 In short, Patterson contends that writer and state struck a discursive bargain: both parties agreed to a (tacit) contract played by certain rules, and both strove for concord, or at least concordia discors. "Art" under the contractual theory thus amounts to tact.

In Lucasta, we find printed strictures on the Parliament indirectly and artfully expressed, licensed, and registered. The work seems moderate in its politics and diplomatic in its aims. But where the...


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