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  • Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England: The Subtle Art of Division by Randy Robertson
  • Nigel Smith
Randy Robertson, Censorship and Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England: The Subtle Art of Division (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009). $75.00.

Unlike Richard Dutton’s account of drama regulation, Licensing, Censorship and Authorship in Early Modern England, Randy Robertson’s book is not an integrated discussion of a censorship machine. It is certainly not an original history of censorship, but rather a shrewd synthesis of history from the invention of printing to the awkward marriage of Stationers Company and Crown as regulators during the Restoration. This history acts as choric interlude between longer passages interpreting particular texts. Robertson’s main focus is on showing how book licensing was a profoundly imaginative prompt for nearly all writers during this period. Unlike Annabel Patterson, who argued in 1984 that censorship led to widespread self-censorship, Robertson prefers the model of open controversial warfare for the right to write and publish freely or not. In his conclusion, however, he seems to admit there was after all much self-censorship (201)—not merely tactful, or even compliant, so much as tactical. The menu of the book moves from key texts that explicitly engage with the licensing context—Prynne’s Histrio-mastix (1633), Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), and Swift’s Tale of a Tub (1704)—to poetry that could not but speak its subversion openly: Richard Lovelace’s Lucasta (1649) and Marvell’s Advice to a Painter poems (1666–67). Disguised authorship and anonymity [End Page 451] were strategic necessities and creatively fertile, permitting Dryden, for example, to make a devastating critique of the Whigs in Absolom and Achitophel (1681).

The best parts of this book are these very close readings of well-known texts; Robertson provides fresh insights in several notable places. Among the most impressive passages are those showing how Prynne’s infamous attack on the theater, the court, the honor of the queen, and therefore also of the king, were presented as a pamphlet drama: redeemed holy drama, an “antimasque.” The most satisfying chapter is the careful reading of Lovelace’s Lucasta. Robertson avoids the notion that the commendatory poems joined with Lovelace himself in attempting to fend off the Parliamentarian censors, but instead proposes the lyrics as legitimate in an age supposedly without draconian censorship. The intention of contributors like John Hall and Marvell was to show the Presbyterians that valuable poetic art had a place in the book market. There is much judiciousness in this careful exposure of Lucasta as a “palimpsest” of literary possibilities in the immediate postregicide era, and readers will be grateful for the connections drawn between Lovelace’s lyrics and other contemporary poetry, as well as for the discussion of femininity as a mark of gentry refinement in Lovelace’s verse.

Despite the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, the assumption of censorship remained. Robertson shows in a lucid and rewarding reading of those inexhaustible and infuriating texts, The Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, how Swift made capital of anonymity and innuendo as ways of exposing what he and his friends regarded as authorship debased by the age of print. Particularly valuable is the demonstration of how close Swift felt he came to being a gutter author like one of his Grub Street enemies, and how sharply he saw this about himself: in attacking the moderns (including Dryden, Milton, and Hobbes) Swift revealed himself to be entirely modern. One caveat, though: insofar as print is taken as a manifestation of what was thought at a given point in time, Robertson underestimates the continuing role played by scribal publication.

Some haste is suggested by the fact that more than a few items in the notes are missing from the bibliography. There are many plainly stated corrections and contentions. Some of these are on the money: Sheila Lambert certainly did underestimate the degree to which the licensing statutes were enforced with punishments; Roger L’Estrange was a more effective press controller than he is usually supposed to be. Likewise, there are some very useful details in the Areopagitica chapter, such as...


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pp. 451-453
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