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  • Hieroglyphic State Machine
  • Joseph Hone
Thomas Keymer. Poetics of the Pillory: English Literature and Seditious Libel, 1660–1820 (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2019). Pp. xiii + 323. $35

On Saturday, 26 June 1702, William Fuller lost his left eye. It was his second day in the pillory. The morning before, he had spent two hours on display at Charing Cross, his head and hands securely fastened between locking wooden boards. He had been “sadly abused” by the Friday crowd, he claimed. But the Saturday crowd at Temple Bar would prove far worse. “I was stifled with all manner of Dirt, Filth, and rotten Eggs,” Fuller later recalled, “and my Left Eye was so bruised with a Stone flung, that it swelled out of my Head immediately.” The blow knocked Fuller unconscious, and he “hung by the Neck” for nearly an hour before he was eventually dragged from the stocks. “I was a miserable Object to behold, and hardly any that saw me thought it possible for me to survive,” he wrote, “all over bruised from Head to Heel; and on the small of my Back, as I stood stooping, a Stone struck me, which being taken up, was found to weigh more than six Pounds.” There was to be no respite. On the following Monday, he would be returned to the pillory for his third and final stint before being transferred to Bridewell, where thirty-nine lashes and two months hard labor awaited.1 [End Page 109]

What was Fuller’s crime? Or perhaps, more accurately, his crimes, for there were many. Fuller was variously a notorious debtor, fraudster, perjurer, and quondam Jacobite courier. But on this occasion, he knew precisely why he found himself in the pillory: “I stand here for writing and publishing two Books” (108). More specifically, Fuller had been convicted under the old English common law of seditious libel. Definitions of seditious libel were always fluid, encompassing any act of writing that tended toward insurrection against the state. On a practical level, this meant that seditious libel could be whatever the attorney general and his judges wanted it to be. For this offense, the pillory was the chief punishment in an arsenal that included imprisonment, fines, and the lash. In recent decades, there has perhaps been a tendency to underestimate the potential brutality of this form of corporal punishment. As Fuller’s experience vividly attests, though, the pillory could leave its victims maimed, disfigured, or dead. Another potentially more disturbing aspect of punishment by the pillory was its unpredictability. In the summer of 1702, Fuller lost an eye. One year later, when pilloried for his seditious pamphlet The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters, Daniel Defoe was famously greeted by a sympathetic crowd who “hallow’d him down from his Wooden Punishment, as if he had been a Cicero that had made an Excellent Oration in it, rather than a Cataline that was Expos’d and Declaim’d against There.”2 Part of the terror of the pillory was that it left one exposed to a capricious and volatile mob that could as easily prove friend as foe.

In his wonderful new book, Poetics of the Pillory, based on his 2014 Clarendon Lectures at the University of Oxford, Thomas Keymer explores the imaginative pull of what Defoe called that “Hi’roglyphick State Machin, / Contriv’d to Punish Fancy in.”3 At its core, this book chronicles how, during an era conventionally associated with the liberation of the press and the emergence of free expression, the shadow of the pillory continued to loom over writers who dared to challenge the authority of the state. The arguments of the book may be stated easily enough. On the one hand, Keymer wants to argue a “historical case about the persistence and residual power of censorship, even while we can see it as on the wane” (21). Running alongside this historical case is a literary argument: that the pressures of censorship forced writers to “cultivate complex literary strategies of indirection, or even on occasion misdirection, in order to communicate dissident meaning while also rendering it deniable” (22). To say that Keymer succeeds in both aims would be true, but would understate what he...


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pp. 109-114
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