Banned Poetry

[This is taken From P.H. Ditchfield's Books Fatal to Their Authors.]

 Adrian Beverland—Cecco d’Ascoli—George Buchanan—Nicodemus Frischlin—
Clement Marot—Caspar Weiser—John Williams—Deforges—Theophile—Helot—
Matteo Palmieri—La Grange—Pierre Petit—Voltaire—Montgomery—Keats—
Joseph Ritson.

The haunters of Parnassus and the wearers of the laurel crown have usually been loved by their fellows, save only when satire has mingled with their song and filled their victims’ minds with thoughts of vengeance. In the last chapter we have noticed some examples of satirical writers who have clothed their libellous thoughts in verse, and suffered in consequence.  But the woes of poets, caused by those who listened to their song, have not been numerous. Shakespeare classes together “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” as being “of imagination all compact”; and perchance the poet has shared with the madman the reverence which in some countries is bestowed on the latter.

However, all have not so escaped the destinies of fate. Some think that Ovid incurred the wrath of Augustus Caesar through his verses on the art of loving, and was on that account driven into exile, which he mourned so melodiously and complained of so querulously. In a period less remote we find Adrian Beverland wandering away from the true realm of poetry and taking up his abode in the pesthouse of immorality. He was born at Middlebourg in 1653, and studied letters at the University of Leyden. He began his career by publishing indecent poems. He wrote a very iniquitous book, De Peccato originali, in which he gave a very base explanation of the sin of our first parents; and although considerable licence was allowed to authors in the Netherlands at that time, nevertheless the magistrates and professors of Leyden condemned the book to be burned and its author to banishment. The full title of the work is Hadriani Beverlandi peccatum originale philogice elucubratum, a Themidis alumno.  Eleutheropoli, in horto Hesperidum, typis Adami, Evae, Terrae filii (1678, in-8). He seems to have followed Henri Cornelius Agrippa in his idea that the sin of our first parents arose from sexual desire. Leonard Ryssenius refuted the work in his Justa detestatio libelli sceleratissimi Hadriani Beverlandi, de Peccato originali (1680). He would doubtless have incurred a harder fate on account of another immoral work, entitled De prostibulis veterum, if one of his relations had not charitably committed it to the flames. Before the sentence of banishment had been pronounced he wrote an apology, professed penitence, and was allowed to remain at Utrecht, where he composed several pamphlets. Being exiled on account of the indecency of his writings, he came to England, where he affected decorum, and his friend and countryman Isaac Vossius, who enjoyed the patronage of Charles II. and was Canon of Windsor, obtained for him a pension charged upon some ecclesiastical fund. Never were ecclesiastical funds applied to a baser use; for although Beverland wrote another book [Footnote: De fornicatione cavenda admonitio (Londini, Bateman, 1697, in-8).] with the apparent intention of warning against vice, the argument seemed to inculcate the lusts which he condemned. Having become insane he died, in extreme poverty, in 1712. He imagined that he was pursued by a hundred men who had sworn to kill him.

An early poet who suffered death on account of his writings was Cecco d’Ascoli, Professor of Astrology at the famous University of Bologna in 1322. His poems have been collected and published under the title Opere Poetiche del’ illustro poeta Cecco d’Ascoli, cioe, l’acerba. In Venetia, per Philippum Petri et Socios, anno 1478, in-4. The printer of this work, Philippus Condam Petri (Philippo de Piero Veneto) is one of the earliest and most famous of Venetian printers, and produced several of the incunabula which we now prize so highly. The absurdities of Cecco contained in his poems merited for their author a place in a lunatic asylum, rather than on a funeral pile. He was, however, burnt alive at Bologna in 1327. He believed in the influence of evil spirits, who, under certain constellations, had power over the affairs of men; that our Saviour, Jesus Christ, was born under a certain constellation which obliged Him to poverty; whereas Antichrist would come into the world under a certain planet which would make him enormously wealthy. He continued to proclaim these amazing delusions at Bologna, and was condemned by the Inquisition. The poet escaped punishment by submission and repentance. But two years later he announced to the Duke of Calabria, who asked him to cast the horoscope of his wife and daughter, that they would betake themselves to an infamous course of life. This prophecy was too much for the Duke. Cecco was again summoned to appear before the Inquisitors, who condemned him to the stake. At his execution a large crowd assembled to see whether his familiar genii would arrest the progress of the flames.  The poet’s real name was Francois de Stabili, Cecco being a diminutive form of Francesco. There are many editions of his work. The “lunatic” and the “poet” were certainly in his case not far removed.

A very different man was the illustrious author and historian of Scotland, George Buchanan, who was born in 1506. After studying in Paris, he returned to Scotland, and became tutor of the Earl of Murray, the natural son of James V. The Franciscan monks were not very popular at this period, and at the suggestion of the King Buchanan wrote a satirical poem entitled Silva Franciscanorum, in which he censured the degenerate followers of St. Francis, and harassed them in many ways. This poem so enraged the monks that they seized him and imprisoned him in one of their monasteries.  One night, while his guards slept, he contrived to escape by a window, and underwent great perils. He published two other severe satirical poems on the Franciscans, entitled Fratres Fraterrimi and Franciscanus. It is scarcely necessary to follow his fortunes further, as Buchanan’s history is well known. After teaching at Paris, Bordeaux, and at Coimbre in Portugal, he returned to Scotland, and was entrusted by Mary, Queen of Scots, with the education of her son. Buchanan then embraced Protestantism, opposed the Queen in the troubles which followed, and received from Parliament the charge of the future Solomon of the North, James VI. of Scotland and I. of England. He devoted his later life to historical studies, and produced his famous History of Scotland in twelve books, De Maria Regina ejusque conspiratione, in which he attacked the reputation of the Queen, and De jure regni apud Scotos, a book remarkable for the liberalism of the ideas which were therein expressed. His royal pupil did not treat Buchanan’s History with due respect; he caused it to be proclaimed at the Merkat Cross, and ordered every one to bring his copy “to be perused and purged of the offensive and extraordinary matters.” In the reign of Charles II. the University of Oxford ordered Buchanan’s De jure regni, together with certain other works, to be publicly burnt on account of certain obnoxious propositions deducible from them; such as “Wicked kings and tyrants ought to be put to death.” He published a paraphrase of the Psalms of David in verse, which has been much praised. The Jesuits were not very friendly critics of our author, for they asserted that Buchanan showed in his life little of the piety of David, and stated that during thirty years he did not deliver a single sermon, even on Sundays. “But who is ignorant,” observes M. Klotz, “of the lust of these men for calumny?”

Another poet had occasion to adopt the same mode of escape which Buchanan successfully accomplished, but with less happy results. This was Nicodemus Frischlin, a German poet and philosopher, born in the duchy of Wuertemberg in 1547. At an early age he showed great talents; honours clustered thickly on his brow. At the age of twenty years he was made Professor of Belles-Lettres at Tubingen; he received from the Emperor Rudolph the poetic crown with the title of chevalier, and was made Count Palatin as a reward for his three panegyrics composed in honour of the emperors of the House of Austria. Certainly Fortune smiled upon her favourite, but Envy raised up many enemies, who were eager to find occasion against the successful poet. He afforded them a pretext in his work De laudibus vitae rusticae, which, in spite of its innocent title, grievously offended the nobles, who were already embittered against him on account of his arrogance and turbulence, and his keen and unsparing satire. So bitter was their hostility that the poet was compelled to leave Tubingen, and became a wandering philosopher, sometimes teaching in schools, always pouring forth poems, elegies, satires, tragedies, comedies, and epics. Being eager to publish some of his works and not having sufficient means, he applied to the Duke of Wuertemberg for a subsidy, at the same time furiously attacking his old opponents. This so exasperated the chief men of the Court, that they persuaded the Duke to recall Frischlin; but instead of finding a welcome from his old patron, he was cast into prison, in order that he might unlearn his presumption, and acquire the useful knowledge that modesty is the chief ornament of a learned man. But Frischlin did not agree with another poet’s assertion:--

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.”

Having raged and stormed, and tried in vain to obtain release, he resolved to escape. From his prison window he let himself down by a rope made out of his bed-clothes, but unfortunately the rope broke and the poor poet fell upon the hard rocks beneath his chamber window and was injured fatally. Frischlin was considered one of the best Latin poets of post-classical times; but his genius was marred by his immoderate and bitter temper, which caused him to imagine that the gentle banter and jocular remarks of his acquaintances were insults to be repaid by angry invective and bitter sarcasm, with which his writings abound.

Clement Marot was one of the most famous of early French poets, and the creator of the school of naive poetry in which La Fontaine afterwards so remarkably excelled. His poetical version of the Psalms was read and sung in many lands; and in spite of prohibition copies could not be printed so fast as they were eagerly bought. They were at one time as popular in the Court of Henry II. of France as they were amongst the Calvinists of Geneva and Holland. In 1521 we find him fighting in the Duke of Alencon’s army, when he was wounded at the battle of Pavia. Then his verses caused their author suffering, and he was imprisoned on the charge of holding heretical opinions. His epistles in poetry written to the King contain a record of his life, his fear of imprisonment, his flight, his arrest by his enemies of the Sorbonne, his release by order of the King, and his protestations of orthodoxy. But he seems to have adopted the principles of the Reformation, and France was no safe place for him. In Geneva and Piedmont he found resting-places, and died in 1544. His translation of the Psalms into harmonious verse, which was sung both by the peasants and the learned, was the cause of his persecution by the doctors of the Sorbonne.  He complains bitterly to the Lyons printer, Dolet, that many obscene and unworthy poems were ascribed to him and printed amongst his works of which he was not the author. As an example of his verse I quote the beginning of Psalm cxli.:--

“Vers l’Eternel des oppressez le pere
Je m’en iray, luy monstrant l’impropere
Que l’on me faict, luy ferai ma priere
A haulte voix, qu’il ne jette en arriere
Mes piteux cris, car en lui seul j’espere.” 

It is not often that a poet loses his head for a single couplet, but this seems to have been the fate of Caspar Weiser, Professor of Lund in Sweden.  At first he showed great loyalty to his country, and wrote a panegyric on the coronation of Charles XI., King of Sweden. But a short time afterwards he appears to have changed his political opinions, for when the city was captured by the Danes in 1676, Weiser met the conqueror, and greeted him with the words:--

Perge Triumphator reliquas submittere terras,
Sic redit ad Dominum, quod fuit ante, suum.

This verse was fatal to him. The Swedish monarch recovered his lost territory; the Danes were expelled, and the poor poet was accused of treason and beheaded.

The same hard fate befell John Williams in 1619, who was hanged, drawn, and quartered, on account of two poems, Balaam’s Ass and Speculum Regis, the MSS. of which he foolishly sent secretly in a box to King James. The monarch was always fearful of assassination, and as one of the poems foretold his speedy decease, the prophet incurred the King’s wrath and suffered death for his pains.

A single poem was fatal to Deforges, entitled Vers sur l’arrestation du Pretendant d’Angleterre, en 1749. It commences with the following lines:--

“Peuple, jadis si fier, aujourd’hui si servile,
Des princes malheureux, tu n’es donc plus l’asyle?”

He happened to be present at the Opera House in Paris when the young Pretender was arrested, and being indignant at this breach of hospitality, and believing that the honour of the nation had been compromised, he wrote these bitter verses. His punishment was severe. He was arrested and conducted to the gloomy fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel, where he remained for three long years shut up in the cage. The floor of this terrible prison, which was enveloped in perpetual darkness, was only eight square feet. The poor poet bore his sufferings patiently, and was befriended by M. de Broglie, Abbe of Saint-Michel, who obtained permission for him to leave his cage and be imprisoned in the Abbey; nor did he fail to take precautions lest the poor poet should lose his eyesight on passing from the darkness of the dungeon to the light of day. The good Abbe finally procured liberty for his captive, who became secretary to M. de Broglie’s brother, and subsequently, on the death of Madame de Pompadour, commissioner of war. Terrible were the sufferings which the unhappy Deforges endured on account of his luckless poem.

Theophile was condemned to be burned at Paris on account of his book Le Parnasse des Poetes Satyriques, ou Recueil de vers piquans et gaillards de notre temps (1625, in-8), but he contrived to effect his escape. He was ultimately captured in Picardy, and put in a dungeon. He was banished from the kingdom by order of the Parliament. In his old age he found an asylum in the house of the Duke of Montmorency. The poet’s real surname was Viaud. The following impromptu is attributed to Theophile, who was asked by a foolish person whether all poets were fools:--

“Oui, je l’avoue avec vous,
Que tous les poetes sont fous;
Mais sachant ce que vous etes,
Tous les fous ne sont pas poetes.” 

His poems are a mere collection of impieties and obscenities, published with the greatest impudence, and well deserved their destruction. On one occasion he travelled to Holland with Balzac, and used this opportunity for bringing out an infamous charge against him, which he had most probably invented. His book, the cause of all his woes, was burnt with the poet’s effigy in 1623.

Many authors have ruined themselves by writing scandalous works, offensive to the moral feelings of not very scrupulous ages. Several chapters might be written on this not very savoury subject. We may mention Helot’s L’Escole des Filles, par dialogues (Paris, 1672, in-12). Helot was the son of a lieutenant in the King’s Swiss Guard. As he succeeded in making his escape from prison, he was hung in effigy, and his books were burnt.  Chauveau, the celebrated engraver, who designed a beautiful engraving for Helot, not knowing for what purpose it was intended, also incurred great risks, but fortunately he escaped with no greater penalty than the breaking of the plate on which he had engraved the design. The printer suffered with the author. Some think that Helot was burnt at Paris with his books.

The Muses have often lured men from other and safer delights, and tempted them to wander in dangerous paths. Matteo Palmieri was a celebrated Italian historian, born at Florence in 1405; he was a man of much learning, endowed with great powers of energy and perseverance; he was entrusted with several important embassies, and achieved fame as an historian by his vast work Chronicon Generale, in which he set himself the appalling task of writing the history of the world from the creation to his own time. The first part of this work, consisting of extracts from the writings of Eusebius and Prosper, remains unpublished. The rest first saw the light in 1475, and subsequent editions appeared at Venice in 1483, and at Basle in 1529 and 1536. He wrote also four books on the Pisan War.  Would that he had confined himself to his histories! Unfortunately he wrote a poem, which was never published, entitled Citta Divina, representing the soul released from the chains of the body, and freed from earthly stain, wandering through various places, and at last resting amid the company of the blessed in heaven. Our souls are angels who in the revolt of Lucifer were unwilling to attach themselves either to God or to the rebel hosts of heaven. So, as a punishment, God made them dwell in mortal bodies in a state of probation. This work was considered tainted with the Manichaean heresy, and was condemned to the flames, and some assert that Palmieri shared the fate of his book. This, however, is doubtful.

Very fatal to himself were the odes and philippics of M. La Grange, written in 1720, and published in Paris in 1795, in-12, with the title Les Philippiques, Odes, par M. de la Grange-Chancel, Seigneur d’Antoniat en Perigord, avec notes historiques, critiques, et litteraires. In these poems he attacked with malignant fury the Duke of Orleans, Regent of France, and was obliged to fly for safety to Avignon. There he was betrayed by a false friend, who persuaded him to walk into French territory, and delivered him into the hands of a band of soldiers prepared for his capture. The poet was conducted to the Isle of Ste. Marguerite, and confined in a dungeon. The governor of the castle was enchanted by his talents and gaiety, and gave him great liberty. But Le Grange’s pen was still restless. He must needs make a bitter epigram upon his kind benefactor, which so aroused the governor’s ire that the poet was sent back to his dungeon cell. A piteous ode addressed to the Regent imploring pardon secured for him a less rigorous confinement. He succeeded in effecting his escape; then wandered through many lands; and at last, on the death of the Regent in 1723, ventured to return to France, where he lived many years and wrote much poetry and several plays, dying in 1758.  It has never been ascertained what was the cause of his animosity to the Regent; certainly his verses glow with fiery invective and abuse. He speaks of him as un monstre farouche. The following example will perhaps be sufficient to be quoted:--

“Il ouvrit a peine les paupieres,
Que, tel qu’il se montre aujourd’hui,
Il fut indigne des barrieres
Qu’il vit entre le trone et lui.
Dans ses detestables idees
De l’art des Circes, des Medees,
Il fit ses uniques plaisirs;
Il crut cette voie infernale
Digne de remplir l’intervalle
Qui s’opposait a ses desirs.” 

Voltaire suffered one year’s imprisonment in the Bastille on account of a satirical poem on Louis XIV., and in confinement wrote an epic poem, La Henriade. Some other storms raised by his works, such as his Lettres Philosophiques and his Epitre a Uranie, he weathered by flight, or by unscrupulously denying their authorship. The rest of his works, contained in seventy volumes, do not concern our present purpose.

Our English poet James Montgomery began life as a poor shop-boy. At an early age he began to write verses, and became editor of a Sheffield newspaper. The troubles of the French Revolution then broke out, and fired the extreme Radical spirit of the poetical editor. His writings attracted the attention of the Government, and he was sent to prison, where he wrote several poems—Ode to the Evening Star, Pleasures of Imprisonment, and Verses to a Robin Redbreast.

As late as the middle of the seventeenth century a young unfortunate poet, in spite of the interest of powerful friends, was hung and burnt at Paris.  This was young Pierre Petit, the author of La B---- celeste, chansons et autres Poesies libres. His productions were certainly infamous and scandalous, but that was no reason why the poet should have been hanged.  Moreover the poems existed only in MS.; subsequently they were published in a Recueil de Poesies. The manner of the discovery of the poems is curious, and serves as a warning to incautious bards. Leaving his chamber one day, he opened the window, and unfortunately a strong gust of wind carried several pages of MS. which were lying on his table into the street. A priest who happened to be passing the house examined one or two of the drifting poems, and, discovering that they were impious, denounced Petit to the authorities. His rooms furnished a large supply of similar work, and, as we have said, the poet paid the penalty for his rashness at the gallows.

Although the methods of later critics are less severe than their inquisitorial predecessors, they have not been without their victims, and books maltreated by them have sometimes “done to death” their authors.

A century ago furious invective was the fashion, and the tender mercies of the reviewers were cruel. Poor Keats died of criticism, if Shelley’s story be true. On the appearance of Endymion the review in Blackwood told the young poet “to go back to his gallipots,” and that it was a wiser and better thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet. Such vulgar abuse was certainly not criticism. Shelley wrote that “the savage criticism on Keats’ Endymion which appeared in the Quarterly Review produced the most violent effects on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgments from more candid critics of the true greatness of his powers were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted. It may be well said, that these wretched men know not what they do. They scatter their insults and their slanders without heed as to whether the poisonous shafts light on a heart made callous by many blows, or one like Keats’, composed of more penetrable stuff.” And then addressing the reviewer he says: “Miserable man! you, one of the meanest, have wantonly defaced one of the noblest specimens of the workmanship of God. Nor shall it be your excuse that, murderer as you are, you have spoken daggers, but used none.”

Joseph Ritson, the antiquary, who, though not a poet, was a great writer on poetry and our early English songs and ballads, complained bitterly of the ignorant reviewers, and described himself as brought to an end in ill-health and low spirits—certain to be insulted by a base and prostitute gang of lurking assassins who stab in the dark, and whose poisoned daggers he had already experienced. Ritson himself was a fairly venomous critic, and the “Ritsonian” style has become proverbial. Nowadays authors do not usually die of criticism, not even susceptible poets. Critics can still be severe enough, but they are just and generous, and never descend to that scurrilous personal abuse of authors which inflicted such severe wounds a century ago, and sometimes caused to flow the very heart’s blood of their victims.





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