Introduction | Revolution | Romantic Satire  | Censorship  | Irish Uprising of 1798 | The Storming of the Bastille  | The Reign of Terror

Censorship and Print Culture During the Romantic Era

Because of the passage of a series of increasingly stringent laws, radical speech in the Regency era became equated with vice and subject to laws enforcing morality. While vice has always been a prime target for moral reform, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the call for societal reform and the suppression of vice took on heated interest by government parties. A proclamation issued by George III on June 1, 1787 called for "the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for [the] preventing and punishing of Vice, Profaneness, and Immorality," yet this proclamation included provisions for acting against the publication and dissemination of print material found to contain "licentious" or indecent content (Donelan 1). The term "vice," as it was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, included the traditional definition of moral degeneracy as well as a more vague implication of social deviance in general. In the wake of the French Revolution, Donelan suggests that "social deviance" also came to include radical political views (and speech) as well as moral ones. A succession of public societies formed over the next three decades in order to help enforce the campaign against vice, starting with the Proclamation Society (1787), the Society for the Suppression of Vice (1802), and the Constitutional Society (1830). All three societies acted against "those who published and distributed...obscenity," including "seditious and blasphemous publications" (Donelan 1).

During the early eighteenth century, the government's increasing fear of internal rebellion prompted the passage of several additional laws aimed at curtailing the citizens' ability to form organized rebellions. One such series of laws is the Six Acts of 1819, which, although focused on suppressing sedition in general, also included restrictions on the press, including the Criminal Libel Act. The emphasis on policing print culture contained in these laws created a stringent atmosphere of censorship for Romantic poets, particularly for proponents of political reform such as Byron, Shelley, Thomas Moore, and Leigh Hunt. As Donelan says, "For Lord Byron and his liberal friends, the war on vice had become an attack on their right to address emerging problems of popular culture through literature in a time of political reaction" (2).

Shannon Heath

Select Bibliography

Donelan, Charles. Romanticism and Male Fantasy in Byron's Don Juan: A Marketable Vice. London: MacMillan
     Press, 2000.

Gilmartin, Kevin. Print Politics: The press and radical opposition in early nineteenth-century England. Cambridge
     University Press, 1996.

Haslett, Moyra. Byron's Don Juan and the Don Juan Legend. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Stauffer, Andrew. Anger, Revolution, and Romanticism. Cambridge University Press, 2005.