Commentary: No Libel to Think

This is the only poem in the Sheffield Register attributed to T. G. but its appearance in April 1793 proved timely and prophetic. Over the coming months Joseph Gales’ work on the paper and his involvement in Sheffield’s Society for Constitutional Information would be met with increasing scrutiny from government authorities. In June 1794 he would be named a fugitive accused of printing libellous material with the explicit intent of rousing public animosity against the government. Over the two years that followed Gales’ successor, James Montgomery, would be twice imprisoned on dubious charges of distributing libellous materials and on each occasion his defence attorney raised the same questions as this poem: What exactly constitutes libel?

The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that in the 18th century the word libel referred to the ‘spreading of defamation; to maliciously discredit by circulation of false statements.’ Neither Montgomery nor Gales ever disputed this definition, but they each argued that it did not apply to the material that they printed. In Montgomery’s second case he was imprisoned for reporting that the British Army had charged down civilian protestors in Sheffield. That this happened was never in question. Instead the state prosecution argued that in writing and circulating the report in the Sheffield Iris Montgomery had deliberately and maliciously defamed His Majesty’s Army. What constitutes ‘libel’ is far more subjective than the letter of the law would suggest, especially when the statements challenged concern opinions rather than events.

‘No Libel to Think’ begins by adopting a pose reminiscent of those employed in both ‘A Loyal Song’ and ‘On the Effects of Gold’, enthusiastically presenting the view it actually opposes in such cheerfully hyperbolic terms that it is rendered absurd. The poem appears to happily accept that, in this state of oppression, to complain verbally would bring about a citizen’s ‘destruction.’ Fortunately citizens at least retain the ‘freedom to think.’ The second stanza qualifies that it is not speaking that is prohibited, merely ‘speaking all we think.’

The turn in this poem comes sooner than in the ‘Loyal Song’ or ‘Effects of Gold’ as the third stanza acknowledges that any suggestion that a state in which these conditions are enforced is clearly not ‘perfect and pure.’ In fact, the danger implicit in having the ‘freedom to think’ is that citizens have the capacity to realise that their liberties are being infringed. The rhetorical question used as a refrain up until this point is then extended throughout the fourth and fifth stanzas as the poem explicitly names the problems that citizens can think on but never utter aloud. These issues are predominantly financial. The poem challenges the reader: Should a man have to pay to marry his wife or bury his dead? How can such a man afford food and shelter when ‘they stamp us, and tax us both living and dead’?

The answer, of course, is no: a man should not be forced to pay for the privilege of participating in these private rituals. However, having had the freedom to realise this and identify the need for resistance, how then can this poem’s narrative voice justifiably continue in silence? If to utter his concerns is to commit libel, the freedom to think has brought him no other choice:

And yet at such hardship they wish us to wink;
But we cannot do this – while we’ve freedom to think.

As the poem concludes we see that the freedom to think can lead to only one logical conclusion: men have rights and those rights must be defended.

Click here to listen to a performance of this poem on Soundcloud.

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