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December 15, 2017

Daniel Defoe's "Hymn to the Pillory"

On this day in 1703 Daniel Defoe began to serve a three-day sentence in the pillory at Charing Cross (Trafalgar Square), part of his punishment for having written the "seditious libel" of The Shortest Way with Dissenters. This satiric pamphlet had suggested that instead of passing laws against all religious Dissenters -- Protestant "Nonconformists," such as Defoe -- the quicker, cleaner solution would be to just kill them. Defoe's proposal was taken seriously, if not embraced, by many of the Anglican Tories in office; when everyone realized that it was a put-on, and that the anonymous author was Defoe, they flushed him from his hiding spot and took revenge for their embarrassment: a hefty fine, time in Newgate Prison, three sessions in the pillory.

This was excessive punishment, but it could have been worse. Titus Oates, convicted eighteen years earlier of perjury for his "Popish Plot" accusations, was whipped from Aldgate to Newgate on Wednesday and from Newgate to Tyburn on Friday; on top of this, he was sentenced to stand in five different pillories scattered about London -- annually, for the rest of his life. As Oates was still alive in 1703, he would have taken his annual place at Charing Cross just ten days after Defoe. And he might very well not have been alive: some of those pilloried had died from the pelting of the crowd, or been permanently disabled. The pamphleteer William Fuller, pilloried a few weeks before Defoe, said that being "stifled with all manner of dirt, filth and rotten eggs" was worse than his thirty-nine lashes. Earlier Puritans convicted of stepping over the line with their writings had had their ears cut off while in the pillory, or nailed to the wood. Defoe was aware of all this, and out of courage or fear used it as inspiration for Hymn to the Pillory, written while waiting in prison:
    Tell us, great engine, how to understand
    Or reconcile the justice of this land;
    How Bastwick, Prynne, Hunt, Hollingsby and Pye --
    Men of unspotted honesty --
    Men that had learning, wit and sense,
    And more than most men have had since,
    Could equal title to thee claim
    With Oates and Fuller, men of fouler fame....
He managed to get this satire printed and hawked to those who had come to witness or participate in his shame, a literary gamble which gave enough pleasure that instead of throwing stones the crowd drank to Defoe's health and decorated his pillory in flowers.

There were decades of economic and political roller-coaster ahead for Defoe, and a mountain of writing in all genres before the famous novels. His biographers portray a shadowy, sometimes shady figure, an outsider even during his periods of favor at Court, and too low-born or too much a scrambling merchant-journalist to be friendly with the literary crowd-Pope, Swift, Congreve, and the others. His heroes -- Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Roxanna -- are certainly shaped by distance and misfortune. Virginia Woolf ranks Moll Flanders as one of the "few English novels which we can call indisputably great," made so because "Defoe seems to have taken his characters so deeply into his mind that he lived them without exactly knowing how." Whatever prison was like for Defoe, his Newgate-born Moll describes the place as "an emblem of hell," and a fear always on her mind:
    That horrid place! my very blood chills at the mention of its name; the place where so many of my comrades had been locked up, and from whence they went to the fatal tree; the place where my mother suffered so deeply, where I was brought into the world, and from whence I expected no redemption but by an infamous death: to conclude, the place that had so long expected me, and which with so much art and success I had so long avoided.

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