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John Barrell, Imagining the King's Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-96. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0198112920. Price: £70 (US$125).

  • Paul Keen

…plus d’informations

  • Paul Keen
    Carleton University

Corps de l’article

The final section of the final chapter of John Barrell's Imagining the King's Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-96 explores the curious affair of the arrest and trial of the ultra-loyalist, John Reeves, whose pamphlet, Thoughts on the English Government, seemed to suggest that the king could rule in the absence of any parliament and therefore in contravention of the English constitution. The part that created the greatest controversy, enough to have a Tory government that had done very well by Reeves' anti-Jacobin exertions put him on trial, was the image of the monarchy as the trunk of a tree (the British government) that could continue to live—continue to be a tree—even after the "branches" of the lords and commons had been "lopped off" and "cast into the fire" (623). The government may have felt compelled to prosecute, but Reeves' "not guilty" verdict was not altogether surprising. The Telegraph sardonically noted the prosecution's departure from its more usual strategy of interpreting works charged as libels in their "least favourable" sense. Sir John Scott and Thomas Plumer, serving as prosecution, had indeed urged the jury to interpret the pamphlet in whatever way best served the interests of the accused (637).

It is the arguments that were used to defend Reeves, both in and out of court, that are of real interest. They focused on the figurative nature of language and, in particular, of metaphors, which by their very nature were prone to rhetorical flourishes and therefore to excesses that ought not to be interpreted as precise reflections of the author's intended message. Echoing a draft speech written by Edmund Burke, Reeves' defense insisted on the necessity of remembering the distinction between "a court of criticism" where literary extravagances might be savoured and a court of law which was charged with the more onerous task of determining a defendant's intentions based on "the common track of plain writing" which used "precise, positive, and express language" (634).

The problem, and the main focus of this book, was the impossibility of maintaining this distinction. Imagining the King's Death explores the ways that political tensions manifested themselves as textual ambiguities in debates about the imagination. Barrell's claim is that "just as Burke was introducing, and Wordsworth and Coleridge were on the point of introducing, new meanings of 'imagination' into the language, the word itself was the object of a political conflict every bit as intense as those being fought over such large political words as 'sovereignty', 'liberty', or 'constitution'" (4). This was because the charge of treason was based on a 1351 statute which stated that it is treason "when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king." Presumably the word "imagine" was meant to be glossed as something like "intend," but as eighteenth-century critics consistently emphasized, the imagination was a transgressive creative power that by its very nature tended to exceed the human will. The various trials and legal maneuverings which are the subject of this book suggest a "notion of the imagination as wild and unpredictable, a faculty licensed to be unlicensed—which, since it cannot express our intentions, must be presumed to express what we do not intend" (636).

Nor was the question of just who was doing the imagining any easier to determine. Everyone in the 1790s insisted that someone was imagining the king's death, they just didn't agree on who it was. The result was often elaborate conspiracy theories—not all of which, if Barrell is right about the government's legal efforts through 1794, were imaginary. "The treason was everywhere, but nowhere in particular: it was not in this, or in that, but in this only in the light of that, which was treasonable only in the light of something else, and so on. The 'design' attributed to the [reform] societies had been designed by the committee, the Government, the prosecution" (237). Radicals responded to loyalists' accusations of an elaborate republican conspiracy by suggesting that the loyalists' endless preoccupation with these unsubstantiated plans was itself evidence that the conservatives were the ones imaging the king's death; indeed, to many harassed radicals, they seemed to be able to think of little else. Underlying these charges and countercharges was a set of confusions about what the act of imagining meant, from the legal sense which seemed to have in mind something like intending the king's death, to the more prosaic one of merely imagining it in a way that never extended to contemplating the possibility of committing any action, to merely imagining that others were actively imagining (in the sense of "intending") it. As the ambiguities which surrounded these meanings multiplied, the struggles within the courtroom gave way to questions about language that seemed to some critics to belong more to the courtroom of literary criticism than of the law. In reality, these worlds were never more closely interfused.

Staging his own self-interrogation about the usefulness of blurring the boundaries between these legal and literary-critical courtrooms, Barrell puts a few trenchant questions to himself: "So what? Is the instability I am pointing to, in a single word in a single statute, of any significance at all to the history of law and politics in the 1790s? Does it have any effect upon what was or could be thought? Or have I remained, for all my immersion in the political and legal writings of the 1790s, an unregenerate literary critic, concerned only to squeeze texts until they yield a drop or two of inconsequential ambiguity?" (37). His answer is that, apart from the word "inconsequential," the answers are yes, not because he has approached the material as a self-conscious literary critic, but because it is in these intricacies of language, in the attempts by people from the period itself to "squeeze texts until they yield a drop or two of . . . ambiguity," that these tensions most forcefully manifested themselves. The consequences for the history of law and politics in the 1790s turn out to be considerable.

Barrell's examination of "the struggle for ownership of the word 'imagination' is mainly focused on the question of how this happened; how the extra-legal connotations of the word 'imagine' could be exploited by the enemies of the reform movement so as to loosen the notion of what it meant to 'devise' or 'intend' the king's death; and how, in turn, the accusation of imagining the king's death could in one way or another be retorted against the accusers by a similar exploitation of the extra-legal meanings of the word" (38). The great strength of Imagining the King's Death is the dexterity with which it weaves together legal and extra-legal sources into a narrative that is equally grounded in the intricate questions of the use and misuse of judicial arguments and precedents and in the colourful world of political pamphlets, tavern songs and satirical prints. Literary criticism, legal theory and historical analysis converge in an fascinating appreciation of language as a rich site of political and cultural struggle.

If the turn in literary criticism towards historical analysis has lent a certain currency to what Clifford Geertz described as "thick description," it doesn't get much thicker than this. A mountain of primary sources (the bibliography for primary sources alone lasts forty-six pages) are marshaled into an account of the political struggles of the 1790s that is as persuasive as it is thorough. It's hard to imagine that many historical stones have been left unturned. What it is not is neutral. The book reads like the speech of a skillful barrister intent on convincing his jury of the dangers inherent in the government's systematic attempts to widen the scope of the crime of treason well past what its originators had in mind in order to curtail if not eliminate the possibility of civil disobedience. It is a point worth making at a time when a rising tide of popular protest (Seattle, Vancouver, London, Quebec City) has been met with a systematic violation of protestors' constitutional rights.

At the end of Thomas Hardy's treason trial which had lasted for more than a week, from 8:00 in the morning until after midnight on most days, Thomas Erskine, "exhausted inspirit and in strength," proclaimed to great rhetorical effect but also with great truth that "I am unable to proceeded any further" (Erskine, 501). It was a theme that he had insisted on throughout his defense of Hardy. Physical endurance—his own and the jury's—was inadequate to the endless stream of insinuations, witnesses, and often irrelevant and dubious evidence that had been presented by the prosecution. Erskine had said earlier in his defense, "Gentlemen, if I were to go through all the matter which I have collected upon this subject, or which obtrudes itself upon my mind, from common reading, in a thousand directions, my strength would fail long before my duty was fulfilled" (421). Reading Imagining the King's Death, one gets the sense of Barrell tapping the exhausted Erskine on the shoulder and subbing in, and with an academic's greater research time, proceeding in the "thousand directions" that Erskine had in mind plus a few of his own.

Imagining the Death of the King is divided into four parts. The first, "Sad Stories," traces the connections between discussions of George III's imperiled survival and the language of sensibility with which Louis XVI's execution was portrayed in Britain—an appeal to people to weep for their king as a private individual, a father, rather than as figure of political authority. Part Two, "The Invention of Modern Treason," forms the core of the book's historical and discursive concerns. The central question that it asks is how what could be treated as a misdemeanour at the beginning of 1794 could be treated as high treason by the time of the trials of Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke and John Thelwall at the end of the year. The problem of interpretation was rooted in anomalies created by the historical nature of the fourteenth-century charge, which envisioned treason as the deposition of one aristocrat by another. In opposition to this "good, old, aristocratic regicidal treason," "modern," "democratic," "French" treason, as it was often called, was a popular uprising rather than a squabble within the aristocracy, and aimed at replacing not just the particular individual but the system as a whole (283). As a result, the prosecution was forced to creatively interpret the law to insist that those guilty of figurative treason—treason that did not envision the death of the king, that may even have aimed at preserving the king as the head of a reformed parliamentary system—were nonetheless guilty of imagining the king's death. Part Three describes the way the government exploited the "Pop-Gun Plot" (an alleged plot to assassinate the King) and the trial of God's self-declared nephew and King George's self-declared advisor, the prophet Richard Brothers, in order to maintain an alarmist climate that would legitimate its repressive disciplinary regime. Part Four explores the ways that discussions of literal versus figurative interpretations of the charge of treason were intensified by debates relating to the Treasonable Practices Bill. The Epilogue suggests ways that these tensions were sublimated into Coleridge's theory of the poetic imagination—a theory which "takes the politics out of the imagination by voiding the imagination of all connection with intention or desire, and so by making poetry, even poetry on political subjects, something which inhabits a quite other universe of discourse from politics itself, one characterized not by conflict but by harmony" (651). The focus of this book is decidedly on conflict rather than harmony; its convincing exploration of the discursive continuities between these supposedly distinct universes of discourse highlights the impossibility and the cost of continuing to argue for their separation. In doing so, it offers what will doubtlessly become a definitive account of the unruly , energetic, fractious, inventive political culture of the 1790s—a culture, this book reminds us, that was both a world apart from, and strangely continuous with, the Romantic ideal of the poetic imagination.