John Thelwall (1764-1834), though victim of a stammer as a child, became the foremost orator in England of the 1790s, not in the stuffy gentleman’s club of Parliament but in the wide open common fields where the people could come to hear him. The government imprisoned him on a charge of high treason. He published his Poems Written in Close Confinement in The Tower and Newgate (1795).
The sonnet “To Tyranny” was written in the Tower of London on 14 July 1794. It is for the Greeks who’ve just lost their radio and TV, shut down to please the IMF, the European Commission and the European Bank. It is for the people in Istanbul at Taksim Square who are struggling to save some trees, and preserve an ancient neighborhood against proud development pomp. And it is for us to help us remember the depth of our struggle and our duty of solidarity.
O Hell born Tyranny! How blest the land
Whose watchful citizens with dauntless breast
Oppose thy first approach! With aspect bland
Thou wont, alas! too oft, to lull to rest
The sterner virtues that should guard the throne
Of Liberty. Deck’d with the gaudy zone
Of Pomp, and usher’d with lascivious arts
Of glossing Luxury thy fraudful smile
Ensnares the dazzled senses, till our hearts
Sink, palsied, in degenerate lethargy.
Then bursts the swoln destruction forth; and while
Down the rough tide of Power Oppression drives
The shipwreck’ed multitude, no hope survives,
But from the whelming storm of Anarchy.
This sonnet was composed in Newgate Prison on 24 October 1794. The jury found Thelwall innocent. The government responded by passing two Gagging Acts partly intended to silence him. It is for Julian Asange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden.
Within the Dungeon’s noxious gloom
The Patriot still, with dauntless breast,
The cheerful aspect can assume –
And smile – in conscious Virtue blest!
The damp foul floor, the ragged wall,
And shattered window, grated high;
The trembling ruffian may appal,
Whose thoughts no sweet resource supply.
But he, unaw’d by guilty fears
(To Freedom and his Country true)
Who o’er a race of well-spent years
Can cast the retrospective view,
Looks inward to his heart, and sees
The objects that must ever please.
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org