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Licensers Of The Press
by [?]

One of the consequences of this persecution of the press was, the raising up of a new class of publishers, under the government of Charles I., those who became noted for what was then called “unlawful and unlicensed books.” Sparkes, the publisher of Prynne’s “Histriomastix,” was of this class. I have elsewhere entered more particularly into this subject.[5] The Presbyterian party in parliament, who thus found the press closed on them, vehemently cried out for its freedom: and it was imagined, that when they had ascended into power, the odious office of a licenser of the press would have been abolished; but these pretended friends of freedom, on the contrary, discovered themselves as tenderly alive to the office as the old government, and maintained it with the extremest vigour. Such is the political history of mankind.

The literary fate of Milton was remarkable: his genius was castrated alike by the monarchical and the republican government. The royal licenser expunged several passages from Milton’s history, in which Milton had painted the superstition, the pride, and the cunning of the Saxon monks, which the sagacious licenser applied to Charles II. and the bishops; but Milton had before suffered as merciless a mutilation from his old friends the republicans; who suppressed a bold picture, taken from life, which he had introduced into his History of the Long Parliament and Assembly of Divines. Milton gave the unlicensed passages to the Earl of Anglesea, a literary nobleman, the editor of Whitelocke’s Memorials; and the castrated passage, which could not be licensed in 1670, was received with peculiar interest when separately published in 1681.[6] “If there be found in an author’s book one sentence of a venturous edge, uttered in the height of zeal, and who knows whether it might not be the dictate of a divine spirit, yet not suiting every low decrepit humour of their own, they will not pardon him their dash.”

This office seems to have lain dormant a short time under Cromwell, from the scruples of a conscientious licenser, who desired the council of state, in 1649, for reasons given, to be discharged from that employment. This Mabot, the licenser, was evidently deeply touched by Milton’s address for “The Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.” The office was, however, revived on the restoration of Charles II.; and through the reign of James II. the abuses of licensers were unquestionably not discouraged: their castrations of books reprinted appear to have been very artful; for in reprinting Gage’s “Survey of the West Indies,” which originally consisted of twenty-two chapters, in 1648 and 1657, with a dedication to Sir Thomas Fairfax,–in 1677, after expunging the passages in honour of Fairfax, the dedication is dexterously turned into a preface; and the twenty-second chapter being obnoxious for containing particulars of the artifices of “the papalins,” as Milton calls the Papists, in converting the author, was entirely chopped away by the licenser’s hatchet. The castrated chapter, as usual, was preserved afterwards separately. Literary despotism at least is short-sighted in its views, for the expedients it employs are certain of overturning themselves.

On this subject we must not omit noticing one of the noblest and most eloquent prose compositions of Milton; “the Areopagitica; a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.” It is a work of love and inspiration, and breathing the most enlarged spirit of literature; separating, at an awful distance from the multitude, that character “who was born to study and to love learning for itself, not for lucre, or any other end, but, perhaps, for that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise, which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose published labours advance the good of mankind.”

One part of this unparalleled effusion turns on “the quality which ought to be in every licenser.” It will suit our new licensers of public opinion, a laborious corps well known, who constitute themselves without an act of Star-chamber. I shall pick out but a few sentences, that I may add some little facts, casually preserved, of the ineptitude of such an officer.