As a dabbler in poetry as well as a legal historian (I know – as if I could not be any less cool …), this one grabbed me as a bit of a sad incident. (It is in the Welsh newspaper archive, though the story is from England).
The date, 1910; the location, Yorkshire. A certain Benjamin H. Swaffield was in court on a D & D (drunk and disorderly) charge. The newspaper reports spell out clearly the particulars of neither the drunkenness nor the disorderliness – all that we are told is that he was allegedly found reciting poetry, and that the alleged recitation was ‘for butchers’ (no doubt there is something snobby going on here – butchers? Poetry? How very incongruous!). Swaffield denies that he had opened his mouth, but the prosecution included, and we are treated to, a couple of the lines allegedly declaimed:
‘He sells one kind only, and that’s delicious
It would not make a king feel vicious.’
Found guilty, the court would have none of the prisoner’s pleading for another chance, or claim to have been converted (from drink? From poetry? To Christianity?). Down he was sent for a month (though at least without hard labour).
Somebody was probably quite pleased with finding this oddity, and with the grand title ‘Poetry in the Dock!’. It struck me, though, as both harsh and poignant. And rather an interesting indication that, if we want to think about legal control of public expression, we would do well to think not just of the usually-headline-grabbing offences and mechanisms (defamation laws, laws on sedition of various sorts, obscenity laws etc.) but of this low-level ridicule and sousing of what seems to have been the humble attempting to put thoughts about their own world into poetry – however clumsily.
I was also struck by the thought that, had he had a way of getting a foot in the door, B.H. Swaffield might well have made a decent living as an advertising copywriter. After all, his competition in 1910 was not exactly bardic (see this fine ad.
– bet that got them flocking in!)