Thoughts That Breathe and Words That Burn


The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fun piece on subversive lyric poems–known as libels–circa 1600:

Whether punning on Sir Francis Bacon's name or engaging in graphic speculation on the Duke of Buckingham's sexual proclivities, the writers used this "dodgy genre," as [editor Alistair] Bellany puts it, as a way to comment on events and public figures who, because of censorship laws, were otherwise off limits….[L]ibels "help make opposition conceivable: and speakable."

For instance, the death, in 1612, of Robert Cecil, King James I's most powerful minister and adviser, let loose a flood of scandal-mongering epitaphs that harped on his affairs with other courtiers' wives and the syphilitic condition of his genitalia: "Rotten with ruttinge like sores in September/ hee died as hee lived with a faulte in one member."

Whole thing here.

Collection of smut-filled 17th-century doggerel here.