Despots to Dangerous Authors: Jail Is Mightier Than the Pen

Writers agree that pens are mightier than swords. And apparently, tyrants and despots agree that jails are mightier than pens. The following are a few of the writers, poets, and playwrights who ended up behind bars just when their writing started to get interesting.

1. Ovid

In 8 BCE the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us as Ovid, was banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus. Why? Tradition says the cause was the immorality of his verses. That might be, since Ovid was a very accomplished erotic poet - although his erotic poems are seldom if ever pornographic.

But Augustus was a bit of a prude, and (alas for Ovid) the most powerful person in the world. He also had been a friend and supporter of Ovid's, in the days when Ovid was writing the Metamorphoses and other works based on myth and more "moral" stuff. So, this is the story not just of a political punishment but also of the breakdown of a friendship.

In fact, we're not even sure why he was banished, but banished Ovid was - to the town of Tomi on the Black Sea. Ovid desperately tried to change his ways, tried to produce poetry that was less, er, racy, but in fact, he never saw Rome again.

2. John Milton (1608-1674)

It's hard to imagine that the author of Paradise Lost was ever anything but saintly and studious. But in fact, he had a tumultuous life.

Milton was a convinced, aggressive Puritan. And the Puritans weren't exactly fond of the Church of England or the king. With Milton as one of their main firebrands in print, they fomented a revolution that led to the beheading of Charles I in 1649.

When the Puritans took power, Milton was appointed Latin secretary to the ruling Council of State. But the rule of the Puritans lasted a scant decade. When their government collapsed in 1659, so did Milton's fortunes. He was imprisoned between October and December 1660, and his works burned in public bonfires.

After his release, he lived under modified house arrest for the rest of his life. What to do? He kept himself occupied by penning Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671).

3. The Marquis de Sade (1740 - 1814)

How great would it be to have sadism named after you? Of course, you'd have to go certain lengths, as this fellow did. His family married him off to a woman for the money, and he immediately began to busy himself (quite publicly) with prostitutes and with a sister-in-law.

His mother-in-law didn't like that, and she had him imprisoned. So he spent 14 years in jail, including being condemned to death in the town of Aix for his sexual practices. yet somehow he got out of that one. Then he was again imprisoned in 1777, and again for six years at the Bastille in Paris in 1784.

Imprisonment gave him lots of time to keep churning out the vigorous pornography that made him famous. In fact, the marquis spent his last 12 years in the insane asylum at Charenton, where he wrote and directed plays starring the staff and inmates.

4. Václav Havel (1936 - )

This brave poet and playwright was jailed repeated in the 1970s for works critical of the communist government in then-Czechoslovakia. With civil unrest rising, he was jailed in February 1989 but kept turning out influential plays, poems, and essays, and even winning literary awards.

Set free in May, he helped stoke a peaceful resistance movement known as the Velvet Revolution. Havel became the focal point of a largely peaceful revolution, where large crowds of nonviolent demonstrators showed their disapproval of the ruling communists. Havel addressed crowds that sometimes numbered almost a million.

By the end of the year, the communist government was out and Havel had been elected president. He served as president of Czechoslovakia - and later, when the country split in to, of the Czech Republic - for 13 years, retiring in 2003. The tally? Poetry 1, communism 0!

5. Salman Rushdie (1947 - )

A lot of people think that literature is just, well, a particularly brainy sort of fun, not dangerous at all. But woe to those who step out of line.

In 1989 Indian novelist Salman Rushdie published a novel titled The Satanic Verses. On October 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, theocratic ruler of Iran, published a hukm against Rushdie for his novel because some parts were considered blasphemous against certain tenets of Islam. The text of the hukm was pretty serious: "I call on all zealous Muslims to execute [Rushdie and all those involved in publishing the book] quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities."

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for several years, but he continued to publish. The bounty on his head was raised to more than $5 million. With the death of Khomeini and comparative relaxation of Iranian politics, however, Rushdie's begun to make public appearances again.

6. María Elena Cruz Varela (1953 - )

A Cuban poet, Varela was self-taught, a true flower of the countryside. She won Cuba's National Award for Poetry in 1989.

In May 1991, however, she and nine other writers wrote a letter to Fidel Castro, calling for greater openness in Cuba, direct elections, and the release of political prisoners. State-run newspapers attacked these writers as agents of the CIA.

Then a state security brigade broke into her apartment, where she lived with her husband, daughter, and son. She was dragged by her hair into the street and made to eat some of her published work. Then she was thrown in jail, beaten, and starved. She was released in 1994 and went into exile in Puerto Rico. (Photo: Liberal International)

From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission. Original article written by John Timpane.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

Does anyone know of a despot who has written poetry? I thought Hitler had written some, but it seems not! Idi Amin? I'm sure I heard of some, but can't remember who it was!
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Salman Rushdie is pretty famous for being kind of a dick. He used the hukm as a pity-card to get a long string of models and starlets to sleep with him.

And Christophe, a hukm is a ruling on interpretation of Muslim law. A hukm is supposed to be more binding than a fatwa if issued by a proper authority, because a fatwa is just a scholar's opinion. I don't think the ayatollah in Iran is really recognized by the Muslim community at large as anything more than a loonie.

(thank you wikipedia for that clarification of terms)
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
They never got Rushdie, though - so in his case, the pen is mightier!

When I was at Berkeley one of the bookstores on Telepgraph got pipe-bombed (Cody's? Corner of Haste and Telegraph...) ostensibly because of the Satanic Verses window display they had at the time. One bomb exploded on its own - the other had to be detonated in the store by the BPD Bomb Squad. I happened to be walking to school during the excitement and witnessed the bomb squad detonating the second bomb IN THE STORE! Messy.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Commenting is closed.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Despots to Dangerous Authors: Jail Is Mightier Than the Pen"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More