Coleridge and the Poetics of Obscurity
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Coleridge and the Poetics of Obscurity

The Charge of Obscurity in Coleridge's Poetry

About the Book

This is the fifth chapter of my DPhil thesis, Coleridge and Romantic Obscurity.

In my doctoral research, I explored why we attribute pro-democratic significance to 'clarity' and anti-democratic significance to 'obscurity' in politics, philosophy and literature.

In this chapter, I consider the function of obscurity in Coleridge’s early poetry, in the reactionary defence of poetic obscurity in the Biographia Literaria, and in the construction of the ‘mystery’ poems.

To put this chapter in some context, here's my thesis abstract:


In this thesis I argue that ‘obscurity’ was a complex concept in intellectual and revolutionary debate in the ‘long’ eighteenth century in Britain, and I show that it played a crucial part in the development of Coleridge’s rhetoric, criticism and poetry. Recent scholarship on the history of obscurity in rhetoric and aesthetics has focused on its development from antiquity to the Enlightenment and its role in twentieth-century modernism and postmodernism, but the function of obscurity in relation to Romanticism remains largely unexplored.

In my introductory chapters, I consider the positive and negative functions of obscurity in the new rhetorics of clarity and obscurity which emerged in the politically charged debates between and among British radicals and reactionaries in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. In particular, I consider the emergence of a new rhetoric of obscurity in the work of Robert Lowth and Edmund Burke, and I discuss Burke’s politicised deployment of this rhetoric in the 1790s. In my second chapter, I show how various radical writers, including Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Thelwall responded to Burke with a politicised new rhetoric of clarity. The clash between these two rhetorics, I argue, resulted in the development of an ambiguous rhetoric of Romantic obscurity which inherited their conflicts and contradictions concerning the authority, reception, and representation of obscurity in political, philosophical and literary writing.

In the remainder of my thesis, I develop these ideas through a study of the prose and poetry of the central figure of Romantic obscurity, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his early political prose, Coleridge’s engagement with the figure and the concept of obscurity follows the development of his political views and his anxieties concerning the effects of political writing on the indeterminate ‘people’. In the project of The Friend, Coleridge acknowledges that obscurity has a central but paradoxical function in the reception and representation of his abstruse philosophical researches. Finally, I consider the function of obscurity in Coleridge’s early poetry, in the reactionary defence of poetic obscurity in the Biographia Literaria, and in the construction of the ‘mystery’ poems.

Leonard Lawrence Epp

Balliol College

University of Oxford

Trinity 2005

About the Author

Len Epp
Len Epp

Once upon a time I wrote a DPhil thesis on the significance of 'clarity' and 'obscurity' in politics, philosophy and literature. I work at Leanpub.

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About the Contributors

Len Epp
Len Epp

Len is co-founder of Leanpub. He is the host of the Leanpub Frontmatter pocdast.

Table of Contents

  • Coleridge’s Poetic Obscurity
  • Poems of Clarity
  • Poems of Obscurity
  • The Reactionary Poetics of Obscurity
  • Obscurity and the Mystery Poems
  • Notes

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