Coleridge's Obscure Publicity
Table of Contents
Coleridge’s Obscure Publicity
The polemicist must be, to use the older word, a rhetorician; a newer word is a publicist.
Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, 91.
…and flatters the Many by creating them, under the title of THE PUBLIC, into a supreme and inappelable Tribunal of intellectual Excellence.
Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 229.
I feel the heaviness of my subject considered as a public Lecture – the tædium felt by my hearers cannot be greater than my sympathy with it – It is unpleasant to travel over a road while it… is making; but I trust that hereafter we shall have a smooth way in consequence.
Coleridge, Lectures 1809-1819 On Literature, 30.
Although Coleridge arguably began his public career as a poet in 1794 with The Fall of Robespierre (co-authored with Robert Southey) and his ‘Sonnets on Eminent Characters’ in the Morning Chronicle, the beginning of his status as a significant public figure is marked by his early radical public lectures and sermons, the publication of his associated pamphlets, and the brief existence of his self-edited periodical The Watchman.1 Unlike his later journalism, these early speeches and writings were not published anonymously or pseudonymously, and so they also mark the construction of Coleridge as a public figure of and for obscurity. Paul Magnuson has argued for the importance of this era and genre of activity in Coleridge’s self-amputated corpus, claiming that his ‘reputation as a West Country radical rested on his lectures in Bristol in 1795, The Watchman of 1796, and his associations with the Morning Post’.2 This was the first public ‘reputation’ Coleridge had, and to understand Coleridge’s obscurity we must locate its origin not in the later, post-apostatical work through which he remade himself into the isolated and conservative Sage of Highgate, but rather in his controversial, public, metarhetorical appropriation of the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity in the 1790s. This focus on Coleridge’s work in relation to the contradictions of the new rhetoric involves the imbrication of classical traditions of gentlemanly education with 1790s British politics of information and social, political, and governmental forms of communication. Thus John Nabholtz has argued in the introduction to his essay on ‘Romantic Prose and Classical Rhetoric’: ‘I focus specifically on [Coleridge’s] social and political writings, because it was for subjects of public discourse and debate that the rhetorical tradition was originally evolved; furthermore, it was on such subjects that the influence of the tradition was most enduring, as the parliamentary speeches of Burke, Pitt, and Fox attest’.3 In this chapter, therefore, I will consider the development of Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity in relation to his consideration of the social and intellectual function of the press, the dissemination of clear information and obscure passion, the proliferation of Dissenting and radical texts, and the (mostly radical) forms of public performance associated alternatively with the rhetoric of public misinformation or public enlightenment.
As I have shown in my first two chapters, the mid-1790s public context into which Coleridge entered involved a rhetorical war informed by a complex web of social, political, and intellectual debates related to the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity in the Reflections controversy. The growing influence of eighteenth-century advances in print technology and the concomitant emergence of ‘public opinion’, which became an object of radical and ministerial anxiety as much as it became an object of control, contributed to a sense of urgency about the influence of political rhetoric and other forms of public information. As Hannah Barker has demonstrated in Newspapers, Politics, and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century England, ‘the public’ was considered to be under the direct influence of ‘the press’, and this passive, receptive public was feared for an aggression which could be brought about by superior influence. The reading or receiving public’s lack of self-control was related to a change in its constitution: ‘[b]y the late 1770s newspapers had assumed a powerful position in English society’, Barker observes, and ‘the public’ or ‘the people’ were ‘that section of the population outside the ruling elite’.4 Clifford Siskin relates this rise of the people’s importance in relation to the press to ‘population growth’ in the eighteenth century and claims that ‘[o]nly during the last two decades did [the literacy rate] clearly rise, beginning with the founding of the Evangelical Sunday-school movement in 1780’.5 The spread of newspapers coincided with the spread of increasing literacy, and when they could not be read alone in silence, the papers were often read out loud in the context of coffee houses and taverns.6 And the freedom to publish parliamentary debates allowed newspapers to make ‘the official business of both houses publicly accessible, and encouraged wider notions of accountability and openness in government’.7
This translated into an institutional anxiety concerning the public reception of the news. The government was therefore
most concerned about newspapers because they communicated “news”: contemporary events involving the government, including parliamentary activities – which could not be transcribed verbatim. To control information the government not only made newspapers expensive but by bribery and secret subsidies purchased propaganda vehicles.8
But in spite of these governing anxieties, the growing accessibility of and demand for information concerning current events, political or otherwise, generated a new form of malleable, indeterminate national identity, and a ‘growing awareness of events outside one’s own locality in the eighteenth century [was] linked to the development of a British “national consciousness”’.9 The government’s fears concerning the emergence of this figuratively shadowy, dangerous, and unformed ‘people’ during a time of revolutionary anxiety fittingly reflects the power of obscurity in representations of the revolution: ‘[t]he imagery of the phenomenon of the Revolution itself merged the powerful natural force… with the indistinguishable, vague, indeterminate shape of the sovereign people’.10
The fragmentation of the public audience from an enlightenment ideal of educated, intellectual identity into one of difference and indeterminacy was therefore inflected with considerations of power, change and stability. On a practical level, debates about education were debates about the means of expanding minds and ensuring predictable results from teaching, and at the same time about altering and containing the identity (and indeed the class-identity) of those taught. Comparatively abstract or philosophical discussion of the necessary limits of human knowledge and consciousness was often directed towards the public as a means of intimidation, where those in the philosophical know cautioned readers to mind the gap between what they could and what they could not know. Though Lowth had claimed with astonishing but commonplace naïvetée in 1758 that ‘[g]reater knowledge should reasonably be attended with more perfect obedience’, the days of establishment optimism were at an end.11 The rhetoric of obscurity, that is, appeared in the 1790s as a reaction to the spread of disobedience and involved not only a qualification but a reversal of such views regarding the formative power of information. Coleridge’s desire to control such an unstable and essential entity as ‘the public’ through the rhetorical (and ultimately the legal) control of information was of the utmost importance both for those who wished to maintain an old, and for those who wished to create a new, form of stability. The birth of the people from the dark womb of indefinite education threatened to presage the revolutionary birth of a new and unstable nation.
This decline of Enlightenment optimism mirrors the decline in radical optimism in the mid-1790s. This change came about in only a few years: though Coleridge and Wordsworth almost overlapped their time at Cambridge, ‘Wordsworth’s Cambridge had joined with liberals and dissenters throughout the country in welcoming the Revolution, whereas Coleridge’s Cambridge was divided by the argument as to what the Revolution had achieved, and whether it represented an ideal of social and political change’.12 Coleridge himself was heavily involved in the revolutionary hopes and activities of his fellow students and an admirer of William Frend, to whose influence Peter Kitson attributes Coleridge’s becoming ‘radicalised’ at Cambridge.13 Frend was the author of the controversial Peace and Union pamphlet (for which he was persecuted by University officials), in which he claimed in opposition to the obscurity of indefinite delay: ‘[t]he proper time to correct any abuse, and remedy any grievance, is the instant, they are known’.14 But it was Frend’s persecution by the unruly mob, a sure sign of the imperfection of the people, which may have had a more longstanding effect on Coleridge. Referring to an attack on Frend’s home, Nicholas Roe remarks that ‘Frend’s loss [of his translation of some books of bible] in the riots of 1791 doubtless gave impetus to his strictures on mob violence in Peace and Union, an attitude which Coleridge also shared in his political lectures’.15 If Coleridge was ‘radicalised’ by Frend, it was from the beginning a qualified radicalism informed by the dangers of unrestrained rhetoric and the dangers of an indeterminate ‘people’. Jon Klancher nicely sums up the political significance of the adoption of either a rhetoric of clarity or obscurity in relation to ‘Coleridge’s politics of discourse [in which] signs and styles come to us already loaded with meaning, before any possible investment’: ‘[t]he Anglo-Gallican style, for instance, could no more serve a Coleridgean project than the “obscure” style could serve a radical rhetorician’s’.16 Furthermore, the practicalities of immediate, inspired writing were qualified by a sense of caution in relation to the law: ‘[s]upport for France was now potentially treason, and as the forces of reaction gathered so Coleridge found that his beliefs and ideas needed careful expression, and a guarded sense of audience’.17
The perceived failure of the French Revolution (and of the creation of a new Britain through reform at home) mirrors the private failure of friendship between Southey and Coleridge which led to the end of their Pantisocracy scheme, or what John Morrow has called their ‘flirtation with radical reform and anarcho-communism’.18 Coleridge’s early lectures were designed partly as a way to fund his and his young friend Robert Southey’s dream of creating a utopian commune on the banks of the Susquehanna where they (and the other members of the group) could share information and labour, and the location of the lectures in and around Bristol was due in part Southey’s presence there prior to Coleridge’s arrival.19 The plan itself was formed at a curious time for revolutionary optimism; as Kenneth Johnston has remarked, Coleridge and Southey met and hatched their plan ‘when the Reign of Terror ended in July of 1794 (symbolically with the death of Robespierre, and legally by government decree)’.20 Largely because of Coleridge’s infamous instability and Southey’s developing personal conflicts concerning his own career, the plan was abandoned in the midst of Coleridge’s series of lectures and pamphlets in 1795. This circumstance is a good symbol of the manner in which the imperfection of the people or the public was related by Coleridge to the imperfection of the personal. If one could not expect perfect communication with one’s friends, in other words, the dangers of public communication could only be worse. And if even a small utopian community in a ‘new’ land proved impossible to construct, it is not surprising that even at the heights of his optimism Coleridge appears to be, even in his earliest writings, a late-comer to the rhetoric of clarity. Anxieties about the instability of the receiving public reached their peak at the same time as the rhetoric of clarity began to show signs of decline in the mid-1790s, and it is fitting that Coleridge’s first engagement in public rhetoric came at the same time as the decline of his own Pantisocratic hopes.21
In addition to tracking the problem of Romantic information outlined in my last chapter, throughout my discussion of Coleridge’s early public work I will engage primarily with three topics central to the genesis of his Romantic obscurity from its problematic engagement with the conflicting and conflating rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. Firstly, I will chart his deployment of the figures of clarity and obscurity in relation to these competing rhetorics. As David Vallins has remarked, ‘Coleridge’s writings of the 1790s often refer to the “optimistic” philosophies of Hartley, Priestley, and Godwin, yet do not include any detailed discussion of their relative merits on the differences between their theories’.22 Though Vallins immediately proceeds to represent these references as a ‘syncretic method’, my claim is rather that they reflect Coleridge’s metarhetorical identification with the rhetoric of obscurity, and not anything approaching a coherent philosophy or method, syncretic or otherwise. They function as rhetorical signals that the communicator is a philosopher, but they don’t communicate a philosophy. Coleridge’s famous ability to position himself in between or on both sides of traditional oppositions is driven by this ‘method’ of metarhetorical self-identification, and is replicated in his often contradictory application of a traditional valuation and a radical transvaluation to the same figure.23 Thus ‘[r]ather than being academic, Coleridge’s interest in prose is in many cases rhetorical, combining a critique of empiricist ideas with a rejection of the language used to express them, and suggesting that fragmentation and an absence of informing thought is the dominant character of modern consciousness in France and Britain.’24 His unique and complex participation in the battle over political, intellectual and religious rhetorical and poetical figures reflects his changing beliefs about obscurity in relation to ‘Romantic information’ and the public.
Secondly, I will discuss Coleridge’s changing conception of his recipients’ capacities for reception in his early pamphleteering period. Coleridge’s early practical experience with public information, I argue, began with a relatively optimistic attempt to consider all individuals as essentially identical (and therefore at least potentially equal), but was led through disappointment to a belief that no comprehensive concept of an identical audience is possible because there is no comprehensive, undifferentiated audience. With the desire to control the interpretation and therefore the influence of any text on the receiving public, the explicit identification and preparation of the audience was essential for safe and successful communication.
Thirdly, I will consider the related change in Coleridge’s strategies for simultaneously (and therefore paradoxically) informing and representing his audience. For example, Coleridge became increasingly anxious about the careful introduction of texts, making increasing use of what came to be typically Coleridgean caveats and introductions concerning obscurity (which ultimately received its fullest treatment in the project of The Friend, as I will show in my next chapter). In addition, Coleridge became increasingly convinced that a straightforward description of the text’s structure, audience, and goals was not enough. He had to prepare his public in more fundamental ways for the communication of his ideas, communicating to his audience not only the techniques, but through mental labour or exercise communicating also the stamina for thinking well. And since information was conceived as an exchange of labour, the character and activity of the author also required explicit articulation through reflexive rhetorical self-reference. But since a preparation could itself require a preparation, and the circle of reflexivity or metarhetoric proved impossible to break, the paradoxical necessity for simultaneous introduction and preparation became, in effect, a slippery slope of infinitely regressive qualification.
A Moral and Political Lecture
He, who has dark purposes to serve, must use dark means - Light would discover, reason would expose him: He must endeavour to shut out both - or if this prove impracticable, make them appear frightful by giving them frightful Names: For farther than Names the Vulgar enquire not.
Coleridge, A Moral and Political Lecture (Lects 1795, 9).
Coleridge’s first important public lecture was delivered in late January or early February and written up (according to Coleridge) in one late-night sitting shortly thereafter.25 Published in early February, the printed text of A Moral and Political Lecture was figured as a production under constraint: ‘[t]he first lecture I was obliged to publish,’ he wrote to the radical essayist and poet George Dyer, ‘it having been confidently asserted that there was Treason in it’.26 In the light of Coleridge’s later published attempts to bury this and other early works under the charge of an ineffective obscurity or ostrich oblivion,27 this early use of publication to clarify his views appears rather ironic. Although Coleridge was lecturing in order to raise funds for the pantisocracy scheme, his primary political goal was to channel the violent energies unleashed on both sides of the Channel as a consequence of the 1789 revolution and the ensuing Terror and uncertainties – and to direct these energies towards peaceful reform in Britain.
The primary means of achieving this reform was radical information (as the correction of error and the revelation of state secrets and Church mysteries) via the rhetoric of clarity.28 Thus Coleridge writes that ‘[c]onvinced of the justice of our principles, let neither scorn nor oppression prevent us from disseminating them. By the gradual deposition of time, error has been piled upon error and prejudice on prejudice, till few men are tall enough to look over them’.29 For Coleridge, the solution to reform was to inform the people or to elevate them to an ideal and along a historically determined hierarchy of power figured as an ascent to a point of view high enough to grasp the whole. Crucially, this early division of the people into a hierarchy on the basis of historical contingency foreshadows Coleridge’s later division of the people, in the Lay Sermons and other later works, along the vertical lines of a principle of Burkean heredity, when he would write ‘in the abstruse and lofty terms appropriate to his sense of an audience of hereditary leaders’.30 As David Vallins has remarked: ‘the numerous ascending sequences of classes or stages of being… populate [Coleridge’s] writing from the 1790s to the 1830s’.31
Coleridge’s valuation of the figures of clarity and obscurity in the ‘Moral and Political Lecture’ reveals the complex form of his commitment to radical values. When he discusses positive means of informing the people and promoting political change he reproduces the loaded images of the ‘Light of Philosophy’ and describes its proponents as ‘Illuminators’. ‘The annals of the French Revolution’, he warns, ‘have recorded in Letters of Blood, that the Knowledge of the Few cannot counteract the Ignorance of the Many; that the Light of Philosophy, when it is confined to a small Minority, points out the Possessors as the Victims, rather than the Illuminators, of the Multitude’.32 Darkness typically represents forces inimical to change such as ignorance, but, more importantly, Coleridge signifies his commitment to pacific change by associating ignorance and normatively negative darkness with violence, and with each other: ‘[t]he Groans of the Oppressors make fearful yet pleasant music to the ear of him, whose mind is darkness’.33 The negative implications of violent light and blazing forces, positively employed in their most provocative writings by Price and Paine, are consistently transvalued in Coleridge’s radical writing to incorporate a politically self-conscious and peaceful meaning which metarhetorically circumscribes the possibility of their dangerous influence on his recipients. The revolution in France, Coleridge warns, had many terrible consequences for the people of France and Europe, but he holds out some hope yet that this may be a mere delay of illumination: ‘Freedom herself heard the Crash aghast – yet shall she not have heard it unbenefited, if haply the Horrors of that Day shall have made other nations timely wise – if a great people from hence become adequately illuminated for a Revolution bloodless’.34
This delay of illumination was necessary because, Coleridge claimed, the people first had to be prepared to receive their information rightly, and this preparation required an understanding by recipients of the forms of reception and their consequences. Consequently it was the duty of the reformer to implement strategies of containment and regulation prior to the dissemination of revolutionary information. But (paradoxically enough) this had to be done during politically motivated, radical lectures. Thus Coleridge states early in his rousing lecture that the ‘zealous Advocates for Freedom’ must
endeavour, not so much to excite the torpid, as to regulate the feelings of the ardent: and above all, to evince the necessity of bottoming on fixed Principles, that so we may not be the unstable Patriots of Passion or Accident, or hurried away by names of which we have not sifted the meaning, and by tenets of which we have not examined the consequences.35
As I have shown in my discussion of the Reflections controversy, speech about the regulation of speech threatens to become interchangeable with unregulated speech, and we shall see to what extent Coleridge managed to avoid - or succumb - to this internal contradiction.
After introducing his subject with his already obligatory caveats about the dangers of misunderstanding, Coleridge proceeds to provide a typology of the divided classes of the ‘Friends of Liberty’, or, invoking Godwin’s Caleb Williams, ‘our present Oppositionists to “Things as they are”’.36 This typology is essentially an attempt to give shape or form to the people by dividing them along a hermeneutical hierarchy in which greater authority is equivalent to greater interpretative penetration. The first class of what Coleridge carefully calls the ‘professed Friends of Liberty’ are those immediately swayed by momentary, unconsidered information because their behaviour is not grounded in a stable system of intellectual labour and political exercise. They are ‘Men, who [are] unaccustomed to the labor of thorough Investigation and not particularly oppressed by the Burthen of State’.37 Such unprincipled people are given to indiscriminate inversion and consequently bear representation by contradictory symbolism: ‘[o]n the report of French Victories they blaze into Republicanism, at a tale of French Excesses they darken into Aristocrats’.38 This association of information and reception with work is an important element of Romantic obscurity, in which thought is a form of exertion which is inherently valuable, taxing, and difficult. It provides the basis for the use of figures concerning thought, learning and reading as forms of exercise, from climbing stairs to undertaking a journey.
While the inconsistencies of this first class are represented as having at least one positive function,39 the second class is ‘Wilder’, dangerously passive and malleable. Coleridge identifies as their positive instincts a Paineite ‘natural Sense’ which causes them to ‘despise the Priest’: ‘they listen only to the inflammatory harangues of some mad-headed Enthusiast, and imbibe from them Poison, not Food, Rage not Liberty’.40 This typical representation of the audience as a receptacle of passion is qualified by the medical figuration of illumination as a cure and its absence as a disease. The men of this class are not wrong for being passionate, but for being unable to regulate their passion because they are ‘[u]nillumined by Philosophy’.41 The social class of this political class is clearly meant to be that of the poor and uneducated, and since they are represented as passive ‘Materials’ the responsibility for their obscurity rests with the state. The manipulative ‘Minister’ who exploits them is associated with the ‘Satan of Old’ and figured by an obscurity which conflates intellectual and the moral meaning: ‘[h]e, who has dark purposes to serve, must use dark means – Light would discover, reason would expose him: He must endeavour to shut out both’.42 The darkness of the Minister and his dark materials is interchangeable and communicable: individuals in this class have a ‘mind in darkness’ which is simultaneously ignorant and violent. Only positive information has the power to transform and regulate the energies of chaos and inconsistency: ‘[t]he purifying alchemy of Education may transmute the fierceness of an ignorant man into virtuous energy’.43 Coleridge explicitly restricted his audience to those who were meant to inform the people, informing those meant to inform, and it is this which makes so much of his rhetoric endlessly introductory and metarhetorical.
The third class of Friends includes upwardly-mobile and envious, spiteful members of the middle and the upper-middle classes. Such men ‘possess not the wavering character of the first description, nor the ferocity last delineated. They pursue the interests of Freedom steadily, but with narrow and self-centering views’.44 Coleridge’s critique essentially strives to strike a middle ground between absolute anti-establishmentarian levelling and the conservative perpetuation of aristocratic power. He attempts to demonstrate that distinctions of title and ostentation are less important than ‘the more real distinction of master and servant, of rich man and of poor’.45 To attempt to change the system for the purpose of resolving one’s anxieties about one’s own status is, by implication, merely a means of replicating the structures which produce and sustain the misguided importance of titles.
Significantly, the manner in which Coleridge introduces the discussion of the fourth class betrays a sense of his own detachment from it as the communicator of the Moral and Political Lecture, as their informer, informing his audience in the same manner in which he intended them to inform their own audience. Immediately after he finishes the long passage quoted above, Coleridge writes:
[b]ut of the propriety and utility of holding up the distant mark of attainable perfection, we shall enter more fully towards the close of this address; we turn with pleasure to the contemplation of that small but glorious band, whom we may truly distinguish by the name of thinking and disinterested Patriots.46
The editors of the Collected Coleridge version of the lecture insert a footnote after ‘this address’ claiming that this was ‘[a] promise not fulfilled’, and they cite as their evidence the deletion of this promise in the Conciones ad Populum. But the description of the ‘Patriots’ and the division of identities throughout the lecture does fulfil this promise. In other words, Coleridge did not wait till the end of his address to meet his promise; rather he proceeded to it immediately. This obfuscation was necessary in order to make his ploy effective, for as the communicator in this case Coleridge was effectively the master to his readerly servants, himself a ‘distant mark of attainable perfection’ in the art of information. To say to a recipient that he possesses a ‘mark of attainable perfection’ in relation to his servant is a simple matter, but to straightforwardly engage in an attempt to convince the reading master that there are others (i.e. Coleridge) who possess such marks of perfection in relation to him is more difficult. The teacher, by presuming to teach, assumes an inevitable authority over his pupil. The paradox of the implicit superiority of the metarhetorical communicator over the ostensibly equal recipient would play a crucial role in the development of Coleridge’s obscurity throughout his career.
The ideal ‘Patriots’ described in the following passage are masters of mediation and the reconciliation of extremes, and they are represented though positive and peaceful revolutionary symbolism. ‘Accustomed to regard all the affairs of man as a process’, writes Coleridge:
they never hurry and they never pause; theirs is not that twilight of political knowledge which gives us just light enough to place one foot before the other; as they advance, the scene still opens upon them, and they press right onward with a vast and various landscape of existence around them.47
Clarity is transferred from one object to another: the Patriot simultaneously enlightens others and the world. This is effected through the imposition of exercise or readerly labour ‘by strengthening the intellect’.48 Patriots educate the people in order to mitigate the tendency inherent in reform and dissent to degenerate into uncontainable, and counterproductive, violence.
A second and equally important aspect of the Patriots is that they achieve personal enlightenment through the exercise of controlled, patient self-transformation: ‘[t]hese are the men who have encouraged the sympathetic passions till they have become irresistible habits, and made their duty a necessary part of their self interest, by the long continued cultivation of … moral taste’.49 As usual, in Coleridge this form of intellectually directed emotional enlightenment results in a form of elevation, ostensibly to the status of Patriot, and, importantly, to a state of perfect vision: ‘[h]e whose mind is habitually imprest with [soul ennobling views]’, he writes, ‘soars above the present state of humanity, and may be justly said to dwell in the presence of the most high’. Echoing the ascent to the sun in ‘Religious Musings’, he continues: ‘[r]egarding every event even as he that ordains it, evil vanishes from before him, and he views with the naked eye the eternal form of universal beauty’.50 At this point in his thought, or at the very least at this moment in his speech, Coleridge’s optimism about the necessary and the contingent boundaries of human intellect and the potential for positive transformation of the human had reached its apogee, as the eye of man is elevated to the eye of God.
An anonymous review of the Moral and Political Lecture in the dissenting Critical Review addresses one of the problems of metarhetorical attempts to regulate rhetoric according to the dictates of clarity: the problem, that is, of the clarity-rhetorician’s own tendency for obscurity. In spite of [his] endorsement of clarity, the reviewer calls attention to the fact that Coleridge’s style is ‘rather defective in point of precision’. Likewise, Coleridge fails to state ‘in a form sufficiently scientific and determinate, those principles to which, as he expresses it, he now proceeds as the most important point’. Finally, the reviewer mentions Coleridge’s failure to come to his point: ‘[w]e confess we were looking for something further, and little thought that we were actually come to the Finis’.51 The simultaneous and insightful invocation, in one of the first reviews of his career as a public figure, of Coleridge’s tendencies towards obscurity and the delay of regressive introduction, strikes an ominous note.
Conciones ad Populum, Or Addresses to the People
In the disclosal of Opinion, it is our duty to consider the character of those, to whom we address ourselves, their situations, and probable degree of knowledge. We should be bold in the avowal of political Truth among those only whose minds are susceptible of reasoning: and never to the multitude, who ignorant and needy must necessarily act from the impulse of inflamed Passions.
[I]n the Dictionary of aristocratic Prejudice, Illumination and Sedition are classed as synonimes.
Coleridge, Conciones ad Populum (Lects 1795, 51, 52).
Coleridge’s pamphlet Conciones ad Populum was published on December 3, 1795, and advertised as ‘Two Addresses to the People. The first on the Characters of Professed Friends of Freedom – the Second, on the present War’.52 The first ‘Address’ is ‘an expansion of A Moral and Political Lecture’, and the second (based on either the second or the third of Coleridge’s January-February Bristol lectures) argues strongly against Britain’s participation in the war in Europe.53 In the following section I will analyze Coleridge’s revisions of A Moral and Political Lecture, and the manner in which he redeployed the figures of obscurity as a reflection of his political and moral position. The Conciones is an early example of how Coleridge’s revisionary anxieties were motivated by his awareness of the rhetorical problem of reception related to the indeterminate capacities or identities of his intended (and unintended) audiences. It is no coincidence that his second rhetorical publication is a carefully edited version of his first, and that it indulges in the multiplication of reflexive introductions related to the contradictions inherent in Coleridge’s developing philosophies of rhetoric and information in relation to obscurity.
The title of Conciones demonstrates its aggressive approach to the transvaluation of its opponents’ rhetoric. The title is a play on the ecclesiastical ‘concio ad clerum… a Latin sermon preached on certain occasions’.54 The transformation of ‘clerum’ to ‘populum’ announces Coleridge’s determination to speak to a relatively democratic audience, and carries with it a radical condemnation of religious mystery, hierarchy and obfuscation. The presentation in English of a form of sermon normally delivered in Latin contributes to this ironic transformation. Direct communication with the populace, Coleridge argues, rather than the restricted audience of the clergy, was the only effective and principled way of fighting the war, and fighting the dangerous potential of the people to be swayed by passion. ‘Truth should be spoken at all times’, Coleridge wrote in his preface to Conciones, ‘but more especially at those times, when to speak Truth is dangerous’, perhaps echoing Frend’s statement about the need for the immediate correction of abuses in Peace and Union.55 In order to speak the truth effectively, Coleridge implied, it must be clearly and immediately directed to those who most need it.
The preface is followed by Coleridge’s tongue-in-cheek ‘A Letter from Liberty to Her Dear Friend Famine’. The letter’s function in the wealth of introductory material in Conciones is not made explicit by Coleridge, but its humour serves two important functions for the text to follow. First, it announces (as though the title, preface, and epigraph were not enough) Coleridge’s relation to the two most important parts of the establishment, the Church and the government. In the letter’s allegory the king is deaf to Gratitude, who has been supplanted by Flattery. Religion, too, has been corrupted, and is represented as a figure of dazzling obscurity recalling the figure of obscure feminine power of Burke’s Reflections: ‘[s]he [Religion] was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, and upon her Forehead was written “MYSTERY”’.56 Coleridge argues that Liberty can no longer use normal diplomatic means to make its case, but must appeal to the threatening double-edged sword of discontent called Famine. ‘O FAMINE’, writes Liberty, ‘most eloquent Goddess! plead thou my cause. I meantime will pray fervently that Heaven may unseal the ears of its viceregents, so that they may listen to your first pleadings, while yet your voice is faint and distant, and your counsels peaceable’.57 This final ‘while yet’ provides the second clue to the letter’s function: its exceedingly dark humour (especially in a time of ‘near-famine’58) is meant to delay and deflect anger in Coleridge’s audience. Notably, the indirection of the fake ‘letter’ was a device Coleridge would use, though elsewhere less ironically, in all three versions of The Friend and in the Biographia. As a guarantee against dangerous influence, introductory delay was essential for a voice compelled to speak in a time of danger. To proceed immediately to the rectification of abuse was not to proceed without delay.
The letter to Famine is followed by an ‘Introductory Address’ which introduces the familiar 1790s figure of a rhetorical battle over figures. The opening Greek epigraph (which was not printed in A Moral and Political Lecture), the editors note, is untraced, and expresses an anxiety about the arbitrary deployment of the term ‘Liberty’ by those on all sides of the war and revolution debates: ‘I am always a lover of Liberty; but in those who would appropriate the Title I find too many points destructive of Liberty and hateful to her genuine advocates’.59 Here Coleridge demonstrates his awareness of the nature of the conflict over figures between the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. Thus ‘[t]oemancipate itself from the Tyranny of Association, is the most arduous effort of the mind, particularly in Religious and Political disquisitions. The asserter of the system has associated it with the preservation of Order, and public Virtue; the oppugner Imposture, and Wars, and Rapine’.60 Coleridge is not claiming that one can emancipate the mind from functioning in accordance with the laws of association, but rather that we have a will which allows us to discriminate between the associations with words and figures that have been established by others. Ownership of terms does not necessarily imply their proper use: there are many meanings of the term to choose from, and the positive connotations of the word can be appropriated for negative ends. It is an explicit invitation to the reader to be aware of Coleridge’s own competing appropriation of ‘Liberty’ and other terms and figures, and to judge between them. Given its metarhetorical status, however, it is also an implicit invitation to question what counts as a ‘genuine’ use of a term or figure, calling Coleridge’s own appropriations to account.61
The deployment of figures of clarity and obscurity in Coleridge’s revisionary additions to Conciones demonstrates his carefully qualified support of the French in a manner much more straightforward than that of A Moral and Political Lecture. In one addition, Coleridge figures ‘French Freedom’ as a ‘Beacon’62 which reveals the positive and the negative aspects of the French Revolution and its aftermath in Europe. This figure of enlightened, watchful travel is developed through the imagery of landscape in Coleridge’s critique of Robespierre: ‘I rather think, that the distant prospect, to which he was travelling, appeared to him grand and beautiful; but that he fixed his eye on it with such intense eagerness as to neglect the foulness of the road’.63 The danger of this far-sighted vision is its lack of immediate circumspection, its local blindness. In order to tread carefully, Coleridge argues, one must keep one’s eye on the immediate obscurity and on the distant prospect of light: ‘[e]nthusiasm… will frequently generate sensations of an unkindly order. If we clearly perceive any one thing to be of vast and infinite importance to ourselves and all mankind, our first feelings impel us to turn with angry contempt from those, who doubt and oppose it’.64 Robespierre’s vision of human perfection, like Milton’s vision of God, is dark with excessive light. The representation of Robespierre’s ‘dark imagination’65 is a significant conflation of two types of obscurity (a conflation essential to the rhetoric of clarity), corrupted vision and evil, arguing that they are necessarily interrelated. This balanced view of Robespierre explains in part Jon Mee’s statement (in a discussion of Thomas Paine) that ‘criticism of Robespierre is not equivalent to a disavowal of radicalism’.66 The distant prospect of human perfection must, conservatively enough, take account of the immediacy of human imperfection, and this means that Coleridge must paradoxically and metarhetorically be talking about preparing the audience at the same time as he is engaging in the preparation of his audience.
Coleridge’s rhetorical pattern of early optimism concerning the preparation of recipients for proper communication is figured throughout the rest of the ‘Introductory Address’ in further revisionary additions related to general illumination and the reception of information. Interestingly, Coleridge associates the identity of informers (the fourth class of ‘Friends’) with an unfallen purity: ‘[f]or it was ordained’, he writes, ‘at the foundation of the world, that there should always remain Pure Ones and uncorrupt, who should shine like Lights in Darkness, reconciling us to our own nature’.67 These ‘Lights’ are individual illuminators of the public whose function is essential for the regulation of reception through the purification of the fallen. But this utopian optimism is immediately obviated by a very Coleridgean caveat. Communicating with the fallen, the reader is warned, is fraught with difficulties, even for the chosen Lights:
[t]hat general Illumination should precede Revolution, is a truth as obvious, as that the Vessel should be cleansed before we fill it with a pure Liquor. But the mode of diffusing it is not discoverable with equal facility. We certainly should never attempt to make Proselytes by appeals to the selfish feelings – and consequently, should plead for the Oppressed, not to them.68
Coleridge’s optimism concerning illumination, it appears, extends only to those who stand above the general corruption of capacities for reception. To proceed from the beginning, he warns, without a careful introduction on the reception of information, as Godwin does in Political Justice, is ‘rather plausible than just or practicable’.69 In other words, Godwin’s fixed attention on a beacon of abstraction keeps him from seeing the practical obscurity surrounding him. Between the different classes of society, Coleridge argues,
there is a gulph that may not be passed. He would appear to me to have adopted the best as well as the most benevolent mode of diffusing Truth, who uniting the zeal of the Methodist with the views of the Philosopher, should be personally among the Poor, and teach them their Duties in order that he may render them susceptible of their Rights.70
He may be arguing in a relatively anti-Godwinian vein here, but the language of this passage echoes Godwin’s claim in Political Justice that ‘Man is in reality a passive, and not an active being’.71 In these densely packed passages, Coleridge’s ‘we’ of unfallen Lights are given the task of pleading for the fallen while they (the fallen) remain incapable of pleading properly for themselves. A certain rhetorical ‘zeal’ is necessary to effect this in the primitively unenlightened, but it must itself be regulated by cool philosophical abstraction if reception is to be kept under control. In Coleridge’s hierarchy, communicators possess an unfallen will, even if the receiving ‘people’ does not.
The final section of Conciones begins with yet another discussion of the problems of reception and the careful strategy required for its regulation. The repetition of this topic begins to seem, on a close analysis, obsessive, if not entirely compulsive. Once again the Coleridgean reception-caveat stresses to its audience that a speaker must have a clear understanding of the character and class of the audience, in both the social sense and the sense associated with the ‘Friends’ (and enemies) of liberty. The appeal to the unregulated ‘Passions’ of the unenlightened multitude in the epigraph to this section (on the disclosal of opinion) recalls the new rhetorical primitivist belief that with greater knowledge comes greater abstraction, greater understanding, and a simultaneous decrease in the power of the passions to sway the mind. The crowd, here, plays the role of the savage, interpreting via its receptivity to feeling. Consequently, even abstract truths – even the barest, clearest information – will have the effect of impassioned obscurity on the audience, corrupting any transfer of information and transforming it into a potentially misinforming energy. It is the responsibility of the speaker to speak according to the crowd’s capacity and at the same time to establish his own character: ‘the Conduct of the speaker is determined chiefly by the nature of his Audience. He therefore, who shall proclaim me seditious… must prove the majority of my hearers to be unenlightened’.72 It is not what is said that determines what is seditious, Coleridge argues (and in the midst of the debate concerning the introduction of the two bills on treachery and sedition, this argument is hardly superfluous); rather, it is to whom it is said. Or, more importantly, to whom it is said to be said. Here, the reflexive, metarhetorical statement concerning the intended audience of an address is meant to guarantee not a particular readership, but the author’s character.
Coleridge goes on to represent one final type of recipient for whom obscurity becomes the dominant figure. As he has argued about the lower classes, so he now argues that for aristocrats the most benighting influence on the mind is prejudice.73 This fifth type of recipient, most definitely an enemy of liberty, represents the conservative rhetoric which postulated a positive, counter-Enlightenment obscurity throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century. Altering a quote from Job 5:14, Coleridge goes on to describe this class of audience by invoking concepts of Burkean obscurity and the power indeterminate language gains through association:
[h]e ‘meets with darkness in the day-time, and gropes in the noon-day as in night.’ Some unmeaning Term generally becomes the Watch-word, and acquires almost a mechanical power over his frame. The indistinctness of the Ideas associated with it increases its effect, as ‘objects look gigantic thro’ a mist’.74
This final class demonstrates that the obscurity of prejudice lends power to obscure, indeterminate terms and ideas, which perpetuate themselves by causing recipients to ‘wilfully’75 blind themselves and shut their eyes. That Coleridge did not recognise a potential self-contradiction here – he had himself claimed that illumination of the unprepared masses would result in negative consequences approaching sedition – is a mark of his own confusion concerning the right form of information in a society where the truth is dangerous for the aristocrat and for the unprepared recipient.
The following sections of ‘On the Present War’ finally extend beyond a reflexive introductory critique of preparatory introduction. They argue against the war on France through the communication of historical facts, the transvaluation of figures, and the discussion of transvaluation and the barriers to communication that lie outside reception alone. Although it is of course permeated by the metarhetorical contradictions of a rhetoric suspicious of the effects of rhetoric, its main appeal is to facts, ‘a rapid survey of the consequences of this unjust because unnecessary War’.76 Coleridge’s text functions like the rays – or as the eye - of ‘the Sun of Enquiry’77 exposing the horrors of scalping in the America and the deaths of ‘a MILLION of men’ in Europe’s ‘calamitous Contest’.78 In an early example of Gilmartin’s aforementioned ‘radical rhetoric of fact’, Coleridge thus cites item after damning anti-war item as a means of informing and influencing the reader.
But there are barriers to this communication beyond the indifference or corrupted capacity of the people. There are, as one would expect, darker forces for obfuscation at work. ‘He, who wanders in the maze of POLITICAL ENQUIRY’, Coleridge asserts, ‘must tread over Corses, and at every step detect some dark Conspirator against human happiness’.79 Although he does not identify these dark conspirators coherently, and does not announce them as a class of ‘Enemies of Liberty’, he does throughout this section delineate the functions and identities of those who oppose positive, clear information. Among these enemies are the previously mentioned ‘ARISTOCRATS’ and manipulative politicians, represented through the figure of William Pitt as a sort of apotheosis of the rhetoric of obscurity (even in comparison to Burke): ‘[b]ut our Premier’s Harangues! – Mystery concealing Meanness, as steam-clouds invelope a dunghill’.80 Among the dark conspirators discussed by Coleridge are those spies and ministerial investigators who reveal the secrets of the friends of liberty: ‘[m]en who resemble the familiar Spirits described by Isaiah, as “dark ones, that peep and that mutter!”’.81
Perhaps the most dangerous enemy to liberty for Coleridge at this point is misguided religion, and especially the Church of England and the Catholic Church, which represent the corruption of a pure Christianity. He points out that all but one Bishop (Llandaff) voted against a motion to allow for negotiation with France, and that these men represent ‘the Religion of Mitres and Mysteries, the Religion of Pluralities and Persecution’.82 These ‘High-priests of Mars’83 are motivated, Coleridge claims, by the pecuniary advantages they gain as representatives of an established church which collects money from the people.84 The association of religious authority with monetary reward guarantees that the church will become an economic instrument of priestly obfuscation, using mystery and the symbols of superstitious authority to awe the people, and corrupt the ‘Light of Nature’.85 Here, Coleridge reaches perhaps the height of his Dissenting argument, promoting ‘a Religion, of which every true Christian is the Priest’ which will extinguish ‘the torch of Superstition’.86 Compared to the ministers of the government, the false ministers of god are an eclipse, not a shadow.
A reading of Conciones for obscurity demonstrates important complexities and contradictions in Coleridge’s early stance on information and obscurity. First, his rhetorical deployment of the figures of clarity and obscurity indicate his association with the radical rhetoric of clarity. Most writers at the time associated normatively obscure imagery with their enemies, but only in the radical rhetoric of clarity was this association conflated with other types of obscurity, such as ministerial mystery, or unclear language. Second, his conception of the capacities of the people was already ‘class’-based, interweaving concepts of individual difference motivated by prejudice and feeling and the effects of material circumstances on human nature and political identity. The implication that circumstance determines character, however, led Coleridge into troubling representations of the audience as generally passive and in need of instruction from higher, implicitly free, authorities. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the anxiety of reception (related to the perpetuation of social dangers of irrational mob behaviour and the author’s reputation in the eyes of the law rather than his friends or posterity) which motivated his revisions and proliferating introductions shows how Coleridge’s concept of his readers’ capacities was tied to the structure of his own work. Even when teaching future teachers, it seemed, Coleridge was worried that he might be misunderstood, and so began his slide down the slippery slope of introductory caveats and qualifications calculated to delay illumination. Finally, Coleridge’s concept of information regarded mere fact to be a useful tool for provoking a response from the right audience, but a problematic one given the fact that feeling could override understanding and even facts could communicate more passion than reason.
The Plot Discovered
Ere yet our laws as well as our religion be muffled up in mysteries, as a CHRISTIAN I protest against this worse than Pagan darkness!
… and by information the public will may be formed.
Coleridge, The Plot Discovered (Lects1795), 285, 312.
In late November 1795, before the publication of Conciones, Coleridge delivered a ‘Lecture on the Two Bills’ in Bristol. The two bills in question were framed as a response to an attack on the king in early November and to general civic unrest. The first was Lord Grenville’s ‘Act for the Safety and Preservation of His Majesty’s Person and Government against Treasonable and Seditious Practices and Attempts’. The second was Pitt’s ‘Act for the More Effectually Preventing Seditious Meetings and Assemblies’. The two acts were calculated to regulate both published writing and collective public speaking criticizing the government and supporting reform. As Coleridge put it, ‘[t]he first of these Bills is an attempt to assassinate the Liberty of the Press: the second, to smother the Liberty of Speech’.87 The Plot Discovered was published by December 10, over a week before the acts were finally passed, and a week after Conciones was published. This meant that The Plot Discovered was usually reviewed with Conciones, which itself ended with a reference to the two acts.88 Both texts demonstrate the tensions and contradictions involved in the revision of public speech into published print. But such similarities aside, The Plot Discovered’s staunchly anti-government stance, with a particular legal target as opposed to the war in general, distinguishes it from Conciones in ways which add significantly to an understanding of Coleridge’s early positions on the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity.
Religion and ministerial speech had been represented in Conciones as perpetuating power through the devices of obscurity, and Coleridge transfers this theme in The Plot Discovered to legal language and its consequences, using the two acts as a synecdoche for all legal and institutional linguistic obscurity. He introduces the text with a motto which derides the ‘mitred mufti’ who attempt to convince the general population that they are naturally subordinate to those above them. One of the main instruments for generating this humiliating belief is the obscurity of laws, which renders them inaccessible to the common reader. The Plot Discovered, we are told, is a ‘protest’,89 and the ‘Christianity’ to which Coleridge refers here is that which he claimed had been corrupted by the history of political and religious obscurity in his Lectures on Revealed Religion.90 Here, Coleridge’s is a levelling Christianity which would make all men priests, investing them with the authority, confidence, and ability to read the scriptures – and now, by extension, the law, if not the indeterminate but unquestionable constitution.91
The two bills, however, had been written down, and it was their language which Coleridge sought to analyze and represent in The Plot Discovered.92 Pitt and Grenville had, in Coleridge’s words, ‘dared shew themselves to the light’ and it was his task to examine them carefully.93 With the publication of the texts, what was exposed to the light of enquiry was precisely the obscurity of oppressive legal language. ‘The existing laws of Treason’, Coleridge writes ironically, ‘were too clear, too unequivocal’ for the oppressive government to exploit at the expense of the people, and did not allow judges enough latitude of interpretation to overwhelm the influence of ‘English Juries’.94 Indeed, one of the major consequences of the enactment of the bills, he warns, will be the transformation of Britain into a despotic state. One of the ‘four things, which being combined constitute Despotism’, Coleridge claims, is ‘[w]hen the punishments of state-offenders are determined and heavy, but what constitutes state-offences left indefinite, that is, dependent on the will of the minister, or the interpretation of the Judge’.95 Legal indeterminacy, in other words, is only questionable by initiates in the hermeneutic hierarchy who have the authority to question it. The present bills have ‘crawled into light’ (from a dunghill, no less) only to emphasize their own darkness.96
Coleridge moves on quite quickly – there are no introductory caveats about reception here – to engage in a minute analysis of the bills and to reveal the hidden intent behind misleading statements. His analysis of obscurity as an oppressive legal or ministerial tactic had, as Victoria Myers has shown in her discussion of The Plot Discovered, a significant history in the Enlightenment. Paine’s attack on indeterminate laws, Myers argues, was an echo of Locke, who
linked ‘obscurity’ and ‘ambiguity’ with motives of ‘ambition’ and party interest; conversely, he connected ‘plain and direct’ language with political honesty. He saw equivocation, affected obscurity, and departing from conventional meanings as signs of political corruption.97
Likewise, Coleridge attacks the obscurity of the bills as an attempt to increase power through indeterminacy: a vague law could be employed in vague ways, and therein lay its danger. But Coleridge was aware that once clarity became positively valued it could be appropriated as a style, and become an inverted instrument of obscurity. Thus in his reading of the second bill Coleridge states ‘[a]t my first glance over it, it recalled to me by force of contrast the stern simplicity and perspicuous briefness of the Athenian laws. But our minister’s meaning generally bears an inverse proportion to the multitude of his words’.98 The light of clarity and simplicity, it turns out, can function as a cover for darkness.
The most important problem Coleridge had with the new laws was that the restriction of the press would constitute a change in the identity of the British government. Essentially, he argued, the force of public opinion forced the government to govern with (not over) the people.99 Invoking the use of the term ‘information’ which implies the active in-formation of the recipient, Coleridge argues that
[t]he Liberty of the Press, (a power resident in the people) gives us an influential sovereignty. By books necessary information may be dispersed; and by information the public will may be formed…. By the almost winged communication of the Press, the whole nation becomes one grand Senate, fervent yet untumultuous.100
Information here serves more than a moral, parochial purpose of improving the public mind. Rather, it serves as an essential element in the constitution of Britain, as a check on government power and as a means of generating national identity. To destroy the press was therefore to destroy the dissemination of facts and the formation of the public, figured by Coleridge (invoking language usually reserved for the passions) as the transfer of electricity: ‘[b]y the operation of Lord Grenville’s Bill, the Press is made useless. Every town is insulated: the vast conductors are destroyed by which the electric fluid of truth was conveyed from man to man, and nation to nation’.101 To stop this communication was to initiate despotism, as it effectively cancelled out the influence of the people on the government.
In a manner which contradicted his anxieties concerning the dangers of information in the Moral and Political Lecture and Conciones ad Populum, however, Coleridge here invoked the optimistic concept of a self-regulating truth which would inevitably produce virtue through information. Victoria Myers argues plausibly in ‘The Other Fraud’ that Coleridge appealed to an ideal of ‘univocal’ language as a language of justice, one which would be clear to all and would not admit of a corrupt indeterminacy. This is, indeed, an ideal central to the radical rhetoric of clarity, and founded in a utopian optimism about the connection between truth and clarity promoted from Longinus to Locke. But it was one which came to be questioned by radicals throughout the 1790s, as they played out the end of the Enlightenment and effected a qualification of ideals concerning human progress and perfectibility. Myers suggests that Coleridge argues in The Plot Discovered not only against, but also for, equivocation, as a means of maintaining ‘the freedom of political speech. Here Coleridge fundamentally departed from the theoretical dependency upon Locke which both sides claimed. He approved the existing treason laws because they admitted a disjuncture between meanings and intentions’.102 This double-edged aspect of obscurity was well known to radicals, as I have suggested above, and the argument here associated with Coleridge is central to various accounts of trial defences of supposedly seditious texts, from the trials of 1794 to William Hone’s trials in 1819.
Myers goes on to argue that this positive use of indeterminacy or obscurity is ultimately obviated by Coleridge’s perception of the necessity to somehow limit language. Thus ‘Coleridge needed to place some limit on use of equivocation; otherwise, he would warrant a complete relativism or indeterminacy of language, which… threatens to return society to a Hobbesian state of nature’.103 Myers is, of course, right to point out that Coleridge and other radicals who advocated a form of radical obscurity still maintained an ideal, at least when they were at their most optimistic, of finding an objective, static language. In fact, any language would do, as long as all readers and audiences were bound to respond in the same way. But Coleridge’s early insight was that this goal could not be achieved only by perfecting language: the people also had to have their capacities to receive or interpret language perfected by a supplementary authority. Coleridge, like other somewhat utopian radicals, simply believed that this unity of interpretation was possible, whether that authority came from the structure of truth or the nature of God, and that the limits of interpretation or equivocation would appear spontaneously in the course of progressive agreement in free public discourse.
Myers does not make this essential point, and ends up confusing Coleridge’s plan to perfect the people with a plan to perfect language. But she does point out one of the consequences of Coleridge’s belief that a fragmented audience resulted in fragmented interpretations, and in his desire to promote equivocation as a means of ultimately arriving at a form of agreement equivalent to truth. In The Plot Discovered, she argues, ‘Coleridge depicted a moment of indeterminacy, of becoming, of change in relation and valence, and thereby captured the move of history itself. This fruitful indeterminacy allows the coexistence of many diverse voices, and hence encourages tolerance as a modus vivendi’.104 Indeed, Coleridge articulated just such a democratic openness to positive interpretation just one week earlier, in another addition to the ‘Introductory Address’ of Conciones:
we may be certain, whether we be Christians or Infidels, Aristocrats or Republicans, that our minds are in a state unsusceptible of Knowledge, when we feel an eagerness to detect the Falsehood of an Adversary’s reasonings, not a sincere wish to discover if there be Truth in them.105
The interaction between the reader and the obscure text, or the informing communicator and the recipient, is, in the end, the foundation of positive, active understanding. It is not merely clarity that is a sign of virtue. Rather, the communicator’s regulation of the audience reflects a process of self-regulation essential to maintaining the necessary foundation for positive communication.
The fields intended for TURNIPS are far advanced in culture, many have been twice plowed, and are in fine tilth’
Coleridge, The Watchman (358), quoting from the Monthly Magazine.
The turnips of this year are generally good.
Edmund Burke, ‘Thoughts and Details on Scarcity’ (in Burke, 9.138).
The ten issues of Coleridge’s self-edited magazine The Watchman were published in the first half of 1796, shortly after the implementation of the Two Bills.106 The ‘Watchman’ of the title, invoking the familiar radical and enlightenment figures of the eye and the lantern, represents both Coleridge as the editor and contributor107 who investigates and enquires, and the newspaper itself, which was to function as a source of quasi-revolutionary light to be spread across the countryside. Though the genres and politics may have been mixed (in what came to be typically Coleridgean fashion), Lewis Patton relates the style of the magazine to its political project, stating that the ‘tone of The Watchman was prevailingly temperate – kept so, I think, because Coleridge believed that the knowledge of truth was best disseminated in a climate of thoughtfulness and in “cool and guarded” language’.108 As I have pointed out throughout my discussions of the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity and Coleridge’s conflation of them, it is important not to confuse rhetoric with metarhetoric, and not to conclude that Coleridge’s style was temperate because he explicitly came out against intemperance. Furthermore, repeated calls for the (legal or intellectual) regulation of reception had a conservative ring: ‘[t]he progress of revolutionary doctrines in France, the outbreak of hostilities on the Continent, the threat of war between Great Britain and France, and the existence of much popular discontent at home, made the regulation of public opinion a matter of prime importance to Pitt’s Government in 1792’.109 The courage of his decision to publish in this climate, and his movement towards a greater emphasis on the need to contain the reception of political speech, mark the height of his early radical commitments and the beginning of the end of his radical personal and political optimism. The failure of The Watchman was the failure of his radical identity.
In the prospectus used to advertise The Watchman to the provincial public, Coleridge repeats the views on the press which he outlined in The Plot Discovered, arguing that ‘[i]n an enslaved State the Rulers form and supply the opinions of the People’.110 While there may be many provincial newspapers in existence, Coleridge claims, most of these newspapers are influenced by the Treasury though the free dissemination of ‘Treasury Prints… with particular paragraphs marked out for their insertion’.111 The only means of supporting freedom was to allow the people to ‘FORM THEIR OWN OPINIONS’, shouted Coleridge in capitals, because ‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’.112 Freedom was contingent on the freedom of thought, not merely the freedom of information, and this required preparation of the audience: ‘[w]ithout previous illumination a change in the forms of Government will be of no avail… where Corruption and Ignorance are prevalent, the best forms of Government are but “Shadows of a Shade!”’.113
At the top of the title-page of the Prospectus Coleridge printed an adaptation from John 8.32 which became the motto of each number:
That All may know the TRUTH;
And that the TRUTH may make us FREE!!114
Although it is normally taken to be an emancipatory statement, the fact that the truth makes us free implies a passive relation to an indeterminate, external source of emancipation. That is, the unacknowledged problem is not related to the philosophical question ‘What is truth’, but rather the rhetorical ‘What is the appearance of truth?’ The passivity of the audience-recipient is stressed in lines like ‘[w]e actually transfer the Sovereignty to the People, when we make them susceptible of it’.115 Thus when Coleridge claims it is the duty of the ‘Friends of Freedom, of Reason, and of Human Nature… to supply or circulate political information’116 the claim is about more than the mere spread of facts (about turnips, for example), but also about forming the people for the enlightened thinking necessary to receive those facts. The government, with its control over the spread of facts to the rural population, could thereby ‘undermine their Freedom without alarming them’; and, perhaps more importantly, it could ‘overthrow their Freedom by alarming them against themselves’.117
While the ‘“mission statements”’ of provincial papers in this period were normally aimed at developing a ‘local market’ in order to represent ‘a particular locality as distinct from other provincial regions’,118 Coleridge’s goal in the introductory section of The Watchman was to present less a regional than an ideological identity which would demonstrate to readers the particular value of his ‘Miscellany’. He begins with the relation of the modern origins of the contemporary history of democratic clarity, arguing that in the aftermath of the capture of Constantinople in 1453, ‘[t]he first scanty twilight of knowledge was sufficient to shew what horrors had resulted from ignorance; and no experience had yet taught them that general illumination is incompatible with undelegated power’.119 This dawn of democratic diffusion was to have a disastrous effect on tyranny of many forms in Europe, which Coleridge relates in broad detail.
The historical and political targets of this arch-enlightenment narrative recall those of the more narrowly theological and historical corruption narrative in the Lectures on Revealed Religion. ‘Despotism, Aristocracy, and Priesthood’ become a ‘dark tri-unity’120 that engages in a ‘violent’ struggle to maintain power. Coleridge then lists some of the dangers to ‘the diffusion of general information’ employed by these obscure powers: taxes, the stamp duties that restricted newspaper circulation, and various instruments for impeding the education of the poor.121 The contemporary reader, accustomed to this discussion of a history of the progressive diffusion of information and the change from light to darkness, would certainly see already as the end of this history the 1789 revolution in France, and the conservative Tory reaction to it: William Pitt fittingly appears at the end of this history as a figure of tyranny for having called newspapers ‘mere luxuries’.122
The forces of light rallied against the ‘dark tri-unity’ are discussed in the ensuing but still introductory section. Discussing the Methodists ‘and other disciples of Calvinism’ as ‘counteracting’ ‘the impediments to the diffusion of Knowledge’, Coleridge performs a rather abrupt about-face and argues for the illuminating power of mystery. This argument in favour of mystery and against those who argue that ‘faith in mysteries prepares the mind for implicit obedience to tyranny’ echoes Coleridge’s unresolved and problematic effort in the superstition allegory to maintain his scientific credentials while supporting an element of orthodoxy which he and other radicals had targeted for years.123 Coleridge offers in the same section a more consistent argument in favour of mystery and superstition which was to become an essential aspect of his later writing. ‘The truth seems to be,’ he writes,
that Superstition is unfavorable to civil Freedom then only, when it teaches sensuality… or when it is in alliance with power and avarice, as in the religious establishments of Europe. In all other cases, to forego, even in solitude, the high pleasures which the human mind receives from the free exertion of its faculties, through the dread of an invisible spectator or the hope of a future reward, implies so great a conquest over the tyranny of the present impulse, and so large a power of self-government, that whoever is conscious of it, will be grateful for the existence of an external government no farther than as it protects him from the attacks of others.124
This is a dense passage which demonstrates Coleridge’s intense awareness of the need for a pointed defence of ‘Superstition’. First, he maintains his ‘radical’ critique of sensuality/atheism and of the Church of Rome (the Church of England is conspicuously absent). Second, he associates indulgence in superstition with a ‘high’ pleasure and, more importantly, intellectual freedom, which explains the ensuing attack on the ‘metaphysical systematizers’ with whom he did not want this obscure activity to be conflated. Third, he ingeniously couples the sublime ‘dread’ of an invisible God with a ‘conquest’ over the ‘tyranny’ of the sensual self, once again somewhat problematically appropriating unto himself the language of emancipatory radicalism even as his beliefs drew him further away from the details of contemporary radical beliefs regarding mystery and superstition. This power of an obviously metaphorical ‘self-government’ is transformed, Coleridge argues, into a form of liberty which resists political tyranny and, by implication, guarantees enough self-regulation to resist an unrestrained, irrational, violent explosion of passion. Enthusiasm and mystery are thus wedded and reflexive self-control is translated into control of government and a guarantee of liberty.
Coleridge goes on to advocate an optimistic concept of the value of education, investigation, and the spread of information. ‘Man begins to be free when he begins to examine’, he writes, meaning especially the examination of the poor and of the material circumstances leading to their poverty.125 Echoing Lowth’s earlier claim about the inherent, Utopian progress of learning, Coleridge goes on to laud factories as secure places for the dissemination of information through the public reading of newspapers. ‘Which party they adopt’, he writes in a frenzy of confidence, ‘is of little comparative consequence! Men always serve the cause of freedom by thinking, even though their first reflections may lead them to oppose it’.126 This extreme optimism makes for powerful aphorisms, and is certainly designed to maintain a certain level of enthusiasm in the reader – the ‘bare facts’ here are obviously marshalled for the purposes of generating conviction – and indicates a level of internal tension and contradiction unparalleled in Coleridge’s earlier writings. Moving quickly from an appeal to carefully nurtured and divinely guided, reflexive self-regulation to an appeal for the necessary enlightenment of the factory worker no matter what he reads, one suspects that Coleridge is running in desperation while we are reading.
Coleridge smuggles into this statement of confidence in the reception-capacities of the people a volte-face even more surprising than that regarding mystery and superstition. After lauding the sober men of the ‘manufactories’, he goes on:
[a]nd on account of these men, whose passions are frequently inflamed by drunkenness, the friends of rational and progressive Liberty may review with diminished indignation two recent acts of Parliament, which, though breaches of the Constitution… yet will not have been useless if they should render the language of political publications more cool and guarded, or even confine us for a while to the teaching of first principles, or the diffusion of that general knowledge which should be the basis or substratum of politics.127
This certainly represents an early example of the apostasies from which Coleridge so carefully (and fruitlessly) sought to defend himself in later years. So much for his ‘Lecture on the Two Bills’ and his expanded publication of it in The Plot Discovered: his faith in the administration to regulate the indeterminate people had overtaken, at least on this point, his faith in the capacities of the people to safely receive information apart from ministerial influence. Lewis Patton argues in his introduction to The Watchman that ‘[i]t is true that [Coleridge] withheld much of his fire on such specific issues as the iniquities of the Two Acts; but so did the whole reform-party’.128 This may be true, but an endorsement (however qualified) of the Two Bills grounded in the distrust of the people’s capacity to reason was something more like a dousing than a withholding of ‘fire’. It is true, of course, that Coleridge had argued since the beginning of A Moral and Political Lecture (in content, if not always in form) for ‘cool and guarded’ language as a means for the regulation of illumination and the displacement of violence. But this was the first time that Coleridge supported anti-constitutional government intervention as a means for that regulation, or, in other words, legal regulation as a means of intellectual regulation. To appeal to the vagaries of drunkenness – metaphorical, we suppose, as well as literal – as a justification for this view represents a striking and suspiciously disingenuous capitulation.
The remainder of the first issue of The Watchman follows the format generally used by Coleridge throughout the remaining nine issues of his ‘miscellany’ and demonstrates the nature of his commitment to a central metarhetorical dictum: ‘I declare my intention of relating facts simply and nakedly, without epithets or comments’.129 A brief account of its contents will offer a useful example of his meandering writing and editorial practice and its relation to the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. He offers accounts of various motions in the legislature, in this case introducing his clearly anti-war stance by documenting the ministerial blockades to motions for peace and negotiation. This is followed by a debate on the Netherlands, indicating Coleridge’s interest in the wider implications of the war for Europe, and his poem ‘To a Young Lady, with a Poem on the French Revolution’. Coleridge then inserts a review of Burke’s ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, sections on foreign and domestic intelligence, some sections from Southey’s Joan of Arc, a humorous ‘Copy of a Hand-Bill’ condemning Pitt’s stance on the war and his vague and vacillating rhetoric,130 and a final section on the proceedings of the British legislature. What this variety demonstrates is Coleridge’s commitment to the value of diffusing information of various kinds throughout the countryside, and his ambitions as an editor to offer a mixture of the entertaining and the serious, the domestic and the foreign. The implication is that all forms of information, from turnips to treason, and all modes of conveying them, however disparate, are bound up with the nature of government, the state of the people, and the progress of enlightenment and reform. Information and opinion, divested as much as possible from the exhilarating but dangerous rhetoric and passion which could lead to violence, were to be Coleridge’s primary rhetorical instruments for political reform.
In the review of Burke’s ‘Letter’ in the first number of The Watchman, Coleridge complicates his metarhetorical dedication to ‘coolness’ by defending works against the false charge of being ‘mere declamation’, and he complains in a crucial critique of the affectation of clarity that ‘[w]hatever is dull and frigid is extolled as cool reasoning; and where, confessedly, nothing else is possessed, sound judgment is charitably attributed’.131 But this short defence of Burke from the attacks of ‘aristocratic’ reviews132 is meant merely to preface Coleridge’s own vigorous attack on him. This attack is effected through the careful use of the familiar figures of light corrupted by darkness, indicating a collapse of the moral and the stylistic significance of obscurity. ‘Alas!’ writes Coleridge, ‘we fear that this Sun of Genius is well nigh extinguished: a few bright spots linger on its orb, but scarcely larger or more numerous than the dark maculæ visible on it in the hour of its strength and effulgence’.133 Burke’s obsession threatens to spread through his rhetoric, like dark rays from a dark star, to his readers. Thus Coleridge quotes an especially inebriated passage from Burke’s ‘Letter’ and follows it by articulating the metarhetorical danger of becoming indistinguishable from one’s object of attack. Coleridge thus quotes Burke back at himself just as Priestley had done in his Letters to Burke:
[i]ndeed the phrenetic extravagance of the whole of this part of the Letter, “must make every reflecting mind, and every feeling heart, perfectly thought-sick”. In descanting on the excesses of the French, Mr. Burke has never chosen to examine what portion may be fairly attributed to the indignation and terror excited by the Combined Forces.134
Then, in a brutal but typical act of negative representation, Coleridge quotes Thomas Morgan’s 1726 description of disappointed men who ‘“draw clouds of darkness all around them, put themselves into a wild confusion, and scatter their indignation (the overflowings of a disturbed fancy) at random”’.135 At the end of the review Coleridge curses Burke to be ‘appointed under-porter to St. Peter, and be obliged to open the gate of Heaven to Brissot, Roland, Condorcet, Fayette, and Priestley’.136 In this opening number, Coleridge may have qualified some of his views regarding obscurity and the public, but his figures of clarity and obscurity remain consistent in their application to the eminent characters of the period, a commitment to reform, and a condemnation of the war and the ministerial policies that radicals blamed in part for the bloody outcome of the French Revolution.
The eighth number of The Watchman is particularly important in the development of Coleridge’s views on the French in relation to the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. One article condemns the behaviour of the ‘French Legislators’ in the recent Wickham-Barthélmy exchange (during which the French rebuffed a hard-won approach by the British for entering into preliminary discussions concerning potential peace negotiations). Later in the same number, Coleridge prints an account of yet another veil in the coffin of Liberty, this time in the form of the recent French acts limiting basic freedoms of speech.137 But it is not an endorsement of ministerial counterrevolutionary francophobic rhetoric designed to restrain the indeterminate people. Nor is it an attempt to distance himself from a charge of Jacobinism and prove his John-Bullism and to generate by opposition a determinate, emerging British nationalist identity. Rather, Coleridge’s criticism of French behaviour is simultaneously an endorsement of French democratic ideals. A version of this ‘third way’ approach is nicely summed up by Michael John Kooy in his article on ‘Coleridge’s Francophobia’, where Kooy mentions a ‘third’ critical view of English francophobia in the period which
helps to make sense of non-aligned figures such as Coleridge: people who saw themselves as conscientious objectors to both Jacobin ideology and French expansionism (and ended up virulent francophobes as a result) yet who had little sympathy for the vested interests of the ruling élite and little direct involvement in party politics. In other words, these were people for whom francophobia was not simply a reactionary measure… nor a special ploy to rouse nationalist feeling… but a way to organize and make credible certain key ideas about political structure, especially those concerning authority and representation.138
Though he does not deal with Coleridge’s early public work, focusing instead on his middle years, Kooy’s argument captures Coleridge’s concerns about the function of rhetoric in the representation of revolution. Coleridge begins his article on the ‘French Legislators’ by castigating the French for having failed to promote the principles of liberty represented by the 1789 revolution. As he had done earlier with his defence of superstition and his description of the function of the fourth type of the ‘Friends of Liberty’, Coleridge argues that the best way to spread one’s ideals was to realize them and thereby offer an example to the world. That he still believed in the possibility of realizing French ideals – or at least, that he felt it was still useful to present them as attainable – is demonstrated in the following rhetorical question: ‘[t]hat which in Theory has been ridiculed, must necessarily excite imitation, if realized: for why has it been ridiculed except that the despairing children of this world think it too excellent to be practicable?’139 There is a note of desperation in this plea, which Coleridge registers in the ensuing adaptation of a passage from Condorcet’s 1795 Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind:
[l]et us… be cautious not to despair of the human race. Let us dare to foresee in the ages that will succeed us, a knowledge and a happiness of which we can only form a vague and undetermined idea. Let us count on the perfectibility with which nature has endowed us.140
The obscurity and indeterminacy of the indefinitely delayed future represented here is no accident – Condorcet and the quoting Coleridge were both acknowledging the productive indeterminacy of the future and the inability to form a determinate conception of perfection from an imperfect state. This does involve an explicit acknowledgment of the difficulty of attaining the goal of the perfection of human cognition, but it also involves a strong optimism in spite of the evidences of the Terror and the war.
Coleridge offers a final extended discussion of the benefits of spreading clear knowledge and fact for the purpose of informing the people and effecting reform through a review of a recent work by his friend, the radical scientist and physician Thomas Beddoes. The review of the ‘Essay on the Public Merits of Mr. Pitt’ predictably associates Pitt with priests and other figures of corruption, and Coleridge, summarizing Beddoes, pointedly asks ‘whether priests would bestir themselves to diffuse that knowledge… which would make priests useless or innocuous’.141 Like Coleridge’s later concept of the clerisy, or its modern incarnation, the BBC, the guardians of culture must maintain a discourse of the people’s imperfection in order to justify their own improving function. The point of Beddoes and the ‘Watchman’ editor is that the government restricts information and deploys the various powers of obfuscation at its disposal in order to maintain the ignorance of the people, whose ignorance the government relies upon for its hold on power. One of these methods, of course, is the spread of misinformation: thus, quoting Beddoes, Coleridge observes that ‘“four journalists will do more towards maddening the people than four hundred prudent persons, privately uttering their honest sentiments towards keeping them within the bounds of reason”’.142
Another method of obfuscation is rhetorical ambiguity and misrepresentation, for which Pitt (at least among his opponents) was infamous. Beddoes does not hesitate to level against Pitt a criticism familiar from the controversy over Burke’s Reflections: ‘“[f]luency of elocution however does not appear to be more closely connected with wisdom than facility or elegance of composition”’.143 Perhaps somewhat mischievously, Coleridge follows this with his own criticism of Beddoes’ obscurity, or big words: ‘[t]he style of the Essay is excellent. That is a perfect style in which we think always of the matter, and never of the manner. To this praise Dr. Beddoes would be entitled, did not his words too often send common readers to their dictionary’.144 This may appear to be a strange criticism from Coleridge (who so often coined words for which a dictionary would have been useless), but it is important to note that it is generally consistent with the relatively plain language (and the apparent desire for a transparent style) characteristic of Coleridge’s asyncretic adoption of the rhetoric of clarity in his early lectures, pamphlets, and The Watchman.145
Having already decided to abandon the enterprise, there was less original material from Coleridge in the tenth and final number of The Watchman than in any other, but his selections are still significant. In an excerpt from his ‘Postscript to his Defence of the Bill of Rights against Gagging Bills’ of 1795, Beddoes (and by extension perhaps Coleridge the Editor) answers the question that dogged rhetorical debate throughout the eighteenth century and came to a head in the war over rhetoric and representation in the 1790s: how can one tell the difference between an honest orator and a dishonest, manipulative one?
If after a fine flowing speech, the hearers feel black revengeful thoughts boiling in their bosom; if at what he says, they be ready to start away in order to tear, burn, and destroy, be assured the speaker only wants to set neighbour to worry neighbour, as if they were so many tygers, instead of Christians. Now whenever men turn tygers, they may devour for a while, but at last they will surely be destroyed themselves.146
So, at last, it appears that the form of radicalism offered by Coleridge endorsed the people’s passivity over action, through a fear of destructive violence. It is a sign of the anxiety over the communicator’s ability to unleash the destructive power of the masses that Beddoes – and Coleridge – did not at this point consider the equally dangerous figure of the poetic, smooth-tongued orator who lulls his unsuspecting audience to sleep, and makes lambs of them.
The ‘Address to the Readers of the Watchman’ with which Coleridge concludes his doomed miscellany serves as a fitting end to a chapter on the unresolved contradictions and conflations of the rhetoric of clarity and obscurity in his early public speaking and publishing. It is in this address that Coleridge makes an infamous – and misleading – promise: ‘[h]enceforward I shall cease to cry the State of the political Atmosphere’.147 The ostensible reason for this form of withdrawal from public political life was not, as it was for many other radicals, a consequence of the dangers of persecution. Or at least Coleridge would not admit his fears here, for he stated that ‘[t]he reason is short and satisfactory – the Work does not pay its expences’.148 It is tempting to read this phrase metaphorically, as an admission that his readers have not paid him back with an intellectual labour equivalent to that which he himself invested, but the meaning at the time was pitifully literal, as Coleridge was floundering financially, and subscriptions for the paper were falling off, or failing to be honoured with proper payments. But there was still some fight left in him, and Coleridge defends himself against the attacks of his subscribers, some of whom apparently wanted only a miscellany of bare facts, by citing the example of the Cambridge Intelligencer. The Intelligencer had been one of the first papers to publish Coleridge’s work, and offered an example of a publication which Coleridge wanted to compare to The Watchman and which had managed to be successful. It was
a Newspaper, the style and composition of which would claim distinguished praise, even among the productions of literary leisure; while it breathes every where the severest morality, fighting fearlessly the good fight against Tyranny, yet never unfaithful to that Religion, “whose service is perfect Freedom”.149
The desire to effect a mixture of literature as entertainment – significantly referred to here as ‘leisure’ – with the difficult labour of the intellect was not forgotten by Coleridge, and remained an essential element in his consideration of how to provide a productive exchange of communication with the public in later years. To provide easy work for the reader potentially involved a great investment of labour on the part of the author.
More important at this point, however, is the fact that the ‘Religion’ to which Coleridge, the Unitarian divine and radical public lecturer and pamphleteer, is referring in this quote is that of the Anglican Church: the line ‘whose service is perfect freedom’ is from the ‘Collect for Peace’ in the Book of Common Prayer.150 Fittingly, Coleridge followed this association of liberty with the Church by invoking the figures of the ‘Patriot and the Philanthropist’ in his endorsement of the Monthly Magazine, which he hoped would continue to teach ‘RATIONAL LIBERTY, [and prepare] it’s [sic] readers for the enjoyment of it, strengthening the intellect by SCIENCE, and softening our affections by the GRACES’. The self-criticism with which Coleridge famously and rather vainly concludes The Watchman – ‘“O Watchman! thou hast watched in vain”’151 – signals a note of despair, not only over his financial worries, but also over the increasing contradictions he encountered in his attempts to reconcile the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. ‘The Two Bills succeeded in suppressing the reform movement, and there were no more mass meetings after December 1795’,152 and The Watchman was launched at the beginning of the decline of the Reflections-inspired politics and rhetoric of clarity. Perhaps it is no surprise that Coleridge would by the end of the year retire to Nether Stowey in order to watch the world and his friends from a metarhetorically figured position of relative obscurity.
In his early political prose, Coleridge’s attempts to contain both the representation of his own character and the information of his recipients through rhetorical regulation and a related metarhetorical reflexivity became increasingly unsustainable. His attempt to maintain a Christianised, anti-sensual science involved the construction of an elaborate history which inversively represented the connections between religious, political, and scientific obscurity, but it ultimately involved him in an endorsement of mystery which obviated his attempt to endorse an uncorrupted rhetoric of clarity. Furthermore, his attempt to proclaim the possibility of human perfection was undermined by a conservative, Burkean acknowledgment of difference which established a hermeneutic hierarchy in ‘the public’, and the division of ‘the people’ into various irreconcilable types. And any vestiges of utopian optimism regarding the attainment of universal perfection were qualified by his increasing conviction that a fallen humanity could only approach perfection, not reach it, and that the delay invoked in qualifications of perfectibilitarian optimism was permanent.
The failure of The Watchman here represents decline of Coleridge’s early optimistic politics, the result of irresolvable contradictions between and internal to the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity that dominated the metarhetorical tracts of political controversy which I have previously discussed. This failure involved a metaphorical relation between economies of financial and intellectual exchange which were underwritten by a complex concept of the mutual labour involved in the transfer of information and in transformative in-formation, and convinced Coleridge not that he had failed, but that the public had failed him. The powers of superiority and entertainment lost by an author who eschewed the sublimity of obscurity for the power of clarity ultimately entailed a loss of power over the inherently indeterminate recipient, the shadowy public. Finally, the problem of questionable indeterminacy in relation to the divine or demonic origin of the author’s voice or authority remained unresolved, and the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity became, in the work of Coleridge, indistinguishable. As a consequence, clarity could no longer be metarhetorically proclaimed as an incarnation of wisdom, and attic brevity no guarantee of justice.
But the crucial insight which made this movement in Coleridge’s work ‘Romantic’ was an awareness of this indistinguishability as a problem. The simultaneous emergence of Coleridge as a public figure for obscurity and the obscurity of the ‘public’ required personal and political determination. This awareness ultimately revealed itself in the anxieties of the recursive slippery slope of reflexive metarhetorical introductions which hopelessly attempted to establish the character of the author, the reader, the text, and the text’s subject, and thereby the origins of clarity and obscurity. In the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity which emerged from the conflict of clarity and obscurity in the 1790s, the communicator’s awareness of the recipient’s inevitable subjection to manipulation required an explicit, and an explicitly mutual, engagement in intellectual labour. The communicator’s awareness of the inevitable indeterminacy of his voice required that he at once evoke and earn the right to this labour through a display of his own laboriousness in order to give his work a clear shape. The responsibility for obscurity rested with the reader, while the responsibility of obscurity settled on the author.
1It should be noted that Jim Mays has argued in PW that Coleridge’s first published poem was ‘The Abode of Love’. ‘The poem is not certainly by [Coleridge]’, writes Mays, ‘though it appeared over his initials in two newspapers [The World and the Cambridge Chronicle] during Jul 1790’ (1.28).↩
2Paul Magnuson, Reading Public Romanticism, 70.↩
3John R. Nabholtz, ‘Romantic Prose and Classical Rhetoric’, in Rhetorical Traditions,** 67-68.↩
4Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics, and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1998), 2. The perception of the instability of the public and public opinion was also influenced by the instability of ‘the public’ itself as a concept. As Barker notes, ‘it is … difficult to pin down definitions for “the people”, “the public”, and “public opinion” within existing historiography’ (Barker, 3). Attempts to rouse a particular nationalist consciousness or consensus were at once attempts to create nationalist consciousness and consensus. For a more politicised account of the importance of the changes in newspaper publishing in Britain at this time, see H. T. Dickinson, British Radicalism and the French Revolution 1789-1815 (Oxford, 1985]: or Michael Scrievener (ed.),** Poetry and Reform: Periodical Verse from the English Democratic Press (Detroit, 1992).↩
5Clifford Siskin, The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (Oxford, 1988), 79.↩
6In his compendious study of the press in this period, Arthur Aspinall has observed that ‘[c]offee-houses in the towns, public-houses in town and village, and gin-shops were, together, more important agencies for the dissemination of newspaper information than either public meetings or Radical Reformist Societies’. Consequently, ‘[t]he Anti-Jacobin Review described ale-houses as “receptacles of vice”, where “diabolical” Jacobinical prints which promoted discontent and disobedience were taken in for the benefit of their customers’. Arthur Aspinall, Politics and the Press (London, 1949), 27, 11.↩
7Barker, 14. The unofficial right to publish parliamentary debates was won in 1771. See Barker, 36↩
8Michael Scrivener, Poetry and Reform: Periodical Verse from the English Democratic Press (Detroit, 1992), 21.↩
11Lowth, ‘Visitation Sermon at Durham, 1758’, inSermons, 91.↩
13Peter J. Kitson, ‘Political thinker’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, ed. Lucy Newlyn (Cambridge, 2002), 158.↩
14William Frend, Peace and Union 1793 (Oxford, 1991), 43.↩
16Jon P. Klancher, The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 (London, 1987), 155.↩
17Kelvin Everest, ‘Coleridge’s life’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, ed. Lucy Newlyn (Cambridge, 2002), 19.↩
18John Morrow, Coleridge’s Political Thought (London, 1990), 2.↩
19Kelvin Everest, ‘Coleridge’s life’, 21.↩
20Kenneth R. Johnston, ‘The Political Sciences of Life: From American Pantisocracy to British Romanticism’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life, ed. Nicholas Roe (Oxford, 2001), 52. In opposition to common claims about the potential escapism of the plan, Johnston has argued that ‘[i]f Pantisocracy was an escape, it was an escape from something real and dangerous: the effectiveness of Pitt’s and Portland’s systematic crackdown against domestic dissent was by 1797 just about complete’ (59).↩
21The story of Coleridge’s Pantisocracy has been discussed at length by numerous scholars and does not require detailed analysis here. In addition to the usual biographical accounts, one can find a discussion of the complications of the scheme in relation to labour, indeterminacy, and Coleridge’s radical decline in Nigel Leask, ‘Pantisocracy and the politics of the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads”; in Alison Yarrington and Kelvin Everest (eds.). Reflections of Revolution (London and New York, 1993), 39-58; Daniel S. Malachuk, “Labor, Leisure, and the Yeoman in Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s 1790s Writings”, RON August 2002; Morrow, Coleridge’s Political Thought; and Roe, The Radical Years.↩
22David Vallins, Coleridge and the Psychology of Romanticism (Basingstoke and New York, 1999), 103. On the same page, Vallins neatly sums up a ‘syncretic’ account of the philosophical influences invoked in Coleridge’s rhetoric of clarity: ‘Coleridge’s early response to the empirically-based psychological, religious, and political thought of mid- to late-eighteenth-century British philosophers, therefore, seems to be a prime example of the syncretic method which several critics have discovered in his work. Its governing principle… is a consistent pursuit of grounds for optimism, and specifically for belief in the necessary and unlimited progression of human beings towards freedom, happiness, and virtue. Broadly speaking, Hartley provides the materialist basis for this “necessitarianism”, claiming to discover physical and scientific grounds for a Neoplatonic conception of humankind’s ascent towards the deity. Priestley… separates Hartley’s theology from his psychology…. Godwin… combines an interest in humankind’s ascent above a merely physical existence with an emphasis on the practical forms of liberation to be derived from our increasing rationality’.↩
23This ability is alternatively represented as either equivocation, confusion, or a positive desire to organize ‘antitheses into an inconsequential simultaneity, rather than a dialectical succession’. See Perry, Division, 25.↩
28Though the radical power of fact itself became a persuasive figure associated with clarity, and the rhetoric of obscurity responded with a positive valuation of persuasion by any means, the two rhetorics ultimately became indistinguishable in their rhetorical attempts to persuade readers to action (or inaction). Kevin Gilmartin has discussed the emergence in the early nineteenth century of a ‘radical rhetoric of fact’ in which ‘[d]ispassionate description gathered the explosive energy of sedition and blasphemy’ in the form of encyclopedias such as the Red Book (Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England [Cambridge, 1996] 153, 147). Likewise, in a discussion of the political climate in Britain around 1819, Peter Holt and Malcolm Thomis argue that [w]hat was political information and education for the radicals was sedition and blasphemy to the authorities’ (Peter Holt and Malcolm Thomis, Threats of Revolution in Britain 1789-1848 [London, 1977], 68). But the origin of this radical interest in fact and information was clearly central to writers in the mid-1790s. Gilmartin’s claim that ‘[e]ffective political opposition might prefer a rhetoric of transparent description, but it could not avoid a riot of figures… when it actually described the enemy’ (ibid. 63), as my first two chapters have shown, applies clearly to an important and self-conscious tension in the writings of Thelwall and Wollstonecraft and, in its attempt to appropriate unto itself the privileged language of clarity, was central to the radical critique of Burke. For Coleridge in particular, I argue, the problem became not what clear communication was as such, but how to make it possible. In his work the concept of information was expanded beyond being a mere object to being an act, and it was an act of exchange between communicator and recipient which could involve mutation or corruption of ideas and facts, and involved in addition an economic schema of the mutual exchange of labour. Thus his anxieties about his public’s intellectual capacity and his desire to mould it meant that ‘information’ implied not only the ‘communication of the knowledge or “news” of some fact or occurrence’, but also the ‘action of informing… [the] formation or moulding of the mind or character’ (OED). The problematic Romantic resolution of the contradictions in and between the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity was related to the insight of what I have called ‘ Romantic information’, that the ability (and authority) to communicate even ‘plain facts’ came with a heavy burden of responsibility, and that there was no such thing as mere data. But by the early 1790s, this optimism for a perfect form of rational communication was called into question along with ambitious concepts of the potential for the perfection of human knowledge and reason. With the spread of ‘plain speaking’ radical texts and encyclopedias and the simultaneous spread of popular dissent, the danger accorded to the communication of passion in traditional philosophies of rhetoric was transferred to the communication of bare fact or information.↩
29Lects 1795, 19.↩
30Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries, 89.↩
32Lects 1795, 6.↩
36Ibid. 8, 7. See William Godwin, Caleb Williams, in The Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, vol. 3, ed. Patricia Clemit (London, 1992). Coleridge makes a similarly politicised division of ‘Sorts of Readers’ in On the Constitution of Church and State (65]: where he divides them into ‘Spunges’, ‘Sand Glasses’, ‘Straining Bags’, and ‘Great-Mogul Diamond Sieves’, perhaps echoing Swift’s division of readers into the ‘Superficial, the Ignorant, and the Learned’ (Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub: With Other Early Works 1696-1707, ed. Herbert Davis [Oxford, 1939], 117.↩
37Lects 1795, 8. It should be noted that Coleridge consistently excludes women from his descriptions of the ranks of the politically active. The prioritisation of the masculine as the representative political agent was of course quite conventional at the time, though it was attacked by Wollstonecraft and others, and it was grounded in a coherent discourse of feminised sensibility according to which the feminine acted as a figure for the irrational. To restrict one’s information to the masculine was therefore to signify one’s attempt to restrict the potentially dangerous influence of misinformation by an uncontrollable feminine force.↩
39‘This Oscillation of political Opinion, while it retards the Day of Revolution, may operate as a preventative to its Excesses’ (ibid. 9).↩
40Jon Mee has throughout his work on the nature of ‘enthusiasm’ discussed the medical figures and has remarked on Coleridge’s tendency to divide recipients into different identities in the 1790s that ‘Coleridge’s career as a poet was forged in the midst of this very struggle to differentiate rational self-sufficiency both political and spiritual from its pathological alter egos’. Jon Mee, ‘Mopping Up Spilt Religion’ RoN 25 (February 2002).↩
41Lects 1795, 9.↩
47Ibid. 12. ↩
49Ibid. 12. The same idea lies behind Wordsworth’s famous support for the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’ in poetry: contrary to most claims about this famous endorsement, Wordsworth was arguing in the 1802 preface to the Lyrical Ballads that the poet, like Coleridge’s Patriot, should cultivate his emotional movements and affinities in order to reach a point at which they might be trusted to be grounded in, essentially, fixed principles. See LB, 246-7.↩
50Lects 1795, 13.↩
51Anonymous review of A Moral and Political Lecture, The Critical Review, NS 13 (April 1795), 455, quoted in Jackson, 24.↩
52Lects 1795, 22.↩
54Ibid.* *25 n.↩
56Ibid. 30. ↩
57Ibid.** 31, my emphasis.↩
58For a description of the economic circumstances surrounding the availability of food in 1795 see ibid. 29 n.↩
61Coleridge’s point is that a group should not ‘attribute to the system which they reject, all the evils existing under it’; rather, they should also take into account ‘the natures, circumstances, and capacities’ of the ‘recipients’ of ‘constitutions and dispensations’ (ibid. 37). Deirdre Coleman has identified this ultimately derogatory reference to the ‘capacities of their recipients’ as a Burkean tactic of intimidation. See Deirdre Coleman, Coleridge and The Friend (1809-1810) (Oxford, 1998), 122.↩
62Lects 1795, 34.↩
66Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm, 192.↩
67Lects 1795,** 43. ↩
69Ibid. 43. ↩
71Godwin, Political Justice, 2 vols.** (London, 1793), 1.310.↩
72Lects 1795, 52↩
78Ibid. 56-7, 59.↩
81Ibid. 60. The reference is to the wizards in Isaiah 8:19.↩
84In a footnote, the editors of Lects 1795 colourfully state that the ‘bishops, it was thought, tended first to look after their stocks and then their flocks’ (67 n).↩
85Ibid. 67 n.↩
86Ibid. 67 n, 68 n.↩
87Lects 1795, 286.↩
88Ibid. 74. For a brief discussion of the publication and reception of The Plot Discovered see ibid. 278-9.↩
90The Six Lectures on Revealed Religion its’ Corruptions and Political Views *were designed to demonstrate the current and historical function of religion in the pursuit of political reform and personal enlightenment, and the consistently negative function of obscurity in them demonstrates the strength of Coleridge’s complicated theological and scientific appropriation of the rhetoric of clarity at this time. In the ‘superstition allegory’ Coleridge equally associates materialist atheism and the dark, Gnostic corruptions of Christianity in the churches of England and Rome (and Trinitarianism more generally) with the development of an obfuscating, esoteric hermeneutical hierarchy (ibid. 207). The negative image of priests as ‘black’ (ibid. 90]: echoes William Frend’s negative reference to the Church’s ‘men in black’ and invokes a common association of superstition with blackness. It also recalls Burke’s curious discussion of the colour of a black woman causing pain (Frend, 27; Paulson, 358; and Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 295). Coleridge also introduces the figures of aids to perception which are negative when they are misleading, but positive when they are associated with divine assistance to our fallen, human vision or intellect. Benjamin Brice nicely captures the Calvinist association of such imagery: ‘[a]ccording to Calvin, the analogical “likeness” of God (imago Dei), indelibly engraved on our pre-lapsarian reasoning faculties, has been almost entirely vitiated by sin. Human beings are so *blinded by sin, Calvin argued, that they are incapable of ascending to Knowledge of God through the contemplation of the natural world. The visible universe – the “mirror” of God’s Glory – has therefore become darkened and distorted in our fallen perception of it, and without the corrective “spectacles” of a Biblical faith, we are completely unable to recognise the workmanship of God in the natural world’ (Benjamin Brice, Analogy, Disanology and the Coleridgean Symbol: Some Philosophical and Theological Contexts for Coleridge’s Theory of Symbolism, D.Phil Thesis [Oxford, 2003], 13). Interestingly, in the figurative schema of the Lectures, clarity is light while obscurity is heavy in the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity which associates labour with truth. Finally, Coleridge introduces his favourite ‘Fable of the Madning Rain’ (ibid. 215), which figures as a sort of nightmare of enlightenment, in which the practicalities of the indistinguishability of an obscure communicator’s divine or demonic inspiration result in his being ostracised by his own community.↩
91In Burke and the Fall of Language, Steven Blakemore offers a lengthy analysis of the tensions arising out of the fact that Britain had no written constitution, and hence no determinate target for radical attack. The charge that Britain lacked a constitution was contested by Burke and others, who claimed that a text was unnecessary for the existence of a viable constitution, which ought to be founded on a history and tradition upheld by figures of hereditary authority. In The Plot Discovered, Coleridge argues that even if the constitution is unwritten it must in order to be just be clear and accessible, somehow, to all: ‘a Constitution, if it mean any thing, signifies certain known Laws, which limit the expectations of the people and the discretionary powers of the legislature’ (Lects 1795, 300). Without a clear, limited constitution, there only existed ‘that scheme of cruelty and imposture, which the ministry chuse to call our Constitution’ (313).↩
92The Morning Post ‘printed the entire Treason Bill with heavy black borders on 9 Nov, the Convention Bill the same way on 14 Nov’ (Lects 1795,** 286 n).↩
93Ibid. 286. James McKusick notes that in an article for the Morning Post of 22 January 1800, Coleridge again attacked Grenville’s obscurity, pointing out that Coleridge’s argument is that Grenville ‘does not seem to realize that an erosion of ethical values occurs whenever language is used to obscure rather than to reveal the truth’ (McKusick, 92). In the article Coleridge writes that ‘[w]e think in words, and reason by words’ (EOT 1.114).↩
94Lects 288. Marcus Wood has discussed obscurity in relation to the law at length in relation to the 17th-century trial of John Lilburne and the 19th-century trial of William Hone. Lilburne attacked the obscurity of the law, invoking Lockean and Hobbeseian arguments concerning the relationship between obscurity and unjust authority (see Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture 1790-1822 [Oxford, 1994], 125). Olivia Smith writes of the same two trials that ‘[b]oth [Lilburne and Hone] state that their trials are unjust because the obscurity of the law encourages tyranny and because Parliament was publicly supporting the prosecution’ (Smith, 196-97). Magnuson follows up the political implications for the use of obscurity in literature by defending Coleridge against Hazlitt’s charge about the “convenient latitude of interpretation” in the Biographia, commenting that ‘[i]t is common for those who try to maintain opposition in times of oppression to speak a type of double talk’ (Magnuson, 94; the Hazlitt quotation is from Hazlitt, Review of Biographia Literaria, Edinburgh Review (Aug 1817), quoted in Jackson, 309).↩
95Lects 1795, 314.↩
97Victoria Myers, ‘The Other Fraud: Coleridge’s The Plot Discovered and the Rhetoric of Political Discourse’, Romanticism, Radicalism and the Press, ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (Detroit, 1997), 66. ↩
98Lects 1795,** 296.↩
99Coleridge had articulated his belief in the importance of public opinion in Conciones: ‘[t]he system [the Terror] depended for its existence on the general sense of its necessity, and when it had answered its end, it was soon destroyed by the same power that had given it birth – popular opinion. It must not however be disguised, that at all times, but more especially when the public feelings are wavy and tumultuous, artful Demagogues may create this opinion’ (ibid. 36).↩
100Ibid. 312-13. The term ‘winged’ invokes Horne Tooke’s Diversions of Purley.↩
101Lects 1795, 313.↩
105Lects 1795, 47.↩
106The story of the rise and fall of The Watchman, which was originally conceived as a fundraising project for the proposed community of Pantisocrats, has been narrated extensively by various editors, biographers, and critics. By this time Coleridge had achieved a ‘stature… comparable to – and certainly not less than – that of leading figures of metropolitan radicalism’ (Roe, 117), but his attempt to create a provincial paper that would cross metropolitan and local interests was fraught with problems typical for such papers at the time (for an account of this commercial and cultural publishing environment see Barker, 4-8, 97, 111, and of course the introduction to the Collected Coleridge edition). Interestingly, Coleridge’s project echoes Wordsworth’s plan in 1794 to create The Philanthropist a Monthly Miscellany. As Stephen Gill writes of the project in his biography of Wordsworth, ‘Mankind walked in darkness, but Wordsworth declares, “I would put into each man’s hand a lantern to guide him”. The Philanthropist was to be such a lantern’ (Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life [Oxford and New York, 1989], 86).↩
108Ibid. lviii. To take Coleridge’s announcements of his intention at face value in this way is to underestimate the importance (political and otherwise) attached to metarhetorical posturing, especially the complicated manner in which it signalled political allegiances. Deirdre Coleman nicely captures this problem in her article on Coleridge as a journalist: ‘[a]t a time when choice of style and register were read as indicators of political allegiance – take, for example, the contrast between Tom Paine’s plainness and Edmund Burke’s ornateness – Coleridge gave off a mixed message’ (Coleman, ‘The journalist’, in The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, 135).↩
109Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 78.↩
110Watchman, 4. Marcus Wood has pointed out, humorously but somewhat unfairly, that Coleridge promoted the advantage of having no advertisements ‘ironically in a handbill advertisement for his journal The Watchman’ (Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture 1790-1822 [Oxford, 1994], 160). In fact, Coleridge’s argument was that ‘[t]here being no advertisement, a greater quantity of original matter must be given’ (Watchman, 5). A handbill which is separate from the publication itself therefore represents no contradiction on Coleridge’s part.↩
113Ibid. 4-5. The quotation is from Edward Young, ‘A Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job’, 187 (var).↩
118Barker, 125, 126.↩
130The handbill is said to have been ‘[d]one at the Office of MR JOHN BULL’S Chief Decypherer, Turnagain-lane, Cirumbendibus-street, Obscurity-square’ (ibid.** 48).↩
133Ibid. 31. Patton identifies the phrase ‘Sun of Genius’ as a reference to Coleridge’s sonnet to Burke of 9 Dec 1794 (which I discuss in my fifth chapter), in which Coleridge described him as a ‘Great Son of Genius’ (ibid. 31 n). There is also an echo here of Longinus’ comment about Homer as a sinking sun.↩
134Ibid. 33. Coleridge is quoting from Burke’s ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’.↩
135Watchman, 35. Coleridge wrongly identifies Morgan as Toland, and varies the grammar of the original passage. See Thomas Morgan, A Collection of Tracts (London, 1726), 44.↩
138Michael John Kooy, ‘Coleridge’s Francophobia’, The Modern Language Review, 95:4 (October 2000), 928.↩
145Note, for example, his inclusion of an excerpt from the physician Anthony Fothergill’s 1796 An Essay on the Abuse of Spiritous Liquors (Bath, 1796]: in the final number of The Watchman. In one sense, like Beddoes’ postscript, it serves to bookend The Watchman with a discussion (always partially figurative) of the dangers of inebriation, but the only truly interesting line in the entire excerpt is Fothergill’s own version of the mission statement: ‘“[m]y aim has been to render the language sufficiently intelligible to ordinary capacities, without disgusting the more enlightened readers by vulgarity of style”’ (Watchman,** 346). ↩
150Ibid. 374 n.↩
152Roe, 155. It was indeed a ‘dark’ time for the radicals, as Jon Klancher remarks in a discussion of Godwin (while invoking Godwin’s own figures), who had become a ‘skeptical, sophistical, dark [imaginer]… brooding in the year of the Gagging Acts over a darkening cloud of reaction, the thinning circles of radical intellectuals, and modernity’s betrayal of high purposes’ (Jon Klancher, ‘Godwin and the genre reformers: on necessity and contingency in romantic narrative theory’, in Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre, eds. Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright [Cambridge, 1998], 31). Godwin’s later, more guarded and qualified belief in the possibility of universal enlightenment through a rhetoric of clarity demonstrates his proximity to Coleridge’s own loss of optimism: as Guy Handwerk remarks, ‘Godwin’s demonstration of how hard it can be for truth, even when clearly perceived, to penetrate the mind puts enormous pressure on many of the assumptions in Political Justice’ (Guy Handwerk, ‘History, trauma, and the limits of the liberal imagination: William Godwin’s historical fiction’, in Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre, eds. Tilottama Rajan and Julia M. Wright [Cambridge, 1998], 69).↩