The Rhetoric of Clarity

The Rhetoric of Clarity
The Rhetoric of Clarity
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The New Rhetoric of Clarity

The light can be a curtain as well as the darkness.

George Eliot, Romola, 346.

And whatever is feeble is always plausible: for it favors mental indolence…. It flatters the Reader, by removing the apprehended distance between him and the superior Author.

Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 410.

Late eighteenth-century radical writers in Britain shared a politically motivated resistance to the rhetoric of obscurity that originated in the new rhetoric and manifested itself most dramatically in response to Burke and his Reflections. Perceiving the necessity of rapid, effective communication and education for generating social and political reform, they developed a rhetoric of clarity contradistinguished from the Burkean rhetoric of obscurity, which they inversively represented as an instrument for the perpetuation of tyranny and oppression. As Tom Paulin has argued, the relationship of rhetorical interest to political interest was of the utmost importance in revolutionary reflections on the Reflections: ‘[t]he question of style, not simply content, clearly exercised the reformers who challenged Burke, and this was because they belonged to a culture which set a high valuation on prose style. It was therefore important to attack not just what Burke said, but how he said it’.1 Through the productive dissemination of revolutionary thought, the new rhetoricians of clarity thus sought to do in politics what the Royal Society had tried to do for the language of science. An original member of the Society, Robert Hooke, wrote in 1963, the year of the Society’s ‘second and definitive charter of incorporation’, that ‘[t]he business and design of the Royal Society is — To improve the knowledge of naturall things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanick practises, Engynes and Inventions by Experiments — (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick)’.2 But, as Howell rightly claims, this parenthetical clause ‘was at odds with what happened’, since the statues of the Royal Society asserted that

in all scientific reports made by members of the Society, “the matter of fact shall be barely stated, without any prefaces, apologies, or rhetorical flourishes….” This particular kind of meddling… was so far-reaching as to rule out of scientific exposition all rhetorical styles except that of plainness, and the new rhetoric was to respond accordingly as time went on.3

For the radicals who published in the Reflections controversy in the early 1790s, however, the ‘meddling’ influence of this self-conscious, artificial constitution of clarity involved not only the expansion of the scientific rhetoric of clarity to include all forms of discourse, but also the metarhetorical rejection of suspicious forms of figurative information from the realm of legitimate progressive discourse.

Crucially, though Howell does not note this change (in accordance with his general eschewal of directly political interests in rhetorical theory), the institutional constitution of clarity was expanded to include political discourse and a radical politics of rhetoric. Thus radical writers in the 1790s sought to reform systems of classical education and institutionalized political communication (which generally endorsed the rhetoric of obscurity) as instruments for restricting the dissemination of knowledge and hindering constitutional progress.4 One significant element of this rhetoric of clarity was the tradition of writing politicised grammars (instituted by Lowth’s Short Introduction in 1762) which acted as ‘a major factor in a huge liberalizing movement in which [such grammars] inculcated the adoption of English in all its traditional, Northern integrity and [which] rejected Classical models’.5 An apposite example of radical participation in this movement is Horne Tooke’s ΕΠΕΑ ΠΤΕΡΟΕΝΤΕΑ, or The Diversions of Purley, in which Tooke attacks traditional theories of the correspondence between words and things according to which ‘[a]ll things… must have names’, and notes ominously that ‘[f]rom this moment Grammar quits the day-light; and plunges into an abyss of utter darkness’.6 For prominent members of the new rhetoric of clarity, which included Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Thelwall, the development of a revolutionary rhetoric was related to a metarhetorical representation of successful public influence in published communication (the aim of Tooke’s ‘winged words’, after all, was not merely communication but communication ‘with dispatch’). As Lisa Plummer Crafton states, ‘[a]s they both [Price and Blake] take up the mantle of the prophetic orator, it is not surprising that both use rhetoric about language itself as a component of their own revolutionary discourse’.7 For those participating in the new rhetoric of clarity, ‘[t]he regulation and production of speech was to be as necessary to the well-being of a harmonious and productive community as the legislating of fundamental human freedoms’.8 Consequently, the rhetoric of clarity involves not only the act of writing and speaking with clarity, but also explicit investigations about the nature of a theorised and politicised clarity.

These writers appropriated figures of clarity and obscurity in variously motivated ways, and it is in the study of their individual figurations of clarity and obscurity that their ideological differences and similarities may be best distinguished, signifying a conscious reconception of and challenge to influential political and religious systems which themselves made use of these figures through the rhetoric of obscurity. Thus the overdetermined figures of darkness and mist, long associated with evil, limitation, sublimity and the grandeur of God, and the imagery of light and the sun, associated also with God and with transcendent forms of knowledge, were employed subversively by the rhetoricians of clarity, effecting a threefold transvaluation of traditional normative associations with these figures in Western religious and philosophical history. According to Crafton, it was not just ‘words like “freedom” and “nation” and “the people” [that] had to be redefined, for it was the traditional definition of such terms that allowed maintenance of the status quo and preservation of prevailing social systems’.9 Likewise, Jon Mee argues that ‘the well-established idea of there being a “debate” over the French Revolution is misleading, especially in 1792, if it neglects the extent to which there was a struggle over words and images in which radicals defined their positions by undercutting the authority of the traditional rituals and symbols of politics’.10 That the revolution controversy was crucially informed and determined by theories and forms of language which metarhetorically exploited inversion and transvaluation is a point well established in critical and historical literature.11 Therefore, my focus in this chapter will be on the particular nature of the battle of reciprocal figuration between the new rhetorics of clarity and obscurity, and their ultimate approximation as the optimism of the rhetoric of clarity collapsed under internal and external pressures. This battle of reciprocal figuration involved a similar attempt by both rhetorics to exploit metarhetorical techniques which ultimately rendered their relation to speech and virtue indistinguishable. Though Burkean rhetoric invokes a ‘positive’ functional obscurity that was explicitly denounced by the radicals, it nonetheless represents ‘a deliberate alternative to the Puritan (and English Ramist) commitment to plain speaking; or, more exactly, it claims a different kind of plain speaking, one affiliated with skeptical self-fashioning and nuanced reflection rather than with propositional self-confidence’.12 In other words, ‘[e]ach faction tried to have the debate on its own terms’, but the process of reciprocal figuration ultimately meant that the debate took place on both sides in the same terms.13

Before I proceed to my consideration of the reaction to Burke in detail, I will broadly sketch the three important trends of transvaluation in the new rhetoric of clarity. The first is based on a practical interest in the dissemination of knowledge and the capacity for scientific/empirical enquiry. The propagation of information through the creation of corresponding or debating societies, the pulpit, or through affordable books or cheap pamphlets was typically represented as the spread of reason and knowledge, figured alternately as sunlight, or the sun itself. A dominant figure associated the printing press with the sun: ‘where the press is free, the people may be sometimes misled, but can never be enslaved. It is the Sun which Illuminates the Human Mind, and dispels the dark clouds of ignorance and error’.14 Marcus Wood has considered the historical significance of this figure in relation to the printing press as a conflation of the sun and the eye in Romantic and pre-Romantic textual and visual culture: ‘[t]he image [of the printing press] had been used on the title-pages of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books as a manifestation of the enlightening capacity of a free press’.15 Fittingly, the spread of correct information was figured as the diffusion or the dissemination of light. Such associations were hardly new, but it is the positive association of light and the sun with knowledge that has revolutionary political content (related specifically to principles associated with the French Revolution) which made these deceptively standard tropes radical. This is more evident, perhaps, in the use of the Promethean imagery of firelight, and of spreading fire or energy, to signify not the dissemination of knowledge, but of a radical passion or enthusiasm for reform which had an at best problematic relation to the usually dispassionate ‘reason’.

Aware, however, that in order to effect social and political change people must not only be persuaded by radical politics - a slow process without guarantees - but must also be moved to act, Priestley, Paine, Wollstonecraft and Thelwall endorsed the careful use of figures such as metaphor and other modes of what were classically considered ‘ornamentation’. Though they might obscure the content of the text, such figures might nonetheless serve to increase clarity by keeping the reader’s mind occupied and entertained in the midst of the exercise or labour involved in reading clear though difficult works. In this manner the traditional danger of the figurative (associated in rhetoric with the communication of potentially uncontainable and pre-rational passion rather than ‘information’) was justified as a rhetorical device. It was justified, that is, as a qualified and morally sanctioned ‘entertainment’ which acted as a balance to the potential for a counterproductive laborious excess within a radical work ethic which otherwise represented leisure and ornamentation as forms of aristocratic decadence and veiling. Thus the radical reactions to Burke, critical as they are of his flowery bombast and overblown rhetoric, themselves often ‘suffer from the same faults’16 as the rhetoric they explicitly attacked but implicitly adopted. The decline of radical optimism is related to the adoption of Burkean rhetoric, and the conflation of the rhetoric of clarity and obscurity which characterises the historical formation of the Romantic rhetoric of obscurity.

The second radical transvaluation concerns the positive association of the figures of clarity with the political goals of the radicals and the revolutionaries. Figures of illumination and enlightenment are constantly used to signify the promotion of egalitarian and scientific principles, while obscurity carries a normatively negative charge and is associated with institutions or individuals which traditionally set restrictive and class-based, hierarchical boundaries to knowledge or, epistemologically speaking, to the capacity of common understanding. Priests, popes and bishops, kings, lords and dukes, all came to be represented by figures of darkness in the repression of political and educational reform. In her D.Phil thesis on Henry Fuseli’s ‘Milton Gallery’, Luisa Calè has considered the genealogy of the rhetoric of clarity’s symbolic figurations in relation to radical politics and visual culture, locating the origin of significant symbolic transvaluations in Milton and his appropriation by Priestley:

[t]he indeterminacy of Milton’s allegory [of Sin and Death] is read in two different ways. On the one hand, it resonates a radical, Unitarian agenda centering on Priestley’s deconstruction of the Christian supernatural as a metaphorical effect born in errors of textual transmission. This, in turn, bears on the Christian underpinnings of monarchical power along lines explored in Milton’s regicide and antiprelatical tracts. It thereby restores the political currency elided by gaps in textual annotation and brings into focus a picture representing something looking like a head wearing the likeness of a kingly crown. Priestley’s analysis of power and his deconstruction of its religious foundations were central to the radical circle Fuseli communed with.17

By contrast, reason was represented by democratic, anti-hierarchical figures of light which are accessible to common understanding. Classical education, the teaching of dead languages, and complexity were all considered to be forms of wilful obfuscation in contrast to the democratic or egalitarian principles of simplicity and clarity. As a result, abstract, restrictive and elitist forms of political and legal speech were not up in the clouds, as it were; rather, they were the clouds which kept the earth in darkness.

The third transvaluation involved philosophy and epistemology. While the positivity of clarity had been institutionalised by the Royal Academy and in the tradition of Descartes and Locke had been considered an essential accomplishment in good (and virtuous) communication, the new political associations with which it was being loaded made it into something of direct epistemological significance. Clarity was not merely a sign of skill or sincerity, nor was it merely a practical means for effective communication, but was also a sign of truth itself, secularising the classical association of elevated speech with virtue. Obscurity was a sign of a confused idea, of falsity or dishonesty, and the unjust imposition of unnecessary labour on the reader (or the lack of a compensatory labour on the part of the author, which by virtue of its unequal or unprofitable exchange violated the figurative economics of rhetoric). Obfuscation could therefore represent a deceitful and/or an honestly misguided agenda, a cheat, a bad bargain.

This latter possibility, however, was ultimately devastating for the rhetoric of clarity. Once a style associated with the clarity was established, it could be appropriated by anyone with the skill and patience to learn it, and could produce in readers the same effect or impression as a clear discourse connected with truth, even when it was in fact false or misleading. The ultimate artificiality of the rhetoric of clarity undermined its claims to a natural connection with the truth which was closer to incarnation than mere mimesis. Since it contradicted the association of plainness with virtue, this possibility led to an anxious awareness of the potential interchangeability of the divine or the demonic origin of any communication, clear or obscure.

  1. Tom Paulin, The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style (London, 1998), 167. On the same page, Paulin points out that ‘[t]he Analytical Review, a periodical edited by the Unitarian Thomas Christie and published by Joseph Johnson, attacked [Burke] for “looseness of style”’.
  2. Charles R. Weld, A History of the Royal Society (London, 1848]: 1.146 and quoted in Howell, 481.
  3. The Record of the Royal Society (London, 1897), 119, quoted in Howell, 481.
  4. Ronald Paulson has discussed the particularly eighteenth-century French origins of this English ‘Jacobin’ discourse in connection with rhetorical inversion and transvaluation: ‘[a]round the middle of the century, by the kind of transvaluation we associate with revolutions, the sense of light was shifted by the philosophes to individual human reason, to the “Enlightenment,” and the king and the church became darkness (and so ignorance) which the light attempts to penetrate and dispel. Or perhaps we should say the philosophes, les lumières, grafted onto the sun as God the iconographical tradition of the sun as Truth chasing away the shadows of the night…. And that “light” of the Sun King [Louis XIV] was of course recognized and reinterpreted as “darkness,” and the most commonplace set of associations during the Revolution revolved around this contrast of light-enlightenment-reason-freedom versus darkness-ignorance-imprisonment, which were at least in England strongly associated with New Testament redemption opposed to Old Testament cruelty, oppression, and darkness’ (Paulson, 46-7).
  5. Hepworth, 140.
  6. John Horne Tooke, ΕΠΕΑ ΠΤΕΡΟΕΝΤΕΑ, or The Diversions of Purley (London, 1786), 25 and n. Interestingly, Lowth’s grammar was preceded by three years by the publication of Coleridge père’s A Short Grammar of the Latin Tongue, in the preface of which he argued that ‘I shall only add, that this Grammar can possibly be no great Burden in any respect; and if the Rules of Syntax are more comprehensive as well as exact, for the Language, than some Grammars; if the Rules are not only more concise, but more clear in expressing the Reason of it, and better connected in its consequential Method; then truly learned, unbigoted, and disinterested Men will soon perceive their Value’. John Coleridge’s 1768 Miscellaneous Dissertations placed a similar positive value on clarity, though given his biblical subject it was reflected more in his endorsement of a quasi-radical protestant inner light, while the title page of his 1772 A Critical Latin Grammar announced ‘A CRITICAL / LATIN GRAMMAR: / CONTAINING / CLEAR AND DISTINCT RULES / FOR BOYS JUST INITIATED; / AND / NOTES EXPLANATORY / OF ALMOST / EVERY ANTIQUITY AND OBSCURITY / IN THE LANGUAGE’. Such texts as John Coleridge’s participated in what David Simpson, in Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory (Chicago and London, 1993]: has identified as a politicised Ramist tradition (which indeed includes the radical innovations of Paracelsus, who taught in his native German rather than in Latin) which sought to clarify Latin for the masses and indeed introduced clarity as a method, for example in the introduction of the use of italics for illustrative material, or the table of contents. See Simpson, 19-25 and John Coleridge, A Short Grammar of the Latin Tongue (London, 1759), i-ii; Miscellaneous Dissertations Arising from the XVIIth and XVIIIth Chapters of the Book of Judges (London, 1768); and A Critical Latin Grammar (1772), title page; and Paracelsus: Essential Readings, trans. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Chatham, Kent, 1990), 18.
  7. Lisa Plummer Crafton, ‘The “Ancient Voices” of Blake’s The French Revolution”’, in The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, ed. Lisa Plummer Crafton (London, 1997), 42-3.
  8. Brody, 109. Miriam Brody also notes on the same page that the new rhetoric’s relation to classical rhetoric was less oppositional, and perhaps more opportunistic, than the Royal Society’s linguistic ideology: ‘[t]he new rhetoricians, receiving such texts from the ancient world, rescued classical rhetoric from the ashbin of history to which the Royal Society, convened in 1665 to advance the new learning of science, had consigned its naive epistemology’.
  9. Lisa Plummer Crafton, ‘Ancient Voices’, 43.
  10. Jon Mee**, **‘The Political Showman at Home: Reflections on Popular Radicalism and Print Culture in the 1790’s’, in Radicalism and Revolution in Britain, 1775-1848, ed. Michael T. Davis (London, 2000), 42.
  11. For an introduction to this vast literature see (in addition to the work of Blakemore, Boulton, Epstein and Paulson) Philippe Roger, ‘The French Revolution as “Logomachy”’, in Language and Rhetoric of the Revolution, (Edinburgh, 1990), 5-17; Language and Rhetoric of the Revolution, ed. John Renwick (Edinburgh, 1990); and of course Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (Oxford, 1984). As I noted in my first chapter, Paul Hamilton has drawn attention to the threat of a ‘linguistic idealism’ in this focus on language in relation to the Reflections controversy, and as in other cases of literary-historical analysis it is always important to be aware of falling into the related ‘textual attitude’ which Said cautions us against (‘the kind of view attacked by Voltaire in Candide, or even the attitude to reality satirized by Cervantes in Don Quixote’. See Edward Said, Orientalism [London, new ed. 1995], 92). And it certainly is a threat in discussion of the rhetoric of clarity in the Reflections controversy, especially when one considers works like Epstein’s and Paulson’s which use a sort of semiotic principle to expand the notion of inversion and transvaluation to include non-literary rituals and objects of relevant symbolic significance. But the fact that so much of the work written in response to Burke, and the work in which Burke responded in turn, was metarhetorical, means that this threat may be avoided by maintaining an awareness that reflexive rhetorical publication was an act of serious legal and social significance for the radicals I consider, not merely a contribution to a transcendent Laputian library or the participation in a sort of linguistic ontology of forms.
  12. Simpson, 28.
  13. Ibid. 130-1.
  14. Public Advertiser, 21 January 1784.
  15. Marcus Wood, Radical Satire and Print Culture 1790-1822 (Oxford, 1994), 242. For a discussion of the image of the sun-eye in Cruickshank, Gillray, and Samuel Ward, see 254-57.
  16. Boulton, 172. Throughout his chapters on the radicals, from Paine to Mackintosh and Godwin, Boulton demonstrates how their own rhetoric inevitably adopted the formations of Burkean discourse.
  17. Luisa Calè, Henry Fuseli’s Milton Gallery: ‘Turning Readers into Spectators’ in Late Eighteenth-Century London, 2 Vols., D.Phil Thesis (Oxford, 2002), 1.19.

Richard Price

The ur-text of the radical response to Burke’s Reflections was Richard Price’s A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, which he delivered as a speech on 4 November 1789 to the Revolution Society in London. As a Dissenting minister, Price’s celebration of the French Revolution, and his comparison of it to the 1688 Revolution, was heavily influenced by the language and the principles of the new rhetoric. But Price’s was a resolutely political application, of this mostly scientific movement, and while his language set the parameters of the linguistic element of the ensuing controversy, it was Burke’s reaction to Price’s language that truly politicised the new rhetoric. Speaking of the traditional sources of conservative, aristocratical power, Price wrote in a typical passage that if he and his allies could ‘[r]emove the darkness in which they envelope the world… their usurpations will be exposed, their power will be subverted, and the world emancipated’.1 This association of the good and the clear is essential for the dissemination of truth and the energy of revolution: ‘[e]very degree of illumination which we can communicate must do the greatest good. It helps to prepare the minds of men for the recovery of their rights, and hastens the overthrow of priestcraft and tyranny’.2 The progression of revolution through progressive information reflects an Enlightenment belief William Godwin invoked in the first words of his influential first edition of Political Justice:

[f]ew works of literature are held in greater estimation, than those which treat in a methodical and elementary way of the principles of science. But the human mind in every enlightened age is progressive; and the best elementary treatises after a certain time are reduced in their value by the operation of subsequent discoveries. Hence it has always been desired by candid enquirers, that preceding works of this kind should from time to time be superseded, and that other productions including the larger views that have since offered themselves, should be substituted in their place.3

Although Price’s relatively careful statement only refers to the preparation and possibility of revolution, and Godwin qualifies his progressive claims here by positing the possibility of unenlightened ages which are, by implication, stagnant if not actually regressive, another aspect of radical writing represented an illumination which would necessarily communicate the energy necessary for destruction of old orders. In the continuation of the section quoted above, Price states: ‘[i]n short, we may, in this instance, learn our duty from the oppressors of the world. They know that the light is hostile to them, and therefore they labour to keep men in the dark’.4

Price had long been involved in pamphlet provocations which critiqued forms of conservative government and religion in the terms of the political rhetoric of clarity, as one can see, for example, in his 1779 exchange with Robert Lowth, who had by then ascended the ranks of religious hierarchy to become Bishop of London. Price employs the figures of radical clarity to claim that ‘[i]t is a sad mistake to think that… there are mysteries in civil government of which they [private men] are not the judges’,5 and on the next page he associates constitutional mystery with the religious rhetoric of obscurity: ‘[i]t is thus, that in RELIGION, a set of holy usurpers have pretended that there are mysteries in religion of which the people are not judges, and into which they should not enquire; and that, for this reason, they ought to resign to them the direction of their faith and consciences’.6 That Burke took issue with the rhetoric of Price’s incendiary work demonstrates not only the prevailing preoccupation with the influence of publication on the public – not on ‘the reader’ in some internal psylosophical encounter with hermeneutical boundaries and horizons of the self, or of the author’s prior reading on his writing – was a sign of a shared anxiety about the dangers of the public to act on information that was uncontrolled, or inspired by an indeterminately divine or demonic source.

What the ‘radicals’ and ‘reactionaries’ shared, and what grounded their interest in rhetoric, was a fear that misinformation meant misformation of the recipient of any public communication. It could just as well have been Burke who wrote ‘[c]ertain it is, indeed, that much greater evils are to be dreaded from the fury of a people, ignorant and blind, than from the resistance and jealousy of a people inquisitive and enlightened’.7 The difference between them, of course, was the belief on the part of the radicals that all human individuals shared a universal nature which was susceptible to inevitable improvement, provided the right conditions, while their opponents believed that the practicalities of education and the reifications of hierarchical class division established hierarchies in mental capacity which required, in turn, hierarchies of communication. But the reaction to Burke’s reaction to Price could not be conducted in straightforward figurative and political battles. As Lowell T. Frye has remarked,

Burke was a master rhetorician, and - not to take away from his care with the sources at his disposal - the power of the Reflections does not rest solely or even primarily in the reliability of its facts. To displace the Burkean interpretation would require a rhetorical as well as a factual triumph.8

With the rhetoric of obscurity labouring to keep men in the dark, it was the burden of the rhetoric of clarity to undertake a labour of inversive, metarhetorical transvaluations of Burke’s rhetoric of obscurity.

  1. Richard Price, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, 1789 (Oxford, 1992), 15.
  2. Ibid. 14.
  3. William Godwin, An enquiry concerning Political Justice, 1793, (Oxford, 1992), 1.v.
  4. Price, 14.
  5. Richard Price, A sermon, 19-20.
  6. Ibid. 21.
  7. Ibid. 19-20n.
  8. Lowell T. Frye, ‘“Great Burke,” Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution’, in The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, ed. Lisa Plummer Crafton (London, 1997), 94.

Thomas Paine

Against the background of the immensely popular and influential rhetorical and grammatical treatises of the new rhetoric, Thomas Paine’s reaction to Burke’s Reflections in The Rights of Man (1791) and his complex formulation of a scientific theology in The Age of Reason (1794) represent two fundamental aspects of the radical rhetoric of clarity. Many years earlier, in Common Sense (1776), Paine’s powerful textual intervention in the American Revolution, he had already established his levelling politicisation of what were essentially the principles of the Royal Society, associating reason with ‘simple facts, plain arguments, common sense’,1 and associating obfuscation with monarchical superstition and mystery: ‘the fate of Charles the First hath only made Kings more subtle – not more just’.[^ftn27] Paine’s adoption of an explicitly or metarhetorically plain style in his writings demonstrates the political value of instrumental reflexivity: to say that one valued plainness and clarity was, for metarhetorical purposes, more important than actually writing in a plain and unemotional style, and became a commonplace in radical reactions to Burke. Thus F. P. Lock remarks of the The Rights of Man that ‘[t]hese protests against rhetoric, together with the use of a self-consciously “plain style,” constitute a recognizable, indeed venerable, rhetorical strategy…. Paine excoriates Burke for writing in a style more suited to Romantic fictions, than to serious political discourse’.2

Paine’s 1790s figuration of the relation between nature and God is based largely in a transvaluation of the theological imagery of light and darkness, especially in the context of epistemological investigations of the nature of language. This radical use of the figures of clarity, which is grounded in the belief that collective associations with words can be changed through discourse, thus serves as a powerful rhetorical instrument for the reversal or inversion of institutionally and culturally embedded political and theological ideologies. ‘For both Burke and Paine’, writes James Epstein, ‘there was an inseparable link between linguistic and political order. For Paine, the unmediated transparency of rationalist language was a necessary precondition for democratic politics… words were merely to reflect transparent meaning…. For Burke… the fall of language and the fall of monarchy went hand in hand’.3 But this shared interest in language was also the condition for the interchangeability of key words, which could be differently valued and transvalued by political opponents. Paine’s clarity, like Burke’s obscurity, is a rhetoric designed to persuade, however much Paine may have based the representation of his own language on an ultimately insupportable metarhetorical doctrine of the naturalness of clarity. Ultimately, this meant that Paine too succumbed to the radical decline into the interchangeability of clarity and obscurity. The fact that he ‘repeats precisely what he repudiates Burke for shows how Paine works within the same paradigms as his adversary’.4

From the very beginning of The Rights of Man, ‘[t]he most widely read reply to Burke’,5 Paine mocks Burke’s attempt to halt the spread of revolutionary sentiment by portraying him with a battery of negative charges of obscurity, exploiting the connotations of obscurity relating to dishonesty, misinformed and misinforming passion, and the perpetuation of tyranny and oppression through mystery. ‘Mr. Burke’s book,’ writes Paine, in a typical example of radical inversion, ‘has the appearance of being written as instruction to the French Nation; but if I may permit myself the use of an extravagant metaphor, suited to the extravagance of the case, It is darkness attempting to illuminate light’.6 Burke’s highly figurative language affords Paine the ironic freedom to indulge in the looseness of metaphor and ornament otherwise inimical to clear communication, and it is through parody that obscurity is often smuggled into Paine’s rhetoric. Burke is represented as taking ‘poetical liberties’ which distort truth, and his ‘wild, unsystematical, display of paradoxical rhapsodies’7 is consequently associated with the inhibition of education and the dissemination of accurate information. Accordingly, ‘Burke’ becomes a figure for obscurity, proceeding with ‘astrological mysterious importance’, and for all of the evils of the institutions which Paine sought to reform, or demolish. 8

Mystery, for Paine as for other radicals, is a form of obscurity associated with both an exclusive appropriation of power, and with misleading superstition, as opposed to proper scientific insight. Thus he writes that the promoters of repressive establishments ‘took care to represent Government as a thing made up of mysteries, which only themselves understood’, and the ‘obscurity in which the origin of all the present old governments is buried, implies the iniquity and disgrace with which they began’.9 In the French Nation, naturally, ‘[t]here is no place for mystery’, and the National Assembly, in contrast to Burke, is an ‘illuminated and illuminating body of men’.10 The ‘luminous’ revolutions of America and France, rather than the church or established educating or educated authorities, therefore represent an ‘enlarging orb of reason’.11 This illumination of the tyrannical darkness takes the form of a new type of common and plain education: ‘[a] nation under a well-regulated Government should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratical Government only that requires ignorance for its support’.12 It is this use of language, this new accumulation and radical, egalitarian dissemination of knowledge, which Paine claims is effecting practical reform, and it is fittingly figured in the following well-known passage as a flame: ‘[f]rom a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen not to be extinguished. Without consuming, like the Ultima Ratio Regum, it winds its progress from Nation to Nation and conquers by a silent operation. Man finds himself changed’.13 Burke, the king, established governments, all those institutions and individuals which formerly clothed themselves in the imagery of light - the glory of saints, the glory of kings, the enlightenment of the few by a hierarchical and restricted education - all are deliberately transvalued through the figuration of an obscure Burke and the illuminating Revolution.14

Even more fundamental than this shift of received associations, however, is Paine’s representation of the Bible and the Christian God not in the positive imagery of the obscurity of transcendent elevation and sublimity, but in the negative imagery of the obscurity of ignorance and falsity. Mounted in a scientifically motivated contemplation of the nature of language, Paine’s attack inverts figurative associations deeply engrained in dominant English and French Christian cultures, like the Miltonic figures referred to by Burke in his discussion of obscurity in the Enquiry. In the beginning of his carefully orchestrated argument, Paine claims that ‘the word of God cannot exist in any written or human language’ because God is unchangeable, while

[t]he continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of an universal language which renders translations necessary, the error to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of wilful alteration, are of themselves evidences, that human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the word of God.15

It is in the world, in creation, by contrast, that we find ‘an universal language… an ever existing original’ capable of communicating the nature of God. 16 It is Christianity, and the stories of the Bible, which perpetuate falsity: Christianity is therefore

as near to atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces between man and his maker an opaque body which it calls a redeemer; as the moon introduces her opaque self between the earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious or an irreligious eclipse of light. It has put the whole orb of reason into shade.17

Breathtakingly, Paine goes on: ‘[t]he effect of this obscurity has been that of turning every thing upside down’.18 It is the ultimate inversion and example of radical figurative interchangeability: Christianity is a dark star. As though he needed to do anything more to make his transvaluation of the figures of clarity and obscurity complete, Paine also mocks the tradition of sublimity, from Longinus to Burke, by pointing out the strangeness of the attribution to God of the imperative of the fiat lux, ‘Let there be light’. The ‘sublime’ of Burke’s Enquiry, and, by extension, the whole Christian unscientific theological tradition, becomes ‘a windmill just visible in a fog, which imagination might distort into a flying mountain, an arch angel, or a flock of wild geese’.19

Paine’s assertions concerning the mutability of language and its consequent inability to communicate unchangeable truth apply equally to scientific and to religious discourse. But Paine seems largely unaware of this problem for his scheme of general illumination and scientific theology. Thus he reports that it is from those thoughts which ‘bolt into the mind of their own accord’ that he has, in the figure of the economics of the imagination, ‘acquired almost all the knowledge that I have’, and that ‘the learning that any person gains from school education… serves only, like a small capital, to put him in the way of beginning learning for himself afterwards’20. Such claims mitigate his dilemma by demonstrating a reliance on intuition, and are to an extent consistent with the belief that reason is a ‘gift of God to man’,21 but they also invoke an ancient tradition of inspiration related to that discussed by Timothy Clark:

[i]n both the Platonic and the biblical traditions inspiration described the supposed possession of an individual voice by some transcendent authority…. That is to say, a crucial part of the process of composition is understood as a desired or even calculated suspension of reasoning or deliberation, a temporary mania or insanity. This suspension is valorised as a mode of access to “deeper” or spontaneously productive areas of the psyche. The irrationality that is inspiration, though analogous to a kind of insanity, is understood to be sui generis, a peculiar, unique and probably rare state of being.22

Spontaneity is in this case allied to irrationality, to the absence or pre-emption of rational deliberation, and always involves the potential interchangeability of clarity and obscurity in the tradition of inspiration. Significantly, Clark adds: ‘[u]nlike the closely related notion of the furor poeticus or “poetic madness”, inspiration is a rhetorical concept. To be inspired is, necessarily, to inspire others’.23 As Clark correctly implies here, claims to inspiration by those engaged in politics and rhetoric, rather than speculations on sublime internal psychological involutions, always involve implications concerning the potential for influence and the interpersonal communication, like a virus, of whatever spirit has inspired or possessed the speaker.

In the kind of inspiration invoked by Paine, this ‘spirit’ is indeterminate because its communications are problematically pre-reflective, however ‘natural’ Paine claims they are. Patricia Howell Michaelson is right to draw a contrast between Paine’s appeal to nature rather than culture in her claim that while ‘Burke relied on inherited wisdom exactly because each individual’s stock of reason is small, Paine is confident that each generation has fully enough reason to address its own needs’.24 But both relied on exploiting pre-reflective inspiration as the guarantee of the continuity of signification. For Burke, this meant the continuation of tradition as the ground of political prophecy, while for Paine it meant the conflation of natural and human universality. But there is something mistaken about Michaelson’s claim that Paine rejected the ‘more mystical Inner Light of Quaker belief’,25 for his invocation of the inspiration of nature is itself a version of the Inner Light, only based on an imminent or natural rather than a transcendent or supernatural Godhead. It is a mistake to take the reflexive assertions of metarhetoric at face value, because metarhetoric is programmatically two-faced. Often using devices it theoretically rejects, Paine’s appeal to pre-rational naturalism vitiates his claims concerning education and the nature of scientific knowledge, and it leads him into unguarded moments of Panglossian excess: in one passage he claims that God ‘organized the structure of the universe in the most advantageous manner for the benefit of man’.26

  1. Thomas Paine, ‘Common Sense’, in The Selected Work of Tom Paine, ed. Howard Fast (London, 1948), 27.
  2. F. P. Lock, ‘Rhetoric and Representation in Burke’s Reflections’, in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. John Whale (Manchester and New York, 2000),** **18.
  3. Epstein, 9.
  4. Furniss, 133.
  5. Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford, 2001), 31.
  6. Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (London, 1969), 16.
  7. Ibid. 34, 52.
  8. Ibid. 102.
  9. Ibid. 162, 163. For related discussions of the obfuscation of political origins through the teaching of dead languages, see Thomas Paine, ‘The Age of Reason’, in Paine: Collected Writings (New York, 1995), 696, or Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1796) (New York, 1975), 230, 237, 352, 404, 467, 487.
  10. Paine, The Rights of Man, 181, 11.
  11. Ibid. 72.
  12. Ibid. 252.
  13. Ibid. 211-212.
  14. Paine, of course, was himself a figure for clarity, and was associated with more than one revolutionary illumination. As David Worrall notes, Richard Carlile once commissioned, from the ‘sculptor-spy George Edwards’, ‘“[a] Globe on the small pedastal, lighted with Gas, represents America illuminated next to PAINE”’. See David Worrall,** **‘Mab and Mob: The Radical Press Community in Regency England’, in Romanticism, Radicalism and the Press, ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (Detroit, 1997), 145.
  15. Thomas Paine, ‘The Age of Reason’, in Paine: Collected Writings (New York, 1995), 680.
  16. Ibid. 687.
  17. Ibid. 690-691.
  18. Ibid. 691.
  19. Ibid. 828 n.
  20. Ibid. 702.
  21. Ibid. 685.
  22. Clark, 2.
  23. Ibid. 3.
  24. Patricia Howell Michaelson, ‘Religion and Politics in the Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine’, in The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, ed. Lisa Plummer Crafton (London, 1997), 36.
  25. Ibid. 29.
  26. Paine, The Age of Reason, 709.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley, trained as he was ‘not in the theatrical debate of Parliament, but in the plain speech of dissenting-academies’, 1 in his Letters to Burke (1791) represents that aspect of the radical reaction to Burke which used the Reflections as a means for elaborating the distinction between eloquence and reason in the reciprocally transvaluing rhetorics of clarity and obscurity. In the Letters, Priestley claims that excessively emotional texts like Burke’s could have potentially disastrous effects, since contemporary readers would be neither inclined to make nor capable of making rational judgments. Recalling his earlier Lectures and the equivocal consequences of invoking the passions, he claims the danger of Burke’s intemperate book is founded on the fact that ‘[a]n oppressed people do not… in general see anything more than what they immediately feel’.2 Sight, traditionally the faculty of reason, is here overthrown by the power of feeling, influenced, as it were, less by the sun than by the ‘obscure rays’, the ‘dark or invisible rays’ or ‘heat-rays of the solar spectrum’ (OED) discussed by contemporary scientists.

For Priestley, while his unique focus on associationist psychology in works like A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism is meant to demonstrate new possibilities for clear communication and persuasion, the diverse nature of individual and cultural experiences and associations renders language and its effects more indefinite. The intra- and inter-cultural relativity of association, the consequence of slippery signification and the varieties of personal and cultural experience, called for careful procedures at this crucial moment in history: ‘[o]bjects appear in very different lights to different persons, according to their respective situations, and the opportunities they have of observing them’.3 In his discussion of the new rhetoric James Engell has called attention to this problem for linguistic universality and the stability of association, arguing that

[m]uch of the new rhetoric depends on a realization that words are imperfect and slippery signifiers. This helps to explain the neoclassical and eighteenth-century obsession with clarity - not that writers and critics trusted words, but that they distrusted them and their possible abuses so much.4

In Priestley’s analysis, though Burke’s ‘sublimely rhetorical’ style succeeds in achieving an astounding level of ‘eloquence’, he fails to sustain this careful sensitivity and fails in the field of ‘sober reasoning’.5 In this argument, Priestley perpetuates the same Lockean principle which Tom Furniss claims Burke inverted: ‘Burke shares Locke’s anxiety about the abuses of language which exploit its arbitrary nature, but while Locke urges that discourse be stripped of its figuration, ambiguity, and obscurity… Burke celebrates such devices and effects’.6 Priestley points out his difference with Burke disingenuously, invoking the suspicion of ‘rhetoric’ and claiming that Burke has in him ‘more of the rhetorician than of the reasoner’, making the connection of church and state ‘a subject of popular declamation, rather than of dispassionate reasoning’.7 Invoking the Lectures again, Priestley admonishes Burke to change his style, ‘and assume the character of a philosopher, and not that of a mere rhetorician’.8

But Priestley’s Lectures show that he was well aware of the positive and indeed necessary function of rhetoric in progressive information and enlightenment, and his appropriation of a common association between rhetoric and sophistry is therefore itself a contradictory use of a rhetorical figure. This contradiction can be resolved somewhat if we consider that for Priestley Burke’s ‘rhetoric’ is, properly, the negative, misinforming rhetoric of obscurity. Referring to Burke’s veneration of tyrannical establishments by virtue of their age, Priestley asserts:

[p]rejudice and error is only a mist, which the sun, which was now risen, will effectually disperse. Keep them about you as tight as the countryman in the fable did his cloak; the same sun, without any more violence than the warmth of his beams, will compel you to throw it aside, unless you chuse to sweat under it, and bear the ridicule of all your cooler and less encumbered companions.9

In Priestley’s figurative schema, just as traditional institutions are associated with the negative charge of obscurity, so the advancing light of the rhetoric of clarity is positively dispelling the clouds of false religion: ‘I mean the growing light of the age, in consequence of which we are more and more sensible of the absurdity of the doctrines… of your church’.10 And just as Paine transfers the association of light with religion into an association with the practical advancement of knowledge, the dismantling of oppressive political establishments, and the development of an egalitarian and scientific epistemology, so does Priestley adopt the language of his enemies, and employ it to a subversive end: ‘[t]hese great events, in many respects unparalleled in history, make a totally new… aera in the history of mankind. It is, to adopt your own rhetorical style, a change from darkness to light, from superstition to sound knowledge, and from a most debasing servitude to a state of the most exalted freedom’.11 The rhetoric of clarity is here brought to an informative level of metarhetorical reflexivity or self-consciousness concerning its relation, both in style and in figurative content, to the obfuscating ‘eloquence’ or sophistry from which it consistently distinguished itself. But in this program of reciprocal figuration, even the ironic adoption of the rhetoric of obscurity merely served, in a manner that recalls Longinus’s self-defeating criticism of Isocrates, to call attention to the interchangeability of the two rhetorics.

  1. Jonathan Wordsworth in the introduction to Joseph Priestley, Letters to Burke 1791 (Poole, England, 1997), 1.
  2. Priestley, Letters to Burke 1791 (Poole, 1997), 8. In 1761 and 1762 Priestley published his own contribution to the new rhetoric of clarity with a scientific and liberating grammar in The Rudiments of Grammar and A Course of Lectures on the Theory of Language and Universal Grammar, and in 1777 he published ‘A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism’ in which his aim, according Vincent Bevilacqua and Richard Murphy, was ‘to distinguish the proper end of rhetoric (informing the judgment, the regard of recollection and method) and the accessory ends of rhetoric (moving the passions and affecting the imagination so as to persuade, the regard of style). In Priestley’s rhetoric these ends integrate so as to be virtually indistinguishable’ (Joseph Priestley, A Course of Lectures on the Theory of Language and Universal Grammar [Warrington, 1762]; A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism, eds. Vincent M. Bevilacqua and Richard Murphy [Carbondale, Il., 1965], xxxix).
  3. Ibid. 18.
  4. James Engell, ‘The New Rhetoric and Romantic Poetics’. 228. Though he does not follow through on the catastrophic implications of his claim for the new rhetoric of clarity, and indeed himself adopts the optimism of a sort of revolutionary-epistemological progressivism, Engell remarks elsewhere that ‘[p]erfect clarity or “true” communication is a mirage, a collective delusion perhaps, but at least it keeps us walking ahead’ (Engell, ‘The New Rhetoricians: Psychology, Semiotics, and Critical Theory’, in Psychology and Literature in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Christopher Fox [New York, 1987], 292).
  5. Priestley, Letters, 64, 68.
  6. Furniss, 105.
  7. Priestley, Letters, 84, 137.
  8. Ibid. 137.
  9. Ibid. 111.
  10. Ibid. 126.
  11. Ibid. 140-141.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) is one of the most characteristic replies to Burke’s rhetoric of obscurity. Like other radicals, Wollstonecraft could not evade the contradictions inherent in a rationalist discourse which was at once sympathetic and opposed to the straightforward manipulation of the passions typical of the rhetoric of obscurity. Clarity had to be rhetorical in order to have an influence. Wollstonecraft accounted for this problem by appealing to a ‘genuine’ enthusiasm underwritten by a narrative of individual progressivism which mirrored the collective, human progressivism of the new rhetoric.1 Thus the ‘impassioned’, ‘genuine enthusiasm of genius,’ for Wollstonecraft, ‘seldom appears, but in the infancy of civilization; for as this light becomes more luminous reason clips the wing of fancy - the youth becomes a man’.2

This is consistent with Michaelson’s claim that, while in France ‘arguments supporting the Revolution were predominantly secular’, ‘[i]n England, by contrast, most political beliefs had a religious component’.3 We have already seen this problematic conflation of the scientific and the spiritual in Paine’s appeal to perpetual revelation and the interchangeability of inspiration, and it was a destabilising aporia which contributed to the decline in radical optimism. Tim Fulford, in Romanticism and Masculinity, follows the history of the decline of faith in the rhetoric of clarity, which he calls the style of ‘sincerity’,4 and demonstrates the internal tensions which led Wollstonecraft (along with Godwin and Coleridge) to seek a new form of progressive language. The complications of the gendered roles (and the potential for a recursive pattern of gender inversion that approximates androgyny)5 adopted and appointed by writers in the revolution controversy is pointed up by Stephen Blakemore’s claim that

by relentlessly characterizing Burke in the pejorative language of feminine vulnerability and weakness (imagination, sensibility, and hysterical madness), Wollstonecraft suggests that Burke’s emotional, fanciful account of the Revolution is a tissue of illusions and lies, while her own masculine representations (based on personal strength, labor, reason, and judgment) reflect truth and reality.6

Particularly for Wollstonecraft (and later for Coleridge), an outright rejection of Burkean sublimity was irreconcilable with the necessity of obscurity in religious contemplation: ‘Wollstonecraft was left grappling with the difficulty of dislodging from herself her remaining complicity with the gendered and ideological discourses which she explicitly opposed.’7

Other doubts arose in relation to the difficulty of communicating complexity, and eventually led to the notion that the charge of obscurity is as often made in a mode of prohibitive self-defence as it is in a mode of critical perspicuity. But Wollstonecraft was always aware of the power and inevitability of doubt (something other radicals were often unwilling to admit), and in an early invocation of the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity she related the positivity of doubt to the positivity of labour:

[t]o argue from experience, it should seem as if the human mind, averse to thought, could only be opened by necessity; for, when it can take opinions on trust, it gladly lets the spirit lie quiet in its gross tenement. Perhaps the most improving exercise of the mind, confining the argument to the enlargement of the understanding, is the restless enquiries that hover on the boundary, or stretch over the dark abyss of uncertainty.8

But as usual such qualifications were submerged under the weight of more typical injunctions of inspiration and immediacy. Asking her own rhetorical question ‘[w]hat is truth?’, Wollstonecraft answers: ‘[a] few fundamental truths meet the first enquiry of reason, and appear as clear to an unwarped mind, as that air and bread are necessary to enable the body to fulfil its vital functions’.9 Elsewhere she defines common sense as ‘a quick perception of common truths: which are constantly received as such by the unsophisticated mind, though it might not have sufficient energy to discover them itself, when obscured by local prejudices’.10

The commitment to emotion in Wollstonecraft’s rhetoric of clarity in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ appears perversely in this context as an obfuscating, self-contradicting assertion that could have been made just as well by her enemies:

I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart.11

In such passages, the interchangeability of reciprocal figuration functions as a rough index of the decline of the rhetoric of clarity: the rejection of emotion was inevitably emotional, the rejection of suspicious rhetoric suspiciously rhetorical. Perhaps an even more important rhetorical complication for Wollstonecraft, however, is her antipathy to Burke’s politics and her simultaneous affinity with traditional Christian religious figures and commitments which she could not, or would not, abandon. Wollstonecraft makes the anxiety resulting from this opposition apparent in a caveat immediately following the passage quoted above, which criticized a Burkean ‘implicit respect’ for God’s ‘unsearchable ways’:

[b]ut, let me not be thought presumptuous, the darkness which hides out God from us, only respects speculative truths - it never obscures moral ones, they shine clearly, for God is light, and never, by the constitution of our nature, requires the discharge of a duty, the reasonableness of which does not beam on us when we open our eyes.12

Without question, Abraham (and, anachronistically speaking, Kierkegaard)13 would certainly have been troubled but that last claim. In any case, it is clear that Wollstonecraft here serves only to multiply, rather than to resolve any contradictions inherent in her radical ideology. The appeal to an indeterminate intuition which will necessarily ‘beam on us when we open our eyes’ reflects the more basic radical elision of any developed first principles of reason, and the knotty claim that God is inherently shrouded in darkness and is nonetheless light is not unravelled. The problematic confluence of a scientific rationality with revealed religion is more transparently communicated in her claim, later in the second ‘Vindication’, that ‘[r]ational religion… is a submission to the will of a being so perfectly wise, that all he wills must be directed to a proper motive - must be reasonable’.14 So much for the problem of evil.

The impending decline of the radical rhetoric of clarity evident in Wollstonecraft’s Vindications has been discussed at length by various critics. Steven Blakemore’s comment in Intertextual War is typical of this critical consensus concerning the ultimate, preromantic metarhetorical interchangeability of the rhetorics of clarity and obscurity: ‘Wollstonecraft and other revolutionaries replicate the representations they resist – they are profoundly implicated in the system of representation that they reject. They hence produce readings hauntingly similar to the ones they rebel against’.15 This decline is related to the problem of metarhetoric, which programmatically adopts the rhetoric it critiques in the very act of criticism. Speaking figuratively, in either of the two twilights there is no discernible difference between the dove and the raven. In their reflections on the Reflections the radicals merely mirror it, and ‘Paine and Wollstonecraft find themselves bound to follow Burke’s lead: to refute his position, they must treat it at length’.16 Perhaps the most apposite study of this element of radical rhetoric in relation to the first Vindication is James Boulton’s in The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke. In his section on the Vindications,17 Boulton lucidly demonstrates in detail Wollstonecraft’s appropriation of Burkean rhetoric, and argues that inversive, parodical appropriations of Burkean rhetoric ultimately lead radical rhetoric into an indiscriminate identity with Burkean rhetoric: thus Wollstonecraft ‘condemns Burke and, by the same token, is herself condemned’.18

To represent the wider range of the ‘response’ to Burke in which this rhetoric largely formed itself, I will now examine Wollstonecraft’s An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and the Progress of the French Revolution (1795). Written five turbulent years after the Vindications, after the outbreak of Terror and war, Wollstonecraft’s Historical and Moral View participates in the radical response to the Reflections in the significant sense that it is, in part, an attempt to explain why Burke’s predictions largely came to pass. Simultaneously, it maintains a disagreement with Burke’s conservative foundation for these predictions. It is also important as a document which appears amidst the decline of radical confidence in the positive, clear and final outcome of revolutionary delay, like that which Wollstonecraft expressed in a letter to the radical publisher Joseph Johnson on 15 February 1793: “look beyond the evils of the moment, and do not expect muddied water to become clear before it has had time to stand”.19 As such, it is an important record of the decline of the 1790s radical rhetoric of clarity.

Wollstonecraft engages throughout the Historical and Moral View in rhetorical figurations typical of the inversive rhetoric of clarity. As Ronald Paulson notes, Wollstonecraft consistently invokes

the complex imagery often encountered in the years following 1789, energy-fire-illumination of dark areas combined with the suggestion of returning spring and fruition…. She draws on the basic transvaluation of the French light/dark that followed from the sun’s being the source of light, warmth and power, as God and therefore as his vice-regent the king.20

In order to give a broader historical view of the Revolution, Wollstonecraft also engages in primitivist reflections typical of the new rhetoric and revolutionary radicals, claiming that the ‘first social systems were certainly founded on passions’.21 These ‘paroxysms of passion’ are, again typically, dangerous, and ‘flash out in those single acts of heroic virtue, that throw a lustre over a whole thoughtless life; but’, we are reminded, ‘the cultivation of the understanding, in spite of these northern lights, appears to be the only way to tame men, whose restlessness of spirit creates the vicious passions, that lead to tyranny and cruelty’.22 It was precisely the victory of passion and the defeat of reason or the understanding which led to the descent of the revolution into tyranny. Wollstonecraft chooses as the best example of this defeat the moment of the revolution’s greatest apparent victory, the passing of various significant proclamations (including the declaration of rights) on August 4, 1789.

This glorious day, ‘the renowned 4th of August!’23 represented for Wollstonecraft not the triumph of revolutionary principles, but rather the failure of the National Assembly to act in accordance with the calm deliberation of reason. ‘It too frequently happens’, she ominously asserts in the midst of her description of the inversive events of that day, ‘that men run from one extreme to another, and that despair adopts the most violent measures’.24 ‘Thus’, we are told, ‘the nobility, whose order would probably lose most by the revolution, made the most popular motions, to gain favour with the people’.25 The accelerating account of proclamation after proclamation, rather than becoming a portrait of well-deliberated and just liberal actions, becomes instead a portrait of the distorted productions of unhealthy and excited imaginations. The following dash-filled account of the last hours of the day is a good example of this intemperate torrent of reform, and deserves to be quoted in full:

[a] number of propositions, more or less important, brought up the rear. The suppression of the first fruits; the rights of wardenship; and the abrogation of those barbarous vows, which fetter unfortunate beings for life.—In short, full and entire liberty for the non-catholics.—Admission of all the citizens into all offices, ecclesiastical, civil, and military.—Abolition of the plurality of ecclesiastical pensions.—And then, not forgetting their national character, it was proposed, that a medal should be struck in commemoration of this night; and a decree also passed, conferring gratuitously on the king the august title… of RESTORER OF FRENCH LIBERTY.26

Such a ‘disorder which made sensibility predominate over legislative dignity’ was, of course, impossible to sustain, and Wollstonecraft playfully suggests that ‘[i]t is very possible, that the next morning the different parties could scarcely believe, that they had more than the imperfect recollection of a dream in their heads’.27 Although other cases of the disastrous triumph of passion over reason abound in Wollstonecraft’s detailed account of the early days of the revolution, it is this failure in the constitution of government (where the language of clarity, and not of dimly conceived passing thoughts, should have held sway), that best represents the primary, primitive cause of the revolution’s failure. In Wollstonecraft’s rhetorical account it was, in other words, the transformation of the rhetoric of reason into the rhetoric of Burkean bombast which ultimately undermined the cause of the revolution and ironically brought his turgid prognostications into being.

The second cause of the revolution’s failure to bring about lasting reform was the state of French culture and sensibility, which had been poorly conditioned by a history of oppression for the responsibilities of sudden freedom. ‘The french people’, writes Wollstonecraft, in a sort of retrospective prophecy, ‘had long been groaning under the lash of a thousand oppressions…. It was, therefore, to be apprehended… that they would expect the most unbridled freedom’.28 This sudden burst from a tyrannical yoke was a common trope in evaluations of the revolution, but Wollstonecraft goes further, anticipating the Coleridgean Romantic obscurity of difficulty and labour, claiming that the French had been suppressed in everything but the pursuit of pleasure, rather than, presumably, some sort of judicious mortification. This resulted in the production of a ‘polished slavery’ which ‘so effeminated reason, that the french may be considered as a nation of women, and made feeble, probably, by the same combination of circumstances, as has rendered these insignificant’.29 Clearly they did not possess the ‘unwarped minds’ required for the solicitous fusion of sensibility and reason deemed necessary for post-revolutionary peace, and their feminisation is, for Wollstonecraft, an index of their warping. But it is a curious feebleness which results in the blood of Terror. In any case, the French were only as a result of their history constitutionally incapable of producing a workable constitution. The blame lay not, as it did for the misguided Burke, in the principle of a popular movement against the inviolability of hereditary power, or the power of the church, or the monarch. Rather, it was this power itself which was responsible for having contingently rendered a positive revolution impossible. But the clarity of tradition is still the strongest guarantee for a prophetic review of the course of culture and politics. There can be no clear birth from a dark womb.

  1. Positive progressivism was as much a part of the rhetoric of clarity as the representation of revolution as regression was a part of the rhetoric of obscurity. Hugh Blair, for example, associates the progress of man from savagery to civilisation as a movement towards greater perspicuity. Thus ‘[w]hat we call human reason, is not the effort or ability of one, so much as it is the result of the reason of many, arising from lights mutually communicated’, and ‘according as society improves and flourishes, … [men] will bestow more care upon the methods of expressing their conceptions with propriety and eloquence’ (Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. Harold F. Harding [Carbondale and Edwardsville, Il., 1965], 1.2). Blair’s Lectures also reflect the movement in the rhetoric of clarity towards indistinguishability from the rhetoric of obscurity. Like George Campbell and Adam Smith, Blair may have asserted the necessary connection between good speech and truth ‘because it was valid in terms of the way in which the human faculties work together and apart’, and thus perpetuated a tradition originating in classical rhetoric, but he was no closer to any scientific of philosophical proof of this crucial commonplace than Longinus or Quintilian. Thus the fact that Blair’s rhetoric ‘does not enable the critic to decide whether one example of the successful adaptation of words to the author’s purpose is ever to be considered better or worse than another example’ is in fact a more revealing consequence of his theory than any sham strength in the assertions of other new rhetoricians. The fact that ‘Blair’s definition [of poetry] does not provide an adequate explanation of the difference between oratory and poetry’ and allows ‘such differences as these to remain blurred and confused’ is not an indeterminacy specific to his own lack of penetration, but rather one endemic to new rhetorical discourse as a whole. The increasingly apparent interchangeability of the (prosaic) divine and the (poetic) demonic in communication which was crucial to the decline of radical progressivism and optimism in the 1790s was underwritten by Blair’s manifest new rhetorical weakness (see Howell, 655, 655, 669, 670. Adam Smith and George Campbell’s important contributions to the new rhetoric were Smith’s mid-eighteenth-century Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. J. C. Bryce [Oxford, 1983] and Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 2 vols. [London and Edinburgh, 1776]).
  2. Wollstonecraft, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’, in Wollstonecraft, 28.
  3. Michaelson, 28.
  4. ‘Sincerity was, in fact, a style valued by many of the radicals. Paine made much of the clarity and reasonableness of his prose as contrasted with the bombast of Burke’ (Tim Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity [London, 1999], 72-3, my emphasis).
  5. As David Simpson has observed, citing representations of Wollstonecraft by Godwin and others, ‘[l]ike the Jacobins and the Germans, Wollstonecraft is… imagined as at once overrational and quite irrational, hypermasculine and hyperfeminine, and doubly damned’ (Simpson, 106).
  6. Blakemore, Intertextual War, 41.
  7. Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity, 76.
  8. Wollstonecraft, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’, 18.
  9. Ibid. 18.
  10. Wollstonecraft, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, in Wollstonecraft, 210.
  11. Ibid. 74.
  12. Ibid. 237.
  13. See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition¸ ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, 1983).
  14. Wollstonecraft, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, 271.
  15. Blakemore, Intertextual War, 83.
  16. Lowell T. Frye, 96.
  17. Boulton, 167-176.
  18. Ibid. 176.
  19. Quoted in Blakemore, Crisis in Representation, 140.
  20. Paulson, 46.
  21. Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and the Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (New York, 1975), 8.
  22. Ibid. 20-21.
  23. Ibid. 289.
  24. Ibid. 281.
  25. Ibid. 282.
  26. Ibid. 289.
  27. Ibid. 290, 291.
  28. Ibid. 281-282.
  29. Ibid. 309, 247.

John Thelwall

In his ‘Sober Reflections on the Seditious and Inflammatory Letter of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord’ (1796), the radical lecturer and pamphleteer John Thelwall presents a critique which replicates both the principles and contradictions of the radical rhetoric of clarity. Thelwall, however, is not generally included in accounts of the new rhetoric. Howell, for example, in his compendious history of eighteenth-century British logic and rhetoric, only mentions him once, in an account of the early nineteenth-century elocutionary movement.1 But Thelwall’s metarhetorical participation in the Reflections controversy and the nature of his quasi-oratorical publications demonstrate the importance of including Thelwall in an account of the radical rhetoric of clarity. He was an influential and a controversial figure even among radical circles, often delivering provocative speeches which indulged in the kind of figurative abuse elsewhere (and, as I have shown, rather hypocritically) derided by radicals who explicitly denounced that form of obscurantist rhetoric. Thus Nicholas Roe notes that Godwin would have argued in relation to Thelwall’s rhetoric ‘that reform, and the wholesale regeneration of mankind, could be achieved without Thelwall’s lectures which aroused the passions of his audience but did not enlighten their minds’.2 He lectured passionately for reform in London and elsewhere in England, and was punished and pursued by government authorities for his radical activities, arrested along with Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke and other radicals during the infamous treason trials of 1794 which followed the suspension of habeus corpus on May 17, and even spending time in a ‘dead-hole’ in Newgate where ‘the corpses of those who had died of gaol fever’ were kept.3

Attacked from various sides for his fiery rhetoric, Thelwall made various metarhetorical, reflexive attempts to constrain the unpredictable effects of fiery persuasion, as he did in the title of a published speech called Peaceful Discussion, and not Tumultuary Violence the Means of Redressing National Grievances.4 Many of his numerous radical publications in the early 1790s were based on his public lectures and speeches or other forms of public address, such as a response to Burke with the Paineite title Rights of Nature, which took the form of a series of letters ‘to the people’.5 But in spite of his extensive activity, by the end of 1796 Thelwall became one of the primary figures of radical decline, seeking rural shelter from persecution with Coleridge, only to be rejected and forced to find what solace he could elsewhere, as he figuratively does in his 1801 Poems Chiefly Written in Retirement, where his ‘retirement’ contrasts meaningfully with his 1795 Poems Written in Close Confinement in the Tower and Newgate.6 As a particularly fiery writer and orator who simultaneously denounced the excesses of fiery rhetorical information, his rhetoric demonstrates the tendency of the radical metarhetoric of clarity to metamorphose into the object of its critique through parody and appropriation. With its invocation of a self-defeating reciprocal figuration of Burkean rhetorical inebriation, ‘Sober Reflections’ offers a particularly apposite example of this problematic element of Thelwall’s rhetoric. And Thelwall himself is an apposite figure to introduce at the end of this chapter, for as Nicholas Roe has remarked, ‘[a]fter the mass meetings of October and December 1795, the winter marked the demise of Thelwall as a radical leader and the beginning of the end of the popular reform movement’.7

In his pointedly titled ‘Reflections’, Thelwall uses a sustained metaphor of drunkenness to signify the obfuscating potential of language in the hands of writers like Burke who would take advantage of ‘slippery signifiers’ to conflate distinct principles and manipulate the overwhelmed reader. His critique of Burke, in other words, is typically rhetorical and linguistic. Intemperance is associated with figures of obscurity and contrasted with the healthy light of moderation, standing for cloudy consciousness and unclear thought. In Burke’s excessively figurative and emotional letter, writes Thelwall, ‘every thing [is] left to the misguidance of those ignes fatui of intemperance and revenge, which, in the night of ignorance, a foul and corrupted atmosphere never fails to ingender, in the low, rank, marshy fens of vulgar intellect’.8 Considering the sensitive subject he is addressing, Burke’s ‘tricks and arts of eloquence’ and ‘gusts of passion’ are dangerously misapplied, and only exacerbate the intemperance of the revolutionary harpies hatched by forces of oppression in France.9 Burke should have proceeded, Thelwall claims, like a philosopher, with temperate caution, ‘lest by pouring acceptable truths too suddenly on the popular eye, instead of salutary light he should produce blindness and frenzy!’10 Thelwall’s explicit interest in promoting gradual, non-violent reform was figured as under threat by anything calculated to incite violent action, and so when Burke ‘calls in the aid of poetry’ he only contributes to the imbalance which always attends revolutionary excitement.11

Thelwall’s major interest in ‘Sober Reflections’ is in Burke’s misleading conflation of revolution with violence. Because it functions not only as a misrepresentation of the facts, but also as an indiscriminate use of one of the inherent weaknesses of language, Burke’s rhetorical action is doubly worthy of extensive metarhetorical rebuttal. His ‘black cloud of indiscriminate abuse’ is used to obscure the fact that ‘principles, which are the sun of the intellectual universe’, cannot ‘be changed in their nature or their course by the vile actions of a few ruffians’.12 In order to associate revolution in popular consciousness with a dangerous lack of control, the enemies of reform

endeavour to confound together, by chains of connection slighter than the spider’s web… every intemperate action of the obscurest individual whose mind has become distempered by the calamities of the times, not with the oppressions and the miseries that provoke them, but with the honest and virtuous labours of those true sons of moderation and good order who wish… to spread the solar light of reason, that they may extinguish the grosser fires of vengeance.13

Reasoning in a sober fashion is, ostensibly, Thelwall’s remedy to this gross manipulation of the congenital weakness of arbitrary linguistic reference. In this context, Thelwall’s attack on Burke’s loose and figurative language is an extension of a concern for sustaining a clear and rational discourse. Accordingly, he singles out Burke’s figurative description of reason as an example of obfuscation: ‘[w]hy does he thus bewilder our judgment…? Why leave us benighted in these cold fogs of mysticism?’14 Thelwall then goes on, as a consequence of his attempt to diminish the effect of Burke’s faulty and inconsistent associations, to characterize reason - which is always represented as an enemy of the church, if not necessarily of God - as fully human, with no invocation of divinity: ‘I have ever considered reason as nothing more than the operations of the mind, employed in the research, comparison, and digestion, of knowledge by which efficient understanding can alone be produced’.15 In Thelwall’s rhetoric of clarity, reason, and the proper investigation of principles, must be clear and sober in order to withstand the malevolent influence of the foggy haze spread by ‘poetry’ and intemperance.

But in the logic of the new rhetoric of clarity, Thelwall’s metarhetorical use of rhetorical devices and highly figurative language, of long breathless sentences and wild declamations, contradicts his explicit concern for clarity and philosophical deliberation. As Michael Scrivener argues, ‘Thelwall condemned political and verbal “intemperance”, but at the same time celebrated political and verbal “energy” that seems indistinguishable from intemperance’.16 Thelwall’s concern with Burke’s conflation is therefore close to his own inability to maintain a clear distinction between the very terms which Burke is collapsing together, reform and revolution, an inability which ‘was not idiosyncratic but typical of the democratic movement from the French Revolution to the Reform Act of 1832’.17 This problem, of separating the rhetoric of clarity from a rhetoric of obscurity, may now be seen not only in reference to the need to simultaneously move and inform readers, but also to wider problems of linguistic ambivalence, motivated political speech, and the slippage of signification. The line separating ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘eloquence’, was not merely thin, but ultimately indistinct.

  1. In the early nineteenth century, Thelwall began a new career as an elocutionist, establishing an Institute of Elocution and promoting the science of speech until he returned to the rhetorical podium following the Peterloo massacre in 1819. Though Nicholas Roe has argued in his entry on Thelwall in the DNB that his elocutionary activities ‘merged the scientific and political ideals that had formed two aspects of his career in the 1790s’, Howell has observed that in the early nineteenth century ‘by stressing instruction in voice and gesture as a mechanical rather than an intellectual or philosophic matter, the elocutionists made rhetoric appear to be the art of declaiming a speech by rote, without regard to whether the thought uttered were trivial or false or dangerous; and under auspices like these rhetoric became anathema to the scholarly community and sacred only to the anti-intellectuals within and outside the academic system’ (Howell, 713, my emphasis).
  2. Roe, 171.
  3. Paulin, 79.
  4. Thelwall, Peaceful Discussion, and not Tumultuary Violence the Means of Redressing National Grievances (London, 1795). Other examples of Thelwall’s published rhetorical politics in this period include his periodical The Tribune (London, 1795-6]: and The Speeches of John Thelwall (London, 1795).
  5. Thelwall, Rights of Nature (London, 1796).
  6. Thelwall, Poems Written Chiefly in Retirement 1801 (Oxford, 1989), and Poems Written in Close Confinement in the Tower and Newgate (London, 1795). For a recent account of the trials of Thelwall’s relationship with Coleridge, see the chapter on ‘Coleridge, Thelwall, and Oppositional Friendship’ in Gurion Taussig, Coleridge and the Idea of Friendship, 1789-1804 (Newark and London, 2002), 177-213.
  7. Roe, 175.
  8. John Thelwall, ‘Sober Reflections on the Seditious and Inflammatory Letter of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord’, in The Politics of English Jacobinism, ed. Gregory Claeys (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1995), 370. The ignis fatuus, ‘[a] phosphorescent light seen hovering or flitting over marshy ground, and supposed to be due to the spontaneous combustion of an inflammable gas (phosphuretted hydrogen) derived from decaying organic matter; popularly called Will-o’-the-wisp, Jack-a-lantern, etc.’ (OED) was to become an important figure of obscurity in Coleridge’s writings, related to the indeterminacy of the divine and the demonic in the appearance of any figure for guidance.
  9. Thelwall, 339.
  10. Ibid. 337.
  11. Ibid. 373.
  12. Ibid. 364, 366.
  13. Ibid. 369.
  14. Ibid. 386.
  15. Ibid. 386.
  16. Michael Scrivener, ‘John Thelwall’s Political Ambivalence: Reform and Revolution’, in Radicalism and Revolution in Britain, 1775-1848 (London, 2000), 70.
  17. Ibid. 69.

The Decline of the New Rhetoric of Clarity

The collectively problematic nature of the principle of the radical rhetoric of clarity, that clarity functioned as a sign of virtue and veracity, is evident in the radical reaction to Burke’s claim in the Reflections that ‘eloquence may exist without a proportionable degree of wisdom’.1 The optimism characteristic of Longinus’ and Quintilian’s problematic claims for a connection between clarity and truth was registered in the new rhetoric by Hugh Blair, in his anxiously naïve assertion that ‘[o]ne thing is certain… that without possessing the virtuous affections in a strong degree, no man can attain eminence in the sublime parts of eloquence. He must feel what the good man feels, if he expects greatly to move or interest to mankind’.2 Likewise, Blair later claims that ‘[s]tyle has always some reference to an author’s manner of thinking. It is a picture of the ideas which rise in his mind’.3 Invoking classical accounts of rhetoric as inspiration or possession, this is something more than mere mimesis: as Boulton observes, in the new rhetoric of clarity ‘style is not only a means of conveying ideas, it is at the same time an incarnation of their validity and reasonableness’.4 To speak clearly is not merely to be elevated to the level of the clear divinity: it is to be divine. Clarity is simultaneously the evidence of its own truth and the embodied appearance of virtue.

Priestley, however, like Quintilian, is more careful than Blair and other optimists in his formulation of this principle. In a discussion of the need to move one’s audience, the reader’s sympathy with the author, he claims, may be encouraged by giving the impression of sincerity: ‘we are, in all cases, more disposed to give our assent to any proposition, if we perceive that the person who contends for it is really in earnest, and believes it himself’.5 Priestley later deftly turned Burke’s pessimistic statement concerning the virtues of clarity back upon itself, and printed Burke’s own warning on the title page of his Letters to Burke. Wollstonecraft also appropriated Burke’s phrase in a discussion of the simplicity necessary in constitutions: ‘as it is possible for a man to be eloquent without being either wise or virtuous, it is but a common prudence in the framers of a constitution, to provide some sort of check to the evil’.6 But in texts which made a metarhetorical claim to the virtues of their own clarity, such warnings served as much to undermine their own reflective rhetoric as they did the rhetoric of the Reflections.

In other words, although these cautionary statements seem to indicate a sensitivity to the potential for insincerity even in the rhetoric of clarity, they are, in fact, merely an extension of the critique of the rhetoric of obscurity, and are never effectively self-critical. Ultimately, this common pattern in the rhetoric of clarity reflects an unfounded optimism contradicted by the crucial metarhetorical insight that clarity is as artificial as obscurity.7 Priestley’s use of Burke’s phrase was certainly effective in the context, but he does not heed Longinus’s own self-defeating warning about the metarhetoric of Isocrates. A rhetoric which questions rhetoric is itself questionable. The unasked question is: how can a reader know that a writer is sincere, when the rhetoric of clarity can be appropriated through study and practice? This gap in the rhetoric of clarity reflects a deeper failure in the radical reaction to Burke, to which I have already alluded to in my discussion of Thelwall. That is, the writers I have considered here often made use of exactly the same rhetorical and figurative devices they criticised in the language of their opponents. Even if such examples were portrayed as ironic, parodic responses to Burke’s rhetorical excesses, they were nonetheless calculated to play on something other than the reader’s reason, or dispassionate understanding. Wollstonecraft’s critique of the rhetorical failure of the National Assembly reflects this failure of circumspection in radical writers in Britain, and it was a failure which generated an unresolved anxiety crucial to the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity. Obscurity and clarity, ultimately, were more closely allied than any one dared to admit, and any effective rhetoric was, necessarily, deployed in the indeterminacy of a twilight that could always be either the dusk or the dawn.

Another common pattern in the rhetoric of clarity is the sharp and ethically burdened distinction that is often drawn between poetry and prose. For Blair and Priestley, as for many others, poetry was the original language of primitive humanity, both produced by and productive of passionate excitement. Thus in the various radical responses to Burke, his worst moments of rhetorical excess, indeterminacy, and obscurity are characterized quite negatively as ‘poetic’. As Howell notes of Blair’s typical definition of the poetic, ‘[h]is definition seems to allow a critic no choice but to class as poetry a passionate and imaginative discourse like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and to say that the absence of regular numbers in Burke’s treatise can be explained as an allowable exception’.8 The prose of the ‘philosopher’ (here opposed to the metaphysician, and representing something more like a natural scientist), free from the confusing and ornamental embellishments of passion, is the real instrument of clarity in communication, and especially of the propagation of the political and scientific principles associated with reason and enlightenment. The decline of the rhetoric of clarity, and indeed of the utopian scientism of the new rhetoric, is thus pathetically reflected in the fact that ‘for a while, especially in the years 1797-8, the word “philosopher” becomes a term of abuse’.9 Reason and passion, or prose and poetry, are not exactly set up in opposition to each other - time and again the necessity of moving or entertaining readers on a pre-reflective level is invoked in statements on successful rhetoric - but their relationship is nonetheless deeply ambiguous. The poetic is closer to the inspiration of Inner Light than it is to the light of reason communicated by the language of nature. The consequences of this problematic normative distinction between prose and poetry, which is of course in a sense is as old as Plato but which became essential in the revolutionary debates in Britain in the years just prior to the rise of Romanticism, are too comprehensive to admit of study here, but certainly demand further investigation.

A third relevant pattern in the rhetoric of clarity is the representation of revolution as a time of creation (rather heretically) analogous to the Genesis creation narrative. Priestley’s figure of the sun dispersing a mist and of a change in the new ‘aera’ from darkness to light clearly evokes the figure of God’s original illuminating injunction. Light, or the Logos, or reason, communicates order to a chaotic darkness, and the figures of the ‘dark ages’ and the consequent ‘Enlightenment’ participate at the very least by implication in this traditional representation of change. The trope of creation is invoked explicitly by Thelwall in his representation of the fulfilment of a proper constitution: ‘when it is so attracted, and when all the parts shall firmly and peacefully cohere, and, thus brought under the influence of the true laws of nature… to one common centre of truth, the seven days work of creation is complete’.10 For Paine, this representation of revolution was even more significant, insofar as he saw all religious writing and institutionalization as a disruption of nature, as the means for the dissemination not of light, but of darkness. And since the revolution in America represents the beginning of a world, we ‘have no occasion to roam for information in the obscure field of antiquity’11 to discover the natural, original rights of man: primitivism, in other words, is immanent. Revolution is not represented as the return to an origin, for it is entirely new: there ‘is a morning of reason rising upon man on the subject of Government, that has not appeared before’.12 As for many other optimistic radicals, for Paine the American and French revolutions were unlike any that had come before, insofar as they actually created new modes of relationship between citizens and governments, and citizens and other citizens. They gave the inviolable foundation of order where all had previously been chaos.

The foundation for this powerful transvaluation of the imagery of clarity and obscurity fundamental to the Western theological and philosophical traditions was doomed, however, to crumble, not only under the weight of uncontrollable developments across the channel, but also under the weight of insupportable internal contradictions. The careful acceptance of recondite passions into the armoury of clear rhetoric, the philosophically informed awareness of the arbitrary nature of sophisticated language, and the introduction into rhetoric of associationist psychology, with all of the consequent theoretical problems for communication, weakened the rhetoric of clarity from the very beginning. Furthermore, an optimistic and ultimately unsuccessful dependence on the sincerity of metarhetorical writing in or about a clear style produced a major and unresolved distinction between the theory and practice of clarity. As a result, the development of an ambiguous opposition between poetry and prose, or passion and philosophy, served only to highlight the points at which clarity and obscurity seemed, paradoxically, to merge. In the end, through the hasty and intemperate transvaluation of the creation myth, the rhetoricians of clarity had set the stage for later representations of the consequences of the revolution as a fall from innocence, reinscribing in a secular fashion the humiliations of ‘the wild traditions of original sin’13 from which Mary Wollstonecraft, and many others, had hoped they could be freed. This historical collapse of the new radical rhetoric of clarity into a qualified rhetoric of obscurity, this emergence of a politically, philosophically, and theologically fallen language, is the foundation of Coleridge’s Romantic obscurity, in which the positivity and the negativity of both clarity and obscurity was always questionable.


  1. Edmund Burke, Reflections, in Burke, 8.215.
  2. Blair, 1.13.
  3. Ibid. 1.183.
  4. Boulton, 209, my emphasis.
  5. Priestley, A Course of Lectures, 109.
  6. Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View, 352.
  7. As Marilyn Butler has remarked, ‘the international style of the Enlightenment was in reality neither universal nor popular, but the lingua franca of an aristocracy’ (Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (Oxford, 1981), 68).
  8. Howell, 669.
  9. Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries, 55.
  10. Thelwall, 370.
  11. Paine, The Rights of Man, 182.
  12. Ibid. 210.
  13. Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View, 17.