The Rhetoric Of Obscurity
The Rhetoric Of Obscurity
Len Epp
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The New Rhetoric of Obscurity

[I]n the earlier ages, in the dawn of civility, there will be a twilight in which science and religion give light, but a light refracted through the dense and the dark, a superstition.

[T]he particular form, construction, or model, that may best be fitted to render the idea intelligible… is not necessarily the mode or form in which it actually arrives at realization.

Coleridge, On The Constitution of Church and State, 44-5, 21.

In the context of the current study, which locates the origins of our contemporary discourse of clarity and obscurity in Western revolutionary political upheavals at the end of the eighteenth century, the two most important and influential rhetoricians of obscurity were Robert Lowth and Edmund Burke.1 As a figure of some political, theological and hermeneutical importance, Lowth functions well as a starting-point for a discussion of the unfamiliar tradition of obscurity partly because his work has not been the subject of extensive Romanticist critical attention, and is not therefore burdened with obfuscating preconceptions and assumptions. Furthermore, an ambivalence with respect to obscurity in his writings and in his relation to Enlightenment ideals reveals a complex interrelation of clarity and obscurity which obviates any simple, reductive representation of the meaning of his life and work.

Critics have generally considered Lowth’s most significant contribution to the rhetorical debates of the mid-late eighteenth century to have been his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, first delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Oxford in the 1740s and first published in Latin in 1753.2 Much of the preoccupation of the new rhetoricians with the relationship between poetics, philosophy and rhetoric may be traced to its influence, as indeed may be Lowth’s far more famous influence on the treatment of the Bible as literature.3 In the Lectures, obscurity is conceptualised and positively valued in relation to prophecy, the contemplation of God, and the limits of human knowledge. This positive valuation of limitation has a certain political resonance in the context of Lowth’s life as a whole, for as Bishop of London (by virtue of which he was an ‘administrator in charge of the colonial churches’), Dean of the Chapel Royal, and sometime member of His Majesty’s Privy Council, Lowth was implicated in the conservative institutions of church and government.4 In the 1770s, for example, Lowth engaged in an exchange with Richard Price which mirrors Burke’s crucial reaction to Price in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and established a connection with the functions of obscurity which were of essential importance to later conservative ideology.5 Finally, Lowth offers both a unique combination of the sublime and clarity, which serves to undermine the general subjection of obscurity to the discourse of the sublime, and also functions as a figure of ambivalent secular and theological interests, mirroring the indeterminate interchangeability of the divine and the demonic within the discourse of obscurity.

Lowth was also the author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), ‘probably the most influential, and widely used text-book for the rudimentary instruction of English produced in the eighteenth century’.6 Along with a problematically secularized reading of biblical texts, Lowth’s promotion of the principle of clear communication as the condition for the spread of knowledge seems to place him, paradoxically, in the tradition claritas, and in discussions of these and similar principles he does, indeed, value clarity positively and obscurity negatively in the language of the every-day and indeed in poetry. It also places him in the radical and dissenting tradition of writing grammar books with a view to promulgating universal education and the promotion of clear writing and plain speaking. Unpacking (without necessarily resolving) this paradox of perspicuity by a demonstration of Lowth’s distinction between obscurity as a style and obscurity as a roughly epistemological concept will reveal much that is central to the ambiguous relationship between the concepts of obscurity and clarity in his day.

With respect to an obfuscating familiarity the case of Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) is another matter altogether. From its importance in 1790s radical and reactionary texts to its appropriation by twentieth-century critics in relation to the sublime, its significance is overdetermined in contemporary literary scholarship. While historians sometimes scoff at the importance it is given in literary criticism, its influence on the language of political exchange is so generally acknowledged that even claims like the following might not appear to be very great exaggerations: ‘[t]here is a real sense in which the cold war can be said to have begun in November, 1790, with the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ever since that date, the idea of revolution has been an important factor in our intellectual life’.7

But this interest has been determined largely by the interests of the sublimity industry, and a re-reading of the Enquiry which isolates and consciously considers obscurity at length as a primary rather than a secondary concept is therefore essential for an understanding of Burke’s positive obscurity. Burke’s analysis of communication and knowledge in the Enquiry is protoscientific and physiological, and he draws more than a metaphorical connection between the limits of perception and the limits of thought: he collapses together the literal and the figurative in his discussion of perceptual and epistemological limitations, which appear merely as different manifestations of an underlying concept of obscurity. Burke then inscribes this concept in language itself, generating the possibility that obscurity is not a consequence of sublimity in the object, but rather that sublimity in the object is a consequence of obscurity in language. As I will show, Burke’s early articulation of obscurity must be read in the context of his infamous reactionary turn in the 1790s and his subsequent use of obscurity in that decade to promote an anti-revolutionary, conservative politics.

  1. It should be noted that Engell does not include Burke in his list of new rhetoricians, though he does mention that his net may be cast wide enough to include other writers. Howell barely mentions either Burke or Lowth, and in a manner consistent with his relatively apolitical perspective, Mehtonen adopts George Campbell as the ultimate theoriser of new rhetorical obscurity.
  2. The Lectures were first published in English translation in 1787. For a helpful though somewhat unsatisfying account of Lowth’s life and writings see Brian Hepworth, Robert Lowth (Boston, 1978).
  3. In Lowth’s work ‘the critical criteria which were normally used for works of literature were applied to scripture’ (Tim Fulford, Coleridge’s Figurative Language (London, 1991), 83.
  4. See Hepworth, 44-45.
  5. In 1779 Lowth and Price engaged in a brief pulpit-pamphlet war over the interpretation of prophecy and the American revolution. For various texts relating to this controversy, see especially the sermon delivered on Ash-Wednesday, 1779, in Robert Lowth, Sermons, and other remains of Robert Lowth/Memoirs of the life and writings of Robert Lowth, with a new introduction by David A. Reibel (London,1995), and Richard Price, A sermon, delivered to a congregation of protestant dissenters, at Hackney, On the 10th of February last, Being the Day appointed for a general fast, To which are added, Remarks on a Passage in the Bishop of London’s Sermon on Ash-Wednesday, 1779, 2nd ed. (London, 1779).
  6. See Alston’s unpaginated, prefatory ‘Note’ to Robert Lowth, A Short Introduction to English Grammar 1762 (Menston, 1967).
  7. Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘Introduction’, in Power & Consciousness, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien and William Dean Vanech, (London, 1969), 4.


In order to understand the complexities of the new rhetorical concept of obscurity it is necessary first to discuss the extent to which it is informed by relevant conceptions of obscurity in the influence of classical rhetoric on the new rhetoric. Of particular importance in this context is the connection between obscurity and the orator’s ability to effect a pre-reflective movement of the audience’s passions, for the new rhetorical interest in psychology was largely underwritten by a similar preoccupation with this power. While clarity is essential for conveying information, in classical rhetoric it is obscurity that is deemed the most powerful instrument of influence or recipient-formation, and is the foundation for that elevation or heightening of passion which is a product of the best poetry and the most sublime speaking. As I will show, this power is contingent upon three interrelated aspects of the new rhetorical concept of obscurity - mystery, deceit, and the appeal to the pre-reflective - and it depends for its success on the use of figurative language. The grounds for a legitimate exploitation of pre-reflective influence involve a concept of inspiration by an external divine spirit which was universally represented as positively divine. The shadow hanging over this exploitation of obscurity, however, was the possibility that possession by the divine might in fact be indistinguishable from possession by the demonic. Virtue and vice are rhetorically indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable in the relevant writings of classical rhetoric which were re-appropriated in the new rhetoric, and the problem of interchangeability informed the eighteenth-century philosophies of classically trained thinkers like Lowth and Burke in addition to ‘[a]ll the Romantic (male) poets [who] were educated… in the art of rhetoric as a staple part of their curriculum’.1

Longinus’ Peri Hypsous or On the Sublime, by virtue of its late seventeenth-century re-introduction into rhetorical discourse, functioned doubly as a new voice for a psychologised rhetoric and a voice of classical authority. As Timothy Clark has observed, ‘[t]he rediscovery of Longinus’ first-century treatise of rhetoric and poetics… at the end of the seventeenth century provided, in effect, a neutral or secularized theory of inspiration’.2 While On the Sublime participated in a rhetorical tradition involving divine inspiration as the source of the orator’s virtue and authority, its emphasis on an instrumental manipulation of the audience belies Tom Furniss’s distinction between rhetoric and Burke’s new rhetorical interest in physiology when he claims that ‘[o]ne of Burke’s central rhetorical strategies [in the Enquiry] is apparently to abandon the Longinian concern with rhetoric in order to focus on physiological responses to natural objects’.3 On the contrary, a secular, psychological potential was a nascent and pervasive element in the uncomfortable quasi-theistic mythology of On the Sublime, present in the form of an instrumentalism which ‘refers sublimity to what now reads as a peculiar mixture of psychological states and rhetorical devices’.4 Although dating from about the first century CE, it was the 1674 French translation of Peri Hypsous by Nicolas Boileau (which has been called ‘the most important translation of the neoclassic age’5) that made Longinus ‘a household name’ for the following 150 years,6 though this influence was undoubtedly perpetuated in part by William Smith’s 1739 English translation. Although most considerations of Longinus and his influence are justifiably preoccupied with his treatment of sublimity and the subordination of obscurity to a discourse of clarity,7 a focus on obscurity shifts the discussion to Longinus’ postulation of poetry and rhetoric as dependent for their power on the manipulation of pre-reflective passion, a point which was particularly important for eighteenth-century rhetorical and indeed literary theories.8 The language of the sublime poet and the sublime orator is not the language of instruction, or the clear representation of reality, but rather that which associates obscurity in conception with participation in a divine order. Grounded in an immediate reaction which suspends knowledge and the understanding, the sublime effect is dependent on the function of obscurity as a veiling of that designing aspect of art and rhetoric which renders audiences suspicious and therefore critically conscious. Thus Mehtonen argues that Longinus ‘insists that greatness of style rests on the ability of the writer to conceal his techniques and devices beneath their very brilliance’.9

Longinus problematises nominal support in rhetorical theory for clarity as the primary guarantee of a speaker’s virtue by arguing that the power of rhetoric is based on the ability to move an audience against or without its will. Rhetoric and poetry both derive their primary power from this ability to subdue an audience through deliberate concealment or mystification, the positive value of which rests in the guarantee that elevated speech is divinely inspired. This subjugation of the recipient is contingent upon the use of ‘elevated’ language and imagery, or the sublime. The

effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer.10

This power is closely allied with the use of figurative language, as it ‘possesses great natural power’ which contributes to the sublime by not allowing ‘the hearer leisure to criticise the number of the metaphors because he is carried away by the fervour of the speaker’.11 The use of figures like metaphor generates a level of indeterminacy and diminishes the ‘leisure’ necessary for critical labour, since it involves a mode of speech which does not descend to earthly, straightforward description. Obscurity is the source of sublimity and elevated speech is obscure all the way down, and it produces a pre-reflective suspension of that understanding which might lead the audience to question what it hears. For Longinus, while clarity is sometimes useful in rhetoric as a mode of instruction, obscurity, as indeterminacy and the suspension of judgment, is the basis of control.

But for Longinus the obscurity of the figurative is not necessarily sufficient for subduing critical labour, since figures threaten to draw attention to the speaker’s artificial designs upon his audience, corrupting the sense of honest communication from the divine. The solution to this possibility of poetic or rhetorical failure depends not on the speaker’s abandonment of figure, but on the ability to obscure his own obscurity by blinding the audience with a profusion of images. Thus the ‘art which craftily employs [sublimity and passion] lies hid and escapes all future suspicion… by the very excess of light’.12 The sublime speaker is dependent on hiding his own figures ‘whose art [passion and the sublime] throw into the shade and as it were keep in concealment’.13 The sublime, in other words, is not the primary instrument of elevation, but rather a secondary instrument of concealment. This inscription of a doubled deceit into nature of the sublime is ultimately related to the final goal of the sublime speaker, which is to elevate the audience, ‘inflaming our ardour and as it were illumining our path, [carrying] our minds in a mysterious way to the high standards of sublimity which are imaged within us’.14 Deceit and mystery, two essential elements of obscurity, are in this context characterized as benevolent, insofar as the sublime speaker leads his audience to realize, by a receptive participation in divine discourse, the potential sublimity within themselves.

But as Mehtonen remarks of Longinus, he was aware ‘that good and bad things often well up from the same source’.15 The subversive potential for a speaker to deliberately misuse his ability to obscure his art and suspend the just suspicions of his audience, or in other words to be possessed by a demonic rather than a divine spirit, must therefore be vitiated by a nominal metaphysical connection drawn between sublimity and greatness of character:

it is absolutely necessary to indicate the source of this elevation, namely, that the truly eloquent must be free from low and ignoble thoughts. For it is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality.16

This metaphysical injunction serves not only to justify the speaker’s manipulative abuse of obscurity, but also to produce in the audience a veneration for the obscure speaker himself, as opposed to his speech alone. The poet’s sublime style – grounded on a concealed obscurity - is here asserted to be an indelible sign of his character. Thus D.A. Russell observes that Longinus ‘treats “height” as a product not of technique but of character’.17 The sublime speaker’s divine character is the condition for the possibility of his elevated language, which is once again figured as an ‘echo’ of a transcendent, eternal structure, for ‘in discourse we demand… that which transcends the human’.18 For Longinus, the power of the orator - a power underwritten by various techniques of obscurity, especially an obscured obscurity - is underwritten by a nominal or metarhetorical participation in the hierarchical order of the universe itself.

Significantly, Longinus neither acknowledges nor resolves the problematic implication that even the virtuous function of obscurity is grounded in a form of deceit fundamental not only to the figurative itself, and to the strategy of the orator who exploits the indeterminacy which is the source of his power. The new rhetoric thus appropriated as a central document concerning the sublime style a text which, in fact, in its preoccupation with control, ‘describes not a manner of writing but an effect’.19 The nature and origin of the sublime itself remained obscure, but Longinus covered over this problem by performing his own principles: both the sublime and On the Sublime are reflexively grounded in a strategy of concealment and indirection based on an appeal to the reader’s own desire to participate in the sublime, and ‘the sum of [Longinus’s] approach is an appeal to moral pride’.20 The obscurity of the sublime was supplied by a persuasive metarhetoric about the sublime. As Russell also remarks, ‘no critic widely read before L[onginus] came into fashion laid as much emphasis as he does on the personality of the poet; more important herein than his stress on moral excellence as a prerequisite of great writing is his frequent use of the metaphors of inspiration and enthusiasm’.21

This unacknowledged, contradictory assertion of the virtue of deceit, coupled with the metaphysical assertion that a great style is a natural sign of greatness, or participation in a benevolent, divine, transcendental order, left unanswered the possibility of an indiscriminate imitation of the elevated style. It also initiated a pattern of obfuscating reflexivity in which a text covered over its fundamental hollowness with a false fullness of commentary about its own content. And this sublime, transcendental cheat was founded on the appeal to the recipient’s moral pride in a groundless greatness that is a guarantee of his own virtue. Together with the eighteenth-century, secularised reception of Longinus which would focus on the personality of the speaker as the guarantee of his possession by or participation in a naturalised or scientific discourse of truth, the potential obscurity at the heart of Longinus’s discourse on and of sublimity would later haunt Coleridge’s development of the rhetoric of Romantic obscurity and, indeed, Romantic concepts of poetic genius. As John Hamilton puts it, ‘[i]n a word, [obscurity] bestowed upon the poet’s work the coveted aura of genius’.22

A metarhetorical text which reflexively illuminates its own instruments of deception or obscurity carries with it certain consequences detrimental to its success. Though he is strangely (or perhaps disingenuously) unaware of the effect of this problem for his own project, Longinus refers to it by discussing its effects on the work of another author. Deftly characterizing a too-revealing passage from Isocrates’ Panegyric as a type of ‘hyperbole’ which must be avoided, Longinus asserts:

[t]he theme of his Panegyric is that Athens surpasses Lacedaemon in benefits conferred upon Greece, and yet at the very outset of his speech he uses these words: ‘Further, language has such capacity that it is possible thereby to debase things lofty and invest things small with grandeur, and to express old things in a new way, and to discourse in ancient fashion about what has newly happened.’ ‘Do you then, Isocrates,’ it may be asked, ‘mean in that way to interchange the facts of Lacedaemonian and Athenian history?’ For in his eulogy of language he has… published to his hearers a preamble warning them to distrust himself.23

Longinus’ claim is that revealing the negative potential of language to be appropriated and used for as it were unnatural ends undermines the authority of the text in which such a claim is made. Yet his own characterization of the sublime as grounded in forms of deceitful obscurity, however justly applied, and even his inclusion of Isocrates’ statement itself metarhetorically belies his own vindication of ingenuous elision. The representation of rhetorical manipulation is also a presentation of rhetorical manipulation. It is a peculiar fact that the particular rhetorical problem which Isocrates relates - the inversive, interchangeable appropriation of the language of an old tradition for the elevation of the new and unprecedented - was to become a central preoccupation in the 1790s Reflections controversy in Britain, with the language of the French monarchy and the English constitution taking the place of Athens, and the language of the revolutionaries and radicals taking the place of Lacedaemon.

  1. Timothy Clark, The Theory of Inspiration (Manchester and New York, 1997), 85.
  2. Ibid. 66.
  3. Tom Furniss, Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology (Cambridge, 1993), 25.
  4. Clark, 128.
  5. William Bruce Johnson, ‘Introduction’, in Longinus On the Sublime, (Delmar, New York, 1975), xvi.
  6. D.A. Russell, ‘Longinus’ On The Sublime, ed. D.A. Russell (Oxford, 1964), xliv. See the introduction for a useful discussion of the questionable identity of ‘Longinus’.
  7. For example, John Hamilton has noted Boileau’s attempt to limit both Pindar’s and Longinus’ commitment to the persuasive power of obscurity ‘by interpreting… poetry’s obscurity as always concealing a clear and rational core’ (John Hamilton, 152).
  8. Timothy Clark and Jon Mee have discussed at length the complications involved in eighteenth-century considerations of the pre-reflective in their studies of inspiration and enthusiasm. See Timothy Clark, The Theory of Inspiration, and Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm (Oxford, 1992).
  9. Mehtonen, 13.
  10. Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (Cambridge, 1899), 43.
  11. Ibid. 125, 123.
  12. Ibid. 97.
  13. Ibid. 97.
  14. Ibid. 83.
  15. Mehtonen, 61.
  16. Longinus, 61.
  17. D. A. Russell, ‘Introduction’, ix.
  18. Longinus, 137.
  19. D. A. Russell, xlii.
  20. Ibid. xlii.
  21. Ibid. xlv.
  22. John Hamilton, 214.
  23. Longinus, 139.


Another important classical source for the new rhetoric is the theorisation of the relationship between ethics, philosophy and rhetoric in Quintilian’s first century Institutio Oratoria. As Mehtonen discusses at length in Obscure Language, Quintilian emerged ‘during the early modern period as one of the authorities in Western obscurity doctrine’ and as the ‘rhetorician of the era of transition, at the juncture between antiquity and the Middle Ages when Christianity had begun its spread throughout the Roman Empire’, his doctrines ‘merge seamlessly with epistemological discussion of the nature of knowledge and the clear and obscure criteria of truth’.1 But while Mehtonen is right that what Quintilian was concerned with was the absence of philosophical interest in communication and its relation to epistemology in contemporaneous rhetorical discussion, Quintilian was primarily interested in the absence of philosophical ethics in the discourse of rhetoric.2 This interest was related to the absence of a guarantee for the benevolent origin of rhetoric, but ‘the sarcasm of Quintilian… regarding the dubious nature of oracular pronouncements loses its resonance in the Christian Middle Ages, when theories of rhetoric were applied expressly to religious and theological contexts’.3 Thus it is in the secularised context of the new rhetoric, in which the virtue of the writer or orator could no longer rest on assertions of participation in the divine, that Quintilian’s submerged interested in rhetorical ethics resurfaced. His aim was ‘the education of the perfect orator’ who must at once possess rhetorical skill and ‘be a good man’, for the character of the orator is essential to the development of his ability, as ‘no man can speak well who is not good himself’.4 But such claims for virtue are contradicted throughout the Institutio by Quintilian’s awareness that ‘speaking in a persuasive manner… is within the power of a bad man no less than a good.5 Though Quintilian’s problematic guarantee of virtue by virtue of style is distinguished from Longinus’s similar assertions by the absence of any appeal to divine influence, it remains nonetheless an assertion riven by unresolved contradictions and assumptions, rather than a systematic argument.

On occasion, Quintilian does admit that the affectation of virtue may itself be a tool, claiming that when it comes to the question of successful influence over an audience, to be thought to possess virtue is therefore equivalent to possessing virtue. For this reason, which is especially important in relation to the obfuscating function of the figurative, ‘artifice and stratagem should be masked, since detection in such cases spells failure’, and ‘secrecy’ and deceit - that is, an instrumental obscurity - are essential when clarity would fail to persuade.6 Like Longinus, Quintilian thus sets the stage for a positive instrumental valuation of rhetorical obscurity which replicates unresolved assertions and contradictions concerning the indiscrimination or interchangeability of the divine and the demonic, or the honest and the dishonest, in the artificial adoption of a replicable rhetoric traditionally associated with virtue.

The function of obscurity as figurative concealment is grounded in Quintilian’s belief that moving the passions of the recipient pre-reflectively, against or without its will, is a legitimate rhetorical and poetical activity. This is the reason that even though solecisms are a fault in the language of instruction, they are, as figures, permissible for use by poets and orators, precisely because they produce an instrumental obscurity. Metaphors are particularly useful because they are ‘designed to move the feelings’, and it is in this function that they cease to be mere tropes, for ‘there is no more effective method of exciting the emotions than an apt use of figures’.7 And because moving the audience toward the proper end by any means is the goal of the orator, ‘[t]here is also available the device of dissimulation, when we say one thing and mean another, the most effective of all means of stealing into the minds of men’.8 Thus an obscure style is proper if it is used successfully to manipulate the passions of the audience: ‘when we come across denunciations such as that directed against Rullus for the obscurity of his language… we shall give [his stylistic transgressions] our sanction as reasonable concessions to passion and just resentment, and as useful in stirring up hatred against those whom it is desired to render unpopular’.9

As an artificial effect, clarity itself can be appropriated by the speaker as a disguise and used not for the purpose of straightforward communication, but rather for manipulation. A style associated with (or which reflexively associates itself with) figures of clarity, in other words, can be an instrument of obscurity. This concealment is at once essential for the purpose of persuasion and immensely difficult to achieve, and it is therefore the highest form of art, since ‘to avoid all display of art in itself requires consummate art’.10 The validation of obscurity in style (as in the case of Rullus) is thus transformed into a validation of obscurity concealed in clarity:

[s]ome, however, regard this quality [palpability, ‘evidentia’] as actually being injurious at times, on the ground that in certain cases it is desirable to obscure the truth. This contention is, however, absurd. For he who desires to obscure the situation, will state what is false in lieu of the truth, but must still strive to secure an appearance of palpability for the facts which he narrates.11

The power of the art of rhetoric thus involves donning the artful disguise of clarity. It is only telling half the story of the spectre of Quintilian in the discourse of the new rhetoric to claim, as Miriam Brody does, that

[a]s Quintilian himself had written in the Institutes of the Orator, and as Smith, Campbell, and Blair had served up rhetoric’s advice for the eighteenth century, the more ornamented the language, the more “flowery the diction,” the more disguised the natural world that language eternally and imperfectly attempts to describe.12

The real import, the crucial destabilising centre of the rhetorics of Longinus and Quintilian, is thereby covered over in favour of an ideology which favours the naturalness of clarity. The most significant contribution of these two classical sources to the new rhetoric of obscurity, and through it to the development of Romantic obscurity, was an unacknowledged critique of clarity and its relation to virtue and honesty as a style or a manner that was potentially even more artificial than plain obscurity. This submerged critique manifested itself only as an unresolved, contradictory network of assertions which replicated the sublime’s obfuscation of its own obscure foundations.

In Quintilian and Longinus, the new rhetoricians found a precedent for a study of the relation between the styles and the figures of clarity and obscurity, and of the power of rhetoric and poetry to have pre-reflective effects on an audience. They also found a precedent for an understanding of the function and meaning of the obscurity of the figure, and of its association with an ambiguous and contradictory ethical and instrumental valuation of the styles of clarity and obscurity. Perhaps most importantly, however, they found a precedent for the positive valuation of obscurity, not only as a rhetorical instrument, but also as a sign of the communicator’s relation to a transcendent, mysterious origin of rhetoric which served as the ground for his claim to goodness and the justification of his power. And with no classical guarantee provided for the divine origin of persuasive rhetoric, the possibility of a demonic origin of clarity persists just under the surface of the eighteenth-century philosophy of rhetoric. Finally, once there was a possibility that the concept of obscurity could be positively valued, there emerged a possibility that the figures of obscurity could be positively valued as well.

  1. Mehtonen 50.
  2. While the new rhetoric clearly represents a fulfilment of Quintilian’s desire to re-appropriate the former component of philosophy into the rhetorical tradition, the extent to which it re-appropriated ethics is more complex. Peter de Bolla argues that ‘the three major works of aesthetics published between 1757 and 1763, Burke’s Enquiry, Gerard’s Essay on Taste, and Kames’s Elements of Criticism, effect [a] transition from a discourse on the sublime which genuflects towards ethics to one which helps to produce, as much as it turns towards, psychology’ (Peter de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime [Oxford, 1989], 13). The absence of ethics from rhetorical discourse in Quintilian’s day is thus replicated in the eighteenth century, but with a crucial difference related to the importance of Enlightenment scientific discourse. Thus Miriam Brody has observed that ‘[b]ecause Enlightenment rhetoricians conceived that prose might be ameliorative in society’s ongoing mission of reforming itself, one’s writing style was extricated in moral choices’ (Miriam Brody, ‘A Vindication of the Writes of Women: Mary Wollstonecraft and Enlightenment Rhetoric’, in Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Maria J. Falco [University Park, Pennsylvania, 1996], 119).
  3. Mehtonen, 56.
  4. Quintilian, The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian, trans. H.E. Butler, 4 vols. (London, 1921-22), 1.Pr.9, 2.15.34.
  5. Ibid. 2.15.3.
  6. Ibid. 11.9.5, 12.9.3. The connection of obscurity (obscurum) and secrecy is made in 5.13.16 where Quintilian, discussing types of cases, states that ‘[t]here is also the type of charge which is known as obscure, where it is alleged that an act was committed in secret’.
  7. Ibid. 8.6.19, 9.1.21.
  8. Ibid. 9.1.29.
  9. Ibid. 5.13.38.
  10. Ibid. 4.1.57.
  11. Ibid. 4.2.64-65.
  12. Brody, 118.

Robert Lowth

Although he is mostly known in rhetorical and literary circles for his profound influence on hermeneutics and key elements of Romantic theories of the poetic through the Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, in A Short Introduction to English Grammar, Lowth presents a positive valuation of an instrumental clarity for the purposes of instruction. Indicating its association with the radical politics of grammar and language discussed by Olivia Smith (according to whom Lowth’s is ‘the first comprehensive grammar’ published in this tradition1), Brian Hepworth has argued for the secular and modern influence of the Short Introduction by claiming that it was a ‘major factor in a huge liberalizing movement in which [Lowth] inculcated the adoption of English in all its traditional, Northern integrity and in which he rejected Classical models’.2 Lowth’s goal in the Short Introduction is to elucidate to the public the ‘general principles of Grammar as clearly and intelligibly as possible3 and, as Hepworth points out, he attempts to do so even in the ‘large type and paper’4 format of his textbook. Errors are throughout characterized as ‘obscure’ or ‘ambiguous’ and he even sacrifices logical exactness for the sake of ‘easiness and perspicuity’.5 The language of prose and ordinary speech is therefore opposed to the language of poetry and rhetoric, insofar as the use of figures (including personification or prosopopoeia) is licensed by the different goals of the latter.6 Perspicuity is described as one of the greatest beauties of style, and well adapted to the instruction not only of ‘the Learner even of the lowest class’, but also of ‘the greatest Critic and most able Grammarian of the last age’, whose classical education left him ‘at a loss in matters of ordinary use and common construction in his own Vernacular Idiom’.7 Though Carol Percy has shown that Lowth’s self-representation as a paragon of clarity was both a failure and somewhat disingenuous,8 and Olivia Smith has argued that Lowth ultimately perpetuated traditional class divisions,9 it is clear that, however he may have failed, Lowth meant in this work to confer a positive valuation on clarity and to unmask the pretensions of classical education, uncritical deference to the dead languages, and the inaccessible styles adopted by canonical writers.

Lowth refers not only to the possibility (in poetry and rhetoric) that forms of obfuscation might serve a purpose, but also that they might be appropriated for an improper use. Thus he inserts as an example of the nine types of words the following phrase: ‘[t]he power of speech is a faculty peculiar to man, and was bestowed on him by his beneficent Creator for the greatest and most excellent uses; but alas! how often do we pervert it to the worst of purposes?’10 The insertion of this type of passage is clearly (and typically) intended for another level of instruction than that undertaken by the central thesis. Lowth is calling the reader’s attention to the fact that an adherence to a shared and simple standard of speech in common discourse - that is, to clarity - is a means of defence against this type of perversion, though perhaps not one which will be effective in all cases. Lowth indicates his commitment to a form of language and a consciousness of language which, as Olivia Smith states in a very different context, ‘would lessen the likelihood of imposture both by clarifying meaning and by minimizing the semantic confusion which encourages an unconscious submission to authoritative terms’.11 Throughout his other works Lowth maintains this qualified ‘democratic’ and practical commitment to the aim of lifting the veils of obscurity which are the products of historical distance and poor education, and are the necessary consequence of hierarchical learning.12

While Lowth’s promotion of clarity in instruction seems straightforward, his promotion of perspicuity in poetry is somewhat more problematic. One of the essential attributes of Hebrew poetry, he asserts throughout his Lectures, is the fact that ‘the Hebrew poets frequently make use of imagery borrowed from common life, and from objects well known and familiar’ and that the only reason they appear obscure to us is that we are unfamiliar with them.13 The biblical scholar’s goal, therefore, must be to remove the ‘great degree of obscurity [that] must result from the total oblivion in which many sources of their imagery must be involved’ and to ‘restore their native perspicuity to such passages as appear obscure’.14 The clarity imparted to the text by the critic is therefore a positive means of revealing what has been covered by a negative obscurity produced by the passage of time and the foreignness of biblical poetry.

Perspicuity in poetry, and especially in the historical Hebrew terra incognita of biblical poetry, is also important for the movement of the passions. Thus ‘one quality, which is indeed congenial to all the poetry of the Hebrews… [is] that brevity of diction which is so conducive to sublimity of style. Diffuse and exuberant expression generally detracts from the force of the sentiment’.15 This ‘force’ produced by clarity is also the product of passion, for the ‘understanding slowly perceives the accuracy of the description in all other subjects… but when a passion is expressed, the object is clear and distinct at once; the mind is immediately conscious of itself and its own emotions’.16 Poetry is the language of the passions (where it is not didactic)17 and passion is more clearly and ‘immediately’ communicated than reason, because passion is immediately present to self-consciousness in the reader or listener. But the potential for a positive obscurity is located in poetry nonetheless, for

[t]he Orientals look upon the language of poetry as wholly distinct from that of common life, as calculated immediately for expressing the passions: if, therefore, it were to be reduced to the plain rule and order of reason, if every word and sentence were to be arranged with care and study, as if calculated for perspicuity alone, it would no longer be what they intended it, and to call it the language of passion would be the grossest of solecisms.18

Lowth’s positive valuation of clarity in instruction must therefore be understood to be quite distinct from his positive valuation of perspicuity in poetry, which is associated with passion. And since the exploitation of the passions involves an abandonment of reason and abandonment in enthusiasm or inspiration, this contradictory form of poetic clarity functions as a means of importing obscurity into the poetic.

Poetry for all its clarity therefore has the ‘Licence’ of the obscurities of language, which are also a consequence of its ungrammatical form.19 The Hebrew word for poetry is ‘Mashal’, with which ‘chidah is frequently joined, and means, a saying pointed, exquisite, obscure’ - poetry, that is, is the ‘figurative style’.20 Central to its function is the enigma, or that which is only with difficulty understood, if it is understood at all.21 The enigmatic is in part an expression of the boundaries of knowledge, as in the case of amplification: ‘the object is sublimity, or to impress the reader with the idea that the magnitude of the object is scarcely to be perceived’.22 Poetry, for Lowth, is a form inherently designed for the obscure: though it may communicate passions with a form of reflexive clarity, its subject is often that which resists understanding. This resistance on the part of a subject to penetration by contemplation is precisely why Mashal is ‘expressive of power, or supreme authority’.23 The epistemological component of the concept of obscurity, that is, is what gives it its force over the passions and its relevance in the contemplation of the most inscrutable of all objects, God, and the most powerful poetry is for this reason the prophetic.

Before I turn to a discussion of the obscurity of the prophetic, however, it is necessary to resolve, to the extent that it can be resolved, what I called above Lowth’s ‘paradox of perspicuity’.24 Some coherence is recoverable for his confused assertions if one distinguishes between the location of obscurity in the style, in the object described, or in the subject of the poem. Of Ezekiel, for example, Lowth writes that his ‘diction is sufficiently perspicuous, all his obscurity consists in the nature of the subject. Visions… are necessarily dark and confused’.25 While clarity is sometimes meant to signify a revelation of the meaning of the passage, it often refers merely to the style: the diction may be clear, even if the sense of the passage is not. Perspicuity produces sublimity because it gives us a clear view of the obscurity of the object, and it makes the passion produced by our confrontation with the limits of our understanding clear to us. In this sense it approximates the ‘third moment’ of the roughly Kantian sublime described by Thomas Weiskel and Tom Furniss, ‘a defensive recuperation [following a crisis which has disrupted the equilibrium of the mind and the object] in which the mind identifies itself with or attributes to itself, through a metaphorical transposition, the qualities of that which had threatened to overwhelm it’,26 or in which ‘the mind recovers the balance of outer and inner by constituting a fresh relation between itself and the object such that the very indeterminacy which erupted in phase two is taken as symbolizing the mind’s relation to a transcendent order’.27 Here, the relevance of this third phase of the sublime concerns the reflexive identification of the recipient with a potentially obscure, transcendent order reminiscent of that which guarantees elevation in Longinus.

In The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy, Ian Balfour has noted the importance of the indeterminate origin of inspiration in the concept of the prophetic:

[t]he modalities of the prophetic are complex and varied: All are beset by claims of divine inspiration whose face value is impossible to ascertain, and most are marked by obscure figuration and an unpredictable temporality, even when the temporal parameters seem clearly set out by the prophecy itself.28

Lowth’s celebrated introduction and application of a literary hermeneutics to the Bible rests on his argument ‘that prophecy was poetry’.29 In relation to obscurity, the prophetic, or the representation of God and his word through the language of a fallen consciousness and the imagery of a fallen nature, demonstrates that obscurity on all levels can play a positive role because the subject of prophecy is in a sense obscure, as it were, all the way down. Perspicuity, therefore, must at some level merge with obscurity. Perhaps the best reconciliation of this strained interrelation of perspicuity and passion, perspicuity and power, and indeed of perspicuity and obscurity, may be Lowth’s concept of the ‘ideal shadow’:

for when simply and abstractedly mentioned, without the assistance and illustration of any circumstances whatever, it [the ‘object’ under discussion, specifically the human representation of the attributes of God] almost wholly evades the powers of the human understanding. The sacred writers have, therefore, recourse to description, amplification, and imagery, by which they give substance and solidity to what is in itself a subtile [sic] and unsubstantial phantom; and render an ideal shadow the object of our senses.30

This ‘ideal shadow’, which is produced precisely where the language of abstraction or reason fails, functions as a sort of suspension of disbelief which represents the obscure object well precisely because we are conscious of this representation as a suspension, and one that will necessarily collapse, since ‘[t]he understanding is continually referred from the shadow to the reality’.31 This is the basis for Lowth’s claim that it is in the use of common, everyday objects in poetry that perspicuity and sublimity merge.32 In the contemplation of that which is constitutionally beyond us, clarity is capable of positive valuation precisely because it results in our consciousness of obscurity. Paradoxically enough, then, we may at least imagine a reconciliation of Lowth’s apparent contradictions through an awareness of the different modes of clarity and obscurity and their complex interaction.

Lowth’s discussion of the obscurity of prophecy introduces two new functions of obscurity which have interesting implications for the interrelation of interpretation and knowledge. First, prophecy, as a prediction of future events, reveals the function that the indefinite delay of obscurity plays with respect to temporality:

[f]or some degree of obscurity is the necessary attendant upon prophecy; not that, indeed, which confuses the diction, and darkens the style; but that which results from the necessity of repressing a part of the future, and from the impropriety of making a complete revelation of every circumstance connected with the prediction.33

On this level, prophecy, like the ‘mystical allegory’, is fittingly represented in relation to the difficulty we confront in the interpretation of meaning expressed ‘in a dark, disguised, and intricate manner’.34 Thus prophecy, at least initially, ‘in its very nature implies some degree of obscurity’.35 But because the meaning of the text is in the future at the time of writing, there is a promise that ‘veil of obscurity’ will eventually be lifted: ‘[t]he prophetic, indeed, differs in one respect from every other species of the sacred poetry: when first divulged it is impenetrably obscure; and time, which darkens every other composition, elucidates it’.36 As Balfour has observed, ‘prophecy is the one and only type of poetry that time illuminates rather than obscures’.37 In this sense, the prophetic offers the promise of future illumination; the indeterminacy of the text is not entirely indeterminable.38 But ‘[i]t is just at the moment when prophetic speech should be clear and precise – so runs the paradox of Lowth’s argument – that it risks being most clearly fictional…. That the past can refer to the future and the future to the past means that one cannot decide simply from the surface of a given text whether it is prediction or history’.39 This invokes the Romantic obscurity of indefinite delay, where the temporality of interpretation is related to the indeterminacy and historicity of reading, and it is ‘in part this indeterminacy of historical reference – history as prophecy, prophecy as history – that accounts for the power and the citability of the prophetic text’.40 The obscurity of prophetic texts opens the possibility for multiple interpretations in particular historical contexts, presenting a productive obscurity in which the reader experiences in the prophecy a historicized conception of the limits of knowledge.

In Isaiah: A New Translation, Lowth even claims that by virtue of his investigations he has himself gained the authority to interpret certain prophecies,41 and indeed one of the basic goals of the Lectures is to educate his readers so that they too will be capable of just interpretations of the scriptures. But this agenda, which is informed by the Protestant experience of the Reformation and by Lowth’s own Enlightenment-inspired commitments, would later present him with some problematic consequences, as the authority to interpret the indeterminacy of the prophetic text became a site not only of scholarly and religious but also of political importance in the later eighteenth century. Lowth’s subsequent anxiety about the importunate appropriation of this power mirrors later conservative anxieties about the proliferation of interpretation with the growth of a working-class and radicalized readership.

The second form of obscurity which is introduced by the prophetic does not allow for the freedom of determination in any sense, and is associated with a pre-reflective, obfuscating power of persuasion related to the above discussion of Longinus and Quintilian. Prophecy, Lowth claims, as the most powerful form of poetry, makes use of all the instruments of amplification and is even given a license of excess denied to other poetic forms, being ‘more ornamented, more splendid, and more florid than any other’.42 It is prophetic poetry that ‘bears away the mind with irresistible violence… from human to divine’.43 Once brought under this power, the judgment and the understanding of the reader fail utterly to determine the prophet-poet’s subject:

it is plain from the general tenour [sic] of the sacred volume, that the indications of future events have been, almost without exception, revealed in numbers and in verse; and that the same spirit was accustomed to impart, by its own energy, at once the presentiment of things, and to cloath [sic] it in all the magnificence, in all the elegance of Poetry, that the sublimity of the style might consist with sentiments so infinitely surpassing all human conception.44

The power of prophetic obscurity is twofold: it moves us to a contemplation of the truth of God in a manner beyond our control, and at this point of contemplation it confronts us with our utter failure to comprehend that which has carried us away. Thus

[t]he narrowness and imbecility of the human mind being such, as scarcely to comprehend or attain a clear idea of any part of the Divine nature by its utmost exertions; God has condescended, in a manner, to contract the infinity of his glory, and to exhibit it to our understandings under such imagery as our feeble optics are capable of contemplating.45

Significantly, the reference to our ‘feeble optics’ in the context of a discussion of understanding inscribes an obscurity in our epistemological constitution which collapses together the perceptual and the figurative meanings of obscurity.

The limitations of perception, in other words, are not merely figures for the limitations of knowledge: they are simply another manifestation of our limitation with respect to the all-seeing and all-knowing God. We experience our fallenness not only in the boundaries of thought but also in the boundaries of vision. Thus Newlyn remarks that poetic language, ‘grand or humble, [is] inadequate to the purpose of describing God; and [Lowth] sees sublimity as consisting in the acknowledgment of our human inadequacy, in the face of supersensible ideas. Here, as in Burke and Cowper, humiliation of the subject is built into the structure of the sublime’.46 In other words, it is poetry’s essential inadequacy that makes it suitable for generating a clear conception of the obscurity of the sublime, and God. Obscurity as darkness and obscurity as ignorance are, on this level of analysis, the same thing, and this is one of the reasons that there is in Lowth a troubled relation between obscurity as a figure and obscurity as a concept. It is also one of the reasons that the figurative nature of ‘obscurity’ hides itself so well. The complexities and confusions of the rhetoric of obscurity are a product of its own structure.

  1. Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (Oxford, 1984), 3.
  2. Hepworth, 140. Hepworth goes on to claim on the same page that the Short Introduction is about ‘what Wordsworth called “the language really used by men”’. It should also be noted that Hepworth’s is the only book-length biography of Lowth, and that he generally represents a more secular Lowth than other scholars.
  3. Lowth, Short Introduction, xiii.
  4. Hepworth, 136.
  5. Lowth, Short Introduction, 113 n and 138, xiv.
  6. Ibid. 29-30.
  7. Ibid. xiv, viii.
  8. See Carol Percy, ‘Paradigms Lost: Bishop Lowth and the “Poetic Dialect” in his English Grammar’, Neophilologus 81.1 (January 1997), 129-44. While Percy ‘charts’ the apparent contradictions in Lowth’s simultaneous criticism of errors in prose and approbation of errors in poetry, she ultimately provides little argument for why Lowth would have done so.
  9. Smith, 4.
  10. Lowth, Short Introduction, 9.
  11. Smith, 139.
  12. Take Lowth’s intention in his Isaiah, for example, of being as clear as possible on the subject of Hebrew poetry, ‘a subject, which for near two thousand years has been involved in great obscurity, and only rendered still more obscure by the discordant opinions of the learned’. Lowth, Isaiah: A New Translation, 2nd ed. (London, 1779), iv.
  13. Lowth, Lectures, 1.123.
  14. Ibid. 1.122, 185.
  15. Ibid. 2.250.
  16. Ibid. 1.368.
  17. For a discussion of the clarity of didactic poetry see Lectures 2.176, and note the claim on 1.309 that ‘Reason speaks literally, the passions poetically’.
  18. Ibid. 1.330.
  19. Lowth, Isaiah, li.
  20. Lowth, Lectures, 1.78 n, 214.
  21. “Enigmatists may have been those whom we now call Poets; inasmuch as it is customary with poets to mingle enigmas and fables in their verses, and by which they obscurely indicate realities: for an enigma is no other than a figurative mode of expression” (ibid. 1.95-96 n).
  22. Ibid. 1.259.
  23. Ibid. 1.304.
  24. Timothy Clark, Tim Fulford, Scott Harshbarger and Nigel Leask have discussed Lowth in the context of both a ‘democratic’ familiarity of imagery and an association with orality which privileges the concept of clarity. But underlying Lowth’s promotion of clarity was a commitment to a positive obscurity. Familiar objects and clear language are, in the end, simply the best means for communicating obscurity. Lowth’s relationship with orality is equally compromised, for the basis of his analysis of Hebrew poetry in both the Lectures and Isaiah is the notion that knowledge of the pronunciation of Hebrew words has been lost. Consequently, his concept of Hebrew poetry is almost entirely literate, not oral. See Clark, 75; Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty, and Authority (Cambridge, 1996), 222-224; Scott Harshbarger, ‘Robert Lowth’s Sacred Hebrew Poetry and the Oral Dimension of Romantic Rhetoric’ in Rhetorical Traditions, 199-214; and Nigel Leask, ‘Pantisocracy and the politics of the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads’, in Reflections of Revolution, eds. Alison Yarrington and Kelvin Everest (New York, 1993), 50.
  25. Lowth, Lectures, 2.94.
  26. Furniss, 25.
  27. Weiskel, 24. Significantly, Weiskel adds on the same page: ‘[i]n the case of poetic imagery, however, it is notoriously difficult to draw a clear line between the image as perception and as a sign standing for the nonsensible or the unimaginable – a fact that accounts for a history of quarrels over what is or is not sublime’.
  28. Ian Balfour, The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy (Stanford, 2002), 1.
  29. Balfour, 59. Balfour mentions on the same page that ‘[b]efore Lowth’s time, there did exist a considerable tradition in English letters that, especially in the Renaissance and in the age of Milton, associated prophecy with poetry’, but argues that Lowth was the first to offer a suspicion that this association could be grounded in a literary analysis of Biblical prophecy.
  30. Lowth, Lectures, 1.356-57.
  31. Ibid. 1.360.
  32. For example, see ibid. 1.144 and Isaiah Notes 14-15.
  33. Lowth, Lectures, 1.200. George Campbell later echoed this assertion in his Philosophy of Rhetoric: ‘I know no style to which darkness of a certain sort is more suited than to the prophetical’. George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (London and Edinburgh, 1776), 2.150.
  34. Lowth, Lectures, 1.246.
  35. Ibid. 2.65.
  36. Ibid. 2.66, 1.247-48.
  37. Balfour, 72.
  38. Lucy Newlyn has initiated a discussion of the connection drawn by Lowth and Burke between obscurity and the aesthetics of indeterminacy, according to which a text’s resistance to closure ultimately underwrites the possibility of the reader’s freedom to question it. See Lucy Newlyn, ‘Questionable Shape’, 209-33.
  39. Balfour, 74.
  40. Balfour, 75-6. Balfour’s discussion of the temporality of prophetic obscurity is based on a reading of Lowth’s grammatical evidence for the indeterminacy of temporal references, according to which in prophetic texts the past may referred to in the future tense, and vice versa.
  41. Lowth, Isaiah, lxxiii.
  42. Lowth, Lectures, 2.68.
  43. Ibid. 2.86.
  44. Ibid. 1.48 my emphasis.
  45. Ibid. 2.312.
  46. Lucy Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (Oxford, 1993), 52.

Edmund Burke

Obscurity is Neither the Source of the Sublime nor of Any Thing Else.

Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, new rev. ed., ed. David V. Erdman (Berkeley, 1982), 658. 1

The Romantic sublime can always stand for a failure of vision. Indeed, its very basis in optical theory and empirical philosophy makes it a means of writing power as failure and vice versa.

John Whale, ‘Sacred Objects and the Sublime Ruins of Art’, in Beyond Romanticism, eds. Stephen Copley and John Whale (London and New York, 1992), 226.

Although Olivia Smith has claimed that the word ‘obscurity’ was among the words that became more common in eighteenth-century political and rhetorical discourse after the publication of Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution,2 it was in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful that Burke first thematised the concept of obscurity in relation to rhetoric. While the Enquiry is decidedly non-political in the direct, interventionist sense of the Reflections, it is only by reading the Reflections and Burke’s other contributions to the 1790s revolution debate alongside the Enquiry that we can see the depth to which his work is informed, in form and content, by the new rhetorical importance of obscurity as a positive concept. Understandably, given its title and the development in the twentieth century of an enormous interest in the concept of the sublime, Burke’s strange youthful speculations are normally read in the light of investigations into the nature of the sublime, and obscurity remains unthematised, relegated to the margins of the master discourse of sublimity. The importance of the development of obscurity as a positive concept is always in such discussions somewhat supplemental to the discourse of the sublime, as it is in Furniss’s formulation: ‘[f]ormulations of the sublime typically celebrate the energetic, the obscure, the disruptive, the unlimited, the powerful, and the terrible as a new set of positive aesthetic terms’.3 But obscurity, contrary to Blake’s hostile claim, is neither subordinate to nor merely a function of the sublime or anything else. In the rhetoric of obscurity, obscurity is in fact the source and the necessary condition for the possibility of sublimity. Thus it is in a discussion of ‘Burke’s adaptation of the Longinian Sublime’ that John Hamilton, whose primary subject is obscurity rather than sublimity, shows how ‘Burke argues that, because it affects the passions, the poetic Sublime results from the obscure power of abstract words, rather than from clear, mimetic images’.4

The Longinian association of rhetorical power with the excitement of the passions was appropriated by Burke in the Enquiry in a protoscientific and physiological form representative of new rhetorical eighteenth-century ‘psychological’ investigations. A ‘natural’ physiological foundation was meant to secure the universality both of his theory and the human ‘reason’ upon which it was based, and which he (rather contradictorily) derided. The Enquiry provided a modern framework for the rhetoric of obscurity through Burke’s promotion of the direct manipulation of the passions through the suspension of ‘reason’ or the critical faculty. The primary function of poetry and rhetoric is therefore to communicate passions through physiological processes which precede judgment. God, Burke claims,

whenever [he] intended that we should be affected with any thing, he did not confide the execution of his design to the languid and precarious operation of our reason; but he endued it with powers and properties that prevent the understanding, and even the will, which seizing upon the senses and imagination, captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them or to oppose them.5

The communication and control of the reception of passion through sympathy ‘which is one of the strongest links of society’6 is therefore a political power grounded in an awareness of the limitations of knowledge: ‘whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power… we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him’.7 As Lucy Newlyn has observed, Burke’s sublime is founded on a form of obscurity which leads only to humiliation: ‘Burke is interested in obscurity as a source of terror, which the mind controls by aesthetic distancing, but to which it ultimately succumbs, under the oppressive sense of its own littleness’.8 Knowledge, in other words, is conflated with perception, and obscure imagery is in this sense a means of evoking an impression of our limited epistemological relation with the world. This perhaps gives a certain twist to the oft-quoted assertion that ‘[a] clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea’9: if we can form a determinate idea of a subject, our knowledge is (at least) co-extensive with its being, and therefore still bound by the fallen limitations of human knowledge. A little idea is a human idea.

This is familiar territory in Burke scholarship, of course, but in this context it is obscurity as the foundation of the sublime, not an analysis of the significance of the sublime in itself, which is central. Reading the Enquiry for a rhetoric rather than an aesthetic of obscurity or sublimity highlights the public, political, and social importance of obscurity as opposed to the heavily subsidised, internalised, and disciplinarily philosophised discourse of the sublime. Such a reading can point towards a better understanding of what Paul Trolander is hinting at when he says (somewhat reductively) that ‘the reaction Burke initiated [with the publication of the Reflections] was political, not philosophical’.10 In Burke there is no sense of participation in, or elevation to, or assumption of the divine, no ‘third moment’ (pace Kant) in which the reader or the recipient feels a sense of sufficiency in self-reflection and the resolution of a crisis. The power over the passions represented by elevation, underwritten on a scientific level by an account of direct physiological manipulation, is thereby transformed by Burke from a means of raising an audience to the level of its internal potential (pace Longinus) into an instrument not only of social unity, but also of social domination.

One of Burke’s primary devices for a psychologistic account of obscurity is quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in particular those passages involving the figures of Satan, God, and Death. In ‘Questionable Shape’, Lucy Newlyn demonstrates the political associations invoked by Miltonic indeterminacy in relation to monarchical rule and the belief that ‘mystification is the secret of power’.11 But while obscurity bears an important relation to power and mystification (or non-rational influence) throughout Burke’s analysis, it is unclear at first in the Enquiry whether obscurity is a product of sublimity or is productive of it. This interchangeability or indiscriminate origin of mystery is crucial for the way it sustains an ambiguity about the divine or demonic origins of mystification, and hence an ambiguity about the ethical foundations of mystery. This is evident in Burke’s analyses of the power of indeterminacy in Milton’s depictions of Satan and of God. The depiction of Satan is described by Burke, significantly, on the level of the imagery of obscurity alone, as a ‘noble picture’ of ‘images of a tower, an archangel, the sun rising through mists, or in an eclipse, the ruin of monarchs, and the revolutions of kingdoms’.12 As Tom Furniss has remarked on Burke’s reference here to Milton’s lines on Satan, ‘Burke is using this passage to illustrate the way sublime obscurity pre-empts rational enquiry’.13 In Burke’s rhetoric of obscurity, such figures exert on the mind a power of their own: by them ‘the mind is hurried out of itself, by a croud [sic] of great and confused images; which affect because they are crouded [sic] and confused’. But at the same time the image is constructed ‘with a dignity… suitable to the subject’, not the subject or idea with a dignity suitable to the image.14 The sublimity of Satan, that is, both produces and is produced by obscure images.

Milton’s description of God demonstrates the same function of obscurity from a perspective which reconciles a potential contradiction internal not so much to the rhetoric, but rather to the ‘Burkean aesthetic of indeterminacy’.15 As a figure of benevolent omnipotence, and as the source of life and creation, God is most often associated not with chaotic obscurity, but with creative light. Furthermore, in the context of a Western tradition in which light is associated with knowledge and the logos, God’s omniscience seems to demand his representation as a source of light rather than a source of darkness. But our (human) relative ignorance, perverted by our fallen state, necessarily renders our conception of God indistinct: turning Plato on his head, as it were, the sun becomes, paradoxically, by its power over us, a shadow. Burke’s dictum that ‘darkness is more productive of sublime ideas than light’16 takes this observation to another level altogether. Milton, according to Burke, was not merely aware of the power of darkness to produce sublime ideas, but was in fact

so entirely possessed with the power of a well managed darkness, that, in describing the appearance of the Deity, amidst that profusion of magnificent images, which the grandeur of his subject provokes him to pour out on every side, he is far from forgetting the obscurity which surrounds the most incomprehensible of beings.17

God, consequently, is surrounded by ‘the majesty of darkness’, and Milton succeeds in communicating this obscurity by himself participating in its possession.18

But when the figures of clarity and obscurity are united in God, a special figurative synthesis is necessary. The ‘light and glory which flows from the divine presence’ under this tension becomes ‘a light which by its very excess is converted into darkness, “Dark with excessive light thy skirts appear”’.19 In protoscientific psylosophical fashion, Burke explains the physiological analogue of this Miltonic effect: ‘[e]xtreme light, by overcoming the organs of sight, obliterates all objects, so as in effect exactly to resemble darkness…. Thus are two ideas as opposite as can be imagined reconciled in the extremes of both’.20 In this fascinating resolution, the sublimity of the idea demands a paradoxical formulation for the interchangeability of obscurity and clarity invoked in other ways by Longinus, Quintilian and Lowth, and later by Hugh Blair.21 In other words, invoking this crucial Miltonic image and inverting obscurity into a potential sign of the highest order of clarity, Burke perpetuated the problematic interchangeability of the divine and the demonic origin of both clarity and obscurity in rhetorical and metarhetorical discourse.

In his consideration of the primary source of the power of sublimity, Burke turns away from imagery itself to a consideration of language and its relation to epistemology. ‘The proper manner of conveying the affections of the mind from one to another, is by words’.22 But the function of the imagery of obscurity in words has, in spite of the myriad representations of its power, only a subordinate effect to what is the real power of poetry: ‘in general the effects of poetry, are by no means to be attributed to the images it raises’.23 This power of words is based on Burke’s concept of language as productive, more often than not, of no determinate image whatsoever, and of the passions as ‘considerably operated upon without presenting any image at all’.24 Words are in two ways rendered distinct from the things to which they refer: first, because they stand in an arbitrary relation (in Lockean fashion) to the things they represent, and second, because association determines meaning in accordance with custom rather than direct experience. Thus the meaning of words is not found in any determinate mental representations of the objects to which they refer.

The effect of this is that words represent only indeterminate ideas in almost every case, and certainly in all cases in which there is no natural object before us to stimulate immediate perception. Even words representing real essences, we are told, can be mixed up with others.25 Eventually, this destabilizing effect becomes indistinguishable from a ‘natural’ association between a word and a thing, for ‘there are associations made at that early season, which we find it very hard afterwards to distinguish from natural effects’.26 Cultural associations are thus closer to meaning proper and are, in fact, the things to which words refer.

Since the word and the thing or idea it represents are thus separated, the obscurity or indeterminacy of language renders ideas indeterminate, and hence potentially sublime. The following passage demonstrates this shift toward the primacy of obscurity in the epistemology of the Enquiry:

[n]ow, as there is a moving tone of voice, an impassioned countenance, an agitated gesture, which affect independently of the things about which they are exerted, so there are words, and certain dispositions of words, which being peculiarly devoted to passionate subjects, and always used by those who are under the influence of any passion; they touch and move us more than those which far more clearly and distinctly express the subject matter.27

The power of words is in the passion evoked, not in an understanding of the idea described: language is therefore one of the conditions for the possibility of the sublime. It is because of the inherent obscurity or productive indeterminacy of words that the ideas of indeterminate objects are ‘not presentable but by language… if they may be properly called ideas which present no distinct image to the mind’.28 Put simply, if God were to reveal himself to us visually, he would lose his sublimity, even if he appeared ringed with clouds, or as a blinding light, because as an image he would have a determinate presence. After a while, one can imagine, we would see God as the cloud itself, and lose the sense of indeterminacy necessary for the sublime.29 Thus the Enquiry comes to the as it were radical (though unarticulated) conclusion that it is the obscurity of language which produces the sublime, not the sublime which produces the obscurity of language.

In its positive valuation of the concept of obscurity, the rhetoric of obscurity generates the possibility for a positive valuation of the figures of obscurity. This possibility represents a deep ambivalence towards the ideals of complete knowledge and communication which were essential to mainstream Enlightenment thought and to much of the new rhetoric itself. But, as I have shown, the positive valuation of certain aspects of obscurity can exist along with a positive valuation of clarity and a veneration of the scholar’s penetration of the mists of time. Through a strongly Enlightenment-oriented reading of such texts, the rhetoric of obscurity thus hides itself, as it were, under cover of light. Consequently, the positive meaning of obscurity is absent from Johnson’s dictionary, and even for us it is almost always assigned merely negative content. Reading for obscurity in the central texts of mid-eighteenth-century rhetoric and aesthetics, however, reveals a deep commitment to the positivity of obscurity, and one which often supersedes other, more traditional, considerations.30 In this sense, the Enquiry perpetuates the dilemma which Longinus ascribes to Isocrates: any text which reveals to its audience the instruments by which the power of language may be put to use, leaves open the possibility that it may be put to a use unprescribed by the author.

These early ‘psylosophical’ reflections on the rhetoric of obscurity inform Burke’s participation in the revolution debate in Britain from the Reflections in 1790 until his death in 1797. Burke’s most significant contributions to the rhetoric of obscurity in this later period were his resolute politicisation of a positive, conservative obscurity and his representation of the temporality of obscurity in relation to political prophecy. In Burke’s various works in this period (and radical reactions to his work), obscurity thus played a crucial role in the language of politics and politicised philosophies of language in the revolution debate, and ‘despite the occasional character of many of [Burke’s] writings, neither he nor his audience would have perceived any radical discontinuity between the political subject-matter and the literary form of his writings’.31 In this debate, the rhetoric of obscurity is a rhetoric in action, a performative metarhetoric formed in reaction to rhetorical opposition and designed to have an influence over the performances of the indeterminate ‘people’.

The influence of precedent in the unwritten British constitution and the importance of obscurity for the perpetuation of inherited power were considered by Burke to be essential for the conservation of traditional power and the perpetuation of economic and political stability in Britain. His almost nihilistic support for the trappings of obscurity as a means of resigning the populace to the rule of government was therefore expressed in relation to the positive use of illusion and secrecy. For example, in the Reflections Burke laments the fact that ‘[a]ll the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal… are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off’.32 The grandeur and luxury which he claimed made inherited hierarchy acceptable to a relatively powerless populace was to be stripped by the diffusion of new, unprecedented knowledge, which would serve the double function of undermining both authority and precedent. The ‘light’ of revolutionary knowledge is therefore in this context a negative, and obscurity a positive, Miltonic figure of Godlike power like that discussed in the Enquiry. This positive valuation of the obscurity of ignorance is justified by the claim that ‘our minds (it has long since been observed) are purified by terror and pity; our weak unthinking pride is humbled, under the dispensations of a mysterious wisdom’.33 This ‘weak unthinking pride’ is a basic condition of human existence, or at least of those excluded from that education which brings strength through intellectual labour, and causes one to inspire humility in others, rather than to be humbled oneself. Consequently, the promise of ‘light’ for the constitutionally unenlightened is figured as a dangerous violation not only of precedent, but of natural order: ‘[n]ot being illuminated with the light of which the gentlemen of France tell us they have got so abundant a share, they [the makers of the British constitution] acted under a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind’.34 In order to preserve their order from destructive revolutionary light, according to Burke, those in authority must maintain their power through veils, and they must create an order which is inaccessible to those who are, by consequence of birth and education, benighted.

It is not only the ignorance of the populace, however, which requires the perpetuation of an obscured authority under an obscured guise. Their passions, or enthusiasm, too, require restraint, as Burke did not wish to see the passions invoked by the French Revolution communicated to Britain. In his ‘Letter to a Member of the National Assembly’, which was ostensibly a defence of the Reflections from Francoise-Louis-Thibault de Menonville’s intuition that ‘matters might become worse if violent men used Burke’s words as an excuse to push matters further’,[35 Burke therefore endorsed the instruments of obscurity as a means for subduing lesser passions. Responding to de Menonville’s attack on his style, he defended the infamously enthusiastic Reflections by characterizing it as a work of reason which ought ‘to be hazarded, though it may be perverted by craft and sophistry’.36 Revolutionaries and their radical sympathisers present a danger precisely because the usual effect of obscurity fails with them: ‘[j]udicature, which above all things should awe them, is their creature and their instrument’.37 Overcome by their passions and seeking to communicate their threatening feelings throughout Europe, such agitators require from their superiors the imposition of a powerful restraint. For Burke, this imposition is merely a peculiar example of an underlying social truth: ‘[s]ociety cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere…. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters’.38

Burke’s response to this threat was to invert and transvalue it into a destructive anti-sunlight or energy which obscured the fact that forms of obscurity are necessary for sustaining social order. Thus, for example, France is represented as having ‘sanctified the dark suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust’, the revolutionaries ‘have purposely covered all that they ought industriously to have cleared, with a thick fog’, and they hypocritically delight ‘in the most sublime speculations; for, never intending to go beyond speculation, it costs nothing to have it magnificent’.39 In Brissot’s innovative French, ‘[t]hings are never called by their common names’,40 and this exploitation of linguistic indeterminacy becomes a sign of ‘false philosophy and false rhetorick, both however calculated to captivate and influence the vulgar mind, and to excite sedition’.41 Burke’s awareness of the destructive potential of obscure rhetorical energy led him to modify his endorsement of rhetoric as an instrument of control. If the free-floating signifiers of passion were let loose upon a society in which passion was venerated above reason – if, that is, discourse was grounded on an appeal to the demonic - all hell, almost literally, was liable to break loose.

Burke’s support for ‘reason’ in his ‘Letter to a Member of the National Assembly’ represents more than a momentary attempt at self-defence, but rather the beginning of an attempt to ground political language in a base more stable than that of the passions. In a context where he mentioned (provocatively) that even Charles Fox may have been ‘dazzled’ by ‘a new scheme of liberty’,42 we can make sense of Burke’s desire for imposing a restraint on impassioned language. Even though the privileged audience to which he appealed in many of his letters of the period (some of which were never intended for publication) had ‘a large stake in the stability of the antient order of things’,43 that audience was nonetheless under threat from misused words. Once again in reference to the bedazzled Fox, Burke wrote disingenuously: ‘we are not to be imposed on by forms of language. We must act on the substance of Things’.44 To do so was to nominally replace a language of mobile, open meaning with one of stability and relatively secure closure.

Burke’s representation of a stabilising temporality in the rhetoric of obscurity bore a significant relation to prophecy. The obscurity of the past was the foundation of present stability. It served not only to ‘veil’ the violence and corruption on which the present order was founded, but also established a precedent to which individuals could refer, and which they could imitate, in order to secure social stability. This ‘judicious obscurity’ was part of the ‘great use of Government… as a restraint’,45 and had the distinction of participating in a divine order: ‘[w]e, the people, ought to be made sensible, that it is not in breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope of softening the divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer’.46 This invocation of divine action or inaction as the source of political solutions is certainly out of place in the context, in one sense, but the representation of humanity as being in a benighted state in the present is consistent with Burke’s earlier reference to constitutional actions based in a humbled sense of the common people’s ignorance. The statesman, with a more comprehensive prospect of the present, stands therefore as a guide to his subjects, grounding his predictions for the future on the continuance of a tradition which unveils, to an extent, the mist that encompasses what is yet to come. The obscurity of tradition, which gives it force and stability, is the condition for revelation.

The remarkable energy and the sense of an unprecedented creation characteristic of the French Revolution, for Burke a sort of inversion of the fiat lux, however, fundamentally altered the statesman’s relation to temporality. The result of the revolutionary ‘energy’ which gives its proponents strength was that, as a consequence of ‘their arrogance, their mutinous spirit, their habits of defying every thing human and divine, no engagement would hold with them for three months’.47 Not only does this Protean state vitiate any claim to historical precedent (the ‘newness’ of the French Revolution being a claim common to both its supporters and its detractors), but it also renders a clear representation of the present impossible, for ‘the language, like every thing else in [France], has undergone a revolution’.48 Consequently, the present is indeterminate, as it rests on no stable foundation, and, finally, there is no basis for any secure avenue of political or economic prognostication. The statesman, in the aftermath of the revolution, is thus reduced to an unremitting obscurity in his relation to temporality, and, sharing in the ignorance of his people, is thoroughly humbled, and can wait only for divine intervention. The future, like Death, is become ‘dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and’, ironically, ‘sublime to the last degree’.49

In the last two years of his life Burke maintained his desire to effect political change even as he endured the humiliation of being ignored by or abused in parliament. His (infamously) pensioned solitude offered him unique possibilities for rhetorical performance. In order to defend his views on the war with France, he figured himself as an obscure or solitary man, but the inebriate excess of his rhetoric increased and conditioned all of his later work. As a man beyond the years of direct participation, he could figure himself as a harmless advisor. Both self-representations were rendered in a rhetoric of obscurity which plays on the multifaceted sense of obscurity, combining at once a sense of insignificance or humility (for obscurity in relation to a person the OED has ‘not illustrious or famous; humble’) and the power to safely humiliate (for the obscurity ‘of a place’ the OED has ‘remote from observation; hidden, secret’). In his ‘Letter to William Elliot’, as he exhorts the young man to engage in politics, Burke asserts that ‘even in solitude, something may be done for society. The meditations of the closet have infected senates with a subtle frenzy, and inflamed armies with the brands of the furies’.50 From this dark corner he felt that he could arouse sufficient passions in individuals ‘to the aid and to the controul of authority’.51

Rather than being statements concerning his actual power or influence, these invocations of obscurity are in fact calculated postures adopted by Burke in relation to particular situations. In his ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, Burke complains disingenuously: ‘[w]hy will they not let me remain in obscurity and inaction?’ as though the two were equivalent.52 Pursuing the figurative path of retreat even as he disseminates his opinion in order to influence his correspondents (and whomever else might come across his deliberately semi-public political letters), he continues to affect harmlessness: ‘[i]t was long known that the instant my engagements would permit it, and before the heaviest of all calamities [the death of his son] had for ever condemned me to obscurity and sorrow, I had resolved on a total retreat’.53 He figures himself in this incarnation as a harmless and defeated old man (even his age is figured as an ‘obscure twilight’54). This unique self-referential extension of the rhetoric of obscurity, in its untrustworthy ambivalence and opportunism, reflects Burke’s sustained commitment to the use of rhetorical figures in the attempt to influence others through his own studied eloquence.

In these final years Burke chose to expand rather than to contract his penchant for figurative excess, making no attempt to hide the artfulness of his metaphors: ‘out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France, has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man’.55 Such vehement outpourings of artificial wrath could not have been more calculated to bring ridicule upon Burke’s own head, rather than anger upon the heads of his opponents. Equally ill-conceived were Burke’s expostulations on the King, especially in an obviously partisan reference to a verbose Royal Declaration:

[i]t is in a style, which neither the pen of the writer of October, nor such a poor crow-quill as mine can ever hope to equal. I am happy to enrich my letter with this fragment of nervous and manly eloquence, which if it had not emanated from the awful authority of a throne, if it were not recorded amongst the most valuable monuments of history, and consecrated in the archives of States, would be worthy as a private composition to live for ever in the memory of men.56

Given the careful power of many of Burke’s earlier speeches and writings, one is reminded here not only of Longinus’ warning concerning the injudicious use of hyperbole, but also his famous representation of the aging Homer as a sinking sun.57 In any case, Burke remained to the end of his life committed to the rhetoric of obscurity, even to excess.

One element of this indulgence in metaphor was Burke’s representation of the French Revolution as a return to a sort of pre-Creation or hellish state of indeterminate chaos. Such figures have a political connotation relating to the temporality of obscurity, in which a present failure to act in accordance with precedent is produces the indeterminacy of the future. In the famous passage on the ‘revolution harpies of France,’ Burke represented them as ‘sprung from night and hell, or from that chaotic anarchy, which generates “all monstrous, all prodigious things”’.58 The anarchic ‘rebels to God’ manage to block God’s creative light through their ability to ‘raise a smouldering smoke that obscures him from their eyes’.59 If peace is to be found with such a country, ‘it must be in that state of disorder, confusion, discord, anarchy and insurrection’.60 This indeterminate political state invokes the interchangeability of the divine and the demonic insofar as it infects all of Europe, and even Britain, which is in ‘this same chaos, where light and darkness are struggling together’.61 In the more direct language of politics, this chaos is based on a determinate principle: ‘[i]n this new world of Policy, wherein nothing is done upon any preceding example… everything therefore must lead to consequences… uncertain and obscure’.62

Burke was convinced that the radical originality of the French Revolution and its unpredictable revolutionary energy obscured the future and thereby crippled the productivity of the statesman. Much of this despair remained with him in his final writings, and he often despaired of enlightening ‘the dark prolific womb of Futurity’.63 But his late belief in the unity of wisdom and passion offered some qualified hope for effective action. Recalling Ecclesiastes 7:7, he wrote in what was once again a form of posturing and self-defence: ‘[o]ppression makes wise men mad; but the distemper is still the madness of the wise, which is better than the sobriety of fools. Their cry is the voice of sacred misery, exalted, not into wild raving, but into the sanctified phrensy of prophecy and inspiration’.64 His representations of his ability to perform this essential object of the statesman, however, did not all partake of the obscure figuration of prophecy. In the ‘Third Letter on a Regicide Peace’, an unfinished pastiche composed in the last few months of his life, Burke wrote, in reference to his opponents:

[a]s to the future, that party is content to leave it, covered in a night of the most palpable obscurity…. This defect, to my power, I mean to supply; that if any persons should still continue to think an attempt at foresight is any part of the duty of a Statesman, I may contribute my trifle to the materials of his speculation.65

There is, perhaps, some irony in the fact that Burke, one of the primary proponents of the rhetoric of obscurity, and one of the primary targets of those radicals who styled themselves as ‘enlightening’ Europe, should produce in one of his final works a passage exhibiting the basic characteristics of the 1790s new rhetoric of clarity which emerged in opposition to his own work. Irony aside, however, its portentous admission of the interchangeability of the rhetoric of clarity and obscurity, and of the tendency for a reflexive rhetoric about rhetoric to oscillate between these sometimes indeterminate options, mirrored the simultaneous decline and inversion of the radical rhetoric of clarity into a rhetoric of qualified obscurity.

  1. In an article on Blake and the ‘bounding line’, Matthew Green has explored Blake’s understanding of the relationship between obscurity and identity, though he does note that Blake also discusses the pleasure of shadows (Matthew Green, ‘Outlining the “Human Form Divine”: Reading Blake’s Thoughts on Outline and Response to Locke alongside Lavater and Cumberland’, European Romantic Review 15.4 [Dec. 2004], 511, 526).
  2. Smith, 146.
  3. Furniss, 19.
  4. John Hamilton, 199.
  5. Edmund Burke, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful’ in Burke, 1.268.
  6. Ibid. 224.
  7. Ibid. 239.
  8. Newlyn, ‘Questionable Shape’, 217.
  9. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 235.
  10. Paul Trolander, ‘Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution’, in The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, ed. Lisa Plummer Crafton (London, 1997), 108.
  11. Newlyn, ‘Questionable Shape’, 211.
  12. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 234.
  13. Furniss, 120. The description of Satan is from PL 1.589-99.
  14. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 234.
  15. Newlyn, ‘Questionable Shape’, 227.
  16. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 1.248.
  17. Ibid. 1.248-249, my emphases.
  18. PL 2.266-7.
  19. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 1.249. Frances Ferguson argues for the relation between obscurity and the forms of discomforting sensation which drive one to self-preservation which is implied in such passages: ‘[s]ublime objects create particular problems for the sensations - by presenting themselves as too powerful or too vast or too obscure or too much a deprivation for the senses to process them comfortably’ (Frances Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime [London, 1992], 8).
  20. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 1.249. The Milton quotation is from PL 3.380. My term ‘psylosophy’ invokes Coleridge’s suggestion of the term ‘psilosophy’ in a presentation copy of A Lay Sermon to John Gibson Lockhart (see LS, 244). By ‘psylosophy’ I refer to the increasingly scientific, philosophised interest in what we now call ‘psychology’ in the mid-eighteenth century, which often resulted in armchair speculations about the relation of the mind to nature, such as Burke’s Enquiry. This movement has its modern equivalent in loosely psychoanalytic literary scholarship with philosophical pretensions, like Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence (New York, 1973).
  21. Scott Harshberger notes that ‘[f]ollowing Lowth, Blair attributes the special power of Hebrew sublimity to its perspicuity, derived from a “conciseness” of expression’ (Scott Harshberger, ‘Robert Lowth’s Sacred Hebrew Poetry and the Oral Dimension of Romantic Rhetoric’, in Rhetorical Traditions, 208). Likewise, M. H. Abrams discusses the effect ‘of a humilitas-sublimitas’ in which ‘as Lowth puts it, “the meanness of the image” and the “plainness and inelegance of the expression” are used with such “consistency” and “propriety” that “I do not scruple to pronounce it sublime”’ (M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism [New York, 1971], 398). This association of sublimity with clarity and plainness clearly complicates any attempt to subordinate the concept of the sublime to that of obscurity, and vice-versa. In any case, the implication is once again that plainness and simplicity are not neutral forms of natural discourse, but instead are the products of an influential artifice.
  22. Burke, Enquiry, 1.232.
  23. Ibid. 1.234.
  24. Ibid. 1.232.
  25. Ibid. 1.312.
  26. Ibid. 1.284.
  27. Ibid. 1.319, my emphasis.
  28. Ibid. 1.319.
  29. Thomas McFarland draws attention to this curious effect in a discussion of the symbol, where he quotes Karl Jaspers from Von der Wahrheit: “[t]he symbol is suspended when I grasp essential reality in it. If it becomes fixed and definite and turns into an object in the world, then it loses its essential reality. It collapses into a sign, a signification, into a metaphor” (Thomas McFarland, Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin [Princeton, 1981], 407).
  30. A useful place to begin such a reading is Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla’s The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory (Cambridge, 1996). Many of the pieces included in this text overflow from a consideration of the sublime to one of a conceptualized obscurity, and it is perhaps only the traditional priority of the concept of sublimity which obscures this reading. See especially the section from Clio; or a discourse on taste (1769]: by James Usher, 147-156.
  31. Frans de Bruyn, The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke (Oxford, 1996), 6. John Whale likewise notes that ‘Burke the political theorist and Burke the aesthetic rhetorician have often gone hand in hand’ (John Whale, ‘Introduction’, in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. John Whale [Manchester and New York, 2000], 6). By maintaining a more rhetorical rather than an aesthetic or philosophical account of the of the origins of Romantic obscurity, I mean in part to avoid the pitfall of reflexive Romantic self-replication identified by Paul Hamilton as a sort of ‘linguistic idealism’ in Romanticist studies of the language of the revolution debate: ‘[t]he familiar “crisis of representation”, the dilemma of logocentrism, the deconstruction of all material categories of the natural into arbitrary modes of legitimation – all betray a contemporary linguistic idealism which is bound to see Romanticism in what McGann calls its “own” terms’ (Paul Hamilton, ‘“A Shadow of a Magnitude”: The Dialectic of Romantic Aesthetics’, in Beyond Romanticism, eds. Stephen Copley and John Whale [London and New York, 1992], 16).
  32. Edmund Burke, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, in Burke, 8.128. In his Reflections, Burke’s inversions of revolutionary light function as a deliberately inversive appropriation of Price’s language in his Discourse on the Love of Our Country. But as is the case generally in such metarhetorical attacks, the activity of reciprocal figuration (by virtue of which different writers take up and redeploy various transvalued figures from their opponents in order to invert their significance), Burke can’t help but become indistinguishable from Price: ‘[a]fter all, [Burke] does more than satirize Price; he also doubles him. For a moment he gleefully becomes Price, following him to the pulpit, citing his sermon at length’ (Anne Mallory, ‘Burke, Boredom, and the Theater of Counterrevolution’, PMLA 118.2 [March 2003], 227). Interestingly, John Faulkner notes that Price’s adoption of a prophetic rhetoric was particularly disturbing to Burke, who understood its obscure power (John Faulkner, ‘Burke’s Perception of Richard Price’, in The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture, ed. Lisa Plummer Crafton, [London, 1997], 6).
  33. Burke, Reflections, 8.132.
  34. Ibid. 8.292-293.
  35. L.G. Mitchell, in the introduction to ‘Letter to a Member of the National Assembly’, in Burke, 8.294.
  36. Burke, ‘Letter to a Member’, in Burke, 8.297.
  37. Ibid. 8.302.
  38. Ibid. 8.332. It is interesting to note in this context that in On the Sublime, which (as Michael Meehan has remarked) is famous for its assertion that ‘great art could only flourish in a free society’, Longinus claims at the end of his text (in a language and with figures remarkably similar to those employed in relation to the French Revolution) that ‘[i]n an age which is ravaged by plagues so sore, is it possible for us to imagine that there is still left an unbiassed and incorruptible judge of works that are great and likely to reach posterity, or is it not the case that all are influenced in their decisions by the passion for gain? …Nay, it is perhaps better for men like ourselves to be ruled than to be free, since our appetites, if let loose without restraint upon our neighbours like beasts from a cage, would set the world on fire with deeds of evil’ (Unpaginated preface to Michael Meehan, Liberty and Poetics in Eighteenth Century England [London, 1986)]; Longinus, 161).
  39. Burke, Reflections, 8.89, 285, 114.
  40. Burke, ‘Preface to Brissot’s Address’, in Burke, 8.512.
  41. Burke, ‘Thoughts on French Affairs’, in Burke, 8.384.
  42. Ibid. 8.407.
  43. Burke, ‘Heads for Consideration on the Present State of Affairs’, in Burke, 8.402.
  44. Burke, ‘Observations’, 8.430.
  45. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 231; ‘Thoughts and Details on Scarcity’, in Burke, 9.120.
  46. Ibid. 9.137.
  47. Burke, ‘Remarks on the Policy of the Allies’, in Burke, 8.480, 468.
  48. Burke, ‘Preface to Brissot’s Address’, 8.521.
  49. Burke, ‘Enquiry’, 1.232.
  50. Burke, ‘Letter to William Elliott’, in Burke, 9.41.
  51. Ibid. 1.42.
  52. Burke, ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, in Burke, 9.147.
  53. Ibid. 9.148. This technique is reminiscent of ‘the conceit of recusatio, whereby the poet demonstrates his abilities while claiming his incapacity’ (John Hamilton, 108).
  54. Burke, ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, 9.157.
  55. Burke, ‘First Letter on a Regicide Peace’, in Burke, 9.190-191.
  56. Burke, ‘Fourth Letter on a Regicide Peace’, in Burke, 9.54.
  57. ‘Accordingly, in the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. He does not in the Odyssey maintain so high a pitch as in those poems of Ilium. His sublimities are not evenly sustained and free from liability to sink; there is not the same profusion of accumulated passions, nor the supple and oratorical style, packed with images drawn from real life’ (Longinus, 67).
  58. Burke, ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, 9.156. The quotation is from PL 2.625.
  59. Burke, ‘Second Letter on a Regicide Peace’, in Burke, 9.278.
  60. Burke, ‘Fourth Letter on a Regicide Peace’, 9.86.
  61. Burke, ‘Third Letter on a Regicide Peace’, in Burke, 9.345.
  62. Ibid. 9.332-33 n (this quotation is from a correction Burke made in an MS fragment).
  63. Ibid. 9.96.
  64. Burke, ‘First Letter on a Regicide Peace’, 9.255.
  65. Burke, ‘Third Letter on a Regicide Peace’, 9.304.