Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

John Stuart Mill and Rhetoric: The Perspicuous Account of Truthful Obscurity

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

John Stuart Mill and Rhetoric: The Perspicuous Account of Truthful Obscurity

Article excerpt

I approach Mill's essays on poetry as a timely application of romantic (as opposed to pragmatic) rhetorical theory to some new problems posed by the growing marketplace of letters. Mill's arguments about the nonemphatic nature of poetry in "What is Poetry?" and "The Two Kinds of Poetry," and his development of a romantic method of critical reading in his essay on Tennyson provide an early-Victorian solution to the problem of critical truth and sincerity by separating the discourses of poetry and philosophy from the perceived corrupting effects of an increasingly rhetorical and "affected" mode of periodical prose writing.

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In an essay entitled "Style" appearing in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1833, an anonymous author spends some ink admonishing the "uncouth and obscure tortuosities of phrase" used by his contemporaries. The author wonders what could "induce Bentham to exhibit his barbarous jargon," what could prevail upon a professional writer to write "in a style of which Hume would have been ashamed" (215). The assumed reason for these "vulgar and barbarous" manifestations is "the affectation of singularity," that is, the desire to assert a notable and noticeable identity within the sea of published competition by employing a conspicuous manner of expression. The basic argument from which this author draws his authority to call a tortuosity a tortuosity is that which defines style as perspicuity: "No style can be called excellent which does not possess the qualities of perspicuity, correctness, elegance, harmony, and force" (" Style" 216). Perspicuous writing is writing that would make Hume proud, and this definition of style is largely of Hume's century. Surveying the rhetoric manuals of Joseph Priestly, George Campbell, Hugh Blair, and Richard Whately, we find general agreement with Whately's statement that "the first requisite of style, not only in rhetorical, but in all compositions, is Perspicuity" (258). (1)

My concern with perspicuity in this article stems from a question regarding John Stuart Mill's own perspicuous manner of writing about more obscure, poetic modes of expression. By 1860 Mill's prose style would be publicly identifiable as that "tolerably good philosophical style ... the received scientific style" (Conway 656), the style, in other words, that Ruskin should have employed when he wrote on political economy. It is a style that Mill would laud in others for its "clear, vigorous, and masculine" qualities, (2) in the gendered terms that would be ubiquitous in reviews throughout the century. The 1830s mark, for Mill, a period of exploration as to how one can convey a message meaningfully to a fast-growing audience that seemed increasingly interested in diversion, rather than sincere writing of inherent intellectual value. I approach Mill's essays on poetry as a timely application of romantic (as opposed to pragmatic) rhetorical theory to some new problems posed by the growing marketplace of letters. Mill's arguments about the nonemphatic nature of poetry in "What is Poetry?" and "The Two Kinds of Poetry," and his development of a romantic method of critical reading in his essay on Tennyson provide an early Victorian solution to the problem of critical truth and sincerity by separating the discourses of poetry and philosophy from the perceived corrupting effects of an increasingly rhetorical and "affected" mode of periodical prose writing.

The question of the Liberal writer invested in shaping the readership at this time is concerned with how "the many" are "to be induced to read works or journals which cease to flatter their vanity, and discard those which do?" ("Influence of the Press" 379). This question underlies James Mill's description of the "characteristic malady of the periodical press" in his landmark article on the subject published in the Westminster Review (1824). Here he writes that "Periodical literature depends upon immediate success" and "must, therefore, patronize the opinions which are now in vogue, the opinions of those who are now in power" (209). …

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