Imagination under Pressure, 1789-1832: Aesthetics, Politics, and Utility

By John Whale | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Cobbett's imaginary landscape

I

To include Cobbett in a book on imagination might seem surprising. So much of his writing is contingent and of practical intent that its relationship to an aesthetic sense seems remote, for all his preoccupation with happiness, and his eulogising of the English countryside. Our sense of remoteness here is itself, of course, a measure of historical distance and of our dominant cultural inheritance from the last two centuries which, as Raymond Williams has pointed out, 1 has dissociated aesthetics and utility in this way. Just as twentieth-century accounts of Cobbett's politics need to be self-conscious about how his kind of political writing has, unlike Paine's, been discontinuous with progressive political histories, so too appreciating Cobbett's aesthetics must also involve, in part, an act of historical recovery.

Recent studies have significantly altered our perception of Cobbett as a writer by analysing the complexly strategic nature of his texts, the heterogeneous nature of his language, and the specifically rural nature of his cultural identity. 2 It is no longer possible to see Cobbett as some kind of literary primitive or ingenu who became one of the most influential and certainly voluminous publishers of his day almost despite himself. A new picture is beginning to emerge of a writer who successfully and intelligently exploited the new possibilities in audience and print culture. He is not simply 'authentic' or naive. As a consequence of such work, it is also no longer possible to take at face value the truth claims of his texts. Cobbett is emerging as a complex rhetorical strategist whose deployment of a plain style is both complex and sophisticated. Nevertheless, there are still ways in which his writings resist conventional literary analysis and demand a social semiotics which can appreciate the transmission of text and idea in a wider cultural and historical context. 3 My aim in this chapter, however, is not to provide a poetics of Cobbett's styles, but to expose the necessity for aesthetics at

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Imagination under Pressure, 1789-1832: Aesthetics, Politics, and Utility
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Imagination and Revolution 17
  • Chapter 1 - Burke and the Civic Imagination 19
  • Chapter 2 - Paine's Attack on Artifice 42
  • Chapter 3 - Wollstonecraft, Imagination, and Futurity 68
  • Part II - Imagination and Utility 98
  • Chapter 4 - Hazlitt and the Limits of the Sympathetic Imagination 110
  • Chapter 5 - Cobbett's Imaginary Landscape 140
  • Chapter 6 - Coleridge and the Afterlife of Imagination 166
  • Afterword 194
  • Notes 197
  • Bibliography 227
  • Index 237
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