‘To Argue By Metaphors’: Coleridge, Burke, and the 

Political Uses of Aesthetic Figures[1]


Alan Vardy


From The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 14 (NS), Autumn 1999, pp 9-15 (page nos in text as [-pp-])





COLERIDGE’S  1795 attack on Edmund Burke’s ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’ in the first number of The Watchman begins with a candid appreciation of the power of Burke’s rhetoric:

Mr. Burke always appeared to me to have displayed great vigor of intellect, and an almost prophetic keenness of penetration; nor can I think his merit diminished, because he has secured the aids of sympathy to his cause by the warmth of his own emotions, and delighted the imaginations of his readers by a multitude and rapid succession of remote analogies.  It seems characteristic of true eloquence, to reason in metaphors; of declamation, to argue by metaphors.  (Watchman, 30-31)

Coleridge goes on to demolish Burke’s ‘Letter’ as inferior to this high rhetorical standard.  What interests me is how Coleridge employs poetic figures, ‘remote analogies', in developing his own rhetorical style.  The aesthetic appreciation of ‘true eloquence ’in Burke points to an interesting divide in Coleridge’s  thinking.  He doubtless deplored the arguments of Burke’s inflamatory Reflections on the Revolution in France, yet he appreciated the skill of their rhetorical formulation, the way in which they proceeded ‘by metaphors’.  This paper investigates how this strategic thinking about political eloquence manifests itself in Coleridge’s  own political rhetoric.


I take as my starting point Burke’s admitted anxieties about the potential abuse of aesthetic figures (as stated in the final chapter of his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful), and his deliberate, strategic abuse of such figures in composing Reflections on the Revolution in France.[2]


Burke’s efforts to theorize a verbal sublime come as an after-thought at the end of his Philosophical Enquiry.  Burke argues that unlike the natural sublime, the verbal sublime achieves its effect, not by representing a verbal picture of sublime objects, but by generating words that the mind is unable to comprehend in any final way.  The result is a crisis analogous to the terror 




produced by sublime objects of nature, yet fundamentally different.  Burke’s theory of the natural sublime is based on the physiology of pain and pleasure, and their cognates terror and delight, while the verbal sublime consists of purely mental effects.  In particular, Burke worries about the psychological and emotional effects of certain words when they were removed from a specific context:

. . . it is hard to repeat certain sets of words, though owned by themselves unoperative [disconnected from any actual event], without being in some way affected, especially if a warm and affecting tone of voice accompanies them, as suppose,

      Wise, valiant, generous, good, and great.

These words, by having no application, ought to be unoperative; but when words commonly sacred to great occasions are used, we are affected by them without the occasions.

Burke reflects that such uses of words are open to abuse because of their affecting power, and that we require “much good sense and experience to be guarded against the force of such language".[3]  Burke develops his theory of the sublime nature of words by arguing that words can affect us “without raising images”  (211), and that they can also remain separate from the ideas for which they are purported to stand.  The most profound poetic and rhetorical effects, then, are those that overwhelm our abilities to conceive of them (literally, we cannot picture them).  The verbal sublime defeats our efforts to stabilize the relationship of word to image to idea.  The great danger in words, then, according to Burke, is the possibility of manipulating an audience by producing effects that are utterly severed from any relationship to an actual ‘occasion’.  Burke’s chooses an example from Milton of such a moment of verbal sublimity.  The moment is achieved by: “combining two ideas not presentable but by language; and an union of them great and amazing beyond conception”  (218)[4].  The Miltonic phrase, “a universe of death”, effects us through our utter inability to conceive of it.  There is no image that we can raise to stabilize our ideas about the phrase, and we are thus affected by a sublime terror that is purely intellectual in its origin.  It is the power of such sublime effects to shape our thinking, paradoxically by diminishing our ability to think clearly, that underpinned rhetorical eloquence as Burke conceived of it.  Burke famously remarked that “a clear idea is a little idea”, and he made a distinction between the cognitive power of ‘wit’ which he saw as the generative force of the verbal sublime, and ‘judgement’ which he saw as the application of clear, distinct ideas.  The great power of the verbal sublime, and potentially its great danger,





 was its ability to overwhelm ‘judgement’.


  The choice of a Miltonic example is significant for my discussion, because Miltonic sublimity, as Burke described it in an earlier section on ‘The Difference Between Clearness and Obscurity with Regard to the Passions’,[5] made extensive use of what we might call political terrors in producing its effect.  We, as readers, are overwhelmed, “the mind is hurried out of itself by a crowd of great and confused images, which affect because they are crowded and confused”.  The political significance of these sublime images is clear enough from the representative list Burke offered: “a tower, an archangel, the sun rising through mists or in an eclipse, the ruin of monarchs, and the revolutions of kingdoms”. 


Burke’s political rhetoric in Reflections on the Revolution in France made deliberate use of the sublime power of words and images as he descibed it in Milton.  In the most notorious descriptive passage in the book, he fancifully described the events of the 6th of October 1789, the decampment of the French royal family from the Versaille palace to Paris.  In Burke’s account, the royals were attacked by “a band of cruel ruffians, reeking with blood”, who subsequently led a procession to Paris decorated with the heads of the king's body guards “stuck upon spears”.  In the midst of this procession the royal family were humiliated: “amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies; and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women".[6]  Burke justified his use of what Paine called ‘Mr. Burke’s horrid pictures’ by claiming that he was simply reflecting an existing scene.  This was obviously disingenuous, as there can be no mistake that he was the composer of the scene, and that he combined words in such a way as to overwhelm the reader with their sheer effect in the absense of any actual ‘occasion’.  In creating the over-heated rhetoric of “Theban and Thracian Orgies”, Burke trapped himself in his own formulations.  As W.J.T. Mitchell succinctly puts it:

. . . his [Burke’s] tendency to project and dwell upon “spectacles” of the Revolution without regard to their antecedent causes or historical accuracy produces in his exchanges with the liberals and radicals of the 1790s a fearful and fatal symmetry, a tendency to mimic and parody the rhetoric of the opposition in a way that gives an unsuspected irony to the notion of “reflections”.

In other words, the violence Burke presumed to decry was, paradoxically, the most salient feature of his rhetoric.


       In his review, Coleridge was not outraged by the inaccuracy and the duplicity of Burke’s style of argument.  Rather, he was fascinated by its rhetorical force, its use of words to create a sublime effect.  Unlike Thomas




Paine  who derided what he called ‘Mr. Burke’s horrid pictures’ as affronts to clarity and rationalism, Coleridge was able to think more strategically and appreciate the effectiveness of arguing ‘by metaphors’, regardless of their accuracy.  In The Watchman, Coleridge defended Burke’s figuration despite its essential dishonesty.  In making this defense, he erased party politics in favour of the exercise of a universal aesthetic judgement.  He defended both the rhetorical practices of “the French writers” and of Burke, against “the aristocratic faction”  in the first case, and against “low-minded sophisters who disgrace the cause of freedom”, Paine and his followers, in the second.  The phrase, “low-minded sophisters”, recalls Burke’s adage that “a clear idea is a little idea”.  This erasure of political categories can in part be explained as a feature in the developing irony of the attack on Burke’s ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, but this strategy in itself points to Coleridge’s  acute sense of what we might call the aesthetics of political persuasion.  He creates the appearance of disinterestedness before switching into his attack.  However, the idea that the extravagant praise for Burke may only be a prelude to Coleridge’s  analysis of how the mighty are fallen cannot account for Hazlitt’s report of Coleridge expressing identical opinions during their first meeting.  In comparing Burke and Macintosh, Coleridge had opined that:

Burke was a metaphysician, Macintosh a mere logician.  Burke was an orator (almost a poet) who reasoned in figures, because he had an eye for nature: Macintosh, on the other hand, was a rhetorician, who had only an eye for common-places.

Hazlitt agreed with this view, and echoed Coleridge’s  quip about “low-minded sophisters”  in adding that he, Hazlitt,  believed that speaking of Burke with contempt was “the test of a vulgar democratical mind”.[7]  Hazlitt joined Coleridge in shifting the the means of evaluating political discourse away from an analysis of ideas (denigrated as sophistry) to the development of taste, the ability to recognize the ‘vulgar’.

       Now, lest we jump to the conclusion that Coleridge’s appreciation of Burke’s eloquence was a sign that he was once and always a conservative, we should remember that not only was Hazlitt hardly a conservative, he and Coleridge were not the only ostensible radicals who emphasized rhetorical effect over intellectual content as the true measure of political eloquence.  In his review, Coleridge had grouped Burke’s style with that of ‘the French writers', in a move that erased political affiliation from the discussion in favour of a discussion of verbal power and the ultimate effect of political discourse on an audience.  This view of the ‘French writers’ echoed Mary Wollstonecraft in her evaluation of Rousseau and Voltaire.  In a review of a selection of Rousseau's writing for the October 1788 Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft




 warned that considerable experience of the world was necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by Rousseau's eloquence.  Without sufficient experience the possibility of manipulation was very high, given that the author was “so thoroughly acquainted with the human heart”.  The dangers of reading Rousseau without the required intellectual experience was obvious to Wollstonecraft:

Paradoxes are not addressed to minds in which no fixed principles have yet taken root, as such have no criterion to try them by; indeed, even the beauties, that genius scatters with a lavish hand, rather tend to lead the opening faculties astray.[8]

And, in the preface to her 1794 treatise on the French Revolution Wollstonecraft claimed that Rousseau's power was primarily aesthetic and only secondarily intellectual.  He “induc(ed) the men who were charmed with his language to consider his opinions”.  She concluded that Rousseau and Voltaire found their influence not through their ideas, but through their eloquence,:

The talent of these two writers were particularly formed to effect a change in the sentiments of the french, who commonly read to collect a fund for conversation; and their biting retorts, and flowing periods, were retained in each head, and continually flipped off the tongue in numerous sprightly circles.[9]

In other words, the transmission of their political beliefs was a matter of the aesthetic effect of their works on a specific audience, rather than a consequence of their ideas.

       Coleridge was not alone then in emphasizing the political influence of aesthetic effects over the transmission of political ideas, and it is not surprising that he adopted these strategies in his own public rhetoric.  This is not to say that he overcame his ambivalence over the political uses of the verbal sublime.  In the August 10, 1809 number of The Friend he decried the use of heightened language in public discourse.  His reservations strongly echoed both Burke’s denunciation (ironic or not) of the extremes of the Revolution, and the observation from Philosophical Enquiry that grand words produce a sublime effect precisely because they are disconnected from a specific ‘occasion’:

To leave a general confused impression of something great, and to rely on the indolence of men’s understandings and the activity of their passions, for their resting in this impression, is the old artifice of public Mountebanks. (Friend, vol 2, 47)



Coleridge’s reservations about the use of obscure, and therefore by definition sublime, language extend beyond public discourse.  He was sensitive to charges of obscurantism levelled against him, as witnessed by his interpolated ‘letter from a friend’ that disrupted the completion of Schelling’s deduction of the imagination at the end of chapter 12 of Biographia Literaria.  The deduction was deferred precisely because of the unfair demands it presumably placed on the reader.[10]  But, however, he considered that same effect to be the height of eloquence, and the only means of truly expanding the cognitive capacity of his readers.  Coleridge was caught between suspicion of the abuses of obscurity, and a contempt for superficial clarity (“a clear idea is a little idea”).  In the September 14, 1809 number of The Friend, he faced the problem head on.  He theorized that men were duped variously by both false clarity and deliberate obscurity.  As a means of counteracting the latter effect, he suggested that sublime figuration be reserved for sublime subjects.  The “preventive, the remedy, the counteraction”, he argued was: 

. . . the habituation of the Intellect to clear, distinct, and adequate conceptions concerning all things that are the possible objects of clear conception, and thus to remove our obscure notions and the vivid feelings which, when the objects of these obscure notions are habitually present to the mind, become associated with them by a natural affinity, even as the element of thunder with the clouds-- to reserve these feelings for those objects, which their very sublimity renders indefinite, no less than their indefiniteness renders them sublime.  (Friend, vol 2, 71-72)

Despite producing a list of sublime objects, “Being, Form, Life, the Reason, the Law of Conscience, Freedom, Immortality, God”  (2, 72), Coleridge was aware that the decision as to which were “objects of clear conception” and which were sublime could still be considered arbitrary and subject to manipulation.  Sensitive to the possible charge that he was, “bewildering (him)self and his Readers with Metaphysics” (2, 72), Coleridge promised that a future number of the magazine would produce a “disinquisition on the elements of our moral and intellectual faculties  (2, 72); the disinquisition never appeared.

       These considerable problems did not, however, dissuade Coleridge from




strategically employing words to create a sublime effect.  Even in an essay as presumably judicious as ‘Sketches in the Life of Alexander Ball’, which closed the 1818 version of The Friend, Coleridge was torn between the uses and abuses of heightened rhetoric.  His encomium to Ball was intended as a statement of the conservative ideals embodied by the great man, the model of “purity and propriety of conduct”  (1, 535), temperate and public-minded.  Here was the complete antithesis of the purveyors of the overheated rhetoric of the French Revolution, and, for Coleridge, the perfect opportunity for the expression of conservative political values.  Such a public task required Coleridge, in his own words, to “relate [Ball's] actions faithfully”  (1, 537), rather than introduce the emotion of personal grief at the news of his death.  Yet, when he turned to the task of convincing us of Ball's greatness, he employed a revery of sublime transport:

Such is the power of dispensing blessings, which Providence has attached to the truly great and good, that they cannot even die without advantage to their fellow-creatures: for death consecrates their example; and the wisdom, which might have been slighted at the council table, becomes oracular from the shrine.  (Friend, vol 1, 538)

So, even an occasion that appeared to call for the judicious use of ‘clear’ words could not be exempted from the opportunity to convince by aesthetic means.  The sublime words arrayed around Ball's name have a power beyond that of judiciously selected anecdotes illustrating his superior qualities.  Who could, or would, argue with ideas so apt that ‘death consecrates’ them, and bestows them with ‘oracular’ power beyond the grave?  The aesthetic power of these coinages ultimately seduced Coleridge into the use of a rhetorical technique apparently at odds with the ‘occasion’.

Coleridge’s interest in, and employment of, a quasi-Burkean verbal sublime in the creation of public discourse, then, remained constant, if ambivalent, throughout his career.  Furthermore, his use of aesthetic techniques in creating his own political eloquence did not, in itself, mark such eloquence as radical, liberal or conservative.  Despite Paine's celebrated attacks on Burke, the verbal sublime remained the ultimate tool of rhetorical persuasion available to political thinkers as various as Coleridge (in all his political manifestations), Burke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, or Hazlitt.  The notion of a conservative Romantic ideology dependent on reified aesthetic speech, requires considerable qualification in order to account for the fluidity of such rhetorical techniques across the various ideological boundaries that were in evidence during the Romantic period.  In such heated political times, thinkers on all sides had to make strategic use of the rhetorical tools available to them, and a comprehensive understanding of the techniques of the verbal sublime was essential to successful political persuasion.

[1]     The author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in funding the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship that made the research and writing of this essay possible.

[2]     For a detailed account of the connections between the aesthetic theories and practices of the two works, see: W.J.T. Mitchell, ‘Eye and Ear: Edmund Burke and the Politics of Sensibilty’, in his Iconology (London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 121-149.

[3]     The Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), p. 209.  All references to this work are from this edition and will be noted by page number.

[4]     The lines are: ‘Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens and shades of death, / A universe of death.’ The original list of places is made inconceivable by the addition of the phrase, ‘of death’ and the sudden expansion into ‘A universe of death.’ The mind simply cannot cope with this combination of words.

[5]     Philosophical Enquiry, pp. 111-115.

[6]     Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin, 1986), pp. 164-165.

[7]     ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, vol. 17, ed. P P Howe (London: Dent, 1933), p. 111.

[8]     The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, vol. 7, eds. Janet Todd & Marilyn Butler (London: William Pickering, 1989), p. 49.

[9]     Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It has Produced in Europe (London: Joseph Johnson, 1794), pp. 9-10.

[10]    A similar sense of ambivalence can be seen in Coleridge’s professed inverse relationship between his poetic gift and his “abstruser musings”  developed in ‘Dejection: An Ode’.  When this paper was presented at the 1998 Coleridge Summer Conference in Cannington, Tim Fulford pointed out that the ‘letter from a friend’ in chapter 13 employs the same section of Paradise Lost that Burke used in formulating the verbal sublime.  Coleridge ventriloquizes his ‘friend’s bewilderment by comparing it to the experience of Miltonic sublimity.  Coleridge had used the same example in an 1811 lecture, and on that occasion elaborated a very Coleridgean version of the Burkean verbal sublime.  His elaboration pointed again to his ambivalence about aesthetic effect.  Rather than settling for the view that poetic language was beyond conception, Coleridge, paradoxically, attempted to describe the cognitive processes involed in such conceptual failure.  Only by staging his conceptual failure could the accompanying expansion of consciousness be achieved  See Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, eds. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 301, footnote 2.

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