Two: Written Wailings
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TWO WRITTEN WAILINGS The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. (Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility) The Rhetoric of Sentiment of Elegia rose considerably. Gray’s Elegy, by evincing both a collective, public object of mourning and a communal mournD URING the latter half of the eighteenth century, the fortunes ing persona, garnered a new esteem for literary mourning. In the pages of the Annual Register, Gray was credited with immeasurably broadening the elegy’s scope: Elegy, it must be confessed, has often extended her province. . . . [a]s in the celebrated poem of Mr. Gray, written in a church-yard. For though she is generally the selfish mourner of domestic distress, whether it be upon the loss of a friend, or disappointment in love; she sometimes enlarges her reflections upon universal calamities, and with a becoming dignity, as in the inspired writers, pathetically weeps over the fall of nations.1 In 1711, as in the epigraph to the previous chapter, Richard Steele might mock a tradesman’s wife as she laments a death in the house of Austria. But in the second half of the century, mourning for the remote in time and place was thought to signify moral elevation; sympathy for “the dead” had become the prerogative of ladies-in-waiting and tradesmen’s wives alike. While the elegy’s extended purview earned it a new moral seriousness, the evocation of pathos took on a central role in the theory of rhetoric. George Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), the first comprehensive epistemological rhetoric, conceives of a gap, traditionally unacknowledged in rhetorical theory, between the conviction of the understanding and the persuasion of the will. Between the faculties of understanding and will, which Campbell believes to operate first and WRI TTEN WAILIN GS 49 last, respectively, in the mental machine being persuaded, lie the faculties of the imagination (also called fancy) and the passions, which take on unprecedented importance in inducing the will toward the performance of a desired action. These faculties assume central importance in Campbell’s rhetoric because their operation—or, more properly, cooperation —encompasses that of the individual’s moral sense. The virtues, writes Campbell, have this in common with passion. They necessarily imply an habitual propensity to a certain species of conduct, an habitual aversion to the contrary : a veneration for such a character, an abhorrence of such another. They are, therefore, though not passions, so closely related to them, that they are properly considered as motives to action, being equally capable of giving an impulse to the will. . . . Accordingly, what is addressed solely to the moral powers of the mind, is not so properly denominated the pathetic , as the sentimental. The term, I own, is rather modern, but is nevertheless convenient, as it fills a vacant room, and doth not, like most of our newfangled words, justle out older and worthier occupants, to the no small detriment of the language. It occupies, so to speak, the middle place between the pathetic and that which is addressed to the imagination, and partakes of both.2 According to Campbell, one addresses the “moral powers of the mind” through rhetoric that calls emphatically on the faculties of imagination and the passions. For Adam Smith, the phenomenon of sympathy occupies the “middle place” between the imagination and the passions, the “vacant room” which Campbell assigns to the moral discourse of sentiment . Smith, lecturing on rhetoric and belles lettres at Glasgow during the 1750s and 1760s, demonstrates the centrality of poetry in the rhetoric of sentiment.3 With the belletristic rhetorics of Smith and Hugh Blair, the previously “vacant room” of moral sentiment becomes filled with literary mourners. During an era in which literary grief played so large a role in the moral life of the nation—was even equated, as Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments suggests, with the nation’s moral liquidity—it is hardly surprising that attention should be turned to the rhetorical power to arouse sympathy . The belletristic criticism of the 1760s, 1770s, and 1780s, at once descriptive and prescriptive, offers an elaborate rhetoric of the elegy—a set of standards by which the persuasiveness of elegiac poetry can be judged. What emerges in these documents is an anxiety about such power, a sense that the...


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