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  • Shelley, among Other Things
  • Brian McGrath

In his Politics, Aristotle studies the various and best forms of partnership (κοινωνία [koinonía]: association, communion, relationship, connection) between citizens. In his A Short Introduction to English Grammar (from 1762), Robert Lowth defines prepositions as if with an eye toward political organization: prepositions "serve to connect words with one another, and show the relation between them" (91). Politics describes connections between people; prepositions, connections between words. What can one learn about politics from prepositions? What can one learn about prepositions from politics?

Founding political documents often rely on and express the power of prepositions. For instance, and perhaps most famously, Abraham Lincoln acknowledges the importance of prepositional thinking in his Gettysburg Address, where he defends a more perfect union "of the people, by the people, for the people" (149). The powerful repetition of prepositional phrases makes the meter regular, but by repeating prepositional phrases Lincoln also foregrounds the importance of prepositions to the great task of government. Judging from Lincoln's rhetoric in the Gettysburg Address, more than one preposition may be necessary to ensure the future of the union.

In foregrounding prepositional thinking, in foregrounding his own thinking about prepositions, Lincoln extends a democratic tradition. When the authors of the Declaration of Independence announced their separation from England, they described the political bands that have "connected" them in terms not dissimilar to those Lowth uses to describe prepositions: every now and again, write the authors of the Declaration, "it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the [End Page 1188] political bands which have connected them with another" (Beeman 1). Every now and again, in other words, new and different connections between a government and a people must be fashioned. The authors of the Declaration would likely have found it difficult to describe the connections between one people and another without employing prepositions. The familiar story of a late eighteenth-century shift from monarchy to democracy, from a vertical model of power (metaphor) to a horizontal one (metonymy), might also be retold as a shift from one set of prepositions (above, below) to another (beside, among).

A founding political document somehow composed without prepositions is difficult to imagine. And yet, individual prepositions are surprisingly difficult to define. Take the preposition "among," for example, which plays, as we will see, a crucial role in the Declaration. Originally, "among" was a phrase in Old English, on (meaning "in") and gemang (meaning "mingling, assemblage, or crowd"), so in Old English, "among" meant "in a crowd," which is more or less what it still means today in modern English, though the phrase has been shortened to a single word. "Among": in the mingling or assemblage of; hence, surrounded by and associated with.1 One notices when defining a preposition that a seemingly endless number of prepositions are required: in, of, by, with, and so on. To be "among" is to be in, of, by, with (sort of). And this trouble is not unique to the preposition "among." Take "with," for instance: the OED notes that "the prevailing senses of this prep[osition] in the earliest periods are those of opposition ('against') and of motion or rest in proximity ('towards,' 'alongside')." In the Middle English period, "with" takes over senses belonging to the Old English mid, denoting connection and association. To be "with" is to be against, alongside, connected to (sort of). And, predictably, this trouble defining prepositions is not unique to English. In German, for example, "unter" can mean either "under" or "among." Prepositions are meant to help us better understand the relations between words, but it seems that the longer one thinks about prepositions, the less one understands about relationships.

I have not selected "among" entirely at random to explore the relationship between prepositions and politics. Despite one's difficulty securing a stable definition of "among" (or any preposition, for that matter), "among" plays an especially important role in the [End Page 1189] Declaration, where government is constituted "among" men. Even if citizens are not "with" other citizens, they are necessarily "among" them, or so the Declaration declares. The text features numerous uses of the preposition "among" in the opening few sentences. For instance, the first...


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