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  • Almost-Poetics: Prose Rhythm in George Berkeley’s Siris

George Berkeley’s writings are usually read straightforwardly as works of idealist philosophy, but it is remarkable how frequently critics also label his prose “poetic” or “lyrical.” I argue that we can begin to account for this intangible “poetic” quality in Berkeley’s writing by paying attention to his prose rhythm. Moving beyond George Saintsbury’s 1912 attempt at a metrical scansion of Berkeley’s prose, I closely read Berkeley’s writing alongside contemporary understandings of prose rhythm, thus reinstating a sense of him as a skilled literary writer, one who thought about the sounds as well as the senses of words.

Did George Berkeley think about the sounds of words? In his extraordinary 1912 work A History of English Prose Rhythm, the literary critic and prosodist George Saintsbury implies that such was indeed the case.1 Berkeley, more familiar to us as an idealist philosopher and as Bishop of Cloyne from 1734 to 1753, was also the author of a number of strange and often surprising texts. Saintsbury quotes, and metrically scans, one such work in his History (see Fig. 1).

Saintsbury’s approach here, as elsewhere in the book, is to impose on the fluidities of prose the kind of structured scansion usually reserved for poetry—by arranging sentences into “feet” and marking whether a syllable carries a stress or goes unstressed. As a critical method it is at once beguiling and bewildering, and Saintsbury has, in latter years, been called by scholars of prose rhythm “wrongheaded” and “great and terrible.”2 His reading of Berkeley in particular gets off on the wrong metrical foot, with the apparent misattribution of the above passage to [End Page 336]

Fig. 1. Scansion of section 292 of George Berkeley’s Siris, in George Saintsbury, A History of English Prose Rhythm, p. 253.
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Fig. 1.

Scansion of section 292 of George Berkeley’s Siris, in George Saintsbury, A History of English Prose Rhythm, p. 253.

the Principles of Human Knowledge of 1710 (HEPR, p. 254); it is actually section 292 of Berkeley’s last major work, Siris of 1744. And although Saintsbury has nothing but praise for Berkeley—writing that he “appears to me to have been almost the greatest writer, from our own and the nearest adjacent points of view, whom the new style post 1660 had yet produced” (p. 252)—his reading does little to illuminate the passage at hand. The scansion, as with the others in the book, cannot hope to account for the full subtleties of the movements of prose, and it is easy to disagree with some of Saintsbury’s individual decisions; it is unclear why the first occasion of the word “by” receives a stress but not the second; his scan of the phrase “and stability” as five consecutively unstressed syllables (part of a string of nine syllables that lack stresses) does not ring true; and “comprehend” would more likely, in the eighteenth century as well as today, receive a stress at its end, and not just the beginning (e.g., Alexander Pope’s “Then shall Man’s pride and [End Page 337] dulness comprehend”).3 Similarly unclear is why words like “first” or “they” here occupy single-syllable feet of their own.

None of this need necessarily matter, were Saintsbury’s goal to explicate the meaning of Berkeley’s words through the framework of his scansion. However, here too the division of the passage into metrical units neither helps us to appreciate what Berkeley is saying (that objects of perception do not have mind-independent reality) nor why, to paraphrase Saintsbury, Berkeley’s writing sounds good. Indeed, Saintsbury himself ultimately encourages his reader to “disregard the symbols” of his own scansion, and to hear instead, for him- or herself, “how much spring and swell of cadence there is everywhere” (HEPR, p. 253).

In short, Saintsbury’s brief sally into Berkeley’s prose rhythm does not uncover anything more specific than this intuited sense of springiness and swell in Siris. But his reading does draw attention to the important and often-overlooked question of Berkeley’s own status as a literary writer of some skill. Saintsbury refers to Berkeley’s “almost poetic” figures in Siris (HEPR, p. 253), and he was by no means the last critic to think of Siris as a prose work that borders on poetry. In a recent essay on Siris, Joanne E. Myers brings attention to the analogy Berkeley apparently draws between human and natural bodies: “in knowing how to use our bodies, Siris implies, we achieve a power that we understand only by analogy with divine power at work in the body of the cosmos. This power, which might for lack of a better word be called poetic, conveys what might then be termed a lyric agency to the embodied individual.”4 Because the category of the lyric has been understood to deal with “somatic” knowledge, Myers feels able to argue that “Berkeley’s interest in such knowledge—use-based, embodied, synthetic—pervades Siris and marks him as, in some sense, a highly poetic thinker” (“HBM,” p. 129).

Myers’s essay makes an important contribution to Berkeley scholarship, given that attention is rarely paid to the role the human body plays in his philosophy. However, for all the occasions that she draws on a poetic vocabulary, her reading is not concerned with the style or form of Siris—Berkeley is “poetic” because he writes about bodies, not because his writing is like poetry. One of the most attentive readers of Berkeley’s prose style, John J. Richetti, similarly invests in poetic terms when describing his work; “lyric” and its cognates appear fifteen times in Richetti’s chapter on Berkeley, without further clarification of the term.5 Peter Walmsley in turn draws on Richetti’s comments when referring to the “implicit lyricism” of Siris during his careful reading of Berkeley’s rhetorical practices.6 The preeminent Berkeley scholar David Berman [End Page 338] calls Siris “hardly less lyrical” than the actual lyric poems that Berkeley wrote around the same time as the book.7 And Donald Davie, who was himself a critic as well as a poet, goes so far as to suggest that Siris “has its own logic, the logic not of philosophy but poetry.”8

These casual references suggest a broadly “songlike” kind of prose, but they do not seem unrelated to the fact that, across the centuries since his death, a vast number of poets have taken their own interests in Berkeley’s writings—many more than have shown an interest in, say, the other “British empiricists” John Locke and David Hume.9 Indeed, Saintsbury might have been interested to know that William Blake, in his own copy of Siris, had annotated precisely the passage of Siris for which Saintsbury offers a scansion, with the words “The All in Man The Divine Image or Imagination.”10 There is, in the frequent judgment of Berkeley’s work as “lyrical,” the tantalizing prospect of taking the formal elements of his work as seriously as its content, a literary approach that generally takes low priority in the mainstream of Berkeley scholarship. Indeed, this would be to argue against the assumption that, for instance, the rearticulation of the arguments of the Principles of Human Knowledge in the narrative form of the Three Dialogues amounts to only a change in “rhetorical garb,” as Samuel Rickless puts it.11 And yet, the “poetic” is notoriously hard to define, especially where there is no regulating presence of meter; and the category of the lyric, too, is a highly fraught one.12 By attempting to follow Saintsbury’s lead in exploring the concept of prose rhythm in relation to Berkeley’s Siris, I want to argue that the comments concerning the artfulness, and the carefully wrought nature, of Berkeley’s writing might well be on to something, but that serious appeals to the “poetic” are unlikely to yield much fruit; prose rhythm should be read according to the terms of prose, and not poetry, otherwise we risk confusing categories that Berkeley himself held at a distance. The terms of poetry, though, will be of some use here, even if they can only take us a small distance toward understanding the rhythms of prose. By taking these tentative steps toward a fuller understanding of Berkeley’s command of prose rhythm, I hope to reignite conversations about the status of his texts as literary pieces, and about the strong rhetorical strains we find in his work—movements that appear to play an intrinsic role in Berkeley’s developing conceptions of linguistic meaning and literary communication.

Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning Tar-Water purports to be an exploration of the benefits of drinking “tar-water” (pine-tree resin), though the work is, in fact, a slowly developing [End Page 339] set of arguments in favor of the existence of God. The book moves in consciously chainlike form (“Siris,” from “seira,” the Greek word for chain) from tar, through the animating principle at work in nature that Berkeley calls “pure elementary fire,” and on to the “Infinite” causal agent responsible for this fire, God. However, it should be acknowledged from the start that much of the reason Siris is thought of as especially poetic surely relates to the fact that Berkeley at around the same time wrote several incontestably verse poems. Two of these appeared in print anonymously, essentially as marketing tools relating to Siris, under the titles “On the Disputes about Tar-Water” and “On Siris and Its Enemies.” A third Siris poem, “On Tar,” was bound with the second Dublin edition of Siris (the book, a surprise bestseller, went through six editions in 1744 alone). Berkeley’s “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” though, written during an earlier period of his life, has since enjoyed a much richer reception than the later verse offerings; the popularity of a number of its lines in particular eventually led to Berkeley, California, being named after the author.13 Berkeley’s poems are all unwaveringly metrical, and they owe more than a small debt to Berkeley’s friend Alexander Pope.14 Consider, for example, the final lines from “On Tar”:

Causes connected with effects supplyA golden chain, whose radiant links on highFix’d to the sovereign throne from thence dependAnd reach e’en down to tar the nether end.


There is more than a passing similarity here, in rhyme scheme and meter as well as in subject, to lines from Pope’s Essay on Man:

Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,But looks thro’ Nature, up to Nature’s God;Pursues that Chain which links th’immense design,Joins heav’n and earth, and mortal and divine.

(PAP, p. 161, 4.331–34)

The chainlike links in Berkeley’s carefully measured poem in turn connect the late works to Berkeley’s period in London from 1712 onward, when he became acquainted with literary figures including Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Richard Steele, and when he began writing for Steele’s Guardian. Berkeley had already started to play with the dialogue form by this point—which is to say that he had already begun [End Page 340] to resituate his ideas within more ambitious experimental forms than philosophical treatises—but clearly his experiences among the London literati had lasting effects on the way he conceived of his own writing. Berkeley states in Principles of Human Knowledge that “the communicating of ideas marked by words is not the chief and only end of language, as is commonly supposed,” a rhetorical understanding of language that would resurface again in later works, and which seems to motivate his lifelong experiments with form (WGB2, p. 37). If language is, as he says in the New Theory of Vision, “apt to occasion some obscurity and confusion, and create in us wrong ideas,” then writers cannot afford to be anything other than extremely careful in how they craft their works (WGB1, p. 219). Berkeley’s own poems are therefore not so much a sign that we should read the prose works with his versifying abilities in mind; rather, they are a reminder that Berkeley was always concerned with the problems of words, of communication, and with the full cognitive capacities of linguistic structure and form—and that he was, above all, a careful and controlled writer as well as a philosopher.

Despite his verse offerings and his preoccupation with written expression, Berkeley also offers a comic warning against overly “poetic” prose in his work—one that should be held in mind when considering anything like his own prose rhythm. In the 1732 dialogic work Alciphron, in a section that deals with the literary style of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Berkeley quotes ironically from Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times as if it were arranged in blank verse. The following is a short sample of Berkeley’s parody:

Where are the Pleasures which ambition promises,And love affords? How’s the gay world enjoy’d?Or are those to be esteem’d no pleasures,Which are lost by dulness and inaction?But indolence is the highest pleasure.To live, and not to feel! To feel no trouble.

(WGB3, p. 199)

What Berkeley appears to do here is imply that the overwrought and overly rhythmic quality of Shaftesbury’s poetized prose serves only as a distraction, and as an impediment to his arguments. “What!” cries his character Euphranor, “Will you never have done with your poetry? Another time may serve: but why should we break off our conference to read a play?” (WGB3, p. 200). It seems unlikely that Berkeley would have missed the irony implicit in a critique of poetry written in the form of a [End Page 341] dialogue—an irony that hearkens back to Plato’s dialogue-form attacks on mimesis. The attack on Shaftesbury should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, and as a comic turn; but it should also warn us that Berkeley, like his contemporaries, did draw a line in the sand between the categories of poetry and prose. Berkeley’s few verse offerings served as defenses of his prose writings, or as expressions of thoughts unrelated to his core works—they did not appear in the bodies of those writings, nor was poetry a space, for Berkeley, in which to philosophize. There is something of this distinction to be found in Saintsbury, who wrote of the “beautiful bane of blank verse” (HEPR, p. 401) when it appears in prose: perfect lines of verse, appearing too frequently in nonmetrical writing, might have a debilitating effect on prose rhythm, or even on philosophic meaning. Prose should have ambitions toward the lyrical, and should work toward being “almost poetic”—but it should not entirely trespass on the terrain of poetry. To do so results in category confusion, to the detriment of—or distraction from—a text’s meaning.

Saintsbury’s warning does rather call to attention his own methodological shortcomings. What use in hunting for metrical footsteps where such feet never walked in the first place? There is, after all, a fundamental distinction between meter—the Platonic ideal, an order imposed over the chaos of language—and rhythm—the lived reality of the movements of a text. If the rhythm of poetic reality rarely lives up to the exacting standards of metrical ideality, then we can hardly expect prose rhythm to match the standards of poetic meter. At any rate, the study of prose rhythm has moved on to other methods since Saintsbury, and there are more viable approaches to understanding a text’s rhythmic movements than by appealing to fixed metrical units. In Remembering and the Sounds of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Adam Piette eschews meter altogether, and offers instead a sustained attempt to listen to the patterns and movements of prose through assonance. Piette seeks “key-words” in prose—words that receive greater emphasis through their placement within a string of rhymes or near-rhymes, through the rush of repeated syllables, or through overt alliteration (RSW, p. 40). A keyword that is reproduced wholesale within a passage might be thought of as a motif, and these full repetitions are naturally positioned higher in the hierarchy of emphatic sounds than keywords, repeated syllables, and rhymed vowel sounds. By attuning our ears to the echoes of sounds across a paragraph or passage of prose in this way, we stand a better chance of identifying patterns in its rhythmic structure than we might by imposing metrical meanings upon it. [End Page 342]

I want to bring something like Piette’s less restrictive, less prescriptive approach to prose rhythm to Siris, the work of Berkeley’s most frequently referred to as “poetic” or “lyrical.” The best example of Berkeley’s skillful prose in Siris might be its conclusion; this is a view held by Richetti, who draws attention to the “moral activism and polemical urgency” of the book’s closing paragraph (PW, p. 119). Arrived at after the realization that all lowly, material forms are connected to the same Infinite Spirit, the final section of the book reflects on the attentive empirical gaze that can bear witness to these interconnections:

The eye by long use comes to see even in the darkest cavern: and there is no subject so obscure but we may discern some glimpse of truth by long poring on it. Truth is the cry of all, but the game of a few. Certainly, where it is the chief passion, it doth not give way to vulgar cares and views; nor is it contented with a little ardour in the early time of life, active perhaps to pursue, but not so fit to weigh and revise. He that would make a real progress in knowledge must dedicate his age as well as youth, the later growth as well as first fruits, at the altar of Truth.

(WGB5, p. 164)

Berkeley closes his book, which is, after all, a search after truth, with the word “Truth” itself. The emphasis the word gains, and the fact that it appears three times in this relatively short (118-word) passage, draws attention to “truth” as the passage’s ruling motif. It is also, of course, a central term in the development of Siris, from the assertion that God has “light for his body and truth for his soul” onwards (p. 91). “Truth” is intimately bound up with the notion of “spirit,” the object of all of Berkeley’s enquiries. Following the vowel-sound of “truth”—“u:” in phonetic symbols—we discover a chain of echoing words that winds through the passage: use, to, truth, Truth, few, to, views, to, pursue, to, youth, fruits, Truth. This is a not inconsiderable list, and the passage reads a little differently once we notice these rhymed syllables. Notably, as the passage picks up momentum and the end draws closer, the rhyme sounds become markedly stronger and fuller—first in the words “few,” “views,” “pursue,” and next between “youth” and “Truth.” Astonishingly, this rhyming sentence has even been transformed, by at least one eighteenth-century poet, into heroic couplets—suggesting that Berkeley’s near-contemporaries might have readily heard his internal rhymes. Sir William Jones’s lines, known in anthologies as “The Concluding Sentence of Berkeley’s Siris, Imitated,” begin: “Before thy mystic altar, heavenly Truth, / I kneel in manhood, as I knelt in youth.”16 That Berkeley ends [End Page 343] his book with a perfect rhyme—one that captures the essence of the final passage (which we might characterize as a movement from innocence to experience, via Berkeley’s spiritualized empiricism), and one that lingers on “Truth,” a key philosophical concept—is surely suggestive of a writer who was attuned to the emphatic effects of syntax, assonance, and rhyme. But I have not yet exhausted the potential of this instance of the word “truth.”

While Berkeley’s final sentences in Siris are not arranged as lines of verse, the strength of that final rhyme does expose something of a relation to Berkeley’s own critique of Shaftesbury’s rhetoric—that he, too, comes very close to the dangerous activity of making a poem out of prose. We might, like Saintsbury, experience a rising temptation to highlight the near-verse status of parts of this passage: add only the definite article before the phrase “first fruits,” for instance, and that clause could be scanned as a line of iambic pentameter. And the rhythmic quality of “first” and “fruits”—as near rhyme, near anagram, and an assonant and alliterative phrase—is testament to the conscious attention Berkeley must surely have brought to his wording here. There is, in fact, a pentameter’s worth of consecutive iambs in the phrase “we may discern some glimpse of truth by long [poring on it].” However, any too-powerful sense of meter is revoked by the reversion in “long | por-ing on it.” Here, three (almost consecutive) stressed “o” sounds—all of which are elongated syllables—dramatically slow down the pace of the sentence, and interfere with the preceding rhythmic pattern. Thus, the phrase “long poring on” comes to emulate its own meaning, by slowing the movement of the reader’s eye across the page. Some sense of rhythmic regularity is reinstated in the following sentence, the much-quoted phrase “Truth is the cry of all, but the game of a few.” It makes no pretense toward metricality, carrying perhaps five stresses across twelve syllables, but its rhythmic potency comes from elsewhere. The sentence derives its declarative force from the sole use of monosyllables—a fairly rare occurrence in Berkeley’s prose. And though Berkeley did not need to place an article in front of “few,” in so doing he balances the syllable count on either side of the comma, temporally matching the rhetorical echo between “the cry of” and “the game of.” The line thus becomes a readily quotable one through both its pared-down simplicity and its symmetrical structure.

Had Saintsbury turned his attention to this passage, he might have identified in the final words of Siris a doubling of anapaestic feet: “at the al- | tar of Truth.” And there is a slight, but not overly pronounced, [End Page 344] rolling echo across the final syllables. However, though the division of these words into feet does not uncover any earth-shaking metrical effects, it does help to attune us to something else that holds significance: that the final words of this book on tar-water appear to carry a pun on “tar” itself. Did Berkeley mean for us to glimpse, after “long poring” over his sentence, the words “tar of truth” at the end of the book? This is less of a stretch than it might first seem, given that Berkeley elsewhere uses the word “altar” to discuss the site of “perpetual fires” in ancient Hebrew culture, paving the way for the discussion of spiritual fire that follows the passages on tar-water. Davie has, after all, argued that the rhetorical strategy of Siris includes a healthy dose of puns on the word “spirit” (the crucial term in Berkeley’s ontology), as both drink and divine essence (WGB5, p. 7). And a number of conspicuous instances of the word “tar” are lodged into other important contexts in the book. The introduction announces the “salutary virtues of tar-water” (p. 31)—“salutary” will recur throughout the work. Then there is the book’s main image for the animating force in nature, “pure elementary fire” (pp. 85, 96, 99, 106, 130, 149). Of course, it arguably would be harder to avoid words that contain the syllable “tar” than it would be to use them repeatedly (“megastar,” “proletariat,” “unitarian”), and there is some risk of squinting too hard at individual words until they say what we want them to say—an accusation leveled against Geoffrey Hartman, who infamously found “tears” in Wordsworth’s “trees.”17 But Hartman’s was an exercise in listening carefully to the sounds of words—that being the nature of any effort to detect prose rhythm—and such an exercise must always entail some degree of flexibility in its reading. And it does not seem incidental that Berkeley chooses to invoke “salt of tartar” (tartaric acid, and a notable doubling of the “tar” syllable) when he argues that “the minute particles of bodies have real forces or powers” (pp. 112–13)—nor that he claims that his “occult, universal nature, and inward invisible force” is comparable to the Roman god Saturn, “which Vossius judges, not improbably, to be derived from the Hebrew word satar, to lie hidden or concealed” (p. 90). Sa-tar: here it seems to be Berkeley, and not the reader, who is straining to include the syllable “tar.”

Studying the final passage of Siris alone reveals a multitude of literary techniques and tactics in play, including the almost-poetics of the stress patterns of Berkeley’s sentences, the patterning of syllables and entire words across the passage, the careful balancing of clauses, and the vibrant echoes of vowel sounds throughout that give the passage a genuine sense of rhyme as well as rhythm. Rhythm in Berkeley’s Siris—a [End Page 345] book that, as he repeatedly emphasizes and reemphasizes, constitutes a “chain” of thought—appears to animate the work in the manner of the pure invisible fire that it describes, as the invisible presence of a meaningfully operating spirit. Indeed, scholars have noted that the form of Siris is more than a minor complement to the work’s argument. For Richetti, Berkeley’s “style in Siris seeks to enact the connections it talks about” (PW, p. 180) by sequentially linking tar to spirit—a thesis aided by the discovery that the syllable “tar” is quietly scattered across the book. Walmsley focuses on Berkeley’s own description of the work as a “rude essay” (WGB5, p. 138), arguing that the “loose sally” of the essay form serves Berkeley because it appears to permit him “to discover through language new truths, rather than set down something the author already knows” (pp. 145, 147). Berkeley does, indeed, do his best to perpetuate this appearance by begging the reader’s pardon for presenting truths that “were not thought of, even by him or by the author, at first setting out” (p. 138). This is a rhetorical strategy in itself: it is the controlled portrayal of a lack of control—an expertly directed figuring of a lack of direction. The result, as Walmsley notes, is that Berkeley can present the discovery of God as the logical terminus of any enquiry sustained long enough, from any dull or low point of departure, if only we take care to pursue all the links (p. 170). He had, of course, always intended to arrive at God from the moment of his departure.

Whether we believe Berkeley was consciously counting the stressed syllables in his sentences or obeying his own intuitive ability to hear the rhythm in prose, his technical command of writing was neither an accidental product of the effort to communicate ideas nor an incidental feature of his philosophical project in Siris. It is therefore difficult to conclude that Berkeley was anything other than a careful and meticulous writer, and that his own claim—that Siris was an unplanned, unpremeditated attempt to sit down and think about tar-water—was itself an attempt to naturalize the book’s supernatural conclusions. For this claim to work, the writing, however finely wrought, must also appear in some sense “natural” and meandering. Richetti comments that the book’s “rhythms” are “a formal accompaniment, in an almost musical sense, to the notions promoted in Siris” (PW, p. 120). It is crucial that, however much they might seem musical, Berkeley’s rhythms are only “almost musical,” just as his writing appears almost poetic to Saintsbury. To overstep the parameters of prose altogether, to move fully into the worlds of the poem or the lyric, would have been, for Berkeley, a step too far for the exercise of Siris; his stated goal in the introduction is to [End Page 346] produce a book “not altogether useless or unentertaining,” but entertainment in this case must not too strongly supersede use. This is why he tells us, several times over, that the work is an essay: for the project of his prose rhythm to succeed, the rhythmic maneuvers must remain beneath the surface of the prose. In a certain sense, this adheres to the common critical understanding of rhythm as something that is “felt as much as it is heard or seen.”18 There is no discussion of poetic form in Siris, and certainly no claim toward anything like a poetic or lyrical status for the book by its author. Berkeley’s writings might indeed be almost poetry, but to judge that something is “almost” a thing is also to judge that it is not that thing. Formal lines, for Berkeley, are drawn and not crossed; and, as Timo Airaksinen has baldly concluded, in the final analysis “Siris is not poetry.”19

I do not argue that Berkeley was necessarily a dedicated prose rhymester or a subtle smuggler of syllable sounds. What I am trying to show, though, is that there are rich possibilities for thinking about Berkeley’s writing from the perspectives of rhythmical analysis—ones that might not depend on the deployment of opaque terms like “lyrical” without proper qualification. Literary scholarship dealing with prose rhythm lags a good distance behind the work of prosody, but Saintsbury, more than one hundred years ago, was nevertheless right to identify Berkeley as an uncommonly skilled writer, and as one who had a well-tuned ear for the sounds of language. Siris, as Richetti puts it, “illustrates by its very openness and freedom the restrictions normal philosophical exposition imposed on Berkeley” (PW, p. 158)—it manages this through a variety of strategies, of which the sedulous manipulation of prose rhythm is only one. Once we have begun to notice the chains of vowel rhymes at the end of Siris, for example, we cannot unhear this feature of Berkeley’s writing, and there might follow real implications for how we understand his works more broadly. His Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous ends with the well-known image of a fountain splashing back down to earth, which Philonous uses as an illustration of the tendency of critical inquiry to return, from skepticism back toward “common Sense”; these are, indeed, the book’s final two words. From the phrase “from whence it rose” (emphasis added), and through the fountain’s “Ascent” and “Descent,” Berkeley seems to figure proleptically a sense of the word “Sense” before it is fully arrived at. As with “truth” at the end of Siris, a key philosophic term, and the book’s primary object, is also a keyword within the rhythmic structure of Berkeley’s prose. [End Page 347]

This has been an exercise in attempting to read prose rhythm in accordance precisely with its status as a feature of prose, rather than to attempt to get at the rhythms of language via poetry. Inevitably, the two brush up very close against one another, even as they remain distinct, and an awareness of the structures of poetic meter has been of as much value as has the awareness that a prose work is not a poem. But to put metrical structures before the articulations of rhythm, movements that are often closer to the spontaneity of speech than they are to the patterns of poetry, is to put the proverbial cart before the horse. Though I have focused largely on a single passage of Siris, and mainly on prose rhythm, this is a call to continue the reconsideration of Berkeley’s works as literary occasions—a reconsideration that Davie, Richetti, Walmsley, and others have begun, but which has not yet had bearings on the orthodoxies of Berkeley scholarship. The sheer volume of Berkeley’s readers who detect a semblance of the lyrical in his work alone attests to the fact that there is much to be said about the contribution of form to his philosophical thinking, and that Berkeley’s words act as more than rhetorical garb in his works. Berkeley, for whom language was a perennial preoccupation both at the center of his argument for the existence of God in Alciphron but also in the communication and the form of his arguments, was well aware that words lead and mislead in a variety of ways that are not simply ideational. He asks his reader, in the New Theory of Vision, to “collect my meaning from the whole sum and tenor of my discourse” (WGB1, p. 219); it might well be that Berkeley’s “meaning” exists in and through language, in the totality of his sentences, and not just in the ideas conveyed by individual words. To understand Berkeley fully, we might want, therefore, to pay further attention to his works as literary writings. For words are not mere clothing for ideas.

Chris Townsend
Durham, United Kingdom


1. George Saintsbury, A History of English Prose Rhythm (London: Macmillan, 1912); hereafter abbreviated HEPR.

2. Adam Piette, Remembering and the Sounds of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), p. 34, hereafter abbreviated RSW; Simon Jarvis, “How to Do Things with Tunes,” ELH 82 (2015): 376.

3. Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man,” in The Poems of Alexander Pope, vol. 3, ed. Maynard Mack (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 21, book 1, line 65; hereafter abbreviated PAP and cited by page, book, and line.

4. Joanne E. Myers, “How Body Matters in Berkeley’s Siris,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 43 (2014): 114; hereafter abbreviated “HBM.”

5. John J. Richetti, Philosophical Writing: Locke, Berkeley, Hume (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 180; hereafter abbreviated PW.

6. Peter Walmsley, The Rhetoric of Berkeley’s Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 149.

7. David Berman, “Berkeley’s Siris and the ‘Whiskey Patriots,’” Eighteenth-Century Ireland 1 (1986): 202.

8. Donald Davie, “Berkeley’s Style in Siris,” in A Travelling Man: Eighteenth-Century Bearings, ed. Doreen Davie (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003), p. 6.

9. See Wolfgang Breidert, “Berkeley Poetized,” in Reexamining Berkeley’s Philosophy, ed. Stephen H. Daniel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp. 214–29.

10. William Blake, The Complete Poetry of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), p. 663.

11. Samuel C. Rickless, Berkeley’s Argument for Idealism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 3.

12. See Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

13. See Edwin S. Gaustad, George Berkeley in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 200.

14. For this relationship, see Tom Jones, Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy (London: Palgrave, 2005).

15. George Berkeley, The Works of George Berkeley, 9 vols., ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop (London: Thomas Nelson, 1948–57), vol. 5, p. 226; hereafter abbreviated WGB, followed by volume and page number.

16. John Shore, Baron Teignmouth, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones (London: 1806), p. 370. Shore alleges that these lines “were written by Sir William Jones in Berkeley’s Siris.”

17. Geoffrey Hartman, Easy Pieces (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 150.

18. Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 4.

19. Timo Airaksinen, “Rhetoric and Corpuscularianism in Berkeley’s Siris,” History of European Ideas 37 (2011): 24.

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