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  • The Field of Imagination: Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Poetry by Scott M. Cleary
  • William Huntting Howell (bio)
Keywords

Thomas Paine, Poetry, Literary criticism, Enlightenment

The Field of Imagination: Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Poetry. By Scott M. Cleary. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019. Pp. 186. Cloth, $39.50.)

From his emergence on the scene in the early 1770s, Thomas Paine has been a lot of things to a lot of people. A quick rifle through the catalogue suggests the prismatic complexity of his public reputation: There’s Paine the revolutionary firebrand, Paine the philosopher, Paine the skeptic, Paine the drunk, Paine the working-class hero, Paine the seditionist, Paine the organizer, Paine the stooge, Paine the ex-pat, Paine the exile, Paine the redistributionist radical, Paine the unmourned pariah. And yet he was [End Page 474] also, as the distinguished Paine scholar Scott M. Cleary shows in his meticulous and provocative Field of Imagination, Paine the poet. Positioning the man who wrote Common Sense and The Rights of Man as someone whose engagement with poetry—as a reader, writer, editor, and thinker—was part and parcel of his political activism, the book fits in neatly with other recent revaluations of the cultural work of verse in the American eighteenth century, like Colin Wells’s Poetry Wars: Verse and Politics in the American Revolution and Early Republic (Philadelphia, 2018). Put another way, Cleary’s “field of imagination” is impressively (and accurately) broad. Poetry does not exist in some kind of walled garden, set apart from the currents of history and ideology; it is, rather, the sort of thing that might reflect, direct, or even set those currents in motion.

The first of the book’s four movements concerns Paine’s editorial work. Not long after arriving in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774, Paine assumed control of the Pennsylvania Magazine, a new periodical devoted to publishing American content for the American colonies. His tenure as editor was brief—the magazine folded in 1776—but, as Cleary argues, it was reliably devoted to imagining poetry as a “genre that could do the work of politics in ways that prose could not” (8). Paine was particularly interested in publishing poems that emphasized American “wit,” which is to say an organizational intelligence capable of framing complex ideas in the service of underscoring the potentialities of an independent American state. In Paine’s editorial philosophy, poetic responses to events and circumstances (like, say, the Battle of Bunker Hill) were absolutely necessary in the project of forging a coherent narrative out of the tumult of the 1770s.

The second movement, spread across several chapters, concerns Paine’s own efforts as a versifier. Cleary doesn’t have much material to work with—a handful of poems, published and in manuscript, over the years— but what remains complements the Paine we’ve come to know. Some of his poems are expressly ideological: “The Death of General Wolfe” and “Liberty Tree” reflect Paine’s commitment to what Cleary calls “Paine’s interest in using poetical genres as political forums” (39); they further elaborate the parameters of what Paine means by freedom, justice, and consensus. Others, like his “From the Castle in the Air to the Little Corner of the World,” or his “Contentment; or, If You Please, Confession,” are more about the narrowness of human experience: They take an interest in poetry as a forger of human relationships, not just cultural relations. [End Page 475]

Cleary’s third movement, broadly conceived, addresses Paine’s reading of poetry and the way that such reading informed the ideas in his prose. Sometimes that means looking at explicit deployments of poems— in epigraphs to essays, for example, or in the rhetorical figures that Paine uses to support the arguments that he makes. (The most famous of these, of course, is the moment in which Common Sense invokes one of Satan’s speeches in John Milton’s Paradise Lost to illustrate a point about the irreconcilability of Crown and Colonial interests; “For never can true reconcilement grow / Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”) In other phases of Cleary’s argument, Paine’s quotations are more structural...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 474-477
Launched on MUSE
2021-08-31
Open Access
No
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