Radicalism in Shelley's writing - Richard Cronin Shelleys...

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Richard Cronin: Shelley’s poetry attempts a revolutionary redefinition of language i) Language as inseparable from thought In September 1800 Coleridge wrote to William Godwin recommending him to write a book on language that would 'destroy the old antithesis of Words and Things: elevating as it were Words into Things and living Things too'. It is a pity that Godwin never pursued the suggestion, for Coleridge was, in effect, asking him to express systematically an attitude to language that, Coleridge believed, distinguished "the poetry written by himself and Wordsworth from the poetry of the eighteenth century. In Biographia Literaria Coleridge describes how, when still a schoolboy, he had taken the first step in his education as a poet by realising the deficiencies of the school of Pope. The poetry of that school, he came to think, was 'characterised not so much by poetic thoughts as by thoughts translated into the language of poetry', and could be defined as 'translations of prose thoughts into poetic language'. There is an evident correspondence between the 'old antithesis of Words and Things' that in 1800 Coleridge called upon Godwin to overthrow, and the antithesis between thought and language that he detected and regretted in the most characteristic poetry of the eighteenth century, a correspondence even more evident if one remembers that in the terminology of John Locke, the great progenitor of eighteenth- century thought, a 'thing' is classed as an 'idea'. In Book 3 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke established a linguistic model that dominated the discussion of language throughout the eighteenth century. Locke discusses language in order to dispense with it. His attempt is to distinguish genuine philosophical dispute from disputes about words of the kind that he imagined the scholastics to have confused with philosophical argument. The means he adopts is to insist resolutely on 'the old antithesis between Words and Things'. This is the principle that distinguishes his own work from that of the scholastic philosophers, and the vantage- point from which he can ridicule all disputes that seem to him merely verbal. To use a word that does not signify a specific idea is to talk nonsense; to argue about words rather than about the ideas they signify is to be monkishly absurd. But by the end of the eighteenth century there was an increasing willingness to accept that philosophical questions inevitably engaged questions about language, and that the two could scarcely be disentangled. Philosophy either reached its conclusions in defiance of language, in which case the philosopher might lament the lack of, or try to construct, a language compatible with his conclusions, or it would seek answers to its questions from within language, answers inherent in the structure of ordinary language. Godwin announced his doctrine of necessity, and then lamented that it was impossible for a man speaking or writing English to adhere to that doctrine, and Jeremy Bentham seriously considered the construction of a new language free from the defects of ordinary English...
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