"Poisoned Vestments": Romanticism, Rhetoric, and Material Culture

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"Poisoned Vestments" traces the afterlife of classical rhetoric in key works of prose, poetry, and drama in the long eighteenth century, contending that Milton, Rousseau, Wordsworth and Byron engaged in meaningful dialogue with the rhetorical tradition through recurring figures of dress and nakedness. As dress, like language, was a critical feature of organized society, the comparison of rhetorical language to dress in the classical tradition gave expression to some of the ways in which figures of speech served as ordering principles giving legible shape to ideas, but at the same time entailed a host of ideological implications that the Romantics were not the first to find troubling. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Rousseau and Wordsworth amplified the arguments of earlier pastoral and primitivist traditions by insisting that the social order that dress and eloquence represented was inherently corrupt and disfiguring. Yet in spite of their apparently anti-rhetorical stance, they did not abandon the classical tradition: by reacting against the specific comparison of language to the dress of thought, they actually entered an ongoing, trans-historical conversation about the relationship between meaning and expression, and the ways in which this relationship developed in the inescapable context of social determination. In another turn of the wheel in Romantic debates about rhetoric, Byron reacted against Wordsworthean and Rousseauvian "primitivism" and set the agenda of re-instating the civilizing "law" of literature in the realm of English letters. However, his efforts remained inconsistent because he sought to restore the "rules" while at the same time harnessing the sublime and the illimitable and embracing the protean transformations that fashion permitted. Informed by the critical discourses of the history of rhetoric, deconstruction, and cultural studies, "Poisoned Vestments" maps how these leading writers brought the material conditions of life at the turn of the nineteenth century to bear on long-standing questions of rhetorical form.

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English literature; Comparative Literature; History of Rhetoric; Milton and the Romantics; Romanticism; The French Revolution; Word and Image; French literature; Fashion


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Caruth, Cathy

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Chase, Cynthia
Mann, Jenny C

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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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