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Can a statue breathe? The Linguistic (un)coupling of Godwin and Wollstonecraft

  • Jane Hodson

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  • Jane Hodson
    University of Sheffield

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The relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin can be seen as a paradigmatic Romantic coupling on a number of levels. They were both authors who contributed important works to the Romantic canon. They were both at the centre of a web of friendships which included many of the most eminent writers and thinkers of the Romantic period. Their relationship initiated an important Romantic genealogy: their daughter, Mary, was to elope with P. B. Shelley, and herself write a seminal Romantic text, Frankenstein.

Furthermore, at a symbolic level their relationship neatly represents the meeting of two different strands of the Romantic inheritance. Godwin can be seen as a son of the Enlightenment, a man who valued thinking over feeling and who once wrote that should a chambermaid be trapped in a burning house with the author Fenélon, it was the duty of a bystander to rescue Fenélon first, even if the chambermaid was the bystander's mother or wife. [1] Wollstonecraft, by contrast, can be seen as a daughter of sensibility, a woman who repeatedly flouted social convention in the pursuit of emotional freedom, and who exclaimed in one of her political tracts 'Sacred be the feelings of the heart! concentred in a glowing flame, they become the sun of life'. [2] On closer consideration, of course, these schematic characterisations become rather more complex. Godwin was simply not as unfeeling and coldly rational as his reputation suggested, [3] nor was Wollstonecraft the passive hostage of her own feelings. [4] This encourages speculation about their possible effects on each other. Did Wollstonecraft give reason a more important role in her later writings because of Godwin's influence? Did Godwin's relationship with Wollstonecraft, and particularly her death, lead him to re-evaluate the role of feeling?

In this essay I shall consider their relationship from the perspective of their linguistic thinking. I shall start by outlining their contrasting attitudes towards language, and then consider whether they succeeded in reaching any kind of linguistic reconciliation. The purpose of this study is twofold. First, it provides an informative perspective on Godwin and Wollstonecraft's individual thinking, as well as their relationship. Second, it illuminates some of the debates which were being fought out over linguistic issues during this period. Godwin and Wollstonecraft were both committed political writers who were deeply involved in the pamphlet wars surrounding the French Revolution. Inevitably, questions of language use were key in these debates. How could a writer convince the public of the accuracy of his or her opinions through the language that he or she used? Were some styles inherently untrustworthy? Could a particular style act as a guarantee of the writer's sincerity? Despite their similar experiences, however, the perspectives from which Godwin and Wollstonecraft approached these linguistic questions, and the ways in which they sought to achieve this all-important linguistic sincerity, could not have been more different. The nature of their relationship allows us to witness a direct debate between these two different perspectives.

In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice Godwin argues that a child is born without any innate principles, and develops his beliefs, habits and prejudices through receiving physical sensations and then reflecting on them. [5] Thus the infant develops away from total dependence upon his physical sensations towards a greater reliance on the exercise of his reason. Godwin evinces a firm belief in the perfectibility of mankind, but asserts that the perfect state will only be achieved if each individual is free to exercise his own understanding, and to behave in accordance with his own deductions:

The universal exercise of private judgement is a doctrine so unspeakably beautiful that the true politician will certainly resolve to interfere with it as sparingly and in as few instances as possible.

PJ vol. I, p. 129

Anything which prevents each individual from exercising his right to private judgement is a hindrance to the development of the perfect society. All governments by definition act on behalf of the individual: they go to war with other countries, they make laws, hand out punishments and encourage the accumulation of wealth. All governments are therefore a corrupting influence.

However, individuals do not operate in a complete vacuum, but in relation to other men and to the ideas and inventions of their ancestors:

The difference between savage and savage indeed, in the first generation of the human species and in perfect solitude, can only be ascribed to the different impressions made upon their senses. But this difference would be almost imperceptible. The ideas of wisdom and folly would never have entered the human mind, if men, like beasts, derived neither good nor evil from the reflections and discoveries of their companions and ancestors.

PJ vol. I, p. 58

This is where language begins to become important. The ability to communicate these 'reflections and discoveries' is central to the perfectibility of mankind as a whole. Without communication, each man would be like the first savage, totally reliant upon his own physical sensations. In the first edition of Political Justice Godwin emphasises the importance of the development of language in the development of human knowledge (Book I, chap VI), and describes 'literature, or the diffusion of knowledge through the medium of discussion, whether written or oral' (PJ vol. I, p. 19) as one of the three principal causes of moral improvement. This position is made much more explicit in the second edition, where he expresses his belief in the perfectibility of mankind through five propositions:

Sound reasoning and truth, when adequately communicated, must always be victorious over error: Sound reasoning and truth are capable of being so communicated: Truth is omnipotent: The vices and moral weakness of man are not invincible: Man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of perpetual improvement. [6]

Crucially, therefore, Godwin's political philosophy pivots on the ability of man to communicate reasoning and truth through language. If sound reasoning and truth cannot be 'adequately communicated', these five principles collapse.

Although language is afforded this pivotal role in Political Justice, Godwin does not elaborate on the practical implications. However, he does discuss language in much greater detail in his essay 'Of English Style', which appears as the final essay in his 1797 book of essays: The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature. 'Of English Style' is by far the longest of the twenty-eight essays in the book, taking up 120 of the 480 pages. It seems significant, that, having explicitly put 'adequate communication' at the centre of his political philosophy in the 1796 edition of Political Justice, the following year Godwin published an essay in which he discusses his linguistic ideals at length.

In this essay, Godwin considers the development of English style, with an aim to establishing the period in which the English language was 'written and spoken in the greatest purity and perfection'. Godwin observes that each age always thinks that the English language was at its height of perfection in an earlier age, and that this leads to a dissatisfaction with the language of the current age:

Men of taste of the present day think they see, as Swift believed he saw before them, the influx of a corrupt and barbarous style. The mode of writing which is now practised, we are told is dazzling and gaudy, not of intrinsic value. Our language is infected with a motley train of foreign phraseology. We adopt expressions with eagerness, which at the same time that they are opposed to all just analogy, are in their own nature bad and contemptible. We hunt after unreal beauties. The dignified simplicity, which characterised the language of our forefathers, is no more. [7]

Godwin does not, however, reach the same conclusion as his contemporaries, who concluded that English was degenerating. Nor does he reach the same conclusion as modern linguists, who argue that although the language is constantly changing, each stage is equally valuable. Godwin instead draws the conclusion that, although each age regards their own language as 'corrupt and barbarous', English is in fact in a state of perpetual improvement:

It is pretty generally acknowledged, that science and the improvement of the human mind, are in a progressive state. It has come to be vehemently suspected, that the political maxims and moral conduct of our ancestors, were not altogether so perfect as they have been represented. May it not then happen, that the opinion in favour of their language may prove equally hasty and unfounded? It is the purpose of this Essay to show, that the English language was never in so high a state of purity and perfection, as in the present reign of king George the third.

'OES4 pp. 369-70

In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, he discusses passages from the most famous prose writers from each era, starting with the Elizabethan age, as represented by Sidney, Shakespeare and Hooker, and finishing with the age of George II, as represented by Middleton, Sherlock, Fielding and Smollett. This notion of the continual improvement of English Prose, when illustrated by passages drawn from earlier stages of the language, is, of course, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is hardly surprising that, if you define the current stage of the language as the highest stage it has yet reached, and then trace its progress through the past three hundred years, you will find that it becomes more and more similar to its current 'high' standard. Yet this argument is more than a neatly tautologous exercise in proving himself right. In arguing that language is 'in a progressive state', Godwin argues that language is becoming increasingly capable of communicating reason and truth clearly. And if reason and truth can be communicated more clearly, they will be more effective in convincing people to behave accordingly. The perfectibility of language is therefore a fundamental aspect of the perfectibility of the human race.

In each of the passages he provides to illustrate the prose of the period, Godwin uses asterisks to mark the phrases he finds 'most glaringly offensive' ('OES' p. 419). A passage from Archbishop Tillotson's Sermons on Sincerity receives the following treatment:

Amongst too many other instances of the great corruption and degeneracy of the age * wherein we live, the great and general want of sincerity in Conversation is * none of the least. The World * is grown so full of Dissimulation and Complement, that Mens words are * hardly any * signification of their thoughts; and if any Man * measure his words by his heart, and speak as he thinks, and do not express more kindness to every man, than men usually have for any man, he can * hardly escape the * censure of rudeness and want of breeding.

'OES' p. 422

It is in many cases difficult to determine the principles by which Godwin places his asterisks. What, for example, is wrong with 'wherein we live'? Does Godwin mean that 'in which we live' would be better? Why does he object to the word 'hardly' when used to mean 'scarcely'? What is wrong with 'signification of their thoughts'? Godwin himself confesses that 'asterisks are very incompetent to mark perplexity of style', but concludes that they are useful because otherwise he would have had to provide 'that endlessness of dissertation I was most solicitous to avoid' ('OES' p. 420).

A clearer insight into Godwin's stylistic preferences is provided when he explicitly discusses his definition of a perfect style:

And here I would lay it down as a maxim, that the beauty of style consists in this, to be free from unnecessary parts and excrescencies, and to communicate our ideas with the smallest degree of prolixity and circuitousness. Style should be the transparent envelop [sic] of our thoughts; and, like a covering of glass, is defective, if, by any knots and ruggedness of surface, it introduces an irregularity and obliquity into the appearances of an object, not proper to the object itself. The forming of an excellent composition, may be compared to the office of a statuary according to the fanciful idea of one of the ancients, who affirmed, that the statue was all along in the block of marble, and the artist did nothing more than remove those parts which intercepted our view of it. If he left any portion of the marble which ought to have been cut away, the statue was in some degree disfigured.

'OES' pp. 370-1

Godwin assumes that the purpose of language is to communicate thought. The more clearly the thought is visible through the language, the better the style is. Language should not be beautiful in its own right, but beautiful only as far as it expresses ideas clearly and transparently. Any unnecessary additions are a blemish, because they draw attention to the medium itself, and distort the idea which is being communicated. Godwin also asserts that, in order to achieve a transparent and functional style, the writer must control the writing process completely and consciously. Godwin cites the failure of authors to exercise conscious artistry as one of the major flaws of early English writing:

Another fault, which is perhaps more or less imputable to every English writer before the present age, is, that they are prone to tell their story or unfold their argument in a relaxed and disjointed style, more resembling the illiterate effusions of the nurse or the rustic, than those of a man of delicate perceptions and classical cultivation, who watched with nice attention the choices of his words and the arrangement of his phrases.

'OES' p. 373

A 'relaxed and disjointed style' is, for Godwin, evidence that the writer is either careless or illiterate. Godwin defines the ideal writer as 'a man of delicate perceptions and classical cultivation', whose every choice of word or phrase is entirely deliberate.

In his definition of the ideal style, Godwin's linguistic thought is very similar to many of the linguistic writings of the eighteenth century, and he is clearly within the prescriptivist tradition. His contemporary, Lindley Murray, for example, propounds the widely accepted view that thought and language are intimately interwoven:

Thought and expression act and re-act upon each other mutually. The understanding and language have here, as in many other cases, a strict connection; and those who are learning to arrange their sentences with accuracy and order, are learning, at the same time, to think with accuracy and order […] [8]

It is unlikely that Godwin would have found much to disagree with in this sentiment. Similarly, Godwin's definition of a perfect style as being a 'transparent envelop' is very similar to the definition of a perfect style provided by Hugh Blair:

We are pleased with an author, we consider him as deserving praise, who frees us from all fatigue of searching for his meaning; who carries us through his subject without any embarrassment or confusion; whose style flows always like a limpid stream, where we see to the very bottom. [9]

Both Blair and Godwin define the ideal style as being transparent and free from anything which might confuse the reader. If something will confuse the reader, it should be excised; if something will aid communication, it should be retained.

Godwin's approach to language is certainly in some ways distinctive from that of his contemporaries. His belief that language is continually improving is, as far as I have been able to discover in a survey of over fifty works on language from the 1790s, entirely unique to him. It is this belief in the perfectibility of language which allows him to turn conservative linguistic theories to radical political purposes. On the whole, however, his linguistic thought is resolutely traditional and heavily prescriptive. In this context, his use of asterisks can be interpreted as an extension of the prescriptivist tradition which used examples of bad grammar to teach students how to use language correctly. [10]

Unlike Godwin, Wollstonecraft did not write any single piece specifically upon language, so her thoughts upon language must be reconstructed from the comments scattered through her works. Perhaps the most useful source for such comments is her short essay 'On Artificial Taste', which was published under the pseudonym 'W.Q.' in The Monthly Magazine shortly before her death in 1797, and reprinted by Godwin as part of her Posthumous Works in 1798. 'On Artificial Taste' was first published in the form of a letter to the editor, as were all articles in the Monthly Magazine. When reprinted by Godwin its title was changed to 'On Poetry, and Our Relish for the Beauties of Nature', and this is the title which modern critics have generally used. It is interesting to note the change from Wollstonecraft's negative title which points towards taste in general, to Godwin's more positive one which focuses attention specifically towards poetry. Some small textual changes, generally tightening up the grammar and vocabulary, were also apparently made by Godwin. [11]

In 'On Artificial Taste' Wollstonecraft's initial point of enquiry is why, if so many people declare a taste for rural scenes, she herself never sees anyone else out and about on her early morning rambles. It is because, she concludes, this supposed taste for the countryside is actually the product of poetry and romances rather than 'a real perception of the beauties of nature'. From here, she writes, she was led:

[…] to enquire why the poetry, written in the infancy of society, is most natural: which, strictly speaking (for natural is a very indefinite expression) is merely to say, that it is the transcript of immediate emotions, when fancy, awakened by the view of interesting objects, in all their native wildness and simplicity was most actively at work. At such moments, sensibility quickly furnishes similes, and the sublimated spirits combine with happy facility—images, which rising spontaneously bursting on him, it is not necessary coldly to ransack the understanding or memory, till the laborious efforts of judgment exclude present sensations, and damp the fire of enthusiasm. [12]

In other words, early poetry is written from nature and the feelings it directly inspires, while later poetry is inspired only by other poetry. Wollstonecraft's phrase the 'transcript of immediate emotions' is particularly interesting, foreshadowing as it does Wordsworth's claim in his 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads that 'all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. [13] For both Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth, good poetry must be unpremeditated and result from naturally occurring emotions. Intellectual labour and conscious effort are held by both to be antithetical to the production of genuine poetry.

Wollstonecraft then suggests that poetry written directly from the poet's own feelings cannot but inspire similar feelings in the reader:

The poet, the man of strong feelings, only gives us a picture of his mind when he was actually alone, conversing with himself, and marking the impression which nature made on his own heart. If, during these sacred moments, the idea of some departed friend—some tender recollection, when the soul was most alive to tenderness, intrudes unawares into his mind, the sorrow which it produces is artlessly, but poetically, expressed; and who can avoid sympathizing?

'OAT' pp. 279-80

For Wollstonecraft poetry is the product of nature and not of art. True poetry, which will spontaneously produce sympathy in its audience, is produced almost unintentionally. One of the results of this lack of art, she admits, is that poetry produced under such circumstances will contain 'inequalities', while poetry produced by 'a less vigorous imagination' will have more 'elegance and uniformity'. For Wollstonecraft, however, these 'inequalities' are part of its beauty, and attempting to revise the poem is a mistake:

[…] as passages are softened or expunged during the cooler moments of reflection, the understanding is gratified at the expence of those involuntary sensations which like the beauteous tints of an evening sky, are so evanescent that they melt into new forms before they can be analysed.

'OAT' p. 280

Poetic language is described as a fluid and evanescent entity, continually melting and re-forming rather than permanently fixed. She proceeds to argue that the poetry of 'the man of strong feelings' in the infancy of society stands in contrast to the poet of later civilization, who is 'rather a creature of art, than nature' (p. 280). This later poet takes his imagery and language from the books he has read, and not from nature:

[…] the books that he peruses in his youth, become a hot-bed, in which artificial fruits are produced, beautiful to a common eye, though they want the true hue and flavour. His images do not flow from his imagination, but are servile copies; and, like the works of the painters who copy ancient statues when they draw men and women of their own times, we acknowledge that the features are fine, and the proportions just; but still they are men of stone: insipid figures, that never convey to the mind the idea of a portrait taken from life, where the soul gives spirit and homogeneity to the whole form. The silken wings of fancy are shrivelled by rules, and a desire of attaining elegance of diction occasions an attention to words, incompatible with sublime impassioned thoughts.

'OAT' p. 280

The later poets may, therefore, 'diffuse taste, and polish the language' but they 'will seldom have the energy to rouse the passions which amend the heart' ('OAT' p. 281). Paradoxically, it is precisely by concentrating too much upon language and making it conform to rules that poetry loses its power. Rules, according to Wollstonecraft, are antithetical to true eloquence.

Despite its celebration of spontaneous feeling, Wollstonecraft's essay ends on a warning note:

[…] the same sensibility, or quickness of senses, which makes a man relish the charms of nature, when sensation rather than reason, imparts delight, frequently makes a libertine of him, by leading him to prefer the tumult of love, to the calm pleasures of affectionate friendship, in whose sober satisfactions, reason, mixing her tranquilizing convictions, whispers, that content, not happiness, is the reward of virtue in this world.

'OAT' p. 282

Too deep an indulgence in the pleasures of nature can deprave the sensitive man by leading him to prefer 'tumult' to 'content'. Reason must be mixed with sensibility to ensure that he is satisfied with friendship and tranquillity. It is a little difficult here, as it is elsewhere in Wollstonecraft's writing, to determine exactly what she means by the word 'reason'. It certainly is not 'the cold workings of the brain' which she frequently sets up in opposition to natural feeling. Instead, it is an innate tempering faculty, which has to be consciously cultivated in order to flourish, but which is neither artificial nor rule-based. [14]

It is important to recognise, however, that in this essay Wollstonecraft is talking only about poetry, and that her views are not therefore necessarily incompatible with those of Godwin. In 'Of English Style' Godwin writes:

We will confine ourselves to prose examples. The licence of poetry, and the fetters of versification, have equally in all ages seduced the poets, in some degree to deviate from the received language of the age in which they wrote.

'OES' p. 370

Wollstonecraft is discussing poetry, while Godwin explicitly restricts his observations to prose. It was certainly not impossible for an individual to reconcile an admiration of primitive poetry with a commitment to 'correctness' in modern prose (although we might want to note the decidedly negative terms with which Godwin refers to poetry: 'licence', 'fetters', 'seduced', 'deviate'). Hugh Blair, for example, stresses the importance of 'purity, propriety and precision' in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres even though he also championed the poetry of Ossian in terms not dissimilar to those used to Wollstonecraft:

Irregular and unpolished we may expect the productions of uncultivated ages to be; but abounding at the same time, with that enthusiasm, that vehemence and fire, which are the soul of poetry. For many circumstances of those times which we call barbarous, are favourable to the poetical spirit. That state, in which human nature shoots wild and free, though unfit for other improvements, certainly encourages the high exertions of fancy and passion. [15]

Similarly, Robert Lowth wrote the most influential prescriptivist grammar of the century, even though he also wrote appreciatively on the language of the bible in On the Ancient Poetry of the Hebrews (1787). It might therefore be possible to reconcile Wollstonecraft and Godwin's views, if they are interpreted as expressing two different sides of the same linguistic coin.

This possible reconciliation becomes impossible, however, once the views about language which Wollstonecraft expresses as a reviewer are taken into account. Between 1788 and 1797 Wollstonecraft wrote for the Analytical Review, published by her friend and mentor Joseph Johnson. [16] These reviews reveal Wollstonecraft to be a decisive critic. As the reviews were all published anonymously she was freed from the expectations that were often held about female writers, and her reviewing persona is never obviously female; undoubtedly most readers assumed her to be male.

One of the most revealing elements of Wollstonecraft's reviews is her use of adjectives to describe the language of others. While Wollstonecraft does use some prescriptivist adjectives, such as 'vulgar', 'easy' and 'elegant', she more frequently utilises a set of adjectives which include 'laboured', 'artificial', 'affected' and 'insipid' among their negative qualities, and 'unaffected', 'unstudied', 'artless', 'simple' and 'unadorned' among their positive qualities. These adjectives reflect her opinions in 'On Artificial Taste', where she argues that the best poetry is written artlessly from feelings and nature, whereas the worst poetry is deliberately culled from existing literature. This is not, of course, to suggest that Wollstonecraft's preference for 'artlessness' was original to her: rather, it demonstrates her allegiance to the culture of sensibility. Her relationship to the vocabulary of sensibility was not, however, unproblematic. She has no patience in her reviews for writers who she perceives as affecting strong feelings, and she often criticises writers for using '[t]he affected fashionable cant of sensibility'. [17] Reviewing 'A Poem to the Memory of George Frederick Handel' she complains:

In these pretty, cold rhymes an affectation of enthusiasm gives a stiffness to the language; and the sentiments evidently coming from the head, create no sympathy in the heart. The frigid combination of images and phrases, furnished by a retentive memory, may shew the ingenuity of the writer; but the reader will not easily retain forced associations, or the studied flow of sentimental declamation. [18]

The 'enthusiasm' is feigned, resulting in stiff and forced language. The question thus comes down to one of sincerity: where genuine feelings are evident, the resultant language will automatically win the sympathy of the reader. Thus she has nothing but praise for writers whom she considers to write artlessly from the heart:

There is a manly plainness running through the style of the original, which must excite respect, whilst, in many passages, a sudden glow of eloquence fastens on the affections, and sinks the instruction deeper than dry arguments ever can. Every where, indeed, appears that degree of earnest sincerity, which gives a commanding dignity to the simplest language, seldom to be found in more laboured compositions, when a more ignoble pursuit animates the abilities of the writer, or attempts at elegance absorb the mind, and render the sentiments coldly correct. [19]

Wollstonecraft finds that 'earnest sincerity' can excuse flaws in writing. It is notable that again any texts which show evidence of particular effort ('laboured compositions') are inherently untrustworthy: for Wollstonecraft honesty is to be found in a lack of art and polish. Even grammatical errors do not materially injure emotionally sincere writing: 'A few grammatical errors, and trifling inaccuracies, we cannot think of noticing, when there are charms in the language, which cold correctness will never reach'. [20] This argument, that unaffected language is not materially injured by grammatical error, is also used to defend Thomas Paine against a detractor: [21]

As to the smart, puerile remarks on his writings, termed a defence, we shall readily grant that the book contains some vulgarisms, and that Mr Paine, not paying sufficient attention to the niceties of grammar, continually offends against the subjunctive mood; and we will even allow that if the construction of a few sentences were altered, his meaning would be clearer. These are things that dulness seldom overlooks. [22]

Wollstonecraft never goes as far as to claim that linguistic error can be part of the charm of a book, but her reviews repeatedly suggest that she does not believe it to be a serious impediment.

Perhaps her most eloquent praise for the language of a book is reserved for Dr Price's A Discourse on the Love of our Country:

This sermon breathes the animated sentiments of ardent virtue in a simple, unaffected, nay, even negligent style; yet, though the whole is written with careless dignity, many passages occur which are truly eloquent—the heart speaks to the heart in an unequivocal language, and the understanding, not bewildered by sophistical arguments, assents, without an effort, to such obvious truths. His periods indeed are not laboriously swelled like the cold raptures of vanity; but rose, as he grew warm, to something more, to grandeur; while sincerity throws an energetic glow into the natural phrases which first gave a form to his well-digested thoughts. [23]

Price was a friend of Wollstonecraft's, and they held similar political opinions: it would therefore appear that this praise for his language is not wholly unconnected from her approval of its subject matter. However, the terms in which she praises it are significant: his style is 'negligent' and 'careless', yet manages to be 'truly eloquent'. Price does not labour to achieve a good style: he is more interested in the 'truths' he is communicating than the language in which he is communicating them.

It is important to recognise that in these reviews Wollstonecraft applies the same criteria of artlessness and sincerity to all texts, without discriminating between genres. Hence, although her ideas about language as they appear in 'On Artificial Taste' are not particularly unusual or radical when restricted to poetry, they become much more radical once it is recognised that Wollstonecraft was prepared to apply exactly the same standards to modern poetry and novels as well as to serious contemporary prose, such as Moral and Philosophical Estimates, Richard Price's Discourse and Thomas Paine's Rights of Men. This reveals the conservatism underlying the change of title from 'On Artificial Taste' to 'On Poetry, and Our Relish for the Beauties of Nature'. By limiting the scope of the essay to poetry and nature, rather than allowing it to apply to taste in general, Godwin ensured that Wollstonecraft was not challenging the genre boundaries of the linguistic theories of the period.

These brief outlines demonstrate that, in terms of their thinking about language, Godwin and Wollstonecraft existed at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum. Godwin repeatedly asserts that the purpose of language is to communicate thought clearly and carefully. Wollstonecraft repeatedly asserts that the purpose of language is to communicate feeling warmly and spontaneously. Godwin believes that the English language is continually improving as each generation refines the existing resources. Wollstonecraft believes that human expression is declining because later generations look only to other books and not to nature. The similes and metaphors which they use are particularly revealing. Godwin likens the ideal style to a covering of glass or a marble statue: language should be fixed, inanimate and consciously crafted. For Wollstonecraft, Price's sermon 'breathes', and the instinctive language of poetry is like 'tints of an evening sky': language is a living and active being, which naturally occurs without the conscious control of man. Significantly, these beliefs about language have important implications for their own styles, particularly when they are writing persuasive political tracts. In Political Justice Godwin's style shows evidence of careful planning and control: for example, he shows a marked preference for restricted, rather than unrestricted, relative clauses. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men Wollstonecraft uses a variety of resources in order to suggest spontaneity and immediacy: for example, she frequently uses dashes to interrupt her own train of thought. [24]

Given their extremely contradictory theories and practices of language, it is perhaps surprising to note that the texts in which they gave their linguistic theories fullest expression, 'On Artificial Taste' and 'Of English Style', were both published in 1797. By 1797 Wollstonecraft was pregnant with their child, and Godwin and Wollstonecraft were married in March 1797 (Wollstonecraft was to die as a result of childbirth in September 1797). Their letters reveal that, as might have been expected, their contrasting concepts of language were a source of conflict in their relationship. In September 1796 Wollstonecraft wrote angrily to Godwin after he had criticised her 'manner of writing':

I am compelled to think that there is some thing in my writings more valuable, than in the productions of some people on whom you bestow warm eulogiums—I mean more mind—denominate it as you will—more of the observations of my own senses, more of the combining of my own imagination—the effusions of my own feelings and passions than the cold workings of the brain on the materials procured by the senses and imagination of other writers—[25]

A few days later Wollstonecraft had apparently capitulated and agreed to accept grammar lessons from Godwin:

You are to give me a lesson this evening—And, a word in your ear, I shall not be very angry if you sweeten grammatical disquisitions after the Miltonic mode—Fancy at this moment has turned a conjunction into a kiss; and the sensation steals o'er my senses. [26]

Despite this capitulation, the following April Wollstonecraft published 'On Artificial Taste' in which she expresses views very similar to those of her letter of September 4, contending that unequal emotional 'effusions' are of more value than the cold workings of the brain. We might therefore wish to conclude that, at the time of her death, Wollstonecraft and Godwin had not reached common ground on the subject of language: despite being a paradigmatic Romantic couple, their concepts of language were markedly divergent.

Godwin's attitude towards language was to change. 'Of English Style', written in 1797, is optimistic about the possibility of a 'transparent' style which will convey truth clearly and unequivocally. However, when he came to revise the essay for the second edition of The Enquirer in 1823, the whole section defining 'the laws of just composition or style' and describing an ideal language as 'the transparent envelop of our thoughts' was excised. In its place, Godwin retracts some of his earlier enthusiasm for the language of the Age of George the Third. He writes that:

[The author] believes that on the whole the construction of the language of our best modern writers, the best writers of the age of George the Third, is closer, and neater, more free from laxity of structure, and less subject to occasional incongruities, superfluities, unnaturalness and affectation, than that of their predecessors. But neatness and a sustained equality of march are not every thing. [27]

It is immediately possible to see parallels to Wollstonecraft's comments about Paine's lack of grammatical knowledge being something that 'dulness seldom overlooks'. Where in the earlier version transparency and clarity were all, Godwin now suggests that these qualities are of secondary importance. He also confesses that since writing the original essay he has become more closely acquainted with the earlier English authors, and now finds that they have many qualities which modern writers lack:

Since the publication of this volume the author has been pretty extensively conversant with the productions of our elder writers. And they have certainly lost nothing with him in a more intimate acquaintance. He admires, and he loves them. They have, many of them, a splendour and an expansive richness of manner, that more than balance the perhaps more laborious exactness of their successors. There is also something in early language, and the new and unhackneyed sense and feeling of words, that is singularly delightful. [28]

Godwin's position is thus almost directly opposite to that which he held in the first edition twenty five years earlier. He no longer appears to believe in the continual progress of the English Language. He no longer believes that the best style is one that draws no attention to itself: rather, he finds delight in the 'expansive richness and manner' and 'the new and unhackneyed sense and feeling of words'. He no longer believes that language should be a transparent vehicle for communicating thought, but instead he takes pleasure in the feelings which language can provoke.

Olivia Smith interprets Godwin's retraction of his earlier opinion as being the result of the persuasiveness of the new doctrine of language which she sees emerging during the decade:

In the second edition of the Enquirer (1823), Godwin rewrote his essay on literature in order to account for his greater appreciation of earlier writers. This new edition reflects the persuasive force of radical critiques of language in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and the Diversions of Purley. [29]

To some extent I agree with Smith's interpretation: Godwin's change of opinion can be linked to wider changes in attitudes towards language. While prescriptivism was certainly not on the decline in pedagogical circles, Godwin's beliefs about language as a static and transparent material were becoming outmoded: in the nineteenth century language was increasingly seen as an organic entity, subject to its own rules of development and change. I would, however, wish to make two modifications to Smith's position. First, it is important to recognise that Godwin's change of mind was more than simply an aesthetic decision: it represents a fundamental loss of faith in the possibility of communicating truth and reasoning accurately. This loss of faith inevitably had serious implications for the political philosophy he expounds in Political Justice: a retreat from the perfectibility of language implies a similar retreat from the perfectibility of man. Second, and more importantly from the point of view of this essay, if we are looking for authors who might have influenced Godwin and persuaded him to pay closer attention to earlier authors, surely the most likely candidate is not Wordsworth or Horne Tooke. It seems impossible that Godwin could have penned such a complete retraction of his earlier position, without being conscious that he was, albeit posthumously and belatedly, coupling linguistically with Mary Wollstonecraft.

Appendices