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Frans de Bruyn, The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke: The Political Uses of Literary Form

Tuesday, December 1, 1998 - 04:21
Frans De Bruyn, The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke: The Political Uses of Literary Form (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). xii + 318pp. $72.00 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-19-812182-2).

Reviewed by
Tim Fulford
Nottingham Trent University

Frans De Bruyn makes the purpose of The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke clear at the outset. "This study," he writes, "seeks to redeem Burke as a literary figure for our time by reviving a historical sense of what literary discourse meant for him and his contemporaries" (viii). The late twentieth-century reader, it seems, must undergo nothing less than a conversion experience, becoming an honorary subject of George III, to understand Burke's importance today. The conversion in question proves less difficult than might be expected since what De Bruyn wants us to acquire is a pre-Romantic mindset in which the literary is not separated from the political, nor the fictional from the factual. He wants us, in other words, to put aside the influence of the Romantic Ideology and to value as literary a discourse that participates in the partisan issues of its day. After the strictures of Jerome J. McGann, most Romanticists are keen enough to do just so, and indeed, recent studies by Steven Blakemore (Burke and the Fall of Language [University Press of New England, 1988]), Christopher Reid, (Edmund Burke and the Practice of Political Writing [St. Martin's Press, 1985]), and Tom Furniss, (Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Ideology [Cambridge University Press, 1993]) approach Burke in exactly the way that De Bruyn recommends.

If De Bruyn is not the only recent literary scholar to approach Burke from the perspective of a new historicism, he is one of the best. The particular strengths of The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke arise from the author's demonstration that eighteenth-century political language was informed, at the levels of genre as well as of style and of allusion, by literary models both native and classical. Many recent discussions of Burke have focused almost exclusively on his reaction to the French Revolution. Not De Bruyn. While he does devote much attention to Burke's extraordinary 1790s rhetoric, he shows that it was a development of a discourse that he had first sketched out in response to politics at home and in the colonies. Burke's opposition to war with the American colonies, his indictment of Warren Hastings for abusing his power in India, his reaction to the Gordon Riots, all receive detailed assessment. In each case, Burke is shown to have manipulated the epic style of Milton and Virgil and the satirical techniques of Pope and Swift.

The Burke who emerges from De Bruyn's portrait is one who should serve to remind all Romanticists of the persistence of earlier eighteenth-century models in the writing we have come to call Romantic. De Bruyn amply demonstrates that Pope, for instance, informs not just the language but the very form of the text that so enthralled Coleridge and Wordsworth—the Letters on a Regicide Peace. As in The Dunciad, literary criticism becomes the form through which political argument is made. Burke makes the bad writing of his opponents into evidence of their politically dangerous lack of judgment. The aristocrats who defended the French Revolution become, in his prose, Pope's dunces resurrected. Their failure to make intellectual distinctions, a failure revealed by their prose, "vividly enacts the obliteration of difference that Pope identifies as the ultimate threat to England's cultural distinctiveness—indeed, to the possibility of culture itself" (259). "At this point," De Bruyn concludes, "critical and political discourse have become almost indistinguishable" (255). Byron, of course, used The Dunciad in the same way in Don Juan, and although De Bruyn neither considers Byron nor the other Romantics, his arguments implicitly demonstrate just why they continued to find Burke so compelling.

Among the many virtues of this fine, clearly-written book is its variety. De Bruyn has new light to throw on Burke's Miltonic and biblical sublime. He shows that Burke had recourse to the apocalyptic tones of Jeremiah in conscious opposition to what he saw as the shallow and naïvely optimistic prophetic discourse of Dr Richard Price. Burke's transformation of his literary models is shown here, as elsewhere in the book, to occur in response to the local context of a particular occasion. What this implies—although De Bruyn does not theorize it explicitly—is a historicized model of literary influence in which, pacé Bloom, the great predecessor is not so much Oedipally confronted, as adapted to fit the matter in hand. And that matter, for Burke, was usually a partisan matter, examined in the heat of parliamentary debate.

The relationship between Burke's parliamentary speeches and his writings, between the different occasions and audiences prompting his discourse, is perhaps too briefly examined in De Bruyn's text. In the 1790s Burke had increasing recourse, De Bruyn shows, to the genre of the open letter. This was also the period in which he found it hard to command the attention of parliament. Perhaps his move to a form of ad hominem writing was an attempt to reconstitute in prose the charged personal confrontations that occurred across the floor of the House of Commons. The Letter to a Noble Lord is perhaps a case in point. De Bruyn, however, views the letter-genre in another context and, in a powerful analysis, shows that it is the product of a peculiarly late eighteenth-century tension, between the desire of the self-made literary man to demonstrate his independence, on the one hand, and the need to defer to aristocrats who controlled patronage, on the other. With the emergence of a mass reading public around the turn of the century, De Bruyn shows, the energy which had fed the public letter began to move into the novel form. Burke's Letter is, thus, the last of a genre.

Much of the excellence of The Literary Genres of Edmund Burke comes from the author's refusal to oversimplify. He is alert to Burke's own contradictions and complexities and never forces texts into a single generic framework. He patiently shows, for instance, how Burke's public letters also incorporate other elements, including Scriblerian satire, elegy, and theatrical scenes. Indeed, he devotes whole sections to dramatic tableaux in the Reflections on the Revolution in France and to masquerade in the Letters on a Regicide Peace. In these sections he successfully introduces a methodological element a little different from that used elsewhere in the book. He uses the research of social historians to place Burke's characterization of the French Revolution as a grotesque drama in the context of the rituals of street protests. Examining the London crowd's predilection for mock executions, processions, progresses and enthronements, and revealing the government's alarm about these demonstrations at the time of the Gordon Riots, he produces a nuanced and historicized explanation, both for Burke's choice of topos and for its effect on readers at the time.

De Bruyn, then, largely attains his aim of reviving a sense of what literary discourse meant for Burke and his contemporaries. He succeeds not just in presenting a more historicized Burke to literary critics, but also in offering a more subtly, and self-consciously, literary one to historians, who can no longer retain any excuse for considering Burke's ideas as if they were separable from his means of expression. Successful in his main purpose, De Bruyn also does much to illuminate eighteenth-century discourse more widely. The best chapter in the book is a discussion of the political uses of Georgic which unravels with great skill the causes of its gradual decline. If Romanticism starts with Burke and Burke's reaction to the French Revolution, De Bruyn shows us that we can comprehend neither without the thorough understanding of eighteenth-century contexts that this book will help us to achieve.