Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Clarifying the purposely obscure

· December 21st, 2016 · No Comments

Today’s post comes courtesy of Gabriel Cervantes, author of “Learning from Stephen Burroughs: Republication and the Making of a Literary Book in the Early United States” in the October 2016 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.


by Gabriel Cervantes

When I first started working on Stephen Burroughs’s Memoirs, I realized that the narrative uses poetry in clever ways. For instance, the first chapter motto in the narrative reads, “Full well I know you; deep, too deep engrav’d / On memory’s tablet your rude horrors live.” This bit of verse is taken (without attribution) from the poem, Calvary; or, The Death of Christ by the British dramatist, Richard Cumberland. The poem is Miltonic and the speaker of these lines is Satan. The poem is obscure even to specialists who work on British literature of that period, and, far as I know, the poem wasn’t an especially famous or well-known when Burroughs was composing Memoirs. It is unlikely the intention was for readers to immediately recognize the lines. Or, even less, to identify the speaker. Oft-quoted lines from Alexander Pope or Edward Young that had been bouncing around in print for at least half a century are one matter. But lines like these are something else, something enigmatic. Do they give Memoirs a literary cast and signal the author’s sensibility? Certainly. Are they supposed to be recognizable? Probably not. Did Burroughs want to showing off that he had read a recent British poem? Maybe. Might he have taken some pleasure in quoting Satan? Sure, I can see that.

What is clear about these lines to me, however, is that they work by association. Whatever they mean, they have an effect by what they don’t say. Just by appearing where they do, they connect between the text they came from and the one they introduce. They connect authors and works, and they shine a light—or, perhaps, depending on your interpretation, eclipse one—on what follows. In all this, they assume a reader who might care to connect an author’s dots. If you’ve read a lot of eighteenth-century literature, none of this is surprising. Quoted poems, quoted classics, quoted Bible verses float around nearly everywhere. And, in most cases, they work by silence when no one bothers to say where these words came from or what they are supposed to mean, but rather assume that such things will be clear. If such things aren’t clear to us, we can usually figure out at least some part of the equation, especially so with the help of one or more searchable databases. In the 1830s, Burroughs returned to the lines from Cumberland in a public plea describing how he was stripped of property rights in Canada. The point here is more commonplace: “Pardon me if too warm,” he tells then Governor’s Secretary, Stephen Walcott, “these injuries have left too deep an impression to be molified [sic] by the lenient hand of time. Allow me to say in the language of the Poet, ‘Deep, too deep engrav’d on memory’s tablet, your rude horrors live.’” Cumberland’s bit of verse excuses the emotions animating Burroughs’s complaint, excuses them by calling to mind what poets know and say about feelings.

What seems strange to me about association as a communicative strategy is how much I work to engage it and yet also to avoid it. Even as I study association and all its allied strategies, most of the time I am expected to express myself with exceeding clarity if not obviousness. I teach my students to research, interpret, and contextualize association. But only rarely do I use association as a standalone pedagogical method. I can imagine a class meeting where I write two words on the board and say nothing about them. Or one where hand out two poems and see what unfolds. And, maybe I could even get away with that once or twice a semester. I have enough sense to know that such shenanigans have no place in a grant application or in administrative service. Writing my article on Burroughs and collaborating with the amazing editorial team at WMQ, I worked to make my arguments clear and precise. Clear and precise to address scholars of various stripes while leaving little as possible to the imagination, and, at the same time, rather ironically, striving to reconstruct things from the past left unsaid, unclear, and obscure.

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