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The Field of Imagination

Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Poetry
Scott M. Cleary

BUY Cloth · 186 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942933 · $39.50 · Sep 2019
BUY Ebook · 186 pp. · ISBN 9780813942940 · $39.50 · Sep 2019

One of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine is best remembered as the pamphleteer who inspired the American Revolution. Yet few also know him as an eighteenth-century poet of considerable repute. In The Field of Imagination, Scott Cleary offers the first book on Paine’s poetry, exploring how poetry written both by and about Paine is central to understanding his development as a political theorist.

Despite his claim in The Age of Reason that he was abandoning poetry because it led too much into the "field of imagination," Paine never completely left poetry behind. He took advantage of his position as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine to situate his poetry in relation to the magazine’s tacit support of American independence. He drew on two British poets, James Thomson and Charles Churchill, to provide revealing epigraphs for his major early works in support of that independence, and in turn he himself became an influence on early American poets such as Joel Barlow and Philip Freneau.

Paine’s poetry has until now been largely relegated to the status of scholarly curiosity. But whether through his own poetry, his thoughts on the place and function of poetry in the Age of Reason, or his deep influence on the poetry of the early American republic, Paine’s involvement in poetical craft provides a lens onto the unique and tempestuous literary culture of the eighteenth century.


Cleary reconstructs Paine's poetry in terms of a shift from a British to an American identity, and in this book we get a much clearer sense of the meaning and importance of his poetry to Paine than has been made evident elsewhere. This is a well-informed, careful, and nuanced study which greatly surpasses anything previously written in this area

Gregory Claeys is Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London

Cleary (Iona College) treats Paine (1737–1809) as a journalist in Philadelphia at Pennsylvania Magazine; the major political poems printed in that publication (i.e., "Liberty Tree" and "The Death of General Wolfe"); the significance of an epigraph drawn from James Thompson’s long poem Liberty in Common Sense; the influence of Charles Churchill’s verse on Paine's Crisis II; notions of poetry and imagination in the deist Age of Reason, which Paine wrote at a time when he was also producing a number of love lyrics; and Paine’s influence on early Republic poets Philip Freneau and Joel Barlow.


Cleary’s study is helpful in prompting a series of questions: why does this writer of metaphorically vigorous prose turn out such conventional poetry? What leads a revolutionary to write un-revolutionary verse? What were his early verse experiments? How does Paine’s increasingly hostile understanding of the imagination after 1800 compare with Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s formulations? In short, The Field of Imagination demonstrates that, on the subject of Paine and poetry, there may be a promising harvest, indeed.

Times Literary Supplement

In The Field of Imagination: Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Poetry, Scott M. Clearyoffers a compelling analysis of Thomas Paine’s contributions to poetry as well as poetry’scontributions to the revolutionary work of one of the US’s most radical founders.... [The book]will be of interest to Paine scholars, scholars of early American poetry,and those interested in the cultural dimensions of Revolutionary American politics for itsdeep examination of the work of one of the American Revolution’s most importantfigures.

American Literary History

" The Field of Imagination: Thomas Paine and Eighteenth-Century Poetry will be a landmark in Paine studies, as well as a valuable, unexpected contribution to the ongoing discussion about the uses, affordances, and valencies of poetry in the long eighteenth century."

SEL Studies in English Literature

About the Author(s): 

Scott M. Cleary is Associate Professor of English at Iona College and coeditor of New Directions in Thomas Paine Studies.

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