Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
The Pleasures of the Imagination
The Spectator: June 23 to July 3, 1712 >
Introduction by P.Smithers, 1956
The Spectator was the greatest literary triumph of its time. Immediate fame, popularity, admiration, and financial success were the rewards of its authors. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was a basic text second only to the Bible in its influence upon British manners and morals, and it remained the most popular model for English prose composition. In the twentieth century it is a basic authority for the social historian, unrivalled in its own period for the variety of intimate detail which it reveals either directly or by inference. Its part in the formation of that outlook and character which distinguish the British middle class and which reached their climax, after two centuries of development, in the later Victorian period, would repay a full investigation.
The Spectator appeared in an age amply supplied with literature. Writing was a popular part-time occupation of all literate classes, whether as an elegant accomplishment, or in the quest for fame or a living, or for political, social, or scientific purposes. The numerous London presses and some provincial ones poured forth books, pamphlets broadsheets, and periodicals in astonishing profusion. In !is torrent of composition and publication the Spectator was easily distinguishable not by reason of any individual novel feature, but because it combined so many points of strength. Based upon Steele's experience in publishing the Gazette and the Tatler, it was technically efficient as a vehicle for its authors' purpose. The principal authors, Addison and Steele, wrote a direct and elegant prose easily recognized as superior to the main stream of contemporary literature, and perfectly matched with the content of the paper. The purpose of the authors was to amuse and to reform, to extend elegant amusement and rational reform from the circle of wits and divines to that of literate mankind as a whole, and to appeal to women equally with men.
The early Tatlers had been composite papers, made up of news elegant trifles, and more serious items. In the Spectator the trumpet of reform was sounded lone and clear. Not merely were whole papers devoted to serious subjects, but whole series of papers, such as those upon the 'Pleasures of the Imagination,' dealt with such subjects exhaustively. A complete man or woman was one who had developed the faculties of the mind to the maximum extent of which they were capable.
The Spectator explained how that could be done. A virtuous citizen was one who applied those faculties usefully. The reward of virtue would be happiness in this world and the next. But unlike contemporary sermons, whose content and purpose were often similar, the Spectators were and remain highly entertaining. Because they sprang from the society of the wits with its connections with the aristocracy alike of birth and intellect, they exhaled the breath of high fashion. The appeal to the reader was thus fourfold: amusement, intellectual and social snobbery, a serious purpose of reform, and the material rewards of virtue.
Addison and Steele were at this time admirably suited to complement and sustain each other. Steele with his knowledge of the gay life, with a ready wit and pen, and with his practical experience of publication, was reinforced by Addison's weighty reputation as a poet, critic, and scholar, now known to be a rising administrator and politician, and by his inimitable gift of humour. Steele's impetuous zeal and initiative were balanced by Addison's cautious yet penetrating wisdom. To the ladies. Steele was the would-be virtuous lover who flattered because his better self fell such an easy victim in the face of female temptation. Addison was the virtuous admirer, who flattered by inviting women to share his world of intellectual distinction upon almost equal terms. Together they combined qualities of creative genius which no single personality could contain, and around them they gathered a circle of occasional contributors who were inspired by their work and wrote in their vein.
It is not difficult to identify the merits of the Spectator as literature, as journalism, as morality, or as propaganda. But the external circumstances which enabled its authors to translate merit into immediate success and permanent achievement, are part of the history of Britain. The peculiar conditions which ensured success were two. Firstly, after a century of Puritan and cavalier excesses, England was ready for an attitude towards life which would encourage right living withOut severity and which would equally encourage pleasure without licentiousness. Secondly, John Locke, Isaac; Newton, Christopher Wren, and their contemporaries in other arts and sciences had shown how the human mind could expand its faculties by applying the process of reason in every direction. The authors of the Spectator took the materials ready to their hands and transformed them into papers which would be understood, enjoyed, and approved by almost all literate men and women.
The permanent achievement of the authors of the Spectator
is explained by a single fact. They wrote at the beginning of the rise of a
British middle class. They wrote for that class even though it was not
particularly numerous by later comparisons. And as the middle class multiplied
in strength, wealth, and influence, so did the readers of the Spectator. It
is probably not a coincidence that when the middle class in the Victorian sense
of the word began to decay. the Spectator fell abruptly from the first
rank of literature prescribed for intensive study by every educated child. Yet
there are other reasons for this decline. A temporary one is to be found in the
habit, now fortunately dying, of devaluing almost everything which the
Victorians admired and respected. As the Victorians and their attitude towards
life pass into the perspective of history, the Spectator will stand out
as a signpost to mankind upon its journey; for it showed Englishmen how to pass
beyond the great virtues into that assembly of lesser sound practices which
together will always govern the conduct of highly civilized men and women. This
task was so completely achieved that much of the teaching of the Spectator has
been incorporated in the British character and habits of life, and has passed
to our generation not through the words of Addison or Steele, but from the
teaching of our parents and grandparents who were their pupils.
House of Commons, 1956.
The Pleasures of the
The Spectator: June 23 to July 3, 1712
-Divisum sic breve fiet opus. -MART.
I shall first consider those pleasures of the imagination which arise from the actual view and survey of outward objects; and these, I think, all proceed from the sight of what is great, uncommon, or beautiful. There may indeed, be something so terrible or offensive, that horror or loathsomeness of an object may overbear the pleasure which results from its greatness, novelty or beauty; but still there will be such a mixture of delight in the very disgust it gives us, as any these three qualifications are most conspicuous and prevailing.
By greatness, I do not only mean the bulk of any single
object, but the largeness of a whole view, considered as one entire piece. Such
are the prospects of an open champaign country, a vast uncultivated desert, of
huge heaps of mountains, high rocks precipices, or a wide expanse of waters,
where we are not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight, but with that
rude kind of magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of
nature. Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at
anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing
astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and
amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them. The mind of man naturally
hates everything that looks like a restraint upon it, and is apt to fancy
itself under sort of confinement, when the sight is pent up in a arrow compass,
and shortened on every side by the neighbourhood of walls or mountains. On the
contrary, a spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where the eye has room to
range abroad, to expatiate at large on the immensity of its views, and to lose
itself amidst the variety of objects that offer themselves to its observation.
Such wide and undetermined prospects are as pleasing to the fancy, as the
speculations of eternity or infinitude are to the understanding. But if there
be a beauty or uncommonness joined with this grandeur, as in a troubled ocean,
a heaven adorned with stars and meteors, or a spacious landscape cut out into
rivers, woods, rocks, and meadows, the pleasure still grows upon us, as it
arises from more than a single principle.
Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed. We are indeed so often conversant with one set of objects, and tired out with so many repeated shows of the same things, that whatever is new or uncommon contributes a little to vary human life, and to divert our minds for a while with the strangeness of its appearance: it serves us for a kind of refreshment, and takes off from that satiety we are apt to complain of in our usual and ordinary entertainments. It is this that bestows charms on a monster, and makes even the imperfections of nature please us. It is this that recommends variety, where the mind is every instant called off to something new, and the attention not suffered to dwell too long and waste itself on any particular object. It is this, likewise, that improves what is great or beautiful, and makes it afford the mind a double entertainment. Groves, fields, and meadows are at any season of the year pleasant to look upon, but never so much as in the opening of the spring, when they are all new and fresh, with their first gloss upon them, and not yet too much accustomed and familiar to the eye. For this reason there is nothing that more enlivens a prospect than rivers, jetteaus, or falls of water, where the scene is perpetually shifting and entertaining the sight every moment with something that is new. We are quickly tired with looking upon hills and valleys, where everything continues fixed and settled in the same place and posture, but find our thoughts a little agitated and relieved at the sight of such objects as are ever in motion and sliding away from beneath the eye of the beholder.
But there is nothing that makes its way more directly to the soul than beauty, which immediately diffuses a secret satisfaction and complacency through the imagination, and gives a finishing to anything that is great or uncommon. The very first discovery of it strikes the mind with an inward joy, and spreads a cheerfulness and delight through all its faculties. There is not perhaps any real beauty or deformity more in one piece of matter than another, because we might have been so made, that whatsoever now appears loathsome to us, might have shown itself agreeable; but we find by experience, that there are several modifications of matter which the mind, without any previous consideration, pronounces at first sight beautiful or deformed. Thus we see that every different species of sensible creatures has its different notions of beauty, and that each of them is most affected with the beauties of its own kind. This is nowhere more remarkable than in birds of the same shape and proportion, where we often see the male determined in his courtship by the single grain or tincture of a feather, and never discovering any charms but in the colour of its species.
Scit thalamo servare fidem. sanctasque ueretur
Connubii leges: non illum ln pectore candor
Sollicitat niveus, neque pravum accendit amorem
Splendida lanugo, vel honesta in vertice crista,
Purpureusve nitor pennarum; ast agmina late
Foeminea explorat cautus, maculasque requirit
Cognatas, paribusque interlita corpora guttis:
faceret, pictis syluam circum undique monstris
Confusam aspiceres vulgo, partusque biformes
Et genus ambiguum, et Veneris monumenta nefandae.
Hinc merula in nigro se oblectat nigra marito
Hinc socium lasciva petit Philomela canorum
Agnoscitque pares sonitus, hinc noctua tetram
Canitiem alarum, et glaucos miratur ocellos.
Nempe sibi semper constat, crescitque quotannis
Lucida progenies, castos confessa parentes
Dum uiYides inter saltus lucosque sonoros
Vere novo exultat, plumasque decora juventus
Explicat ad solem, patriisque coloribus ardet.
There is a second kind of beauty that we find in the several products of art and nature, which does not work in the imagination with that warmth and violence as the beauty that appears in our proper species, but is apt however to raise in us a secret delight, and kind of fondness for the places or objects in which discover it. This consists either in the gaiety or variety of colours, in the symmetry and proportion parts, in the arrangement and disposition of bodies or in a just mixture and concurrence of all together. Among these several kinds of beauty the eye takes most delight in colours. We nowhere meet with a more glorious or pleasing show in nature, than what appears in the heavens at the rising and setting of the sun which is wholly made up of those different stains of light that show themselves in clouds of a different situation. For this reason we find the poets, who are always addressing themselves to the imagination borrowing more of their epithets from colours than from any other topic.
As the fancy delights in everything that is great strange, or beautiful, and is still more pleased the more it finds of these perfections in the same object, so it is capable of receiving a new satisfaction by the assistance of another sense. Thus any continued sound, as the music of birds, or a fall of water, awakens every moment the mind of the beholder, and makes him more attentive to the several beauties of the place that lie before him. Thus if there arises a fragrancy of smells or perfumes, they heighten the pleasures of the imagination, and make even the colours and verdure of the landscape appear more agreeable; for the ideas of both senses recommend each other, and are pleasanter together than when they enter the mind separately: as the different colours of a picture, when they are well disposed, set off one another, and receive an additional beauty from the advantage of their situation.
Causa latet, vis est notissima. OVID.
Though in yesterday's paper we considered how everything that is great, new, or beautiful, is apt to effect the imagination with pleasure, we must own that it is impossible for us to assign the necessary cause of this pleasure, because we know neither the nature of an idea nor the substance of a human soul, which night help us to discover the conformity or disagreebleness of the one to the other; and therefore, for want of such a light, all that we can do in speculations of this kind is to reflect on those operations of the soul that are most agreeable, and to range under their proper heads what is pleasing or displeasing to the mind, without being able to trace out the several necessary and efficient causes from whence the pleasure or displeasure arises.
Final causes lie more bare and open to our observation, as
there are often a greater variety that belong to the same effect; and these,
though they are not altogether so satisfactory, are generally more useful than
the other, as they give us greater occasion of admiring the goodness and wisdom
of the first contriver.
One of the final causes of our delight in anything that is great, may be this. The Supreme Author of our being has so formed the soul of man, that nothing but himself can be its last, adequate, and proper happiness. Because, therefore, a great part of our happiness must arise from the contemplation of his being, that he might give our souls a just relish of such a contemplation, he has made them naturally delight in the apprehension of what is great or unlimited. Our admiration, which is a very pleasing motion of the mind, immediately rises at the consideration of any object that takes up a great deal of room in the fancy, and by consequence will improve into the highest pitch of astonishment and devotion when we contemplate his nature, that is neither circumscribed by time nor place, nor to be comprehended by the largest capacity of a created being.
He has annexed a secret pleasure to the idea of anything that
is new or uncommon, that he might encourage us in the pursuit after knowledge,
and engage us to search into the wonders of his creation; for every new idea
brings such a pleasure along with it, as rewards any pains we have taken in its
acquisition, and consequently serves as a motive to put us upon fresh
He has made everything that is beautiful in our own species pleasant, that all creatures might be tempted to multiply their kind and fill the world with inhabitants; for 'tis very remarkable that wherever nature is crossed in the production of a monster (the result of any unnatural mixture) the breed is incapable of propagating its likeness and of founding a new order of creatures; so that unless all animals were allured by he beauty of their own species, generation would be at an end, and the earth unpeopled.
In the last place, he has made everything that is beautiful in all other objects pleasant, or rather has made so many objects appear beautiful, that he might render the whole creation more gay and delightful. He has given almost everything about us the power of raising an agreeable idea in the imagination: so that is impossible for us to behold his works with coldness or indifference, and to survey so many beauties without secret satisfaction and complacency. Things would make but a poor appearance to the eye, if we saw them only in their proper figures and motions: and what reason can we assign for their exciting in us many of those ideas which are different from anything that exists in the objects themselves (for such are light and colours), were not it to add supernumerary ornaments to the universe, and make it more agreeable to the imagination? We are everywhere entertained with pleasing shows and apparitions, we discover imaginary glories in the heavens and in the earth, and see some of this visionary beauty poured out upon the whole creation; but what a rough unsightly sketch of nature should we be entertained with, did all her colouring disappear, and the several distinctions of light and shade vanish? In short, our souls are at present delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing delusion and we walk about like the enchanted hero of a romance who sees beautiful castles, woods, and meadows, and at the same time hears the warbling of birds and the purling of streams; but upon the finishing of some secret spell the fantastic scene breaks up, and the disconsolate knight finds himself on a barren heath or in a solitary desert. It is not improbable that some thing like this may be the state of the soul after its first separation, in respect of the images it will receive from matter; though indeed the ideas of colours are so pleasing and beautiful in the imagination, that it is possible the soul will not be deprived of them, but perhaps find them excited by some other occasional cause, as they are at present by the different impressions of the subtle matter on the organ of sight.
I have here supposed that my reader is acquainted with that great modern discovery, which is at present universally acknowledged by all the inquirers into natural philosophy: namely, that light and colours, as apprehended by the imagination, are only ideas in the mind, and not qualities that have any existence in matter. As this is a truth which has been proved incontestably by many modern philosophers, and is indeed one of the finest speculations in that science, if the English reader would see the notion explained at large, he may find it in the eighth chapter of the second book of Mr. Locke's Essay on Human Understanding.
Altera poscit opem res et conjurat amice. HOR.
(The Art of Poetry, ca. 410 A.D.)
If we consider the works of nature and art, as they are qualified to entertain the imagination, we shall find the last very defective in comparison of the former; for though they may sometimes appear as beautiful or strange, they can have nothing in them of that vastess and immensity, which afford so great an entertainnent to the mind of the beholder.- The one may be as polite and delicate as the other, but can never show herself so august and magnificent in the design. There is something more bold and masterly in the rough careless strokes of nature than in the nice touches and embellishments of art. The beauties of the most stately garden or palace lie in a narrow compass, the imagination immediately runs them over, and requires something else to gratify her; but in the wide fields of nature the sight wanders up and down without confinement, and is fed with an infinite variety of images without any certain stint or number. For this reason we always find the poet in love with a country life, where nature appears in the greatest perfection, and furnishes out all those scenes that are most apt to delight the imagination
Scriptorum chorus omnis amat nemus, et fugit urbes. HOR.
Hic secura quies, et nescia fallere vita
Dives opum variarum; hic latis otia fundis
Speluncae, vivique lacus, hic frigida Tempe,
Mugitusque boum, mollesque sub arbore somni., VIRG.
But though there are several of these wild scenes that are more delightful than any artificial shows, yet we find the works of nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of art; for in this case our pleasure rises from a double principle, from the agreeableness of the objects to the eye, and from their similitude to other objects: we are pleased as well with comparing their beauties as with surveying them, and can represent them to our minds either as copies or originals. Hence it is that we take delight in a prospect which is well laid out, and diversified with fields and meadows, woods and rivers; in those accidental landscapes of trees, clouds, and cities that are sometimes found in the veins of marble; in the curious fretwork of rocks and grottoes; and, in a word, in anything that hath such a variety or regularity as may seem the effect of design in what we call the works of chance.
If the products of nature rise in value according as they more or less resemble those of art, we may be sure that artificial works receive a greater advantage from their resemblance of such as are natural; because here the similitude is not only pleasant, but the pattern nore perfect. The prettiest landscape I ever saw, was one drawn on the walls of a dark room, which stood opposite on one side to a navigable river, and on the other to a park. The experiment is very ommon in optics. Here you might discover the waves and fluctuations of the water in strong and proper colours, with the picture of a ship entering at one end and sailing by degrees through the whole piece. On another there appeared the green shadows of trees, waving to and fro with the wind, and herds of deer among them in miniature, leaping about upon the wall. I must confess, the novelty of such a sight may be one occasion of its pleasantness to the imagination, but certainly the chief reason is its near resemblance to nature, as it does not only, like other pictures, give the colour and figure, but the motion of the things it represents.
We have before observed, that there is generally in nature something more grand and august than what we meet with in the curiosities of art. When, therefore, we see this imitated in any measure, it gives us a nobler and more exalted kind of pleasure than what we receive from the nicer and more accurate productions of art. On this account our English gardens are not so entertaining to the fancy as those in France and Italy, where we see a large extent of ground covered over with an agreeable mixture of garden and forest, which represent everywhere an artificial rudeness much more charming than that neatness and elegancy which we meet with in those of our own country. It might, indeed, be of ill consequence to the public, as well as unprofitable to private persons, to alienate so much ground from pasturage and the plough in many parts of a country that is so well peopled, and cultivated to a far greater advantage. But why may not a whole estate be thrown into a kind of garden by frequent plantations, that may turn as much to the profit as the pleasure of the owner? A marsh overgrown with willows, or a mountain shaded with oaks, are not only more beautiful, but more beneficial, than when they lie bare and unadorned. fields of corn make a pleasant prospect, and if the walks were a little taken care of that lie between them, if the natural embroidery of the meadows were helped and improved by some small additions of art, and the several rows of hedges set off by trees and flowers that the soil was capable of receiving, a man might make a pretty landscape of his own possessions.
Writers who have given us an account of China tell us the inhabitants of that country laugh at the plantations of our Europeans, which are laid out by the rule and line; because, they say, any one may place trees in equal rows and uniform figures. They choose rather to show a genius in works of this nature, and therefore always conceal the art by which they direct themselves. They have a word, it seems, in their language, by which they express the particular beauty of a plantation that thus strikes the imagination at first sight, without discovering what it is that has so agreeable an effect. Our British gardeners, on the contrary, instead of humouring nature, love to deviate from it as much as possible. Our trees rise in cones, lobes, and pyramids. We see the marks of the sissors upon every plant and bush. I do not know whether I am singular in my opinion, but, for my own part, I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriancy and diffusion of boughs and branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a mathematical figure; and cannot but fancy that an orchard in flower looks infinitely more delightful than all the little labyrinths of the most finished parterre. But as our great modellers of gardens have their magazines of plants to dispose of, it is very natural for them to tear up all the beautiful plantations of fruit trees, and contrive a plan that may most turn to their own profit, in taking off their evergreens and the like moveable plants, with which their shops are plentifully stocked.
- adde tot egregias urbes, operumque laborem.
VIRG., Georg. ii. I55
Having already shown how the fancy is affected by the works of Nature, and afterwards considered in general both the works of Nature and of art, how they mutually assist and complete each other, in forming such scenes and prospects as are most apt to delight the mind of the beholder, I shall in this paper throw together some reflections on that particular art which has a more immediate tendency than any other to produce those primary pleasures of the imagination which have hitherto been the subject of this discourse. The art I mean is that of architecture, which I shall consider only with regard to the light in which the foregoing speculations have placed it, without entering into those rules and maxims which the great masters of architecture have laid down, and explained at large in numberless treatises upon that subject.
Greatness, in the works of architecture, may be considered
as relating to the bulk and body of the structure, or to the manner in which it
is built. As for the first, we find the ancients, especially among the Eastern
nations of the world, infinitely superior to the moderns.
Not to mention the Tower of Babel, of which an old author says there were the foundations to be seen in his time, which looked like a spacious mountain, what could be more noble than the walls of Babylon, its hanging gardens, and its temple to Jupiter Belus, that rose a mile high by eight several storeys, each storey a furlong in height, and on the top of which was the Babylonian observatory?
I might here likewise take notice of the huge rock that was cut into the figure of Semiramis with the smaller rocks that lay by it in the shape of tributary kings; the prodigious basin, or artificial lake, which took in the whole Euphrates, until such time as a new canal was formed for its reception, with the several trenches through which that river was conveyed. I know there are persons who look upon some of these wonders of art as fabulous, but I cannot find any grounds for such a suspicion, unless it be that we have no such works among us at present: there were indeed many greater advantages for building in those times, and in that part of the world, than have been met with ever since. The earth was extremely fruitful, men lived generally on pasturage, which requires a much smaller number of hands than agriculture: there were few trades to employ the busy part of mankind, and fewer arts and sciences to give work to men of speculative tempers; and what is more than all the rest, the prince was absolute; so that when he went to war, he put himself at the head of a whole people. As we find Semiramis leading her three millions to the field, and yet overpowered by the number of her enemies. 'Tis no wonder, therefore, when she was at peace, and turned her thoughts on building, that she could accomplish so great works, with such a prodigious multitude of labourers: besides that in her climate there was small interruption of frosts and winters, which make the Northern workmen lie half the year idle. I might mention, too, among the benefits of the climate, what historians say of the earth, that it sweated out a bitumen or natural kind of mortar, which is doubtless the same with that mentioned in Holy Writ as contributing to the structure of Babel: ' Slime they used instead of mortar.'
In Egypt we still see their pyramids, which answer to the
descriptions that have been made of them; and I question not but a traveller
might find out some remains of the labyrinth that covered a whole province, and
had a hundred temples disposed among its several quarters and divisions.
The wall of China is one of these Eastern pieces of magnificence, which makes a figure even in the map of the world, although an account of it would have been thought fabulous, were not the wall itself still extant.
We are obliged to devotion for the noblest buildings that have adorned the several countries of the world. It is this which has set men at work on temples and public places of worship, not only that they might, by the magnificence of the building, invite the Deity to reside within it, but that such stupendous works might, at the same time, open the mind to vast conceptions, and fit it to converse with the divinity of the place. For everything that is majestic imprints an awfulness and reverence on the mind of the beholder, and strikes in with the natural greatness of the soul.
In the second place we are to consider greatness of manner in architecture, which has such force upon the imagination, that a small building, where it appears, shall give the mind nobler ideas than one of twenty times the bulk, where the manner is ordinary or little. Thus, perhaps, a man would have been more astonished with the majestic air that appeared in one of Lysippus's statues of Alexander, though no bigger than the life, than he might have been with Mount Athos, had it been cut into the figure of the hero, according to the proposal of Phidias, with a river in one hand and a city in the other.
Let any one reflect on the disposition of mind he finds in himself, at his first entrance into the Pantheon at Rome, and how his imagination is filled with something great and amazing; and at the same time consider how little, in proportion, he is affected with the inside of a Gothic cathedral, though it be five times larger than the other; which can arise from nothing else, but the greatness of the manner in the one, and the meanness in the other.
I have seen an observation upon this subject in a French author, which very much pleased me. It is in Monsieur Fréard's Parallel of the Ancient and Modern Architecture. I shall give it the reader with the same terms of art which he has made use of: 'I am observing,' says he, 'a thing which in my opinion is very curious, whence it proceeds, that in the same quantity of superficies, the one manner seems great and magnificent, and the other poor and trifling; the reason is fine and uncommon. I say then, that to introduce into architecture this grandeur of manner, we ought so to proceed, that the division of the principal members of the order may consist but of few parts, that they be all great and of a bold and ample relievo, and swelling; and that the eye, beholding nothing little and mean, the imagination may be more vigorously touched and affected with the work that stands before it. For example, in a cornice, if the gola or cynatium of the corona, the coping, the modillions or dentelli, make a noble show by their graceful projections, if we see none of that ordinary confusion which is the result of those little cavities, quarter rounds of the astragal, and I know not how many other intermingled particulars, which produce no effect in great and massy works, and which very unprofitably take up place to the prejudice of the principal member, it is most certain that this manner will appear solemn and great; as, on the contrary, that will have but a poor and mean effect where there is a redundancy of those smaller ornaments, which divide and scatter the angles of the sight into such a multitude of rays, so pressed together that the whole will appear but a confusion.'
Among all the figures in architecture, there are none that have a greater air than the concave and the convex; and we find in all the ancient and modern architecture, as well in the remote parts of China as in countries nearer home, that round pillars and vaulted roofs make a great part of those buildings which are designed for pomp and magnificence. The reason I take to be, because in these figures we generally see more of the body than in those of other kinds. There are, indeed, figures of bodies where the eye may take in two-thirds of the surface; but as in such bodies the sight must split upon several angles, it does not take in one uniform idea, but several ideas of the same kind. Look upon the outside of a dome, your eye half surrounds it; look up into the inside, and at one glance you have all the prospect of it; the entire concavity falls into your eye at once, the sight being as the centre that collects and gathers into it the lines of the whole circumference. In a square pillar, the sight often takes in but a fourth part of the surface, and, in a square concave, must move up and down to the different sides, before it is master of all the inward surface. For this reason, the fancy is infinitely more struck with the view of the open air, and skies, that passes through an arch, than what comes through a square, or any other figure. The figure of the rainbow does not contribute less to its magnificence, than the colours to its beauty, as it is very poetically described by the son of Sirach: 'Look upon the rainbow, and praise Him that made it; very beautiful it is in its brightness; it encompasses the heavens with a glorious circle, and the hands of the Most High have bended it.'
Having thus spoken of that greatness which affects the mind
in architecture, I might next show the pleasure that rises in the imagination
from what appears new and beautiful in this art; but as every beholder has naturally
a greater taste of these two perfections in every building which offers itself
to his view than of that which I have hitherto considered, I shall not trouble
my reader with any reflections upon it. It is sufficient for my present purpose
to observe that there is nothing in this whole art which pleases the
imagination, but as it is great, uncommon, or beautiful.
Quatenus hoc simile est oculis, quod mente videmus.
LUCR. iV. 750-1.
I at first divided the pleasures of the imagination into such as arise from objects that are actually before our eyes, or that once entered in at our eyes, and are afterwards called up into the mind, either barely by its own operations, or on occasion of something without us, as statues or descriptions. We have already considered the first division, and shall therefore enter on the other, which, for distinction sake, I have called the secondary pleasures of the imagination. When I say the ideas we receive from statues, descriptions, or such like occasions, are the same that were once actually in our view, it must not be understood that we had once seen the very place, action, or person which are carved or described. It is sufficient that we have seen places, persons, or actions, in general, which bear a resemblance, or at least some remote analogy with what we find represented. Since it is in the power of the imagination, when it is once stocked with particular ideas, to enlarge, compound, and vary them at her own pleasure.
Among the different kinds of representation, statuary is the most natural, and shows us something likest the object that is represented. To make use of a common instance, let one who is born blind take an image in his hands, and trace out with his fingers the different furrows and impressions of the chisel, and he will easily conceive how the shape of a man, or beast, may be represented by it; but should he draw his hand over a picture, where all is smooth and uniform, he would never be able to imagine how the several prominences and depressions of a human body could be shown on a plain piece of canvas that has in it no unevenness or irregularity. Description runs yet further from the things it represents than painting; for a picture bears a real resemblance to its original, which letters and syllables are wholly void of. Colours speak all languages, but words are understood only by such a people or nation. For this reason, though men's necessities quickly put them on finding out speech, writing is probably of a later invention than painting; particularly we are told that in America, when the Spaniards first arrived there, expresses were sent to the Emperor of Mexico in paint, and the news of his country delineated by the strokes of a pencil, which was a more natural way than that of writing, though at the same time much more imperfect, because it is impossible to draw the little connections of speech, or to give the picture of a conjunction or an adverb. It would be yet more strange to represent visible objects by sounds that have no ideas annexed to them, and to make something like description in music. Yet it is certain there may be confused, imperfect notions of this nature raised in the imagination by an artificial composition of notes; and we find that great masters in the art are able, sometimes, to set their hearers in the heat and hurry of a battle, to overcast their minds with melancholy scenes and apprehensions of deaths and funerals, or to lull them into pleasing dreams of groves and elysiums.
In all these instances this secondary pleasure of the
imagination proceeds from that action of the mind which compares the ideas
arising from the original objects, with the ideas we receive from the statue,
picture, description, or sound that represents them. It is impossible for us to
give the necessary reason why this operation of the mind is attended with so
much pleasure, as I have before observed on the same occasion; but we find a
great variety of entertainments derived from this single principle: for it is
this that not only gives us a relish of statuary, painting, and description,
but makes us delight in all the actions and arts of mimicry. It is this that
makes the several kinds of wit pleasant, which consists, as I have formerly
shown, in the affinity of ideas: and we may add, it is this also that raises
the little satisfaction we sometimes find in the different sorts of false wit;
whether it consist in the affinity of letters, as in anagram, acrostic; or of
syllables, as in doggerel rhymes, echoes; or of words, as in puns, quibbles; or
of a whole sentence or poem, to wings, and altars. The final cause, probably,
of annexing pleasure to this operation of the mind was to quicken and encourage
us in our searches after truth, since the distinguishing one thing from
another, and the right discerning betwixt our ideas, depends wholly upon our
comparing them together, and observing the congruity or disagreement that
appears among the several works of Nature.
But I shall here confine myself to those pleasures of the imagination which proceed from ideas raised by words, because most of the observations that agree with descriptions are equally applicable to painting and statuary.
Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colours, and painted more to the life in his imagination by the help of words, than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. In this case the poet seems to get the better of Nature; he takes, indeed, the landscape after her, but gives it more vigorous touches, heightens its beauty, and so enlivens the whole piece that the images which flow from the objects themselves appear weak and faint in comparison of those that come from the expressions. The reason probably may be, because in the survey of any object we have only so much of it painted on the imagination as comes in at the eye; but in its description the poet gives us as free a view of it as he pleases, and discovers to us several parts that either we did not attend to, or that lay out of our sight when we first beheld it. As we look on any object our idea of it is, perhaps, made up of two or three simple ideas; but when the poet represents it, he may either give us a more complex idea of it, or only raise in us such ideas as are most apt to affect the imagination.
It may be here worth our while to examine how it comes to
pass that several readers, who are all acquainted with the same language, and
know the meaning of the words they read, should nevertheless have a different
relish of the same descriptions. We find one transported with a passage which
another runs over with coldness and indifference, or finding the representation
extremely natural, where another can perceive nothing of likeness and
conformity. This different taste must proceed either from the perfection of
imagination in one more than in another, or from the different ideas that
several readers affix to the same words. For to have a true relish and form a
right judgment of a description, a man should be born with a good imagination,
and must have well weighed the force and energy that lie in the several words
of a language, so as to be able to distinguish which are most significant and
expressive of their proper ideas, and what additional strength and beauty they
are capable of receiving from conjunction with others. The fancy must be warm
to retain the print of those images it hath received from outward objects; and
the judgment discerning, to know what expressions are most proper to clothe and
adorn them to the best advantage. A man who is deficient in either of these
respects, though he may receive the general notion of a description, can never
see distinctly all its particular beauties; as a person with a weak sight may
have the confused prospect of a place that lies before him, without entering
into its several parts, or discerning the variety of its colours in their full
Quem tu Melpornene semel
Nascentem placido lumine videris,
Illum non labor lsthmius
Clararbit pugilem, non equus impiger, &c.
Sed quae Tibur aquaef ertile perfluunt
Et Spissae nemorum coma
Fingent Aeolio carmine nobilem.
HOR. 4, Od. iii. I.
We may observe, that any single circumstance of what we have formerly
seen often raises up a whole scene of imagery, and awakens numberless ideas
that before slept in the imagination; such a particular smell or colour is able
to fill the mind, on a sudden, with the picture of the fields or gardens where
we first met with it, and to bring up into view all the variety of images that
once attended it. Our imagination takes the hint, and leads us unexpectedly
into cities or theatres, plains or meadows. We may further observe, when the
fancy thus reflects on the scenes that have passed in it formerly, those which
were at first pleasant to behold appear more so upon reflection, and that the
memory heightens the delightfulness of the original. A Cartesian would account
for both these instances in the following manner: The set of ideas, which we
received from such a prospect or garden, having entered the mind at the same
time, have a set of traces belonging to them in the brain, bordering very near
upon one another; when, therefore, any one of these ideas arises in the
imagination, and consequently despatches a flow of animal spirits to its proper
trace, these spirits, in the violence of their motion, run not only into the
trace to which they were more particularly directed, but into several of those
that lie about it: by this means they awaken other ideas of the same set, which
immediately determine a new despatch of spirits that in the same manner open
other neighbouring traces, till at last the whole set of them is blown up, and
the whole prospect or garden flourishes in the imagination. But because the
pleasure we received from these places far surmounted and overcame the little
disagreeableness we found in them, for this reason there was at first a wider
passage worn in the pleasure traces, and, on the contrary, so narrow a one in
those which belonged to the disagreeable ideas, that they were quickly stopped
up, and rendered incapable of receiving any animal spirits, and consequently of
exciting any unpleasant ideas in the memory.
It would be in vain to inquire whether the power of imagining things strongly proceeds from any greater perfection in the soul, or from any nicer texture in the brain of one man than of another. But this is certain, that a noble writer should be born with this faculty in its full strength and vigour, so as to be able to receive lively ideas from outward objects, to retain them long, and to range them together, upon occasion, in such figures and representations as are most likely to hit the fancy of the reader. A poet should take as much pains in forming his imagination as a philosopher in cultivating his understanding. He must gain a due relish of the works of Nature, and be thoroughly conversant in the various scenery of a country life.
When he is stored with country images, if he would go beyond pastoral and the lower kinds of poetry, he ought to acquaint himself with the pomp and magnificence of courts. He should be very well versed in everything that is noble and stately in the productions of art, whether it appear in painting or statuary, in the great works of architecture which are in their present glory, or in the ruins of those which flourished in former ages.
Such advantages as these help to open a man's thoughts, and to enlarge his imagination, and will therefore have their influence on all kinds of writing if the author knows how to make right use of them. And among those of the learned languages who excel in this talent, the most perfect in their several kinds are, perhaps, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. The first strikes the imagination wonderfully with what is great, the second with what is beautiful, and the last with what is strange. Reading the Iliad is like travelling through a country uninhabited, where the fancy is entertained with a thousand savage prospects of vast deserts, wide uncultivated marshes, huge forests, misshapen rocks, and precipices. On the contrary, the Aeneid is like a well-ordered garden, where it is impossible to find out any part unadorned, or to cast our eyes upon a single spot that does not produce some beautiful plant or flower. But when we are in the Metamorphoses, we are walking on enchanted ground, and see nothing but scenes of magic lying round us.
Homer is in his province when he is describing a battle or a multitude, a hero or a god. Virgil is never better pleased than when he is in his elysium, or copying out an entertaining picture. Homer's epithets generally mark out what is great, Virgil's what is agreeable. Nothing can be more magnificent than the figure Jupiter makes in the first Iliad, nor more charming than that of Venus in the first Aeneid:
Dixit, et avertens rosea cervice refulsit:
Ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
Spiravere: pedes vestis defluxit ad imos:
Et vera incessu patuit dea
Homer's persons are most of them godlike and terrible Virgil has scarce admitted any into his poem who are not beautiful, and has taken particular care to make his hero so.
Purpureum, et laetos oculis afflarat honores.
In a word, Homer fills his readers with sublime
ideas, and, I believe, has raised the imagination of all the good poets that
have come after him. I shall only instance Horace, who immediately takes fire
at the first hint of any passage in the Iliad or Odyssey, and always rises
above himself when he has Homer in his view. Virgil has drawn together into his
Aeneid all the pleasing scenes his subject is capable of admitting, and in his
Georgics has given us a collection of the most delightful landscapes that can be
made out of fields and woods, herds of cattle, and swarms of bees.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, has shown us how the imagination may be affected by what is strange. He describes a miracle in every story, and always gives us the sight of some new creature at the end of it. His art consists chiefly in well-timing his description before the first shape is quite worn off, and the new one perfectly finished; so that he everywhere entertains us with something we never saw before, and shows monster after monster to the end of the Metamorphoses.
If I were to name a poet that is a perfect master in all these arts of working on the imagination, I think Milton may pass for one: and if his Paradise Lost falls short of the Aeneid or Iliad in this respect, it proceeds rather from the fault of the language in which it is written than from any defect of genius in the author. So divine a poem in English is like a stately palace built of brick, where one may see architecture in as great a perfection as in one of marble, though the materials are of a coarser nature. But to consider it only as it regards our present subject: what can be conceived greater than the battle of angels, the majesty of Messiah, the stature and behaviour of Satan and his peers ? What more beautiful than pandemonium, paradise, heaven, angels, Adam and Eve? What more strange than the creation of the world, the several metamorphoses of the fallen angels, and the surprising adventures their leader meets with in his search after paradise ? No other subject could have furnished a poet with scenes so proper to strike the imagination, as no other poet could have painted those scenes in more strong and lively colours
ferat et rubus asper amomum.
VIRG. ECIo iii. 89.
The pleasures of these secondary views of the imagination, are of a wider and more universal nature than those it has when joined with sight; for not only what is great, strange, or beautiful, but anything that is disagreeable when looked upon, pleases us in an apt description. Here, therefore, we must inquire after a new principle of pleasure, which is nothing else but the action of the mind, which compares the ideas that arise from words, with the ideas that arise from the objects themselves; and why this operation of the mind is attended with so much pleasure, we have before considered. For this reason, therefore, the description of a dunghill is pleasing to the imagination, if the image be represented to our minds by suitable expressions; though, perhaps, this may be more properly called the pleasure of the understanding than of the fancy, because we are not so much delighted with the image that is contained in the description, as with the aptness of the description to excite the image.
But if the description of what is little, common or deformed, be acceptable to the imagination, the description of what is great, surprising, or beautiful, is much more so; because here we are not only delighted with comparing the representation with the original, but are highly pleased with the original itself. Most readers, I believe, are more charmed with Milton's description of paradise, than of hell; they are both, perhaps, equally perfect in their kind, but in the one the brimstone and sulphur are not so refreshing to the imagination, as the beds of flowers and the wilderness of sweets in the other.
There is yet another circumstance which recommends a description more than all the rest, and that is, if it represents to us such objects as are apt to raise a secret ferment in the mind of the reader, and to work with violence upon his passions. For, in this case, we are at once warmed and enlightened so that the pleasure becomes more universal, and is several ways qualified to entertain us. Thus, in painting, it is pleasant to look on the picture of any face, where the resemblance is hit, but the pleasure increases, if it be the picture of a face that is beautiful, and is still greater, if the beauty be softened with an air of melancholy or sorrow. The two leading passions which the more serious parts of poetry endeavour to stir up in us, are terror and pity. And here, by the way, one would wonder how it comes to pass, that such passions as are very unpleasant at all other times, are very agreeable when excited by proper descriptions. It is not strange that we should take delight in such passages as are apt to produce hope, joy, admiration, love, or the like emotions in us, because they never rise in the mind without an inward pleasure which attends them. But how comes it to pass, that we should take delight in being terrified or dejected by a description, when we find so much uneasiness in the fear or grief which we receive from any other occasion?
If we consider, therefore, the nature of this pleasure, we shall find that it does not arise so properly from the description of what is terrible, as from the reflection we make on ourselves at the time of reading it. When we look on such hideous objects, we are not a little pleased to think we are in no danger of them. We consider them, at the same time, as dreadful and harmless; so that the more frightful appearance they make, the greater is the pleasure we receive from the sense of our own safety. In short, we look upon the terrors of a description, with the same curiosity and satisfaction that we survey a dead monster:
Protrahitur; nequeunt expleri corda tuendo
Terribiles oculos: vultum, villosaque saetis
Pectora semiferi, atque extinctos faucibus ignes.
It is for the same reason that we are delighted with the
reflecting upon dangers that are past, or in looking on a precipice at a
distance, which would fill us with a different kind of horror, if we saw it
hanging over our heads.
In the like manner, when we read of torments, wounds, deaths, and the like dismal accidents, our pleasure does not flow so properly from the grief which such melancholy descriptions give us, as from the secret comparison which we make between ourselves and the person who suffers. Such representations teach us to set a just value upon our own condition, and make us prize our good fortune which exempts us from the like calamities. This is, however, such a kind of pleasure as we are not capable of receiving, when we see a person actually lying under the tortures that we meet with in a description; because, in this case, the object presses too close upon our senses, and bears so hard upon us, that it does not give us time or leisure to reflect on ourselves. Our thoughts are so intent upon the miseries of the sufferer, that we cannot turn them upon our own happiness. Whereas, on the contrary, we consider the misfortunes we read in history or poetry, either as past, or as fictitious, so that the reflection upon ourselves rises in us insensibly, and overbears the sorrow we conceive for the sufferings of the afflicted.
But because the mind of man requires something more perfect in matter, than what it finds there, and can never meet with any sight in Nature which sufficiently answers its highest ideas of pleasantness; or,.in other words, because the imagination can fancy to itself things more great, strange, or beautiful, than the eye ever saw, and is still sensible of some defect in what it has seen; on this account it is the part of a poet to humour the imagination in its own notions, by mending and perfecting Nature where he describes a reality, and by adding greater beauties than are put together in Nature, where he describes a fiction.
He is not obliged to attend her in the slow advances which she makes from one season to another, or to observe her conduct, in the successive production of plants and flowers. He may draw into his description all the beauties of the spring and autumn, and make the whole year contribute something to render it the more agreeable. His rose-trees, woodbines, and jessamines may flower together, and his beds be covered at the same time with lilies, violets, and amaranths. His soil is not restrained to any particular set of plants, but is proper either for oaks or myrtles, and adapts itself to the products of every climate. Oranges may grow wild in it; myrrh may be met with in every hedge, and if he thinks it proper to have a grove of spices, he can quickly command sun enough to raise it. If all this will not furnish out an agreeable scene, he can make several new species of flowers, with richer scents and higher colours, than any that grow in the gardens of Nature. His consorts of birds may be as full and harmonious, and his woods as thick and gloomy as he pleases. He is at no more expense in a long vista than a short one, and can as easily throw his cascades from a precipice of half a mile high, as from one of twenty yards. He has his choice of the winds, and can turn the course of his rivers in all the variety of meanders that are most delightful to the reader's imagination. In a word, he has the modelling of Nature in his own hands, and may give her what charms he pleases, provided he does not reform her too much, and run into absurdities, by endeavouring to excel.
mentis gratissimus error. HOR., 2 EP. ii;. 140.
There is a kind of writing wherein the poet quite loses sight of
Nature, and entertains his reader's imagination with the characters and actions
of such persons as have many of them no existence but what he bestows on them;
such are fairies, witches, magicians, demons, and departed spirits. This Mr.
Dryden calls the fairy way of writing, which is, indeed, more difficult than
any other that depends on the poet's fancy, because he has no pattern to follow
in it, and must work altogether out of his own invention.
There is a very odd turn of thought required for this kind of writing, and it is impossible for a poet to succeed in it, who has not a particular cast of fancy, and an imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious. Besides this, he ought to be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humour those notions which we have imbibed in our infancy. For, otherwise, he will be apt to make his fairies talk like people of his own species, and not like other sets of beings, who converse with different objects, and think in a different manner from that of mankind.
Sylvis deducti caveant, me judice, Fauni,
Ne velut innati triviis ac paene forenses,
Aut nimium teneris juvenentur versibus. HOR.
I do not say with Mr. Bayes, in the ' Rehearsal,' that
spirits must not be confined to speak sense, but it is certain their sense
ought to be a little discoloured, that it may seem particular, and proper to the
person and the condition of the speaker.
These descriptions raise a pleasing kind of horror in the mind of the reader, and amuse his imagination with the strangeness and novelty of the persons who are represented in them. They bring up into our memory the stories we have heard in our childhood, and favour those secret terrors and apprehensions to which the mind of man is naturally subject. We are pleased with surveying the different habits and behaviours of foreign countries, how much more must we be delighted and surprised when we are led, as it were, into a new creation, and see the persons and manners of another species? Men of cold fancies, and philosophical dispositions, object to this kind of poetry, that it has not probability enough to affect the imagination. But to this it may be answered, that we are sure, in general, there are many intellectual beings in the world besides ourselves, and several species of spirits, who are subject to different laws and economies from those of mankind; when we see, therefore, any of these represented naturally, we cannot look upon the representation as altogether impossible; nay, many are prepossessed with such false opinions, as dispose them to believe these particular delusions; at least, we have all heard so many pleasing relations in favour of them, that we do not care for seeing through the falsehood and willingly give ourselves up to so aggreeable an imposture.
The ancients have not much of this poetry among them, for, indeed, almost the whole substance of it owes its original to the darkness and superstition of later ages, when pious frauds were made use of to amuse mankind, and frighten them into a sense of their duty. Our forefathers looked upon nature with more reverence and horror, before the world was enlightened by learning and philosophy, and loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and enchantments. There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it, the churchyards were all haunted, every large common had a circle of fairies belonging to it, and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit.
Among all the poets of this kind our English are much the
best, by what I have yet seen, whether it be that we abound with more stories
of this nature, or that the genius of our country is fitter for this sort of
poetry. For the English are naturally fanciful, and very often disposed by that
gloominess and melancholy of temper, which is so frequent in our nation, to
many wild notions and visions, to which others are not so liable.
Among the English, Shakespeare has incomparably excelled all others. That noble extravagance of fancy, which he had in so great perfection, throughly qualified him to touch this weak superstitious part of his reader's imagination, and made him capable of succeeding, where he had nothing to support him besides the strength of his own genius. There is something so wild and yet so solemn in the speeches of his ghosts, fairies, witches, and the like imaginary persons, that we cannot forbear thinking them natural, though we have no rule by which to judge of them, and must confess, if there are such beings in the world, it looks highly probable they should talk and act as he has represented them.
There is another sort of imaginary beings that we sometimes
meet with among the poets, when the author represents any passion, appetite,
virtue, or vice, under a visible shape, and makes it a person or an actor in
his poem. Of this nature are the descriptions of Hunger and Envy in Ovid, of
Fame in Virgil, and of Sin and Death in Milton. We find a whole creation of the
like shadowy persons in Spenser, who had an admirable talent in representations
of this kind. I have discoursed of these emblematical persons in former papers,
and shall therefore only mention them in this place. Thus we see how many ways
poetry addresses itself to the imagination, as it has not only the whole circle
of nature for its province, but makes new worlds of its own, shows us persons
who are not to be found in being, and represents even the faculties of the
soul, with her several virtues and vices, in a sensible shape and character.
I shall, in my two following papers, consider in general how other kinds of writing are qualified to please the imagination, with which I intend to conclude this essay.
Quocunque volent animum auditoris agunto.
HOR., Ars Poet. IOO.
As the writers in poetry and fiction borrow their several materials
from outward objects, and join them together at their own pleasure, there are others
who are obliged to follow Nature more closely, and to take entire scenes out of
her. Such are historians, natural philosophers, travellers, geographers, and,
in a word, all who describe visible objects of a real existence.
It is the most agreeable talent of an historian, to be able to draw up his armies and fight his battles in proper expressions, to set before our eyes the divisions, cabals, and jealousies of great men, and to lead us step by step into the several actions and events of his history. We love to see the subject unfolding itself by just degrees, and breaking upon us insensibly, that so we may be kept in a pleasing suspense, and have time given us to raise our expectations, and to side with one of the parties concerned in the relation. I confess this shows more the art than the veracity of the historian, but I am only to speak of him as he is qualified to please the imagination. And in this respect Livy has perhaps excelled all who went before him, or have written since his time. He describes everything in so lively a manner, that his whole history is an admirable picture, and touches on such proper circumstances in every story, that this reader becomes a kind of spectator, and feels in himself all the variety of passions which are correspondent to the several parts of the relation.
But among this set of writers there are none who more gratify and enlarge the imagination than the authors of the new philosophy, whether we consider their theories of the earth or heavens, the discoveries they have made by glasses, or any other of their contemplations on nature. We are not a little pleased to find every green leaf swarm with millions of animals that at their largest growth are not visible to the naked eye. There is something very engaging to the fancy, as well as to our reason, in the treatises of metals, minerals, plants, and meteors; but when we survey the whole earth at once, and the several planets that lie within its neighbourhood, we are filled with a pleasing astonishment, to see so many worlds hanging one above another, and sliding round their axles in such an amazing pomp and solemnity. If after this we contemplate those wide fields of ether, that reach in height as far as from Saturn to the fixed stars, and run abroad almost to an infinitude, our imagination finds its capacity filled with so immense a prospect, and puts itself upon the stretch to comprehend it. But if we yet rise higher, and consider the fixed stars as so many vast oceans of flame, that are each of them attended with a different set of planets, and still discover new firmaments and new lights, that are sunk farther in those unfathomable depths of ether, so as not to be seen by the strongest of our telescopes, we are lost in such a labyrinth of suns and worlds, and confounded with the immensity and magnificence of Nature.
Nothing is more pleasant to the fancy, than to enlarge
itself, by degrees, in its contemplation of the various proportions which its
several objects bear to each other, when it compares the body of man to the
bulk of the whole earth, the earth to the circle it describes round the sun,
that circle to the sphere of the fixed stars, the sphere of the fixed stars to
the circuit of the whole creation, the whole creation itself to the infinite
space that is everywhere diffused about it; or when the imagination works
downward, and considers the bulk of a human body, in respect of an animal a
hundred times less than a mite, the particular limbs of such an animal, the
different springs which actuate the limbs, the spirits which set these springs
a-going, and the proportionable minuteness of these several parts, before they
have arrived at their full growth and perfection. But if, after all this, we
take the least particle of these animal spirits, and consider its capacity of
being wrought into a world, that shall contain within those narrow dimensions a
heaven and earth, stars and planets, and every different species of living
creatures, in the same analogy and proportion they bear to each other in our
own universe; such a speculation, by reason of its nicety, appears ridiculous
to those who have not turned their thoughts that way, though, at the same time,
it is founded on no less than the evidence of a demonstration. Nay, we might
yet carry it farther, and discover in the smallest particle of this little
world, a new inexhausted fund of matter, capable of being spun out into another
I have dwelt the longer on this subject, because I think it may show us the proper limits, as well as the defectiveness, of our imagination; how it is confined to a very small quantity of space, and immediately stopped in its operations, when it endeavours to take in anything that is very great, or very little. Let a man try to conceive the different bulk of an animal which is twenty, from another which is a hundred times less than a mite, or to compare, in his thoughts, a length of a thousand diameters of the earth with that of a million, and he will quickly find that he has no different measures in his mind, adjusted to such extraordinary degrees of grandeur or minuteness. The understanding, indeed, opens an infinite space on every side of us, but the imagination, after a few faint efforts, is immediately at a stand, and finds herself swallowed up in the immensity of the void that surrounds it. Our reason can pursue a particle of matter through an infinite variety of divisions, but the fancy soon loses sight of it, and feels in itself a kind of chasm, that wants to be filled with matter of a more sensible bulk. We can neither widen nor contract the faculty to the dimensions of either extreme. The object is too big for our capacity, when we would comprehend the circumference of a world, and dwindles into nothing, when we endeavour after the idea of an atom.
It is possible this defect of imagination may not be in the soul itself, but as it acts in conjunction with the body. Perhaps there may not be room in the brain for such a variety of impressions, or the animal spirits may be incapable of figuring them in such a manner, as is necessary to excite so very large or very minute ideas. However it be, we may well suppose that beings of a higher nature very much excel us in this respect, as it is probable the soul of man will be infinitely more perfect hereafter in this faculty, as well as in all the rest; insomuch that, perhaps, the imagination will be able to keep pace with the understanding, and to form in itself distinct ideas of all the different modes and quantities of space.
Ignotis errare locis, ignota videre
Fumina gaudebat; studio minuente laborem
OVID, Met. iv. 294.
The pleasures of the imagination are not wholly confined to such particular authors as are conversant in material objects, but are often to be met with among the polite masters of morality, criticism, and other speculations abstracted from matter, who, though they do not directly treat of the visible parts of Nature, often draw from them their similitudes, metaphors, and allegories. By these allusions a truth in the understanding is as it were reflected by the imagination; we are able to see something like colour and shape in a notion, and to discover a scheme of thoughts traced out upon matter. And here the mind receives a great deal of satisfaction, and has two of its faculties gratified at the same time, while the fancy is busy in copying after the understanding, and transcribing ideas out of the intellectual world into the material.
The great art of a writer shows itself in the choice of
pleasing allusions, which are generally to be taken from the great or beautiful
works of art or Nature for though whatever is new or uncommon is apt to delight
the imagination, the chief design of an allusion being to illustrate and
explain the passages of an author, it should be always borrowed from what is more
known and common, than the passages which are to be explained.
Allegories, when well chosen, are like so many tracks of light in a discourse, that make everything about them clear and beautiful. A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a lustre through a whole sentence. These different kinds of allusion are but so many different manners of similitude, and, that they may please the imagination, the likeness ought to be very exact, or very agreeable, as we love to see a picture where the resemblance is just, or the posture and air graceful. But we often find eminent writers very faulty in this respect; great scholars are apt to fetch their comparisons and allusions from the sciences in which they are most conversant, so that a man may see the compass of their learning in a treatise on the most indifferent subject. I have read a discourse upon love, which none but a profound chymist could understand, and have heard many a sermon that should only have been preached before a congregation of Cartesians. On the contrary, your men of business usually have recourse to such instances as are too mean and familiar. They are for drawing the reader into a game of chess or tennis, or for leading him from shop to shop, in the cant of particular trades and employments. It is certain, there may be found an infinite variety of very agreeable allusions in both these kinds, but, for the generality, the most entertaining ones lie in the works of Nature, which are obvious to all capacities, and more delightful than what is to be found in arts and sciences.
It is this talent of affecting the imagination, that gives
an embellishment to good sense, and makes one man's compositions more agreeable
than another's. It sets off all writings in general, but is the very life and
highest perfection of poetry. Where it shines in an eminent degree, it has
preserved several poems for many ages, that have nothing else to recommend
them; and where all the other beauties are present, the work appears dry and
insipid, if this single one be wanting. It has something in it like creation;
it bestows a kind of existence, and draws up to the readers view several
objects which are not to be found in being. It makes additions to nature, and
gives a greater variety to God's works. In a word, it is able to beautify and
adorn the most illustrious scenes in the universe, or to fill the mind with
more glorious shows and apparitions, than can be found in any part of it.
We have now discovered the several originals of those pleasures that gratify the fancy; and here, perhaps, it would not be very difficult to cast under their proper heads those contrary objects, which are apt to fill it with distaste and terror; for the imagination is as liable to pain as pleasure. When the brain is hurt by any accident, or the mind disordered by dreams or sickness, the fancy is overrun with wild dismal ideas, and terrified with a thousand hideous monsters of its own framing.
Eumenidum veluti demens videt agmina Pentheus,
Et solem geminum, et duplices se ostendere Thebas.
Aut Agamemnonius scenis agitatus Orestes,
Armatam facibus matrem et serpentibus atris
Quum videt, ultricesque sedent in limine Dirae (Virg.)
There is not a sight in Nature so mortifying as that
of a distracted person, when his imagination is troubled, and his whole soul
disordered and confused. Babylon in ruins is not so melancholy a spectacle. But
to quit so disagreeable a subject, I shall only consider, by way of conclusion,
what an infinite advantage this faculty gives an Almighty Being over the soul
of man, and how great a measure of happiness or misery we are capable of
receiving from the imagination only.
We have already seen the influence that one man has over the fancy of another, and with what ease he conveys into it a variety of imagery; how great a power then may we suppose lodged in Him, who knows all the ways of affecting the imagination, who can infuse what ideas He pleases, and fill those ideas with terror and delight to what degree He thinks fit? He can excite images in the mind, without the help of words, and make scenes rise up before us and seem present to the eye, without the assistance of bodies or exterior objects. He can transport the imagination with such beautiful and glorious visions as cannot possibly enter into our present conceptions, or haunt it with such ghastly spectres and apparitions as would make us hope for annihilation, and think existence no better than a curse. In short, he can so exquisitely ravish or torture the soul through this single faculty, as might suffice to make up the whole heaven or hell of any finite being.
This essay on the Pleasures of the Imagination having been published in separate papers, I shall conclude it with a Table of the principal Contents in each paper.
The perfection of our sight above our other senses -The pleasures of the imagination arise originally from sight-The pleasures
of the imagination divided under two heads-The pleasures of the imagination in some respects equal to those of the
understanding -The extent of the pleasures of the imagination- The advantages a man receives from a relish of these
pleasures-In what respect they are preferable to those of the understanding.
Three sources of all the pleasures of the imagination, in our survey of outward objects-How what is great pleases the
imagination-How what is new pleases the imagination-How what is beautiful in our own species pleases the imagination-How
what is beautiful in general pleases the imagination-What other accidental causes may contribute to the heightening of these
Why the necessary cause of our being pleased with what is great, new, or beautiful, unknown- Why the final cause more
known and more useful- The final cause of our being pleased with what is great -The final cause of our being pleased with
what is new-The final cause of our being pleased with what is beautiful in our own species-The final cause of our being
pleased with what is beautiful in general.
The works of Nature more pleasant to the imagination than those of art-The works of Nature still more pleasant, the more
they resemble those of art -The works of art more pleasant, the more they resemble those of Nature-Our English plantations
and gardens considered in the foregoing light.
Of architecture as it affects the imagination- Greatness in architecture relates either to the bulk or to the manner-Greatness of
bulk in the ancient Oriental buildings-The ancient accounts of these buildings confirmed: I. From the advantages for raising
such works in the first ages of the world and in the Eastern climates; 2. From several of them which are still extant-Instances
how greatness of manner affects the imagination-A French author's observation on this subject-Why concave and convex
figures give a greatness of manner to works of architecture-Everything that pleases the imagination in architecture either great,
beautiful, or new.
The secondary pleasures of the imagination- The several sources of these pleasures (statuary, painting, description, and music)
compared together -The final cause of our receiving pleasure from these several sources-Of descriptions in particular -The
power of words over the imagination-Why one reader more pleased with descriptions than another.
How a whole set of ideas hang together, &c.: a natural cause assigned for it-How to perfect the imagination of a writer: who
among the ancient poets had this faculty in its greatest perfection- Homer excelled in imagining what is great; Virgil in imagining
what is beautiful; Ovid in imagining what is new-Our own countryman, Milton, very perfect in all three respects.
Why anything that is unpleasant to behold pleases the imagination when well described-Why the imagination receives a more
exquisite pleasure from the description of what is great, new, or beautiful -The pleasure still heightened, if what is described
raises passion in the mind-Disagreeable passions pleasing when raised by apt descriptions-Why terror and grief are pleasing to
the mind, when excited by descriptions-A particular advantage the writers in poetry and fiction have to please the imagination-
What liberties are allowed them.
Of that kind of poetry which Mr. Dryden calls the fairy-way of writing-How a poet should be qualified for it-The pleasures of
the imagination that arise from it-In this respect, why the moderns excel the ancients-Why the English excel the moderns-Who
the best among the English-Of emblematical persons.
What authors please the imagination who have nothing to do with fiction-How history pleases the imagination-How the authors
of the new philosophy please the imagination-The bounds and defects of the imagination-Whether these defects are essential
to the imagination.
How those please the imagination who treat of subjects abstracted from matter, by allusions taken from it-What allusions most
pleasing to the imagination-Great writers how faulty in this respect- Of the art of imagining in general-The imagination capable
of pain as well as pleasure-In what degree the imagination is capable either of pain or pleasure.
The Pleasures of the Imagination
The Spectator: June 23 to July 3, 1712
1- Joseph Addison & Richard Steele and others.
The Spectator (1711-14), 4 vol.
Edited by Gregory Smith. London: Everyman’s Library, 1967.
2. Joseph Addison. Pleasures of the Imagination 1712.
Posted by Theodore Gracyk, Professor of Philosophy, Minnesota State University Moohead: