Italic Content
Long Dash

Letter Number IV.


My dearest Child,

YOUR letters are so much what I wish you to write to me, that I really believe if I had amused myself with fancifully composing such epistolary communications as my anxious heart could wish to receive from you, they could not have been more completely framed to fill up the measure of my satisfaction, than those which I now behold on the table before me.

My occasional letters, brief as they are, tell you of all occasional matters; but when I send you such a packet as this, you will naturally look for the well-weighed counsels of a mother, whose whole thoughts are directed to an only child and darling daughter, who, by her virtues, qualities, graces, and affection (which last is the source of them all), has hitherto most amply rewarded my maternal cares; and, by the unremitting discharge of every duty during the sad state of debility with which it has pleased God to try me, has been so kind an alleviator of my sufferings.

When, my dear Amelia, you left your native woods and your mother's arms for a winter in the metropolis, I felt no fear; and when I was wheeled to the window to see the carriage depart with you, I enjoyed the most perfect confidence that it would bring you back as blameless as you left me; that not one fetid atom of the world's corruption would infect your heart, or the slightest stain appear on the surface of your demeanour. But my expectations did not rest here. I looked forward to your attaining a practical experience of the world, and that you would realize all my theories by your own views of life, and apply them to all the modern changes of modes and manners. For it is merely the modes and manners that change; the leading motives to action are the same at all times and in all periods: the human heart undergoes no substantial alteration: it remains unchanged as to its original construction and character; and the superiority or inferiority of one period to another, arises from no other cause but the comparative proportion of corruption which prevails. It is most true, that, when I was young, there was not so great a laxity of manners as distinguishes the present age. By your accounts it appears, that you have invitations for every night in the week, and sometimes two or three in the same night; while in my youthful days, four or five balls in a winter, as many assemblies, an occasional play, and twice at the opera, was considered as a very gay winter's routine of pleasure for a young woman of rank and fortune: and I have heard my mother say, that half that number was scarcely allowed in her day. She was never suffered to dance with a gentleman who was not an acquaintance of her family, and who had not presented himself some days previous to the ball, to ask a parental permission to have that honour; and now the misses dance with men they never spoke to before, and with half a dozen of them in the same night, if they can get them. For the alteration in manners is more particularly striking to us good folks of a former period, in what seems to approach to an abolition of attentions to women; and hence proceeds the prevailing familiarity between the sexes, to which I, in a great measure, attribute the frequent carelessness of domestic character and violation of domestic honour.

On these subjects, however, my dearest Amelia does not require any observations of mine, as she appears to me to be perfectly qualified to make them herself, in the most impressive manner, and with the happiest effect. I shall, therefore, leave the objects around her to her own reflection, and confine the principal part of this letter, which, from the feeble state of my fingers, must be the result of successive exertions, to a subject of the utmost importance to young minds, and particularly such a mind as her's. I have, accordingly, treated it in that serious and argumentative way, which I consider as best calculated to answer the design for which it is communicated to her. It is on the Imagination--a very principal source of happiness to man, and more peculiarly dangerous when unduly indulged by female youth; as, from their appropriate situations and circumstances, they are much more liable to be carried away by its chimeras than the other sex; who, from the nature of their education, employments, and comparative freedom from restraint, are more generally fortified against it. I have, however, treated the subject without any immediate application; and I leave it to you, my dearest child, as occasion may suggest, to apply it to yourself.

It cannot be denied that the imagination is the most brilliant part of ourselves: it is, if we may use the expression, the volatile part of the soul; it is a kind of exhalation which disperses itself throughout the universe, and sometimes even passes the boundaries of it. Among philosophers, it calls forth new worlds from nothing; among the poets, it personifies the flowers and the springs; in short, every object of inanimate nature. Among the painters, it traces a new earth and new heavens; among metaphysicians, it darts forward to the Divinity himself; in all conditions and circumstances, it furnishes expedients, and forebodes good or evil; in every age, it has formed useful projects, and advanced the progress of the arts. The world would have given us nothing but bare dates, etymologies, and facts, if the imagination had not added its embellishments; and men, like so many echoes, would have repeated the same things, from the beginning of time to the present hour. It has, nevertheless, been the endeavour of some writers to decry the faculty, and to consider it as one of the most unfavourable gifts of the Creator; but such a depreciation of it must have arisen from a false comprehension of its powers, or an ignorance of its resources. It will surely be acknowledged that human happiness depends, in no small degree, on the manner in which objects are represented to our attention; and the part which the imagination must necessarily take in such an operation, will determine its value.

Set the imagination in motion, and it will be found to be a far superior source of pleasure to our senses: it gives ideas of fortune when we are not rich, and they console us; it inspires hopes when we are in pursuit of any object, which encourage us; it suspends grief when we suffer, and that suspension calms us; it represents to us our country and our friends, when we are in a foreign clime, and that representation dissipates our discontents; it transports us to the future, when the present annoys us; when we wish to recal the past, it reproduces the pleasures which have long since been enjoyed, and we re-enjoy them; it fills the mind with new and cheerful ideas when we are cast down, and these delights, which are within ourselves, are far superior to those which are without us; it gives substance to the dead whom we lament, and we are comforted for their loss, by this power which we have of restoring them, as it were, to existence; it even elevates us to heaven, and enables us to contemplate a life of endless happiness, while our sorrows appear as a necessary part of our system, as the scene of a drama which is about to close.

If learned men were without imagination, we should find them only in the beaten track of fact and memory, while they would do nothing more than repeat what the ancients had said and done before them. It is most true, that the judgment is the grand basis of our intellect, and must serve it as a rule, a guide, and a support; but the judgment, unassisted by the imagination, will proceed with a slow and heavy pace. It is the latter which elevates the soul to its native region; nor am I afraid to assert, paradoxical as it may appear, that the man who has nothing more than mere good sense, as it is called, crawls upon the earth, being destitute of that fine, impelling elasticity, which can alone quicken the mind into that superior state of activity and energy of which it is capable, and for which it is designed. We see examples of this among certain phlegmatic nations, whose character is that of rude, inanimate reason, and who neither excel in conversation, composition, or invention; who are astonished at the display of lively and shining talents, while whatever requires a prompt and vigorous execution, disturbs and disconcerts them.

It must, however, be acknowledged, that this good sense, in its insulated state, is superior to the imagination, when left alone to the uncontrouled exercise of its own impetuosities; but it is not less true, that reason is but a tardy principle when it is not enlivened by the soul, and refined by the imagination. It is by quitting the beaten road, and taking a flight superior to his contemporaries, that a man acquires the character of genius: he is but an ordinary person who invents or improves nothing. It may be said, indeed, that good sense is attended with no danger, and that genius is continually on the verge of it. But who will venture to speak of our ancestors in terms of applause, who accused those of sorcery and secret communication with the devil, whose inquisitive and active minds dived into the secrets of nature, and displayed the phenomena of the natural world, some of whom were conveyed to the flames? What character shall we give of that age, when Galileo was punished with a prison for making those astronomical discoveries which truth and experiment have confirmed, and have since been adopted by every civilized nation? Perhaps it may be suggested, that this confined reason was the misfortune of those times, and that a too great indulgence of the imagination is a defect of our own: to produce perfection, then, they must be united. While the mere man of imagination may be too often on the brink of error, the efforts of unassociated reason are cold, phlegmatic, and uninteresting; but he who is possessed of them both, may be considered, in the best sense of the term, as a real genius.

When we persuade ourselves that every thing is the effect of imagination, it is then that we indulge it to a very dangerous degree of excess, and become the victims of it; it then acts against itself: and while we suppose ourselves to be possessed of a superior degree of penetration and intelligence, we are but visionaries. It may be dangerous degree of excess, and become victims of it; it then acts against itself: and while we suppose ourselves to be possessed of a superior degree of penetration and intelligence, we are but visionaries. It may be dangerous to believe too much, but is more so to believe nothing at all. The ancients were often too credulous, because they did not apply to experiment; while we of this age, who are for trying every thing by that test, are too apt to doubt of every thing; blind credulity proceeds from the one, and a bold incredulity springs from the other: but when they are tempered by a happy commixture, it need not be added, that the nature of our faith will be at once rational and enlightened.

What a delightful power, then, the imagination is, when guided by reason! It takes its flight through the universe; sometimes to contemplate its beauties--at others, to reduce them to nothing: it darts forward into space beyond the reach of the senses, and which seems to be the region of spirits. They who are under the dominion of the senses, have no other than a sensual gratification, and give up all those superior sentiments, the cultivation and indulgence of which we may call the enjoyment of ourselves: whereas, when we encourage only corporeal ideas, we must understand by ourselves, that case of corruption with which we are environed; and by enjoyment, an abandonment to sensual pleasures. In what a miserable state, then, is man, when he thus grovels on the earth, on which it becomes him to tread with the dignity of which his nature is susceptible!

The excellence of the imagination cannot be denied; it is essential to the advancement of science and of art; and, above all, calculated to purify, subtilize, and refine our sensual affections: it is its irregularities alone which seduce us. There is nothing which gives the mind more convincing notions of its own grandeur, than this superior faculty: under its influence, man finds himself possessed, as it were, of a creative power, and he is frequently astonished at the variety of his productions. We frequently resemble a state of chaos, where nothing is to be distinguished; and our desires and our thoughts are so confused, that we cannot bring them into order or arrangement till the imagination comes to our aid, when we quickly perceive ourselves enlivened and embellished, while beauties spring up in the mind to surprise and delight us. The imagination is the most brilliant power which we possess: it is a sublime talent, with which we are endowed for the happiest purposes; and, under a due regulation, it will never fail to attain them.

An attention to this subject is of the most importance in our early days, when the mind is less disturbed by cares and serious avocations, when it enjoys a kind of holiday between the period of education and the settled employments of life. The heart, says the wise man, is deceitful above all things; and there is no power which so effectually aids its delusions as that of the imagination: they who are under its unsubjugated influence, may be said to be flying with their wings before their eyes. Akenside's poem on its pleasures is the work of a superior man; and I cannot but wish that some poet of equal genius would illustrate the pains of it. But I have proceeded to a great length, and you must have already perceived that the difficulty of writing increases with every line. I can only add the blessing of

Your most affectionate mother.