Anna Letitia Barbauld

Poetess Archive: Anna Barbauld's Prose Works

"[More] Letters to Dr. Aikin" (1787-1791)     TEI-encoded version


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[More] Letters to Dr. Aikin*

Caroline-street, Jan. 31, 1787.

1.          I do not owe you a letter 'tis true; but what of that? I take it for granted you will like to hear from me; and to hear from or write to you gives me more pleasure than most things in this great city. The hive is now full; almost everybody that intends to come to town is come, and the streets rattle with carriages at all hours. Do not you remember reading in the Spectator of a great black tower, from which were cast nets that catched up everybody that came within a certain distance? This black tower I interpret to be this great smoky city; and I begin to be afraid we are got too much within its attraction, for the nets seem to be winding round about us; nay, we had some serious thoughts last week of setting up our tent here ......

2.         We are got into the visiting way here, which I do not consider quite as idle employment, because it leads to connexions; but the hours are into-


lerably late. The other day at Mrs. Chapone's none of the party but ourselves was come at a quarter before eight; and the first lady that arrived said she hurried away from dinner without waiting for the coffee. There goes a story of the Duchess of D ----, that she said to a tradesman "Call on me to-marrow morning at four o'clock"; and that the honest man, not being aware of the extent of the term morning, knocked the family up some hours before daybreak. Last week we met the American bishops at Mr. V.'s, -- if bishops they may be called, without title, without revenue, without diocese, and without lawn sleeves. I wonder our bishops will consecrate them, for they have made very free with the Common Prayer, and have left out two creeds out of three. Indeed, as to the Athanasian creed, the king has forbidden it in his chapel, so that will soon fall.

3.          I have been much pleased with the poems of the Scottish ploughman, of which you have had specimens in the Review. His Cotter's Saturday Night has much of the same kind of merit as the School-mistress; and the Daisy, and the Mouse, which I believe you have had in the papers, I think are charming. The endearing diminutives, and the Doric rusticity of the dialect, suit such subjects extremely. This is the age for self-taught genius: a subscription has been raised for a pipe-maker of Bristol, who has been discovered to have


a poetic turn; and they have transplanted him to London, where they have taken him a little shop, which probably will be frequented at first and then deserted. A more extraordinary instance is that of a common carpenter at Aberdeen, who applied to the professors to be received in the lowest mathematical class: they examined him, and found he was much beyond it; then for the next, and so on, till they found he had taught himself all they could teach him; and instead of receiving him as a student, they gave him a degree.

4.         Miss Bowdler's Essays are read here by the graver sort with much approbation. She is the lady who betook herself to writing upon having lost her voice; but above all, the Political State for 1787 is read by everybody. The Eaton boys have published a periodical paper among themselves, which they say is clever. Dr. Price has a letter from Mr. Howard, dated Amsterdam; he says the Emperor gave him a long audience. A pasquinade was fixed upon the gate of the lunatic hospital at Vienna. "Josephus, ubicunque secundus, hic primus." -- And now, after this idle chit-chat, good part of which I have written while my hair was dressing, let me tell you I long to hear from you, and to hear you are well; and so, with Mr. B.'s and Charles's love to all, I bid you adieu.

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Hampstead, Sept. 5, 1787.

1.         I am very glad to be informed what is the proper method to engage you to write verses, and should inclose herewith an order for a score or two of lines, if I thought the command were certain to be as efficacious as the lovely Anna's.

The generous Muse, whom harsh constraint offends,
At Anna's call with ready homage bends;
Well may she claim, who gives poetic fire,
For what her lips command, her eyes inspire.

2.          Come va l'Italiano? I have read a volume of Goldoni's Plays; which are not all worked up to superior excellence, as you may suppose, since he wrote sixteen in a season. Two are taken from Pamela; but he has spoiled the story by making Pamela turn out to be the daughter of an attainted Scotch peer, without which salvo for family pride he did not dare to make her lover marry her. Goldini's great aim seems to have been to introduce what he calls comedies of character, instead of the pantomime, and the continual exhibition of harlequin and his cortége, which was supported only by the extempore wit of the actors. There is in his Teatro Comico a critique which puts me much in mind of Shakespear's instructions to the players. It abounds with good sense, -- which, and a desire to promote good manners, seem in what I have read to be his characteristics. I find by


him that the prompter repeats the whole play before the actors.

3.         Our plot begins to thicken; as ---- says. We have taken into our family for six months, and perhaps longer, a young Spaniard who comes solely to learn English. We dined with the young man, his uncle, and another Spaniard, who is secretary to the ambassador, at Mr. W ----'s, where there was a great mixture of languages. The secretary, as well as French and Spanish, spoke English very well; the young man, Spanish and French; and the uncle, though he had been several years in England, only Spanish. As Mr. W. had told us they were strict Catholics, we expressed a fear lest we should not be able to provide for the youth agreeably on fast days: but he said, "Tout jour est jour gras pour moi:" to which the uncle learnedly added, -- that it was not what went into the mouth, but what came out of it, that defileth. As far as we have yet seen (but he has been with us only two days), we find him very well behaved and easy in the family; but the great difficulty is to entertain him: he is quite a man, of one- or two-and -twenty, and rather looks like a Dutchman than a Spaniard. Did you ever see seguars -- leaf-tobacco rolled up of the length of one's finger, which they light and smoke without a pipe? -- he uses them. "And how does Mr. B. bear that?" say you: O, he keeps it snug


in his room. I would not advise the boys to imitate his accent in French, for he pronounces it with a deep guttural: I fancy he would speak Welsh well.

4.          It gave me very great pleasure the other day to see my father's old friend Dr. Pulteney, whom Dr. Garthshore brought to us. It is a strange and mixt emotion, however, which one feels at sight of a person one has not seen for twenty years or more. The alteration such a space of time makes in both parties, at first gives a kind of shock; -- it is your friend, but your friend disguised.

5.          We are making a catalogue of our books; and I have left a great deal of space under the letters A. and B. for our future publications.

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Hampstead, Feb. 1788.

1.          We are waiting with great impatience for two things, your book and my sister, -- your child and your wife, that is to say .....

2.          I have been reading an old book, which has given me a vast deal of entertainment, -- Father Herodotus, the father of history; and the father of lies too, his enemies might say. I take it for granted the original has many more beauties than Littlebury's humble translation, which I have been perusing: but at any rate, a translation of an ori-


ginal author gives you an idea of the times totally different from what one gains by a modern compilation. I am much entertained in observing the traces of truth in many of his wildest fables; as where he says it was impossible to proceed far in Scythia on account of vast quantities of feathers which fell from heaven and covered all the country.

3.         We are reading too Sir T. More's Utopia. He says many good things; but it wants a certain salt, which Swift and others have put into their works of the same nature. One is surprised to see how old certain complaints are. Of the frequent executions, for instance: twenty men, he says, being hung upon one gibbet at a time: of arable land turned to pasture, and deserted villages in consequence.

4.          I hope the exertions which are now making for the abolition of the slave-trade will not prove all in vain. They will not, if the pleadings of eloquence or the cry of duty can be heard. Many of the most respectable and truly distinguished characters are really busy about it, and the press and the pulpit are both employed; so I hope something must be done. I expect to be highly gratified in hearing Mr. Hastings's trial, for which we are to have tickets some day. This impeachment has been the occasion of much pomp, much eloquence, and much expense; and there I sup-


pose it will end. As somebody said, It must be put off for the judges to go their circuit, resumed late, and so it will fall into the summer amusements.

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Hampstead, May 1791.

1.          What do you say to Pitt and Fox agreeing so well about the affair of libels? Is there any thing behind the curtain? I hope not; for I own I have felt myself much interested for Fox since his noble and manly behaviour, mixed with so much sensibility and tempered with so much forbearance, towards Burke. It puts one in mind of the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius.

2.          I am reading with a great deal of interest Ramsay's History of the American Revolution; and I do not wonder that the old story of Greece and Rome grows, as you say, flat, when we have events of such importance passing before our eyes, and from thence acquiring a warmth of colour and authenticity which it is in vain to seek for in histories that have passed from hand to hand through a series of ages. How uniformly great was Congress, and what a spotless character Washington! All their public acts, &c., are remarkably well drawn up. We are reading in idle moments, or rather dipping into, a very different work, Boswell's long-expected Life of Johnson. It is like going to Ranelagh; you meet all your acquaint-


ance: but it is a base and a mean thing to bring thus every idle word into judgement -- the judgement of the public. Johnson, I think, was far from a great character; he was continually sinning against his conscience, and then afraid of going to hell for it. A Christian and a man of the town, a philosopher and a bigot, acknowledging life to be miserable, and making it more miserable through fear of death; professing great distaste to the country, and neglecting the urbanity of towns; a Jocobite, and pensioned; acknowledged to be a giant in literature, and yet we do not trace him, as we do Locke, or Rousseau, or Voltaire, in his influence on the opinions of the times. We cannot say Johnson first opened this vein of thought, led the way to this discovery or this turn of thinking. In his style he is original, and there we can track his imitators. In short, he seems to me to be one of those how have shone in the belles lettres, rather than, what he is held out by many to be, an original and deep genius in investigation.

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Hampstead, 1791.

1.         ..... I do not know whether I said so before, but I cannot help thinking that the revolution in France will introduce there an entire revolution in education; and particularly be the ruin of classical learning, the importance of which must be


lessening every day; while other sciences, particularly that of politics and government, must rise in value, afford an immediate introduction to active life, and be necessary in some degree to everybody. All the kindred studies of the cloister must sink, and we shall live no longer on the lean relics of antiquity.

2.          Apropos of France, Mrs. Montague, who entertains all the aristocrats, had invited a marchioness of Boufflers and her daughter to dinner. After making her wait till six, the marchioness came, and made an apology for her daughter, that just as she was going to dress she was seized with a degout momentanee du monde, and could not wait on her.

3.         There is a little Frenchman here at Hampstead who is learning the language, and he told us he had been making an attempt at some English verses. "I have made," says he, "four couplets in masculine and feminine rimes." "O sir," says I, "you have given yourself needless trouble, we do not use them." "Why, how so," says he; "have you no rules then for your verse?" "Yes sir, but we do not use masculine and feminine rimes." Well, I could not make him comprehend there could be any regular poetry without these rimes.

4.          Mr. Brand Hollis has sent me an American poem, The Conquest of Canaan, -- a regular epic in twelve books; but I hope I need not read it. Not


that poetry is bad, if the subject were more interesting. What had he to do to make Joshua his hero, when he had Washington of his own growth?

5.          We are at present reading Anacharsis, and are much pleased with it. There is nothing of adventure, nothing like a novel; but the various circumstances relating to the Greeks are classed and thrown together in such a manner as to dwell on the mind. It has just the effect which it would have if in the Museum, instead of being shown separately the arms and dresses of different nations, you had figures dressed up and accoutred in them: the Otaheitan mourner walking to a morai; the warrior full-armed in the attitude of attack; and the priest with all the various instruments of sacrifice before the alter. Thus they become grouped in the mind.

6.         I want you to propose a metaphysical question to your Society, which Mr. B. and I have had great debates upon; and I want to know your opinion and my sister's. It is this: If you were now told that in a future state of existence you should be entirely deprived of your consciousness, so as not to be sensible you were the same being who existed here, -- should you or should you not be now interested in your future happiness or misery? or, in other words, Is continued consciousness the essence of identity?

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1.          * These Letters were accidentally omitted in their proper place. [Lucy Aikin]

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Date: 1825 (revised 01/26/2005) Author: Anna Letitia Barbauld (revised Zach Weir).
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