An Inquiry into Those Kinds of Distress which Excite Agreeable Sensations: With a Tale Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose, - PA Criticism Archive

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Anna Letitia Barbauld
into those kinds of
which excite

It is undoubtedly true, though a phænomenon of the human mind difficult to account for, that the representation of distress frequently gives pleasure; from


which general observation many of our modern writers of tragedy and romance seem to have drawn this inference, that in order to please they have nothing more to do than to paint distress in natural and striking colours. With this view, they heap together all the afflicting events and dismal accidents their imagination can furnish; and when they have half broke the reader's heart, they expect he should thank them for his agreeable entertainment. An author of this class sits down, pretty much like an inquisitor, to compute how much suffering he can inflict upon the hero of his tale before he makes an end of him: with this difference, indeed, that the inquisitor only tortures those who are at least reputed criminals; whereas the writer generally chooses the most excellent character in his piece for the subject of his persecution. The great criterion of excellence is placed in being


able to draw tears plentifully; and concluding we shall weep the more, the more the picture is loaded with doleful events, they go on telling

—————— of sorrows upon sorrows
Even to a lamentable length of woe. [2] 

A monarch once proposed a reward for the discovery of a new pleasure; but if any one could find out a new torture, or non-descript calamity, he would be more entitled to the applause of those who fabricate books of entertainment.

But the springs of pity require to be touched with a more delicate hand; and it is far from being true that we are agreeably affected by every thing that excites our sympathy. It shall therefore be the business of this Essay to distinguish those kinds of distress which are pleasing in the


representation, from those which are really painful and disgusting.

The view or relation of mere misery can never be pleasing. We have, indeed, a strong sympathy with all kinds of misery; but it is a feeling of pure unmixed pain, similar in kind, though not equal in degree to what we feel for ourselves on the like occasions; and never produces that melting sorrow, that thrill of tenderness, to which we give the name of pity. They are two distinct sensations, marked by very different external expression. One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears. When we crush a noxious or loathsome animal, we may sympathize strongly with the pain it suffers, but with far different



emotions from the tender sentiment we feel for the dog of Ulysses, who crawled to meet his long-lost master, looked up, and died at his feet. [3]  Extreme bodily pain is perhaps the most intense suffering we are capable of, and if the fellow feeling with misery alone was grateful to the mind, the exhibition of a man in a fit of the tooth-ach, or under a chirurgical operation, would have a fine effect in a tragedy. But there must be some other sentiment combined with this kind of instinctive sympathy, before it becomes in any degree pleasing, or produces the sweet emotion of pity. This sentiment is love, esteem, the complacency we take in the contemplation of beauty, of mental or moral excellence, called forth and rendered more interesting, by circumstances of pain and danger. Tenderness is, much more properly than sorrow, the spring of tears; for it affects us in that manner


whether combined with joy or grief; perhaps more in the former case than the latter. And I believe we may venture to assert, that no distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure. When Joseph's brethren were sent to buy corn, if they had perished in the desart by wild beasts, or been reduced (as in the horrid adventures of a Pierre de Vaud [4] ) to eat one another, we might have shuddered, but we should not have wept for them. The gush of tears is when Joseph made himself known to his brethren, and fell on their neck, and kissed them. [5]  When Hubert prepares to burn out prince Arthur's eyes, the shocking circumstance, of itself, would only affect us with horror; it is the amiable simplicity of the young prince, and his innocent affection to his intended murderer that draws our tears, and excites that tender sorrow which we love to feel,

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and which refines the heart while we do feel it. [6] 

We see, therefore, from this view of our internal feelings, that no scenes of misery ought to be exhibited which are not connected with the display of some moral excellence or agreeable quality. If fortitude, power, and strength of mind are called forth, they produce the sublime feelings of wonder and admiration: if the softer qualities of gentleness, grace, and beauty, they inspire love and pity. The management of these latter emotions is our present object.

And let it be remembered, in the first place, that the misfortunes which excite pity must not be too horrid and overwhelming. The mind is rather stunned than softened by great calamities. They are little circumstances that work most


sensibly upon the tender feelings. For this reason, a well-written novel generally draws more tears than a tragedy. The distresses of tragedy are more calculated to amaze and terrify, than to move compassion. Battles, torture and death are in every page. The dignity of the characters, the importance of the events, the pomp of verse and imagery interest the grander passions, and raise the mind to an enthusiasm little favourable to the weak and languid notes of pity. The tragedies of Young are in a fine strain of poetry, and the situations are worked up with great energy, but the pictures are in too deep a shade: all his pieces are full of violent and gloomy passions, and so over-wrought with horror, that instead of awakening any pleasing sensibility, they leave on the mind an impression of sadness mixed with terror. Shakespear is sometimes guilty of presenting scenes too

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shocking. Such is the trampling out of Gloster's eyes; [7]  and such is the whole play of Titus Andronicus. But Lee, beyond all others, abounds with this kind of images. He delighted in painting the most daring crimes, and cruel massacres; and though he has shewn himself extremely capable of raising tenderness, he continually checks its course by shocking and disagreeable expressions. His pieces are in the same taste with the pictures of Spagnolet, and there are many scenes in his tragedies which no one can relish who would not look with pleasure on the flaying of St. Bartholomew. The following speech of Marguerité, in the massacre of Paris, was, I suppose, intended to express the utmost tenderness of affection.

Die for him! that's too little; I could burn
Piece-meal away, or bleed to death by drops,
Be flay'd alive, then broke upon the wheel,
Yet with a smile endure it all for Guise:


And when let loose from torments, all one wound,
Run with my mangled arms, and crush him dead. [8] 

Images like these will never excite the softer passions. We are less moved at the description of an Indian tortured with all the dreadful ingenuity of that savage people, than with the fatal mistake of the lover in the Spectator, who pierced an artery in the arm of his mistress as he was letting her blood. [9]  Tragedy and romance-writers are likewise apt to make too free with the more violent expressions of passion and distress, by which means they lose their effect. Thus an ordinary author does not know how to express any strong emotion otherwise than by swoonings or death; so that a person experienced in this kind of reading, when a girl faints away at parting with her lover, or a hero kills himself for the loss of his mistress, considers it as the established

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etiquette upon such occasions, and turns over the pages with the utmost coolness and unconcern; whereas real sensibility and a more intimate knowledge of human nature would have suggested a thousand little touches of grief, which though slight are irresistible. We are too gloomy a people. Some of the French novels are remarkable for little affecting incidents, imagined with delicacy and told with grace. Perhaps they have a better turn than we for this kind of writing.

A judicious author will never attempt to raise pity by any thing mean or disgusting. As we have already observed, there must be a degree of complacence mixed with our sorrows to produce an agreeable sympathy; nothing, therefore, must be admitted which destroys the grace and dignity of suffering; the imagination must have an amiable figure to


dwell upon; there are circumstances so ludicrous or disgusting, that no character can preserve a proper decorum under them, or appear in an agreeable light. Who can read the following description of Polypheme without finding his compassion entirely destroyed by aversion and loathing?

——————————— His bloody hand
Snatch'd two unhappy of my martial band,
And dash'd like dogs against the stony floor,
The pavement swims with brains and mingled gore;
Torn limb from limb, he spreads his horrid feast,
And fierce devours it like a mountain beast;
He sucks the marrow and the blood he drains,
Nor entrails, flesh, nor solid bone remains. [10] 

Or that of Scylla,

In the wide dungeon she devours her food,
And the flesh trembles while she churns the blood. [11] 


Deformity is always disgusting, and the imagination cannot reconcile it with the idea of a favourite character; therefore the poet and romance-writer are fully justified in giving a larger share of beauty to their principal figures than is usually met with in common life. A late genius, indeed, in whimsical mood, gave us a lady with her nose crushed for the heroine of his story; [12]  but the circumstance spoils the picture; and though in the course of the story it is kept a good deal out of sight, whenever it does recur to the imagination we are hurt and disgusted. It was an heroic instance of virtue in the nuns of a certain abbey, who cut off their noses and lips to avoid violation; [13]  yet this would make a very bad subject for a poem or play. Something akin to this is the representation of any thing unnatural; of which kind is the famous story of the Roman charity, [14]  and for this reason


I cannot but think it an unpleasing subject for either the pen or the pencil.

Poverty, if truly represented, shocks our nicer feelings; therefore, whenever it is made use of to awaken our compassion, the rags and dirt, the squalid appearance and mean employments incident to that state must be kept out of sight, and the distress must arise from the idea of depression, and the shock of falling from higher fortunes. We do not pity Belisarius as a poor blind beggar; and a painter would succeed very ill who should sink him to the meanness of that condition. He must let us still discover the conqueror of the Vandals, the general of the imperial armies, or we shall be little interested. Let us look at the picture of the old woman in Otway;


————— A wrinkled hag with age grown double,
Picking dry sticks, and muttering to herself;
Her eyes with scalding rheum were gall'd and red;
Cold palsie shook her head; her hands seem'd wither'd;
And on her crooked shoulder had she wrapt
The tatter'd remnant of an old strip'd hanging,
Which serv'd to keep her carcase from the cold;
So there was nothing of a piece about her. [15] 

Here is the extreme of wretchedness, and instead of melting into pity we turn away with aversion. Indeed the author only intended it to strike horror. But how different are the sentiments we feel for the lovely Belvidera! [16]  We see none of those circumstances which render poverty an unamiable thing. When the goods are seized by an execution, our attention is turned to the piles of massy plate, and all the antient most domestic ornaments, which imply grandeur and consequence; or to such instances of their hard fortune as will lead us to pity them as lovers: we are


struck and affected with the general face of ruin, but we are not brought near enough to discern the ugliness of its features. Belvidera ruined, Belvidera deprived of friends, without a home, abandoned to the wide world —we can contemplate with all the pleasing sympathy of pity; but had she been represented as really sunk into low life, had we seen her employed in the most servile offices of poverty, our compassion would have given way to contempt and disgust. Indeed, we may observe in real life that poverty is only pitied so long as people can keep themselves from the effects of it. When in common language we say a miserable object, we mean an object of distress which, if we relieve, we turn away from at the same time. To make pity pleasing, the object of it must not in any view be disagreeable to the imagination. How admirably has the


author of Clarissa managed this point? Amidst scenes of suffering which rend the heart, in poverty, in a prison, under the most shocking outrages, the grace and delicacy of her character never suffers even for a moment: there seems to be a charm about her which prevents her receiving a stain from any thing which happens; and Clarissa, abandoned and undone, is the object not only of complacence, but veneration.

I would likewise observe, that if an author would have us feel a strong degree of compassion, his characters must not be too perfect. The stern fortitude and inflexible resolution of a Cato may command esteem, but does not excite tenderness; and faultless rectitude of conduct, though no rigour be mixed with it, is of too sublime a nature to inspire compassion. Virtue has a kind of self-suffi-


ciency; it stands upon its own basis, and cannot be injured by any violence. It must therefore be mixed with something of helplessness and imperfection, with an excessive sensibility, or a simplicity bordering upon weakness, before it raises, in any great degree, either tenderness or familiar love. If there be a fault in the masterly performance just now mentioned, it is that the character of Clarissa is so inflexibly right, her passions are under such perfect command, and her prudence is so equal to every occasion, that she seems not to need that sympathy we should bestow upon one of a less elevated character: and perhaps we should feel a livelier emotion of tenderness for Lovelace's Rose-bud, [17]  but that the story of Clarissa is so worked up by the strength of colouring and the force of repeated impressions, as to command all our sorrow.


Pity seems too degrading a sentiment to be offered at the shrine of faultless excellence. The sufferings of martyrs are rather beheld with admiration and sympathetic triumph than with tears; and we never feel much for those whom we consider as themselves raised above common feelings.

The last rule I shall insist upon is, that scenes of distress should not be too long continued. All our finer feelings are in a manner momentary, and no art can carry them beyond a certain point, either in intenseness or duration. Constant suffering deadens the heart to tender impressions; as we many observe in sailors, and others who are grown callous by a life of continual hardships. It is therefore highly necessary in a long work to relieve the mind by scenes of pleasure and gaiety: and I cannot think it so ab-


surd a practice as our modern delicacy has represented it, to intermix wit and fancy with the pathetic, provided care be taken not to check the passions while they are flowing. The transition from a pleasurable state of mind to tender sorrow is not so difficult as we imagine. When the mind is opened by gay and agreeable scenes, every impression is felt more sensibly. Persons of lively temper are much more susceptible of that sudden swell of sensibility which occasions tears, than those of a grave and saturnine cast: for this reason women are more easily moved to weeping than men. Those who have touched the springs of pity with the finest hand have mingled light strokes of pleasantry and mirth in their most pathetic passages. Very different is the conduct of many novel writers, who by plunging us into scenes of distress without end or limit, exhaust the powers,



and before the conclusion either render us insensible to every thing, or fix a real sadness upon the mind. The uniform stile of tragedies is one reason why they affect so little. In our old plays all the force of language is reserved for the more interesting parts; and in the scenes of common life there is no attempt to rise above common language: whereas we, by that pompous manner and affected solemnity which we think it necessary to preserve through the whole piece, lose the force of an elevated or passionate expression where the occasion really suggests it.

Having thus considered the manner in which fictitious distress must be managed to render it pleasing, let us reflect a little upon the moral tendency of such representations. Much has been said in favour of them, and they are generally


thought to improve the tender and humane feelings; but this, I own, appears to me very dubious. That they exercise sensibility is true, but sensibility does not increase with exercise. By the constitution of our frame our habits increase, our emotions decrease, by repeated acts; and thus a wise provision is made, that as our compassion grows weaker, its place should be supplied by habitual benevolence. But in these writings our sensibility is strongly called forth without any possibility of exerting itself in virtuous action, and those emotions, which we shall never feel again with equal force, are wasted without advantage. Nothing is more dangerous than to let virtuous impressions of any kind pass through the mind without producing their proper effect. The awakenings of remorse, virtuous shame and indignation, the glow of moral approba-

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tion, if they do not lead to action, grow less and less vivid every time they recur, till at length the mind grows absolutely callous. The being affected with a pathetic story is undoubtedly a sign of an amiable disposition, but perhaps no means of increasing it. On the contrary, young people, by a course of this kind of reading, often acquire something of that apathy and indifference which the experience of real life would have given them, without its advantages.

Another reason why plays and romances do not improve our humanity is, that they lead us to require a certain elegance of manners and delicacy of virtue which is not often found with poverty, ignorance, and meanness. The objects of pity in romance are as different from those in real life as our husbandmen from


the shepherds of Arcadia; and a girl who will sit weeping the whole night at the delicate distresses of a lady Charlotte or lady Julia, shall be little moved at the complaint of her neighbour, who, in a homely phrase and vulgar accent, laments to her that she is not able to get bread for her family. Romance-writers likewise make great misfortunes so familiar to our ears, that we have hardly any pity to spare for the common accidents of life: but we ought to remember, that misery has a claim to relief, however we may be disgusted with its appearance; and that we must not fancy ourselves charitable, when we are only pleasing our imagination.

It would perhaps be better, if our romances were more like those of the old stamp, which tended to raise human nature, and inspire a certain grace and dig-

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nity of manners of which we have hardly the idea. The high notions of honour, the wild and fanciful spirit of adventure and romantic love, elevated the mind; our novels tend to depress and enfeeble it. Yet there is a species of this kind of writing which must ever afford an exquisite pleasure to persons of taste and sensibility; where noble sentiments are mixed with well-fancied incidents, pathetic touches with dignity and grace, and invention with chaste correctness. Such will ever interest our sweetest passions. I shall conclude this paper with the following tale.




IN the happy period of the golden age, when all the celestial inhabitants descended to the earth, and conversed familiarly with mortals, among the most cherished of the heavenly powers were twins, the offspring of Jupiter, love and joy. Wherever they appeared, the flowers sprung up beneath their feet, the sun shone with a brighter radiance, and all nature seemed embellished by their presence. They were inseparable companions, and their growing attachment was favoured by Jupiter, who had decreed that a lasting union should be solemnized between them so soon as they were arrived at maturer years. But in the mean time the sons of men deviated

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from their native innocence; vice and ruin over-ran the earth with giant strides; and Astrea with her train of celestial visitants forsook their polluted abodes. Love alone remained, having been stolen away by Hope, who was his nurse, and conveyed by her to the forests of Arcadia, where he was brought up among the shepherds. But Jupiter assigned him a different partner, and commanded him to espouse sorrow, the daughter of Até. He complied with reluctance; for her features were harsh and disagreeable, her eyes sunk, her forehead contracted into perpetual wrinkles, and her temples were covered with a wreath of cypress and wormwood. From this union sprung a virgin, in whom might be traced a strong resemblance to both her parents; but the sullen and unamiable features of her mother were so


mixed and blended with the sweetness of her father, that her countenance, though mournful, was highly pleasing. The maids and shepherds of the neighbouring plains gathered round and called her pity. A red-breast was observed to build in the cabin where she was born; and while she was yet an infant, a dove pursued by a hawk flew into her bosom. This nymph had a dejected appearance, but so soft and gentle a mien that she was beloved to a degree of enthusiasm. Her voice was low and plaintive, but inexpressibly sweet; and she loved to lie for hours together on the banks of some wild and melancholy stream, singing to her lute. She taught men to weep, for she took a strange delight in tears; and often, when the virgins of the hamlet were assembled at their evening sports, she would steal in amongst them, and


captivate their hearts by her tales full of a charming sadness. She wore on her head a garland composed of her father's myrtles twisted with her mother's cypress.

One day, as she sat musing by the waters of Helicon, her tears by chance fell into the fountain; and ever since, the Muses' spring has retained a strong taste of the infusion. Pity was commanded by Jupiter to follow the steps of her mother through the world, dropping balm into the wounds she made, and binding up the hearts she had broken. She follows with her hair loose, her bosom bare and throbbing, her garments torn by the briars, and her feet bleeding with the roughness of the path. The nymph is mortal, for her mother is so; and when she has fulfilled her


destined course upon the earth, they shall both expire together, and love be again united to joy, his immortal and long betrothed bride.



[1] Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose, by J. and A.L. Aikin (London: Printed for J. Johnson, in St. Paul's Church-yard, 1773), 190-219. The essay is identified as Barbauld's by her niece Lucy Aikin in The Works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld. With a Memoir by Lucy Aikin (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster-Row, 1825). Michael Cole, Rachel Dejmal, and Mary A. Waters co-edited this essay for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] Ulysses IV.i. by Nicholas Rowe. BACK

[3] After a decade of fighting in the Trojan War and a decade-long return voyage, Ulysses returned to his native Ithaca. When he arrived home, he had been so changed during his twenty year absence that he was recognized only by his old and faithful nurse Eurycleia, who noticed a familiar scar while bathing his feet, and by his dog Argus, who jumped up for joy and died. BACK

[4] Barbauld refers to the account in The Shipwreck And Adventures Of Monsieur Pierre Viaud: A Native Of Bourdeaux, And Captain Of A Ship. Translated From The French, by Mrs. Griffith, which had been published in London in 1771. Thanks to my colleague Carl Thompson for help with this reference. BACK

[5] See Genesis 42-45. BACK

[6] According to the legend, Arthur I, Duke of Brittany (1187-1203) had been named successor to the throne over his uncle John, King of England (1167-1216), who therefore had the young duke imprisoned. The prison warden, Hubert de Burgh, was ordered to put out Arthur's eyes, but he was so touched by the boy's appeal to his pity and affection that he could not do it but instead falsely reported to the king that he had carried out the mutilation. See Shakespeare's King John IV.i. BACK

[7] See King Lear III.vii. BACK

[8] The Massacre of Paris; A Tragedy III.i.22-7. BACK

[9] Spectator No. 368 (Friday, 2 May 1712). BACK

[10] The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Alexander Pope (London: Bernard Lintot, 1725-1726) IX.342-9, slightly altered. BACK

[11] The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Alexander Pope (London: Bernard Lintot, 1725-1726) XII.306-7. BACK

[12] The eponymous heroine of Henry Fielding's Amelia (1751) suffered from this disfiguing injury in a carriage accident. BACK

[13] Threatened by an invasion of Viking pirates, St. Ebba, the ninth-century abbess of the monastery of Coldingham, urged her nuns to disfigure themselves in this way. They successfully avoided rape, but the pirates returned to burn the monastery and its inhabitants to the ground. BACK

[14] Referring to the story of Cimon and his daughter Pero. When Cimon was starving in prison, Pero visited him to feed him from her own breast. The incident had inspired many visual representation, including a painting by Jean-Baptiste Grueze entitled "Roman Charity," which had been exhibited in France to much acclaim shortly before Barbauld penned the present essay. BACK

[15] Thomas Otway, The Orphan II.i.267-74. BACK

[16] Character in Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682). BACK

[17] An inn-keeper's daughter, nicknamed so by the libertine Lovelace, who declines to seduce her partly because her relatives acknowledged his power by pleading with him to "spare" the girl's innocence and partly because he feared an account of the seduction might reach Clarissa. BACK

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