The Prose Works of William Wordsworth
by William Wordsworth
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See first how this spirit will affect his judgment of moral character, in those with whom chance may connect him in the common relations of life. It is of those with whom he is to live, that his soul first demands this food of her desires. From their conversation, their looks, their actions, their lives, she asks for excellence. To ask from all and to ask in vain, would be too dismal to bear: it would disturb him too deeply with doubt and perplexity and fear. In this hope, and in the revolting of his thoughts from the possibility of disappointment, there is a preparation for self-delusion: there is an unconscious determination that his soul shall be satisfied; an obstinate will to find good every where. And thus his first study of mankind is a continued effort to read in them the expression of his own feelings. He catches at every uncertain shew and shadowy resemblance of what he seeks; and unsuspicious in innocence, he is first won with those appearances of good which are in fact only false pretensions. But this error is not carried far: for there is a sort of instinct of rectitude, which, like the pressure of a talisman given to baffle the illusions of enchantment, warns a pure mind against hypocrisy. There is another delusion more difficult to resist and more slowly dissipated. It is when he finds, as he often will, some of the real features of excellence in the purity of their native form. For then his rapid imagination will gather round them all the kindred features that are wanting to perfect beauty; and make for him, where he could not find, the moral creature of his expectation; peopling, even from this human world, his little circle of affection with forms as fair as his heart desired for its love.

But when, from the eminence of life which he has reached, he lifts up his eyes, and sends out his spirit to range over the great scene that is opening before him and around him, the whole prospect of civilised life so wide and so magnificent;—when he begins to contemplate, in their various stations of power or splendour, the leaders of mankind, those men on whose wisdom are hung the fortunes of nations, those whose genius and valour wield the heroism of a people;—or those, in no inferior pride of place, whose sway is over the mind of society, chiefs in the realm of imagination, interpreters of the secrets of nature, rulers of human opinion;—what wonder, when he looks on all this living scene, that his heart should burn with strong affection, that he should feel that his own happiness will be for ever interwoven with the interests of mankind? Here then the sanguine hope with which he looks on life, will again be blended with his passionate desire of excellence; and he will still be impelled to single out some, on whom his imagination and his hopes may repose. To whatever department of human thought or action his mind is turned with interest, either by the sway of public passion or by its own impulse, among statesmen, and warriors, and philosophers, and poets, he will distinguish some favoured names on which he may satisfy his admiration. And there, just as in the little circle of his own acquaintance, seizing eagerly on every merit they possess, he will supply more from his own credulous hope, completing real with imagined excellence, till living men, with all their imperfections, become to him the representatives of his perfect ideal creation;—till, multiplying his objects of reverence, as he enlarges his prospect of life, he will have surrounded himself with idols of his own hands, and his imagination will seem to discern a glory in the countenance of the age, which is but the reflection of its own effulgence.

He will possess, therefore, in the creative power of generous hope, a preparation for illusory and exaggerated admiration of the age in which he lives: and this predisposition will meet with many favouring circumstances, when he has grown up under a system of education like ours, which (as perhaps all education must that is placed in the hands of a distinct and embodied class, who therefore bring to it the peculiar and hereditary prejudices of their order) has controlled his imagination to a reverence of former times, with an unjust contempt of his own. For no sooner does he break loose from this control, and begin to feel, as he contemplates the world for himself, how much there is surrounding him on all sides that gratifies his noblest desires, than there springs up in him an indignant sense of injustice, both to the age and to his own mind; and he is impelled warmly and eagerly to give loose to the feelings that have been held in bondage, to seek out and to delight in finding excellence that will vindicate the insulted world, while it justifies, too, his resentment of his own undue subjection, and exalts the value of his new found liberty.

Add to this, that secluded as he has been from knowledge, and, in the imprisoning circle of one system of ideas, cut off from his share in the thoughts and feelings that are stirring among men, he finds himself, at the first steps of his liberty, in a new intellectual world. Passions and powers which he knew not of start up in his soul. The human mind, which he had seen but under one aspect, now presents to him a thousand unknown and beautiful forms. He sees it, in its varying powers, glancing over nature with restless curiosity, and with impetuous energy striving for ever against the barriers which she has placed around it; sees it with divine power creating from dark materials living beauty, and fixing all its high and transported fancies in imperishable forms. In the world of knowledge, and science, and art, and genius, he treads as a stranger: in the confusion of new sensations, bewildered in delights, all seems beautiful; all seems admirable. And therefore he engages eagerly in the pursuit of false or insufficient philosophy; he is won by the allurements of licentious art; he follows with wonder the irregular transports of undisciplined imagination. Nor, where the objects of his admiration are worthy, is he yet skilful to distinguish between the acquisitions which the age has made for itself, and that large proportion of its wealth which it has only inherited: but in his delight of discovery and growing knowledge, all that is new to his own mind seems to him new-born to the world. To himself every fresh idea appears instruction; every new exertion, acquisition of power: he seems just called to the consciousness of himself, and to his true place in the intellectual world; and gratitude and reverence towards those to whom he owes this recovery of his dignity, tend much to subject him to the dominion of minds that were not formed by nature to be the leaders of opinion.

All the tumult and glow of thought and imagination, which seize on a mind of power in such a scene, tend irresistibly to bind it by stronger attachment of love and admiration to its own age. And there is one among the new emotions which belong to its entrance on the world, one almost the noblest of all, in which this exaltation of the age is essentially mingled. The faith in the perpetual progression of human nature towards perfection gives birth to such lofty dreams, as secure to it the devout assent of the imagination; and it will be yet more grateful to a heart just opening to hope, flushed with the consciousness of new strength, and exulting in the prospect of destined achievements. There is, therefore, almost a compulsion on generous and enthusiastic spirits, as they trust that the future shall transcend the present, to believe that the present transcends the past. It is only on an undue love and admiration of their own age that they can build their confidence in the melioration of the human race. Nor is this faith, which, in some shape, will always be the creed of virtue, without apparent reason, even in the erroneous form in which the young adopt it. For there is a perpetual acquisition of knowledge and art, an unceasing progress in many of the modes of exertion of the human mind, a perpetual unfolding of virtues with the changing manners of society: and it is not for a young mind to compare what is gained with what has passed away; to discern that amidst the incessant intellectual activity of the race, the intellectual power of individual minds maybe falling off; and that amidst accumulating knowledge lofty science may disappear; and still less, to judge, in the more complicated moral character of a people, what is progression, and what is decline.

Into a mind possessed with this persuasion of the perpetual progress of man, there may even imperceptibly steal both from the belief itself, and from many of the views on which it rests, something like a distrust of the wisdom of great men of former ages, and with the reverence, which no delusion will ever over-power in a pure mind, for their greatness, a fancied discernment of imperfection and of incomplete excellence, which wanted for its accomplishment the advantages of later improvements: there will be a surprise that so much should have been possible in times so ill prepared; and even the study of their works may be sometimes rather the curious research of a speculative inquirer, than the devout contemplation of an enthusiast,—the watchful and obedient heart of a disciple listening to the inspiration of his master.

Here then is the power of delusion that will gather round the first steps of a youthful spirit, and throw enchantment over the world in which it is to dwell; hope realising its own dreams; ignorance dazzled and ravished with sudden sunshine; power awakened and rejoicing in its own consciousness; enthusiasm kindling among multiplying images of greatness and beauty, and enamoured, above all, of one splendid error; and, springing from all these, such a rapture of life and hope and joy, that the soul, in the power of its happiness, transmutes things essentially repugnant to it into the excellence of its own nature: these are the spells that cheat the eye of the mind with illusion. It is under these influences that a young man of ardent spirit gives all his love, and reverence, and zeal, to productions of art, to theories of science, to opinions, to systems of feeling, and to characters distinguished in the world, that are far beneath his own original dignity.

Now as this delusion springs not from his worse but his better nature, it seems as if there could be no warning to him from within of his danger: for even the impassioned joy which he draws at times from the works of nature, and from those of her mightier sons, and which would startle him from a dream of unworthy passion, serves only to fix the infatuation:—for those deep emotions, proving to him that his heart is uncorrupted, justify to him all its workings, and his mind, confiding and delighting in itself, yields to the guidance of its own blind impulses of pleasure. His chance, therefore, of security is the chance that the greater number of objects occurring to attract his honourable passions may be worthy of them. But we have seen that the whole power of circumstances is collected to gather round him such objects and influences as will bend his high passions to unworthy enjoyment. He engages in it with a heart and understanding unspoiled: but they cannot long be misapplied with impunity. They are drawn gradually into closer sympathy with the falsehoods they have adopted, till, his very nature seeming to change under the corruption, there disappears from it the capacity of those higher perceptions and pleasures to which he was born: and he is cast off from the communion of exalted minds, to live and to perish with the age to which he has surrendered himself.

If minds under these circumstances of danger are preserved from decay and overthrow, it can seldom, I think, be to themselves that they owe their deliverance. It must be to a fortunate chance which places them under the influence of some more enlightened mind, from which they may first gain suspicion and afterwards wisdom. There is a philosophy, which, leading them by the light of their best emotions to the principles which should give life to thought and law to genius, will discover to them, in clear and perfect evidence, the falsehood of the errors that have misled them, and restore them to themselves. And this philosophy they will be willing to hear and wise to understand; but they must be led into its mysteries by some guiding hand; for they want the impulse or the power to penetrate of themselves the recesses.

If a superior mind should assume the protection of others just beginning to move among the dangers I have described, it would probably be found, that delusions springing from their own virtuous activity were not the only difficulties to be encountered. Even after suspicion is awakened, the subjection to falsehood may be prolonged and deepened by many weaknesses both of the intellectual and moral nature; weaknesses that will sometimes shake the authority of acknowledged truth. There may be intellectual indolence; an indisposition in the mind to the effort of combining the ideas it actually possesses, and bringing into distinct form the knowledge, which in its elements is already its own: there may be, where the heart resists the sway of opinion, misgivings and modest self-mistrust in him who sees that, if he trusts his heart, he must slight the judgment of all around him:—there may be too habitual yielding to authority, consisting, more than in indolence or diffidence, in a conscious helplessness and incapacity of the mind to maintain itself in its own place against the weight of general opinion; and there may be too indiscriminate, too undisciplined, a sympathy with others, which by the mere infection of feeling will subdue the reason. There must be a weakness in dejection to him who thinks with sadness, if his faith be pure, how gross is the error of the multitude, and that multitude how vast;—a reluctance to embrace a creed that excludes so many whom he loves, so many whom his youth has revered;—a difficulty to his understanding to believe that those whom he knows to be, in much that is good and honourable, his superiors, can be beneath him in this which is the most important of all;—a sympathy pleading importunately at his heart to descend to the fellowship of his brothers, and to take their faith and wisdom for his own. How often, when under the impulses of those solemn hours, in which he has felt with clearer insight and deeper faith his sacred truths, he labours to win to his own belief those whom he loves, will he be checked by their indifference or their laughter! And will he not bear back to his meditations a painful and disheartening sorrow, a gloomy discontent in that faith which takes in but a portion of those whom he wishes to include in all his blessings? Will he not be enfeebled by a distraction of inconsistent desires, when he feels so strongly that the faith which fills his heart, the circle within which he would embrace all he loves—would repose all his wishes and hopes, and enjoyments—is yet incommensurate with his affections?

Even when the mind, strong in reason and just feeling united, and relying on its strength, has attached itself to truth, how much is there in the course and accidents of life that is for ever silently at work for its degradation. There are pleasures deemed harmless, that lay asleep the recollections of innocence: there are pursuits held honourable, or imposed by duty, that oppress the moral spirit: above all there is that perpetual connection with ordinary minds in the common intercourse of society; that restless activity of frivolous conversation, where men of all characters and all pursuits mixing together, nothing may be talked of that is not of common interest to all;—nothing, therefore, but those obvious thoughts and feelings that float over the surface of things: and all which is drawn from the depth of nature, all which impassioned feeling has made original in thought, would be misplaced and obtrusive. The talent that is allowed to shew itself is that which can repay admiration by furnishing entertainment: and the display to which it is invited is that which flatters the vulgar pride of society, by abasing what is too high in excellence for its sympathy. A dangerous seduction to talents, which would make language, given to exalt the soul by the fervid expression of its pure emotions, the instrument of its degradation. And even when there is, as in the instance I have supposed, too much uprightness to choose so dishonourable a triumph, there is a necessity of manners, by which everyone must be controlled who mixes much in society, not to offend those with whom he converses by his superiority; and whatever be the native spirit of a mind, it is evident that this perpetual adaptation of itself to others, this watchfulness against its own rising feelings, this studied sympathy with mediocrity, must pollute and impoverish the sources of its strength.

From much of its own weakness, and from all the errors of its misleading activities, may generous youth be rescued by the interposition of an enlightened mind: and in some degree it may be guarded by instruction against the injuries to which it is exposed in the world. His lot is happy who owes this protection to friendship; who has found in a friend the watchful guardian of his mind. He will not be deluded, having that light to guide; he will not slumber, with that voice to inspire; he will not be desponding or dejected, with that bosom to lean on. But how many must there be whom Heaven has left unprovided, except in their own strength; who must maintain themselves, unassisted and solitary, against their own infirmities and the opposition of the world! For such there may yet be a protector. If a teacher should stand up in their generation, conspicuous above the multitude in superior power, and still more in the assertion and proclamation of disregarded truth;—to him, to his cheering or summoning voice, all those would turn, whose deep sensibility has been oppressed by the indifference, or misled by the seduction, of the times. Of one such teacher who has been given to our own age you have described the power when you said, that in his annunciation of truths he seemed to speak in thunders. I believe that mighty voice has not been poured out in vain; that there are hearts that have received into their inmost depths all its varying tones; and that even now, there are many to whom the name of Wordsworth calls up the recollection of their weakness and the consciousness of their strength.

To give to the reason and eloquence of one man this complete control over the minds of others, it is necessary, I think, that he should be born in their own times. For thus whatever false opinion of pre-eminence is attached to the age becomes at once a title of reverence to him: and when with distinguished powers he sets himself apart from the age, and above it, as the teacher of high but ill-understood truths, he will appear at once to a generous imagination in the dignity of one whose superior mind outsteps the rapid progress of society, and will derive from illusion itself the power to disperse illusions. It is probable too, that he who labours under the errors I have described, might feel the power of truth in a writer of another age, yet fail in applying the full force of his principles to his own times: but when he receives them from a living teacher, there is no room for doubt or misapplication. It is the errors of his own generation that are denounced; and whatever authority he may acknowledge in the instructions of his master, strikes, with inevitable force, at his veneration for the opinions and characters of his own times. And finally there will be gathered round a living teacher, who speaks to the deeper soul, many feelings of human love that will place the infirmities of the heart peculiarly under his control; at the same time that they blend with and animate the attachment to his cause. So that there will flow from him something of the peculiar influence of a friend: while his doctrines will be embraced and asserted and vindicated with the ardent zeal of a disciple, such as can scarcely be carried back to distant times, or connected with voices that speak only from the grave.

I have done what I proposed. I have related to you as much as I have had opportunities of knowing of the difficulties from within and from without, which may oppose the natural development of true feeling and right opinion in a mind formed with some capacity for good; and the resources which such a mind may derive from an enlightened contemporary writer. If what I have said be just, it is certain that this influence will be felt more particularly in a work, adapted by its mode of publication to address the feelings of the time, and to bring to its readers repeated admonition and repeated consolation.

I have perhaps presumed too far in trespassing on your attention, and in giving way to my own thoughts; but I was unwilling to leave any thing unsaid which might induce you to consider with favour the request I was anxious to make, in the name of all whose state of mind I have described, that you would at times regard us more particularly in your instructions. I cannot judge to what degree it may be in your power to give the truth you teach a control over understandings that have matured their strength in error; but in our class I am sure you will have docile learners.



The Friend might rest satisfied that his exertions thus far have not been wholly unprofitable, if no other proof had been given of their influence, than that of having called forth the foregoing letter, with which he has been so much interested, that he could not deny himself the pleasure of communicating it to his readers. In answer to his correspondent, it need scarcely here be repeated, that one of the main purposes of his work is to weigh, honestly and thoughtfully, the moral worth and intellectual power of the age in which we live; to ascertain our gain and our loss; to determine what we are in ourselves positively, and what we are compared with our ancestors; and thus, and by every other means within his power, to discover what may be hoped for future times, what and how lamentable are the evils to be feared, and how far there is cause for fear. If this attempt should not be made wholly in vain, my ingenious correspondent, and all who are in a state of mind resembling that of which he gives so lively a picture, will be enabled more readily and surely to distinguish false from legitimate objects of admiration: and thus may the personal errors which he would guard against be more effectually prevented or removed by the development of general truth for a general purpose, than by instructions specifically adapted to himself or to the class of which he is the able representative. There is a life and spirit in knowledge which we extract from truths scattered for the benefit of all, and which the mind, by its own activity, has appropriated to itself,—a life and spirit, which is seldom found in knowledge communicated by formal and direct precepts, even when they are exalted and endeared by reverence and love for the teacher.

Nevertheless, though I trust that the assistance which my correspondent has done me the honour to request, will in course of time flow naturally from my labours, in a manner that will best serve him, I cannot resist the inclination to connect, at present, with his letter a few remarks of direct application to the subject of it; remarks, I say,—for to such I shall confine myself,—independent of the main point out of which his complaint and request both proceed; I mean the assumed inferiority of the present age in moral dignity and intellectual power to those which have preceded it. For if the fact were true, that we had even surpassed our ancestors in the best of what is good, the main part of the dangers and impediments which my correspondent has feelingly portrayed, could not cease to exist for minds like his, nor indeed would they be much diminished; as they arise out of the constitution of things, from the nature of youth, from the laws that govern the growth of the faculties, and from the necessary condition of the great body of mankind. Let us throw ourselves back to the age of Elizabeth, and call up to mind the heroes, the warriors, the statesmen, the poets, the divines, and the moral philosophers, with which the reign of the virgin queen was illustrated. Or if we be more strongly attracted by the moral purity and greatness, and that sanctity of civil and religious duty, with which the tyranny of Charles I. was struggled against, let us cast our eyes, in the hurry of admiration, round that circle of glorious patriots: but do not let us be persuaded, that each of these, in his course of discipline, was uniformly helped forward by those with whom he associated, or by those whose care it was to direct him. Then, as now, existed objects to which the wisest attached undue importance; then, as now, judgment was misled by factions and parties, time wasted in controversies fruitless, except as far as they quickened the faculties; then, as now, minds were venerated or idolized, which owed their influence to the weakness of their contemporaries rather than to their own power. Then, though great actions were wrought, and great works in literature and science produced, yet the general taste was capricious, fantastical, or grovelling; and in this point, as in all others, was youth subject to delusion, frequent in proportion to the liveliness of the sensibility, and strong as the strength of the imagination. Every age hath abounded in instances of parents, kindred, and friends, who, by indirect influence of example, or by positive injunction and exhortation, have diverted or discouraged the youth, who, in the simplicity and purity of nature, had determined to follow his intellectual genius through good and through evil, and had devoted himself to knowledge, to the practice of virtue and the preservation of integrity, in slight of temporal rewards. Above all, have not the common duties and cares of common life at all times exposed men to injury from causes the action of which is the more fatal from being silent and unremitting, and which, wherever it was not jealously watched and steadily opposed, must have pressed upon and consumed the diviner spirit?

There are two errors into which we easily slip when thinking of past times. One lies in forgetting in the excellence of what remains the large overbalance of worthlessness that has been swept away. Ranging over the wide tracts of antiquity, the situation of the mind may be likened to that of a traveller[26] in some unpeopled part of America, who is attracted to the burial place of one of the primitive inhabitants. It is conspicuous upon an eminence, 'a mount upon a mount!' He digs into it, and finds that it contains the bones of a man of mighty stature; and he is tempted to give way to a belief, that as there were giants in those days, so all men were giants. But a second and wiser thought may suggest to him that this tomb would never have forced itself upon his notice, if it had not contained a body that was distinguished from others,—that of a man who had been selected as a chieftain or ruler for the very reason that he surpassed the rest of his tribe in stature, and who now lies thus conspicuously inhumed upon the mountain-top, while the bones, of his followers are laid unobtrusively together in their burrows upon the plain below. The second habitual error is, that in this comparison of ages we divide time merely into past and present, and place these in the balance to be weighed against each other; not considering that the present is in our estimation not more than a period of thirty years, or half a century at most, and that the past is a mighty accumulation of many such periods, perhaps the whole of recorded time, or at least the whole of that portion of it in which our own country has been distinguished. We may illustrate this by the familiar use of the words ancient and modern, when applied to poetry. What can be more inconsiderate or unjust than to compare a few existing writers with the whole succession of their progenitors? The delusion, from the moment that our thoughts are directed to it, seems too gross to deserve mention; yet men will talk for hours upon poetry, balancing against each other the words ancient and modern, and be unconscious that they have fallen into it.

[26] See Ashe's Travels in America.

These observations are not made as implying a dissent from the belief of my correspondent, that the moral spirit and intellectual powers of this country are declining; but to guard against unqualified admiration, even in cases where admiration has been rightly fixed, and to prevent that depression which must necessarily follow, where the notion of the peculiar unfavourableness of the present times to dignity of mind has been carried too far. For in proportion as we imagine obstacles to exist out of ourselves to retard our progress, will, in fact, our progress be retarded. Deeming, then, that in all ages an ardent mind will be baffled and led astray in the manner under contemplation, though in various degrees, I shall at present content myself with a few practical and desultory comments upon some of those general causes, to which my correspondent justly attributes the errors in opinion, and the lowering or deadening of sentiment, to which ingenuous and aspiring youth is exposed. And first, for the heart-cheering belief in the perpetual progress of the species towards a point of unattainable perfection. If the present age do indeed transcend the past in what is most beneficial and honourable, he that perceives this, being in no error, has no cause for complaint; but if it be not so, a youth of genius might, it should seem, be preserved from any wrong influence of this faith by an insight into a simple truth, namely, that it is not necessary, in order to satisfy the desires of our nature, or to reconcile us to the economy of providence, that there should be at all times a continuous advance in what is of highest worth. In fact it is not, as a writer of the present day has admirably observed, in the power of fiction to portray in words, or of the imagination to conceive in spirit, actions or characters of more exalted virtue, than those which thousands of years ago have existed upon earth, as we know from the records of authentic history. Such is the inherent dignity of human nature, that there belong to it sublimities of virtues which all men may attain, and which no man can transcend: and though this be not true in an equal degree of intellectual power, yet in the persons of Plato, Demosthenes, and Homer, and in those of Shakespeare, Milton, and Lord Bacon, were enshrined as much of the divinity of intellect as the inhabitants of this planet can hope will ever take up its abode among them. But the question is not of the power or worth of individual minds, but of the general moral or intellectual merits of an age, or a people, or of the human race. Be it so. Let us allow and believe that there is a progress in the species towards unattainable perfection, or whether this be so or not, that it is a necessity of a good and greatly-gifted nature to believe it; surely it does not follow that this progress should be constant in those virtues and intellectual qualities, and in those departments of knowledge, which in themselves absolutely considered are of most value, things independent and in their degree indispensable. The progress of the species neither is nor can be like that of a Roman road in a right line. It may be more justly compared to that of a river, which, both in its smaller reaches and larger turnings, is frequently forced back towards its fountains by objects which cannot otherwise be eluded or overcome; yet with an accompanying impulse that will insure its advancement hereafter, it is either gaining strength every hour, or conquering in secret some difficulty, by a labour that contributes as effectually to further it in its course, as when it moves forward uninterrupted in a line, direct as that of the Roman road with which I began the comparison.

It suffices to content the mind, though there may be an apparent stagnation, or a retrograde movement in the species, that something is doing which is necessary to be done, and the effects of which will in due time appear; that something is unremittingly gaining, either in secret preparation or in open and triumphant progress. But in fact here, as every where, we are deceived by creations which the mind is compelled to make for itself; we speak of the species not as an aggregate, but as endued with the form and separate life of an individual. But human kind,—what is it else than myriads of rational beings in various degrees obedient to their reason; some torpid, some aspiring; some in eager chase to the right hand, some to the left; these wasting down their moral nature, and those feeding it for immortality? A whole generation may appear even to sleep, or may be exasperated with rage,—they that compose it, tearing each other to pieces with more than brutal fury. It is enough for complacency and hope, that scattered and solitary minds are always labouring somewhere in the service of truth and virtue; and that by the sleep of the multitude the energy of the multitude may be prepared; and that by the fury of the people the chains of the people may be broken. Happy moment was it for England when her Chaucer, who has rightly been called the morning star of her literature, appeared above the horizon; when her Wicliffe, like the sun, shot orient beams through the night of Romish superstition! Yet may the darkness and the desolating hurricane which immediately followed in the wars of York and Lancaster, be deemed in their turn a blessing, with which the Land has been visited.

May I return to the thought of progress, of accumulation, of increasing light, or of any other image by which it may please us to represent the improvement of the species? The hundred years that followed the usurpation of Henry IV., were a hurling-back of the mind of the country, a dilapidation, an extinction; yet institutions, laws, customs, and habits, were then broken down, which would not have been so readily, nor perhaps so thoroughly destroyed by the gradual influence of increasing knowledge; and under the oppression of which, if they had continued to exist, the virtue and intellectual prowess of the succeeding century could not have appeared at all, much less could they have displayed themselves with that eager haste, and with those beneficent triumphs, which will to the end of time be looked back upon with admiration and gratitude.

If the foregoing obvious distinctions be once clearly perceived, and steadily kept in view, I do not see why a belief in the progress of human nature towards perfection should dispose a youthful mind, however enthusiastic, to an undue admiration of his own age, and thus tend to degrade that mind.

But let me strike at once at the root of the evil complained of in my correspondent's letter. Protection from any fatal effect of seductions and hindrances which opinion may throw in the way of pure and high-minded youth, can only be obtained with certainty at the same price by which every thing great and good is obtained, namely, steady dependence upon voluntary and self-originating effort, and upon the practice of self-examination, sincerely aimed at and rigorously enforced. But how is this to be expected from youth? Is it not to demand the fruit when the blossom is barely put forth, and is hourly at the mercy of frosts and winds? To expect from youth these virtues and habits, in that degree of excellence to which in mature years they may be carried, would indeed be preposterous. Yet has youth many helps and aptitudes for the discharge of these difficult duties, which are withdrawn for the most part from the more advanced stages of life. For youth has its own wealth and independence; it is rich in health of body and animal spirits, in its sensibility to the impressions of the natural universe, in the conscious growth of knowledge, in lively sympathy and familiar communion with the generous actions recorded in history, and with the high passions of poetry; and, above all, youth is rich in the possession of time, and the accompanying consciousness of freedom and power. The young man feels that he stands at a distance from the season when his harvest is to be reaped; that he has leisure and may look around, and may defer both the choice and the execution of his purposes. If he makes an attempt and shall fail, new hopes immediately rush in and new promises. Hence, in the happy confidence of his feelings, and in the elasticity of his spirit, neither worldly ambition, nor the love of praise, nor dread of censure, nor the necessity of worldly maintenance, nor any of those causes which tempt or compel the mind habitually to look out of itself for support; neither these, nor the passions of envy, fear, hatred, despondency, and the rankling of disappointed hopes, (all which in after life give birth to, and regulate, the efforts of men and determine their opinions) have power to preside over the choice of the young, if the disposition be not naturally bad, or the circumstances have not been in an uncommon degree unfavourable.

In contemplation, then, of this disinterested and free condition of the youthful mind, I deem it in many points peculiarly capable of searching into itself, and of profiting by a few simple questions, such as these that follow. Am I chiefly gratified by the exertion of my power from the pure pleasure of intellectual activity, and from the knowledge thereby acquired? In other words, to what degree do I value my faculties and my attainments for their own sakes? or are they chiefly prized by me on account of the distinction which they confer, or the superiority which they give me over others? Am I aware that immediate influence and a general acknowledgment of merit are no necessary adjuncts of a successful adherence to study and meditation in those departments of knowledge which are of most value to mankind;—that a recompense of honours and emoluments is far less to be expected; in fact, that there is little natural connection between them? Have I perceived this truth; and, perceiving it, does the countenance of philosophy continue to appear as bright and beautiful in my eyes?—Has no haze bedimmed it? Has no cloud passed over and hidden from me that look which was before so encouraging? Knowing that it is my duty, and feeling that it is my inclination, to mingle as a social being with my fellow men; prepared also to submit cheerfully to the necessity that will probably exist of relinquishing, for the purpose of gaining a livelihood, the greatest portion of my time to employments where I shall have little or no choice how or when I am to act; have I, at this moment, when I stand as it were upon the threshold of the busy world, a clear intuition of that pre-eminence in which virtue and truth (involving in this latter word the sanctities of religion) sit enthroned above all denominations and dignities which, in various degrees of exaltation, rule over the desires of men? Do I feel that, if their solemn mandates shall be forgotten, or disregarded, or denied the obedience due to them when opposed to others, I shall not only have lived for no good purpose, but that I shall have sacrificed my birth-right as a rational being; and that every other acquisition will be a bane and a disgrace to me? This is not spoken with reference to such sacrifices as present themselves to the youthful imagination in the shape of crimes, acts by which the conscience is violated; such a thought, I know, would be recoiled from at once, not without indignation; but I write in the spirit of the ancient fable of Prodicus, representing the choice of Hercules. Here is the World, a female figure approaching at the head of a train of willing or giddy followers: her air and deportment are at once careless, remiss, self-satisfied, and haughty: and there is Intellectual Prowess, with a pale cheek and serene brow, leading in chains Truth, her beautiful and modest captive. The one makes her salutation with a discourse of ease, pleasure, freedom, and domestic tranquillity; or, if she invite to labour, it is labour in the busy and beaten track, with assurance of the complacent regards of parents, friends, and of those with whom we associate. The promise also may be upon her lip of the huzzas of the multitude, of the smile of kings, and the munificent rewards of senates. The other does not venture to hold forth any of these allurements; she does not conceal from him whom she addresses the impediments, the disappointments, the ignorance and prejudice which her follower will have to encounter, if devoted, when duty calls, to active life; and if to contemplative, she lays nakedly before him a scheme of solitary and unremitting labour, a life of entire neglect perhaps, or assuredly a life exposed to scorn, insult, persecution, and hatred; but cheered by encouragement from a grateful few, by applauding conscience, and by a prophetic anticipation, perhaps, of fame—a late, though lasting, consequence. Of these two, each in this manner soliciting you to become her adherent, you doubt not which to prefer; but oh! the thought of moment is not preference, but the degree of preference; the passionate and pure choice, the inward sense of absolute and unchangeable devotion.

I spoke of a few simple questions. The question involved in this deliberation is simple, but at the same time it is high and awful; and I would gladly know whether an answer can be returned satisfactory to the mind. We will for a moment suppose that it can not; that there is a startling and a hesitation. Are we then to despond,—to retire from all contest,—and to reconcile ourselves at once to cares without a generous hope, and to efforts in which there is no more moral life than that which is found in the business and labours of the unfavoured and unaspiring many? No. But if the inquiry have not been on just grounds satisfactorily answered, we may refer confidently our youth to that nature of which he deems himself an enthusiastic follower, and one who wishes to continue no less faithful and enthusiastic. We would tell him that there are paths which he has not trodden; recesses which he has not penetrated; that there is a beauty which he has not seen, a pathos which he has not felt, a sublimity to which he hath not been raised. If he have trembled because there has occasionally taken place in him a lapse of which he is conscious; if he foresee open or secret attacks, which he has had intimations that he will neither be strong enough to resist, nor watchful enough to elude, let him not hastily ascribe this weakness, this deficiency, and the painful apprehensions accompanying them, in any degree to the virtues or noble qualities with which youth by nature is furnished; but let him first be assured, before he looks about for the means of attaining the insight, the discriminating powers, and the confirmed wisdom of manhood, that his soul has more to demand of the appropriate excellencies of youth, than youth has yet supplied to it; that the evil under which he labours is not a superabundance of the instincts and the animating spirit of that age, but a falling short, or a failure. But what can he gain from this admonition? He cannot recall past time; he cannot begin his journey afresh; he cannot untwist the links by which, in no undelightful harmony, images and sentiments are wedded in his mind. Granted that the sacred light of childhood is and must be for him no more than a remembrance. He may, notwithstanding, be remanded to nature, and with trustworthy hopes, founded less upon his sentient than upon his intellectual being; to nature, as leading on insensibly to the society of reason, but to reason and will, as leading back to the wisdom of nature. A re-union, in this order accomplished, will bring reformation and timely support; and the two powers of reason and nature, thus reciprocally teacher and taught, may advance together in a track to which there is no limit.

We have been discoursing (by implication at least) of infancy, childhood, boyhood, and youth, of pleasures lying upon the unfolding intellect plenteously as morning dew-drops,—of knowledge inhaled insensibly like the fragrance,—of dispositions stealing into the spirit like music from unknown quarters,—of images uncalled for and rising up like exhalations,—of hopes plucked like beautiful wild flowers from the ruined tombs that border the highways of antiquity, to make a garland for a living forehead;—in a word, we have been treating of nature as a teacher of truth through joy and through gladness, and as a creatress of the faculties by a process of smoothness and delight. We have made no mention of fear, shame, sorrow, nor of ungovernable and vexing thoughts; because, although these have been and have done mighty service, they are overlooked in that stage of life when youth is passing into manhood—overlooked, or forgotten. We now apply for the succour which we need to a faculty that works after a different course; that faculty is reason; she gives more spontaneously, but she seeks for more; she works by thought through feeling; yet in thoughts she begins and ends.

A familiar incident may elucidate this contrast in the operations of nature, may render plain the manner in which a process of intellectual improvements, the reverse of that which nature pursues, is by reason introduced. There never perhaps existed a school-boy, who, having, when he retired to rest, carelessly blown out his candle, and having chanced to notice, as he lay upon his bed in the ensuing darkness, the sullen light which had survived the extinguished flame, did not, at some time or other, watch that light as if his mind were bound to it by a spell. It fades and revives, gathers to a point, seems as if it would go out in a moment, again recovers its strength, nay becomes brighter than before: it continues to shine with an endurance, which in its apparent weakness is a mystery; it protracts its existence so long, clinging to the power which supports it, that the observer, who had lain down in his bed so easy-minded, becomes sad and melancholy; his sympathies are touched; it is to him an intimation and an image of departing human life; the thought comes nearer to him; it is the life of a venerated parent, of a beloved brother or sister, or of an aged domestic, who are gone to the grave, or whose destiny it soon may be thus to linger, thus to hang upon the last point of mortal existence, thus finally to depart and be seen no more. This is nature teaching seriously and sweetly through the affections, melting the heart, and, through that instinct of tenderness, developing the understanding. In this instance the object of solicitude is the bodily life of another. Let us accompany this same boy to that period between youth and manhood, when a solicitude may be awakened for the moral life of himself. Are there any powers by which, beginning with a sense of inward decay that affects not however the natural life, he could call to mind the same image and hang over it with an equal interest as a visible type of his own perishing spirit? Oh! surely, if the being of the individual be under his own care, if it be his first care, if duty begin from the point of accountableness to our conscience and, through that, to God and human nature; if without such primary sense of duty, all secondary care of teacher, of friend, or parent, must be baseless and fruitless; if, lastly, the motions of the soul transcend in worth those of the animal functions, nay, give to them their sole value; then truly are there such powers; and the image of the dying taper may be recalled and contemplated, though with no sadness in the nerves, no disposition to tears, no unconquerable sighs, yet with a melancholy in the soul, a sinking inward into ourselves from thought to thought, a steady remonstrance, and a high resolve. Let then the youth go back, as occasion will permit, to nature and to solitude, thus admonished by reason, and relying upon this newly acquired support. A world of fresh sensations will gradually open upon him as his mind puts off its infirmities, and as instead of being propelled restlessly towards others in admiration, or too hasty love, he makes it his prime business to understand himself. New sensations, I affirm, will be opened out, pure, and sanctioned by that reason which is their original author; and precious feelings of disinterested, that is self-disregarding, joy and love may be regenerated and restored; and, in this sense, he may be said to measure back the track of life he has trodden.

In such disposition of mind let the youth return to the visible universe, and to conversation with ancient books, and to those, if such there be, which in the present day breathe the ancient spirit; and let him feed upon that beauty which unfolds itself, not to his eye as it sees carelessly the things which cannot possibly go unseen, and are remembered or not as accident shall decide, but to the thinking mind; which searches, discovers, and treasures up, infusing by meditation into the objects with which it converses an intellectual life, whereby they remain planted in the memory, now and for ever. Hitherto the youth, I suppose, has been content for the most part to look at his own mind, after the manner in which he ranges along the stars in the firmament with naked unaided sight: let him now apply the telescope of art, to call the invisible stars out of their hiding places; and let him endeavour to look through the system of his being, with the organ of reason, summoned to penetrate, as far as it has power, in discovery of the impelling forces and the governing laws.

These expectations are not immoderate; they demand nothing more than the perception of a few plain truths; namely, that knowledge, efficacious for the production of virtue, is the ultimate end of all effort, the sole dispenser of complacency and repose. A perception also is implied of the inherent superiority of contemplation to action. The Friend does not in this contradict his own words, where he has said heretofore, that 'doubtless to act is nobler than to think.'[27]

[27] 'The Friend,' vol. i. p. 158 (ed. 1850). G.

In those words, it was his purpose to censure that barren contemplation, which rests satisfied with itself in cases where the thoughts are of such quality that they may, and ought to, be embodied in action. But he speaks now of the general superiority of thought to action; as proceeding and governing all action that moves to salutary purposes; and, secondly, as leading to elevation, the absolute possession of the individual mind, and to a consistency or harmony of the being within itself, which no outward agency can reach to disturb or to impair; and lastly, as producing works of pure science; or of the combined faculties of imagination, feeling, and reason; works which, both from their independence in their origin upon accident, their nature, their duration, and the wide spread of their influence, are entitled rightly to take place of the noblest and most beneficent deeds of heroes, statesmen, legislators, or warriors.

Yet, beginning from the perception of this established superiority, we do not suppose that the youth, whom we wish to guide and encourage, is to be insensible to those influences of wealth, or rank, or station, by which the bulk of mankind are swayed. Our eyes have not been fixed upon virtue which lies apart from human nature, or transcends it. In fact there is no such virtue. We neither suppose nor wish him to undervalue or slight these distinctions as modes of power, things that may enable him to be more useful to his contemporaries; nor as gratifications that may confer dignity upon his living person, and, through him, upon those who love him; nor as they may connect his name, through a family to be founded by his success, in a closer chain of gratitude with some portion of posterity, who shall speak of him as among their ancestry, with a more tender interest than the mere general bond of patriotism or humanity would supply. We suppose no indifference to, much less a contempt of, these rewards; but let them have their due place; let it be ascertained, when the soul is searched into, that they are only an auxiliary motive to exertion, never the principal or originating force. If this be too much to expect from a youth who, I take for granted, possesses no ordinary endowments, and whom circumstances with respect to the more dangerous passions have favoured, then, indeed, must the noble spirit of the country be wasted away; then would our institutions be deplorable, and the education prevalent among us utterly vile and debasing.

But my correspondent, who drew forth these thoughts, has said rightly, that the character of the age may not without injustice be thus branded. He will not deny that, without speaking of other countries, there is in these islands, in the departments of natural philosophy, of mechanic ingenuity, in the general activities of the country, and in the particular excellence of individual minds, in high stations civil or military, enough to excite admiration and love in the sober-minded, and more than enough to intoxicate the youthful and inexperienced. I will compare, then, an aspiring youth, leaving the schools in which he has been disciplined, and preparing to bear a part in the concerns of the world, I will compare him in this season of eager admiration, to a newly-invested knight appearing with his blank unsignalized shield, upon some day of solemn tournament, at the court of the Faery-queen, as that sovereignty was conceived to exist by the moral and imaginative genius of our divine Spenser. He does not himself immediately enter the lists as a combatant, but he looks round him with a beating heart, dazzled by the gorgeous pageantry, the banners, the impresses, the ladies of overcoming beauty, the persons of the knights, now first seen by him, the fame of whose actions is carried by the traveller, like merchandize, through the world, and resounded upon the harp of the minstrel. But I am not at liberty to make this comparison. If a youth were to begin his career in such an assemblage, with such examples to guide and to animate, it will be pleaded, there would be no cause for apprehension; he could not falter, he could not be misled. But ours is, notwithstanding its manifold excellences, a degenerate age; and recreant knights are among us far outnumbering the true. A false Gloriana in these days imposes worthless services, which they who perform them, in their blindness, know not to be such; and which are recompensed by rewards as worthless, yet eagerly grasped at, as if they were the immortal guerdon of virtue.

I have in this declaration insensibly overstepped the limits which I had determined not to pass: let me be forgiven; for it is hope which hath carried me forward. In such a mixed assemblage as our age presents, with its genuine merit and its large overbalance of alloy, I may boldly ask into what errors, either with respect to person or thing, could a young man fall, who had sincerely entered upon the course of moral discipline which has been recommended, and to which the condition of youth, it has been proved, is favourable? His opinions could no where deceive him beyond the point up to which, after a season, he would find that it was salutary for him to have been deceived. For as that man cannot set a right value upon health who has never known sickness, nor feel the blessing of ease who has been through his life a stranger to pain, so can there be no confirmed and passionate love of truth for him who has not experienced the hollowness of error. Range against each other as advocates, oppose as combatants, two several intellects, each strenuously asserting doctrines which he sincerely believes; but the one contending for the worth and beauty of that garment which the other has outgrown and cast away. Mark the superiority, the ease, the dignity, on the side of the more advanced mind, how he overlooks his subject, commands it from centre to circumference, and hath the same thorough knowledge of the tenets which his adversary, with impetuous zeal, but in confusion also, and thrown off his guard at every turn of the argument, is labouring to maintain. If it be a question of the fine arts (poetry for instance) the riper mind not only sees that his opponent is deceived; but, what is of far more importance, sees how he is deceived. The imagination stands before him with all its imperfections laid open; as duped by shows, enslaved by words, corrupted by mistaken delicacy and false refinement, as not having even attended with care to the reports of the senses, and therefore deficient grossly in the rudiments of its own power. He has noted how, as a supposed necessary condition, the understanding sleeps in order that the fancy may dream. Studied in the history of society, and versed in the secret laws of thought, he can pass regularly through all the gradations, can pierce infallibly all the windings, which false taste through ages has pursued, from the very time when first, through inexperience, heedlessness, or affectation, the imagination took its departure from the side of truth, its original parent. Can a disputant thus accoutred be withstood?—one to whom, further, every movement in the thoughts of his antagonist is revealed by the light of his own experience; who, therefore, sympathizes with weakness gently, and wins his way by forbearance; and hath, when needful, an irresistible power of onset, arising from gratitude to the truth which he vindicates, not merely as a positive good for mankind, but as his own especial rescue and redemption.

I might here conclude: but my correspondent towards the close of his letter, has written so feelingly upon the advantages to be derived, in his estimation, from a living instructor, that I must not leave this part of the subject without a word of direct notice. The Friend cited, some time ago,[28] a passage from the prose works of Milton, eloquently describing the manner in which good and evil grow up together in the field of the world almost inseparably; and insisting, consequently, upon the knowledge and survey of vice as necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth.

[28] 'The Friend,' vol. i. p. 96 (ed. 1850). G.

If this be so, and I have been reasoning to the same effect in the preceding paragraph, the fact, and the thoughts which it may suggest, will, if rightly applied, tend to moderate an anxiety for the guidance of a more experienced or superior mind. The advantage, where it is possessed, is far from being an absolute good: nay, such a preceptor, ever at hand, might prove an oppression not to be thrown off, and a fatal hindrance. Grant that in the general tenor of his intercourse with his pupil he is forbearing and circumspect, inasmuch as he is rich in that knowledge (above all other necessary for a teacher) which cannot exist without a liveliness of memory, preserving for him an unbroken image of the winding, excursive, and often retrograde course, along which his own intellect has passed. Grant that, furnished with these distinct remembrances, he wishes that the mind of his pupil should be free to luxuriate in the enjoyments, loves, and admirations appropriated to its age; that he is not in haste to kill what he knows will in due time die of itself; or be transmuted, and put on a nobler form and higher faculties otherwise unattainable. In a word, that the teacher is governed habitually by the wisdom of patience waiting with pleasure. Yet perceiving how much the outward help of art can facilitate the progress of nature, he may be betrayed into many unnecessary or pernicious mistakes where he deems his interference warranted by substantial experience. And in spite of all his caution, remarks may drop insensibly from him which shall wither in the mind of his pupil a generous sympathy, destroy a sentiment of approbation or dislike, not merely innocent but salutary; and for the inexperienced disciple how many pleasures may be thus off, what joy, what admiration, and what love! While in their stead are introduced into the ingenuous mind misgivings, a mistrust of its own evidence, dispositions to affect to feel where there can be no real feeling, indecisive judgments, a superstructure of opinions that has no base to support it, and words uttered by rote with the impertinence of a parrot or a mockingbird, yet which may not be listened to with the same indifference, as they cannot be heard without some feeling of moral disapprobation.

These results, I contend, whatever may be the benefit to be derived from such an enlightened teacher, are in their degree inevitable. And by this process, humility and docile dispositions may exist towards the master, endued as he is with the power which personal presence confers; but at the same time they will be liable to overstep their due bounds, and to degenerate into passiveness and prostration of mind. This towards him; while, with respect to other living men, nay even to the mighty spirits of past times, there may be associated with such weakness a want of modesty and humility. Insensibly may steal in presumption and a habit of sitting in judgment in cases where no sentiment ought to have existed but diffidence or veneration. Such virtues are the sacred attributes of youth; its appropriate calling is not to distinguish in the fear of being deceived or degraded, not to analyze with scrupulous minuteness, but to accumulate in genial confidence; its instinct, its safety, its benefit, its glory, is to love, to admire, to feel, and to labour. Nature has irrevocably decreed, that our prime dependence in all stages of life after infancy and childhood have been passed through (nor do I know that this latter ought to be excepted) must be upon our own minds; and that the way to knowledge shall be long, difficult, winding, and oftentimes returning upon itself.

What has been said is a mere sketch, and that only of a part of the interesting country into which we have been led; but my correspondent will be able to enter the paths that have been pointed out. Should he do this and advance steadily for a while, he needs not fear any deviations from the truth which will be finally injurious to him. He will not long have his admiration fixed upon unworthy objects; he will neither be clogged nor drawn aside by the love of friends or kindred, betraying his understanding through his affections; he will neither be bowed down by conventional arrangements of manners producing too often a lifeless decency; nor will the rock of his spirit wear away in the endless beating of the waves of the world; neither will that portion of his own time, which he must surrender to labours by which his livelihood is to be earned or his social duties performed, be unprofitable to himself indirectly, while it is directly useful to others; for that time has been primarily surrendered through an act of obedience to a moral law established by himself, and therefore he moves them also along the orbit of perfect liberty.

Let it be remembered, that the advice requested does not relate to the government of the more dangerous passions, or to the fundamental principles of right and wrong as acknowledged by the universal conscience of mankind. I may therefore assure my youthful correspondent, if he will endeavour to look into himself in the manner which I have exhorted him to do, that in him the wish will be realized, to him in due time the prayer granted, which was uttered by that living teacher of whom he speaks with gratitude as of a benefactor, when in his character of philosophical poet, having thought of morality as implying in its essence voluntary obedience, and producing the effect of order, he transfers in the transport of imagination, the law of moral to physical natures, and having contemplated, through the medium of that order, all modes of existence as subservient to one spirit, concludes his address to the power of duty in the following words:

To humbler functions, awful power! I call thee: I myself commend Unto thy guidance from this hour; Oh, let my weakness have an end! Give unto me, made lowly wise, The spirit of self-sacrifice; The confidence of reason give, And in the light of truth thy bondman let me live!








Letter to a Friend [1806].


I am happy to hear of the instructions which you are preparing for parents, and feel honoured by your having offered to me such an opportunity of conveying to the public any information I may possess upon the subject; but, in truth, I am so little competent in the present unarranged state of my ideas to write any thing of value, that it would be the highest presumption in me to attempt it. This is not mock modesty, but rigorous and sober truth. As to the case of your own child, I will set down a few thoughts, which I do not hope will throw much light on your mind, but they will show my willingness to do the little that is in my power.

The child being the child of a man like you, what I have to say will lie in small compass.

I consider the facts which you mention as indicative of what is commonly called sensibility, and of quickness and talent, and shall take for granted that they are so; you add that the child is too much noticed by grown people, and apprehend selfishness.

Such a child will almost always be too much noticed; and it is scarcely possible entirely to guard against the evil: hence vanity, and under bad management selfishness of the worst kind. And true it is, that under better and even the best management, such constitutions are liable to selfishness; not showing itself in the shape of tyranny, caprice, avarice, meanness, envy, skulking, and base self-reference; but selfishness of a worthier kind, yet still rightly called by that name. What I mean I shall explain afterwards.

Vanity is not the necessary or even natural growth of such a temperament; quite the contrary. Such a child, if neglected and suffered to run wild, would probably be entirely free from vanity, owing to the liveliness of its feelings, and the number of its resources. It would be by nature independent and sufficient for itself. But as such children, in these times in particular, are rarely if ever neglected, or rather rarely if ever not far too much noticed, it is a hundred to one your child will have more vanity than you could wish. This is one evil to be guarded against. Formerly, indeed till within these few years, children were very carelessly brought up; at present they too early and too habitually feel their own importance, from the solicitude and unremitting attendance which is bestowed upon them. A child like yours, I believe, unless under the wisest guidance, would prosper most where she was the least noticed and the least made of; I mean more than this where she received the least cultivation. She does not stand in need of the stimulus of praise (as much as can benefit her, i.e. as much as her nature requires, it will be impossible to withhold from her); nor of being provoked to exertion, or, even if she be not injudiciously thwarted, to industry. Nor can there be any need to be sedulous in calling out her affections; her own lively enjoyments will do all this for her, and also point out what is to be done to her. But take all the pains you can, she will be too much noticed. Other evils will also beset her, arising more from herself; and how are these to be obviated? But, first, let us attempt to find what these evils will be.

Observe, I put all gross mismanagement out of the question, and I believe they will then probably be as follows: first, as mentioned before, a considerable portion of vanity. But if the child be not constrained too much, and be left sufficiently to her own pursuits, and be not too anxiously tended, and have not her mind planted over by art with likings that do not spring naturally up in it, this will by the liveliness of her independent enjoyment almost entirely disappear, and she will become modest and diffident; and being not apt from the same ruling cause,—I mean the freshness of her own sensations—to compare herself with others, she will hold herself in too humble estimation. But she will probably still be selfish; and this brings me to the explanation of what I hinted at before, viz., in what manner she will be selfish.

It appears, then, to me that all the permanent evils which you have to apprehend for your daughter, supposing you should live to educate her yourself, may be referred to this principle,—an undue predominance of present objects over absent ones, which, as she will surely be distinguished by an extreme love of those about her, will produce a certain restlessness of mind, calling perpetually for proofs of ever-living regard and affection: she must be loved as much and in the same way as she loves, or she will not be satisfied. Hence, quickness in taking offence, petty jealousies and apprehensions lest she is neglected or loses ground in people's love, a want of a calm and steady sense of her own merits to secure her from these fits of imagined slights; for, in the first place, she will, as is hinted at before, be in general deficient in this just estimation of her own worth, and will further be apt to forget everything of that kind in the present sense of supposed injury. She will (all which is referable to the same cause) in the company of others have too constant a craving for sympathy up to a height beyond what her companions are capable of bestowing; this will often be mortifying to herself, and burthensome to others; and should circumstances be untoward, and her mind be not sufficiently furnished with ideas and knowledge, this craving would be most pernicious to herself, preying upon mind and body. She will be too easily pleased, apt to overrate the merits of new acquaintances, subject to fits of over-love and over-joy, in absence from those she loves full of fears and apprehensions, &c., injurious to her health; her passions for the most part will be happy and good, but she will be too little mistress of them. The distinctions which her intellect will make will be apt, able, and just, but in conversation she will be prone to overshoot herself, and commit eloquent blunders through eagerness. In fine, her manners will be frank and ardent, but they will want dignity; and a want of dignity will be the general defect of her character.

Something of this sort of character, which I have thus loosely sketched, and something of the sort of selfishness to which I have adverted, it seems to me that under the best management you have reason to apprehend for your daughter. If she should happen to be an only child, or the only sister of brothers who would probably idolize her, one might prophesy almost with absolute confidence that most of these qualities would be found in her in a great degree. How then is the evil to be softened down or prevented? Assuredly, not by mortifying her, which is the course commonly pursued with such tempers; nor by preaching to her about her own defects; nor by overrunning her infancy with books about good boys and girls, and bad boys and girls, and all that trumpery; but (and this is the only important thing I have to say upon the subject) by putting her in the way of acquiring without measure or limit such knowledge as will lead her out of herself, such knowledge as is interesting for its own sake; things known because they are interesting, not interesting because they are known; in a word, by leaving her at liberty to luxuriate in such feelings and images as will feed her mind in silent pleasure. This nourishment is contained in fairy tales, romances, the best biographies and histories, and such parts of natural history relating to the powers and appearances of the earth and elements, and the habits and structure of animals, as belong to it, not as an art or science, but as a magazine of form and feeling. This kind of knowledge is purely good, a direct antidote to every evil to be apprehended, and food absolutely necessary to preserve the mind of a child like yours from morbid appetites. Next to these objects comes such knowledge as, while it is chiefly interesting for its own sake, admits the fellowship of another sort of pleasure, that of complacence from the conscious exertion of the faculties and love of praise. The accomplishments of dancing, music, and drawing, rank under this head; grammar, learning of languages, botany probably, and out of the way knowledge of arts and manufactures, &c. The second class of objects, as far as they tend to feed vanity and self-conceit, are evil; but let them have their just proportion in the plan of education, and they will afterwards contribute to destroy these, by furnishing the mind with power and independent gratification: the vanity will disappear, and the good will remain.

Lastly comes that class of objects which are interesting almost solely because they are known, and the knowledge may be displayed; and this unfortunately comprehends three fourths of what, according to the plan of modern education, children's heads are stuffed with; that is, minute, remote, or trifling facts in geography, topography, natural history, chronology, &c., or acquisitions in art, or accomplishments which the child makes by rote, and which are quite beyond its age; things of no value in themselves, but as they show cleverness; things hurtful to any temper, but to a child like yours absolute poison. Having said thus much, it seems almost impertinent to add that your child, above all, should, I might say, be chained down to the severest attention to truth,—I mean to the minutest accuracy in every thing which she relates; this will strike at the root of evil by teaching her to form correct notions of present things, and will steadily strengthen her mind. Much caution should be taken not to damp her natural vivacity, for this may have a very bad effect; and by the indirect influence of the example of manly and dignified manners any excessive wildnesses of her own will be best kept under. Most unrelaxing firmness should from the present hour be maintained in withstanding such of her desires as are grossly unreasonable. But indeed I am forgetting to whom I am speaking, and am ashamed of these precepts; they will show my good will, and in that hope alone can I suffer them to stand. Farewell, there is great reason to congratulate yourself in having a child so promising; and you have my best and most ardent wishes that she may be a blessing to her parents and every one about her.[29]

[29] Memoirs, vol. ii. pp. 164-70. G.


Letter to Archdeacon Wrangham.

Grasmere, June 5. 1808.


I have this moment received your letter.

—is a most provoking fellow; very kind, very humane, very generous, very ready to serve, with a thousand other good qualities, but in the practical business of life the arrantest marplan that ever lived. When I first wrote to you, I wrote also to him, sending the statement which I sent to you, and begging his exertions among his friends. By and by comes back my statement, having undergone a rifacimento from his hands, and printed, with an accompanying letter, saying that if some of the principal people in this neighbourhood who had already subscribed would put their names to this paper, testifying that this was a proper case for charitable interferences, or that the persons mentioned were proper objects of charity, that he would have the printed paper inserted in the public newspapers, &c. Upon which, my sister wrote to him, that in consequence of what had been already subscribed, and what we had reason to expect from those friends who were privately stirring in the business, among whom we chiefly alluded to you, in our own minds, as one on whom we had most dependence, that there would be no necessity for public advertisements, but that if among his private friends he could raise any money for us, we should be very glad to receive it. And upon this does he write to you in this (what shall I call it? for I am really vexed!) blundering manner! I will not call upon you to undertake the awkward task of rebuilding that part of the edifice which —— has destroyed, but let what remains be preserved; and if a little could be added, there would be no harm. I must request you to transmit the money to me, with the names of the persons to whom we are obliged.

* * * * *

With regard to the more important part of your letter, I am under many difficulties. I am writing from a window which gives me a view of a little boat, gliding quietly about upon the surface of our basin of a lake. I should like to be in it, but what could I do with such a vessel in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean? As this boat would be to that navigation, so is my letter to the subject upon which you would set me afloat. Let me, however, say, that I have read your sermon (which I lately received from Longman) with much pleasure; I only gave it a cursory perusal, for since it arrived our family has been in great confusion, we having removed to another house, in which we are not yet half settled. The Appendix I had received before in a frank, and of that I feel myself more entitled to speak, because I had read it more at leisure. I am entirely of accord with you in chiefly recommending religious books for the poor; but of many of those which you recommend I can neither speak in praise nor blame, as I have never read them. Yet, as far as my own observation goes, which has been mostly employed upon agricultural persons in thinly-peopled districts, I cannot find that there is much disposition to read among the labouring classes, or much occasion for it. Among manufacturers and persons engaged in sedentary employments, it is, I know, very different. The labouring man in agriculture generally carries on his work either in solitude or with his own family—with persons whose minds he is thoroughly acquainted with, and with whom he is under no temptation to enter into discussions, or to compare opinions. He goes home from the field, or the barn, and within and about his own house he finds a hundred little jobs which furnish him with a change of employment which is grateful and profitable; then comes supper, and bed. This for week-days. For sabbaths, he goes to church with us often or mostly twice a day; on coming home, some one turns to the Bible, finds the text, and probably reads the chapter whence it is taken, or perhaps some other; and in the afternoon the master or mistress frequently reads the Bible, if alone; and on this day the mistress of the house almost always teaches the children to read, or as they express it, hears them a lesson; or if not thus employed, they visit their neighbours, or receive them in their own houses as they drop in, and keep up by the hour a slow and familiar chat. This kind of life, of which I have seen much, and which I know would be looked upon with little complacency by many religious persons, is peaceable, and as innocent as (the frame of society and the practices of government being what they are) we have a right to expect; besides, it is much more intellectual than a careless observer would suppose. One of our neighbours, who lives as I have described, was yesterday walking with me; and as we were pacing on, talking about indifferent matters, by the side of a brook, he suddenly said to me, with great spirit and a lively smile, 'I like to walk where I can hear the sound of a beck!' (the word, as you know, in our dialect for a brook). I cannot but think that this man, without being conscious of it, has had many devout feelings connected with the appearances which have presented themselves to him in his employment as a shepherd, and that the pleasure of his heart at that moment was an acceptable offering to the Divine Being. But to return to the subject of books. I find among the people I am speaking of, halfpenny ballads and penny and two-penny histories in great abundance; these are often bought as charitable tributes to the poor persons who hawk them about (and it is the best way of procuring them). They are frequently stitched together in tolerably thick volumes, and such I have read; some of the contents, though not often religious, very good; others objectionable, either for the superstition in them, such as prophecies, fortune-telling, &c., or more frequently for indelicacy. I have so much felt the influence of these straggling papers, that I have many a time wished that I had talents to produce songs, poems, and little histories that might circulate among other good things in this way, supplanting partly the bad flowers and useless herbs, and to take place of weeds. Indeed, some of the poems which I have published were composed, not without a hope that at some time or other they might answer this purpose. The kind of library which you recommend would not, I think, for the reasons given above, be of much direct use in any of the agricultural districts of Cumberland and Westmoreland with which I am acquainted, though almost every person here can read; I mean of general use as to morals or behaviour. It might, however, with individuals, do much in awakening enterprise, calling forth ingenuity, and fostering genius. I have known several persons who would eagerly have sought, not after these books merely, but any books, and would have been most happy in having such a collection to repair to. The knowledge thus acquired would also have spread, by being dealt about in conversation among their neighbours, at the door, and by the fire-side; so that it is not easy to foresee how far the good might extend; and harm I can see none which would not be greatly overbalanced by the advantage. The situation of manufacturers is deplorably different. The monotony of their employments renders some sort of stimulus, intellectual or bodily, absolutely necessary for them. Their work is carried on in clusters,—men from different parts of the world, and perpetually changing; so that every individual is constantly in the way of being brought into contact with new notions and feelings, and being unsettled in his own accordingly; a select library, therefore, in such situations may be of the same use as a public dial, keeping everybody's clock in some kind of order.

Besides contrasting the manufacturer with the agriculturalist, it may be observed, that he has much more leisure; and in his over hours, not having other pleasant employment to turn to, he is more likely to find reading a relief. What, then, are the books which should be put in his way? Without being myself a clergyman, I have no hesitation in saying, chiefly religious ones; though I should not go so far as you seemed inclined to do, excluding others because they are not according to the letter or in the spirit of your profession. I, with you, feel little disposed to admire several of those mentioned by Gilbert Burns, much less others which you name as having been recommended. In Gilbert B.'s collection there may be too little religion, and I should fear that you, like all other clergymen, may confine yourself too exclusively to that concern which you justly deem the most important, but which by being exclusively considered can never be thoroughly understood. I will allow, with you, that a religious faculty is the eye of the soul; but, if we would have successful soul-oculists, not merely that organ, but the general anatomy and constitution of the intellectual frame must be studied; for the powers of that eye are affected by the general state of the system. My meaning is, that piety and religion will be the best understood by him who takes the most comprehensive view of the human mind, and that, for the most part, they will strengthen with the general strength of the mind, and that this is best promoted by a due mixture of direct and indirect nourishment and discipline. For example, Paradise Lost, and Robinson Crusoe, might be as serviceable as Law's Serious Call, or Melmoth's Great Importance of a Religious Life; at least, if the books be all good, they would mutually assist each other. In what I have said, though following my own thoughts merely as called forth by your Appendix, is implied an answer to your request that I would give you 'half an idea upon education as a national object.' I have only kept upon the surface of the question, but you must have deduced, that I deem any plan of national education in a country like ours most difficult to apply to practice. In Switzerland, or Sweden, or Norway, or France, or Spain, or anywhere but Great Britain, it would be comparatively easy. Heaven and hell are scarcely more different from each other than Sheffield and Manchester, &c., differ from the plains and valleys of Surrey, Essex, Cumberland, or Westmoreland. We have mighty cities, and towns of all sizes, with villages and cottages scattered everywhere. We are mariners, miners, manufacturers in tens of thousands, traders, husbandmen, everything. What form of discipline, what books or doctrines—I will not say would equally suit all these—but which, if happily fitted for one, would not perhaps be an absolute nuisance in another? You will, also, have deduced that nothing romantic can be said with truth of the influence of education upon the district in which I live. We have, thank heaven, free schools, or schools with some endowment, almost everywhere; and almost every one can read. But not because we have free or endowed schools, but because our land is, far more than elsewhere, tilled by men who are the owners of it; and as the population is not over crowded, and the vices which are quickened and cherished in a crowded population do not therefore prevail, parents have more ability and inclination to send their children to school; much more than in manufacturing districts, and also, though in a less degree, more than in agricultural ones where the tillers are not proprietors. If in Scotland the children are sent to school, where the parents have not the advantage I have been speaking of, it is chiefly because their labour can be turned to no account at home. Send among them manufacturers, or farmers on a large scale, and you may indeed substitute Sunday-schools or other modes of instructing them; but the ordinary parish schools will be neglected. The influence of our schools in this neighbourhood can never be understood, if this, their connection with the state of landed property, be overlooked. In fact, that influence is not striking. The people are not habitually religious, in the common sense of the word, much less godly. The effect of their schooling is chiefly seen by the activity with which the young persons emigrate, and the success attending it; and at home, by a general orderliness and gravity, with habits of independence and self-respect: nothing obsequious or fawning is ever to be seen amongst them.

It may be added, that this ability (from the two causes, land and schools) of giving their children instruction contributes to spread a respect for scholarship through the country. If in any family one of the children should be quicker at his book, or fonder of it than others, he is often marked out in consequence for the profession of a clergyman. This (before the mercantile or manufacturing employments held out such flattering hopes) very generally happened; so that the schools of the North were the great nurseries of curates, several of whom got forward in their profession, some with and others without the help of a university education; and, in all instances, such connection of families (all the members of which lived in the humblest and plainest manner, working with their own hands as labourers) with a learned and dignified profession, assisted (and still does, though in a less degree) not a little to elevate their feelings, and conferred importance on them in their own eyes. But I must stop, my dear Wrangham. Begin your education at the top of society; let the head go in the right course, and the tail will follow. But what can you expect of national education conducted by a government which for twenty years resisted the abolition of the slave trade, and annually debauches the morals of the people by every possible device? holding out temptation with one hand, and scourging with the other. The distilleries and lotteries are a standing record that the government cares nothing for the morals of the people, and that all which they want is their money. But wisdom and justice are the only true sources of the revenue of a people; preach this, and may you not preach in vain!

Wishing you success in every good work, I remain your affectionate friend, W. WORDSWORTH.

Thanks for your inquiries about our little boy, who is well, though not yet quite strong.[30]

[30] Memoirs, vol. ii. pp. 171-9. G.


Two Letters to the Rev. Hugh James Rose, Horsham, Sussex.

Rydal Mount, Dec. 11. 1828.


I have read your excellent sermons delivered before the University[31] several times. In nothing were my notions different from yours as there expressed. It happened that I had been reading just before Bishop Bull's sermon,[32] of which you speak so highly: it had struck me just in the same way as an inestimable production. I was highly gratified by your discourses, and cannot but think that they must have been beneficial to the hearers, there abounds in them so pure a fervour. I have as yet bestowed less attention upon your German controversy[33] than so important a subject deserves.

[31] On the Commission and consequent Duties of the Clergy, preached before the University of Cambridge, in April 1826, and published in 1828. G.

[32] The title of which is The Priest's Office difficult and dangerous. It will be found in vol. i. p. 137. of Dr. Burton's edition of the bishop's works. G.

[33] The State of the Protestant Religion in Germany, a series of discourses preached before the University of Cambridge, by the Rev. Hugh James Rose; Lond. 1825: and his Letter to the Bishop of London, in reply to Mr. Pusey's work on that subject; Lond. 1829. G.

Since our conversation upon the subject of Education, I have found no reason to alter the opinions I then expressed. Of those who seem to me to be in error, two parties are especially prominent; they, the most conspicuous head of whom is Mr. Brougham, who think that sharpening of intellect and attainment of knowledge are things good in themselves, without reference to the circumstances under which the intellect is sharpened, or to the quality of the knowledge acquired. 'Knowledge,' says Lord Bacon, 'is power,' but surely not less for evil than for good. Lord Bacon spoke like a philosopher; but they who have that maxim in their mouths the oftenest have the least understanding of it.

The other class consists of persons who are aware of the importance of religion and morality above everything; but, from not understanding the constitution of our nature and the composition of society, they are misled and hurried on by zeal in a course which cannot but lead to disappointment. One instance of this fell under my own eyes the other day in the little town of Ambleside, where a party, the leaders of which are young ladies, are determined to set up a school for girls on the Madras system, confidently expecting that these girls will in consequence be less likely to go astray when they grow up to women. Alas, alas! they may be taught, I own, more quickly to read and write under the Madras system, and to answer more readily, and perhaps with more intelligence, questions put to them, than they could have done under dame-teaching. But poetry may, with deference to the philosopher and the religionist, be consulted in these matters; and I will back Shenstone's school-mistress, by her winter fire and in her summer garden-seat, against all Dr. Bell's sour-looking teachers in petticoats that I have ever seen.

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