Fantasy and Reason:
Children’s Literature in the Eighteenth Century

Geoffrey Summerfield



In eighteenth‑century England, as the scientific view of the world grew in influence and status, and was more widely dispersed, the old pre‑empirical, pre‑rational versions of 'reality' became more and more the preserve of uneducated 'superstitious' adults, and of children. Many rationally disposed adults came to hold the view that the sooner children could be educated out of poetic 'fairy' foolishness, the better for all concerned. In essence, we have inherited such views, and mostly subscribe to the view that intellectual and moral growth involves an increase in the capacity to construe the world in terms of the empirical sciences, and a complementary willingness to abandon the metaphors, the multivalences, the poetic resonances of the cosmic fictions that we call fantasy.

Empiricism and the protestant work‑ethic have bitten deep into our collective psyche. Even when we agree to allow children to have a childhood, we still tend to assume that the sooner they abandon the modalities of fantasy, the sooner they will begin effectually to exercise and prove their intelligence in useful ways. Infants are allowed, even encouraged, to believe in Father Christmas, but any child who clings to the belief for a year longer than is felt to be appropriate will meet with some rather severe asperities.

Fantasy, in our culture, tends to be associated with the 'pleasure‑principle', and with the self‑indulgent gratification, albeit vicarious, of rather disreputable desires: the satisfaction of selfish wishes, rather than the answering to natural needs. Growing‑up, conversely, seems to necessitate the increasing dominion of the 'reality‑principle', of duly wincing, and being seen to wince, when we bruise our toes on stones too heavy for us to kick. It is also, of course, good for us to admit that such bruisings are good for us.

Since the purpose of growing‑up is to grow out of childhood, it follows that the status of most children is one of powerlessness: the consolation for such impotence is that, when we leave behind the childlikeness and the childishness of the child, we can then inherit and enjoy adult power in our turn. With deferred maturation, and an extended adolescence, we have of course mutilated this natural justice. Unlike adulthood, childhood is inherently a state to be grown out of; it is always something that we must discard; not merely the androgynous body, and the unsexed voice, but also the licentious ways of knowing that constitute fantasy.

When, therefore, reasonable eighteenth‑century minds conceived of education as an ascent toward rationality—gradus ad mentem— it followed that two forms of cultural subordination became closely associated. 'Foolish' pre‑rational or sub-rational fantasies—folk‑tales—were relegated to children and to those adults who persisted in remaining childish: the 'uneducated'. But the matter was not allowed to rest there. Since an attachment to fantasy came to be construed as vulgar, immoral, or mentally regressive—or all three compounded— it followed that many earnest minds were at pains to ensure that children's minds should be protected from pollution by fantasy.

In an era of upward social mobility, the growth of trade and commerce, the increasing power and influence of City as distinct from Court, and a general refinement of manners and appearances, certain limited forms of 'unreason' or 'primitivism' were allowed to slip through the cordons sanitaires: the polite, exquisite and mostly effete French 'fairy‑tales', which had been very popular with the late seventeenth‑century French court, for example; and some of the 'Eastern' tales, duly moralized, and sanctioned by sporadic fads for the exotic. But in general, the shaping minds of the age were committed to reason, prudence, a respectable and moderate religious observance, enlightenment, science and commerce: and, increasingly during the last four decades, to the growth of technology, industrialization and utility, not to mention a revitalized evangelicalism which responded to social and political unrest by invoking a more emphatic and authoritarian paternalism.

It may, then, come as something of a surprise to discover that, throughout the century, the claims of fantasy, of a pre-rational, pre‑decorous, pre-Christian world, continued to prove irresistible. At a polite, adult level, this is evidenced by the fact that Shakespeare's reputation—the Shakespeare of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth—was never seriously threatened, even though Herder may have been right to claim that eighteenth‑century literary‑critical theory was never really comfortable with, or adequate to, the pre‑conscious dynamics of such drama. At the lower, subordinate, level—of the semi‑literate masses and of children—fantasy remained potent and unkillable: the 'vulgar' romances clearly satisfied a need that demanded satisfaction, that would not be denied. The 'folk' sub‑culture persisted, sometimes with the antinomian energies of a counter‑culture. And the chapmen, who kept up a lively nationwide trade in hawking the penny chap‑books, found themselves sustained by a sustaining commerce that continued alongside the more respectable sectors of the book trade.

It is, then, a nice irony that while 'official' adult‑sanctioned children's literature was striving tediously and even stridently to promote the orthodox mercantile values, children continued with great determination to devour the vulgar nonsense of the romances under the very noses of the didactic adults. Ironic, too, that in the 1750s and 1760s the 'polite' world began to rediscover the literature of romance that had in effect been relegated to children and the 'vulgar': a rediscovery, associated with urbane episcopal antiquarians such as the bishops, Percy and Hurd, that formed part of the larger shift in consciousness that also expressed itself in a sensitivity to the wilder aspects of landscape, to the paradisal ingenuousness of the 'noble savage', and to the claims of the imagination; all this at a time when the orthodox rational wisdoms of the first half of the century were displaying clear signs of wear and tear.

The rehabilitation of the imagination, especially in connection with childhood and the child's peculiar culture, did not in the event wait on Wordsworth, or his derivatives, Lamb, Coleridge, or De Quincey. It is abundantly and convincingly evident in the work of such relatively unknown late eighteenth‑century writers as Morgan, Pott and Scolfield. But it is clear that this renovation of imagination and a growing recognition of its legitimate place in a child's life was relatively slow to take effect. The late eighteenth century offered children a literature that was quick to include science and, indeed, technology, but which on the whole continued to express the moral, social and psychological values of the mid-century. The hacks, and indeed the writers of genuine talent, were almost uniformly orthodox, conformist and conservative. The publication of Taylor's translation of Grimm in the 1820s—a point of no return—was the consummation of aspirations and intuitions that can be found, tucked away embryonically, in the 1760s and 1770s.

In general, the rehabilitation of fantasy was one way of recognizing that a culture that had been committed to the obliteration of vexatious mysteries, and to 'realism and rationalism, [as] basic ways of making discourse', could no longer continue to frustrate, in Malcolm Bradbury's words, 'its desire for metaphor, its wish to transcend the environment which gives only a literal meaning, its search for density of being'. In this respect, it is entirely appropriate that one of the unanswerable defences of fantasy, and specifically of fantasy in childhood, should be found in Wordsworth's Prelude which is itself, among many other things, an affirmation and a case of density of being. As with Taylor's Grimm, so with The Prelude, what is in fact offered is a point of no return, but one which was withheld for half a century.


It would have been neater to have followed a clear linear chronological path through the century, but the material insisted on being disposed otherwise. Chapter One is concerned with Locke's Thoughts, and Addison's essays on the imagination. Lawrence Stone's work has served to reinforce my own view, that these were the key works in forming the dominant values and attitudes of early eighteenth‑century society. Locke and Addison offer us the civilized adult view of the need for, and the means to achieve, decent acculturation. Chapter Two attempts to follow the underground stream of ‘vulgar’ stories that continued to flow throughout the century. Chapter Three offers various examples of adults deliberately engaged in the making of a literature for children, from Isaac Watts at the beginning of the century to Dr Aikin and his sister towards the end. (Any reader with a wish to proceed chronologically should skip the later part of this chapter, pages 100-10, and return to it after reading Chapter Seven.) Chapter Four offers the two major mid‑century influences on education—Rousseauism and science; and Chapter Five pursues this further, with particular reference to Thomas Day and to Maria Edgeworth's various reactions to him; indeed, I pursue Maria well into the nineteenth century, to see her carrying orthodox eighteenth‑century views almost to 1840. Chapter Six offers three cases of a shift in sensibility and in 'psychology'; responses to didacticism in children's literature; and the indefatigable Mrs Trimmer, exemplifying all the vices of her virtues, in the face of a national moral collapse. Chapter Seven attends to William Blake, both as a sublimely successful writer for children, and as rather problematical, while Chapter Eight examines Lamb and Godwin as manifestations of compromise and confusion. Chapter Nine examines book V of The Prelude as a poem responding to specific and representative aberrations in the acculturation of children in the late eighteenth century, and discovers in the process that it offers a uniquely powerful defence of freedom and of fantasy in the lives of children.



Pray, sir, in all the reading which you have ever read, did you ever read such a book as Locke's Essay upon the Human Understanding? Don't answer me rashly, because many, I know, quote the book, who have not read it.

(Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, 1760)

Youth and white paper take any impression.

(John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs, 1670)


Raw‑Head and Bloody Bones
Snatches naughty children from their homes,
Takes them to his dirty den
And they're never seen again.

If you use a traditional rhyme such as that to frighten a naughty child into submission, then your 'Remedy is much worse than the disease'. Such was the sensible, considered, and experience‑based opinion of the celebrated philosopher, John Locke.

His book on the rearing of children and young people, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, [1] with its characteristically modest title, was published in 1693 as a result of urgent persuasions from his friend, William Molyneux, whose own son was reared on the lines recommended by Locke. The book started life as a series of letters, which simply 'growed and growed' both as a result of Locke's animated interest in his subject, and also from a growing conviction that there was a general need for such a book, at a time when 'the early Corruption of Youth' was 'so general a Complaint', and so many parents confessed that they were 'at a loss how to breed their children'. [2]

The task of breeding, or rearing, children, said Locke, required 'great Sobriety, Temperance, Tenderness, Diligence, and Discretion': and all of these could be numbered among the many virtues of Locke himself. His book is, in fact, a perfect realization of the very virtues that it commended: it is reasonable, tentative, moderate, generous, couth and continuously responsive to the checks of real experience. It is the admirable work of a scrupulously alert and perfectly disinterested enquirer, and the perfectly characteristic work of a virtuous man.

For three‑quarters of a century, Locke's Thoughts was the most influential English book on child‑rearing: in effect, the book. So extensive was its influence, so powerful and prestigious its reputation, that many of the landed gentry, the Roger de Coverleys, learned to take the education of their children as seriously as the breeding of their horses, [3] or the training of their hounds. They learned from Locke—or, rather, they paid others to learn—to care, and how to care, for their children; they paid them to supervise, to instruct, to supervene; and, indeed, to worry, especially about the depraving influence of servants. As for the 'Andrew Freeports'—the 'new men, the wealthy merchants, the moneyed interest, the Whigs'—they were even quicker to join the quest for a next generation with improved manners and useful learning.

The essential premise of Locke's argument was this: that ‘of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good and evil, useful or not, by their education. It is that which makes the great difference in mankind.’ [4] Both manners and abilities owe more to education than to anything else. This conviction derived not from any a priori dogma or doctrine; it did not appeal to any higher authority, however august; Locke drew it from his own experiences as a tutor. By the time he came to write the Thoughts he had not only delivered babies and supervised their early nursing, but had tutored, observed, and gained the respect or affection of many children and young people, both in private households and at Oxford.

The Thoughts appeared in French translation in 1695, and were soon known throughout Europe. Needless to say, some of his disciples proved to be more insistently nurturist than Locke himself. Helvétius, for example, went on to Argue that 'Man is, in fact, nothing more than the product of his education'. Drawing on a rather sinister metaphor, he insisted that ‘to guide the motions of the human puppet, it is necessary to know the wires by which he is moved.’ [5]

What, then, were the wires? How were they to be manipulated? In what order? To what end? Locke bases his answers to these questions on an appeal, not to prejudice, precedent, or inclination, but to reason: reason in the service of virtue. Just as the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century had shown that it was possible—and useful—to apply empirical method and inductive reasoning to the task of understanding the nature of the physical world, so it seemed equally feasible and potentially efficacious—to apply such methods to the task of forming a child's mind.

The only legitimate appeal for Locke was to closely observed particular experience, and to the careful teasing out of general principles from a series of such observations. And over all, for Locke, was the inalienable general principle that the end of all learning was to grow in virtue, and in the virtuous exercise of reason.

Locke's Thoughts struck many of his contemporary readers as offering benign light in hitherto dark places. Here was a patient, urbane, intelligent, moderate, tentative mind writing—his tone was so informal, that I was tempted to write 'talking'—about matters that in most quarters had previously generated more heat than light. He spoke explicitly for possibility, and implicitly for pacification: the peaceableness of quiet reasonableness. His predecessors in this field had offered little more than the view that children were peculiarly vulnerable to the snares of the devil. Given a very low average life-expectancy, children had offered their parents the urgent task of pointing their tender young souls to heaven; the alternative being so dire as to be unthinkable. And it was not enough for parents only to take such questions seriously: the young, also, had to take due note of Hell:

Every corner hath a Snake
In the accursed Lake.
Seas of Fire, Beds of Snow
Are the best Delights below:
A Viper from the Fire
Is his Hire
That knows not Moments from Eternity.

So warned the saintly Jeremy Taylor in his Festival Hymns, for the use of the Devout, especially of younger persons, in 1655. Thirty years later, John Bunyan, in his wretched Book for Boys and Girls (1686), [6] warned children that every silly plaything, every frivolous game, was a 'fingle-fangle,' that would 'their Souls entangle'. Such gloomy doggerel was, of course, written to prepare children, not for life, but for death.

Surprisingly for a man who characterized himself as 'bookish', Locke admitted that, in rearing children, books were among the least of his concerns. His first aim was to make a genuine contribution to the task of rearing 'vertuous, useful, and able Men'; to promote 'Virtue, Wisdom, Breeding, and Learning', in that order, which like everything else in Locke is not casual. He must have been an excellent tutor: testimony exists, of course; but Thoughts displays an unusually delicate and attentive awareness of development—of the way in which a child grows, both physically and mentally, and of what is apt to each stage of its growth. It is an insight of which Locke's appreciative and alert readers always took due note. Vicesimus Knox, for instance, wrote in Winter Evenings: ‘If the bud, which would naturally expand in April or May, were rudely opened in March, what fruit could justly be expected in August or September?’ [7] and Coleridge embellished the point by quoting from Love's Labour's Lost, in one of his 1811 lectures:

At Christmas I no more desire a Rose,
Than wish a Snow in May's new-fangled shows:
But like of each thing that in season grows. [8]

Sensitivity to such appropriateness was one of Locke's subtler strengths. It allowed him to recommend that, with young children, 'all their innocent Folly, Playing, and Childish Actions, are to be left perfectly free and unrestrained, as far as they can consist with the Respect due to those that are present'. [9] But, since their Reason is as yet undeveloped,

the younger they are, the less I think are their unruly and disorderly Appetites to be complied with; and the less Reason they have of their own, the more are they to be under the Absolute Power and Restraint of those, in whose Hands they are. From which, I confess, it will follow, that none but discreet People should be about them.

He continually stresses his belief that children must be reasoned with, in order that they shall exercise, develop, and refine their own powers of reasoning:

It will perhaps be wondered that I mention Reasoning with Children. And yet I cannot but think that the true Way of Dealing with them. They understand it as early as they do Language; and, if I mis‑observe not, they love to be treated as Rational Creatures sooner than is imagined. 'Tis a Pride should be cherished in them, and as much as can be, made the greatest instrument to turn them by. But when I talk of Reasoning, I do not intend any other but such as is suited to the Child's Capacity and Apprehension.

Unfortunately, as Locke's Thoughts were diffused and popularized in eighteenth‑century society, the crucial caveats and conditionals that Locke was at pains to present were very often overlooked or denied, with unfortunate consequences. Locke's posthumous misfortune was that his views were misrepresented almost as often as they were invoked.

But what of learning? What should the child actually learn, in the narrower sense of curriculum? 'You will wonder, perhaps, that I put Learning last, especially if I tell you I think it is the least part.' Again he insists: first, good manners, virtuous inclinations, and proper habits; then, and only then, should we attend to learning. He argues benignly and convincingly that through a canny, thoughtful and subtle use of the child's delight in play, 'he may learn to Read, without knowing how he did so'—a fact that many readers will endorse—and he justifies this use of play on the grounds that 'Children should not have anything like Work, or serious, laid on them': if they do, especially in connection with books, the experience will be exactly as with food: a deplorable 'Surfeit, that leaves an Aversion behind, not to be removed'—a view that the Edgeworths were to repeat with great emphasis a century later. As a child acquires a capacity for reading, 'easy pleasant' books should be made available, so that 'the entertainment that he finds might draw him on, and reward his Pains in Reading, and yet not such as should fill his Head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of Vice and Folly'.

The best of such 'easy, pleasant' books, he suggests, is Aesop's Fables for they are 'apt to delight and entertain a Child', and 'may yet afford useful Reflections to a grown Man'. [10] When the child grows up, if he still recalls them, 'he will not repent to find them there, amongst his manly Thoughts, and serious Business'. If an illustrated copy is used, 'it will entertain him much the better'. [11] Furthermore, it will also be more soundly educative, according to the principles of Locke's psychology, because the child will be able to attach the ideas in the words to 'visible Objects': for it must be rememberd that 'Ideas are not to be had from Sounds; but from the Things themselves, or their Pictures'.

In addition to Aesop, Locke recommends Reynard the Fox, which had first been published in English by Caxton in 1481. He merely mentions it, without comment, for he is more interested in the ways in which such books can be made more useful by informing the child's conversations: 'those about him should talk to him often about the Stories he has read, and hear him tell them', for this will add 'Incouragement and delight' to his reading: he will thus discover that 'there is some use and pleasure in it'.

With disarming honesty, Locke confesses: ‘What other Books there are in English of the kind of those abovementioned, fit to engage the liking of Children, and tempt them to read, I do not know.’ [12] and it is one incidental measure of Locke's influence that, when Hawkesworth came to write his essay on fables for the Adventurer in 1753, [13] he focused on the fables of Aesop and on the stories of Reynard, and remarked that it was the fables of Aesop that 'are often first exhibited to youth, as examples of the manner in which their native language is written'. But he also remarked that when children read fables which intend to illustrate virtue and vice in action, they have a contrary habit of identifying or sympathizing with the wrong party. Reynard may be a cunning villain, but he is also irresistibly attractive: 'In the fox there appears a superiority which not only preserves him from scorn, but even from indignation: and indeed the general character of Reynard is by no means fit for imitation'! [14] It was a moral and emotional irony that the didactic writers have never been able to avoid, and Rousseau characteristically made great play with it, as we shall see. Hazlitt's is, perhaps, the clearest recognition of the problem; in his 'Letter to William Gifford', he wrote: 'it is the same principle that makes us read with admiration and reconciles us in fact to the triumphant progress of the conquerors and mighty hunters of mankind, who come to stop the shepherd's pipe upon the mountains, and sweep away his listening flock'—we are aroused, excited, enlivened by 'the sense of power abstracted from the sense of good'. [15]

But Locke did not stay long enough with books to allow himself to consider such questions; for him, virtuous and civilizing socialization was more important in childhood than were literature and its attendant ironies. In his view, the most serious obstacle to the formation of a virtuous and rational character was to be found below stairs, in the 'taint of servants'—girls and young women, in the main, of very meagre education, if indeed any at all.

It is for servants that Locke reserves his most severe mistrust and disapproval, not to say contempt: the tutor must be vigilant to keep the child protected from 'the Influence of ill Precedents, especially the most dangerous of all, the Examples of the Servants.' [16] He raises the issue, as one calling for extreme care, on at least a dozen occasions, and always the burden is the same: servants are a menace, for within the household they actually constitute a pernicious sub‑culture. Above stairs, all efforts are devoted to the child's progress toward virtue and reason; but below stairs lurk the countervailing influences of foolishness, unreason, and even wickedness.

Locke argues that servants work to create moral confusion and contradiction: when the child is justly rebuked by parent, tutor or governess, he runs for indulgent solace to the servants. And, of course, the silly wenches—the 'clownish or vicious' wenches—are only too willing to oblige, and so subvert the good work done upstairs. But his most severe disapproval is reserved for the 'culture' with which they can so readily pollute the child's mind—an unredeemed, primitive and barbarous culture. If not prevented, the servants will 'awe children, and keep them in subjection, by telling them of Raw‑Head and Bloody Bones, and such other Names, as carry with them the Ideas of some thing terrible and hurtful, which they have reason to be afraid of, when alone, especially in the dark'. Once the fear of Goblings and Bug‑bears is lodged in the mind of a child, it is extremely difficult to dislodge it. Locke here warms to his subject, for it provides a vivid example of his theory of the association of ideas: these are formed most strongly when the child's mind, like soft wax, is still very impressionable. Once the child has come to associate Bug‑bears [17] and other terrors with the dark, then night‑time, however circumstantially innocuous it may be, will tend to arouse such terrors. Indeed, this re‑awakening of night‑fears offers so vivid and dramatic an illustration of the theory, that Locke returned to it again in the expanded fourth edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1700), and again seized the opportunity to chastise 'foolish Maids'.

But how closely related are the fear that is aroused by talk of Goblings and the fear inspired by homilies on Hell and the Devil? It was a delicate question for scrupulous minds such as Locke's, though less rational, more enthusiastic minds were not slow to rush in: early Methodism was warmly committed to a belief in witches. Locke handled the matter circumspectly, almost moving on tip‑toe: ‘of Evil Spirits, 'twill be well if you can keep a child from wrong Fancies about them, till he is ripe for that sort of Knowledge.’ [18] In general he would 'not have Children troubled whilst young with Notions of Spirits'. [19] Those who have been unfortunate enough to suffer from terror of Goblings and Bug‑bears in childhood, often strive so intently, later in life, to exorcise them, that they 'throw away the thoughts of all Spirits together, and so run into the other but worse extream', [20] i.e. a thoroughgoing scepticism. Where, then, does this leave Locke's reader, vis‑a‑vis the world of spirits, the realm of fantasy, the domain of fairies and goblins?

Discussion of spirits, especially the evil ones, is to be reserved for later years, when the young person will be 'ripe' for such matters; meanwhile, all the vulgar, superstitious nonsense that servants indulge in below stairs must be kept at bay; ideally, the child will learn nothing of such matters. In Locke's psychology, learning is clear, or it is nothing: 'The sure and only way to get true knowledge is to form in our minds clear settled notions of things, with names annexed to those determined ideas'. [21] Such a proposition, if it gains prestige and influence, augurs well for science and empiricism, but bodes ill for the indeterminate world of the spirit, of poetry, and of fancy.


It was left to Joseph Addison, the journalist and politician, to initiate the dilution and diffusion of Locke's ideas, mediated through the persuasive urbanity of his own irresistibly charming prose. Most relevant to my present purposes are Addison's essays on 'Taste and the Pleasures of the Imagination', which appeared in the Spectator in June and July of 1712. [22]

In an age eager to espouse toleration, compromise and reasonableness, Addison set himself the task of adjusting his readers' conception of the imagination, so as to effect an agreeable reconciliation of the claims of reason and judgement, on the one hand, and a breathing space for imagination, or fancy, on the other. To find a place for imaginative pleasures in the life of the reasonable man, and a place for the sobrieties of judgement in the psychological economy of those addicted to fancy: such an effort at fusion was part of the Spectator's larger enterprise of civilizing its readers, improving their minds and their manners, showing them 'when to speak, or to be silent; how to refuse, or how to comply', as Dr Johnson characterized the role of the magazine as arbiter elegantiae, 'a judge of propriety, who should survey the track of daily conversation, and free it from thorns and prickles, which teaze the passer, though they do not wound him'. [23]

The pleasures of the understanding Addison preferred to the 'pleasures of the imagination', since the former were 'founded on some new knowledge or improvement in the mind of man'. Even so, he had to confess that the pleasures of the imagination were just 'as great and as transporting'. To possess 'a polite imagination' was to enlarge life, for it admitted one to 'a great many pleasures that the vulgar are not capable of receiving': aesthetic or imaginative pleasure thus became an element in—indeed, a sign, a mark of—refinement, of decently equipped politeness; this is, of course, an association that continues to plague us in a variety of ways. Addison in this respect, was both a portent and a lever, of social change, of an amelioration of manners, and of certain notions of cultural subordination that are so deeply embedded in our society as to pass largely unquestioned.

Imagination: image: something seen: the eye: so Addison comes to consider what it is that happens when we look at ‘outward objects’ such as comprise a landscape, for example. The pleasure, he suggests, springs from one or more of three sources: namely, what is great, what is uncommon, and what is beautiful. When we enjoy the vastness of a prospect, we 'are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them'. The human mind, he argues, hates confinement and constraints, and it is for this reason that a spacious horizon is perceived as a blessing. It offers 'an image of liberty, where the eye has room to range abroad, to expatiate at large . . . to lose itself . . . . Such wide and undetermined prospects are as pleasing to the fancy, as the speculations of eternity or infinitude are to the understanding.'

Our first encounter with what is 'new or uncommon', in its turn, 'fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed'. The uncommon cannot help but contribute to the variety of life; it offers forms of refreshment, and 'bestows charms on a monster, and makes even the imperfections of nature please us.' As for beauty, it 'diffuses a secret satisfaction and complacency [24] through the imagination, and gives a finishing to anything that is great or uncommon'. He remarks beauty in the inherent variety of nature and in the varieties of natural colour, adducing sunrise and sunset as perfect examples of a 'glorious and pleasing show'. As Addison's use of the word 'secret'—'secret satisfaction'—adumbrates, he has the tact to stop short of a psychological reductivism: these causes of pleasure are not to be explained away, he insists. We simply do not know enough about the how and why, the covert correspondence between Nature on the one hand and 'the substance of a human soul' on the other. But he nevertheless detects the hand of the 'Supreme Author', the 'First Contriver' in all this: 'He has annexed a secret pleasure to the idea of anything that is new or uncommon, that he might encourage us in the pursuit after knowledge, and engage us to search into the wonders of his Creation'. The 'pursuit' and the 'search'—the terms look back to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and forward to the eighteenth century's growing commitment to 'useful knowledge'; knowledge of the natural world, and the pursuit of that knowledge are offered a divine sanction. In such ways, Addison speaks for his age, with a representative voice.

In canvassing and endorsing—promoting, indeed—the legitimacy of the imagination's pleasures, Addison was unwittingly offering a coherent and persuasive legitimation of the child's delight in fantasy. [21] Addison's argument, if that is not too strong a word for a performance that is so urbane and reassuring, can indeed be read as an analogy, and an apologue, of such childhood pleasures. A century later Wordsworth was to establish a very close equivalence between the joy of wandering in 'vales' and the joy of losing oneself in 'tales'; [26] likewise, Addison's appreciation of the grand, or the 'Vast', (which is both his and Coleridge's word), [27] the uncommon and the beautiful, in nature, art and literature, may be seen as an entirely apt account of the powerful and compelling delights that children were then finding in the newly translated Thousand and One Nights, in Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose, and in the 'vulgar' romances that circulated below stairs in the penny chap‑books. Addison's readers, for the most part, did not in the event apprise or avail themselves of such an urbane and reasonable rationale for a childhood love of fantasy; but it was undoubtedly there, for the taking. As it was, most of Addison's contemporaries made do with Locke's rather limited view of literature for children, and indeed with his marked distaste for the aberrations of the fantasies of 'vulgar wenches'. [28]

Addison accepts Locke's view that colour is a 'secondary quality' of the physical world, not found objectively to inhere in things themselves, but, rather, 'apprehended by the imagination' and not having any existence in matter. But he turns this cool empirical fact to good account, by a very deft sleight of quill. 'Colour', a secondary quality, is illusory, says science: hey presto, Addison neatly converts 'illusions' into 'pleasing shows and apparitions', 'imaginary glories' and ,visionary beauty'. To manage to derive such 'visionary beauty' from perceptual fallacy or optical illusion is a perfect measure of Addison's rhetorical cunning. But there is more to come, for the very fact that science cries 'Illusion!' allows him to indulge in a gothic fantasy. The very admission of illusion, an admission that is logically a negative—and for the lay reader, newly introduced to the idea, unsettling, even demoralizing—this very admission is felt as positively rhapsodic. It is one of Addison's neatest tricks:

Things would make but a poor appearance to the eye, if we saw them only in their proper figures and motions: and what reason can we assign for their exciting in us many of those ideas which are different from anything that exists in the objects themselves (for such are light and colours) were it not to add supernumerary ornaments to the universe, and make it more agreeable to the imagination? We are every where entertained with pleasing shows and apparitions: we discover imaginary glories in the heavens and in the earth, and see some of this visionary beauty poured out upon the whole Creation; but what a rough unsightly sketch of Nature should we be entertained with, did all her colouring disappear, and the several distinctions of light and shade vanish? In short, our souls are at present delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing delusion, and we walk about like the enchanted hero of a romance, who sees beautiful castles, woods and meadows ... but upon the finishing of some secret spell, the fantastic scene breaks up, and the disconsolate knight finds himself on a barren heath, or in a solitary desert.

As if Addison realizes that his rhapsodic praise of illusion and enchantment has gone too far, Richard Steele is pressed into service at this point, to express some moderating reservations:

The pleasures of the imagination are what bewilder life, when reason and judgement do not interpose; it is therefore a worthy action in you to look carefully into the powers of fancy, that other men, from the knowledge of them, may improve their joys, and allay their griefs, by a just use of that faculty.

The tactical intention of this interpolation is not, of course, made explicit. But it serves to reassure Addison's readers that a place could indeed be found in polite life for the irrational pleasures of the imagination, and that such an inclusion, such an admission, need not provoke gross perturbations, either psychological or social, need not disturb stability, ruffle amenity, or subvert manners.

Turning to art, Addison attends first to architecture and offers plausible reasons for preferring the classical to the gothic: in language that anticipates Coleridge, he argues that a great temple 'opens the mind to vast conceptions, and fits it to converse with the divinity of the place'. In literature, he has no difficulty in matching his three modes of imaginative pleasure—the great, uncommon and beautiful—to three poets: Homer, for the great; Virgil, for the beautiful; and Ovid, for the new and uncommon. He is especially eloquent in his praise of Ovid; while he relishes Homer for his 'thousand savage prospects of vast deserts, wide uncultivated marshes, huge forests, misshapen rocks and precipices', when we come to Ovid's Metamorphoses, he finds that 'we are walking on enchanted ground, and see nothing but scenes of magic lying round us'. Ovid 'describes a miracle in every story' and he 'everywhere entertains us with something we never saw before, and shews us monster after monster.' Monsters that we delight in!

This is where we recognize the great advantage of art over nature, or 'real life'. Things that are actually disagreeable can give pleasure when we encounter them in fiction. [29] There are things in life that are only too (apt to raise a secret ferment in the mind of the reader, and to work with violence, upon his passions', and these again, when mediated by art, afford pleasure. Serious poetry stirs up 'terror and pity' in us, and it seems strange that we 'should take delight in being terrified' when, if we were to meet the same experience in real life, we would feel a sense of unease, or worse. Addison's explanation of this deep paradox is that it is akin to the curiosity and satisfaction that we feel when we look on a dead monster or other such 'hideous objects': 'the more frightful appearance they make, the greater is the pleasure we receive from the sense of our own safety'. He seems to suggest that the terror and the sense of relief are simultaneous; but is this, in fact, possible? The clue may be found in the epicurean bias of Addison's own temper, or it may be that his 'reason or judgement' was continuously at hand, to hold terrors at arm's length or to defuse them. Certainly, the dark mystery of pleasurable terror continued to tease the eighteenth century mind. But the subordination of children and of the 'vulgar' is clearly evident in the recurrent attacks on their enjoying such dubious pleasure, a pleasure that proved resistant to any totally coherent rationale, and that carried within it some deeply problematic moral ironies.

As for Addison, the magical precedent of Ovid allowed him to turn his attention to the literature of 'fairies, witches, magicians, demons, and departed spirits', the literature, to use Locke's terms, of goblings and bug-bears. Addison observes that this 'fairy way of writing'—Dryden's phrase—is 'more difficult than any other that depends on the poet's fancy, because he . . . must work altogether out of his own invention'; moreover, if he is to succeed, the poet must possess an imagination that is 'naturally fruitful and superstitious'. Again, he must be 'very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humour those notions which we have imbibed in our infancy.'

In acknowledging the vast reserves of source‑material available in legend, romance and folk‑lore, Addison seems unwittingly to contradict his earlier contention that the poet must 'work altogether out of his own invention', but in effect he is recognizing that these sources are no longer sustainingly and authentically available to him: that even were he so inclined, he himself could not tap them. Fifty years later, Dr Johnson drily consigned such matters to the remote pre-Augustan past: commenting on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, he observed, 'Fairies in his time were very much in fashion; common tradition had made them familiar, and Spenser's poem had made them great.' [30]

Francis Grose, trying to account for the distinctive power of Shakespeare, argued that it was to be explained in terms of the 'association of ideas':

Shakespeare . . . drew his inimitable scenes of magic from that source [i.e. Popular Superstitions].... Indeed, one cause of these scenes having so great effect on us, is their calling back to our fancies the tales and terrors of the nursery, which are so strongly stamped on our tender minds, as rarely, if ever, to be totally effaced; and of these tales, spite of the precaution of parents, every child has heard something, more or less. [31]

Again, he insists,

we need only turn our recollection towards what passed in our childhood, and reflect on the avidity and pleasure with which we listened to stories of ghosts, witches, and fairies, told us by our maids and nurses: and even among those whose parents had the good sense to prohibit such relations, there is scarce one in a thousand but may remember to have heard [them]. [32]

Addison genially acknowledges his own recognition of a 'pleasing kind of horror', and the sheer amusement to be derived from the experience of 'strangeness and novelty'—just as we take pleasure in travel to foreign parts, and in observing foreign customs, so we may derive delight and pleasurable surprise when we are led into a fantastic fictive 'country', to observe the 'persons and manners of another species'. All such extravagant fantasies remind us of stories that we have heard in childhood, and 'favour those secret terrors and apprehensions to which the mind of man is naturally subject'. In deftly disposing that word—'secret'—Addison both builds up a tacit sense of rapport and community with his reader, rendering the private public, and also achieves a delicate pre-emptive stroke: we too will admit this to be so, will we not? Addison, like Grose, had known such ambivalent frissons in childhood, even though he could no longer draw on them. There is a sense here of Addison's own personal growing away from such vestigial traces, as corresponding to, reflecting, the same shift writ large in the spirit of the age.

In Addison's view, the crucial contention is between 'Men of cold fancies, and philosophical dispositions', men who 'object to this kind of poetry, that it has not probability enough to affect the imagination'; and, on the other side, those who are prepossessed with the false opinion that 'there are many intellectual beings in the world beside ourselves, and several species of spirits'! Rather disingenuously, Addison tiptoes neatly between Scylla and Charybdis, not breathing a word about where his own allegiances lie, but moving nimbly into a tacit appeal to his sympathetic readers: for 'we have all heard so many pleasing relations in favour of them [the spirits], that we do not care for seeing through the falsehood, and willingly give ourselves up to so agreeable an imposture.'

Addison was a great walker of tightropes, a kind of philosophical Blondin, and he here leaves us with a neatly unresolving kind of resolution which enlists our support, not by any explicit philosophical alignment or commitment, but by appealing to a presumed, and presumedly good-tempered, well‑mannered, consensus. We agree, do we not, to be imposed on, because the result of so being imposed on, is very agreeable. Nowhere else is Addison's 'political' intention clearer than it is here: the most delicate, the trickiest, the most potentially fraught, passage in the whole essay, ends in a quietly and cunningly managed compromise. It is a nice demonstration of Addison's famous politeness of touch, a deft settling of differences, a consummate papering‑over of cracks.

As for the repertoire of the 'fairy kind of writing' it almost all came out of the dark ages. Ovid does not belong under this head, however much he may deal in the magical, the super-rational, for fairy‑tales grew out of the dark ages, when 'pious frauds were made use of to amuse mankind, and frighten them into a sense of their duty'. [33] But, fortunately, all that took place before the world was 'enlightened by learning and philosophy'. Being a good patriot, as well as an enlightened man, he concedes that it was the English who wove such spells best; probably because, as a race, they are 'naturally fanciful'—no explanation at all!—and predisposed, on account of their gloomy and melancholy temper, to harbour 'many wild notions and visions'. And, of course, it cannot be denied that Shakespeare wove the best spells, and saw into the best fairylands, for he was gifted with a 'noble extravagance of fancy', which enabled him to touch this 'weak superstitious part of his reader's imagination'; his ghosts, fairies and witches are given speeches which are at once 'so wild' and 'so solemn' that we cannot help but think them natural: 'if there are such beings in the world, it looks highly probably they should talk and act as he has represented them.'

It is an astute, urbane and light‑footed performance that Addison offers his readers; and it is indeed a performance: it is as if we are being invited to admire his footwork, his balance, his sheer dexterity. But it cannot be denied that, momentarily, he holds a finely judged balance between the claims of imagination and those of judgement. Such poise was a gift of the moment. His era henceforth will be irreversibly 'enlightened by learning and philosophy', and one begins to hear a faint but increasing snip, snip, as 'philosophy' proceeds to clip the wings of poetry. As the century wore on, such trimming was to become more ruthless, in the service of both a severer reason, and a narrower, more nay‑saying, less benign morality. Many of those who would claim debts to Locke and Addison would wield heavier, blunter scissors, and use them more ruthlessly and more extensively, in rooting out error.

In 1664, Dryden wrote, 'Imagination is a faculty so wild and lawless that like a high-ranging spaniel, it must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun judgment'. [34] Locke was disposed to turn the spaniel out to its kennel, to keep the servants company; Addison washed and trimmed it, and domesticated it. Before the century was out, some high‑minded, tidy-minded individuals would try to have it put down altogether.


1  The best modern edition of Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education is that of James L. Axtell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968). All quotations are from this edition.

2  ibid., prefatory letter to Sir Edward Clarke.

3  A point made by Richard Steele, Guardian, no. 94; by Blake, Tiriel, sect. 8; and by Jane Austen: 'Lady Bertram thought more of her pug than her children' (Mansfield Park, ch. 2).

4  Locke, Thoughts, p. 60. Cf. Helvétius, A Treatise on Man, His Intellectual Faculties and his Education, Eng. trans. (London, 1777).

5  Helvétius, op. cit., vol. I, p. 4.

6  The 9th edition (1724) was retitled Divine Emblems. Cf. Keats, who offered his brother George a page of ostensibly trivial anecdotes and jokes, all entertaining, and concluded: 'There's a page of Wit for you—to put John Bunyan's emblems out of countenance' (Letters, ed. Robert Gittings, London: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 321).

7  In Winter Evenings; or, Lucubrations on Life and Letters, 3 vols (London: Charles Dilly, 1788), vol. III, p.157. There is a facsimile reprint of this edition (New York: Garland, 1972).

8  The fifth lecture on Shakespeare and Milton. The quotation is from Love's Labour's Lost, I.i.

9  Locke, Thoughts, p. 156. Such insistences on Locke's part may help to explain the inclination of some critics to see Locke as a decisive influence on Wordsworth. They also serve to blur any categorical opposition of Locke and Blake.

10  The view that good literature for children is also satisfying food for adult thought is one that runs through Philip Sidney, Steele, Locke and Wordsworth, among others. See Eric Rabkin, Fantastic Worlds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 167.

11  One of Wordsworth's most vivid memories of the chap‑books of his childhood is of the illustrative woodcuts. See The Excursion, bk 1, II. 177 ff.

12  Locke, Thoughts, p. 260. Locke goes out of his way to insist: 'As for the Bible . . . I think that perhaps a worse could not be found.'

13  Reprinted in The British Essayists 45 vols (London: T. & J. Allman, 1823), Vol. 23, no. 18.

14  Cf. Rousseau on La Fontaine, below, p. 116.

15  Hazlitt, Works, ed. P. P. Howe (London and Toronto: Dent, 1930‑4), vol. 9, p. 37.

16  Locke, Thoughts, p. 187.

17  By the mid‑eighteenth century, the word was well on its way to acquiring the lesser force of a mere nuisance or burden.

18  Locke, Thoughts, p. 244.

19  ibid., p. 303.

20  ibid.

21  See Locke, The Conduct of the Understanding, sect. XV.

22  See Critical Essays from the 'Spectator' by Joseph Addison, ed. Donald F. Bond (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970). All of the following quotations fall between pp. 176 and 201.

23  Johnson, 'Joseph Addison', in Lives of the Poets, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), vol. 1.

24  'complacency': pleasure.

25  Cf. Pott's argument, below, Chapter Six.

26  See below, p. 272.

27  Coleridge: ‘from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii &c &c—my mind had been habituated to the Vast . . . .’ (letter of 16 October 1797, in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956 – vol.1, p. 354).

28  See the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ch.8.

29  Two of the best‑known cases of this argument are to be found in Wordsworth and Keats. See below, Chapter Nine, p. 284.

30  The Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 7: Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. A. Sherbo (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 160.

31  Francis Grose, A Provincial Glossary. 2nd edn (London: S. Hooper, 1790), p. vi. Cf. Addison in the Spectator, 1 July 1712: op. cit., vol. 3, p. 570.

32  'Popular Superstitions' (appended to Provincial Glossary) pp. 1‑2.

33  This is a recurrent theme in the writings of Jeremy Bentham, and may be traced in part to his own childhood terrors.

34  Epistle of The Rival Ladies (1664).

SOURCE: Summerfield, Geoffrey. Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Sections 3-4 of Introduction (sans footnotes), pp. xii-xvii; Chapter 1: High‑Ranging Spaniels and Philosophical Dispositions, pp. 1-6, 8-22.

Fantasy and Reason: Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century:
Chapter 7: "Apotheosis of the Chap-Book"
by Geoffrey Summerfield

Philosophy, Child-Rearing, Education, & Children's Literature
in the British Enlightenment:
Selected Bibliography

William Blake Study Guide

History of the Professional Writer & Reading Public / Audiences
— The Romantic Era / The Working Class Reader / Literary Form / Division of Labor

The Enlightenment (bibliography)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

Intellectual Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional: A Bibliography in Progress


William Blake
[Childhood Imagery in Romantic Literature]
by Erica Lell

William Blake and 18th-century children’s literature
(Julian Walker, British Library, 15 May 2014)

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