The Terror of the Imagination


14th June, 1815.

It is my wish to retrace in this paper the course of a conversation held last night with Miss Vardill, if but to show me, at some future time, how far my present opinions have been confirmed or changed by experience. Many of the ideas here started have long been familiar to my mind tho’ never before spoken of to any one, and many sprung up in my brain as we pursued the train of reasoning. Whether my opinions are new or trite, I know not. I never read any work on the subject here treated, and all that follows has arisen simply from reflexion on the nature and operations of my own mind and this habit of reflecting has doubtless been assisted by the peculiar circumstances in which I am placed. The uncommon mixture of Solitude and Society which has always been my lot.

Miss Vardill has been urging me to attempt something of the Legendary Tale and we had fallen into the recital of some remarkable Gothic Legends. One of these was particularly interesting. It contained just that degree of supernatural agency which heightens the impression of a story, and leads the imagination to the expectation of some terrible event which it longs, yet dreads to look on. It was twilight when the story began and the last light of day gradually faded into a pale moonshine at its conclusion.

The moment was just that in which such a tale ought to be told. It would have lost half its effect in the daylight. The impression made on me by this story induced me to hazard some observations on what I shall venture to call the terror of the Imagination. In wandering out by myself at such an hour, I never could refrain from peopling every tree with banditti with Genii or with Spirits. I have begun with the recollection of some romantic legend, and gradually enlarging it, and substituting myself, by an unconscious transition as its Hero or Heroine, I have so environed myself with horrors, have wrought myself to such a pitch of expectation that tho’ conscious at the moment that the web was all of my own weaving, and that the forms I had conjured round me, neither had nor ever would have any real being, I have been glad to escape from the terrors of my own imagination, yet with a feeling of disappointment at their dispersion without the terrible catastrophe to which I had looked.

Had I been wandering in the same scene by the full lustre of a placid moon. The soft breeze of a summer evening still wafting perfumes as from some happier clime, how different yet how romantic still, would have been my reveries! Some lay of Pastoral Love would have formed the ground work of the tale, or at least some story in which the wild and gloomy grandeur of the Gothic Legend was softened by the fascinating spirit of chivalry. It might either be the lovelorn shepherd that awakened his pipe in the grove or the gallant Knight disguised as a minstrel. Again, in the same spot how different would have been my noontide dreams. My visions would have lost their grace and their grandeur to acquire the gaiety and reality of the scene. The forms of absent yet fondly remembered friends, or of those whom the next hour might bring to me, would then have been called to people my solitude. Many a time have I spent an hour in imaginary argument or conversation with those who were far distant.

Supporting in their place, the arguments which I thought they would have supported, and picturing to myself their phraseology their accent and their gestures, How much said I, do the operations of our mind seem to be connected with sensible objects. Must we suppose imagination to be merely their offspring?

I next spoke of the power of Imagination in repressing terror. Persons of strong Imagination, (I do not mean nervous persons, the activity of whose Imagination arises from debility, not from strength. Persons of strong Imagination appear to me to be least susceptible of fear in actual danger. I believe I may pretend to some warmth of imagination and any one who may hereafter do me the honour of perusing the foregoing pages will perhaps think it inclined to run wild, yet in situations of real or apparent danger, my friends have noticed that I am rather inclined to laugh than to appear terrified, and I have often been reproved for my seeming carelessness. The fact is that on these occasions the Imagination is buried in providing a striking catastrophe to the groundwork here presented her, something which might call on her to display all her heroism, the present is scarcely sufficient to arouse her. I remember that when I was called from my bed by our servants, at Kentish Town, who fancied there were robbers in the house, a strange, yet most interesting kind of pleasure mingled with the alarm I felt, and when I at last got one of them sufficiently recovered from her fainting and hysterics to accompany me, and went deliberately thro’ every room of the house, I was disappointed at finding that their alarm was without foundation. Similar were my sensations amid the terrors of my companions when the drunken visitor of one of our maidservants lately alarmed us on an Attic night. It was at a time when the Corn Bill had given rise to many disturbances, and when the knocking commenced I had conjured up such a splendid scene of the charge of the rioters of tumult danger and triumph (for on these occasions, Imagination is always ultimately triumphant) that when Mr. Elliott announced that the solitary disturber of our Peace was in the hands of the watchman, I felt most forcibly the disagreeable effect of an anticlimax.

The same spirit always attends me. I never hear the thunder but I wish it to roar louder, and the brightest lightning only increases my appetite to behold it still more vivid. In the intense cold of the winter before last I wished every day that the thermometer might sink still lower. When the streets were dangerous, my imagination wished to find them unpassable. I am peculiarly annoyed by heat, yet in those sultry days which marked the summer of 1808, I watched the rising of the mercury with uncommon interest. When I am in a hilly country I single out the loftiest summits as the end of my excursions, and am unsatisfied while one higher remains above me. I long to tread the summit of Chimboraizo, and to explore the deepest mines, to sink if possible to the very centre of the earth. I am disappointed when Saussure recounts the fruitless result of his endeavours to reach the top of Mont Blanc, tho’ I know not that his arrival there afforded any thing to repay the labour. Nothing gives me more delight than that most magnificent spectacle, a tremendous fire, the knowledge of danger only makes it more interesting.

From what have said I think it is clear that the Imagination on these occasions, represses all our feelings of personal inconvenience or danger. The pleasure we receive from these events, is totally unconnected with our moral feelings of regret for the havoc they cause. I may say with Dr. Johnson that I would not wish a storm for my amusement, but as we all know that storms must happen I would willingly look out on them from Shanes castle.

That we are at least fond of unreal terrors is evident from the pleasure we derive from all sorts of romances, and moreover it may be remarked that where Poetical Justice is not rendered at the Conclusion however beautiful or Pathetic the Tale, the Imagination is always unsatisfied. I know not if the feeling be universal but I have always distinguished in myself a very great difference in the emotions excited by the perusal of adventures purely ideal, and of those which I believed to be true. The latter are the least delightful. The tragic scenes become Interesting and more painful, and pleasure seems to have changed the fascinating smiles of Armida for the rosy cheeks of a country lass. The grandeur of the twilight hour and the witching of moonlight are gone, even the storm when divested of Alpine Scenery loses its grandeur, we have only the vulgarity of sunshine or the gloom of a cloudy day. Truly we may say that “obscurity is one source of the Sublime.”

Here Miss Vardill noticed the forcible impression made on her mind by what is called a total eclipse of the Sun, some years before. She said it was not the darkness of midnight, but it appeared infinitely more. The same gloom which at 8 o’clock in the evening would have excited no emotion became at noon wonderfully sublime. I next noticed the difference we find in the powers of our own mind under different circumstances. How many persons after complaining of stupidity all day, have, wondered at the facilities with which their ideas flowed when they were in bed, and have ardently longed for a scotograph. A train of mathematics or anything for which it is necessary that our thoughts should be arranged in a connected chain, seems to require darkness to perfect it.

The plan of most of my poems has come to me in bed. I say come to me, for that which at another time might have been an effort seems then spontaneous. What is the reason of this effect? Can it be that the absence of sensible objects, is the cause, that nothing being present to divide its attention the mind is at liberty to turn all its powers within. This is the general opinion but it seems to me clearly refuted by the well known fact that when our thoughts are intensely engaged our eyes are also most busily employed. The spots in the paper, the grain of the wood in the table, the pattern of the carpet, the form of each particular blade of grass, its intersections with its neighbours and the evolutions of the minute insects upon it, a thousand things that when our minds were less busily occupied, and that we permitted our eyes to sport among the objects around us, would never have been noticed are now impressed on our memory with the utmost minuteness. Does it not appear from this that our powers of perception and of thinking are unconnected and independent of each other. When we are going to sleep, we begin to lose the power of discriminating between them. When we are speaking we often make use of a figure to express our idea, but we are conscious that it is a figure, we mean that such a thing is like another, not that it is that other. But if when nearly asleep, I have by any accident been roused, I have generally found that I had lost this power of distinction, and was actually thinking in figures, actually confounding my ideas and sensible objects. Once having been much fatigued I laid myself down on the sofa, and when nearly asleep, some one asking if I was so, I opened my eyes for an instant and closed them. My Cousin was near me running some stockings at the heel, so instead of thinking, no I am not quite asleep but nearly, I thought, no, the stocking is only run on each side, it wants a few stitches across the heel to complete it, this was certainly thinking in figures, and had I given my thought utterance it would have been said I was dreaming. Perhaps indeed this idea may lead to a new theory of dreams, and may account at once for their wildness, and for their seeming connection and disconnection with the events of the days, and the thoughts that led to slumber.

With regard to the power possessed by our eyes, of making independent observations said Miss Vardill, you are certainly right, we all know, that on applying to our ears we are conscious that a bell has rung some minutes before, tho’ we have no recollection of having heard it, and the sound is completely over. Our mind seems to feel on application to the nerve that it has lately been impressed in such a manner, and thence we conclude that the bell was rung. But the mere idea of the disconnection of thought, and perception will not account for some of our sensations.

I have three or four times sat down and have placed a piece of Music that I never saw before, and have been told that I played it well, while my thoughts were intensely engaged another way, and I did not even hear the sounds that I produced. I am no musician replied I, but I can easily believe you, for I have often read aloud, and been conscious after that I had even read better than usual without knowing the theme and I have played at whist, and not committed any palpable blunder while making verses on a very different subject. The mere disconnection of thought and perception will not account for these effects. It will account for the operation of our eyes our hands or our feet, separately, while our minds are employed, but it will not account for any connection between their employments. The eye might observe the form of the spots on the paper, but it requires something more than sensation, to receive the impression of their value, and to issue corresponding orders to the voice or the fingers. The more we think on the subject, the more, in my opinion we shall be inclined to revert to the idea which I believe some philosophers have entertained, that we have two souls, one sensitive, one intellectual, one perishable one immortal. Without this how shall we account for the sagacity of beasts, too great to be attributed to sensation only, or to that unknown perception which we call instinct. Give them this sensitive, this perishable soul, and we shall find it sufficient to account for all their actions and that its operations in man and in animals are nearly the same. It is not instinct, but instinct is one of its functions, and instinct may be seen in man as well as animals. What is that unknown power which forces on us the conviction of impending danger, when our reasoning intellectual soul cannot perceive that there is any danger near. What is it that warns of coming events as improbable as unexpected. I called with my father about a year ago on some friends. One of the ladies asked me as she was in the habit of doing if I would go into the next room and sit with her while the gentlemen pursued thdir own conversation. A member of that family had formerly been one of my dearest friends, but I believed him to be then abroad. We had not met for more than a year, and I had peculiar reasons for not wishing to meet him—there and then at least. What was it that just as I was rising to follow Mrs.—— impressed on my mind with a rapidity and a force that I cannot forget that he was in the next room and that I was asked to go in there for the express purpose of seeing him. I I called two or three times afterwards, and the same plan was pursued, but it was not till some time after that I learned in another quarter, that he had been actually in the house during the whole of that period tho’ his residence there was known only to a part of the family. I can scarcely forgive the lady for the trick she would have played me. Concealment, (from circumstances which tho’ imperfectly known I most deeply regret) was then necessary to my friend, and the meeting with him would have placed me particularly in a very delicate situation. It would have been equally painful to me to have known that he was there without informing my own family and to have betrayed him.

I need not here record more instances of this peculiar feeling. Circumstances, striking at the time would appear puerile on paper, and indeed most of those I should be inclined to name belong to earlier years. Once indeed lately, not one event alone, but a train of events, intimately connected with a friend tho’ slightly with myself and which I cannot discover any reason for my having supposed, were strongly impressed upon me. I am not at present at liberty to reveal them, my enquiries having made me a confidante but I was much more surprised to find myself right than at the events themselves. Do not smile at me, said I to Miss Vardill but look into yourself and say frankly if you have not often had similar feelings tho’ perhaps you are scarcely willing to acknowledge them to yourself.

I have certainly, she replied, but I have always referred them to a sort of rapid calculation, which led to certain conclusions without our stopping to recognize the data on which we founded them.

Yes, said I, I have heard of a gentleman who on just glancing at a bill with perhaps a thousand figures would tell you its amount, without knowing how he performed the operation, and we all know that in many cases we perform insensibly this sort of rapid calculation, but it will not suffice in the present instance, neither will conjecture. Conjecture is a supposition founded on certain known facts, though we have no knowledge of its correctness. But here how often do we feel an impulse in direct opposition to the apparent dictates of reason and judgments yet find that impulse right. I remember once an internal feeling that strongly urged me to a course exactly opposite to that I was pursuing. But it was so contrary to every visible motive that I would not adopt it at the risk of being laughed at. I afterwards found I should have been right in doing so, as it was, I was certainly unsuccessful. Some persons will perhaps think me an enthusiast for the Second Sight, and I own I have some faith in it. Not that the Seers of Skye are possessed of any peculiar or preternatural power, but that a natural power imparted to us all, is in them heightened by the want of that society and bustle which distract the attention of those that mingle in the world. That I am right as to the existence of this internal feeling there can be little doubt, if we reflect on the numerous hypotheses that have been constructed to account for it. The superstitious will refer it to Sorcery, to the Second Sight, to what you will, the Rosicrusian to his Attendant Sylph or Genius, and the Fanatic to the peculiar revelation of heaven.

Whether Sorcery was ever anything more than superior knowledge exerted for the deception of the vulgar, need not in this age be debated; and as for peculiar revelation it is an idea so presumptuous in the Creature and so degrading to the Supreme that I cannot think of it. That our Maker bestows on us attention infinitely beyond our deserts, is a theme for our increasing gratitude, but yet—How great is the artificer who constructs an Engine subject neither to decay nor injury. How inferior him, the screws of whose most perfect machine require constant attention. In my opinion the Rosicrucians are the most sensible of the three, yet when we have done with them they will leave us pretty much where we began. Had their Disciples stopped, at the point beyond which I have no doubt the first philosophers never intended to stray, their memory would have been loved and honoured, and Science would have adopted them as her children, but they bewildered themselves in Labyrinths of their own creating, and the pride of superior intellect has sunk below the ignorant. That there is a soul in matter inanimate as well as animate every day confirms. We can resolve a stone into its elements, but we cannot recreate it. Some unknown invisible, imponderable matter escapes. The connecting link is lost. That man is the only being endowed with a reasonable soul, reason and revelation alike forbid us to doubt. That animals are possessed of something more than sensation we shall not deny. They have a sentient soul and a power of memory. They have tho’ perhaps still in a degree inferior to ourselves, that secondary soul which I have supposed that we possess. That plants have something that distinguishes them from mere matter that they are often superior to some of the lower orders of animals we must admit and every day adds to our proofs. That matter itself in all its forids has also something peculiar, we cannot look upon a crystal and behold the regularity of its forms, or think upon the law of definite proportions without admitting. How different is the cold dry element of the spar from the living crystal whence we have resolved it, and which we can not reproduce. Everybody, it now appears has its determined form.

On some peculiarity in the stone itself does that depend — Let us call it chemical attraction or what we will, we must still admit the operation of an invisible Agent in the formation and the support of the crystal, the drop of water, the particles of gas, and the phenomena of heat, still less understood than the rest, and does the Rosicrusian system properly understood mean anything more.

To return to my subject. The greatest objection to this theory of instinct, is, that it refers to an inferior soul that which often appears above the reach of its superior, yet I do not think our instinct superior to that of animals. However said I, Miss Vardill, my thoughts are but an hour old, and the subject is too important for either you or I to decide over our tea table.

Truly, she said, yet it would be worth while to have some record of this conversation and to endeavour to discover whether this faculty of Instinct which we cannot but acknowledge to exist depends on age or circumstance. In young animals and in children it is evidently stronger. It becomes weaker by age, and perhaps, in us at least there may be a time in which it is extinct.

Perhaps, I rejoined, that may be the reason that we have not acknowledged its existence in ourselves. The job is long, but if you wish it, I will endeavour to-morrow to record what has passed between us this evening for our joint perusal some years hence, and tho’ all my feelings may then be changed, I shall not easily be induced to believe that those here mentioned never existed.

It will at least be an amusing exercise and may be useful.