In a note to her poem Epistle to William Hayley, Esq., the poet Anna Seward takes up and revises Lockean metaphorics in a compact and intensely figurative theory of memory.
No picture, be it ever so well painted, can vie with the memory in that exactness, with which she presents, early in absence, the image of that form and face, whose lineaments are dear to us. Therefore, actual pictures of beloved friends would not be so eagerly coveted, but that we render this darling, internal image indistinct, by recalling it too frequently; as that strength of line, which gives sharpness and spirit to a copper-plate, becomes injured after a certain number of impressions have been taken off. By repeated use, the plate, if not retouched, will produce only a dim and shadowy mass, in which the features and countenance cannot be very distinctly discerned.
Notice how Seward shifts our attention from Locke’s emphasis on the “white paper” of the mind and the impressions made upon it to the copper-plate that prints those marks (II.i.2). Seward prepares her argument by making salient a different feature of the picture of memory shared between them.
Seward’s mode is elegiac. Her comparison evokes but reverses Locke’s description of memory as “laid in fading colours“ (II.x.5).1 In Locke the “constant decay” of all our ideas will only be slowed by their exercise. Those that are “oftenest refreshed“ will “remain the clearest and longest” in the memory (II.x.6).
In Locke ideas wear out in desuetude; in Seward, through use.
Seward elaborates the analogy between memory and a copper-plate in the paragraph that follows the paragraph quoted above. Implications are drawn and the metaphors extended. And more paper materials appear:
So it is with the memory, after continual recurrence, and pressure of the affections upon the image she presents, which, for a considerable period, she had presented with that perfect precision, to which no powers of the pencil can attain;—but, in time, the image becomes indistinct, not from any decay in the powers of memory; not from the affections growing cold, but merely from intense and incessant recurrence. Yes, it is beneath the constant glow of ardent imagination, that the impression, given by memory, has faded. Then it is that a good, nay even an indifferent picture, or a paper-profile of a dear lost friend, strengthens our recollection, in the same manner that retouching a copper-plate restores its power of giving animated impressions.
A picture of the deceased retouches us as an engraver retouches a copper-plate with a burin. Notice the complexity of the figuration: the mind’s copper-plate is flattened in impression but sharpened by paper materials—that is, by sketches or silhouettes. Mind and media are here fully mixed. I’m reminded of Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind, in which impression metaphors are used to picture cognition as “sometimes passive, sometimes active; sometimes resembling the seal, sometimes the wax” (I, 42).
In Seward the mind is not so much a blank slate as a copper-plate. Seward and Locke employ similar metaphorics to different ends. The technology of impression is swapped for the impressed surface. Metonymy generates new metaphor.
Perhaps this reversal is facilitated by the word itself. “Copper-plate” refers to both the plate itself and to the print or impression made by the plate.2
Seward’s response to Locke typifies many eighteenth-century disputes. A metaphor becomes a site of revision. A picture of the mind is redrawn. One philosopher’s metaphor is hijacked by another writer and shown to contain contradictory implications.
Filling out her footnote, Seward encourages her readers to experiment with their own memories. The memory of one less beloved is more easily summoned—or so she claims. Locke is cited and found wanting.
Our dead are obliterated twice: their gravestones worn by the elements, their images by incessant recollection.
As theorists of memory, Seward and Locke would seem misled by their own picture-making. But Seward’s conjectures may be more interesting for being dubious, and her elegiac figuration deserves to be exhumed from its footnote grave.