Court, n.

It is the policy of a dictionary to enumerate the senses of a word. The senses of the word “court, n.” in the Oxford English Dictionary number nineteen.

Why not eighteen? Sharper analysis promises to reduce this promiscuity. But why not twenty? Some hapax legomenon threatens to upset the count.

Our dictionaries—even “the definitive record of the English language” (i.e., the OED)—testify to the arbitrary ways in which polysemy must be numbered. New uses are found for old words and available senses are multiplied.

What should be the policy for a dictionary of metaphors? Metaphors don’t readily lemmatize. A heading is then chosen for rhetorical effect; it is no definiendum. Indeed, a metaphor is never a single word, some narrow vehicle, focus, or target whose meaning has changed, whose new “figurative” meaning could be somehow defined. Here modern linguistics and philosophy of language depart from classical rhetoric and ordinary intuitions about metaphor.1

The lexicographer collects examples of usage and groups them according to related uses and senses. But the poet urges that each true metaphor is a bold departure from the literal, one that expands the language in a new direction. As we pass from lexicographical to literary critical concerns, we refine our theories of how metaphors mean.

Consider the example of Court metaphors for the mind. The word “court” has a variety of senses: we imagine a court of law or the retinue or body of courtiers who assemble around a monarch. A court is variously a place (an enclosed or confined area), a collection of persons, or a political institution. Court may be held, or it may be paid.

When the mind is figured as a court, which of these senses of the term is selected? A yard, a princely residence, a retinue? Who shall judge?

The mind is a court. In it we are enclosed and confined as in a court-yard. But the mind is also a scene of proceedings, a court in which precedents are made, testimony heard, or judgments overturned—a court of law, a court of conscience. Alternately, the mind may prove no more than an assembly of personified impressions and faculties, individuals, or courtiers, who seem attendant upon some executive power but in reality busy themselves in pursuit of their own petty concerns.

Diverging senses of a word help mark moments in political history: originally, it was the monarch himself who dispensed justice and presided over the court.2 The Lord Chancellor was “Keeper of the King’s Conscience.” The royal court was a place filled with courtiers and a court of law both.

By the time of the 1688 revolution it is easier to make distinctions between a king’s court and the court of law. In part, James II’s meddling with the courts precipitated his replacement and reinforced distinctions between the executive and judicial powers of government.3 We would expect to see metaphors from the long eighteenth century display the disambiguation of these two senses of “court.” And we do.

Moreover, the Court metaphors collected in The Mind is a Metaphor Database, cluster in ways in which politics and word sense are significantly correlated. In fact, the use of metaphor divides neatly along party lines.

Different meanings for different leanings. Tories use Court metaphors to picture a court presided over by Queen Fancy (the political historian immediately thinks of the Harley ministry’s relationship to Queen Anne); whiggish metaphors are more jurisprudential: the pictured court is one in which reason presides and sensation and conscience give testimony.4

This example of clustering by metaphor and party affiliation is startling. The structures described by the lexicographer speak directly to the political historian. Perhaps we should revisit George Lakoff’s claims that metaphor and party are importantly correlated.4


1 In an essay collection like Andrew Ortony’s Metaphor and Thought, theorists of metaphor from Searle to Lakoff who agree about little else grant that metaphors do not operate—as was thought by the classical rhetoricians and eighteenth-century writers on belle lettres —at the level of the word. Meaning is something best located (if we must locate it) at the level of the sentence.

But the differentiation of literal and figurative at the sentence level is uncomfortable work at best; and a literary critic who, like the author of these blog-like pages, works without a fully developed theory of meaning can only ever make hesitating, contingent claims about meaning and metaphor. I for one write literary history because I am persuaded by Quine’s suggestion that the basic unit of significance may be the whole of a language, the complete science or a theory.

Under the narrow heading “COURT” then, a reader must be prepared to encounter theoretical discussions of influence, theatricality and power; the biographies of the opposition figures who collected around the Prince of Wales; a compact history of natural law and common law traditions; philosophical discussions of testimony; a Begriffgeschichte-style analysis of the concept of conscience; and fictional representations of trials in the novels of Henry Fielding. The unit of significance designated by the rubric “COURT” is a wide web of intellectual history.

2 Compare senses 9 and 11 in the Oxford English Dictionary (Link to “Court, n.”). The OED notes that “Justice was in early times administered in assemblies held by the sovereign personally (sense 9), then by judges who followed the king as officers of his court; hence the title the King’s Courts (curia regis).”

3 The Bloody Assizes of 1685 that followed the Monmouth rebellion damaged James’s reputation; then in 1686 James’s coercion of the King’s Bench provoked further opposition to the monarch’s absolutist agenda. The 1689 Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits the king’s ability to tamper with juries

4 A cluster tree created by D. Sculley serves as a striking visualization of word sense disambiguation along party lines. Machine learning methods separate Whig and Tory and disambiguate sense at the same time. The top branches of the tree are filled with Tories; the bottom, with Whigs.


The hierarchical tree is constructed from abstract “bag-of-words” representations of the metaphors. The computer knows nothing of eighteenth-century politics or word sense but groups metaphors according to feature scores generated from Kullback-Leibler distances.

4 See, for example, Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Go-Cart and Hobby-Horse

“Physical education.” Has not the expression the savor of oxymoron? What is it the body learns? Stand the oxymoron on its head: the mind is a muscle and thought, its exertion.

The critic John Dennis writes, “The faculties of the Soul, like the parts of the Body, receive nourishment from use, and derive skill as well as they do force and vigour from exercise” (Preface, The Comical Gallant). George Berkeley observes, “thought is to the mind what motion is to the body; both are equally improved by exercise and impaired by disuse” (Works Vol. VIII, L13, p. 40). We read in Henry Fielding’s Amelia: “the Practice of any Virtue is a kind of mental Exercise, and serves to maintain the Health and Vigour of the Soul” (335).

Hume excuses the difficulty of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by admitting that while his researches “may appear painful and fatiguing, it is with some minds as with some bodies, which being endowed with vigorous and florid health, require severe exercise” (11). Mary Wollstonecraft informs us that even should one fail in his or her researches, still “the mind gains strength by the exercise” (106).

It is on examples that we train the judgment. Or so it may seem to the empiricist. The citations that open this short essay are so many examples; the metaphors taxonomised in the database are so many more.

Such particulars or examples are themselves pictured by Immanuel Kant in a well-known turn of phrase as “the go-cart (Gängelwagen) of the judgment” (CPR 187 A 134, B 173-4).

Gängelwagen is a curious metaphor. (There is always another curious metaphor, one more example, to be enumerated.) A child of the eighteenth century is placed in the go-cart, a frame on wheels, and first learns to walk without suffering the indignity of stumbling or falling. My reader will find an image of a go-cart here.

But the Gängelwagen metaphor of the first Critique also appears in the opening paragraph of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, in the paragraph in which the sinister structure of self-incurred minority or tutelage is characterized.1 Here the unenlightened, those in tutelage, are harnessed to go-carts, their guardians having impressed upon them the dangers of walking.

A go-cart is part of the machinery in a culture of fear. I conjure for you modern-day treadmills or stationary bicycles housed in expensive fitness centers, outside of which we park our cars.

Kant’s daily walks in Königsberg are famous, but it is Locke and Rousseau who are founding fathers of phys-ed. It will not do to pass by without citing Locke’s use of the formula a sound mind in a sound body or Rousseau’s pairing of exercise and enlightenment. We will remember that Locke, prone to illness himself, recommends open air and exercise, plain diet, loose clothing, exposure of the head and feet to the cold and wet. A child should learn to swim, to dance, to ride, fence and wrestle. “Due Care being had to keep the Body in Strength and Vigour, so that it may be able to obey and execute the Orders of the Mind” (Some Thoughts, §31). Rousseau, in deep dialogue with Locke, rehearses a similar list of activities but expands this last sentiment: “The body should be strong enough to obey the mind; a good servant must be strong … The weaker the body, the more imperious its demands; the stronger it is, the better it obeys. All sensual passions find their home in effeminate bodies” (Bk I, p. 24).

In works like Francis Fuller’s popular 1705 treatise Medicina gymnastica exercise is preferred over emetics and bleedings in the cure several distempers and nervous complaints. Fuller, like Locke and Rousseau, is keen to promote riding, an activity I can’t but read as an emblem of the mind astride its own passions, exercising mastery of the self.

Recall the horsemanship required of the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus or better yet the hobby-horses ridden by those children who have graduated from the confines of the go-cart. Indeed, Sterne’s hobby-horse delightfully complicates the pedagogue’s dialectic of mastery and servitude: we had best remember that Rousseau’s Émile is never not in the thrall of his tutor.

Disease and exercise, go-cart and hobby-horse, tutelage and physical education—I quote a passage from Shaftesbury’s Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit at greater length:

There is no-one of ever so little Understanding in what belongs to a human Constitution, who knows not that without Action, Motion, and Employment, the Body languishes, and is oppress’d; its Nourishment turns to Disease; the Spirits, unimploy’d abroad, help to consume the Parts within; and Nature, as it were, preys upon her-self. In the same manner, the sensible and living Part, the Soul or Mind, wanting its proper and natural Exercise, is burden’d and diseas’d. Its Thoughts and Passions being unnaturally with-held from their due Objects, turn against itself, and create the highest Impatience and Ill-humour (213).

In ethico-teleological systems like Shaftesbury’s, the terms, “fitness” and “illness” carry great import and seem to take on senses both literal and figurative. Fitness comes in physical, moral, and ontological varieties. Mind and body are connected in analogy.

The passage from Shaftesbury precedes a warning that with “the enormous growth of luxury in capital cities” numbers of men suffer in a kind of “lazy opulence and wanton plenty” (214). These men lack labor and exercise and are prone to neglect their duty in “settled idleness, supineness, and inactivity” if they do not find other application in letters, sciences, arts, husbandry, or public affairs (214).

The corrupt, immature, effeminate, diseased and vice-ridden fop is no athlete, no soldier, no politician.2 To take a liquid line from Mark Akenside, he is “Lull’d by luxurious pleasure’s languid strain” (Pleasures of Imagination I, l. 32). He (note the gender and social position of the pronoun)—he is distinctly unqualified to exercise virtue in the government or defense his homeland.

This foppish figure is a locus of much eighteenth-century anxiety and makes his appearance in everything from Colley Cibber’s stage satires to Adam Smith’s ambivalent discussion of the division of labor.

Manly exercise is to have martial efficacy. The Duke of Wellington is quoted—spuriously, it seems—as claiming that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Indoors at Eton aristocratic children practiced severe exercises of a different variety, working at their Latin and Greek when not disporting on the margent green. Mens sana in corpore sano.

Mental exertions are meant to offset the increasing refinements available in the metropole. The moral sense is inwardly active and the fitness of “inward constitutions” is tested in gymnastic and imaginative responses to sublime poetry and sentimental novels that exercise the faculties. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith describes those spectators of a “dancer on the slack rope” who “naturally twist and balance their own bodies as they see him do” (I.i.i.3).

The belief that minority is thrown off in wartime is one that abides. But from my vantage tutelage and self-imposed minority fully characterize the population at war. The president rides a hobby-horse at a grave and sober pace across the deck of an aircraft carrier. Tristram Shandy‘s Toby and Trim, veterans of the siege of Namur, play on a bowling-green, building elaborate fortifications against psychic trauma.

Just what sort of phys-ed will exercise a body politic?


1 See “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy. Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: CUP, 1996. pp. 17-22. The guardians of minors carefully prevent the “placid creatures from daring to take a single step without the walking cart in which they have confined them” (8:35, p. 17).

2 “Corruption” is a keyword. J.G.A. Pocock explores the term and its place alongside changing conceptions of “virtue” and “commerce.” See his Virtue, Commerce and History. Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

Mind, a Machine

“I should like you to consider that these functions [including passion, memory, and imagination] follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.”—so writes Descartes in his Treatise on Man (108).

The hypothetical “I should like you to consider…” constructs mechanical, artificial man as a philosopher’s fiction. Man, A Machine, polemicizes La Mettrie one hundred years later.

The eighteenth century is characterized by intellectual historians as a period in the grips of a clock-work metaphor. Cartesian philosophy exempts consciousness from mechanist reduction, but the message gets mistaken and the mind, too, is figured as a machine.

Reduction is a mallet that treats every problem as a nail. Whack! “passion’s fierce illapse … polishes anew / By that collision all the fine machine” (Akenside The Pleasures of the Imagination II.158-62). Whack, whack!

Suppose the body a hydraulic system; the nerves, so many vibrating wires; the passions, illapse and impulse; and the mind, a mill. At what point does metaphor itself overleap some divide between the physical and mental?

In the opening of Hobbes’ Leviathan we are carried away by mechanism: “For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life?” (3).

Automata come alive. Engines move themselves. The intentional stance itself is nearly automatic, and we readily personify machines.1

Personification is a device, and the assignment of a belief or a desire to a complicated piece of machinery is an unusual variety of reduction. To treat a machine as a person is a way of simplifying mechanism. Mechanical complexity is reduced by personification.

Locke, wrangling with the Cartesian proposition that the soul thinks always, offers a reductio ad absurdum: “It is doubted whether I thought at all last night or no; the question being about a matter of fact, it is begging it to bring, as a proof for it, an hypothesis, which is the very thing in dispute: By which way one may prove any thing, and it is but supposing that all watches, whilst the balance beats, think; and it is sufficiently proved, and past doubt, that my watch thought all last night.” (II.i.10).

Reduction, even absurd reduction, delivers us thinking watches.

The figure of the watch or clock is commonplace in the period. What is surprising, perhaps, is the regularity with which it is used to metaphorize the mind. Alexander Pope, for one, is explicit in picturing a clock-work soul in his Essay on Man:

Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul;
Reason’s comparing balance rules the whole (Epistle II, ll. 59-60).2

Adverse cogs turn here. Such is the structure of the couplet. Machines are personified; the mind is a machine.

Bernard Mandeville scores a materialist point, comparing the soul to a mainspring. Do not complain to the Mandevillean materialist that dissection will not discover the soul:

The Brain of an Animal cannot be look’d and search’d into whilst it is alive. Should you take the main Spring out of a Watch, and leave the Barrel that contain’d it, standing empty, it would be impossible to find out what it had been that made it exert itself, whilst it shew’d the Time (Vol. II, 4th dialogue).

The volatile particles that perform the “Labour of the Brain” are no more observable in the cold corpse than the steam that drives the engine when the fire is out and the water cold. We imagine vivisections of an engine. Or the machinery of modern brain surgery.

Clocks and watches recur in eighteenth-century philosophy—but not exclusively in materialist contexts. The clock figures in teleology too. Joseph Butler, in the preface of his Fifteen Sermons, compares the “inward frame of man” to a watch: “Appetites, passions, affections, and the principle of reflection” are so many parts that must, like the pieces and parts of a watch, be put together if we are to apprehend the purpose of the design.3

Pope’s metaphor of reason as a balance is probably borrowed from Pierre Bayle. Certainly the metaphor passes from Bayle into the Clarke-Leibniz debates. And while it is Clarke who makes much trouble for the metaphor in the eighteenth century,4 it is Leibniz who is remembered for denying machine metaphors in philosophy of mind:

a sentient or thinking being is not a mechanical thing like a watch or a mill: one cannot conceive of sizes and shapes and motions combining mechanically to produce something which thinks, and senses too, in a mass where [formerly] there was nothing of the kind—something which would likewise be extinguished by the machine’s going out of order (Preface 66-7).5

This is often presented as a knockdown argument. Leibniz’s thought problem is the mill that grinds to grist materialist theses. But watches and mills continued to serve as metaphors for the mind in the period in spite of Leibniz. New machines serve still today.

I encourage the reader to explore mechanist metaphors for the mind in the database. (Try a new beta version here.) Bacon, Defoe, Smollett, Francis Brooke, and Wollstonecraft, among others, picture the mind as a machine.

Examples are so many gears, balances and countersprings. One pushes against another in the perception of a reader. The collection of metaphors is a mechanical practice, I admit. But through arrangement an intelligence shows itself.


1 “Intentional stance” is Daniel Dennett’s term of art. See The Intentional Stance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987. An important character appears and reappears in Dennett’s arguments as if part of some eighteenth-century it-narrative. That character is the thermostat. See, for example, pp. 22, 25, 29-34.

2 The watch metaphor also appears in Essay on Criticism: “‘Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none / Go just alike, yet each believes his own” (ll. 9-10). I hear the watch miss a beat in the couplet as the caesura comes late and the “none” that closes the first line slips on to “Go” without being endstopped.

In these lines then the watch is not so much an emblem of mechanism as of fallibility. Indeed, in the eighteenth century the connotations of mechanism are not always what we might expect. See Jessica Riskin’s excellent article on “Eighteenth-Century Wetware” published in Representations vol. 82 (Summer 2003) pp. 97-125. Link. Eighteenth-century machines are not to be imagined on the model of Victorian mechanism.

3 Butler abandons the comparison quickly enough: “A machine is inanimate and passive: but we are agents” (327).

4 On Clarke’s and Leibniz’s competing uses of clock and balance metaphors, see John Yolton, Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1983. pp. 131-7.

5 This passage from the preface of Leibniz’s New Essays on Human Understanding is further elaborated in Monadology:

If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters into a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will only find parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception (§17).

As It Were

Must we mean what we say? In the case of metaphor, meaning is underspecified, patently false, or—according to some theorists—somehow transmuted. Somehow changed.

Words must mean just what they mean.1 But what of speakers? What of writers? We say one thing but mean, as it were, another.

“As it were“—a curious, parenthetic phrase. As if it were so. A phrase used “to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps not formally exact though practically right” (OED). The mood is subjunctive. One would say it, if only he could mean it.

The philosopher is much given to hedging claims with an “as it were.” So Descartes writes, “I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but […] I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it” (56). The intermingling or permixing (the Latin is permixtio) is indeed “perhaps not formally right.” I am not the sailor, not the ship, not even the voyage. In the Cartesian account, I am more like the tar, pitch, and tallow—the sealant, as it were.

Oh unfortunate dualist, betrayed by a philosophy of language. There are not two kinds of meaning, literal and figurative. Nor are there two substances, matter and mind. Still we let the one dualism structure the other and are held captive by false distinctions.

James Beattie makes a pun of a kind: “when the senses have nothing to employ them, the mind is left (if I may so speak) a prey to its own thoughts” (I.ii, p. 92). In a moment of parenthesis, literal turns figurative: caged animal spirits turn predator.2

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke uses an “as it were” to bracket the metaphor of his opponents: “It is an established Opinion amongst some Men, That there are in the Understanding certain innate principles; some primary Notions, koinai ennoiai, Characters, as it were stamped upon the Mind of Man; which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the World with it” (I.ii.1).

But Locke marks out his own metaphors as well: memory is “as it were the Store-house of our Ideas” (II.x.2) and “The Mind very often sets it self on work in search of some hidden Idea, and turns, as it were, the Eye of the Soul upon it” (II.x.7).3

“As it were” has its equivalents. There is the Latin tanquam, the alliterative “so to speak,” and the polite pair “if I may so say” and “if I may be so bold.” A character in Henry Fielding’s Amelia begs leave: “So many tender Ideas crowded at once into my Mind, that, if I may use the Expression, they almost dissolved my Heart” (I.iii.3).

Andrew Marvell uses a parenthetic phrase in his “Dialogue Between the Soul and Body.” The imprisoned Soul complains that it is “hung up, as ‘twere, in Chains / Of Nerves, and Arteries, and Veins” (ll. 7-8).

Marvell’s parenthetic is paradigmatic. As in Marvell, the qualification “as it were” often marks imprisonment of the mind or soul in the body. The believer believes that the soul will go free. The prison is only a prison as it were.

The subjunctive “as it were” is an incantation or an amulet. The philosopher produces it to protect himself from his own terminology. A metaphor is meant to open a space to mean something else. The dualist would stage a prison break and repeats—incants—the parenthetic in hopes of navigating some impossible distinction.

I quote Ludwig Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (§115).


1 Donald Davidson argues, correctly I think, that “metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation mean, and nothing more” (245).

2 Sarah Fielding writes of Lady Dellwyn, “she had no Food from outward Objects, to employ her animal Spirits, and they therefore prey’d at home; and oppressed her own Mind” (I.i.10).

3 Locke deploys “as it were” more than fifty times in the Essay. See Locke’s assertion that the memory is the ability to to “revive” ideas and “as it were paint them anew on it self” (II.x.2). Our ideas are “as it were the pictures of things” (II.xxix.8). The mind may be “as it were manacled in the chain of syllogisms” (IV.xvii.5).

The Metaphorical Flood

A watchword in eighteenth-century criticism is “propriety.” It is a dam built against the cheap, popular productions of Grub Street writers. True wit is a propriety of words and thoughts adapted to a subject.1

The Neoclassical author must observe decorum, strive for both correctness and simplicity, and avoid low, vulgar comparisons. In literary history, notably since Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, the elegance of Neoclassicism is contrasted with the extravagance of seventeenth-century Metaphysical wit.

But metaphor is, by definition, an improper use of words. Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum defines metaphor as “putting a foreign Name for a proper one.” Likewise, in his Lectures on Rhetoric, Hugh Blair claims, metaphor occurs “when, in place of using the proper name of any object, we employ in its place, the name of some other [object] which is like it” (294).2

Metaphor flouts propriety by putting improper names in the place of proper ones. Metaphor is displacement. What place then can metaphor have in those studied attempts of the Neoclassicists to observe propriety?

No paradox lurks here. Metaphor occupies a central place in eighteenth-century literature. Truly, there is little, if any, literature that does not avail itself of metaphor. The literature of the eighteenth century is no exception; it is awash in figuration. Propriety is a false standard.

Critical pronouncements and artistic practice typically diverge. Hobbes and Locke, master metaphorists, are repeatedly cited as professed enemies of figurative language; belle-lettrists warn against metaphor and then deploy it in the same sentence.2 Do as I say but not as I do.

I will not explore contradictions under the sign of aporia. My discussion of propriety prefaces a selection of tortured comparisons from The Mind is a Metaphor database. Extravagant, gross, and vulgar violations of propriety interest me. Decorum is breached to specific ends.

The literary traditions that focus on capturing “the inwardness of our mental lives in a quite direct, experiential manner” succeed by “straining the resources of everyday language in the interest of fidelity to this experience” (Toulmin 4). Against constraint we strain.

Sir Richard Blackmore, physician and minor eighteenth-century poet, writes,

Thou see’st from whence her Colours Fancy takes,
Of what Materials she her Pencil makes
By which she paints her Scenes with such Applause,
And in the Brain ten thousand Landskips draws.
The Cells, and little Lodgings, Thou canst see
In Mem’ry’s Hoards and secret Treasury;
Dost the dark Cave of each Idea spy,
And see’st how rang’d the crouded Lodgers lye;
How some, when beckon’d by the Soul, awake,
While peaceful Rest their uncall’d Neighbours take.
Thou know’st the downy Chains that softly bind
Our slumb’ring Sense, when waiting Objects find
No Avenue left open to the Mind.
Mean Time thou see’st how guideless Spirits play,
And mimick o’er in Dreams the busy Day,
With pleasant Scenes and Figures entertain,
Or with their monstrous Mixtures fright the Brain.

The stanza is itself a “monstrous Mixture” of metaphors and personifications. Blackmore, a versifier of Lockean philosophy, gives us images that would explain mental imagery; he pictures ideas that sleep in the consciousness and animal spirits that wake when we dream; he produces an allegory of these actors and their activities and furnishes the variegated scene with pencils, hoards of treasure, landscape paintings, caves, lodgings, chains, and avenues. The figuration is both in and out of doors, a fancifully painted “Landskip” but also the brain’s terrain.

Blackmore’s metaphors are often characterized as bombastic by his contemporaries. Yet Blackmore works in the epic form. He wields pentameter and couplet. His figuration is contained in “epic similes.” His models are Virgil and Milton. He pursues propriety. Still, Blackmore found himself attacked by Dryden and later by the Scriblerians and Alexander Pope.

Pope ridicules Blackmore in the Dunciad. In the mock olympic games of Pope’s satire, Blackmore is a contender. When the dunce poets dive in the sludge and sewage of Fleet-Ditch, Blackmore is celebrated (along with Matthew Concanen) for his bathetic perseverance:

True to the bottom, see Concanen creep,
A cold, long-winded, native of the deep!
If perseverance gain the Diver’s prize,
Not everlasting Blackmore this denies:
No noise, no stir, no motion can’st thou make,
Th’unconscious flood sleeps o’er thee like a lake (II.288-92).

Perhaps Blackmore pursues propriety too far. Lord Kames warns that metaphors must not be “extended to a great length, nor be crowded with many minute circumstances” (119). Moreover, metaphors should not be joined in the same period (124). An extended metaphor overstrains the mind. At least Blackmore is in good company. Overly nice eighteenth-century critics often accuse Shakespeare of mixing and muddling his metaphors. Kames, for one, treats Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech explicitly.3

In closing I treat the reader with two hydrological metaphors, both of which strain propriety. Impropriety itself may be characterized as a flood in which metaphors arrive torrentially. Blair notes, “Whenever the imaginations of the vulgar are much awakened, or their passions inflamed against one another, they will pour forth a torrent of Figurative Language” (275).

The novelist Tobias Smollett mixes Liquid metaphors and Mineralogical ones with satirical effect. Remember Blackmore’s cells, caves, and hoards; in Smollett the mind is a mine sluiced and impregnated with vitriol:

After a weak mind has been duly prepared, and turned as it were, by opening a sluice or torrent of high-sounding words, the greater the contradiction proposed the stronger impression it makes, because it increases the puzzle, and lays fast hold on the admiration; depositing the small proportion of reason with which it was before impregnated, like the vitriol acid in the copper-mines of Wicklow, into which if you immerse iron, it immediately quits the copper which it had before dissolved, and unites with the other metal, to which it has a stronger attraction (168).

The superintendents of propriety instruct us to not concern ourselves with the workings of sluices, or with the corrosive effects of vitriol. Technical vocabularies are faulted by those who begrudge vulgar professionals their own “high-sounding” words. Blair finds metaphors “borrowed from any of the sciences, especially such of them as belong to particular professions, are almost always faulty by their obscurity” (362).

I take my final example from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela:

While the Banks of Discretion keep within their natural Chanel the proud Waves of Passion, all calm and serene, glides along the silver Current, inlivening the adjacent Meadows, as it passes, with a brighter and more flowery Verdure. But if the Torrents of sensual Love are permitted to descend from the Hills of credulous Hope, they may so swell the gentle Stream, as to make it difficult, if not impossible, to be retain’d in its usual Bounds. What then will be the Consequence?— Why, the Trees of Resolution, and the Shrubs of cautious Fear, whose intertwining Roots had contributed to support the frail Mound, being loosen’d from their Hold, they, and the Bank itself, will be seen floating on the Surface of the triumphant Waters (III. L63, p. 431).

Richardson pictures the stream of consciousness as a passionate torrent. He extends his metaphor beyond all belief.

The critic may value propriety over the bombastic, the strained, and the mixed. Or he may come to prize the excessive language Johnson dismisses as a “cumber of magnificence” (in Life of Cowley 116).

We’ve seen that Hugh Blair pictures cumbrous language as a vulgar “Torrent” and Pope as an “unconscious flood,” and we begin to understand that the metaphor for metaphor is liquid.

On this anniversary day, metaphors proper and improper, “high-sounding” and vulgar, pour forth as a torrent of language. The sluices open. The oceans rise. The tide has not yet turned. “Triumphant Waters” and high-sounding, empty rhetoric will cover, bury, and drown us all.


1 The sentiment is John Dryden’s. But see Addison’s revision of the definition in Spectator No. 62: “Mr. Dryden’s Definition of Wit; which, with all the Deference that is due to the Judgment of so great a Man, is not so properly a Definition of Wit, as of good Writing in general.” See also William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks in Literary Criticism: A Short History. vol. 1. U of C Press: Chicago and London, 1987. pp. 228-34.

2 See also The Ladies Rhetoric: “Metaphors are Words taken from their natural Signification, and from the Place where they were proper, to make them serve in another that bears some resemblance with the natural Signification” (Anonymous 88). Or Charles Rollin’s 1734 translation of The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres: “The metaphor is a figure which substitutes the figurative terms it borrows extraneously, as it were, by a kind of exchange, in the room of proper words which are either wanting, or have not energy enough” (162). The fifth sense of “propriety” in the OED is “the proper, strict, or literal sense of a word” (emphasis mine). Behind all these definitions stands the Aristotelian pronouncement that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics 1457b5-10).

3 On all these points Hugh Blair agrees with Lord Kames. Metaphors may be “too far pursued” (370). Cowley, Shaftesbury, and Young are prone to wearying us with the play of their fancy. Shakespeare is faulted for making two metaphors “meet on one object” (365). And even Pope is faulted for producing periods that are not all literal or all figurative but mixed.

Of Minds and Moles

The soul is a zoo—and has long been figured so. In Book IX of the Republic Socrates asks his interlocutor to picture a many-headed beast or chimaera. The monster is “an image of the soul in speech,” a tripartite image combining “a manifold and many-headed beast that has a ring of heads of tame and wild beasts” with the single image of a lion and the image of a man (588b-c).

Plato’s picture of the soul recurs in later intellectual history. In medieval allegory each sin and passion is represented by a specific emblematic animal. Fallen man is a collection of brute antagonists. In his verse epistle “To Sir Edward Herbert,” John Donne compares man to “a lump, where all beasts kneaded be; / Wisdom makes him the ark where all agree” (ll. 1-2).1

From out of the variety of fauna employed in the figuring of the mind and its activity we might choose the blind and burrowing mole as an especially curious specimen. The lowly mole may be thought an unlikely candidate for the mind’s mascot, but I’ve encountered eight instances of the Mole metaphor of the mind in eighteenth-century literature.

The mole is a limit case in the Age of Enlightenment but also a demonstration that just about any animal will suffice for metaphorizing.2

John Keats enlists the mole at least twice in his poetry. In his “Sonnet to Sleep” he pleads, “Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords / Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole” (ll. 11-2).3

In the eighteenth century, conscience is more readily figured with vultures. Keats retools the metaphor with surprising effect by picturing a subterranean mental space.

The mole reappears in Keats’ Isabella and is put to a different use:

Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see scull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole;
Pitying each form that hungry Death hath marr’d,
And filling it once more with human soul? (ll. 217-22)

The mole makes a different sort of appearance in the fourth volume of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, when Pamela transcribes the following lines from John Dryden’s All for Love:

And yet the Soul, shut up in her dark Room,
Viewing so clear abroad, at home sees nothing:
But like a Mole in Earth, busy and blind,
Works all her Folly up, and casts it outward
To the World’s open View— (IV.53, p. 335).4

The mind is a mole, locked in, a creature incapable of introspection. We are hypocrites, and “at home” the mind is only “busy and blind.” Dryden’s use of the mole is more representative of the period’s pessimism than Keats’ more original uses.

In the context of Pamela the mole would seem connected to John Locke’s “dark room” of the mind (II.xi.17) so that Dryden’s lines become one of the precedents for the better known Lockean metaphor. Or at least Richardson puts the two authors together: Pamela quotes Dryden in her discussion of Locke’s pedagogical theory. Perhaps Richardson is having some fun with philosophers who claim, like Locke in his “Epistle to the Reader,” to be a mere “Under-Labourer[s] in clearing the Ground a little, and removing some Rubbish, that lies in the way to knowledge.”

The mole is an explicit figure for the sceptic philosopher in Samuel Boyse’s philosophical poem Deity, or the more grave than wise natural philosopher of fossils who appears in John Gay’s epistle “To a Lady on her Passion for Old China.” Boyse’s philosopher is a “sceptic mole;” Gay’s “digs for knowledge, like a Mole.”

In Henry Brooke’s novel The Fool of Quality one Mr. Mole appears. He is an atheistic philosopher who prefers “Justification by Charity” to “Sanctification by Faith” and scuffles with the devout protagonist (IV.xvii, p. 270). In the particular context of Brooke’s Methodist novel Mr. Mole is portrayed as a villain. The mole who flees the light is then both a mascot of Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment.

Hegel, measuring the slow progress of philosophy from Thales to his own moment, pictures Spirit itself as a mole working inwardly, often opposed to itself, growing stronger, until it bursts through the crust of the earth and into the light.

The mole reappears in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. The vicar’s son, Moses, upends moral sense philosophy in making the point that we are not to judge the feelings of others by what we would feel in their place. Moses claims that a poor “man’s mind seems fitted to its station:” “Howsoever dark the habitation of the mole to our eyes, yet the animal finds the apartment sufficiently lightsome” (58).5

Goldsmith’s novel displays and ironizes eighteenth-century notions of hierarchy. Moles often appear in moments of perspective adjustment, and the mountain and the mole-hill are paired throughout the century. Each creature is fit to its station in the Great Chain of Being, and the lowly mole pores on its clods in a kind of Augustan profundity.6

In Blake’s Book of Thel, Thel’s motto contrasts eagle and mole, asking,

Does the eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?7

Blake suggests the mole knows things the eagle does not. Moses’ pedantic equation of the laboring poor with burrowing insectivorous mammals proves more appalling.

In eighteenth-century poetic diction moles are “poor,” “low,” “busy,” and “laborious.” We imagine a mole-ish multitude.

Moses’ apologetic for poverty is heavily ironized by Goldsmith. The mole-man in question, the impoverished Mr. Burchell, is a wealthy man in disguise. It is the Primrose family who are blind to his actual station for he is, in fact, Sir William Thornhill, kind and generous uncle of their wicked landlord, Squire Thornhill. In the expanding irony of the narrative the entire Primrose family is plunged into far worse straits than those of the (fictitious) Mr. Burchell, so that Moses has ample opportunity to judge the feelings of Burchell from his own newly lowered station.

In the longer history of ideas the mole is rescued by Marx and Marxist authors. Low and laborious associations present an opportunity for reversal as that same mole that appears in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History is made to figure the coming revolution.8

The propinquity of man and beast in the chain of being was widely recognized in the eighteenth century, but the full theological implications of consanguinity may have been slower to dawn.9 The period’s fascination with wild boys and learned pigs, its experiments with singerie, and its deep moral (and financial) investment in the breeding of pets indicates that beasts had become something more than our ontological neighbors on the Chain of Being.

A metaphor of mind confuses tenor and vehicle, frame and focus, topic and comment, mole and mind. In the eighteenth century the ability to distinguish species was troubled, and the efforts of natural philosophers and poets to inhabit comfortably a position “midway from nothing to the deity” or to measure accurately that position’s coordinates proved to be a project demanding endless nuance and revision.10


1 See J. B. Bamborough’s discussion of these lines in The Little World of Man (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1952) 15-6.

2 In his Essay on Man Alexander Pope asks, “What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme, / The mole’s dim curtain, and the lynx’s beam” (ll. 211-2).

3 Keats’ may have in mind William Cowper’s translation of Giovanni Battista Andreini’s Adamo. In Adamo Satan is twice figured as the “sightless mole of hell” (IV.ii and The play is practically infested with mole metaphors. Both Adam and Eve compare themselves to the blind creature.

4 Dryden’s All for Love is the most Shakespearean of his plays. The mole metaphor may be an indirect allusion to the following lines from Hamlet: “Well said, old mole! Canst work I’ th’ earth so fast? / A worthy pioneer!” (I.v.162-3). Richardson uses the mole—or rather mole-hill—metaphor again in Clarissa. The burrowing creature is smuggled into that text in a similar manner when Belford quotes the following lines from Nathaniel Lee’s Oedipus:

Each mole-hill thought swells to a huge Olympus;
While we, fantastic dreamers, heave and puff,
And sweat with our imagination’s weight (qtd. VII.1).

5 A similar sentiment is available in Samuel Jackson Pratt’s Sympathy, in which the poet notes that “A due proportion to all creatures given, / From the mole’s mansion to the seraph’s heav’n.”

6 The poet Leonard Welsted is treated in The Dunciad. He is compared to a didapper, an eel, and then at more length, a mole. Welsted is instructed to mark the mole “in his dirty hole” who keeps a “mighty stir” below but only to raise a molehill (V. 199, note 3).

7 Compare the following lines from The Visions of the Daughters of Albion: “Does not the eagle scorn the earth and despise the treasures beneath? / But the mole knoweth what is there, and the worm shall tell it thee” (ll. 158-9). Of course, the pairing of mole and eagle is not original to Blake. Locke writes, “The ignorance and darkness that is in us, no more hinders nor confines the knowledge that is in others, than the blindness of a mole is an argument against the quicksightedness of an eagle” (IV.iii.23). And in George Berkeley’s Alciphron Euphranor complains, “You can easily conceive, that the sort of life which makes the happiness of a mole or a bat, would be a very wretched one for an eagle” (II.14). Edmund Burke uses the pairing to characterize John Law’s flights of commerce: Law’s land bank scheme “was wherewithal to dazzle the eye of an eagle. It was not made to entice the smell of a mole, nuzzling and burying himself in his mother earth” (300).

8 The revolutionary mole metaphor is analyzed in John Milfull’s essay “Notes from Underground: of Moles, Metros, and Messiahs.” Australian Humanities Review. Issue 37. 2005. Link

9 See A. O. Lovejoy’s treatment of Pope, Bolingbroke, and Soames Jenyns in The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) 195-8. In her Fables of Modernity Laura Brown observes that Lovejoy is unable to make sense fully of the comparatively late—late in the history of the idea—realization that man and animal are neighbors on the scale of being and must therefore, according to the principle of continuity, blend or shade together. Brown sees the issue as becoming available “in the intellectual discourse at the same time that the modern encounter with alterity gained cultural prominence;” in Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001) 228. Brown would rescue Lovejoy’s history of ideas by placing it in a richer cultural history of the period.

10 The quotation is from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, or, the Complaint and the Consolation (Toronto: Dover Publications, 1975) 3. See Lovejoy, Chain of Being 190.

The Nose of the Mind

James Boswell reports in his Life of Dr. Johnson that during the course of a “curious discussion” Johnson once compared sagacity to the “the nose of the mind.” The metaphor is part of a paired distinction. If the intuition is the “eye of the mind” then sagacity is the nose—“the one being immediate in its effect, the other requiring a circuitous process” (1171).

Boswell reports that a Young Gentleman takes the opportunity to quibble with The Doctor: no man ever thinks of the nose of the mind. Young gentleman that he is, he persists too long in his argument and puts himself forward with too much presumption. The figurative sense is strange to us, Boswell urges in Johnson’s defense, but no more forced than Hamlet’s “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.”1

The exchange is profoundly Shandean, and I would more were related about the mind’s nose over against the mind’s eye. Boswell’s abstract is much too compressed, and although the argument is characterized as a tedious one, we never learn the gist of it. The summary is finished before it begins, dispatched with Johnson’s loud tone: “What is it you are contending for if you be contending?”

But who indeed ever thinks of the nose of the mind?

Thomas Love Peacock comes close, exclaiming, “Oh nose of wax! true symbol of the mind / Which fate and fortune mould in all mankind” (ll. 1-2).2 The only other mind’s nose in literature that I’m acquainted with may be found in Delphine de Girardin’s writings. She asserts that “Instinct is the nose of the mind.” Girardin’s “instinct” and Johnson’s “sagacity” are wide of each other—Or perhaps they are two nostrils separated by the mind’s septum.3

I might also cite the following lines from Billingsley’s The Infancy of the World (1658) to perverse effect:

Man’s nose is like a sink by which the braine
Doth purge it self of phlegm, the nose doth drain
All slimy Excrements

The byproduct of thought is snot. [Enter Young Gentleman.] Grotesquerie abounds when we mix and muddle our metaphors.

Several body parts are enlisted in eighteenth-century pictures the mind; few support sustained analysis. The eye is, of course, both the exception and the most important of the mental organs.

Eyes and noses are complemented with other sense organs. Matthew Green writes of the “minds ear” in The Grotto. John Keats in his sonnet “To Fanny” describes the “palate of [his] mind / losing its gust” (ll. 13-14). The face, a locus of our sense apparatus, plays a special role in the metaphorics of mind, and Catherine Jemmat uses the metaphor the “pimple of the mind.”

St. Peter encourages his reader to “gird up the loins of your mind” (KJV 1 Peter 1:13), and William Godwin deploys Peter’s metaphor in his Thoughts on Man (Essay II). Mind and body participate in dualisms, material and immaterial, ancient and newfangledly Cartesian, literal and figurative. I contend that one dualism structures the other and that both rely on false distinctions.

Johnson’s juxtaposition of nose and eye queers the Shakespearean metaphor. A metaphor that no longer seems, in Boswell’s phrase, “forced” can become so with a lightest touch. Cross your mind’s eyes.

It may be that the mind’s eye is not something we usually picture because it is itself the mental organ that we suppose does the picturing. The mind’s eye may not be equipped to spy itself out. In his Amelia Henry Fielding makes the point that we often retreat into the mind, “where there is no Looking-Glass, and consequently where we can flatter ourselves with discovering almost whatever Beauties we please” (III.7.3).

Why is this eye of the mind so typically monocular? Should we picture a cyclopean mind, its one eye blinking away all the motes that trouble it? In much eighteenth-century poetic diction, reason is the faculty of the mind equipped with plural “eyes.” But this binocularity may be as much owing to assonance as to reason’s depth of vision.

The outfitting of the mind with sensory organs begs further questions: What is the mind’s mind that surveys the internal sensations delivered to it by the mind’s eye, ear, and palate? Is there a mind’s mind’s eye? And how would we ever halt this regress? A theory of consciousness that includes an account of the mind’s eye had best recognize those distinctions between literal and figurative that are poisoned and those metaphors that fail us.

These are questions provoked by trying to picture the mind’s nose and feeling the metaphor to be no more “forced” than Shakespeare’s “mind’s eye.” The way to sagacity is certainly circuitous. Following one’s nose won’t do.


1 Hamlet I.i and I.ii are the loci classici of the mind’s eye, but the metaphor is not original to Shakespeare. Alwin Thaler has done the archaeological work demonstrating that the expression has a prehistory that reaches back through Spenser, Sidney, Chaucer, St. Paul, and Plato; see Thaler’s “In My Mind’s Eye, Horatio,” Shakespeare Quarterly, VII:4 (Aut, 1956): 351-4. However, in the eighteenth-century, as in Boswell above, when the mind’s eye is invoked, the attribution is typically Shakespearean. See, for example, Sarah Fielding’s David Simple (II.iv.4), The Cry (II, Prologue), and Countess of Dellwyn (I.ii.1). I find this narrowness of attribution in the case of the mind’s eye akin to the attachment of the Tabula Rasa metaphor to Locke’s name. Neither Shakespeare nor Locke are the originators of the metaphors they’ve become associated with and yet literary history has conspired to link their names to those metaphors.

2 A “nose of wax” is “a thing easily turned or moulded; a person easily influenced, or of a weak character,” see the OED (“nose, n.” sense 9).

3 The “mind’s nose” has recently made a comeback in contemporary medical literature. See Stephen Kosslyn’s “Understanding the Mind’s Eye…and Nose,” Nature Neuroscience, 6:11 (Nov. 2003): 1124-5. See also Djordjevic, J.; Zatorre, R.J.; Petrides, M.; Jones-Gotman M.; “The Mind’s Nose: Effects of Odor and Visual imagery on Odor Detection,” Psychol Sci., 15:3 (Mar. 2004): 143-8.

Blank Slate, Copper-Plate

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.

Seward observes,

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.


1 For more on the elegiac quality of Locke’s imagery see John Richetti’s Locke, Berkeley, Hume (Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1983) pp. 83-4. Richetti follows Paul Fussell in characterizing this imagery as “elegiac.” See Fussell’s The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) pp. 298-9.

2 Compare second and third senses given in the OED.

Crowds and Reverie

In an age of faculty psychology minds are busy, populated places. When I consult the metaphors of mind used by eighteenth-century writers to image the self’s interior, I find repeated and significant personifications of the mind’s contents.

In particular, that new fixture of empiricist philosophy, the idea, is readily personified. Sensations are so many ministers who appear before the sovereign soul, passions are so many unruly citizens, and each faculty may step into some civic or social role. Within are strangers, stage actors, servants, crowds, savage tribes, judges and lawyers, generals, lowly foot soldiers, ghost-memories, and close-knit families. Undoubtedly, further personifications escape my census-taking.

Introspection and meditation—activities that are meant to be lonely, personal, and private—discover the populated structure of the mind.

Consider the mind of Robinson Crusoe. Isolated for more than twenty-four years on his desert island, Crusoe is unable to sleep one night. He describes his insomnia retrospectively: “It is as impossible as needless to set down the innumerable Crowd of Thoughts that whirl’d through that great Thorowfair of the Brain, the Memory, in this Night’s Time” (200). Crusoe’s mind in isolation is figured as a busy place—a crowded thoroughfare. Lonely Crusoe (that literary, that mythical paradigm of the solitary individual) owns a populated mind.

In the novel’s episodic narrative, Crusoe’s reverie follows his exploration of a Spanish shipwreck, and his exclamation, “O that it had been but one or two; nay but one soul saved out of this ship!” (193). Should we read the “Crowd of Thoughts” as hypnagogic wish-fulfilment? No. I interpret the figuration as an indication of the phenomenology of reverie: loss of self in the hustle and hurry of one’s own thoughts. Crusoe’s sleeplessness provokes a specific serious reflection. He acknowledges that there may be hundreds of cannibals frequenting his island at any time, all lurking just out of sight.

The loss of self in a crowd of thoughts is featured in Montaigne, David Hume, Edward Young, and James Beattie. Each writer identifies the same phenomenology but adjusts the image and puts it to a different use.

There is, finally, the historical background that I am obliged to reference. In an age of faculty psychology minds are populated, busy places, yes. And London—even more so than Amsterdam or Paris—is a busy, populated place. According to the seventeenth-century statistician Gregory King, two-thirds of all English townsfolk were living in London by 1680. The population of England doubled in the eighteenth century.1 In the novel Evelina the eponymous ingénue arrives in London and walks the Mall in St James Park. She is astounded by the crowds and writes that she has never seen “so many people assembled together before … all the world seemed there” (29).

Eighteenth-century metaphors of mind would seem to register the Malthusian crush. It proves impossible to be alone with one’s thoughts. Ideas throng and crowd the mind like so many pleasure-seekers in St James Park. They prowl just at the edge of consciousness. The hortus conclusus is overrun with prostitutes and cutpurses—perhaps even cannibals.


1 Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), p. 131.


One starts with an epigraph. I will take mine from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss:

It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor! Once call the brain an intellectual stomach, and one’s ingenious conception of the classics and geometry as ploughs and harrows seems to settle nothing. But then, it is open to someone else to follow great authorities and call the mind a sheet of white paper or a mirror, in which case one’s knowledge of the digestive process becomes quite irrelevant. It was doubtless an ingenious idea to call the camel the ship of the desert, but it would hardly lead one far in training that useful beast. O Aristotle! if you had the advantage of being ‘the freshest modern’ instead of the greatest ancient, would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor,—that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?