Published in 1804. After reading a prospectus of Samuel Richardson's Clarrisa, Joseph Spence responds with an allegory of criticism in which Nature (Richardson's novel) is assaulted by Art (the critics attempting to trim her plumes).
The letter is an interesting bit of generic exchange: Spence had recently written at length about allegory in his Polymetis, where Spenser is somewhat severely handled for violating the "rules." Here, however, Spence appears not only as the defender of nature, but as an allegorist in the "natural" vein as he wittily imitates Richardson's novelistic manner in presenting his dream: "'Do you know them? (said I.) For Heaven's sake! who are they?' 'These are not real ladies (replied he) but allegorical ones.' 'Allegorical ladies! (cried I) I am extremely glad of it; for I don't know that I ever saw an allegorical lady before, in my life; but, pray, what are their names?'" 2:325-26.
Stratton-street, January 21, 1748.
I have read over your contents, and return them to you, with many thanks. Even the reading of them (which contents, I think, never did before) gave me, several times, those fine emotions which you know I am so fond of;
Those feelings of the soul! — that charming pain,
That swells and agitates the heaving breast,
And bursts in tears of pleasure at the eye.
I have a moral feeling for you, of another sort; on seeing how much you suffer from the contrariety of advices that have been given you. Such a multitude of opinions can only serve to confuse your own judgment, which I verily believe would direct you better, without any help, than with so much.
I wish you would take up a resolution (which perhaps may be new to you) of neither trusting others, nor distrusting yourself, too much. If you bundle up the opinions of bad judges in your head, they will only be so much lumber in your way; and even the opinions of good judges, in general, when they come to decide about particulars in your Clarissa, are much to be suspected.
Have they sufficiently considered your design and manner of writing in that piece? Do they know the connections and dependencies of one part upon another? Are they acquainted with your various ends in writing it; your unravellings, of the story; and your winding up of the whole? Without these lights, a very good judge may give a very wrong opinion about the parts that compose it. Another defect in those that are called the best judges is, that they generally go by rules of art; whereas your's is absolutely a work of nature. One might, for instance, as well judge of the beauties of a prospect by the rules of architecture, as of your Clarissa by the laws of novels and romances.
A piece quite of a new kind must have new rules, if any; but the best of all is, following nature and common sense.
Nature, I think, you have followed more variously, and at the same time more closely, than any one I know. For Heaven's sake, let not those sworn enemies of all good works (the critics) destroy the beauties you have created. If you indulge them all in their wicked will, they will cut every tree in your garden into a bird or a beast.
What I have just said will hold stronger against lopping. You love the Scriptures. There, you know, a good man is said to be like a tree by the rivers of water. You are, as yet, flourishing in all your verdure; for God's sake don't let them make a pollard of you! Upon reading the contents of the whole, I am more and more convinced that much ought not to be parted with. Pruning is always proper. If you see a dead branch, or a straggling bough, that offends your eye, cut it away; but do not labour to find out faults where they do not meet you.
For fear I should fall into too grave and critical a way myself, if you please, I'll tell you a story. I wish it was shorter; but you will be so good as to take it as you find it. But, hold! shall I call it a dream or a story? A dream, you know, may be as long as one pleases, and so I'll e'en call it a dream!
As we had a tolerable afternoon yesterday, I went, as usual, into the Park; and, after a turn or two in the Mall, stept to the pretty coffee-house at the end of it, just without Buckingham-gate. I had the second part of your Clarissa in my pocket, and was so eager to go on with the story, that I could not help pursuing it even in the coffee-room.
I seated myself there by the fire, and after reading about ten leaves, my eyes (which are still very bad with my cold) would not suffer me to go any farther. I laid my book down upon the table, and in a few minutes sunk insensibly into a gentle slumber, to the hum of three or four critics, who were gravely debating over their coffee, on the other side of the room.
Our thoughts in sleep are often only a continuation of the dreams we have while we are awake. At least, it was so with me now; for I was no sooner asleep, than I found myself again walking by the side of the Mall, with several of the same persons in it that I had left there so lately. But there was one lady, whom I had never seen there, I think, before, and who soon engaged all my attention. She was tall; of an easy air, and noble deportment; with a face more charming than one of Guido's angels. There was grace in all her looks and motions; her dress was rather negligent than set; she had very little head-dress, and her hair fell in easy ringlets down to her shoulders; her bosom was shaded with lawn, but not imprisoned in stays, as one could discern through her long robe of white satin, which was collected there, though it flowed all loose, and at its full liberty, behind her. As I and several others were admiring her (for no man could look steadily on her without admiring her) a little, pert, busy woman, with much of the air of a French milliner, came tripping to hen, and cried (half out of breath) "O! Ma'am, I'm most extremely glad of having the pleasure of meeting your la'ship here! but, for God's sake, who dressed you to-day? Never did Heaven give so many beauties to any one person to be so hideously neglected as your la'ship's are. Those beautiful auburn ringlets to be suffered to run to all that wildness! why, they wander at least three fingers-breadth lower than they ought to do! Then these wide unmanaged sleeves! and that intolerable length of your robe, that hides the prettiest feet in the universe! That length of robe is what I can't nor won't bear with!" As every thing she said was accompanied with much action, these last words were followed by a very violent one; for just as she had finished them, she applied a pair of scissars (which she had till then concealed) to the robe, which had so much offended her, and running them along with the greatest impetuosity, in a moment as it were, divided all the lower half of it from the upper. A gentleman, who stood just by me, and had observed the whole affair with a particular attention, seemed more than ordinarily moved at it. "What! (says he) shall it be allowed to so mean a creature to insult so noble an one, thus in the sight of day, and in my sight, who am so well acquainted with the dignity of the one, and the vileness of the other?" "Do you know them? (said I.) For Heaven's sake! who are they?" "These are not real ladies (replied he) but allegorical ones." "Allegorical ladies! (cried I) I am extremely glad of it; for I don't know that I ever saw an allegorical lady before, in my life; but, pray, what are their names?" "That fine lady (says he) with so free and graceful an air, is NATURE; and that little busy French milliner, who has cut off the most flowing part of her robe (perhaps only to make pincushions and patchwork of it at home) is ART. Now you know who they are, you will, I doubt not, be the more ready to join me to catch that wretch, and conduct the noble sufferer out of this crowd. Let us fly, then! (cried he, taking me by the hand) let us fly!—" And at that instant I started out of my sleep, awakened by a sudden quarrel that had arisen between the critics in the coffee-room. It seems they had taken up your book, which I had dropped heedlessly on the table. Three of them maintained, with great clamour, that it ought to be reduced to half its bulk; that a story ought to be short and quick, and the events crowding in upon one another; that a giant-novel was a monster in nature; and several other things that put me in mind of the restraining character of the milliner in my dream. I could not help smiling a little to myself. I put your book into my pocket, which they had flung down again upon the table, in the impetuosity of their arguments; and left them to debate over a point, which they seemed very little to understand.
I am now safe again in my room, where I should be glad to see you on Saturday, if it suits your convenience. I will have a vegetable dinner that day, of which you may take a part or not, as you please. If it should be inconvenient to, you to stay, it may, however, be of service to me; for, with such temperate diet, I shall be the less subject, perhaps, to these hurrying dreams. I am, in the mean time, very sincerely and affectionately,