1773
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Hill of Science. A Vision.

Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose, by J. and A. Aikin.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld


Anna Laetitia Barbauld imitates the Hill of Science from the Tablet of Cebes in a manner that in several places recalls Spenser, not least her "Dark Walk of Allegory." Led by his genius, the Dreamer encounters the figures of Memory, Genius, Application, Indolence (who gets a particularly detailed portrait) and Virtue, who declares, "Science may raise you to eminence, but I alone can guide you to felicity!"

The Hill of Science was often reprinted in Vicesimus Knox's Elegant Extracts, in which publication it would have been studied by several generations of schoolchildren. In 1798 Barbauld's brother John Aikin published a long series of essays on poetical allegory in the Monthly Magazine.

Critical Review: "In all the little pieces, of which this volume consists, there are the evident characteristics of taste, ingenuity, and judgment" 36 (October 1773) 297.

London Magazine: "These pieces are ten in number, and comprehend various subjects in literature. In general, they are written in an elegant taste, and entertain the mind as well as the imagination. In some of those which are merely speculative, the authors appear to have travelled too much at random, and to have advanced something which probably is not defencible. 'Sed hae nugae!'" 42 (November 1773) 559.

Westminster Magazine: "The Public are not unacquainted with the elegant pens of these Literati. This volume consists of ten essays, specimens of which our Readers will find in our present, as well as our last number. While we willingly pay our tribute of applause to the chastity and correctness of these pieces, we cannot help confessing that the imitation of the style of other Writers is rather a blemish than a beauty in them. The utility of it does not appear; and the self-gratification arising from our being able to write like other people, is so temporary and fruitless, that it ought to be despised. The style of one essay is written in imitation of Dr. Johnson: but all styles have their faults; and we should act more prudently, at least, in correcting the blemishes of our own, than in copying those of another style" 1 (November 1773) 663.

William Woodfall: "The hill of science is a most picturesque and enchanting object, and we have seldom been so delighted as in viewing its several parts. The allegorical personages, the woods and fields, would have been charmingly romantic if they had not been 'all terminated with the statue of a Grace, a Virtue, or a Muse'" Monthly Review 49 (December 1773) 473.

James Boswell: "When treating of the utility of the pleasures of imagination in preserving us from vice, it is observed of those 'who know not how to be idle and innocent,' that their very first step out of business is into vice or folly; which Dr. Blair supposed would have been expressed in The Rambler thus: 'Their very first step out of the regions of vacuity of business is into the perturbation of vice, or the vacuity of folly.' JOHNSON: 'Sir, these are not the words I should have used. No, Sir; the imitators of my style have not hit it. Miss Aikin has done it the best; for she has imitated the sentiment as well as the diction'" 1777; Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 3:195.




In that season of the year when the serenity of the sky, the various fruits which cover the ground, the discoloured foliage of the trees, and all the sweet, but fading graces of inspiring autumn, open the mind to benevolence, and dispose it for contemplation; I was wandering in a beautiful and romantic country, till curiosity began to give way to weariness; and I sat me down on the fragment of a rock overgrown with moss, where the rustling of the falling leaves, the dashing of waters, and the hum of the distant city, soothed my mind into the most perfect tranquility, and sleep insensibly stole upon me, as I was indulging the agreeable reveries which the objects around me naturally inspired.

I immediately found myself in a vast extended plain, in the middle of which arose a mountain higher than I had before any conception of. It was covered with a multitude of people, chiefly youth; many of whom pressed forwards with the liveliest expression of ardor in their countenance, though the way was in many places steep and difficult. I observed, that those who had but just begun to climb the hill, thought themselves not far from the top; but as they proceeded, new hills were continually rising to their view, and the summit of the highest they could before discern, seemed but the foot of another, till the mountain at length appeared to lose itself in the clouds. As I was gazing on these things with astonishment, my good genius suddenly appeared. The mountain before thee, said he, is the HILL OF SCIENCE. On the top is the temple of Truth, whose head is above the clouds, and a veil of pure light covers her face. Observe the progress of her votaries; be silent, and attentive.

I saw that the only regular approach to the mountain was by a gate, called the gate of languages. It was kept by a woman of a pensive and thoughtful appearance, whose lips were continually moving, as though she repeated something to herself. Her name was MEMORY. On entering this first enclosure, I was stunned with a confused murmur of jarring voices, and dissonant sounds; which increased upon me to such a degree, that I was utterly confounded, and could compare the noise to nothing but the confusion of tongues at Babel. The road was also rough and stony; and rendered more difficult by heaps of rubbish, continually tumbled down from the higher parts of the mountain; and broken ruins of antient buildings, which the travellers were obliged to climb over at every step; insomuch that many, disgusted with so rough a beginning, turned back and attempted the mountain no more: while others, having conquered this difficulty, had no spirits to ascend further, and sitting down on some fragment of the rubbish, harangued the multitude below with the greatest marks of importance and self-complacency.

About half way up the hill, I observed on each side the path a thick forest covered with continual fogs, and cut into labyrinths, cross alleys, and serpentine walks, entangled with thorns and briars. This was called the "wood of error": and I heard the voices of many who were lost up and down in it, calling to one another, and endeavouring in vain to extricate themselves. The trees in many places shot their boughs over the path, and a thick mist often rested on it; yet never so much but that it was discernible by the light which beamed from the countenance of truth.

In the pleasantest part of the mountain were placed the bowers of the Muses, whose office it was to cheer the spirits of the travellers, and encourage their fainting steps with songs from their divine harps. Not far from hence were the "fields of fiction," filled with a variety of wild flowers springing up in the greatest luxuriance, of richer scents and brighter colours than I had observed in any other climate. And near them was the "dark walk of allegory," so artificially shaded, that the light at noon-day was never stronger than that of a bright moon-shine. This gave it a pleasingly romantic air for those who delighted in contemplation. The paths and alleys were perplexed with intricate windings, and were all terminated with the statue of a Grace, a Virtue, or a Muse.

After I had observed these things, I turned my eyes towards the multitudes who were climbing the steep ascent, and observed amongst them a youth of a lively look, a piercing eye, and something fiery and irregular in all his motions. His name was GENIUS. He darted like an eagle up the mountain, and left his companions gazing after him with envy and admiration: but his progress was unequal, and interrupted by a thousand caprices. When Pleasure warbled in the valley he mingled in her train. When Pride beckoned him towards the precipice he ventured to the tottering edge. He delighted in devious and untried paths; and made so many excursions from the road that his feebler companions often outstripped him. I observed that the Muses beheld him with partiality; but Truth often frowned and turned aside her face. While Genius was thus wasting his strength in excentric flights, I saw a person of a very different appearance named APPLICATION. He crept along with a slow and unremitting pace, his eyes fixed on the top of the mountain, patiently removing every stone that obstructed his way, till he saw most of those below him who had at first derided his slow and toilsome progress. Indeed there were few who ascended the hill with equal and uninterrupted steadiness; for beside the difficulties of the way, they were continually sollicited to turn aside by a numerous crowd of Appetites, Passions, and Pleasures, whose importunity, when they had once complied with, they became less and less able to resist; and though they often returned to the path, the asperities of the road were more severely felt, the hill appeared more steep and rugged, the fruits which were wholsome and refreshing seemed harsh and ill-tasted, their sight grew dim, and their feet tript at every little obstruction.

I saw, with some surprise, that the Muses, whose business was to cheer and encourage those who were toiling up the ascent, would often sing in the bowers of Pleasure, and accompany those who were enticed away at the call of the Passions. They accompanied them, however, but a little way, and always forsook them when they lost sight of the hill. The tyrants then doubled their chains upon the unhappy captives, and led them away without resistance to the cells of Ignorance, or the mansions of Misery. Amongst the innumerable seducers, who were endeavouring to draw away the votaries of Truth from the path of Science, there was one, so little formidable in her appearance, and so gentle and languid in her attempts, that I should scarcely have taken notice of her, but for the numbers she had imperceptibly loaded with her chains. INDOLENCE (for so she was called) far from proceeding to open hostilities, did not attempt to turn their feet out of the path, but contented herself with retarding their progress; and the purpose she could not force them to abandon, she persuaded them to delay. Her touch had a power like that of the Torpedo, which withered the strength of those who came within its influence. Her unhappy captives still turned their faces towards the temple, and always hoped to arrive there; but the ground seemed to slide from beneath their feet, and they found themselves at the bottom before they suspected they had changed their place. The placid serenity which at first appeared in their countenance, changed by degrees into a melancholy languor, which was tinged with deeper and deeper gloom as they glided down the "stream of insignificance"; a dark and sluggish water, which is curled by no breeze, and enlivened by no murmur, till it falls into a dead sea, where the startled passengers are awakened by the shock, and the next moment buried in the gulph of oblivion.

Of all the unhappy deserters from the paths of Science, none seemed less able to return than the followers of Indolence. The captives of Appetite and Passion could often seize the moment when their tyrants were languid or asleep to escape from their enchantment; but the dominion of Indolence was constant and unremitted, and seldom resisted till resistance was in vain.

After contemplating these things, I turned my eyes towards the top of the mountain, where the air was always pure and exhilerating, the path shaded with laurels and other ever-greens, and the effulgence which beamed from the face of the Goddess seemed to shed a glory round her votaries. Happy, said I, are they who are permitted to ascend the mountain! — but while I was pronouncing this exclamation with uncommon ardour, I saw standing beside me a form of diviner features and a more benign radiance. Happier, said she, are those whom VIRTUE conducts to the mansions of Content! What, said I, does VIRTUE then reside in the vale? I am found, said she, in the vale, and I illuminate the mountain. I cheer the cottager at his toil, and inspire the sage at his meditation. I mingle in the crowd of cities, and bless the hermit in his cell. I have a temple in every heart that owns my influence; and to him that wishes for me I am already present. Science may raise you to eminence, but I alone can guide you to felicity! While the Goddess was thus speaking, I stretched out my arms towards her with a vehemence which broke my slumbers. The chill dews were falling around me, and the shades of evening stretched over the landscape. I hastened homeward, and resigned the night to silence and meditation.


[pp. 27-38]