Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 October 2019
IN the summer of 1769, the twenty-six-year-old Anna Letitia Barbauld (then Aikin) paid a social visit to Mr Turner, a Dissenting minister, and his family, in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Turner's son, William (later of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society) recalls that ‘at the close of her visit, she presented to the writer of this paper, then a little boy between seven and eight years old, an ivory memorandum book, on the leaves of which, after she was gone, were found written the following lines’. The poet begins by drawing an analogy between the young recipient's mind and the pocket-book she puts into his hands:
Accept, my dear, this toy; and let me say
The leaves an emblem of your mind display; –
Your youthful mind uncolour'd, fair and white,
Like crystal leaves transparent to the sight
Fit each impression to receive whate'er
The pencil of Instruction traces there.
The analogy of the pocket-book is not striking in terms of originality. Technologies of writing supplied metaphors of the mind for philosophers at least as early as Plato, and in Barbauld's time the ‘impression’ upon the page was a commonplace motif for sensory perception. The lines are of significance here, however, because they demonstrate Barbauld's interest in the science of the mind even at a very early stage in her career: she was twenty-six, and it would be another two years before her first poems were published. The ‘ivory Pocket-Book’ is also particularly illuminative of Barbauld's educational beliefs, and its practical application of the philosophy of mind marks the beginnings of a common imprint in many of Barbauld's literary productions – a body of work substantiated by sensory objects.
An ivory pocket-book was an apt choice of object, a literal tabula rasa for Lockean inscription. In the poem, Barbauld encourages Turner to ‘transcribe into the shining page’ the ‘virtue’ of youth, and to ‘grave upon the tablet of his heart/ Each lofty science, and each useful art!’ The transference of the figurative ‘tablet’ from mind to ‘heart’ and the choice of adjectives for the different spheres of learning are worth noting here, if only as indications of the poet's perception of the aims and values of education.