An idea "too oft survey'd, / Beneath the ardent beam of Thought shall fade"

— Seward, Anna (1742-1809)

Place of Publication
Printed by James Ballantyne and Co. for John Ballantyne and Co. London. Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme
An idea "too oft survey'd, / Beneath the ardent beam of Thought shall fade"
Metaphor in Context
But when the form, there shrin'd, too oft survey'd,[1]
Beneath the ardent beam of Thought shall fade,

For the mark'd lines that Memory's tints display
In contemplation's fire will melt away,
Then, Romney[2], nor till then, my soul shall own
Thy perfect skill, and each regret atone,
For more than mortal art no longer pine,
And cease to boast superior power to thine.


1. Perhaps the generality of people have not sufficiently attended to the operation of their minds, respecting the personal idea they retain of the long absent, or the dead, so as clearly to comprehend the eight ensuing lines.

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.

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.

The author wishes that all who peruse these remarks, and have dispositions sufficiently affectionate to contemplate fervently, and often, in their own minds the image of one, fondly beloved, whom they have, for a length of years, or for ever lost, would recollect if, after a time, they were able to recall that image with equal precision, as they could remember the features, and air, of other deceased, or absent persons, with whom they had been well acquainted, but of whom, being less interesting to their affections, they had only casually thought. The superior distinctness with which the less beloved image comes back to the mind, upon its summons, proves the philosophic truth of these remarks, and is the cause why we so fondly desire the penciled remembrance of those we love, to refresh that ideal image which intense and perpetual contemplation had rendered evanescent. Locke says--"The pictures drawn in our minds of our absent friends, are laid in fading colours, which, if not sometimes refreshed, will vanish and disappear." It might have been expected that a philosopher so accurate and discriminating, would have pursued the observation, and reminded us, that there are two causes, exactly opposite to each other, which produce this vanishing; viz. the mind not having dwelt upon the originals of those its pictures often enough to make their image strong and vivid after long absence; --and, its too frequently casting upon such inshrined resemblances, the dazzling light of fervent meditation. It is not meant that fervent meditation will produce forgetfulness of the general idea of the persons of those we fondly regret, but that it will, in time, make us unable to recall them with that precision we desire, without the help of the pencil.

2. The celebrated painter.
Searching in HDIS (Poetry)
Text from The Poetical Works of Anna Seward; with Extracts from Her Literary Correspondence. ed. Walter Scott. 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne and Co. for John Ballantyne and Co., 1810). <Link to Google Books>

A note to the poem indicates it was written (up to line 64) in December 1781.
Lockean Philosophy
Date of Entry

The Mind is a Metaphor is authored by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia.