Miscellany — Spring 2016

Enlightenment & Visual Impairment in the 17th & 18th Centuries
Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Library

Blindness is a recurrent image in Enlightenment rhetoric. We can see it used in a political context to indicate a lack of awareness, such as this diatribe by Edmund Burke in a letter to the chevalier de La Bintinnaye, March 1791, responding to the French Revolution:

I confess I am astonished at the blindness of the states of Europe, who are contending with each other about points of trivial importance, and on old worn-out principles and topics of policy, when the very existence of all of them is menaced by a new evil, which none of the ancient maxims are of the least importance in dissipating.

See Edmund Burke to the chevalier de La Bintinnaye, March 1791;
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: burkedOU0010294a1c

It also persisted in the poetic rhetoric of the day, with the stories of the blind poets Milton, Homer, and Ossian circulating among the intelligentsia, see for instance this musing by William Cowper, writing to William Hayley on Wednesday, 24 July 1793, reflecting on Cowper’s edition of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, published 2 years earlier:

Tell me, by the way (if you have ever had any speculations on the subject) what it is that you suppose Homer to have meant in particular when he ascribed his blindness to the Muse? …How could the old bard study himself blind when books were either few or none at all? and did he write his poems? If neither were the cause, as seems reasonable to imagine, how could he incur his blindness by such means as could be justly imputable to the Muse? Would mere thinking blind him?

See William Cowper to William Hayley, Wednesday, 24 July 1793;
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: cowpwiOU0040371a1c

The most common approach to blindness to be found in these letters is, however, its status as a physical irritation. Writers with long lives and extensive correspondences frequently found their eyesight deteriorating as they grew older. This mournful declaration from the 78 year old Clara Clairmont is a pathos-inducing summary of an all-too-common complaint:

One cause of my incapacity for writing is the weakness in my sight. After writing three or four lines (the number varies occasionally according as the eyes are better or worse) every thing turns black, a dark black I am completely blind and have to leave off. This causes me despondency and makes me dread to take up my pen.

See Clara Clairmont to Emma Taylor, 12 to 16 March, 1877;
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: claiclJH0020636a1c

The reception of those with total blindness changed during the course of the long eighteenth century, and the experiences of three people acknowledged as blind will serve to indicate the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers and 18th century society in general responded to those who were rendered separate by their blindness.

John Vermaasen (f.1665)

John Vermaasen is not a familiar name, his letters will not be found in EE, if indeed he was literate at all, but he plays a small but fascinating role in the evolution of enlightenment epistemology. He appears as a living thought experiment in Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1665). An organist from a community close to Maestricht in the Netherlands, Vermaasen was Blind from the age of two. He came to the attention of Robert Boyle when it was discovered that he had what may be considered a case of Synaesthesia; he was able (allegedly) to experience colours using his sense of touch. When presented with a selection of coloured ribbons, and asked to give their colour, Vermaasen would ‘place them betwixt the Thumb and the Fore-finger…his most exquisite perception was in his Thumb, and much better in the right Thumb than in the left’ (Robert Boyle, Experiments, p. 45) and then describe the colours to Boyle and his companion, determining them on the basis of the asperity or roughness of the material. Vermaasen concluded the following:

Black and White are the most asperous or unequal of all Colours, and so like, that 'tis very hard to distinguish them, but Black is the most Rough of the two, Green is next in Asperity, Gray next to Green in Asperity, Yellow is the fifth in degree of Asperity, Red and Blew are so like, that they are as hard to distinguish as Black and White, but Red is somewhat more Asperous than Blew, so that Red has the sixth place, and Blew the seventh in Asperity.

(Robert Boyle, Experiments, p. 45–46)

Boyle would go on to use this experiment to hypothesise a continuity between the experiences of the five senses, a concept that would have a profound impact on the investigation into to the nature of empiricism conducted by figures such as David Hume, George Berkeley and the French Philosophes in the 18th century, most notably Denis Diderot, who in 1749 would write his Letter on the Blind, advancing a theory of education for the blind based on these principles. After referring to the encounter with Vermaasen in a letter to his friend the German diplomat Henry Oldenburg, Boyle received this charming anecdote in response, referring to an acquaintance of his, Monsieur du Son, seigneur d’Aigmont:

[He] had knowne the blind Man at Mastrich, that sees colors with his fingers ends, and had conversed with him a good while, during which, he had seen him play at cards, with better succes, than any man, he played with, as also, to discern and distinguish men and women from one another by feeling their hands, or necks, and to discriminate the severall colors of haire, and lastly, to discern the beauty of woemen by their voyce.

See Henry Oldenburg to Robert Boyle, Tuesday, 20 October 1665;
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: boylroPC0020548a1c

A less endearing postscript to this story comes from Jonathan Swift who included a possible reference to Vermaasen in Gulliver's Travels (1726), as part of his satirical portrait of the Royal Society in the academy of Lagado, implying that Swift, at least, didn’t believe a word of Boyle’s story:

There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish, by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find htem at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.

(Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Bk. III: Ch.5)

In these three extracts we can see the identity of Vermaasen being torn between the theoretical implications of his synaesthesia and his own playful means of adapting that synaesthesia into a self-representation of his own, in the Oldenburg account. Ultimately though, as far as we can tell, his blindness does not appear to have damaged his professional or social life. It was transcended by the unique and philosophically interesting sensory experiences he had in place of sight.

The same cannot be said for the second of our cases, however.

Thomas Blacklock (1721–91)

Thomas Blacklock was a Scottish poet and clergyman who lost his sight to smallpox in infancy, but went on to become an advocate and pioneer of unique educational techniques for the blind. After an auspicious start to his literary career, with a well-subscribed 1754 verse collection, Poems, he received a shock which would shape his approach to blindness for the rest of his literary and pedagogical career. In 1760, he was nominated to the ministry of Kirkcudbright, only to find his potential congregation turned against him because of his blindness, creating an environment so toxic that his ordination was delayed until 1762, and he was only able to hold the position for three years, before resigning in 1765. This letter to his publisher, Robert Dodsley, of Monday, 4 February 1760, captures Blacklock’s feelings of exclusion and persecution at his new posting:

Without further preamble, the affair is this. — My uneasiness tho' not entirely gone, is yet so much abated, that there is no probability of it's being immediately decisive. In vain have I suffered the toil and difficulty of passing tryals in this Church, there is no probability that She will receive me into her bosom. The common people, on account of my blindness, are prejudiced against me, & the popular Clergy, who alone have it in their power to remove such a prejudice, are, for reasons best known to themselves, far from being sanguine in their attachment to me — Though the common dictates of humanity, the circumstances in which I am involved, my moral Character & my learning which they have tried — ought to have inspired them with different sentiments.

See Thomas Blacklock to Robert Dodsley, Monday, 4 February 1760;
Electronic Enlightenment letter ID: dodsroCU0010436a1c

Blacklock’s understandable outrage at this rejection manifested itself in a satirical poem which he wrote in 1765, but which remained unpublished until 1903, so damning was it of the members of his congregation who had rejected him, out of nothing more than a prejudice against his blindness. This satire, called ‘Pistapolis’, is filled with evocations of the aural nature of sermonizing, highlighting the degree to which sight is irrelevant. A typical stanza runs as follows, addressing the poetic Muse:

…if in thy view their procession should pass,
Though thy Tongue were of Iron, and thy Lungs were of brass,
To praise them in strains, like thy subject refin’d,
Were to p—ss in the ocean, or f—rt at the wind.

‘Pistapolis’, (1765), unpub.

Though he was clearly embittered by his experiences, Blacklock went on to re-invent himself under the patronage of the poet and essayist James Beattie, becoming an expert on Scottish musical culture at Marischal College, Aberdeen, again exploiting his finely tuned ear. He had not forgotten the slights his blindness had caused him, however, and before his death in 1791 he had translated the Essai sur l’education des aveugles (1786) of Valentin Hauy, pioneer of education for the blind in France and mentor to Louis Braille, into English as ‘Essay on the Education of the Blind’. Blacklock’s ‘Essay’ would be appended to the posthumous (1793) edition of his poems, and his legacy as a blind poet and activist for the British blind was secured.

In the case of Blacklock, we can see the liberating potential in the Enlightenment, particularly in Scotland. Blacklock was able to realize his secular, religious, and pedagogical potential by turning to the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment like James Beattie. He was able to move towards improving society for those marginalized like himself through a programme of pedagogy and publication, an early form of disability rights activist.

In our next case study we will see how support for the blind became institutionalized in the later 18th century, but also how the limitations which this institutionalized support suffered from.

Anna Williams (1706–1783)

Anna Williams was a welsh poet, best remembered as a companion of Samuel Johnson, who helped her compile her 1766 poetry Miscellany, which included original verse, as well as contributions by Hester Thrale and Elizabeth Carter. Williams lost her sight later in life, from the 1740s onwards, she had completely lost it by at least 1756. After losing her sight Williams was in need of financial support and, moving in Johnsonian circles, suffered from no shortage of wealthy potential benefactors to approach. One such benefactor was the bluestocking socialite and Shakespeare critic Elizabeth Montagu, whose endowment of an annuity on Williams was received with this message of thanks:

I may with truth say I have not words to express my Gratitude as I ought, to a Lady whose bounty has by one act of benevolence doubled my Income, & whose tender Compassionate assurances, has removed the future anxiety of trusting to Chance, the terror of which only Could have prompted me to stand a publick Candidate for Mr Hetheringtons Bounty.

Anna Williams to Elizabeth Montagu, Monday, 26 June 1775;

It is the reference to Hetherington’s Bounty which is particularly significant here. It was an annuity of £10, to be given to one of 50 blind people ‘objects of charity, not being beggars, nor receiving alms from the parish’ (London Evening Post, March 29, 1774–March 31, 1774;) from a bequest of £20,000 given by Hetherington to Christ Church Hospital. While Hetherington’s intentions were praised as noble, the extent to which his charitable donations were able to ameliorate the conditions of those both poor and blind in London as a whole was called into question by an anonymous contributor to the Public Advertiser, writing under the name of ‘Charity’, who stated that

'Tis melancholy to me, and I trust to every feeling Heart, to find that above 1000 blind Persons apply for the Charity, all of them proper Objects, and some within the Meaning of Mr. Hetherington’s Intention, and only 50 can partake of it.’

(Public Advertiser, (London, England), Friday, November 25, 1774; Issue 14089)

The celebrated philanthropist Jonas Hanway (bap. 1712, d. 1786) responded to the claims of ‘Charity’ in his collection of philanthropic letters, The Defects of Police the Causes of Immorality and the Continual Robberies Committed (1775). In Letter XXVI (p. 257–264) he quantifies the blind poor of the metropolis, organizing them into categories based on age and ability to sustain themselves. Hanway finds that the poor urban blind in need of Hetherington’s bequest amount to 661, and concludes the following:

If it were possible to provide a fund for the remaining 661 candidates; upon the face of the list, they are all objects; but as £10 each would require the sum per annum of £.6610, being the interest of £200,000, or ten times the princely sum which Mr. Hetherington gave, we must turn our thoughts to a more practicable mode, distinguishing the most distressed, and appealing to the most affluent and charitable.

(Jonas Hanway, Defects, p. 262).

Anna Williams is clearly aware of the excessive demand being placed on the Hetherington annuity, as well as its informal process of deciding who was a valid candidate, claiming that submitting to it would be ‘trusting to Chance’, making it little more than a lottery.

A postscript to this story may be found 45 years later, when, on the 9th of January 1819, the Governors of Christ’s Hospital announced not only an extension of the annuity to 500 beneficiaries (still less than Hanway’s figures), on the strength of ‘additions made…by deed of gift and by will’, but also gave a list of formal criteria to determine candidate viability:

  • Birth in England, to the exclusion of Wales and Berwick-upon Tweed.
  • Age, 50 years and upwards.
  • Residence, three years in their present abode; and total blindness during that period.
  • Those who have ever begged, received alms, or are deemed objects for parish relief, are excluded from the benefit of these charities…

(Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume LXXXIX, 1819, p. 6.)

Williams, having been born in Wales would not have been valid for Hetherington’s annuity.

Thus we can see, in these three stories, the ways in which those recognized as blind responded to the changes in society within their own communities and times across the period of the Enlightenment. Vermaasen recognized the public and philosophical potential of his unique sensory gift, and exploited it to build an identity in the early enlightenment scientific drive to investigate and elucidate the strange or unknown of the previous generation. Blacklock saw the potential in new secular power structures developing in the universities and formal or informal circles of intellectual patronage to develop a political and pedagogical identity outside of the church. Williams, while herself benefitting from the informal patronage of the eighteenth century social network, was witness to the burgeoning impersonal, ‘telescopic philanthropy’, which would become a standard model of Victorian social enterprise.

Jack Orchard
Collaborative Doctoral Award AHRC, University of Swansea
© 2016 University of Oxford


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