Editorial note: Due to limitations in rendering some print characters, the following abbreviations are used in this text to represent the original printer's symbols: "4^to" for "quarto" "12^o" for "duodecimo" "f^o" for "folio"
LITERARY CHARACTER OF MEN OF GENIUS
Drawn from Their Own Feelings and Confessions
A New Edition Edited by His Son THE EARL OF BEACONSFIELD.
London: Frederick Warne and Co., Bedford Street, Strand. London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co., Printers, Whitefriars.
The following Preface is of interest for the expression of the author's own view of these works.
This volume comprises my writings on subjects chiefly of our vernacular literature. Now collected together, they offer an unity of design, and afford to the general reader and to the student of classical antiquity some initiation into our national Literature. It is presumed also, that they present materials for thinking not solely on literary topics; authors and books are not alone here treated of,—a comprehensive view of human nature necessarily enters into the subject from the diversity of the characters portrayed, through the gradations of their faculties, the influence of their tastes, and those incidents of their lives prompted by their fortunes or their passions. This present volume, with its brother "CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE," now constitute a body of reading which may awaken knowledge in minds only seeking amusement, and refresh the deeper studies of the learned by matters not unworthy of their curiosity.
The LITERARY CHARACTER has been an old favourite with many of my contemporaries departed or now living, who have found it respond to their own emotions.
THE MISCELLANIES are literary amenities, should they be found to deserve the title, constructed on that principle early adopted by me, of interspersing facts with speculation.
THE INQUIRY INTO THE LITERARY AND POLITICAL CHARACTER OF JAMES THE FIRST has surely corrected some general misconceptions, and thrown light on some obscure points in the history of that anomalous personage. It is a satisfaction to me to observe, since the publication of this tract, that while some competent judges have considered the "evidence irresistible," a material change has occurred in the tone of most writers. The subject presented an occasion to exhibit a minute picture of that age of transition in our national history.
The titles of CALAMITIES OF AUTHORS and QUARRELS OF AUTHORS do not wholly designate the works, which include a considerable portion of literary history.
Public favour has encouraged the republication of these various works, which often referred to, have long been difficult to procure. It has been deferred from time to time with the intention of giving the subjects a more enlarged investigation; but I have delayed the task till it cannot be performed. One of the Calamities of Authors falls to my lot, the delicate organ of vision with me has suffered a singular disorder,[A]—a disorder which no oculist by his touch can heal, and no physician by his experience can expound; so much remains concerning the frame of man unrevealed to man!
In the midst of my library I am as it were distant from it. My unfinished labours, frustrated designs, remain paralysed. In a joyous heat I wander no longer through the wide circuit before me. The "strucken deer" has the sad privilege to weep when he lies down, perhaps no more to course amid those far-distant woods where once he sought to range.
[Footnote A: I record my literary calamity as a warning to my sedentary brothers. When my eyes dwell on any object, or whenever they are closed, there appear on a bluish film a number of mathematical squares, which are the reflection of the fine network of the retina, succeeded by blotches which subside into printed characters, apparently forming distinct words, arranged in straight lines as in a printed book; the monosyllables are often legible. This is the process of a few seconds. It is remarkable that the usual power of the eye is not injured or diminished for distant objects, while those near are clouded over.]
Although thus compelled to refrain in a great measure from all mental labour, and incapacitated from the use of the pen and the book, these works, notwithstanding, have received many important corrections, having been read over to me with critical precision.
Amid this partial darkness I am not left without a distant hope, nor a present consolation; and to HER who has so often lent to me the light of her eyes, the intelligence of her voice, and the careful work of her hand, the author must ever owe "the debt immense" of paternal gratitude.
Of literary characters, and of the lovers of literature and art. 11
Of the adversaries of literary men among themselves.—Matter-of-fact men, and men of wit.—The political economists.—Of those who abandon their studies.—Men in office.—The arbiters of public opinion.—Those who treat the pursuits of literature with levity. 14
Of artists, in the history of men of literary genius.—Their habits and pursuits analogous.—The nature of their genius is similar in their distinct works.—Shown by their parallel areas, and by a common end pursued by both. 20
Of natural genius.—Minds constitutionally different cannot have an equal aptitude.—Genius not the result of habit and education.— Originates in peculiar qualities of the mind.—The predisposition of genius.—A substitution for the white paper of Locke. 24
Youth of genius.—Its first impulses may be illustrated by its subsequent actions.—Parents have another association of the man of genius than we.—Of genius, its first habits.—Its melancholy. —Its reveries.—Its love of solitude.—Its disposition to repose. —Of a youth distinguished by his equals.—Feebleness of its first attempts.—Of genius not discoverable even in manhood.—The education of the youth may not be that of his genius.—An unsettled impulse, querulous till it finds its true occupation.—With some, curiosity as intense a faculty as invention.—What the youth first applies to is commonly his delight afterwards.—Facts of the decisive character of genius. 31
The first studies.—The self-educated are marked by stubborn peculiarities.—Their errors.—Their improvement from the neglect or contempt they incur.—The history of self-education in Moses Mendelssohn.—Friends usually prejudicial in the youth of genius. —A remarkable interview between Petrarch in his first studies, and his literary adviser.—Exhortation. 55
Of the irritability of genius.—Genius in society often in a state of suffering.—Equality of temper more prevalent among men of letters.—Of the occupation of making a great name.—Anxieties of the most successful.—Of the inventors.—Writers of learning.— Writers of taste. —Artists. 69
The spirit of literature and the spirit of society.—The inventors. —Society offers seduction and not reward to men of genius.—The notions of persons of fashion of men of genius.—The habitudes of the man of genius distinct from those of the man of society.— Study, meditation, and enthusiasm, the progress of genius.—The disagreement between the men of the world and the literary character. 89
Conversations of men of genius.—Their deficient agreeableness may result from qualities which conduce to their greatness.—Slow-minded men not the dullest.—The conversationists not the ablest writers. —Their true excellence in conversation consists of associations with their pursuits. 99
Literary solitude.—Its necessity.—Its pleasures.—Of visitors by profession.—Its inconveniences. 109
The meditations of Genius.—A work on the Art of Meditation not yet produced.—Predisposing the mind.—Imagination awakens imagination. —Generating feelings by music.—Slight habits.—Darkness and silence, by suspending the exercise of our senses, increase the vivacity of our conceptions.—The arts of memory.—Memory the foundation of genius.—Inventions by several to preserve their own moral and literary character.—And to assist their studies.—The meditations of genius depend on habit.—Of the night-time.—A day of meditation should precede a day of composition.—Works of magnitude from slight conceptions.—Of thoughts never written.—The art of meditation exercised at all hours and places.—Continuity of attention the source of philosophical discoveries. —Stillness of meditation the first state of existence in genius. 116
The enthusiasm of genius.—A state of mind resembling a waking dream distinct from reverie.—The ideal presence distinguished from the real presence.—The senses are really affected in the ideal world, proved by a variety of instances.—Of the rapture or sensation of deep study in art, science, and literature. —Of perturbed feelings, in delirium.—In extreme endurance of attention.—And in visionary illusions.—Enthusiasts in literature and art.—Of their self-immolations. 136
Of the jealousy of genius.—Jealousy often proportioned to the degree of genius.—A perpetual fever among authors and artists. —Instances of its incredible excess among brothers and benefactors.—Of a peculiar species, where the fever consumes the sufferer without its malignancy. 154
Want of mutual esteem among men of genius often originates in a deficiency of analogous ideas.—It is not always envy or jealousy which induces men of genius to undervalue each other. 159
Self-praise of genius.—The love of praise instinctive in the nature of genius.—A high opinion of themselves necessary for their great designs.—The ancients openly claimed their own praise.—And several moderns.—An author knows more of his merits than his readers.—And less of his defects.—Authors versatile in their admiration and their malignity. 162
The domestic life of genius.—Defects of great compositions attributed to domestic infelicities.—The home of the literary character should be the abode of repose and silence.—Of the father.—Of the mother.—Of family genius.—Men of genius not more respected than other men in their domestic circle.—The cultivators of science and art do not meet on equal terms with others, in domestic life.—Their neglect of those around them. —Often accused of imaginary crimes. 173
The poverty of literary men.—Poverty, a relative quality.—Of the poverty of literary men in what degree desirable.—Extreme poverty.—Task-work.—Of gratuitous works.—A project to provide against the worst state of poverty among literary men. 186
The matrimonial state of literature.—Matrimony said not to be well-suited to the domestic life of genius.—Celibacy a concealed cause of the early querulousness of men of genius.—Of unhappy unions.—Not absolutely necessary that the wife should be a literary woman.—Of the docility and susceptibility of the higher female character.—A picture of a literary wife. 198
Literary friendships.—In early life.—Different from those of men of the world.—They suffer in unrestrained communication of their ideas, and bear reprimands and exhortations.—Unity of feelings.—A sympathy not of manners but of feelings.—Admit of dissimilar characters.—Their peculiar glory.—Their sorrow. 209
The literary and the personal character.—The personal dispositions of an author may be the reverse of those which appear in his writings.—Erroneous conceptions of the character of distant authors.—Paradoxical appearances in the history of genius.—Why the character of the man may be opposite to that of his writings. 217
The man of letters.—Occupies an intermediate station between authors and readers.—His solitude described.—Often the father of genius.—Atticus, a man of letters of antiquity.—The perfect character of a modern man of letters exhibited in Peiresc.— Their utility to authors and artists. 226
Literary old age still learning.—Influence of late studies in life.—Occupations in advanced age of the literary character. —Of literary men who have died at their studies. 238
Universality of genius.—Limited notion of genius entertained by the ancients.—Opposite faculties act with diminished force. —Men of genius excel only in a single art. 244
Literature an avenue to glory.—An intellectual nobility not chimerical, but created by public opinion.—Literary honours of various nations.—Local associations with the memory of the man of genius. 248
Influence of authors on society, and of society on authors. —National tastes a source of literary prejudices.—True genius always the organ of its nation.—Master-writers preserve the distinct national character.—Genius the organ of the state of the age.—Causes of its suppression in a people.—Often invented, but neglected.—The natural gradations of genius.—Men of genius produce their usefulness in privacy—The public mind is now the creation of the public writer.—Politicians affect to deny this principle.—Authors stand between the governors and the governed.—A view of the solitary author in his study.—They create an epoch in history.—Influence of popular authors.—The immortality of thought.—The family of genius illustrated by their genealogy. 258
Goldsmith and Johnson 294
On reading 298
On habituating ourselves to an individual pursuit 302
On novelty in literature 305
Vers de Societe 308
The genius of Moliere 310
The sensibility of Racine 325
Of Sterne 332
Hume, Robertson, and Birch 340
Of voluminous works incomplete by the deaths of the authors 350
Of domestic novelties at first condemned 355
Domesticity; or a dissertation on servants 364
Printed letters in the vernacular idiom 375
CHARACTER OF JAMES THE FIRST.
Of the first modern assailants of the character of James I., Burnet, Bolingbroke and Pope, Harris, Macaulay, and Walpole 386
His pedantry 388
His polemical studies 389
—how these were political 392
The Hampton Court conference 393
Of some of his writings 398
Popular superstitions of the age 400
The King's habits of life those of a man of letters 402
Of the facility and copiousness of his composition 404
Of his eloquence 405
Of his wit 406
Specimens of his humour, and observations on human life 407
Some evidences of his sagacity in the discovery of truth 410
Of his "Basilicon Doron" 413
Of his idea of a tyrant and a king 414
Advice to Prince Henry in the choice of his servants and associates 415
Describes the Revolutionists of his time 416
Of the nobility of Scotland 417
Of colonising ib.
Of merchants 418
Regulations for the prince's manners and habits ib.
Of his idea of the royal prerogative 421
The lawyers' idea of the same ib.
Of his elevated conception of the kingly character 425
His design in issuing "The Book of Sports" for the Sabbath-day 426
The Sabbatarian controversy 428
The motives of his aversion to war 430
James acknowledges his dependence on the Commons; their conduct 431
Of certain scandalous chronicles 434
A picture of the age from a manuscript of the times 437
Anecdotes of the manners of the age 441
James I. discovers the disorders and discontents of a peace of more than twenty years 449
The King's private life in his occasional retirements 450
A detection of the discrepancies of opinion among the decriers of James I 451
Summary of his character 455
ROBERT SOUTHEY, LL.D.,
&c. &c. &c.
In dedicating this Work to one of the most eminent literary characters of the age, I am experiencing a peculiar gratification, in which few, perhaps none, of my contemporaries can participate; for I am addressing him, whose earliest effusions attracted my regard, near half a century past; and during that awful interval of time—for fifty years is a trial of life of whatever may be good in us—you have multiplied your talents, and have never lost a virtue.
When I turn from the uninterrupted studies of your domestic solitude to our metropolitan authors, the contrast, if not encouraging, is at least extraordinary. You are not unaware that the revolutions of Society have operated on our literature, and that new classes of readers have called forth new classes of writers. The causes and the consequences of the present state of this fugitive literature might form an inquiry which would include some of the important topics which concern the PUBLIC MIND, —but an inquiry which might be invidious shall not disturb a page consecrated to the record of excellence. They who draw their inspiration from the hour must not, however, complain if with that hour they pass away.
For the fifth time I revise a subject which has occupied my inquiries from early life, with feelings still delightful, and an enthusiasm not wholly diminished.
Had not the principle upon which this work is constructed occurred to me in my youth, the materials which illustrate the literary character could never have been brought together. It was in early life that I conceived the idea of pursuing the history of genius by the similar events which had occurred to men of genius. Searching into literary history for the literary character formed a course of experimental philosophy in which every new essay verified a former trial, and confirmed a former truth. By the great philosophical principle of induction, inferences were deduced and results established, which, however vague and doubtful in speculation, are irresistible when the appeal is made to facts as they relate to others, and to feelings which must be decided on as they are passing in our own breast.
It is not to be inferred from what I have here stated that I conceive that any single man of genius will resemble every man of genius; for not only man differs from man, but varies from himself in the different stages of human life. All that I assert is, that every man of genius will discover, sooner or later, that he belongs to the brotherhood of his class, and that he cannot escape from certain habits, and feelings, and disorders, which arise from the same temperament and sympathies, and are the necessary consequence of occupying the same position, and passing through the same moral existence. Whenever we compare men of genius with each other, the history of those who are no more will serve as a perpetual commentary on our contemporaries. There are, indeed, secret feelings which their prudence conceals, or their fears obscure, or their modesty shrinks from, or their pride rejects; but I have sometimes imagined that I have held the clue as they have lost themselves in their own labyrinth. I know that many, and some of great celebrity, have sympathised with the feelings which inspired these volumes; nor, while I have elucidated the idiosyncrasy of genius, have I less studied the habits and characteristics of the lovers of literature.
It has been considered that the subject of this work might have been treated with more depth of metaphysical disquisition; and there has since appeared an attempt to combine with this investigation the medical science. A work, however, should be judged by its design and its execution, and not by any preconceived notion of what it ought to be according to the critic, rather than the author. The nature of this work is dramatic rather than metaphysical. It offers a narration or a description; a conversation or a monologue; an incident or a scene.
Perhaps I have sometimes too warmly apologised for the infirmities of men of genius. From others we may hourly learn to treat with levity the man of genius because he is only such. Perhaps also I may have been too fond of the subject, which has been for me an old and a favourite one—I may have exalted the literary character beyond the scale by which society is willing to fix it. Yet what is this Society, so omnipotent, so all judicial? The society of to-day was not the society of yesterday. Its feelings, its thoughts, its manners, its rights, its wishes, and its wants, are different and are changed: alike changed or alike created by those very literary characters whom it rarely comprehends and often would despise. Let us no longer look upon this retired and peculiar class as useless members of our busy race. There are mental as well as material labourers. The first are not less necessary; and as they are much rarer, so are they more precious. These are they whose "published labours" have benefited mankind—these are they whose thoughts can alone rear that beautiful fabric of social life, which it is the object of all good men to elevate or to support. To discover truth and to maintain it,—to develope the powers, to regulate the passions, to ascertain the privileges of man, —such have ever been, and such ever ought to be, the labours of AUTHORS! Whatever we enjoy of political and private happiness, our most necessary knowledge as well as our most refined pleasures, are alike owing to this class of men; and of these, some for glory, and often from benevolence, have shut themselves out from the very beings whom they love, and for whom they labour.
Upwards of forty years have elapsed since, composed in a distant county, and printed at a provincial press, I published "An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character." To my own habitual and inherent defects were superadded those of my youth. The crude production was, however, not ill received, for the edition disappeared, and the subject was found more interesting than the writer.
During a long interval of twenty years, this little work was often recalled to my recollection by several, and by some who have since obtained celebrity. They imagined that their attachment to literary pursuits had been strengthened even by so weak an effort. An extraordinary circumstance concurred with these opinions. A copy accidentally fell into my hands which had formerly belonged to the great poetical genius of our times; and the singular fact, that it had been more than once read by him, and twice in two subsequent years at Athens, in 1810 and 1811, instantly convinced me that the volume deserved my renewed attention.
It was with these feelings that I was again strongly attracted to a subject from which, indeed, during the course of a studious life, it had never been long diverted. The consequence of my labours was the publication, in 1818, of an octavo volume, under the title of "The Literary Character, illustrated by the History of Men of Genius, drawn from their own feelings and confessions."
In the preface to this edition, in mentioning the fact respecting Lord Byron, which had been the immediate cause of its publication, I added these words: "I tell this fact assuredly not from any little vanity which it may appear to betray;—for the truth is, were I not as liberal and as candid in respect to my own productions, as I hope I am to others, I could not have been gratified by the present circumstance; for the marginal notes of the noble author convey no flattery;—but amidst their pungency, and sometimes their truth, the circumstance that a man of genius could reperuse this slight effusion at two different periods of his life, was a sufficient authority, at least for an author, to return it once more to the anvil."
Some time after the publication of this edition of "The Literary Character," which was in fact a new work, I was shown, through the kindness of an English gentleman lately returned from Italy, a copy of it, which had been given to him by Lord Byron, and which again contained marginal notes by the noble author. These were peculiarly interesting, and were chiefly occasioned by observations on his character, which appeared in the work.
In 1822 I published a new edition of this work, greatly enlarged, and in two volumes. I took this opportunity of inserting the manuscript Notes of Lord Byron, with the exception of one, which, however characteristic of the amiable feelings of the noble poet, and however gratifying to my own, I had no wish to obtrude on the notice of the public.[A]
[Footnote A: As everything connected with the reading of a mind like Lord BYRON'S interesting to the philosophical inquirer, this note may now be preserved. On that passage of the Preface of the second Edition which I have already quoted, his Lordship was thus pleased to write:
"I was wrong, but I was young and petulant, and probably wrote down anything, little thinking that those observations would be betrayed to the author, whose abilities I have always respected, and whose works in general I have read oftener than perhaps those of any English author whatever, except such as treat of Turkey."]
Soon after the publication of this third edition, I received the following letter from his lordship:—
"Montenero, Villa Dupuy, near Leghorn, June 10, 1822.
"DEAR SIR,—If you will permit me to call you so,—I had some time ago taken up my pen at Pisa, to thank you for the present of your new edition of the 'Literary Character,' which has often been to me a consolation, and always a pleasure. I was interrupted, however, partly by business, and partly by vexation of different kinds,—for I have not very long ago lost a child by fever, and I have had a good deal of petty trouble with the laws of this lawless country, on account of the prosecution of a servant for an attack upon a cowardly scoundrel of a dragoon, who drew his sword upon some unarmed Englishmen, and whom I had done the honour to mistake for an officer, and to treat like a gentleman. He turned out to be neither,—like many other with medals, and in uniform; but he paid for his brutality with a severe and dangerous wound, inflicted by nobody knows whom, for, of three suspected, and two arrested, they have been able to identify neither; which is strange, since he was wounded in the presence of thousands, in a public street, during a feast-day and full promenade. —But to return to things more analogous to the 'Literary Character,' I wish to say, that had I known that the book was to fall into your hands, or that the MS. notes you have thought worthy of publication would have attracted your attention, I would have made them more copious, and perhaps not so careless.
"I really cannot know whether I am, or am not, the genius you are pleased to call me,—but I am very willing to put up with the mistake, if it be one. It is a title dearly enough bought by most men, to render it endurable, even when not quite clearly made out, which it never can be, till the Posterity, whose decisions are merely dreams to ourselves, have sanctioned or denied it, while it can touch us no further.
"Mr. Murray is in possession of a MS. memoir of mine (not to be published till I am in my grave), which, strange as it may seem, I never read over since it was written, and have no desire to read over again. In it I have told what, as far as I know, is the truth—not the whole truth—for if I had done so, I must have involved much private, and some dissipated history: but, nevertheless, nothing but truth, as far as regard for others permitted it to appear.
"I do not know whether you have seen those MSS.; but, as you are curious in such things as relate to the human mind, I should feel gratified if you had. I also sent him (Murray), a few days since, a Common-place Book, by my friend Lord Clare, containing a few things, which may perhaps aid his publication in case of his surviving me. If there are any questions which you would like to ask me, as connected with your philosophy of the literary mind (if mine be a literary mind), I will answer them fairly, or give a reason for not, good—bad—or indifferent. At present, I am paying the penalty of having helped to spoil the public taste; for, as long as I wrote in the false exaggerated style of youth and the times in which we live, they applauded me to the very echo; and within these few years, when I have endeavoured at better things, and written what I suspect to have the principle of duration in it: the Church, the Chancellor, and all men, even to my grand patron, Francis Jeffrey, Esq., of the Edinburgh Review, have risen up against me, and my later publications. Such is Truth! men dare not look her in the face, except by degrees; they mistake her for a Gorgon, instead of knowing her to be Minerva. I do not mean to apply this mythological simile to my own endeavours, but I have only to turn over a few pages of your volumes to find innumerable and far more illustrious instances. It is lucky that I am of a temper not to be easily turned aside, though by no means difficult to irritate. But I am making a dissertation, instead of writing a letter. I write to you from the Villa Dupuy, near Leghorn, with the islands of Elba and Corsica visible from my balcony, and my old friend the Mediterranean rolling blue at my feet. As long as I retain my feeling and my passion for Nature, I can partly soften or subdue my other passions, and resist or endure those of others.
"I have the honour to be, truly,
"Your obliged and faithful servant,
"To I. D'Israeli, Esq."
The ill-starred expedition to Greece followed this letter.
* * * * *
This work, conceived in youth, executed by the research of manhood, and associated with the noblest feelings of our nature, is an humble but fervent tribute, offered to the memory of those Master Spirits from whose labours, as BURKE eloquently describes, "their country receives permanent service: those who know how to make the silence of their closets more beneficial to the world than all the noise and bustle of courts, senates, and camps."
Of Literary Characters, and of the Lovers of Literature and Art.
Diffused over enlightened Europe, an order of men has arisen, who, uninfluenced by the interests or the passions which give an impulse to the other classes of society, are connected by the secret links of congenial pursuits, and, insensibly to themselves, are combining in the same common labours, and participating in the same divided glory. In the metropolitan cities of Europe the same authors are now read, and the same opinions become established: the Englishman is familiar with Machiavel and Montesquieu; the Italian and the Frenchman with Bacon and Locke; and the same smiles and tears are awakened on the banks of the Thames, of the Seine, or of the Guadalquivir, by Shakspeare, Moliere, and Cervantes—
Contemporains de tous les hommes, Et citoyens de tous les lieux.
A khan of Tartary admired the wit of Moliere, and discovered the Tartuffe in the Crimea; and had this ingenious sovereign survived the translation which he ordered, the immortal labour of the comic satirist of France might have laid the foundation of good taste even among the Turks and the Tartars. We see the Italian Pignotti referring to the opinion of an English critic, Lord Bolingbroke, for decisive authority on the peculiar characteristics of the historian Guicciardini: the German Schlegel writes on our Shakspeare like a patriot; and while the Italians admire the noble scenes which our Flaxman has drawn from their great poet, they have rejected the feeble attempts of their native artists. Such is the wide and the perpetual influence of this living intercourse of literary minds.
Scarcely have two centuries elapsed since the literature of every nation was limited to its fatherland, and men of genius long could only hope for the spread of their fame in the single language of ancient Rome; which for them had ceased to be natural, and could never be popular. It was in the intercourse of the wealth, the power, and the novel arts of the nations of Europe, that they learned each other's languages; and they discovered that, however their manners varied as they arose from their different customs, they participated in the same intellectual faculties, suffered from the same wants, and were alive to the same pleasures; they perceived that there were no conventional fashions, nor national distinctions, in abstract truths and fundamental knowledge. A new spirit seems to bring them nearer to each other: and, as if literary Europe were intent to form but one people out of the populace of mankind, they offer their reciprocal labours; they pledge to each other the same opinions; and that knowledge which, like a small river, takes its source from one spot, at length mingles with the ocean-stream common to them all.
But those who stand connected with this literary community are not always sensible of the kindred alliance; even a genius of the first order has not always been aware that he is the founder of a society, and that there will ever be a brotherhood where there is a father-genius.
These literary characters are partially, and with a melancholy colouring, exhibited by JOHNSON. "To talk in private, to think in solitude, to inquire or to answer inquiries, is the business of a scholar. He wanders about the world without pomp or terror; and is neither known nor valued but by men like himself." Thus thought this great writer during those sad probationary years of genius when
Slow rises worth, by poverty depress'd;
not yet conscious that he himself was devoting his days to cast the minds of his contemporaries and of the succeeding age in the mighty mould of his own; JOHNSON was of that order of men whose individual genius becomes that of a people. A prouder conception rose in the majestic mind of MILTON, of "that lasting fame and perpetuity of praise which God and good men have consented shall be the reward of those whose PUBLISHED LABOURS advanced the good of mankind."
The LITERARY CHARACTER is a denomination which, however vague, defines the pursuits of the individual, and separates him from other professions, although it frequently occurs that he is himself a member of one. Professional characters are modified by the change of manners, and are usually national; while the literary character, from the objects in which it concerns itself, retains a more permanent, and necessarily a more independent nature.
Formed by the same habits, and influenced by the same motives, notwithstanding the contrast of talents and tempers, and the remoteness of times and places, the literary character has ever preserved among its followers the most striking family resemblance. The passion for study, the delight in books, the desire of solitude and celebrity, the obstructions of human life, the character of their pursuits, the uniformity of their habits, the triumphs and the disappointments of literary glory, were as truly described by CICERO and the younger PLINY as by PETRARCH and ERASMUS, and as they have been by HUME and GIBBON. And this similarity, too, may equally be remarked with respect to that noble passion of the lovers of literature and of art for collecting together their mingled treasures; a thirst which was as insatiable in ATTICUS and PEIRESC as in our CRACHERODE and TOWNLEY.[A] We trace the feelings of our literary contemporaries in all ages, and among every people who have ranked with nations far advanced in civilization; for among these may be equally observed both the great artificers of knowledge and those who preserve unbroken the vast chain of human acquisitions. The one have stamped the images of their minds on their works, and the others have preserved the circulation of this intellectual coinage, this
—Gold of the dead, Which Time does still disperse, but not devour.
[Footnote A: The Rev. C.M. Cracherode bequeathed at his death, in 1799, to the British Museum, the large collection of literature, art, and virtu he had employed an industrious life in collecting. His books numbered nearly 4500 volumes, many of great rarity and value. His drawings, many by early Italian masters, and all rare or curious, were deposited in the print-room of the same establishment; his antiquities, &c. were in a similar way added to the other departments. The "Townley Gallery" of classic sculpture was purchased of his executors by Government for 28,200l. It had been collected with singular taste and judgment, as well as some amount of good fortune also; Townley resided at Rome during the researches on the site of Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli; and he had for aids and advisers Sir William Hamilton, Gavin Hamilton, and other active collectors; and was the friend and correspondent of D'Haucarville and Winckelmann.—ED.]
Of the Adversaries of Literary Men among themselves.—Matter-of-fact Men, and Men of Wit.—The Political Economist.—Of those who abandon their studies.—Men in office.—The arbiters of public opinion.—Those who treat the pursuits of literature with levity.
The pursuits of literature have been openly or insidiously lowered by those literary men who, from motives not always difficult to penetrate, are eager to confound the ranks in the republic of letters, maliciously conferring the honours of authorship on that "Ten Thousand" whose recent list is not so much a muster-roll of heroes as a table of population.[A]
Matter-of-fact men, or men of knowledge, and men of wit and taste, were long inimical to each other's pursuits.[B] The Royal Society in its origin could hardly support itself against the ludicrous attacks of literary men,[C] and the Antiquarian Society has afforded them amusement.[D] Such partial views have ceased to contract the understanding. Science yields a new substance to literature; literature combines new associations for the votaries of knowledge. There is no subject in nature, and in the history of man, which will not associate with our feelings and our curiosity, whenever genius extends its awakening hand. The antiquary, the naturalist, the architect, the chemist, and even writers on medical topics, have in our days asserted their claims, and discovered their long-interrupted relationship with the great family of genius and literature.
[Footnote A: We have a Dictionary of "Ten Thousand living Authors" of our own nation. The alphabet is fatal by its juxtapositions. In France, before the Revolution, they counted about twenty thousand writers. When David would have his people numbered, Joab asked, "Why doth my lord delight in this?" In political economy, the population returns may be useful, provided they be correct; but in the literary republic, its numerical force diminishes the strength of the empire. "There you are numbered, we had rather you were weighed." Put aside the puling infants of literature, of whom such a mortality occurs in its nurseries; such as the writers of the single sermon, the single law-tract, the single medical dissertation, &c.; all writers whose subject is single, without being singular; count for nothing the inefficient mob of mediocrists; and strike out our literary charlatans; and then our alphabet of men of genius will not consist, as it now does, of the four-and-twenty letters.]
[Footnote B: The cause is developed in the chapter on "Want of Mutual Esteem."]
[Footnote C: See BUTLER, in his "Elephant in the Moon." SOUTH, in his oration at the opening of the theatre at Oxford, passed this bitter sarcasm on the naturalists,—"Mirantur nihil nisi pulices, pediculos—et se ipsos;"—nothing they admire but fleas, lice, and themselves! The illustrious SLOANE endured a long persecution from the bantering humour of Dr. KING. One of the most amusing declaimers against what he calls les Sciences des faux Scavans is Father MALEBRANCHE; he is far more severe than Cornelius Agrippa, and he long preceded ROUSSEAU, so famous for his invective against the sciences. The seventh chapter of his fourth book is an inimitable satire. "The principal excuse," says he, "which engages men in false studies, is, that they have attached the idea of learned where they should not." Astronomy, antiquarianism, history, ancient poetry, and natural history, are all mowed down by his metaphysical scythe. When we become acquainted with the idea Father Malebranche attaches to the term learned, we understand him—and we smile.]
[Footnote D: See the chapter on "Puck the Commentator," in the "Curiosities of Literature," vol. iii.; also p. 304 of the same volume.]
A new race of jargonists, the barbarous metaphysicians of political economy, have struck at the essential existence of the productions of genius in literature and art; for, appreciating them by their own standard, they have miserably degraded the professors. Absorbed in the contemplation of material objects, and rejecting whatever does not enter into their own restricted notion of "utility," these cold arithmetical seers, with nothing but millions in their imagination; and whose choicest works of art are spinning-jennies, have valued the intellectual tasks of the library and the studio by "the demand and the supply." They have sunk these pursuits into the class of what they term "unproductive labour;" and by another result of their line and level system, men of letters, with some other important characters, are forced down into the class "of buffoons, singers, opera-dancers, &c." In a system of political economy it has been discovered that "that unprosperous race of men, called men of letters, must necessarily occupy their present forlorn state in society much as formerly, when a scholar and a beggar seem to have been terms very nearly synonymous."[A] In their commercial, agricultural, and manufacturing view of human nature, addressing society by its most pressing wants and its coarsest feelings, these theorists limit the moral and physical existence of man by speculative tables of population, planing and levelling society down in their carpentry of human nature. They would yoke and harness the loftier spirits to one common and vulgar destination. Man is considered only as he wheels on the wharf, or as he spins in the factory; but man, as a recluse being of meditation, or impelled to action by more generous passions, has been struck out of the system of our political economists. It is, however, only among their "unproductive labourers" that we shall find those men of leisure, whose habitual pursuits are consumed in the development of thought and the gradual accessions of knowledge; those men of whom the sage of Judea declares, that "It is he who hath little business who shall become wise: how can he get wisdom that holdeth the plough, and whose talk is of bullocks? But THEY,"—the men of leisure and study,—"WILL MAINTAIN THE STATE OF THE WORLD!" The prosperity and the happiness of a people include something more evident and more permanent than "the Wealth of a Nation."[B]
[Footnote A: "Wealth of Nations," i. 182.]
[Footnote B: Since this murmur has been uttered against the degrading views of some of those theorists, it afforded me pleasure to observe that Mr. Malthus has fully sanctioned its justness. On this head, at least, Mr. Malthus has amply confuted his stubborn and tasteless brothers. Alluding to the productions of genius, this writer observes, that, "to estimate the value of NEWTON'S discoveries, or the delight communicated by SHAKSPEAKE and MILTON, by the price at which their works have sold, would be but a poor measure of the degree in which they have elevated and enchanted their country."—Principles of Pol. Econ. p. 48. And hence he acknowledges, that "some unproductive labour is of much more use and importance than productive labour, but is incapable of being the subject of the gross calculations which relate to national wealth; contributing to other sources of happiness besides those which are derived from matter." Political economists would have smiled with contempt on the querulous PORSON, who once observed, that "it seemed to him very hard, that with all his critical knowledge of Greek, he could not get a hundred pounds." They would have demonstrated to the learned Grecian, that this was just as it ought to be; the same occurrence had even happened to HOMER in his own country, where Greek ought to have fetched a higher price than in England; but, that both might have obtained this hundred pounds, had the Grecian bard and the Greek professor been employed at the same stocking-frame together, instead of the "Iliad."]
There is a more formidable class of men of genius who are heartless to the interests of literature. Like CORNELIUS AGRIPPA, who wrote on "the vanity of the arts and sciences," many of these are only tracing in the arts which they have abandoned their own inconstant tempers, their feeble tastes, and their disordered judgments. But, with others of this class, study has usually served as the instrument, not as the object, of their ascent; it was the ladder which they once climbed, but it was not the eastern star which guided and inspired. Such literary characters were WARBURTON,[A] WATSON, and WILKES, who abandoned their studies when their studies had served a purpose.
[Footnote A: For a full disquisition of the character and career of Warburton, see the essay in "Quarrels of Authors."]
WATSON gave up his pursuits in chemistry the instant he obtained their limited reward, and the laboratory closed when the professorship was instituted. Such was the penurious love he bore for the science which he had adopted, that the extraordinary discoveries of thirty years subsequent to his own first essays could never excite even an idle inquiry. He tells us that he preferred "his larches to his laurels:" the wretched jingle expressed the mere worldliness that dictated it. In the same spirit of calculation with which he had at first embraced science and literature, he abandoned them; and his ingenuous confession is a memorable example of that egotistic pride which betrayed in the literary character the creature of selfism and political ambition.
We are accustomed to consider WILKES merely as a political adventurer, and it may surprise to find this "city chamberlain" ranked among professed literary characters: yet in his variable life there was a period when he cherished the aspirations of a votary. Once he desired Lloyd to announce the edition of Churchill, which he designed to enrich by a commentary; and his correspondence on this subject, which has never appeared, would, as he himself tells us, afford a variety of hints and communications. Wilkes was then warmed by literary glory; for on his retirement into Italy, he declared, "I mean to give myself entirely to our friend's work, and to my History of England. I wish to equal the dignity of Livy: I am sure the greatness and majesty of our nation demand an historian equal to him." They who have only heard of the intriguing demagogue, and witnessed the last days of the used voluptuary, may hardly imagine that Wilkes had ever cherished such elevated projects; but mob-politics made this adventurer's fortune, which fell to the lot of an epicurean: and the literary glory he once sought he lived to ridicule, in the immortal diligence of Lord Chatham and of Gibbon. Dissolving life away, and consuming all his feelings on himself, Wilkes left his nearest relatives what he left the world—the memory of an anti-social being! This wit, who has bequeathed to us no wit; this man of genius, who has formed no work of genius; this bold advocate for popular freedom, who sunk his patriotism in the chamberlainship; was indeed desirous of leaving behind him some trace of the life of an escroc in a piece of autobiography, which, for the benefit of the world, has been thrown to the flames.
Men who have ascended into office through its gradations, or have been thrown upwards by accident, are apt to view others in a cloud of passions and politics. They who once commanded us by their eloquence, come at length to suspect the eloquent; and in their "pride of office" would now drive us by that single force of despotism which is the corruption of political power. Our late great Minister, Pitt, has been reproached even by his friends for the contemptuous indifference with which he treated literary men. Perhaps BURKE himself, long a literary character, might incur some portion of this censure, by involving the character itself in the odium of a monstrous political sect. These political characters resemble Adrian VI., who, obtaining the tiara as the reward of his studies, afterwards persecuted literary men, and, say the Italians, dreaded lest his brothers might shake the Pontificate itself.[A]
Worst fares it with authors when minds of this cast become the arbiters of public opinion; for the greatest of writers may unquestionably be forced into ridiculous attitudes by the well-known artifices practised by modern criticism. The elephant, no longer in his forest struggling with his hunters, but falling entrapped by a paltry snare, comes at length, in the height of ill-fortune, to dance on heated iron at the bidding of the pantaloon of a fair. Whatever such critics may plead to mortify the vanity of authors, at least it requires as much vanity to give effect to their own polished effrontery.[B] Scorn, sarcasm, and invective, the egotism of the vain, and the irascibility of the petulant, where they succeed in debilitating genius of the consciousness of its powers, are practising the witchery of that ancient superstition of "tying the knot," which threw the youthful bridegroom into utter despair by its ideal forcefulness.[C]
[Footnote A: It has been suspected that Adrian VI. has been calumniated, for that this pontiff was only too sudden to begin the reform he meditated. But Adrian VI. was a scholastic whose austerity turned away with contempt from all ancient art, and was no brother to contemporary genius. He was one of the cui bono race, a branch of our political economists. When they showed him the Laocooen, Adrian silenced their raptures by the frigid observation, that all such things were idola antiquorum: and ridiculed the amena letteratura till every man of genius retreated from his court. Had Adrian's reign extended beyond its brief period, men of taste in their panic imagined that in his zeal the Pontiff would have calcined the fine statues of ancient art, to expedite the edifice of St. Peter.]
[Footnote B: Listen to a confession and a recantation of an illustrious sinner; the Coryphaeus of the amusing and new-found art, or artifice, of modern criticism. In the character of BURNS, the Edinburgh Reviewer, with his peculiar felicity of manner, attacked the character of the man of genius; but when Mr. Campbell vindicated his immortal brother with all the inspiration of the family feeling, our critic, who is one of those great artists who acquire at length the utmost indifference even for their own works, generously avowed that, "a certain tone of exaggeration is incidental we fear to the sort of writing in which we are engaged. Reckoning a little too much on the dulness of our readers, we are often led to overstate our sentiments: when a little controversial warmth is added to a little love of effect, an excess of colouring steals over the canvas, which ultimately offends no eye so much as our own." But what if this love of effect in the critic has been too often obtained at the entire cost of the literary characters, the fruits of whose studious days at this moment lie withering in oblivion, or whose genius the critic has deterred from pursuing the career it had opened for itself! To have silenced the learned, and to have terrified the modest, is the barbarous triumph of a Hun or a Vandal; and the vaunted freedom of the literary republic departed from us when the vacillating public blindly consecrated the edicts of the demagogues of literature, whoever they may be.
A reaction appears in the burlesque or bantering spirit. While one faction drives out another, the abuse of extraordinary powers is equally fatal. Thus we are consoled while we are afflicted, and we are protected while we are degraded.]
[Footnote C: Nouer l'aiguillette, of which the extraordinary effect is described by Montaigne, is an Oriental custom still practised.—Mr. Hobhouse's Journey through Albania, p. 528.]
That spirit of levity which would shake the columns of society, by detracting from or burlesquing the elevating principles which have produced so many illustrious men, has recently attempted to reduce the labours of literature to a mere curious amusement: a finished composition is likened to a skilful game of billiards, or a piece of music finely executed; and curious researches, to charades and other insignificant puzzles. With such, an author is an idler who will not be idle, amusing or fatiguing others who are completely so. The result of a work of genius is contracted to the art of writing; but this art is only its last perfection. Inspiration is drawn from a deeper source; enthusiasm is diffused through contagious pages; and without these movements of the soul, how poor and artificial a thing is that sparkling composition which flashes with the cold vibrations of mere art or artifice! We have been recently told, on critical authority, that "a great genius should never allow himself to be sensible to his own celebrity, nor deem his pursuits of much consequence, however important or successful." A sort of catholic doctrine, to mortify an author into a saint, extinguishing the glorious appetite of fame by one Lent all the year, and self-flagellation every day! BUFFON and GIBBON, VOLTAIRE and POPE,[A] who gave to literature all the cares, the industry, and the glory of their lives, assuredly were too "sensible to their celebrity, and deemed their pursuits of much consequence," particularly when "important and successful." The self-possession of great authors sustains their own genius by a sense of their own glory.
Such, then, are some of the domestic treasons of the literary character against literature—"Et tu, Brute!" But the hero of literature outlives his assassins, and might address them in that language of poetry and affection with which a Mexican king reproached his traitorous counsellors:—"You were the feathers of my wings, and the eyelids of my eyes."
[Footnote A: The claims of Pope to the title of a great poet were denied in the days of Byron; and occasioned a warm and noble defence of him by that poet. It has since been found necessary to do the same for Byron, whom some transcendentalists have attacked.—ED.]
Of artists, in the history of men of literary genius.—Their habits and pursuits analogous.—The nature of their genius is similar in their distinct works.—Shown by their parallel eras, and by a common end pursued by both.
Artists and literary men, alike insulated in their studies, pass through the same permanent discipline; and thus it has happened that the same habits and feelings, and the same fortunes, have accompanied men who have sometimes unhappily imagined their pursuits not to be analogous.
Let the artist share The palm; he shares the peril, and dejected Faints o'er the labour unapproved—alas! Despair and genius!—
The congenial histories of literature and art describe the same periodical revolutions and parallel eras. After the golden age of Latinity, we gradually slide into the silver, and at length precipitately descend into the iron. In the history of painting, after the splendid epoch of Raphael, Titian, and Correggio, we meet with pleasure the Oarraccis, Domenichino, Guido, and Albano; as we read Paterculus, Quintilian, Seneca, Juvenal, and Silius Italicus, after their immortal masters, Cicero, Livy, Virgil, and Horace.
It is evident that MILTON, MICHAEL ANGELO, and HANDEL, belong to the same order of minds; the same imaginative powers, and the same sensibility, are only operating with different materials. LANZI, the delightful historian of the Storia Pittorica, is prodigal of his comparisons of the painters with the poets; his delicacy of perception discerned the refined analogies which for ever unite the two sisters, and he fondly dwelt on the transplanted flowers of the two arts: "Chi sente che sia Tibullo nel poetare sente chi sia Andrea (del Sarto) nel dipingere;" he who feels what TIBULLUS is in poetry, feels what ANDREA is in painting. MICHAEL ANGELO, from his profound conception of the terrible and the difficult in art, was called its DANTE; from the Italian poet the Italian sculptor derived the grandeur of his ideas; and indeed the visions of the bard had deeply nourished the artist's imagination; for once he had poured about the margins of his own copy their ethereal inventions, in the rapid designs of his pen. And so Bellori informs us of a very curious volume in manuscript, composed by RUBENS, which contained, among other topics concerning art, descriptions of the passions and actions of men, drawn from the poets, and demonstrated to the eye by the painters. Here were battles, shipwrecks, sports, groups, and other incidents, which were transcribed from Virgil and other poets, and by their side RUBENS had copied what he had met with on those subjects from Raphael and the antique.[A]
The poet and the painter are only truly great by the mutual influences of their studies, and the jealousy of glory has only produced an idle contest. This old family-quarrel for precedence was renewed by our estimable President, in his brilliant "Rhymes on Art;" where he maintains that "the narrative of an action is not comparable to the action itself before the eyes;" while the enthusiast BARRY considers painting "as poetry realised."[B] This error of genius, perhaps first caught from Richardson's bewildering pages, was strengthened by the extravagant principle adopted by Darwin, who, to exalt his solitary talent of descriptive poetry, asserted that "the essence of poetry was picture." The philosophical critic will find no difficulty in assigning to each, sister-art her distinct province; and it is only a pleasing delirium, in the enthusiasm of artists, which has confused the boundaries of these arts. The dread pathetic story of Dante's "Ugolino," under the plastic hand of Michael Angelo, formed the subject of a basso-relievo; and Reynolds, with his highest effort, embodied the terrific conception of the poet as much as his art permitted: but assuredly both these great artists would never have claimed the precedence of the Dantesc genius, and might have hesitated at the rivalry.
[Footnote A: Rubens was an ardent collector of works of antique art; and in the "Curiosities of Literature," vol. iii. p. 398, will be found an interesting account of his museum at Antwerp.—ED.]
[Footnote B: The late Sir Martin Archer Shee, P.R.A. This accomplished artist, who possessed a large amount of poetical and literary power, asks, "What is there of intellectual in the operations of the poet which the painter does not equal? What is there of mechanical which he does not surpass? The advantage which poetry possesses over painting in continued narration and successive impression, cannot be advanced as a peculiar merit of the poet, since it results from the nature of language, and is common to prose." Poetry he values as the earliest of arts, painting as the latest and most refined.—ED.]
Who has not heard of that one common principle which unites the intellectual arts, and who has not felt that the nature of their genius is similar in their distinct works? Hence curious inquiries could never decide whether the group of the Laocooen in sculpture preceded or was borrowed from that in poetry. Lessing conjectures that the sculptor copied the poet. It is evident that the agony of Laocooen was the common end where the sculptor and the poet were to meet; and we may observe that the artists in marble and in verse skilfully adapted their variations to their respective art: the one having to prefer the nude, rejected the veiling fillet from the forehead, that he might not conceal its deep expression, and the drapery of the sacrificial robe, that he might display the human form in visible agony; but the other, by the charm of verse, could invest the priest with the pomp of the pontifical robe without hiding from us the interior sufferings of the human victim. We see they obtained by different means, adapted to their respective arts, that common end which each designed; but who will decide which invention preceded the other, or who was the greater artist?
This approximation of men apparently of opposite pursuits is so natural, that when Gesner, in his inspiring letter on landscape-painting,[A] recommends to the young painter a constant study of poetry and literature, the impatient artist is made to exclaim, "Must we combine with so many other studies those which belong to literary men? Must we read as well as paint?" "It is useless to reply to this question; for some important truths must be instinctively felt, perhaps the fundamental ones in the arts." A truly imaginative artist, whose enthusiasm was never absent when he meditated on the art he loved, BARRY, thus vehemently broke forth: "Go home from the academy, light up your lamps, and exercise yourselves in the creative part of your art, with Homer, with Livy, and all the great characters, ancient and modern, for your companions and counsellors." This genial intercourse of literature with art may be proved by painters who have suggested subjects to poets, and poets who have selected them for painters. GOLDSMITH suggested the subject of the tragic and pathetic picture of Ugolino to the pencil of REYNOLDS.
All the classes of men in society have their peculiar sorrows and enjoyments, as they have their peculiar habits and characteristics. In the history of men of genius we may often open the secret story of their minds, for they have above others the privilege of communicating their own feelings; and every life of a man of genius, composed by himself, presents us with the experimental philosophy of the mind. By living with their brothers, and contemplating their masters, they will judge from consciousness less erroneously than from discussion; and in forming comparative views and parallel situations, they will discover certain habits and feelings, and find these reflected in themselves.
SYDENHAM has beautifully said, "Whoever describes a violet exactly as to its colour, taste, smell, form, and other properties, will find the description agree in most particulars with all the violets in the universe."
[Footnote A: Few writers were so competent to instruct in art as Gesner, who was not only an author and a poet, but an artist who decorated his poems by designs as graceful as their subject.—ED.]
Of natural genius.—Minds constitutionally different cannot have an equal aptitude.—Genius not the result of habit and education.—Originates in peculiar qualities of the mind.—The predisposition of genius.—A substitution for the white paper of Locke.[A]
[Footnote A: In the second edition of this work in 1818, I touched on some points of this inquiry in the second chapter: I almost despaired to find any philosopher sympathise with the subject, so invulnerable, they imagine, are the entrenchments of their theories. I was agreeably surprised to find these ideas taken up in the Edinburgh Review for August, 1820, in an entertaining article on Reynolds. I have, no doubt, profited by the perusal, though this chapter was prepared before I met with that spirited vindication of "an inherent difference in the organs or faculties to receive impressions of any kind."]
That faculty in art which individualises the artist, belonging to him and to no other, and which in a work forms that creative part whose likeness is not found in any other work—is it inherent in the constitutional dispositions of the Creator, or can it be formed by patient acquisition?
Astonished at their own silent and obscure progress, some have imagined that they have formed their genius solely by their own studies; when they generated, they conceived that they had acquired; and, losing the distinction between nature and habit, with fatal temerity the idolatry of philosophy substituted something visible and palpable, yet shaped by the most opposite fancies, called a Theory, for Nature herself! Men of genius, whose great occupation is to be conversant with the inspirations of Nature, made up a factitious one among themselves, and assumed that they could operate without the intervention of the occult original. But Nature would not be mocked; and whenever this race of idolaters have worked without her agency, she has afflicted them with the most stubborn sterility.
Theories of genius are the peculiar constructions of our own philosophical times; ages of genius had passed away, and they left no other record than their works; no preconcerted theory described the workings of the imagination to be without imagination, nor did they venture to teach how to invent invention.
The character of genius, viewed as the effect of habit and education, on the principle of the equality of the human mind, infers that men have an equal aptitude for the work of genius: a paradox which, with a more fatal one, came from the French school, and arose probably from an equivocal expression.
Locke employed the well-known comparison of the mind with "white paper void of all characters," to free his famous "Inquiry" from that powerful obstacle to his system, the absurd belief of "innate ideas," of notions of objects before objects were presented to observation. Our philosopher considered that this simple analogy sufficiently described the manner in which he conceived the impressions of the senses write themselves on the mind. His French pupils, the amusing Helvetius, or Diderot, for they were equally concerned in the paradoxical "L'Esprit," inferred that this blank paper served also as an evidence that men had an equal aptitude for genius, just as the blank paper reflects to us whatever characters we trace on it. This equality of minds gave rise to the same monstrous doctrine in the science of metaphysics which that of another verbal misconception, the equality of men, did in that of politics. The Scottish metaphysicians powerfully combined to illustrate the mechanism of the mind,—an important and a curious truth; for as rules and principles exist in the nature of things, and when discovered are only thence drawn out, genius unconsciously conducts itself by a uniform process; and when this process had been traced, they inferred that what was done by some men, under the influence of fundamental laws which regulate the march of the intellect, must also be in the reach of others, who, in the same circumstances, apply themselves to the same study. But these metaphysicians resemble anatomists, under whose knife all men are alike. They know the structure of the bones, the movement of the muscles, and where the connecting ligaments lie! but the invisible principle of life flies from their touch. It is the practitioner on the living body who studies in every individual that peculiarity of constitution which forms the idiosyncrasy.
Under the influence of such novel theories of genius, JOHNSON defined it as "A Mind of large general powers ACCIDENTALLY determined by some particular direction." On this principle we must infer that the reasoning LOCKE, or the arithmetical DE MOIVRE, could have been the musical and fairy SPENSER.[A] This conception of the nature of genius became prevalent. It induced the philosophical BECCARIA to assert that every individual had an equal degree of genius for poetry and eloquence; it runs through the philosophy of the elegant Dugald Stewart; and REYNOLDS, the pupil of Johnson in literature, adopting the paradox, constructed his automatic system on this principle of equal aptitude. He says, "this excellence, however expressed by genius, taste, or the gift of Heaven, I am confident may be acquired." Reynolds had the modesty to fancy that so many rivals, unendowed by nature, might have equalled the magic of his own pencil: but his theory of industry, so essential to genius, yet so useless without it, too long stimulated the drudges of art, and left us without a Correggio or a Raphael! Another man of genius caught the fever of the new system. CURRIE, in his eloquent "Life of Burns," swells out the scene of genius to a startling magnificence; for he asserts that, "the talents necessary to the construction of an 'Iliad,' under different discipline and application, might have led armies to victory or kingdoms to prosperity; might have wielded the thunder of eloquence, or discovered and enlarged the sciences." All this we find in the text; but in the clear intellect of this man of genius a vast number of intervening difficulties started up, and in a copious note the numerous exceptions show that the assumed theory requires no other refutation than what the theorist has himself so abundantly and so judiciously supplied. There is something ludicrous in the result of a theory of genius which would place HOBBES and ERASMUS, those timid and learned recluses, to open a campaign with the military invention and physical intrepidity of a Marlborough; or conclude that the romantic bard of the "Fairy Queen," amidst the quickly-shifting scenes of his visionary reveries, could have deduced, by slow and patient watchings of the mind, the system and the demonstrations of Newton.
[Footnote A: It is more dangerous to define than to describe: a dry definition excludes so much, an ardent description at once appeals to our sympathies. How much more comprehensible our great critic becomes when he nobly describes genius, "as the power of mind that collects, combines, amplifies, and animates; the energy without which judgment is cold, and knowledge is inert!" And it is this POWER OF MIND, this primary faculty and native aptitude, which we deem may exist separately from education and habit, since these are often found unaccompanied by genius.]
Such theorists deduce the faculty called genius from a variety of exterior or secondary causes: zealously rejecting the notion that genius may originate in constitutional dispositions, and be only a mode of the individual's existence, they deny that minds are differently constituted. Habit and education, being more palpable and visible in their operations, and progressive in the development of the intellectual faculties, have been imagined fully sufficient to make the creative faculty a subject of acquirement.
But when these theorists had discovered the curious fact, that we have owed to accident several men of genius, and when they laid open some sources which influenced genius in its progress, they did not go one step further, they did not inquire whether such sources and such accidents had ever supplied the want of genius in the individual. Effects were here again mistaken for causes. Could Spenser have kindled a poet in Cowley, Richardson a painter in Reynolds, and Descartes a metaphysician in Malebranche, if those master-minds, pointed out as having been such from accident, had not first received the indelible mint-stamp struck by the hand of Nature, and which, to give it a name, we may be allowed to call the predisposition of genius? The accidents so triumphantly held forth, which are imagined to have created the genius of these men, have occurred to a thousand who have run the same career; but how does it happen that the multitude remain a multitude, and the man of genius arrives alone at the goal?
This theory, which long dazzled its beholders, was in time found to stand in contradiction with itself, and perpetually with their own experience. Reynolds pared down his decision in the progress of his lectures, often wavered, often altered, and grew more confused as he lived longer to look about him.[A] The infirm votaries of the new philosophy, with all their sources of genius open before them, went on multiplying mediocrity, while inherent genius, true to nature, still continued rare in its solitary independence.
[Footnote A: I transcribe the last opinions of Mr. Edgeworth. "As to original genius, and the effect of education in forming taste or directing talent, the last revisal of his opinions was given by himself, in the introduction to the second edition of 'Professional Education.' He was strengthened in his belief, that many of the great differences of intellect which appear in men, depend more upon the early cultivating the habit of attention than upon any disparity between the powers of one individual and another. Perhaps, he latterly allowed that there is more difference than he had formerly admitted between the natural powers of different persons; but not so great as is generally supposed."— Edgeworth's Memoirs, ii. 388.]
Others have strenuously denied that we are born with any peculiar species of mind, and resolve the mysterious problem into capacity, of which men only differ in the degree. They can perceive no distinction between the poetical and the mathematical genius; and they conclude that a man of genius, possessing a general capacity, may become whatever he chooses, but is determined by his first acquired habit to be what he is.[A]
In substituting the term capacity for that of genius, the origin or nature remains equally occult. How is it acquired, or how is it inherent? To assert that any man of genius may become what he wills, those most fervently protest against who feel that the character of genius is such that it cannot be other than it is; that there is an identity of minds, and that there exists an interior conformity as marked and as perfect as the exterior physiognomy. A Scotch metaphysician has recently declared that "Locke or Newton might have been as eminent poets as Homer or Milton, had they given themselves early to the study of poetry." It is well to know how far this taste will go. We believe that had these philosophers obstinately, against nature, persisted in the attempt, as some have unluckily for themselves, we should have lost two great philosophers, and have obtained two supernumerary poets.[B]
It would be more useful to discover another source of genius for philosophers and poets, less fallible than the gratuitous assumptions of these theorists. An adequate origin for peculiar qualities in the mind may be found in that constitutional or secret propensity which adapts some for particular pursuits, and forms the predisposition of genius.
[Footnote A: Johnson once asserted, that "the supposition of one man having more imagination, another more judgment, is not true; it is only one man has more mind than another. He who has vigour may walk to the east as well as the west, if he happens to turn his head that way." Godwin was persuaded that all genius is a mere acquisition, for he hints at "infusing it," and making it a thing "heritable." A reversion which has been missed by the many respectable dunces who have been sons of men of genius.]
[Footnote B: This very Scotch metaphysician, at the instant he lays down this postulate, acknowledges that "Dr. Beattie had talents for a poet, but apparently not for a philosopher." It is amusing to learn another result of his ungenial metaphysics. This sage demonstrates and concludes in these words, "It will therefore be found, with little exception, that a great poet is but an ordinary genius." Let this sturdy Scotch metaphysician never approach Pegasus—he has to fear, not his wings, but his heels. If some have written on genius with a great deal too much, others have written without any.]
Not that we are bound to demonstrate what our adversaries have failed in proving; we may still remain ignorant of the nature of genius, and yet be convinced that they have not revealed it. The phenomena of predisposition in the mind are not more obscure and ambiguous than those which have been assigned as the sources of genius in certain individuals. For is it more difficult to conceive that a person bears in his constitutional disposition a germ of native aptitude which is developing itself to a predominant character of genius, which breaks forth in the temperament and moulds the habits, than to conjecture that these men of genius could not have been such but from accident, or that they differ only in their capacity?
Every class of men of genius has distinct habits; all poets resemble one another, as all painters and all mathematicians. There is a conformity in the cast of their minds, and the quality of each is distinct from the other, and the very faculty which fits them for one particular pursuit, is just the reverse required for another. If these are truisms, as they may appear, we need not demonstrate that from which we only wish to draw our conclusion. Why does this remarkable similarity prevail through the classes of genius? Because each, in their favourite production, is working with the same appropriate organ. The poetical eye is early busied with imagery; as early will the reveries of the poetical mind be busied with the passions; as early will the painter's hand be copying forms and colours; as early will the young musician's ear wander in the creation of sounds, and the philosopher's head mature its meditations. It is then the aptitude of the appropriate organ, however it varies in its character, in which genius seems most concerned, and which is connatural and connate with the individual, and, as it was expressed in old days, is born with him. There seems no other source of genius; for whenever this has been refused by nature, as it is so often, no theory of genius, neither habit nor education, have ever supplied its want. To discriminate between the habit and the predisposition is quite impossible; because whenever great genius discovers itself, as it can only do by continuity, it has become a habit with the individual; it is the fatal notion of habit having the power of generating genius, which has so long served to delude the numerous votaries of mediocrity. Natural or native power is enlarged by art; but the most perfect art has but narrow limits, deprived of natural disposition.
A curious decision on this obscure subject may be drawn from an admirable judge of the nature of genius. AKENSIDE, in that fine poem which forms its history, tracing its source, sang,
From Heaven my strains begin, from Heaven descends The flame of genius to the human breast.
But in the final revision of that poem, which he left many years after, the bard has vindicated the solitary and independent origin of genius, by the mysterious epithet,
THE CHOSEN BREAST.
The veteran poet was, perhaps, schooled by the vicissitudes of his own poetical life, and those of some of his brothers.
Metaphors are but imperfect illustrations in metaphysical inquiries: usually they include too little or take in too much. Yet fanciful analogies are not willingly abandoned. The iconologists describe Genius as a winged child with a flame above its head; the wings and the flame express more than some metaphysical conclusions. Let me substitute for "the white paper" of Locke, which served the philosopher in his description of the operations of the senses on the mind, a less artificial substance. In the soils of the earth we may discover that variety of primary qualities which we believe to exist in human minds. The botanist and the geologist always find the nature of the strata indicative of its productions; the meagre light herbage announces the poverty of the soil it covers, while the luxuriant growth of plants betrays the richness of the matrix in which the roots are fixed. It is scarcely reasoning by analogy to apply this operating principle of nature to the faculties of men.
But while the origin and nature of that faculty which we understand by the term Genius remain still wrapt up in its mysterious bud, may we not trace its history in its votaries? If Nature overshadow with her wings her first causes, still the effects lie open before us, and experience and observation will often deduce from consciousness what we cannot from demonstration. If Nature, in some of her great operations, has kept back her last secrets; if Newton, even in the result of his reasonings, has religiously abstained from penetrating into her occult connexions, is it nothing to be her historian, although we cannot be her legislator?
Youth of genius.—Its first impulses may be illustrated by its subsequent actions.—Parents have another association of the man of genius than we.—Of genius, its first habits.—Its melancholy.—Its reveries.—Its love of solitude.—Its disposition to repose.—Of a youth distinguished by his equals.—Feebleness of its first attempts.—Of genius not discoverable even in manhood.—The education of the youth may not be that of his genius.—An unsettled impulse, querulous till it finds its true occupation.—With some, curiosity as intense a faculty as invention. —What the youth first applies to is commonly his delight afterwards. —Facts of the decisive character of genius.
We are entering into a fairy land, touching only shadows, and chasing the most changeable lights; many stories we shall hear, and many scenes will open on us; yet though realities are but dimly to be traced in this twilight of imagination and tradition, we think that the first impulses of genius may be often illustrated by the subsequent actions of the individual; and whenever we find these in perfect harmony, it will be difficult to convince us that there does not exist a secret connexion between those first impulses and these last actions.
Can we then trace in the faint lines of his youth an unsteady outline of the man? In the temperament of genius may we not reasonably look for certain indications or predispositions, announcing the permanent character? Is not great sensibility born with its irritable fibres? Will not the deep retired character cling to its musings? And the unalterable being of intrepidity and fortitude, will he not, commanding even amidst his sports, lead on his equals? The boyhood of Cato was marked by the sternness of the man, observable in his speech, his countenance, and his puerile amusements; and BACON, DESCARTES, HOBBES, GRAY, and others, betrayed the same early appearance of their intellectual vigour and precocity of character.
The virtuous and contemplative BOYLE imagined that he had discovered in childhood that disposition of mind which indicated an instinctive ingenuousness. An incident which he relates, evinced, as he thought, that even then he preferred to aggravate his fault rather than consent to suppress any part of the truth, an effort which had been unnatural to his mind. His fanciful, yet striking illustration may open our inquiry. "This trivial passage," the little story alluded to, "I have mentioned now, not that I think that in itself it deserves a relation, but because as the sun is seen best at his rising and his setting, so men's native dispositions are clearliest perceived whilst they are children, and when they are dying. These little sudden actions are the greatest discoverers of men's true humours."
ALFIERI, that historian of the literary mind, was conscious that even in his childhood the peculiarity and the melancholy of his character prevailed: a boyhood passed in domestic solitude fed the interior feelings of his impassioned character; and in noticing some incidents of a childish nature, this man of genius observes, "Whoever will reflect on these inept circumstances, and explore into the seeds of the passions of man, possibly may find these neither so laughable nor so puerile as they may appear." His native genius, or by whatever other term we may describe it, betrayed the wayward predispositions of some of his poetical brothers: "Taciturn and placid for the most part, but at times loquacious and most vivacious, and usually in the most opposite extremes; stubborn and impatient against force, but most open to kindness, more restrained by the dread of reprimand than by anything else, susceptible of shame to excess, but inflexible if violently opposed." Such is the portrait of a child of seven years old, a portrait which induced the great tragic bard to deduce this result from his own self-experience, that "man is a continuation of the child."[A]
[Footnote A: See in his Life, chap. iv., entitled Sviluppo dell' indole indicato da vari fattarelli. "Development of genius, or natural inclination, indicated by various little matters."]
That the dispositions of genius in early life presage its future character, was long the feeling of antiquity. CICERO, in his "Dialogue on Old Age," employs a beautiful analogy drawn from Nature, marking her secret conformity in all things which have life and come from her hands; and the human mind is one of her plants. "Youth is the vernal season of life, and the blossoms it then puts forth are indications of those future fruits which are to be gathered in the succeeding periods." One of the masters of the human mind, after much previous observation of those who attended his lectures, would advise one to engage in political studies, then exhorted another to compose history, elected these to be poets, and those to be orators; for ISOCRATES believed that Nature had some concern in forming a man of genius, and endeavoured to guess at her secret by detecting the first energetic inclination of the mind. This also was the principle which guided the Jesuits, those other great masters in the art of education. They studied the characteristics of their pupils with such singular care, as to keep a secret register in their colleges, descriptive of their talents, and the natural turn of their dispositions. In some cases they guessed with remarkable felicity. They described Fontenelle, adolescens omnibus numeris absolutus et inter discipulos princeps, "a youth accomplished in every respect, and the model for his companions;" but when they describe the elder Crebillon, puer ingeniosus sed insignis nebulo, "a shrewd boy, but a great rascal," they might not have erred so much as they appear to have done; for an impetuous boyhood showed the decision of a character which might not have merely and misanthropically settled in imaginary scenes of horror, and the invention of characters of unparalleled atrocity.
In the old romance of King Arthur, when a cowherd comes to the king to request he would make his son a knight—"It is a great thing thou askest," said Arthur, who inquired whether this entreaty proceeded from him or his son. The old man's answer is remarkable—"Of my son, not of me; for I have thirteen sons, and all these will fall to that labour I put them; but this child will not labour for me, for anything that I and my wife will do; but always he will be shooting and casting darts, and glad for to see battles, and to behold knights, and always day and night he desireth of me to be made a knight." The king commanded the cowherd to fetch all his sons; "they were all shapen much like the poor man; but Tor was not like none of them in shape and in countenance, for he was much more than any of them. And so Arthur knighted him." This simple tale is the history of genius— the cowherd's twelve sons were like himself, but the unhappy genius in the family, who perplexed and plagued the cowherd and his wife and his twelve brothers, was the youth averse to the common labour, and dreaming of chivalry amidst a herd of cows.
A man of genius is thus dropped among the people, and has first to encounter the difficulties of ordinary men, unassisted by that feeble ductility which adapts itself to the common destination. Parents are too often the victims of the decided propensity of a son to a Virgil or a Euclid; and the first step into life of a man of genius is disobedience and grief. LILLY, our famous astrologer, has described the frequent situation of such a youth, like the cowherd's son who would be a knight. Lilly proposed to his father that he should try his fortune in the metropolis, where he expected that his learning and his talents would prove serviceable to him; the father, quite incapable of discovering the latent genius of his son in his studious disposition, very willingly consented to get rid of him, for, as Lilly proceeds, "I could not work, drive the plough, or endure any country labour; my father oft would say I was good for nothing,"—words which the fathers of so many men of genius have repeated.[A]