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SUPPOSED IRRITABILITY OF MEN OF GENIUS BROUGHT TO THE TEST
OF FACTS-CAUSES AND OCCASIONS OF THE CHARGE-ITS IN
I HAVE often thought, that it would be neither uninstructive nor unamusing to analyze, and bring forward into distinct consciousness, that complex feeling, with which readers in general take part against the author, in favor of the critic; and the readiness with which they apply to all poets the old sarcasm of Horace upon the scribblers of his time :
genus irritabile vatum.
A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we know well, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism. Having a deficient portion of internal and proper warmth, minds of this class seek in the crowd circum fana for a warmth in common, which they do not possess singly. Cold and phlegmatic in their own nature, like damp hay, they heat and inflame by co-acervation; or like bees they become restless and irritable through the increased temperature of collected multitudes. Hence the German word for fanaticism (such at least was its original import) is derived from the swarming of bees, namely, schwärmen, schwärmerey. The passion being in an inverse proportion to the insight,—that the more vivid, as this the less distinct—anger is the inevitable consequence. The absence of all foundation within their own minds for that, which they yet believe both true and indispensable to their safety and happiness, can not but produce an uneasy state of feeling, an involuntary sense of fear from which nature has no means of rescuing herself but by anger. Experience informs us that the first defence of weak minds is to recriminate.
There's no philosopher but sees,
They're both alike the ague. But where the ideas are vivid, and there exists an endless power of combining and modifying them, the feelings and affections blend more easily and intimately with these ideal creations than with the objects of the senses ; the mind is affected by thoughts, rather than by things; and only then feels the requisite interest even for the most important events and accidents, when by means of meditation they have passed into thoughts. The sanity of the mind is between superstition with fanaticism on the one hand, and enthusiasm with indifference and a diseased slowness to action on the other. For the conceptions of the mind may be so vivid and adequate, as to preclude that impulse to the realizing of them, which is strongest and most restless in those, who possess more than mere talent (or the faculty of appropriating and applying the knowledge of others),-yet still want something of the creative, and self-sufficing power of absolute genius. For this reason therefore, they are men of commanding genius. While the former rest content between thought and reality, as it were in an intermundium of which their own living spirit supplies the substance, and their imagination the ever-varying form; the latter must impress their preconceptions on the world without, in order to present them back to their own view with the satisfying degree of clearness, distinctness, and individuality. These in tranquil times are formed to exhibit a perfect poem in palace, or temple, or landscape-garden ; or a tale of romance in canals that join sea with sea, or in walks of rock, which, shouldering back the billows, imitate the power, and supply the benevolence of nature to sheltered navies ; or in aqueducts that, arching the wide vale from mountain to mountain, give a Palmyra to the desert. But alas ! in times of tumult they are the men destined to come forth as the shaping spirit of ruin, to destroy the wisdom of ages in order to substitute the fancies of a day, and to change kings and kingdoms, as the wind shifts and shapes the clouds.*
Of old things all are over old,
The records of biography seem to confirm this theory. The men of the greatest genius, as far as we can judge form their own works or from the accounts of their contemporaries, appear to have been of calm and tranquil temper in all that related to themselves. In the inward assurance of permanent fame, they seem to have been either indifferent or resigned with regard to immediate reputation. Through all the works of Chaucer there reigns a cheerfulness, a manly hilarity, which makes it almost impossible to doubt a correspondent habit of feeling in the author himself.* Shakspeare's evenness and sweetness of temper were almost proverbial in his own age. That this did not arise from ignorance of his own comparative greatness, we have abundant proof in his Sonnets, which could scarcely have been known to Pope, † when he asserted, that our great bard—
I too will have my kings, that take
Obedient to my breath. Wordsworth's Rob Roy.* * [I take unceasing delight in Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is es. pecially delicious to me in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is, and yet how perfectly free from the least touch of sickly melancholy or morbid drooping! The sympathy of the poet with the subjects of his poetry is particularly remarkable in Shakspeare and Chaucer; but what the first effects by a strong act of imagination and mental metamorphosis, the last does without any effort, merely by the inborn kindly joyousness of his nature. Table Talk, IV. p. 504.
+ Pope was under the common error of his age, an error far from being sufficiently exploded even at the present day. It consists (as I explained at large, and proved in detail in my public lectures),t in mistaking for the essentials of the Greek stage certain rules, which the wise poets imposed upon themselves, in order to render all the remaining parts of the drama consistent with those, that had been forced upon them by circumstances independent of their will; out of which circumstances the drama itself arose. The circumstances in the time of Shakspeare, which it was equally out of his power to alter, were different, and such as, in my opinion, allowed a far wider sphere, and a deeper and more human interest. Critics are too apt to forget, that rules are but means to an end; consequently, where the ends are different, the rules must be likewise so. We must have ascertained what the end is, before we can determine what the rules ought to le.
* Poetical Works, vol. iii. p. 127.
+ (See the Author's Lectures on Shakspeare, IV. p. 35, and generally the fragments of his lectures and notes on Shakspeare collected in that volume. -Ed.]
-grew immortal in his own despite.* Speaking of one whom he had celebrated, and contrasting the duration of his works with that of his personal existence, Shakspeare adds :
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
eyes not yet created shall o'er-read;
I have taken the first that occurred; but Shakspeare's readiness to praise his rivals, ore pleno, and the confidence of his own equality with those whom he deemed most worthy of his praise, are alike manifested in another Sonnet.
Judging under this impression, I did not hesitate to declare my full conviction, that the consummate judgment of Shakspeare, not only in the general construction, but in all the details, of bis dramas, impressed me with greater wonder, than even the might of his genius, or the depth of his philosophy.' The substance of these lectures I hope soon to publish ; and it is but a debt of justice to myself and my friends to notice, that the first course of lectures, which differed from the following courses only, by occasionally varying the illustrations of the same thoughts, was addressed to very numerous, and I need not add, respectable audiences at the Royal Institution, before Mr. Schlegel gave his lectures on the same subjects at Vienna.
Epist. to Augustus. + [These extraordinary sonnets form, in fact, a poem of so many stanzas of fourteen lines each ; and, like the passion which inspired them, the sonDets are always the same, with a variety of expression,-continuous, if you regard the lover's soul,—distinct, if you listen to him, as he heaves them sigh after sigh.
These sonnets, like The Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece, are characterized by boundless fertility, and labored condensation of thought, with perfection of sweetness in rhythm and metre. These are the essentials in the budding of a great poet. Afterwards babit and consciousness of power teach more ease-præcipitandum liberum spiritum. Table Talk, VI. p. 453.- Ed.
See t note on preceding page.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
In Spenser, indeed, we trace a mind constitutionally tender, delicate, and, in comparison with his three great compeers, I had almost said, effeminate ; and this additionally saddened by the unjust persecution of Burleigh, and the severe calamities, which overwhelmed his latter days. These causes have diffused over all his compositions " a melancholy grace," and have drawn forth occasional strains, the more pathetic from their gentleness. But nowhere do we find the least trace of irritability, and still less of quarrelsome or affected contempt of his censurers.
The same calmness, and even greater self-possession, may be affirmed of Milton, as far as his poems, and poetic character are concerned. He reserved his anger for the enemies of religion, freedom, and his country. My mind is not capable of forming a more august conception, than arises from the contemplation of this great man in his latter days ;—poor, sick, old, blind, slandered, persecuted,–*
Darkness before, and danger's voice behind, in an age in which he was as little understood by the party, for
* [In illustration of Milton's magnanimity of patience I can not refrain from quoting the conclusion of his letter to Leonard Philaras, the Athenian :
“At present every species of illumination being, as it were, extinguished, there is diffused around me nothing but darkness, or darkness mingled and streaked with an ashy brown. Yet the darkness in which I am perpetually immersed, seems always, both by night and day, to approach nearer to white than black, and when the eye is rolling in its socket, it admits a little particle of light as through a chink. And though this may perhaps offer to your physician a like ray of hope, yet I make up my mind to the malady as quite incurable; and I often reflect, that as the wise man admonishes,