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CRITICAL ESSAYS ON THE GENIUS OF THE ENGLISH POETS.
I shall not look upon his like again. HAMLET. WHETHER the English reader can to divest himself of the spirit of the apply these lines to Shakspeare him- times in which he writes, and to be self, is a question which a prophetic perfectly original. There are two spirit only can resolve, as no man can kinds of original writers ;-those who tell what future ages may produce; precede the literature of their counthough it requires no spirit of prophecy try, and who, from having no models to assert, that England musi become to copy after, are original in the strictonce more what it wasiohis time,before est sense of the expression; and those any dramatic writer can appear whose who, in subsequent periods, make writings will bear the same stamp of themselves acquainted with all the original genias, or whose originality learning of their own times, but who will be marked with the same indivi. studiously avoid imitation, and seek dual character. I am aware there are to be perfectly original in their own at the present moment, and if the productions. To such originality, revolutions of empire extinguish not however, they cannot possibly attain; the expanding fame of science Eng- for even when they imagine they are land may long continue to produce expressing their own sentiments, they kindred spirits, writers whose minds take them, for the greater part, from are as little fettered by the trammels that acquired stock of ideas, images, of authority, or at least who are as and associations, which has been long repulsive of the restrictions which it treasured up in their own minds, and imposes, as Shakspeare himself ; but which they originally collected from this confidence in their own powers the productions of other writers. In cannot shake off the influence which many cases, indeed, a writer of genius the literature and manners of their will discover relations and differences, own country, and the revolutions of and create images and associations, opinion, eternally, though uncon which can be traced to none of the sciously, exercise over their minds. works which he has ever read; but, in We may, indeed, conceive a poet, general, an original idea will be found such as Dr. Johnson has described to be merely an idea which had been in his “ Rasselas," divesting bim- first suggested to us by some former self of the prejudices of his age and writer, which lay dormant in the mind country, and considering right and till occasion called it forth, which the wrong in their invariable state; but occasion, however, would not have such a poet can fix his habitation called forth, if it had not been at one only in the unrealized creations of the time or other familiar the mind, miod; for even when we seem to write though it now appears to be original the language of inspiration itself, and only because it has been so long forto breathe the spontaneous effusions of gotten, and cannot be traced to it's Nature alone, the manners, habits, original author. Until England and and prejudices of our country, and her literature sinks into her primithe genius of it's literature, still cling tive barbarism, it is therefore imposfast io us, and supply us, even when sible for any writer to be as original as we are not aware of it, with senti- Shakspeare, should be even possess a nients, opinions, images, associations, double portion of bis genius. modes of expression, and peculiarities To form a just estimate of the genius of feeling, which would never have of Shakspeare, and of every writer who entered into our productions, had we precedes the literature of his country, written in another age, or in another and who has no models to copy after, cline. It is therefore impossible for we must judge of it by bis beautics any writer, however he may allect alone. It is only in a cultivated to spurn authority and precedent, age that we should take both faults an allertation which is not, perhaps, and beauties into consideration; beanays characteristic of true genius, cause it is only in such an age, that a
writer can be guided by those canons should be estimated by his beauties of criticism, and precepts of art, which alone, this idle controversy would not lead genius to perfection. If the cri- bave so long existed, nor would his tics had been invariably guided by this character as a poet be as undecided rule, we should not bave so many dif- now as it was a century ago. The folferent opinions among the learned on lowing reflections, however, will con. the genius of Shakspcare. The bulk vince us, that this point should be first of mankind, indeed, have but one opi- conceded by all parties. nion of him ; but those who claimed Shakspeare wrote in an age when be the privilege of judging more correctly, had no models to copy after. His and of penetrating deeper into the cha- beauties were, therefore, his own : racter of true excellence, have ran into while his faults belonged to the times opposite systems, and represented him in which he wrote. When he attained as the most sublime or the most barba- to excellence, he was indebted only to rous of poets. The French critics, with the strength of his own genius : whon very few exceptions, represent his he failed, his failure must be attributed plays as monstrous prodnctions, the to one or other of three sources ; offspring of an unsettled mind, and fit namely, his want of genius, his raonly for the reception of a barbarons pidity of execution, and the conseage. Hamlet, his master-piece, is de- quent nogligences that follow in it's signated by Voltaire, as the “work of train, or the imperfection of the lana drunken savage.” Even among bis guage in which he wrote, and it's unown countrymen, there have been, and fitness to clothe sublime conceptions there are to this day,* those who take in the luxuriant colourings of style pride in derogating from bis fame. and expression. These are the only Hume says, he cannot uphold “a sources to which we can trace the reasonable propriety of thought for absence of excellence in any writer. any time.” This false appreciation of That Shakspeare's faults could not the genius of Shakspeare has ori- arise from the first of these sources, is ginated from judging of him by his clearly demonstrated from those infaults and not by his beauties, whereas imitable beauties which could only the genius of all writers who have no emanate from a bold and sublime models to copy after, should be deter- genias, and devoid of which he could mined by their beautics alone. His never have produced them. Nowriter admirers have ran into the opposite can attain to sublinity of conception, extreme, and, in order to maintain his or discrimination of character, whose poctical pre-eminencc, have laboured genius does not enable him to rise to prove, that his faults and blemishes to the height of that conception which are real beauties, many of which they he expresses in his writings, unless think too refined for the discrimination he borrow his images and descripof grosser intellects. Hence it is, that tions from other writers. An English almost all the critiques on this immor- writer, therefore, who had no models tal poet, as well those of his admirers of excellence in his own country, and as their opponents, are false and erro- who was imperfectly, or not at all, neous, as they both agree in resting acquainted with the Greek, Latin, his fame on the uniform merit of his French, Spanish, and Italian lanworks, and think he must be brought guages, in which alone can be found to account for his faults as well as his all that is worthy of imitation, or beauties. If his fame, however, cannot at least all that was worthy of imitabe defended against the French critics tion in the time of Shakspeare, for Gerwithout defending his faults, his case many had then no literature of her is desperate indeed; for all the subtlety own, could attain to excellence only of commentators and critical learning by the native strength and uncomwill never succeed in justifying his municated vigour of his own genius. perpetual deviations from those prin. It is not in the power of the human ciples of dramatic excellence, which mind to express any thing great or are universally acknowledged by the sublime, profound or abstruse, deep best critics to have their foundation or impressive, till it bas first conin nature. If it had been once agreed ceived the idea which it conveys : upon by both parties that his merits -the conception of an idea must
* l'idc a critique on Shakspeare in a recept number of the “Examiner.”
always precede it's expression, and “ The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, it is in the conception alone that go- Are of imagination all compact : mas must consist. We can conceive One sees more devils than vast hell can many things wbich the most copious That is the’madman. The lover sees and refined language will not permit The face of Helen on a brow of Egypt. us to express, much less a language The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rulling, emerging from barbarism, but we can
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from express nothing till we first form the
earth to heaven; idea of it in our own mind; and it And as imagination bodies forth seldom happens that the expression The form of things unknown, the poet's is as correct as the mental concep pen tion. The inomeut, therefore, that we Turns them to shape, and gives to airy express a sublime idea without bor nothing rowing it, it is as evident as demon- A local habitation and a name." stration itself, that we had previously For it is obvious, that no man could coaceived it, and it is equally evident conceive such sentiments, but he who that the man of genius differs from the possessed that penetrating acumen, dupce only in the conception and com- and those intellectual energies, in bination of his ideas. The moment, which genius consists. Lord Byron therefore, that we prove sublimity, justly observes, that if Gray bad nepathos, or refinement of conception, ver written more than his celebrated in any writer, we establish his ge “ Elegy,” it would have rendered him nius, because we have no idea of ge- immortal. The genius of a poet must nius but what is made up of these be estimated by quality, and not by united qualities; for language or ex- quantity ; for it requires no argument pression is not genius, but the me to convince us, that the same mind chanism by which it is made known. which produced the elegy could, if Whoever, therefore, could write one it thought proper, produce many other page enriched with all the characters pieces on which the same character of of undoubted excellence, and teem- genius would be impressed. With reing with the most sublime and refined gard to the faults of genius, they arise sentiments, without any model to copy from want of taste, and taste can exist aster, would demonstrate that he pos- only in cultivated society. They prove, sessed that enviable quality of mind therefore, neither genius nor it's abwhich constitutes genius, had he ne sence, in writers who procede the litever written more, becanse all the con rature of their country, because that trivance of man, had he applied him- taste which could alone secure them self to the composition of this page from blemishes and imperfections has daring the whole period of his life, then no existence. Possessed of gecould not enable him to write it, on nius, therefore, we may still commit less he possessed that genius by which faults; but devoid of genius, we can alone the sentiments that it con never impress on any part of our protained could be dictated. To say that ductions, the genuine signatures of a man after repeated trials might bap- sublimity and beauty. Shakspeare, pen at last to produce these lines, then, could never have produced those would be to argue that a man might passages which are universally acmake a watch by chance, without that knowledged to be beautiful, whatintellect wbich was necessary to dis ever faults he might have oceasioncover the combination of principles ally committed, unless he possessed by which it was effected. Many im- that pre-eminence of genius for which portant discoveries, indeed, have been we contend; for it is one thing to found out by chance, but they were pronounce judgment on the genius discoveries that involved no combina- of a poet, and another to determine tion of principles. They were simple the merit of his works. A work may properties in nature, which always be very defective, and still prove it's existed in nature, and which would author a writer of infinitely more gehave continued to exist, had they never nius than a work of very considerable been discovered. If Shakspeare, there- merit. The proofs of a writer's gefore, never wrote more than the fol- nius are not collected from his exlowing passage, it would demonstrate pressions, but from the powers of the pre-eminence of his genius. mind wbich they indicate ; for the
most refined and eloquent language But let the faults of Shakspeare orithat ever emanated from the pen of ginate from what source they may, it is man would be a mere skeleton, un clear, from what I have already obless grafted on sentiments worthy of served, that they cannot be attributed such language. If the question then to the poverty of his intellect, or his agitated among the critics related incapacity for writing better; and if only to the uniform merit of Shak- not, they cannot be brought forward speare's works, judging of them by as arguments against the pre-emithe letter and not by the original nence of his genius, which is all that powers and energies of mind which any of his admirers should contend could alone have produced them, for. By defending his faults, they notwithstanding all the rubbish by give their adversaries an easy triumph which they are obscured, the mat- over them, because they are utterly ter could be easily decided; for the indefensible. It is sufficient to shew, most wretched dramatic work that that these faults did not result from has been attempted on the stage, at the native inertness or incapacity of least since the days of Pope, does his mind; for no advantage can be not contain, perhaps, so many vio- gained by proving they arose from his ,lations of critical rules and princi- rapidity of execution, and the conples of correct writing, as the most sequent inattention and negligence finished of Shakspeare's plays. All which it creates; for this would be the writers since the period I men- only to argue, that he could have tion have studied to express their written better if he chose, and conthoughts exactly as they conceived sequently, if not to acknowledge, them, because correctness became at least not to deny, the pre-emithen more studied, and the want of nence of his genius. If his faults arose it was deemed barbarous; hut Shak- from the defects of the language in speare's expression is often a mere which he wrote, this was a circumindex to his thoughts: it does not stance which he could not controul, convey the idea exactly as it existed and over which he could exercise no in his own mind, but it says at least redeeming power. what will enable us to guess at it, If, then, we cannot attribute the and lets us into the secret by in- faults of Shakspeare to his want of direct means. If it be asked, why genius, it is obvious that no argument Shakspeare could not express him- can be drawn from them in discussing self as correctly as other writers, or the subject, and that he who would at least as bis cotemporaries, for even form a just estimate of his merits, Ben Jonson accused him of incorrect- must, as I have already observed, ness, I reply, because his views of judge of him by his beauties alone, human nature were too profound, and because they were all the genuine his thoughts too comprehensive and offspring of his own mind, whereas unwieldy, to be clearly expressed in his faults can be traced to no source the language in which he wrote. Even whatever that argues impotency of now, when our language bas been genius. To compare Shakspeare, brought to such perfection, many therefore, with his successors, we ideas and distinct shades of thought must compare only their beauties ; will suggest themselves to a writer and from this comparison draw our of genius which he can find no words conclusions. If they be more unito express; but this inconveniency, formly correct, they derive this adthough infinitely greater in the days vantage from the progress of science of Shakspeare than at present, is no- in the age in which they lived, and thing in comparison to the imperfect there is little merit in that kind of structure of the language in his time, correctness which is purely mechait's barbarous phraseology, and the nical, and within the reach of every absence of all rules and precepts of one who has industry to acquire it. critical correctness. These were de- The writer of genins is not he who fects so deeply rooted in the nature possesses all the acquirements of his of the materials which served to com own age, but he who rises above municate to the world the sentiments them to heights which no acquireand conceptions of Shakspeare, that ments can reach but what are deno genius could redcern them,
rived froin nature. Industry will
impart correctness ; but nature alone form no idea of a feeling upnatural in een confer genius.
itself, because a feeling that never exThe genius of Shakspeare seems to isted in the human mind ondnot be bare principally consisted in the conceived, even in imagination ; and strength and energy of his feelings. as all the feelings of which we can It is generally asserted, that no man form any conception may exist in the Fas better acquainted with the hu- mind, they must be all natural ; for if man beart; but it is certain, that his they were not, they could not be felt. acquaintance with it must be under. The feelings of the philosopher, as well stood in a very qualified sense ; and as those of a savage, are all produced when properly understood, we can by certain causes, such as external or more easily determine the character moral influences ; nor can any feeling, of the spirit which he has commu sensation, emotion, or passion, ever nicated to his writings. Shakspeare find admittance into the human breast koew the human heart not as it exists without a cause suficient to produce in a state of polished society, but as it it. If, then, every feeling proceeds exists in a state placed midway be- from a certain cause, and cannot exist tween the confines of barbarism and without it, all feelings are not only nacivilization, where there is suflicient tural, but it is impossible for one feel. wealth and power to rouse ambition ing to be more natural than another ; to unholy deeds, and to awaken all as they all proceed from causes which the fears and bopes which variously are adequate to their production. To agitate and disturb the current of suppose them unnatural, is to suppose human life ;-where kuowledge is suf- that causes should not produce their ficiently extended to instruct it's pos. effocts, and that such effects taking sessors in all the means by which the place is contrary to nature. The turimages of hope and the anticipated bulent, boisterous, and impetuous gratifications of unsatisfied desire may passions of one man are, therefore, be realized and secured; but where as natural as the mild and moral feel it's informing rays have not as yet ings of another, though they are not so disclosed the sweeter charms of milder reasonable. The latter renders all his passions and more tempered energies ; feelings subservient to the controul of nor moulded into existence the gen- reason, and the precepts which she tler affections of the soul, nor the inculcates; while the former yields to refined feelings and sympathies of a the impulses of his own nature, and cultivated mind. There is nothing in spurns the dictates of reason and moShakspeare to win the soul to teyder rality. It is thereforo natural, that the delight. The softer images and asso- passions of him who refuses to be eiation of refined hope,that Hope which guided by reason sbould be contrary Collins paints “ with eyes so fair,” to reason, and extremely different sparkle not in the creations of his from the passions of him who conmuse. Every thing in him is ardent forms entirely to the restrictions and impetuous; and all his principal which she imposes. The feelings of characters are more or less under the both are natural, though the reverse of dominion of strong and turbulent each other; and we could only profeelings, while his low characters are nounce them unnatural if they hapoften affectedly witty and grossly vul- pened to be the same. We can, theregar. All this, however, is natural, fore, call a feeling unnatural only and as it ought to be; for there is no- when it is repugnant to the nature thing unnatural in vulgar wit, gross of the character to whom it is attrimanners, or turbulent and headstrong buted; but while it is such, as a passion. All feelings. passions, and sufficient cause can produce in such a propensities, are natural, however nature, it is as natural as the most unnatural and disgusting they may refined feeling that ever thrilled in appear to refined and delicate minds, the breast of sensibility. It is naprovided they agree with the character tural for a man of stubborn and into which they are ascribed. When we flexible honesty to have a rooted distalk of unnatural feelings, we either like to fraud and deception, and theremean feelings that are not suitable fore no cause would be powerful to the character in which they appear, enough to wind him round in a inonient, or wemean something which we do not and make him enamoured of them: understand. The human mind can Nemo repente fuit turpissimus. Eur. Mag. Vol. 81, Feb. 1822.