Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
The Privilege of Genius
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
 
From The Friend

BUT how shall I avert the scorn of those critics who laugh at the oldness of my topics, evil and good, necessity and arbitrement, immortality and the ultimate aim? By what shall I regain their favour? My themes must be new, a French constitution; a balloon; a change of ministry; a fresh batch of kings on the Continent, or of peers in our happier island; or who had the best of it of two parliamentary gladiators, and whose speech, on the subject of Europe bleeding at a thousand wounds, or our own country struggling for herself and all human nature was cheered by the greatest number of “laughs,” “loud laughs,” and “very loud laughs”: (which, carefully marked by italics, form most conspicuous and strange parentheses in the newspaper reports). Or if I must be philosophical, the last chemical discoveries, provided I do not trouble my reader with the principle which gives them their highest interest, and the character of intellectual grandeur to the discoverer; or the last shower of stones, and that they were supposed, by certain philosophers, to have been projected from some volcano in the moon, taking care, however, not to add any of the cramp reasons for this opinion! Something new, however, it must be, quite new and quite out of themselves! for whatever is within them, whatever is deep within them, must be as old as the first dawn of human reason. But to find no contradiction in the union of old and new, to contemplate the Ancient of Days with feelings as fresh as if they sprang forth at His own fiat, this characterises the minds that feel the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it! To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood, to combine the child’s sense of wonderment and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years has rendered familiar,
        With sun and moon and stars throughout the year,
And man and woman—
this is the character and privilege of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish genius from talent. And so to represent familiar objects as to awaken the minds of others to a like freshness of sensation concerning them (that constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily convalescence)—to the same modest questioning of a self-discovered and intelligent ignorance, which like the deep and massy foundations of a Roman bridge, forms half of the whole structure (prudens interrogatio dimidium scientiæ, says Lord Bacon)—this is the prime merit of genius, and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation. Who has not, a thousand times, seen it snow upon water? Who has not seen it with a new feeling, since he has read Burns’s comparison of sensual pleasure to
                  the snowfall in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever!
  1
  In philosophy, equally as in poetry, genius produces the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues the stalest and most admitted truths from the impotence caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission. Extremes meet—a proverb, by the by, to collect and explain all the instances and exemplifications of which, would constitute and exhaust all philosophy. Truths, of all others the most awful and mysterious, yet being at the same time of universal interest, are too often considered as so true that they lose all the powers of truth, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors.  2
 
 
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