S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The productions of a great genius, with many lapses and inadvertencies, are infinitely preferable to the works of an inferior kind of author which are scrupulously exact, and conformable to all the rules of correct writing.
Taste and genius are two words frequently joined together, and therefore, by inaccurate thinkers, confounded. They signify, however, two quite different things. The difference between them can be clearly pointed out, and it is of importance to remember it. Taste consists in the power of judging; genius, in the power of executing. One may have a considerable degree of taste in poetry, eloquence, or any of the fine arts, who has little or hardly any genius for composition or execution in any of these arts; but genius cannot be found without including taste also. Genius, therefore, deserves to be considered as a higher power of the mind than taste. Genius always imports something inventive or creative, which does not rest in mere sensibility to beauty where it is perceived, but which can, moreover, produce new beauties, and exhibit them in such a manner as strongly to impress the minds of others. Refined taste forms a good critic; but genius is further necessary to form the poet or the orator.
It is proper also to observe, that genius is a word which, in common acceptation, extends much further than to the objects of taste. It is used to signify that talent or aptitude which we receive from nature for excelling in any one thing whatever. Thus, we speak of a genius for mathematics, as well as a genius for poetryof a genius for war, for politics, or for any mechanical employment.
A happy genius is the gift of nature: it depends on the influence of the stars, say the astrologers; on the organs of the body, say the naturalists; it is the particular gift of heaven, say the divines, both Christian and heathens.
Every man should examine his own genius, and advise with himself what is proper to apply himself to; for nothing can be more distant from tranquillity and happiness than to be engaged in a course of life for which nature has rendered thee unfit; for an active life is not to be undertaken by an unactive person; nor an unactive life by an active person: to one, rest is quiet and action labour; to another, rest is labour and action quiet: a mild and timorous man should avoid a military life, a bold and impatient man the easy; for one cannot brook war, nor the other peace.
A man of genius may sometimes suffer a miserable sterility; but at other times he will feel himself the magician of thought. Luminous ideas will dart from the intellectual firmament, just as if the stars were falling around him; sometimes he must think by mental moonlight, but sometimes his ideas reflect the solar splendour.
It is interesting to notice how some minds seem almost to create themselves, springing up under every disadvantage, and working their solitary but irresistible way through a thousand obstacles. Nature seems to delight in disappointing the assiduities of art, with which it would rear dulness to maturity; and to glory in the vigour and luxuriance of her chance productions. She scatters the seeds of genius to the winds, and though some may perish among the stony places of the world, and some may be choked by the thorns and brambles of early adversity, yet others will now and then strike root even in the clefts of the rock, struggle bravely up into sunshine, and spread over their sterile birthplace all the beauties of vegetation.
Some, that imagine themselves to have looked with more than common penetration into human nature, have endeavoured to persuade us that each man is born with a mind formed peculiarly for certain purposes and with desires unalterably determined to particular objects, from which the attention cannot long be diverted, and which alone, as they are well or ill pursued, must produce the praise or blame, the happiness or misery, of his future life. This position has not, indeed, been hitherto proved with strength proportionate to the assurance with which it has been advanced, and, perhaps, will never gain much prevalence by a close examination.
If the doctrine of innate ideas be itself disputable, there seems to be little hope of establishing an opinion which supposes that even complications of ideas have been given us at our birth, and that we are made by nature ambitious or covetous, before we know the meaning of either power or money.
Of genius, that power which constitutes a poet; that quality without which judgment is cold and knowledge is inert; that energy which collects, combines, amplifies, and animates, the superiority [to Pope] must, with some hesitation, be allowed to Dryden.
Genius is allied to a warm and inflammable constitution, delicacy of taste to calmness and sedateness. Hence it is common to find genius in one who is a prey to every passion; but seldom delicacy of taste. Upon a man possessed of this blessing, the moral duties, no less than the fine arts, make a deep impression, and counterbalance every irregular desire; at the same time, a temper calm and sedate is not easily moved, even by a strong temptation.
Mankind, from the earliest ages, have been prone almost to idolize those to whom they were indebted for any weighty benefits, or to whom they looked up as inventors of useful arts, or masters of hitherto occult sciences. Gratitude indeed demands that great and original geniuses, whom God has enriched with extraordinary talents by the due exercise of which they have become benefactors of the human race, should be loved and valued highly for their services; but when we look only at the instrument, and see not the hand of Supreme Benevolence that employs it for our benefit, we then overvalue man, and undervalue God; putting the former into the place of the latter, and making an idol of him; and if any will not worship this idol, a clamour is raised against them, and they are almost persecuted.
The proportion of genius to the vulgar is like one to a million; but genius without tyranny, without pretension, that judges the weak with equity, the superior with humanity, and equals with justice, is like one to ten millions.
Sir Isaac Newton and Milton were equally men of genius. Sir Robert Walpole and Lord Godolphin were ministers of great abilities, though they did not possess either the brilliant talents of Bolingbroke or the commanding genius of Chatham.
If there be any difference in natural parts, it should seem the advantage lies on the side of children born from wealthy parents, the same traditional sloth and luxury which render their body weak perhaps refining their spirits.
This evil fortune which attends extraordinary men hath been imputed to divers causes that need not be set down when so obvious a one occurs, that when a great genius appears the dunces are all in conspiracy against him.
Men do not make their homes unhappy because they have genius, but because they have not enough genius; a mind and sentiments of a higher order would render them capable of seeing and feeling all the beauty of domestic ties.