No. 160 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: EssayNo. 160Monday, September 3, 1711.‘… Cui mens divinior, atque osMagna sonaturum, des nominis hujus honorem.’Hor.There is no Character more frequently give …

Story type: Essay

No. 160
Monday, September 3, 1711.

‘… Cui mens divinior, atque os

Magna sonaturum, des nominis hujus honorem.’

Hor.

There is no Character more frequently given to a Writer, than that of being a Genius. I have heard many a little Sonneteer called a fine Genius. There is not an Heroick Scribler in the Nation, that has not his Admirers who think him a great Genius; and as for your Smatterers in Tragedy, there is scarce a Man among them who is not cried up by one or other for a prodigious Genius.

My design in this Paper is to consider what is properly a great Genius, and to throw some Thoughts together on so uncommon a Subject.

Among great Genius’s those few draw the Admiration of all the World upon them, and stand up as the Prodigies of Mankind, who by the meer Strength of natural Parts, and without any Assistance of Arts or Learning, have produced Works that were the Delight of their own Times, and the Wonder of Posterity. There appears something nobly wild and extravagant in these great natural Genius’s, that is infinitely more beautiful than all the Turn and Polishing of what the French call a Bel Esprit, by which they would express a Genius refined by Conversation, Reflection, and the Reading of the most polite Authors. The greatest Genius [which [1]] runs through the Arts and Sciences, takes a kind of Tincture from them, and falls unavoidably into Imitation.

Many of these great natural Genius’s that were never disciplined and broken by Rules of Art, are to be found among the Ancients, and in particular among those of the more Eastern Parts of the World. Homer has innumerable Flights that Virgil was not able to reach, and in the Old Testament we find several Passages more elevated and sublime than any in Homer. At the same time that we allow a greater and more daring Genius to the Ancients, we must own that the greatest of them very much failed in, or, if you will, that they were very much above the Nicety and Correctness of the Moderns. In their Similitudes and Allusions, provided there was a Likeness, they did not much trouble themselves about the Decency of the Comparison: Thus Solomon resembles the Nose of his Beloved to the Tower of Libanon which looketh toward Damascus; as the Coming of a Thief in the Night, is a Similitude of the same kind in the New Testament. It would be endless to make Collections of this Nature; Homer illustrates one of his Heroes encompassed with the Enemy by an Ass in a Field of Corn that has his Sides belaboured by all the Boys of the Village without stirring a Foot for it: and another of them tossing to and fro in his Bed and burning with Resentment, to a Piece of Flesh broiled on the Coals. This particular Failure in the Ancients, opens a large Field of Raillery to the little Wits, who can laugh at an Indecency but not relish the Sublime in these Sorts of Writings. The present Emperor of Persia, conformable to this Eastern way of Thinking, amidst a great many pompous Titles, denominates himself The Sun of Glory and the Nutmeg of Delight. In short, to cut off all Cavilling against the Ancients and particularly those of the warmer Climates who had most Heat and Life in their Imaginations, we are to consider that the Rule of observing what the French call the Bienseance in an Allusion, has been found out of latter Years, and in the colder Regions of the World; where we would make some Amends for our want of Force and Spirit, by a scrupulous Nicety and Exactness in our Compositions.

Our Countryman Shakespear was a remarkable Instance of this first kind of great Genius’s.

I cannot quit this Head without observing that Pindar was a great Genius of the first Class, who was hurried on by a natural Fire and Impetuosity to vast Conceptions of things and noble Sallies of Imagination. At the same time, can any thing be more ridiculous than for Men of a sober and moderate Fancy to imitate this Poet’s Way of Writing in those monstrous Compositions which go among us under the Name of Pindaricks? When I see People copying Works which, as Horace has represented them, are singular in their Kind, and inimitable; when I see Men following Irregularities by Rule, and by the little Tricks of Art straining after the most unbounded Flights of Nature, I cannot but apply to them that Passage in Terence:

… Incerta haec si tu postules
Ratione certa facere, nihilo plus agas,
Quam si des operam, ut cum ratione insanias.

In short a modern Pindarick Writer, compared with Pindar, is like a Sister among the Camisars [2] compared with Virgil‘s Sibyl: There is the Distortion, Grimace, and outward Figure, but nothing of that divine Impulse which raises the Mind above its self, and makes the Sounds more than human.

[There is another kind of great Genius’s which I shall place in a second Class, not as I think them inferior to the first, but only for Distinction’s sake, as they are of a different kind. This [3]] second Class of great Genius’s are those that have formed themselves by Rules, and submitted the Greatness of their natural Talents to the Corrections and Restraints of Art. Such among the Greeks were Plato and Aristotle; among the Romans, Virgil and Tully; among the English, Milton and Sir Francis Bacon.

[4] The Genius in both these Classes of Authors may be equally great, but shews itself [after [5]] a different Manner. In the first it is like a rich Soil in a happy Climate, that produces a whole Wilderness of noble Plants rising in a thousand beautiful Landskips, without any certain Order or Regularity. In the other it is the same rich Soil under the same happy Climate, that has been laid out in Walks and Parterres, and cut into Shape and Beauty by the Skill of the Gardener.

The great Danger in these latter kind of Genius’s, is, lest they cramp their own Abilities too much by Imitation, and form themselves altogether upon Models, without giving the full Play to their own natural Parts. An Imitation of the best Authors is not to compare with a good Original; and I believe we may observe that very few Writers make an extraordinary Figure in the World, who have not something in their Way of thinking or expressing themselves that is peculiar to them, and entirely their own.

[6] It is odd to consider what great Genius’s are sometimes thrown away upon Trifles.

I once saw a Shepherd, says a famous Italian Author, [who [7]] used to divert himself in his Solitudes with tossing up Eggs and catching them again without breaking them: In which he had arrived to so great a degree of Perfection, that he would keep up four at a time for several Minutes together playing in the Air, and falling into his Hand by Turns. I think, says the Author, I never saw a greater Severity than in this Man’s Face; for by his wonderful Perseverance and Application, he had contracted the Seriousness and Gravity of a Privy-Councillor; and I could not but reflect with my self, that the same Assiduity and Attention, had they been rightly applied, might have made him a greater Mathematician than Archimedes.

C.

[Footnote 1: that]

[Footnote 2: The Camisars, or French Prophets, originally from the Cevennes, came into England in 1707. With violent agitations and distortions of body they prophesied and claimed also the power to work miracles; even venturing to prophesy that Dr Ernes, a convert of theirs, should rise from the dead five months after burial.]

[Footnote 3: The]

[Footnote 4: Not a new paragraph in the first issue.]

[Footnote 5: in]

[Footnote 7: Not a new paragraph in the first issue.]

[Footnote 8: that]

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