Logan Pearsall Smith
Four romantic words
From Words and Idioms: Studies in the English Language, Constable and Co. Limited, London 1925.
Author’s NOTES to this essay
Note: This essay by Lloyd Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) is here presented in a website devoted to C. S. Lewis. It is an essay that can be seen and enjoyed as one kind of thing that Lewis might have written had he lived longer – as witness his Studies in Words (1960), or the account he gave of his own private variety of ‘Romanticism’ in the 1943 preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress. Meanwhile, Pearsall Smith’s piece is a first-class ‘study in words’ its own right which all visitors are of course welcome to enjoy for their own good reasons.
Arend Smilde, Utrecht, The Netherlands
I mentioned in the previous chapter, among the English words borrowed into foreign languages, one adjective, the word romantic, which has been added to all the vocabularies of Europe. This is a word of such prime importance that, to give an account of its origin, and its adventures, both in England and abroad, a separate study will be necessary. There is no word in our language which has a more “romantic” history; much in its signification, both as we employ it now and as we find it employed in our elder literature, is the result of what it has been through; and a knowledge of all this will be of assistance in enabling us to understand the various thoughts and ways of feeling which it has come to express, and which still deeply colour its meaning. But the emergence of the word romantic is not an isolated phenomenon; its history is closely connected with the history of several other terms of modern aesthetic criticism – terms which came into use at about the same time, and shared the same adventures. This cluster of romantic words is the product of one of the most important movements of modern thought, and the history of that movement is curiously mirrored in their usage. They are, both in formation and meaning, very largely of English origin; from English they made their way into foreign languages; and the new conceptions they express form one of the most notable of English contributions to European thought.
Of this cluster of new terms, or of old terms endowed with new meanings, the earliest to make its appearance is the adjective romantic, of which the first instance is given in the Oxford Dictionary under the date of 1658.1 It is apparently a word of English origin,2 formed from the English word romant or romaunt – a word which was borrowed in the sixteenth century from the French romaunt, and which, used as a variant of romance in the seventeenth century, was revived as an archaism in the nineteenth. Before, however, romantic became a current term, a number of other attempts were made, as the oxford Dictionary shows us, to form adjectives with the same meaning. In 1653 Dorothy Osborne writes of a romance squire, and in the following year of a romance story; in 1656 the Duchess of Newcastle speaks of her “Romanticall Tales”; and we also find the adjectives romancial (1653) and romancy (1654). The fact that all these adjectives crop up in the seven years between 1653 and 1659, and that romantic soon becomes a current term, is certainly curious. Why just at this time was there a need felt for this adjective which had never been felt before?
The emergence of a new term to describe a certain phenomenon, of a new adjective to designate a certain quality, is always of interest, both linguistically and from the point of view of the history of human thought. That history would be a much simpler matter (and language, too, a much more precise instrument) if new thoughts on their appearance, and new facts at their discovery, could at once be analysed and explained and named with scientific precision. But even in science this seldom happens; we find rather that a whole complex group of facts, like those for instance of gas or electricity, are at first somewhat vaguely noticed, and are given, more or less by chance, a name like that of gas, which is an arbitrary formation, or that of electricity, which is derived from the attractive power of electrum or amber when rubbed – the first electric phenomenon to be noticed. Gas, electric, and electricity are what Dr. Bradley called “identifying” words3; sometimes, however, a new discovery is given a “descriptive” name like gravitation; or again, as with oxygen, an explanatory word may be formed which attempts more adequately to account for the new phenomenon. But comprehension is reached, if indeed it is ever reached, long after recognition; analytic and explanatory terms for half-understood phenomena often imply, like oxygen (“generator of acids”), a false explanation; the usual, and much the safest way, is to give a non-committal, designating, or at most a descriptive name to a new experience, which then, gradually, and in the course of time, can be more accurately defined and perhaps at last explained. In the even more elusive phenomena of aesthetic perceptions, this process of identification, denotation, and suggested explanation is still more tentative and slow; new aspects of thought and feeling come to be designated by names which are at first little more than the chance names of vague impressions – obscure perceptions of some quality for which a label of some kind would be convenient. This label then forms a centre of attraction for other vague perceptions which group themselves about it; and it is only by a long and tentative process of collective thought that the various aspects of the phenomena described become more apparent, and the label or name acquires more definite meanings. Our word romantic is a conspicuous instance of this process. Its appearance in the middle of the seventeenth century is an indication of a change in human thought, and marks the moment when that change had become obvious enough to need a term to express it. Romantic, like romancy and romancical, simply meant “like the old romances,” and shows that men at this time were becoming aware of certain qualities in these romances for which they needed a name – that they were becoming critical of them, and had begun to view them with a certain detachment. These romances were of two kinds: there were the medieval tales of chivalry and knights-errants, of “The Palmerins of England and the Amadises of Gaul” who, as Hazlitt describes them, “made their way to their mistresses’ hearts by slaying giants and taming dragons”; and there were also those prolix French romances of intrigue and gallantry, which succeeded the earlier tales. The special characteristic of all these romances, for which a name was now needed, was their falseness and unreality, all that was imaginary and impossible in them, al that was contrary to the more rational view of life which was beginning to dominate men’s minds. The growth of this conception of “order” and “nature,” this “dawn of reason,” as an eighteenth-century writer called it, threw into relief certain groups of irrational elements which were opposed to it. The phenomena of religious fanaticism were branded as enthusiasm, and the fictions and imaginations of the old romances were labelled by the word romantic. The meaning of “false”, “fictitious,” “imaginary,” implied by romantic was applied both to the supernatural elements in the medieval romances, their giants, magicians, and enchanted castles; and also to the false, impossible, high-flown sentiments of the later romances; those “wild romantic tales,” as a seventeenth-century writer described them, “wherein they strain love and honour to that ridiculous height that it becomes burlesque.”4
Both these elements, the supernatural and what we now call the sentimental, were falling into disrepute at the time when the word romantic appeared to describe them. In 1650 Hobbes, in that famous answer to Davenant, which formed the basis of neo-classical criticism in England, protested against the use of the supernatural, against fiction that exceeded the possibility of “Nature,” “impenetrable armour, Inchanted Castles, invulnerable bodies, Iron Men, Flying horses”5; and his protest was echoed by the critics who followed after him; while Sir William Temple6 pointed out how Cervantes had turned into ridicule “the Romantick Honour and Love”7 of the romances of chivalry.
In the course of the next hundred and fifty years the word romantic, as a description of false and fictitious beings and feelings, without real existence in fact or in human nature, fell more and more into disrepute and disestimation. The particular shade of meaning given to a word, the special nuance of feeling it expresses, can often be best seen by the company it keeps; and in the writings of this period we find the word romantic coupled with terms like “chimerical,” “ridiculous,” “unnatural,” “bombast”; while we read of “childish and romantic poems,” of “romantic absurdities and incredible fictions”: “can anything,” Bishop South asks, “be imagined more profane and impious, absurd and indeed romantic”? and Psalmanazar confesses to the “vile and romantic” deception of his pretence to be a native of Formosa.
It was the need, therefore, to mark the contrast between the truth of nature and the falsehood of romance which first brought into use this famous adjective. It makes its appearance at the moment when as an eighteenth-century writer puts it, “reason was but dawning, as we may say, and just about to gain the ascendant over the portentous spectres of the imagination. Its growing splendour, in the end, put them all to flight.”8 Bishop Hurd is writing of what he calls the “romantic” literature of the Elizabethan age, which, according to him, was haunted by these spectres: the growing splendour which banished them was that of the Age of Reason, the Éclaircissement, the Aufklärung – that conception of order and truth, of the whole universe governed by law, which rose in the latter half of the seventeenth century like a sunrise of reason over the spectre-haunted Europe, with its romantic literature, its superstitions, its fanaticisms, and its religious wars.
Of all periods in the history of poetry perhaps the one which is most external to our sympathies, opaque and impenetrable to our imaginations, is precisely this period which lies so near us in the point of time, this Age of Reason, with its bewigged platitudes, its shallow criticism, and its intolerably didactic verse. How can the most practised amateur of historical emotions read Pope’s Essay on Man with the enthusiasm which carried that sententious poem over Europe, or feel the disgust which was aroused, as Evelyn noted,9 in that “refined age,” by plays like Hamlet? To recapture that mood, to bathe again in the freshness of that dawn, is not permitted to us; but perhaps, in the architecture of the period, in the severe beauty of some classical church or mansion, with its ornaments adorning, like noble rhetoric, its perfect proportions and ordered forms, we can best realize the charm of the qualities of order and reason and correctness, which were then prized and sought for, not only in architecture, but in poetry as well.
The literary revolution of this period was well summed up by Thomas Warton, when he said that a poetry succeeded the elder poetry in which “imagination gave way to correctness.”10 The connexion between poetry and Imagination or Fancy (the distinction between these two terms was not established till much later) was often alluded to by sixteenth-century writers; but is would be vain to seek in the psychology and criticism of that time any clear definition of the meaning of the term imagination, which had been introduced into Latin as a translation of the Greek phantasia, and which the Renaissance had inherited from Scholastic philosophy. Notions, however, which are now more definite to our minds were then held as it were in solution; Bacon divided the human understanding into three faculties, referring history to Memory, philosophy to Reason, and poesy to Imagination11; and Shakespeare expressed this connexion in words which have a strangely modern sound, when he wrote:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact ...
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.12
But with the growth of neo-classical criticism this large and indefinite meaning of imagination was narrowed and confined.
Hobbes’s psychology, as Professor Spingarn has pointed out, became the groundwork of Restoration criticism, and to Hobbes the essential element in poetry was Reason. “Judgement,” he wrote, “begets the strength and structure, and Fancy begets the ornaments of a Poem.”13 The imagination came to be regarded as la folle du logis, in Descartes’ phrase, or, in Dryden’s words, as a wild, lawless faculty, which was the begetter of madness, dreams, and fever, but which, held strictly subordinate to Reason, could be usefully employed in finding, in the field of memory, illustrations, metaphors, and other useful ornaments for the sound structure of Reason. Or, at the most, following what Longinus had said of phantasia, the power was attributed to the imagination of making the poet seem to behold the very things he is describing, and thus enabling him to display them to the life before the reader’s eyes. But, as Dryden wrote, quoting from the famous French critic Rapin, “if this fancy be not regulated, it is a mere caprice, and utterly incapable to produce a reasonable and judicious poem.”14
The qualities designated by these critics as romantic were therefore the mere product of unregulated imagination15; they were not reasonable, they did not imitate Nature, and they were therefore condemned as Gothic, unnatural, ridiculous and childish. We can therefore understand Pope’s boast:
That not in Fancy’s maze he wander’d long,
But stoop’d to Truth, and moraliz’d his song.16
This theory of poetry was logical, consistent, and worthy of serious and judicious men, who, weary of wild conceits and ornaments and fantastic dreams, welcomed it with an enthusiasm which is difficult for us to share. But, like other theories of poetry, it did not correspond to the facts, and even in its heyday of triumph it began to collapse and crumble. A new way of looking at things began to grow up alongside it, based upon a greater appreciation of the value and importance of the imagination in works of art. With this gradual and only half-conscious shift of feeling, which began early in the eighteenth century in England, and flowered at last in the so-called Romantic Movement, the word romantic itself began to acquire fresh values and new meanings. It is no longer always used as a term of depreciation; Addison describes Milton’s account of Thammuz as “finely Romantic,”17 and Thomson speaks of a “fine, romantic kind of melancholy.” The Gothic and romantic periods of history, the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan (for both these were regarded as Gothic and romantic), began to interest students; the old “romantic” poet Spenser, and the old tales of adventure and magic, came again into favour, and romantic began to mean something which, though absurd, was captivating to the imagination.18 Horace Walpole confessed that he preferred the “romantic” scenes of the past,19 and the Vicar of Wakefield tells how, owing to his wife’s reading of romances, two “romantic” names were given to his daughters.
In these usages of the English word romantic, the corresponding French adjective romanesque was a more of less exact equivalent, and is to be found in the early French translation of Pope’s line:
If Folly grow romantic, I must paint it.20
But already, before the eighteenth century, another use had been found for the English word which romanesque did not translate. Along with its depreciatory use for the incidents and sentiments of the old romances, it was also used as an adjective of half-conscious appreciation for scenes and places like those which they describe. The adjective romancy or romantic was applied very early to the scenery of the neighbourhood of Wilton, where Sidney’s Arcadia was composed. “The Arcadia,” Aubrey wrote, “is about Vernditch and Wilton, and these romancy plaines and boscages did no doubt conduce to the heightening of Sir Philip Sidney’s phancie.”21 In another place he speaks of his rides through this “romantick country,” with its flocks of sheep and nut-brown shepherdesses22; and earlier, under the date of 1654, Evelyn notes in his Diary, “Salisbury Plain reminded me of the pleasant lives of the shepherds we read of in romances.”23 But the word is also used for buildings: in 1666 Pepys called Windsor Castle “the most romantique castle that is in the world”24; and even earlier, in 1654, Evelyn writes of a “very romantic” country-seat on the side of a “horrid Alp” near Bristol;25 and under the date of 1679 he says, speaking of the Duke of Buckingham’s country house at Clifden, “The grotts in the chalky rock are pretty: ’tis a romantic object, and the place altogether answers the most poetical description that can be made of solitude, precipice, prospect, or whatever can contribute to a thing so very like their [the romancer’s] imaginations.”26 Sir William Temple wrote in his Essay on Gardening (1685) of the “romantic palace” of Alcinous described by Homer; and Addison in his Remarks on Italy (1705) says that on his journey between Marseilles and Genoa he was shown in the distance “The Deserts, which have been rendered so famous by the penance of Mary Magdalene who ... is said to have wept away the rest of her life among these solitary rocks and mountains. It is so romantic a scene, that it has always probably given occasion to such chimerical relations.”27 This use of the adjective, in the description of places, meaning, as the Oxford Dictionary defines it, “redolent or suggestive of romance; appealing to the imaginations and feelings,” became more current after 1711, when Addison, in his famous essay on the ballad of Chevy Chase in the Spectator, spoke of “The fine romantic situation” of that battle.28 Thomson writes in his Seasons of “oaks romantic,” of a “romantic” mountain, of the “romantic” Caledonian landscape. Mason writes of “an old romantic forest”29; and even Dr. Johnson, who is not thought of as a romantic writer, and who almost invariably uses the word with its depreciatory meaning (“romantic and superfluous,” “ridiculous and romantic,” “romantic absurdities or incredible fictions,” etc.), was so influenced by the prevalent fashion as to try his unwieldy hand at a landscape of this kind.
“When night overshadows a romantick scene, all is stillness, silence, and quiet; the poets of the grove cease their melody, the moon towers over the World in gentle majesty, men forget their labours and their cares, and every passion and pursuit is for a while suspended.”30
The word romantic then, from the general meaning of “like the old romances,” came to be used as a descriptive term for the scenes which they describe, old castles, mountains and forests, pastoral plains, waste and solitary places. In the earlier instances of the adjective the literary reference is more or less explicit; but by the eighteenth century it had come to express more generally the newly awakened, but as yet half-conscious, love for wild nature, for mountains and moors, for “the Woods, the Rivers, or Sea-shores,” which Shaftesbury mentions as sought by those “who are deep in this romantick way.”31
When English books of this period were translated into French, the translators either avoided the adjective in this usage, or rendered it by romanesque or pittoresque. Romantick or romantique is, however, found occasionally as a loan word from English32; about 1776 two French authors, one of them Letourneur, the translator of Shakespeare, and the other the Marquis de Girardin, the author of a book on landscape, made deliberate use of the word, giving in notes their reasons for borrowing this mot Anglois as they called it. Monsieur A. François, in his brilliant essay on Romantique33 – an essay from which much of my information about the French history of the word is derived – reprints these notes, and they are of great importance, proving, as they do, the English origin of the word, and explaining its meaning. It meant more, they said, than romanesque or pittoresque: romanesque meant “chimerical,” or “fabulous,” while pittoresque describes a scene that strikes the eye and arouses admiration. But romantic implies an appeal as well to the feelings and the imagination: it not only describes the scene, but “the touching impression we receive from it.” Both authors enumerate the scenes that in the eighteenth century were considered romantic, the heaths, the sea, the clouds of the “Caledonian landscape,” mountains, torrents and waterfalls, and le “lovely moon” des Anglois. The word, M. François suggests, was probably brought to the notice of Rousseau by one of these authors, his friend Girardin; and it was finally given full rights of citizenship in the French language by Rousseau, when, in that incomparable masterpiece of his prose, his famous fifth Rêverie du promeneur solitaire, he wrote les rives du Lac de Bienne sont plus sauvages & romantiques que celles du Lac de Geneve.34 The word soon became fashionable in France, and was included in the Dictionary of the French Academy in 1798, with the definition Il se dit ordinairement des lieux, des paysages, qui rappellent à l’imagination les descriptions des poëmes et des romans.
These French definitions of romantique help us to a clear understanding of this special use of the word. Two points stand out clearly. In the first place romantic is, like interesting, charming, exciting, and many other adjectives, one of those modern words which describe, not so much the objective qualities of things, as our repsonse to them, the feelings they arouse in the susceptible spectator. And secondly, if we examine the special subjective feeling described by romantic, we see that it is a literary emotion (as indeed the derivation of the word from romant implies); it is Nature seen through the medium of literature, through a mist of associations and sentiments derived from poetry and fiction. It is curious also to note the appearance and popularity of the word picturesque at the same time as romantic; for just as romantic means Nature seen through a literary medium, so picturesque was used to describe scenes that were like pictures, and were seen through the medium of another art, that of painting. Painting and literature had been from ancient times judged and criticized by their relation to Nature; but this curious reversal of the process, the projection of art into Nature, the contemplation of Nature through the coloured glass of art, and from a consciously literary or pictorial point of view, is an element that must not be neglected in any definition of the word we are discussing. It is a nice instance of those subtle changes in men’s feelings, and in their ways of looking at the world, which are so important and yet so elusive, and which can perhaps be most definitely traced in the emergence of new terms, or in a change in the meaning of old ones.
Picturesque came by way of France to England from the country of painting, from Italy; but romantic is a word, as our Swiss critic remarks, deposited on French soil by those currents of English thought and feeling which had reached it in the eighteenth century. Growing out of the heart of old romance, the word had absorbed into its meaning the glamour and newly-discovered beauty of moonlight and moors and mountains; it had then travelled with the fashion for English gardens and the fame of Shakespeare to France, where, welcomed by the great apostle of Nature, Rousseau, it enriched the French language with a definite term for the feeling of which Frenchmen had already become conscious in the presence of wild nature, and which they had hitherto expressed by the vague term je ne sais quoi.35
I have quoted the definition of romantique given by the Dictionary of the French Academy when the word was formally admitted into the French language: Littré in his dictionary of a later date (1869), after repeating this definition, adds to the word quite another meaning. “It is used,” he says, “of writers who emancipate themselves from the rules of composition and style established by the classical authors.” To explain how the word acquired this additional sense, it is necessary to follow its adventures in Germany, for it was in Germany that this meaning was added to it, and it only became current in France as a borrowing from German sources.
The English word romantic was borrowed into German, as into French, late in the seventeenth century, romanhaft being (like romanesque) an older term in that language. Romantisch appears in a translation of Thomson’s Seasons; it was used by Herder to describe wild and uncultivated landscape, and also by Wieland in his famous line:
Zum Ritt ins alte Romantische Land.36
But the word was applied not only to the scenes and landscapes described in the romances, but also, following certain precedents which can be found in English criticism,37 to the literature itself which describes these scenes. Romantic literature and poetry, the literature and poetry of the Middle Ages, were, in contrast with those of the classical times, called romantisch; and from this comparison and contrast the German philosophers and critics, as they pondered over it in their Teutonic cogitations, evolved that great bugbear of modern criticism, the famous opposition between “classical and romantic.” Goethe took upon Schiller and himself the responsibility of having added to the world’s woes this famous subject of debate;38 “the idea,” he told Eckermann, “of the distinction between classical and romantic poetry, which is now spread over the whole world, and occasions so many quarrels and divisions, came originally from Schiller and myself. ... The Schlegels took up this idea, and carried it further, so that it has now been diffused over the whole world; and every one talks about classicism and romanticism – of which nobody thought fifty years ago.”39
The word romantic, thus brought in Germany into opposition with the antagonistic term “classical,” became at the end of the eighteenth century the battle-cry of a school of wild poets and Catholic reactionaries. This war spread from Germany to France, the seeds of it being carried thither by that adventurous literary lady, Madame de Staël. It was her famous book De l’Allemagne (written with the assistance of A. W. Schlegel, who had done much to elucidate – or darken – the meaning of these terms) which brought to France the new meanings which the word romantic40 had acquired in Germany; and there, inscribed once more on the banners of young poets, it waved in the van of those still more famous battles of French Romanticism about which the world has heard so much. From France the word returned to the home of its pastoral youth,41 curiously changed and transformed by its foreign experiences, its adventures in the company of German Jesuits, German philosophers, and French radicals, and loaded with a whole new world of meanings.
In the antithesis between romanticism and classicism, worked out by German thinkers, there was thus an explosive element, which made the word romantic into a famous battle-cry; the term coming to designate, as we see by Littré’s definition, those writers who were in rebellion against the classical rules of composition. The romantic poets, first in Germany and then in France, were the poets who, scorning and rejecting the models of the past and the received rules of composition, prided themselves on their freedom from law, and on their own artistic spontaneity. The origin and history of this aspect of Romanticism is of considerable interest, and has attracted much critical attention. It has not, however, been treated as yet from the point of view of lexicography, although the lexicographer can, I think, do something to elucidate that history. For this movement was already in possession of three other battle-cries before Romantic was inscribed upon its banners; and it will be necessary to give some account of these three terms in order to make clear its full meaning.
The first of these terms which I shall treat of is the great modern word originality. This word is derived of course from the adjective original, a word which has certain religious associations, since it is first found in English in the phrase “original sin,” but which , as a term of literary criticism, comes from the vocabulary of painting. It was easy to borrow from painting the distinction between an original picture and a copy; this distinction is found in literary criticism in the middle of the seventeenth century;42 it was adopted by Dryden, who speaks of Shakespeare’s Juliet and Desdemona as “originals”;43 and it soon became a current term, especially with reference to Shakespeare, being authorized by Pope’s famous sentence in his preface to Shakespeare’s works, “If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespear. Homer himself drew not his art so immediately from the fountains of Nature.” From the word original in its use as an adjective, a noun was formed, the abstract term originality,44 to designate the quality of first-handedness in a work of art. All art, the early critics agreed, was imitation; but there were two kinds of imitation – the imitation of Nature (by Nature they meant very much what we mean by “life”), and the imitation of other works of art. The imitation of Nature was original imitation: the writer who drew his materials from the observation of Nature was an original writer. The imitation of other artists was, as a critic of the earlier part of the eighteenth century said, “the bane of writing,” “for Poetry, in this respect, resembles Painting; no Performance in it can be valuable, which is not an Original.”45 Primary and original copying was called invention,46 or finding (heuresis); without invention, as Dryden said, “a painter is but a copier, and a poet but a plagiary of others”47; invention in respect of the matter of a work of art was simply observation; though in respect to the form, the disposition and embellishing of the work were also called “invention.” Originality was simply newness and truth of observation or invention. The great original poets, like Homer and Shakespeare, were those who had most directly imitated Nature, and given the richest and most profound renderings of what they found.
The term invention, which criticism had inherited from classical rhetoric, served for a long time as a name for that finding in Nature of something new to copy which was called originality. Invention was defined by Temple as “the mother of poetry.” “The first happiness of the poet’s imagination,” Dryden wrote, “is properly invention, or finding of the thought”48; and, in his life of Milton, Dr. Johnson declared “the highest praise of genius is original invention.”
This notion of primary copying, or “invention,” seems to have been regarded for some time as a satisfactory explanation of originality, and is repeated as late as Hazlitt, who said that “Originality consists in seeing Nature for yourself.”49 But even the earlier critics seem to have become vaguely aware that there were certain aspects of poetry for which the word invention was not quite an adequate description. For invention by its etymology meant “finding”; it was primarily a process of observing and copying Nature – and yet was all poetry nothing more than an imitation and an adornment of Nature? Was there nothing more in an original author than fresh and primary observation? The date at which this imitation-theory fist began to break down can be neatly fixed by the appearance of another term which was destined to replace the word invention in many of its uses. In the works of Shakespeare, who, it was agreed, was the most original writer of modern times, there was one element which, however much they might stretch the meaning of the word, could hardly be called an imitation of Nature. This element was the supernatural, the “magical World of Spirits,” the fairies, the witches and midnight ghosts, which seemed as living and real as the human beings in his plays. Dryden, faced with this difficulty, tried to justify the description of “fairies, pigmies, and the extraordinary effects of magic,” by saying that the poet was allowed the liberty of describing things which existed in popular belief (popular belief being part of “Nature”), and thus Shakespeare’s tempest and his Midsummer Night’s Dream were to be defended.50 When, however, Dryden came to write of the character of Caliban, he seems to have felt that the imitation-theory, the theory that, as he put it, “the poet dresses truth and adorns Nature, but does not alter them,” was stretched almost to the breaking-point. There was, he seems to have felt, a difference between “drawing” characters which had existed, or might have existed in Nature – or which others had believed to exist – and representing a being like Caliban, “a species of himself, begotten by an incubus on a witch,” and yet with a person and a character of his own, and with a “language as hobgoblin as his person.”
I put some emphasis on this passage in Dryden because it marks, however vaguely, a real turning-point in English criticism; and also because there slipped into Dryden’s vocabulary in this passage about Caliban an alternative word for “invented” which was destined to be echoed and repeated, and to acquire, in the process of time, a very great importance. “Shakespeare,” he says, “seems there to have created a person which was not in Nature, a boldness which, at first sight, would appear intolerable.”51 Dryden was not the first writer to employ in literary criticism the word create, with its solemn religious associations,52 but its use in this connexion, before he gave it currency, was sporadic and unusual.53 We find it, after Dryden, in the writings of Sir William Temple;54 and Addison, who echoes much of Dryden’s criticism, popularized in the Spectator this use of the word, when writing of “fairies, witches, magicians, demons, and departed spirits” (in which “fairy way of writing” Shakespeare “has incomparably excelled all others”), he says, “we are led as it were into a new creation,” and “cannot forbear thinking them natural, though we have no rule by which to judge of them.”55 In speaking of the power of affecting the imagination, which “is the very life and highest perfection of poetry,” he says, in a phrase which became famous: “It has something in it like creation. It bestows a kind of existence, and draws up to the reader’s view several objects which are not to be found in being.”56 Shaftesbury, in his Characteristicks (1711), joins together the notion of originality and creation, when he somewhat ironically compares the new and free way of writing with the manufacture of silks and stuffs; each new pattern, he says, must be “an original,” and the designer must “work Originally, and in a manner create each time anew.”57
Originality thus acquired a new signification; it came to mean, in the critical parlance of the time, not only the direct observation of Nature, but also the invention or creation of things (for the most part supernatural beings)58 which did not exist in Nature. This notion of “creation,” and of the artist as a “creator,” soon became current, and before long it began to beget a group of other terms which were needed for its adequate expression. Among these we may not the important adjective creative, which, first appearing in the seventeenth century,59 became, towards the end of the third decade of the eighteenth century, a common adjective in literary criticism. We find it usually in connexion with the words “imagination” or “fancy,” for it was to the imagination that this power of creation was ascribed. David Mallet begins his Excursion (1728) with the invocation:
Companion of the Muse, Creative Power, Imagination!
Thomson in his Summer writes of Shakespeare’s “creative fancy,” and Joseph Warton of his “lively creative imagination,” and calls the Tempest “the most striking instance of his creative power. He has thus given the reins to his boundless imagination, and has carried the romantic, the wonderful, the wild to the most pleasing extravagance.”60 Thomas Warton, in his History of Poetry, speaks of “the romantic and creative genius of the Arabs,”61 and in Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) we come on a phrase which has a very modern sound, when he calls “creative Imagination the distinguishing characteristic of true Genius.”62
In phrases such as the above we can see to what extent the imagination has been reinstated as the faculty to which poetry was addressed, and by which it was produced. But if poetry was the product of the imagination; if the imagination was “creative,” and “originality” was the mark of its “creations,” then a word was needed to describe this special kind of poetic imagination, and the poet who possessed it. Fortunately for the critics of the time there was a word already current which was found capable of absorbing into itself these new conceptions. This was the word Genius, the last of the four terms which form the subject of my essay.
To recount in detail the history of the portentous word Genius would exhaust my own patience, and still more that of my readers63; the briefest summary must suffice for us here. In classical Latin the word Genius meant primarily a person’s tutelary god or attendant spirit; and this meaning still survives in our phrase, some one’s “good or evil genius.” It was also used, but rarely in Latin, as more or less a synonym for ingenium, “natural bent and disposition”. In this latter sense the word frequently appears in English in the seventeenth century, meaning both the endowment of natural ability or capacity, and also, occasionally, the person so endowed. Dr. Johnson (who in his Dictionary did not recognize our modern use of the word) defined the “true Genius” as a “mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.”64 But long before Dr. Johnson’s time the word had begun to acquire other meanings and associations. The first of these (inherited from the Latin ingenium) was that of those special endowments and abilities which fitted a person for some special task. “A Poet,” Sidney wrote in his Apology for Poetry, “no industry can make, if his owne Genius bee not carried unto it”; 65 and Dryden’s phrase, “a happy genius is the gift of nature,” is well known.66 The word in these uses is equivalent to talent, and Dryden uses the two words as synonymous when he says that the description of “humours” was the particular “genius and talent” of Ben Jonson.67 The word came to be tinged also with religious associations, for Genius was the name of a god or spiritual being; and later on in the eighteenth century it was used to translate the Arabic word Jinn, the good or evil spirits of Arabian mythology. Before, however, this infusion of oriental mystery, the word came to be connected with the ancient term inspiration, which, with its half-evaporated classical and religious associations, lingered on in the poetical vocabulary, with the meaning, as Dr. Johnson gave it, of “infusion into the mind by a superior power.” This notion of inspiration, of enthusiasm or daemonic possession, of the “divine madness” of the poet, is a bit of almost prehistoric psychology, which, embedded in Greek poetry, elaborated and echoed by Aristotle, had bequeathed to the critics of the Renaissance a set of phrases and ideas quite inconsistent with their theory that art was a product of reason, and a copying of Nature. Nor did they attempt to reconcile the two; but the rationalists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to whom such words as enthusiasm and inspiration were, from their use by religious fanatics, especially repugnant, became more conscious of this difficulty, which they tried to solve by dismissing the notions these words expressed as impostures or delusions. Hobbes called the invocation of the Muses the reasonless imitation of a foolish custom, “by which a man, enabled to speak wisely from the principles of Nature and his own meditation, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a Bagpipe.”68 Sir William Davenant declared that the word inspiration was a “dangerous word,” inherited from the dominion-loving poets of the pagan times, who were also priests, and who acquired reverence for themselves by their pretence to inspiration;69 and Dryden, after saying of Aeschylus that he was “always in a rapture, ... the inspiration was still upon him, he was ever tearing it upon the tripos,” goes on to confute those who would justify the madness of poetry from the authority of Aristotle, by suggesting that the text was corrupt; Aristotle had not written that poetry had always something in it either of a man of happy endowments or of a madman; the passage should read “that it belongs to a witty man, but not to a madman.”70
“Every Ass that’s Romantick believes he’s inspired,” a seventeenth century critic wrote71; and the notion that the pretence to inspiration was either a delusion, or more probably an imposture of poets, devised to give worth to their poetry in vulgar minds, recurs not infrequently in the criticism of the time. But no ridicule could banish this idea of inspiration, based as it was on real experience; for poets, finding that their ideas came to them in special moments of excitement, and from some source as it were outside themselves, would by a natural symbolism still call the poetic impulse a gift from the gods.
The conception, moreover, of a person’s genius as his natural bent or disposition, would naturally lead to the notion of this prompting or guiding genius being itself a kind of inspiration; and as early as 1634 we find Sir William Alexander declaring his opinion “That every Author hath his own Genius, directing him by a secret Inspiration to that wherein he may most excel.”72 This inborn and, as it were, inspired element in the conception of genius was emphasized by the distinction which was early drawn in English criticism between two kinds of writers, the writers whose talent or genius was the product of study and imitation, and those who were indebted to their natural endowments alone. This distinction, which had been inherited from classical times, and had become a commonplace of Renaissance criticism, was much elaborated in England, and often dwelt on with reference to Shakespeare. It was in fact the tremendous achievement of Shakespeare, his “originality,” his miraculous power of “creating” supernatural beings, as well as his unprecedented and untutored genius, as they conceived it, which did more than anything else to disintegrate the neo-classical theory of poetry, and replace it by the notions that are expressed in the terms which are the subject of this chapter. For Shakespeare, who “wanted Art” as Ben Jonson put it, who was, in Milton’s phrase, “Fancy’s child,” and whose strains were “native woodnotes wild,” came more and more to be regarded as the great example of the “natural” genius, who by the power of his inborn gifts alone, quite unassisted by art of learning, reached the most sublime levels of artistic achievement. “The Poetry of Shakespear was Inspiration indeed,” as Pope expressed it in his famous preface; and although some critics regretted his ignorance (“what would he not have been if he had had learning!”),73 there were others, even in the seventeenth century, who, like Sir William Temple, suggested that learning might perhaps weaken invention, and lessen the force and growth of genius.74 Addison, indeed, who had proclaimed Shakespeare as a “natural” genius, did not claim for him any superiority on this account; but others were more bold, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the glorification of unlearned genius had reached such a point that Dr. Johnson felt constrained to denounce the tendency to rely upon it as “the mental disease of the present generation,”75 and Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses were written for the purpose of warning art-students against what he called “the phantom of Inspiration,” the false opinion, “too prevalent among artists, of the imaginary powers of native genius, and its sufficiency in great works.”76
We have thus seen how the notions of Originality, and those of Creation and Inspiration, with the ancient and august religious associations of these terms, contributed to deepen the word genius with mysterious significations, although we still find it used at the same time – and often by the same writers – with its older and more commonplace meaning, as when we read of a “polite,” an “ordinary,” a “plodding,” and even a “low and grovelling genius.”
In the twenty-five years which followed the middle of the eighteenth century, a number of Essays, Reflections, and Dissertations were published, in which the problems connected with Shakespeare, with Originality, and Genius were discussed.77 Most of these volumes have been long forgotten; to the lexicographer they are still of interest, but to others their perusal would be indeed a penitential task, for of all the dusty Saharas and Dead Seas of literature, there are none, save perhaps those of old theology, which are more desolate than the arid wastes of obsolete aesthetic speculation.
But these old essays and speculations had their date of eager interest; they represent, no doubt, an immense amount of thinking under the large wigs of that period, and echo a great deal of enthusiastic eighteenth-century discussion. And among them there is one little book which has become famous abroad, and is still dimly remembered in England, where it has been reprinted in recent years. This is the Conjectures on Original Composition, published anonymously in 1759, but written by Edward Young, the author of the famous Night Thoughts, then in his seventy-seventh year. The book was mainly written, he tells his readers, with the purpose of preserving and giving publicity to an anecdote about Addison; how, when he was on his death-bed, he summoned his stepson in order that he might “see in what peace a Christian can die”; and there is much pious writing, such as we might expect from an elderly clergyman, in the little volume. But somewhat incongruously infused into this old bottle we find much of the new and intoxicating wine of the Romantic Movement, the glorification of Genius, the praise of originality, the scorn of imitation, and of obedience to the old rules of classical composition, and a buoyant and almost boyish belief in progress, in the future possibilities of great achievement for the emancipated spirit of mankind. The best way, however, to give an impression of these aspects of Young’s Conjectures will be to quote some of the sentences which are found in it, and which, as we shall see, exploded almost as bombs abroad:
“Imitations are of two kinds; one of Nature, one of Authors; The first we call Originalls, and confine the term Imitation to the second.” (p. 9.)
“An Original, tho’ but indifferent (its Originality being set aside), yet has something to boast.” (p. 11.)
“An Original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of Genius; it grows, it is not made: Imitations are often a sort of Manufacture wrought up by those Mechanics, Art, and Labour, out of pre-existent materials not their own.” (p. 12.)
“Originals can arise from Genius only.” (p. 34.)
“What, for the most part, mean we by Genius, but the Power of accomplishing great things without the means generally reputed necessary to that end? A Genius differs from a good Understanding, as a Magician from a good Architect; That raises his structure by means invisible; This by the skilful use of common tools. Hence Genius has ever been supposed to partake of something Divine.” (p. 26–7.)
“Sacer nobis inest Deus, says Seneca. With regard to the Moral world, conscience, and with regard to the Intellectual, Genius, is that God within.” (p. 30–1.)
“In the Fairyland of Fancy, Genius may wander wild; there it has creative power, and may reign arbitrarily over its own empire of Chimeras.” (p. 37.)
“So boundless are the bold excursions of the human mind, that in the vast void beyond real existence, it can call forth shadowy beings, and unknown worlds, as numerous, as bright, and, perhaps, as lasting, as the stars; such quite-original beauties we may call Paradisaical, Natos sine semine flores, Ovid.” (p. 70.)
“Many a Genius, probably, there has been, which could neither write, nor read.” (p. 35.)
“Learning we thank, Genius we revere; That gives us pleasure, This gives us rapture; That informs, This inspires; and is itself inspired.” (p. 36.)
“To the neglect of Learning, Genius sometimes owes its greater Glory.” (p. 29.)
“Genius is from Heaven, Learning from man.” (p. 36.)
“A Star of the first magnitude among the Moderns was Shakespeare; among the Ancients, Pindar; who (as Vossius tells us) boasted of his No-learning, calling himself the Eagle, for his Flight above it.” (p. 30.)
“An Adult Genius comes out of Nature’s hand, as Pallas out of Jove’s head, at full growth, and mature: Shakespeare’s Genius was this kind.” (p. 31.)
“Shakespeare mingled no water with his wine, lower’d his Genius by no vapid Imitation.” (p. 78.)
“Who knows if Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more?” (p. 81.)
“Born Originals, how comes it to pass that we die Copies?” (p. 42.)
“The less we copy the renowned Antients, we shall resemble them the more.” (p. 21.)
“Let us build our Compositions with the Spirit, and in the Taste, of the Antients; but not with their Materials.”78 (p. 22.)
Phrases with meanings similar to these, if not so pointedly expressed, might be collected from the other treatises I have mentioned; but Young’s little book has a much greater importance in the history of culture owing to the fact that it was almost immediately translated into German, where it created, as Herder wrote, an “electrical” effect, and kindled a blaze of fire in German hearts.
Already, before this date, the ideas of the new criticism had begun to spread in Germany, through the influence of translations from English, and especially, through the writings of the German-Swiss critic Bodmer, who had translated Addison’s Essays on Milton, and made famous his phrase about the imagination, “It has something in it like creation.” This idea of the “creative imagination,” suggested but not elaborated by Addison, had become familiar in Germany, and the word creative, translated by schöpferisch, had aroused the indignation of the pious, one of them describing it as a punishable and blasphemous expression, since the attribute of creation belonged alone to God, and should not be attributed to his creatures.79
But in 1760, when Young’s book was translated, the time was ripe for a wider and more enthusiastic reception of this new doctrine. The new generation of Germans were eager to free themselves from the tyranny of French classicism; and in the book of Young, and the notions he promulgated, they found the faith, the gospel, and the watchwords which they needed. Young boldly proclaimed the superiority of the original genius, who went direct to Nature, who performed great things by the force of his own inborn powers, untaught by rules and precedents and models; and he declared that Shakespeare was the great original genius of modern times.
In England the popular conception of Shakespeare as a wild, irregular, untutored genius was generally stated apologetically; he had, it was admitted, great faults, but these were condoned by his great and original merits. Above all things he was regarded as inimitable; but Young, on the contrary, declared that he must be imitated; writers should try to be original like Shakespeare, should imitate, not his works, but his methods; they should, like him, disregard all rules and traditions, and go direct to Nature.
It was on this conception of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s methods, and on Young’s belief that they could and should be imitated, that the Germans seized with propagandist zeal. The duty of every artist to rely upon his own gifts and inspiration became the fashionable doctrine; and in that wild period, which was called at the time the Genieperiode, but has since acquired the name of Sturm und Drang, the great watchwords Genius, Originality, and Creative acquired a resonance, an aggressive and propagandist momentum, which they had certainly never possessed in England.80 And these terms acquired moreover in Germany a much greater profundity of philosophical meaning, and became the foundation-stones of a metaphysical aesthetic; when we read in Kant that “creative imagination is the true source of genius and the basis of originality”; that Genius makes rules instead of receiving them; that it embodies in art aesthetic ideas which are creations of the imagination, and suggest more than can be exhausted by any definite concept, we become aware that our home-bred English words have indeed undergone a strange sea-change by being so deeply immersed in the vast and bottomless ocean of Teutonic thought.
What we now call the English Romantic Movement of the eighteenth century hardly deserves indeed, as Professor Beers has pointed out, to be called a movement, since it had “no leader, no programme, no organ, no theory of art, and very little coherence.”81 The dilettante bachelors and Church of England clergymen, Gray and Horace Walpole, the Rev. Edward Young, the Rev. Thomas82 and the Rev. Joseph Warton, Bishop Hurd, and Bishop Percy, were most of them hardly “Romantics” at all, but rather amateurs of novelties which amused them; and although in the course of their mild speculations they may have written – and indeed did write – some of these very phrases, they had attached no metaphysical meanings of dark profundity to their casual expressions.
When we now use the word genius, the contrasted term talent comes into our minds, but this differentiation and contrast, like that of romantic and classical, is the product of German – or perhaps of French – and not of English cogitation. The Oxford Dictionary says:
“It was by German writers of the eighteenth century that the distinction between ‘genius’ and ‘talent,’ which had some foundation in French usage,83 was sharpened into the strong antithesis which is now universally current, so that the one term is hardly ever defined without reference to the other.”
Like the antithesis of romanticism and classicism, that between genius and talent was suggested now and then by English writers, without, however, any emphasis being laid upon it, or any clear distinction drawn; and the word genius, with its pagan, and talent, with its biblical suggestions, were practically synonymous until the words came back again from Germany. But, as the Oxford Dictionary point out, “when ‘genius,’ as native endowment, came to be contrasted with the aptitudes that can be acquired by study, the approach to the modern sense was often very close.”
This distinction indeed grew naturally, and indeed inevitably, out of the conceptions of originality and creation which we have been studying. Genius was, as Kant defined it, Originalgeist, Originality was its special mark, it was a Creative Talent. The difference was a difference, not of degree, but of kind; Talent could be acquired; it achieved its effects by imitation and the obedience to rules; Genius was a gift; it was of a nature which obeyed no laws, was a law to itself, and could not be acquired.84 The fire which was kindled in German hearts by these watchwords, and the revolutionary ideas they embodied, flamed up in Germany again at the end of the eighteenth century, when a new revolt blazed out in that literary movement which adopted the word Romantisch as its battle-cry and title. This title, and the doctrines and propaganda it stood for, was, as we have seen, brought from her German visit by Madame de Staël to set literary France ablaze; and thus the word romantique, first borrowed as an epithet for landscape, became in France a literary term to describe those emancipated and revolutionary French writers whom Littré describes.
First from Germany, and then later from France, the echoes and influence of the German and French Romantic Movements began to cross the Channel, bringing with them as their great watchword the English vocable whose adventures and transformations abroad I have briefly recounted. The deeper meanings which had been added to the word romantic by German thinkers, and by the opposition they had elaborated between romanticism and classicism, were made current in England by the writings of Madame de Staël, and also no doubt by the talk of that inexhaustible conversationalist when she came to these shores in 1813.85
But before the date of Madame de Staël’s English visit we find Jeffrey writing in the Edinburgh Review in 1802 of that sect of poets “who boast much of their originality, and seem to value themselves very highly for having broken loose from the bondage of antient authority, and reasserted the independence of genius.” Though this sect, which had been established in England, Jeffrey said, for ten or twelve years, laid claim to a creed and a revelation of its own, there could be little doubt that their doctrines were “of German origin, and had been derived from some of the great modern reformers of that country.”86
This sect of poets was the School which afterwards was baptized, apparently by Jeffrey, as the “Lake School,”87 and which in quite recent years we have come to group along with Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Keats as the Romantic Poets of the early nineteenth century.88 It was to these poets, especially to Coleridge, that we owe our modern familiarity with the great watchwords of modern criticism as we now use, or misuse, them, originality, creative, imagination, and genius, as contrasted with talent,89 etc., and from Coleridge the terms were borrowed by Jeffrey and Hazlitt and the other critics of the time.
In more recent times the meanings of all these terms have been much enriched by the modern conception of the unconscious self. Although many psychologists would not now accept, without considerable qualifications, the earlier notion of the Unconscious as the abiding-place of genius, and the source of inspiration, yet they would probably all agree that something analogous to the conscious processes of thought, which may go on beneath awareness, and reveal itself to it in a sudden uprush, probably plays an important, and possibly a dominant, role in what we call inspiration and the creative activity of genius. Although the exact nature of these processes is still a matter of dispute, yet the notion of subconscious thought, taken simply as an unexplained fact of experience, has helped in some degree to make more definite the meanings of the terms we have been discussing.90 These meanings have been moreover enriched in another way by the addition, namely, to aesthetic theory, and the facts it considers, of the non-representative arts of architecture and especially of music. It is curious to note, in the bewigged speculations of the eighteenth century, that music, which was the most living art of that time, and especially so in the German home of aesthetic speculation, is barely so much as mentioned. The slightest consideration of the form and content of music would have most effectually shattered the “imitation-of-nature” theory against which the Germans were in revolt; but in their search for something which transcended Nature, they turned, not to the musical creations of Mozart and Gluck and the other composers of the time, but to the supernatural world which they found in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton and Dante. When precisely the phenomena of music began to exert an influence on German aesthetic theory, I am not learned enough to say,91 but certainly in English criticism of the time music was only referred to in the briefest and most casual manner.92
My task has been so far merely the task of the archaeologist of words: I have simply attempted to trace the origins and transformations of a few of our commonest and most hackneyed terms of criticism. But one cannot go on repeating these old battle-cries in cold blood and with complete impunity; the fire still latent in them is contagious; they are ancestral voices which still prophesy of war. Since the aesthetic conflict is by no means ended, and its important issues are a long way from being yet decided, upon the lexicographer also descends the divine fury; the temptation to take up the cudgels and rush, if but for a moment, into the never-ending combat, requires more self-control than I at least can boast of. I must be allowed, therefore, to qualify my narrative with a certain liberty of criticism and comment; and as a preliminary step to joining the speculative war-dance, I shall take this opportunity to point out again how much the origins and adventures of the words we use influence their meaning, and how rich they are in overtones of half-conscious suggestion which confuse us, and which we can only half-comprehend, unless we know their history. That our word romantic, for instance, acquired its literary meaning, first of all from the contemptuous attitude of the Age of Reason towards the old romances, and afterwards from its use as an adjective for landscape, for wild and desolate views and ancient castles, seen through the medium of old poems and romances, helps us to understand why, when it was used anew as the name for a certain kind of literature, it came to imply the contemplation of nature, not directly, but through a mist of associated ideas and literary memories, and thus suggested, and indeed still suggests, that element of subjectivity, of vague and reminiscential feeling, which has been generally regarded as a characteristic of romantic, as opposed to classical, literature. The foreign adventures, too, of the words we have been studying, the fact that they have been to the wars, and have become, as I have said, battle-cries in foreign countries, have also loaded them with propagandist doctrine, with revolutionary and explosive meanings, which are still potent in them. This is especially true, I think, of the great watchwords Genius and Originality; the Genie-periode in Germany, the Romantic Movements, both in Germany and in France, were times of angry enthusiasm and of wild revolt; the ecstatic emphasis laid upon the freedom, the spontaneity, and the originality of the creative genius, the attribution to that genius of miraculous and daemonic powers, invested the cult of genius and the worship of Originality with an exaggerated and mystical importance. The artists of earlier days had been regarded – and had regarded themselves – as craftsmen; the new conception of the artist as a genius, as a creature of passion and fire, above the law, and the popular deification of this ideal, tended to produce the beings thus imagined and adored – the wild spirits of lawless lives and strange fits of passion,
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
The emphasis, too, on originality, on the expression of the artist’s unique personality, on the never-ceasing creation of something new and strange and never before heard of, has not only tended to inflame the vanity of the artist, but also to suggest standards of comparison and valuation in which the elements of novelty, of newness for its own sake, are somewhat unduly overprized. The work of a great artist always, or almost always, has in it an element of newness, and is always, or almost always (though without conscious purpose), coloured by his own personality. But these are surely more accidental than essential characteristics of his work; for newness and the expression of unique personalities are of no great artistic importance in themselves. This is especially true in the arts which we call the fine arts, where technique and tradition are of prime importance; and it would not perhaps be too fantastic to attribute, in part at least, the downfall of painting, architecture, and the handicrafts in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century – perhaps the greatest artistic disaster the world has ever suffered – to this modern enthusiasm for the originality of creative genius, and the desire on the part of every artist and architect and handicraftsman to display as conspicuously as possible his own personality and peculiar gifts. Ever since then the history of art has been the history of conscious and violent revolutions and reactions, instead of that gradual and unconscious modification of an inherited tradition which characterized its development in previous ages.
How far the antithesis, developed abroad, in our conceptions of classical and romantic art has been an advantage or disadvantage to criticism it would be difficult to say; but most of us would agree, I think, that this antithesis has been greatly over-emphasized. The words romanticism and classicism are used like hatchets to chop us materials of the most delicate and subtle weaving and intertexture; and indeed the variety of meanings attributed to them shows that they are employed without any precise and accepted understanding of what their signification really is. For what after all is romanticism as contrasted with classicism? Is it, as Pater said, the addition of strangeness to beauty; is it disease as opposed to health, as Goethe defined it; or an appeal to the feelings as against an appeal to reason; or as Schlegel said, the picturesque contrasted with the statuesque; or self-abandonment versus self-control; individualism as opposed to the ideals of organized society; associated ideas and subjectivity as contrasted with objectivity and formal beauty; the exotic, the bizarre, and the magical and mysterious moment, rather than the typical, the usual, the general? Or shall we define it as suggestiveness, incompleteness, aspiration, and a preoccupation with the infinite, as opposed to definiteness, completeness, and precision of statement?
It is perhaps all these things; but if this is so, there are both romantic and classical elements in almost every work of art; and the exaggerated opposition between the two makes it necessary to distort the facts, if we are to place poems and plays and pictures each separately by itself in one or the other of these categories. The facts are really too complex to be summed up in any one formula; and indeed, all the terms we have been discussing tend to distort and caricature the phenomena they attempt to account for; it would have been better, perhaps, for English criticism of they had remained at home, and by half-conscious adjustments, adapted themselves, in the practical, empirical, muddle-headed English way, to the new facts of aesthetic appreciation as they spontaneously arose. However, we must take them as they come to our hands; if they are ploughshares which have been beaten into swords, tools which have been made into battle-axes, they are tools nevertheless for which we have no substitutes, and we cannot, if we wish to write of the aesthetic problems which face us, do without them. These problems are of two kinds: there are those connected with the work or art itself, and those which are more intimately concerned with the artist who produces it. In every representative of Nature which is a work of art, there is to be found, as Prof. Courthope has said, something which is not to be found in the aspect of Nature which it represents; and what that something is has been a matter of dispute from the earliest days of criticism. This is the aspect of the problem which has most interested the neo-classical critics; those of what we call romantic tendencies have paid more attention to its subjective aspect,93 the power or faculty in the artist which has enabled him to add this unknown something to his representation of Nature. What is it, they have asked, which differentiates the artistic imagination from the mere fancy, or from the imagination which produces dreams or the illusions of illness or madness? If we call it the “plastic” or the “creative” imagination, we can then perhaps call its product a “creation,” rather than a “finding” or “invention”; and the power of the creative artist we may designate as genius, as opposed to talent. Thus the artist himself becomes a genius, and we are fitted out with a makeshift vocabulary of terms for our critical discriminations. But these terms are, as we have seen, the product of much confused and over-excited thinking; and they denote rather than they define and explain the phenomena they describe. If, however, we are unable to use them scientifically, a knowledge of their history may perhaps, as I have suggested, help to put us on our guard against them when they patently distort the facts. If we keep in mind the revolutionary origin of our modern theory of genius, we may discount some of the more overwhelming reverberations of this portentous word, and more clearly perceive the element of truth which it certainly does express. Now there can be no doubt that the spontaneous, inspired daemonic genius – or at least, since it is more a matter of degree than of absolute distinction – that the genius who possesses more conspicuously than others this character, has existed in all the arts; El Greco in painting, Michael Angelo in sculpture, Wagner in music, are analogues of original poets like Shelley, Blake, or Walt Whitman; but the emphasis laid upon the type of genius possessed by these great originators, and the depreciatory contrast with mere talent, has tended, I think, to make us forget that the daemonic genius is not the only kind of genius, and indeed not by any means always the greatest kind.
We tend to relegate the undaemonic artists to the category of talent; and if the antithesis between genius and talent is, as no doubt it is, a useful one, it might be well to restore to our vocabulary the other and older antithesis between the “natural” and the “learned” genius. For there are poets and artists of the first rank who are endowed with no daemonic qualities. If Aeschylus was, as Dryden said, a great genius, and always “tearing it upon the tripos,” we cannot deny the appellation of genius to Sophocles, who indulged in no such contortions. So in every age of art we find the same contrast. It would be absurd to refuse the name of genius to Milton or to Leopardi, and yet there were never more conscious authors; and, to take another instance, Charlotte Brontë is regarded by her admirers as a more inspired genius than Jane Austen, but would they maintain that she is therefore a greater writer? Is the inspired Blake a more important figure in English art than the laborious learned, conscientious Sir Joshua Reynolds? One of the great defects of our critical vocabulary is the lack of a neutral, non-derogatory name for these great artificers, these artists who derive their inspiration more from the formal than the emotional aspects of their art, and who are more interested in the masterly control of their material, than in the expression of their own feelings, or the prophetic aspects of their calling.
For this kind of genius, and for the quality which distinguishes it, I should like to suggest an adjective and a noun which will at first certainly surprise, and perhaps shock, my readers, but which, both from their etymology and their earlier use, fit most exquisitely the meaning for which we so much need them. These are the words erudite and erudition, which are derived from erudire (e, “out of,” and rudis, “rude,” “rough,” or “raw”), a verb meaning in classical Latin to bring out of the rough, to form by means of art, to polish, to instruct. Eruditus has in Latin the meaning of “accomplished,” “skilled”; and in its earlier English use it kept its classical meaning. So also erudition was used for the process of training or instruction, “the erudition of young children”; and also for the instruction thus imparted, and for the state of being trained or instructed; and it was thus used by Shakespeare.94 It was also used of the perfect workmanship or finish of a coin, Addison for instance writing that “the intrinsic value of an old coin does not consist in its metal but its erudition.”95
If, then, we could restore erudite and erudition to their old meanings (they are now merely superfluous synonyms for “learned” and “learning”), we should have fitting appellations for our great artificers, and for that quality of conscious artistry, of acquired technical accomplishment, which cannot, when carried, as by Horace, to exquisite perfection, be called mere talent. A name for this noble kind of genius, which would explicate and make clear and emphasize its nature and its methods, would I think be of special advantage in two ways. It would, in the first place, recall attention to the imitable qualities in high artistic achievement; for the erudite genius, with his acquired mastery of his material, can be most profitably imitated; while, as Sir Joshua Reynolds pointed out, the imitation of the daemonic genius and his reliance on his inborn and untutored powers, is (save for other daemonic geniuses like himself) the worst possible precedent and example. Then also the fact that the daemonic genius is often a prophet as well, and is generally thought to have a mission (though what exactly were Shakespeare’s or Keats’s missions it might be difficult to say), has given rise to the notion that the true genius comes, like Wordsworth or Shelley or Browning or Walt Whitman, with a message for his age; and thus the genius who has no gospel, no scheme of salvation for the world, but simply a genius for pure art, suffers disparagement from others, and perhaps discouragement in himself.
It would perhaps be better for our criticism if we were to use the word genius to describe the gift and endowment, rather than the person thus gifted and endowed; or even, as a critic has suggested,96for us to avoid using the term as far as possible, and to rehabilitate and restore the term inspiration. For inspiration, and the notion it suggests, is perhaps a better description than genius for the phenomena of artistic achievement. The word genius implies the permanent possession of magical power; and all the works of a genius, being regarded as the products of this power, are accepted in a spirit of worship and without discrimination. Thus criticism is blurred, and the genius himself, believing in the unfailing potency of his gift, tends to work in a slovenly manner, and is tempted also to exaggerate and exploit the wonder-working personality to which are attributed such miraculous results. But artists even of the greatest genius are, as we all know, quite capable of producing work of the most deplorable and unblest description; their genius is at best but an intermittent energy, and the greatest artist or poet is simply the artist or poet who is most subject to the visitation of what we call inspiration – who is more frequently and more powerfully inspired than other men. Shelley, who was perhaps as richly endowed with what we call genius as any poet who ever existed, has well described the coming and going of the inspiration upon which, as he tells us, the poet must depend.
“Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose Poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.”97
In the intervals of inspiration, the poet, Shelley adds, “becomes a man, and is abandoned to the sudden reflux of the influences under which others habitually live.”
If our attention were more habitually directed to the visits of inspiration, rather than to the genius it visits, although a clear conception of what inspiration is might elude us, yet we could more accurately discriminate its traces, finding them not only in the works of the erudite as well as the daemonic genius, but also, now and then, in the productions of mere men of talent, to whom the name of genius, with its modern meaning, can hardly be applied.
The advance of modern psychology has, moreover, removed one difficulty which to the older critics was involved in the theory of inspiration. If poetry, they asked, was a product of inspiration, if it was something which was given from without, how could it be regarded as an art which required – as poetry obviously did require – labour, apprenticeship, preparation, study? This difficulty is met for us by the modern theory of the unconscious, and all the real, if loosely defined, notions which are associated with that concept.98 Inspiration, as we conceive it, does not come to us from without. It is not a gift of the stars or the Muses, but an impulse from sources that are inside ourselves. The Pierian spring, the Fountain of Castalia, are still flowing, but their streams murmur deep within us; and although our conscious intelligence has no direct control over these springs of power, yet by labour and study it can clarify and enrich them; and can form standards and ideals which, long brooded over, may then sink down from the conscious into the unconscious strata of our mental existence, and mould and elaborate the unknown stores of energy which exist there, amorphous and concealed.
The modern cult of Genius, and the heated atmosphere of revolution that gave it birth, have also tended to over-emphasize and endow with exaggerated importance the word originality, and the quality it denotes in works of art. Originality has no doubt its importance, but that importance is more historical than purely aesthetic; for not only in the absence of documents are we unable to say how much originality is possessed by the works of ancient writers like Homer or Lucretius or Catullus,99 but also, when we do possess the documents, we often find that the greatest innovators in the arts, those who have done most to create new forms and utilize new material, are not by any means always those of the highest and most permanent achievement. Donne was a greater innovator than Shakespeare, and had much more powerful influence upon the succeeding generation, but he was not a greater poet; Caravaggio was one of the most original of Italian painters, and has been called the first modern artist, the inventor of realism, the begetter of Velasquez and Manet; but his work has for us little pure artistic interest. Rossetti was a painter of immense originality, but of small artistic achievement; Philipp Emanuel Bach, musicians tell us, was a greater originator, and a much more powerful influence on the development of music, than his father John Sebastian; while Jean-Jacques Rousseau is by no means the greatest writer of that world of modern thought and feeling which he did more than any one to discover and create. The sense of original discovery, of turning up new soil, is more of value as an incentive and encouragement to the artist, than as an approved ingredient in, or characteristic of, his work.
Besides the word inspiration, there is another rather old-fashioned term which we might do well to furbish up and restore to our critical vocabulary. This is the painter’s term invention, which describes a quality of real, if subordinate, importance, not only in painting but in literature as well. Johnson declared that the highest praise of poetry was invention, “such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights.”100 It was by invention, he said, that “new trains of events are formed, and new scenes of imagery displayed”;101 and this power not only of inventing new scenes and incidents and displaying new images, but also of contriving new moulds and shapes, metrical and other, for the purposes of new expression – this gift of invention, which Keats called “the Polar Star of Poetry,”102 has been somewhat overshadowed and eclipsed by the use of the portentous word creation, with which I shall conclude my remarks. The words create, creation, creator, creative, have become so vulgarized, and are so indiscriminately used – even in fashion-papers we read of “creations” in millinery – that careful writers try to avoid them, although they find that they cannot banish them altogether from their vocabulary. For the conception they embody is, of all the ideas expressed by the watchwords we have been studying, in fact the primary one; it lies at the root of all the rest, and is the origin and source of the great change in our modern theory of aesthetics. The word invention was a word of compromise, an attempt to reconcile, by the idea of original copying, the old imitation-theory with the notorious need for something more than the repetition of the same effects in art. As this imitation-theory gradually broke down, the notion of invention began to be replaced by that of creation – the creation, in the first place, of “fairy worlds” by Shakespeare and Milton, but especially by Shakespeare. This conception was then enlarged to include the creation in drama and fiction of living characters, and afterwards with the inclusion of music, to that of whole new and spontaneous worlds of feeling and relation, which have little or no correspondence with the given world of fact.
This idea, like the other ideas we have been studying, was immensely emphasized in the romantic revolts of Germany and France: to sanctify and deify art as the second creator was, Theophile Gautier tells us, one of the ideals of the French romantics, and he quotes the famous lines:
Dans la création d’un bonheur sans mélange
Etre plus artiste que Dieu.103
This reverent and religious, or, as others thought it, irreligious, conception of the divine power of the artistic creator returned across the Channel, and is often found in the works of Coleridge, as when, for instance, he describes the imagination of the artist as an echo of what he calls the primary imagination, which is itself an analogue of creation, and its activity “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”104 In other writers of this period, in Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley and Hazlitt, we find an almost equal glorification of the poet’s creative faculty, the notion that the artist, and above all the poet, has the power of creating a new heaven and a new earth, a world more real perhaps than the actual one, a universe of the mind, concrete, autonomous, independent, and peopled by living beings, created before they are represented – as Coleridge said of Shakespeare’s characters – out of the depths of the poet’s own mind, and, in Shelley’s words,
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.
There is something mystical in this doctrine, this faith, as of Keats, that “what the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth – whether it existed before or not.” And yet the notion that art is creative, that, in Pater’s words, it “adds a new presence to the world,” or as Wordsworth puts it, “Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe … an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the poet,” is a notion which deeply permeates all our criticism; and what we have come to value most in art is not the imitation of Nature, but the unprecedented and undreamed of harmonies it creates, the surprise and strangeness of those authentic and yet unforeseeable visions – those worlds of beauty and truth and wonder – which it opens to the imagination.
Even in a phrase like:
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the Night,
we seem to recognize the character of something inevitable, something that has a veracity of its own, that must exist, and has always existed, and from which we cannot withhold the name of reality.
And as often happens in the history of thought, our notion of this mystery of artistic creation has been made somewhat clearer by the method of antithesis. Just as romanticism has been more clearly defined by its opposition to classicism, genius by the contrast with talent, and imagination by that of fancy, so the notion of creation has been sometimes contrasted with that of invention, as when for instance a recent critic wrote that “Shakespeare of all men seems to have been in comparison with his strength in Creation, the weakest in Invention.”105
In their human and most happy manner the ancient Greeks embodied in appropriate symbols their awareness of aesthetic facts and of the experience of the poet. These symbols of Apollo, the lyre of the God, and the piercing song of the Muses, their haunts of Helicon and Parnassus, their sacred springs of Hippocrene and Castalia; the visits of these Immortals to the mortals who invoke them, and the divine fury and enthusiasm they inspire, have lived on in our literature, not only as hallowed and beautiful ornaments, but as true, though symbolic, expressions of the circumstances which give rise to poetry, and of the nature of the poet’s sensibilities and gifts. To this inherited vocabulary the Romantic Movement has added, partly from biblical sources, the terms which have been occupying our attention. The whole body of these words, ancient and modern, represents and expresses the aesthetic experience of the human spirit; an experience which, though very real and profound, has been as yet very partially clarified into speculative theory. But these words have come to be so indiscriminately employed, and are now so blurred in outline, that there is a great need to make definite, and préciser – or why not say in purer English “to precise” – their meaning; to bring into more clear-cut relief the phenomena they designate; and by means of a nicer and more accurate use of this inherited vocabulary, to discriminate for instance in works of art their originality, their romantic or their classical ingredients; or, in the endowments of the artist who produces them, their gifts of talent and erudition, or of unconscious and daemonic genius. And if, becoming aware of other qualities for which we have no names, we may be tempted to suggest new appellations, we would do well to follow, in this matter, the tradition of our older nomenclature, and be content, for the most part, like our predecessors, with designating or merely descriptive words. There is a tendency in the human mind to be impatient of anything it cannot understand, and to deny, if possible, the existence of phenomena for which it can find no explanation. Thus, as we have seen, the neo-classical critics denied the existence of inspiration, and the more mysterious powers of the imagination. This tendency leads men of science to prefer analytic and explanatory terms; but in matters like the phenomena of aesthetics, names which may suggest over-hasty explanations tend to falsify and distort the things they designate, and become premature and petrified definitions, which cannot readily grow and deepen with the growth and deepening of our knowledge. A chance appellation like romantic, for instance, or a metaphor like inspiration, are much more convenient names than a term like Coleridge’s “esemplastic power” for the imagination, which attempts to explain its working.
The truth is that the phenomena of artistic production are still so obscure, so baffling, we are still so far from an accurate scientific and psychological knowledge of their genesis or meaning, that we are forced to accept them as empirical facts; and empirical and non-explanatory names are the names that suit them best. The complete explanation of any fact is the very last step in human thought; and it is reached, as I have said, if indeed it is ever reached, by the preliminary processes of recognition, designation, and definition. It is with these preliminary processes that our aesthetic criticism is still occupied. We have recognized, and we have named, the mysterious creative power of the imagination, the genius of the poet or artist who possesses it, and the inspiration by which he is himself possessed. But what, stated in terms of scientific psychology, these powers really are, and what are the conditions which favour or impede their activity, though they are problems whose solution is of the utmost importance for civilization, they are problems nevertheless about which we are still almost completely in the dark. Perhaps the most profitable thing we can do at present is, leaving their ultimate analysis in suspense, to discriminate their manifestations in the immense wealth of concrete examples to which our attention is being now so multifariously directed. The more adequate solution of these problems is a task which will no doubt profoundly concern the critics, the psychologists, and even the sociologists and metaphysicians of the future; it is not, however, a task which can rightly be imposed upon the lexicographer, whose peaceful role I now resume, and in which role I will complete my essay by a few relevant quotations from some of our contemporary writers who have touched upon these problems. Thus Mr. A. C. Bradley says of poetry, “its nature is to be not a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous.” And again, of life and poetry, he says, “the two may be called different forms of the same thing; one of them having (in the usual sense) reality, but seldom fully satisfying imagination; while the other offers something which satisfies imagination, but has not full ‘reality’.”106
In writing of Byron, Dr. Herford says:
“Byron lacks supreme imagination. With boundless resources of invention, rhetoric, passion, wit, fancy, he has not the quality which creates out of sensation, or thought, or language, or all together, an action, a vision, an image, or a phrase, which, penetrated with the poet’s individuality, has the air of a discovery, not an invention, and no sooner exists than it seems to have always existed. A creator in the highest sense Byron is not.”107
In the writings of the least romantic of modern critics, Mr. Santayana, we can perhaps find the most rational statement of this modern theory of artistic creation.
“a spontaneous creation of the mind can be more striking and living than any reality, or any abstraction from realities. The artist can invent a form which, by its adaptation to the imagination, lodges there, and becomes a point of reference for all observations, and a standard of naturalness and beauty … This method of originating types is what we ordinarily describe as artistic creation. The name indicates the suddenness, originality, and individuality of the conception thus attained.”108
In another place Mr. Santayana says of the higher arts:
“When the world is shattered to bits they can come and ‘build it nearer to the heart’s desire.’ The great function of poetry … is precisely this: to repair to the material of experience, seizing hold of the reality of sensation and fancy beneath the surface of conventional ideas, and then out of that living but indefinite material to build new structures, richer, finer, fitter to the primary tendencies of our nature, truer to the ultimate possibilities of the soul.”109
I will end with a relevant quotation from a living poet:
For beauty being the best of all we know
Sums up the unsearchable and secret aims
Of nature, and on joys whose earthly names
Were never told can form and sense bestow;
and man hath sped his instinct to outgo
The step of science; and against her shames
Imagination stakes out heavenly claims
Building a tower above the head of woe.110