Gambar halaman

After the "diffuse model," he had already cast the sublimest creation of his divine genius; probably the question of Elwood the Quaker, (to whom he had lent the MS. of Paradise Lost, at St. Giles', Chalfont; and who, when he returned it, pleasantly said to him, "Thou hast said much of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found?") suggested to Milton a fitting occasion for adopting the "brief" and faultless exemplar of the Book of Job, which was, as we have seen, present to his thoughts when he anticipated the compassing of "something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die." He had traced the wanderings of the majestic Nile of Epic song, and traversed every shore sublimely musical with its confluent billows, and laved with its overflowing spray, listening to the numerous echoes of sorrow and joy wherewith the peopled air was replicant; to these he attuned his eloquent harphe mingled his lofty strain of these, in all their combinations: he descended into the depths and soared beyond all heights where never mortal wing had before presumed. Now, he sought the quiet waters which neighbored its secluded source, and soothed his solemn spirit, calm in the joy of completion, with the distant murmurs of the mighty flood, and the regular lapse of the early current by which it dreamed-but not as common spirits dream. And we see him soon after at the source of the great stream itself, and drinking at the inspired spring, while his conscious hands strayed over the harmonious chords, and, in the person of the heroic Sampson, he "sang darkling," like the nightingale.

Epic poetry commenced in dramatic imitation.

Such was the sunset of Milton's genius, beautiful and glowing to the last shadowy hue, and the calm ocean which embraced it, waxed warm beneath the vigor of the descending orb.

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

IN no respect is human imperfection more lamentably manifest, than in the failings of distinguished genius. It seems, indeed, as if Nature had rendered the task of regularity peculiarly difficult to those on whom she has most profusely lavished the gifts of imagination. Certain, however, it is, that they who have been the most celebrated for that liveliness of fancy and fertility of invention, in which true

genius consists, have too frequently been deficient in that uniform correctness, which powers far inferior are daily seen to exhibit. Nor is this observation less applicable to their writings, than to their characters. Thus, among the antients, Homer and Pindar; and among the moderns, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden, distinguished as their productions are by the utmost exuberance of sublimity and beauty, are far from being equally remarkable for unerring judgment, or invariable propriety of sentiment or of diction. But, as Goldsmith justly says, "a book may be amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity;' and it is, in fact, as true in literature as in morals, that excellence does not consist in that undeviating accuracy which never violates a rule, and which, though it may escape censure, can never merit praise; but rather in that fervent energy of soul, which stimulates its possessor to what is great and good, though his vehemence may sometimes precipitate him into what is blameable. As the noble impetuosity of the foaming steed, though dangerous to his rider, is far more worthy of admiration than the dull plodding of the cautious mule, so are the vivid conceptions of him, in whose breast the fire of genius glows, though sometimes attended with extravagance of thought and eccentricity of conduct, than the frigid notions of the man, who, while he shuns the perplexing mists of error, emits not a single ray of imagination. Let it not, however, be forgotten, that, excusable as the errors of genius may be, they are still not to be taken for excellencies, and that though, on account of the splendid endowments by which they are accompanied, they may be viewed with a lenient eye, they ought rather to be regarded as beacons to warn us, than as models for our imitation. Obvious as this reflection may be, the generality of mankind seem to be influenced by one of a different nature, and too readily adopt the failings of distinguished characters, while the good qualities by which they were raised to eminence are entirely disregarded. The folly of such conduct cannot be sufficiently reprobated, and may justly be deemed as preposterous in principle as it would be to make one's self blind in order to resemble Milton, or to steal deer in imitation of Shakespeare. Nevertheless, even the Errors of Genius are so attractive in the eyes of many, that it may not be wholly useless to make a few remarks on some of the weaknesses which men of genius have occasionally displayed.

Few passions, perhaps, are more predominant in the human breast, than the love of praise; and when restrained within due bounds, it is attended with effects highly beneficial. But when this desire becomes so inordinate as to tincture

every action of a man's life; when the shouts of the multitude are the only sounds in which his ear delights; what was at first innocent, if not laudable, can be regarded only as a censurable weakness. It is, therefore, much to be regretted, that any man of genius should ever be so excessively desirous of praise, as to lower the real dignity of his character, by spreading every sail that may catch the breeze. Yet men there have been of the most distinguished talents, whose appetite for applause was absolutely insatiable. Such men were Cicero and Pliny. Of the former it has been observed, that many parts of his Orations seem rather intended as baits for praise, than as inducements for those whom he addressed, to adopt the measures that he recommended; and that with many of the transactions in which he was engaged he would never have interfered, had they not been calculated to afford him opportunities of dilating on his own merits, or of listening to the applauses that he was so anxious to obtain. With respect to Pliny, it has been likewise said, that the noble actions which he frequently performed, seem to have been done chiefly with the view of enabling him to make them known, and thus to elicit the public admiration of his generosity. When, indeed, we observe men speaking so much of themselves, and that always so greatly in their own favor, as Cicero and Pliny did, we can draw no other conclusion, than that vanity is their ruling passion; and though much of their excellence might have arisen from their desire of applause, yet how much more real greatness of mind would they have displayed, had they been actuated by more dignified motives, and suffered fame to follow as the consequence, instead of making it the end, of their actions. At the same time, when it is considered, that praise is, as it were, the food of genius, and that the more it is enjoyed, the more it is desired, we can hardly wonder at the eagerness so often displayed by men of talent for that applause to which their abilities are entitled, and by which they are so delightfully reminded of their superiority over the rest of mankind.

Nor is vanity, though a failing, by any means deserving of contempt, unless when it appears accompanied by affectation or conceit. But it has sometimes happened, that men of genius, not content with receiving that admiration and respect which were as willingly as deservedly shewn them, have affected to think, that, independently of their abilities, the exertion of which could alone entitle them to praise, there was a certain unknown something about them, by which mankind would be induced to bestow on them that attention which is commonly paid to those only whose genius has been to others the medium of improvement or delight. This

species of ridiculous conceit was never displayed in a more contemptible manner, than by Congreve in his interview with Voltaire. That brilliant poet and enlightened philosopher, with a liberality highly to his credit, came to this country for the purpose of honouring Congreve with a visit, out of respect to his genius, and of thanking him for the pleasure which his writings had afforded. The conceited Congreve, intoxicated with the sense of his own importance, which the visit of his illustrious contemporary was certainly not calcu lated to diminish, received Voltaire with much coolness and reserve, and thus addressed him :-"If you have come, Sir, to see me in the character of a private gentleman, I shall be happy in your company; but I must beg to decline being regarded in the light of an author;"-a piece of insolent affectation altogether unworthy of the talents he possessed. Voltaire, however, was not to be so treated without shewing his disgust, and, with a very proper spirit, immediately replied: "Do you imagine, Sir, that if you had been merely a private gentleman, I should have thought it worth my while to leave my own country for the purpose of seeking the present interview?" He then retired, leaving the mortified Englishman to reflect on his folly, and learn how to appreciate better the respect of kindred genius, if it should ever deign on any future occasion to expose itself to a similar insult. How it is possible that a man, whose sole distinction in society consisted in his poetic genius, should for a moment wish to disavow what formed the very source and basis of his glory, it is difficult to imagine; for the greatest honour a man of genius can receive, is to be honoured for his genius; and he cannot possibly commit an error more inconsistent with his character, than to appear ashamed of that which is its principal ornament.

Nearly allied in spirit and in principle to that vanity and affectation which have been alluded to, is that domineering arrogance which men of genius have in some instances displayed. Desirous of praise, but too haughty to court it, they have shewn a determination to exact from all around them, that reverence for their talents, which no one could withhold, but which, on account of their austerity of manners, was always too strongly mixed with awe. Sometimes, indeed, they have affected to despise that homage as unworthy of their notice, the withholding of which they would have considered as sacrilege against their supremacy of genius. Such a spirit, however, whether it arises from pride or moroseness, is a pitiable weakness in a man of talent, and while it greatly diminishes the respect that would otherwise be shewn him, never fails to destroy altogether every thing like affectionate

esteem. Can we then wonder at the sentiments which Lord Chesterfield expressed of Dr. Johnson, when his Lordship said, "He is a man whose capacious intellect and extensive learning, I cannot but admire, and whose moral character is worthy of the highest respect; but whom it is so impossible for me to love, that he was never yet in my company without exciting my disgust." So great, indeed, was the difference between the manners and dispositions of the Doctor and his Lordship, that the opinion of the latter is to be received with caution, and understood with some limitation; yet, from various other less questionable sources, there is abundant evidence to shew, that the arrogant dictation of the learned Lexicographer was calculated to excite in the breast of almost any one, the same feelings as those of the noble Lord; and even the most intimate and familiar friends of the Doctor, with the exception of Burke, and a few more, manifestly regarded "the Colossus of Literature," as children would an immense mastiff, whose size and ferocity are equally the objects of admiration and of terror, and with which they may sometimes play, though his growl they know must never be despised. Had the firmness of Johnson's mind been united to the gentleness of Cowper's manners, how dignified, yet how amiable, would the character have been! But, alas! perfection is not an attribute of man! We have but a choice of evils; we can seldom steer between extremes; and his lot must be regarded as the happiest, whose errors are the most trivial.

It is possible, however, to avoid the extremes of austerity and of mildness, and still to display irregularity of temper. He who has too much firmness to be absolutely pusillanimous, and too much gentleness to be absolutely fierce, may still have petulance enough to be peevish. What man of genius ever displayed more littleness of mind than Addison did in his squabbles with Pope about the public opinion relative to their respective merits as poets? Because, 'forsooth, Pope had translated a book of the Iliad, which met with more general applause than Addison's translation of the same book, the latter must take umbrage at his contemporary, and vent his ill-will against him, whenever an opportunity occurred. Nor was Pope himself by any means free from that peevishness of temper which formed a flaw in the character of Addison. Harmonious as the verses are of him, who so early displayed the inspiration of the tuneful Muse, and of whom it has been so aptly said,

"He lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came,"

there was no small share of discordant feeling in his dispo

« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »