1784 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ann Yearsley

Frances Burney, 1784; Diary and Letters of the Author of Madam D'Arblay, ed. Austin Dobson (1904-05) 2:271-72.



Yet, wholly to change this discourse, I gave him [Dr. Johnson] a history of the Bristol milk-woman, and told him the tales I had heard of her writing so wonderfully, though she had read nothing but Young and Milton; "though those," I continued, "could never possibly, I should think, be the first authors with anybody. Would children understand them? and grown people who have not read are children in literature."

"Doubtless," said he; "but there is nothing so little comprehended among mankind as what is genius. They give to it all, when it can be but a part. Genius is nothing more than knowing the use of tools; but there must be tools for it to use: a man who has spent all his life in this room will give a very poor account of what is contained in the next.

"Certainly, sir; yet there is such a thing as invention? Shakspeare could never have seen a Caliban."

"No, but he had seen a man, and knew, therefore, how to vary him to a monster. A man who would draw a monstrous cow, must first know what a cow commonly is; or how can he tell that to give her an ass's head or an elephant's tusk will make her monstrous? Suppose you show me a man who is a very expert carpenter — but what if had never seen any wood? Let two men, one with genius, the other with none, look at an overturned waggon: — he who has no genius, will think of the waggon only as he sees it, overturned, and walk on; he who has genius, will paint it to himself before it was overturned, — standing still, and moving on, and heavy loaded, and empty; but both must see the waggon, to think of it at all."

How just and true all this, my Dear Susy! He then animated, and talked on, upon this milk-woman, upon a once as famous shoemaker [James Woodhouse], and upon our immortal Shakspeare, with as much fire, spirit, wit, and truth of criticism and judgment, as ever yet I have heard him. How delightfully bright are his faculties, though the poor and infirm machine that contains them seems alarmingly giving way.