1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

George Gilfillan, "Thomas Babington Macaulay" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 386-98.



We heard recently a keen discussion on the question, Is Thomas Macaulay, in the strict sense, a man of genius? Now, in order to qualify ourselves for determining this question, we must first inquire what genius is? a question of some moment in a book which professes to be a gallery of contemporary genius.

We can conceive of nothing more undefinable than genius. It is so on account of the complexity of the elements which make it up. It is not one thing, nor is it many things, but it is the one subtle result of many elements subordinated into harmony and completeness. We shall perhaps best attain our object by showing, after the fashion of the scholastic divines, what genius is not, ere we proceed to inquire what it is.

Genius, then, first of all, is not mental dexterity. How many seem to think that it is! With how many people does the expert player of chess, and the acute solver of riddles, and the accurate summer up of intricate accounts, and the man of mere verbal memory, who has equally by heart Milton and Mallet, and the expert versifier, and the flippant declaimer, pass, each and all of them, for men of genius! One reason of this is, that this kind of power is so tangible in its effects that only the external senses are required to perceive its results. It can neither be disputed or denied. All are agreed about it. It needs no exertion of mind to form an opinion about its merit; and an opinion, when once formed, is rarely, if ever, altered. No circumstance can fritter away the character of the man who has only to open his mouth to pour forth puns and acrostics by the thousand. The merit, mean as it may be, is something positive and incontestable. Again, this sort of cleverness is habitual and inveterate: hence its displays are masterly and imposing: the thing is done, and done quickly, and as well as it is possible to conceive. The achievement, whatever it may be, has distinctness, prominence, and perfection. Perhaps mechanical were a better name than mental dexterity. Mechanism performs its wonders with unerring effect, and at all times equally. In given circumstances the application of steam has, of course, the same result. So, set a man of this kind to write, and he writes, and writes well, but writes like an automaton. And yet the impression made by this kind of merit upon the majority is wonderful. A man of genius may go on for a lifetime digging wells of beauty and rapture, and one out of ten may talk about him, and one out of a hundred may read him, and one out of a thousand may partially understand him, and he may die unappreciated. But let one arise who can express commonplace in sounding phraseology, or work up weakness into epigram, or even disguise nonsense under copious and splendid verse, and he will be appreciated and admired as infallibly as any able mender of soles or stitcher of broad-cloth. Wordsworth, (to translate principle into fact,) during half his long lifetime is neglected, while Waller is loaded and suffocated with panegyric. The reason is, Wordsworth is a poet, and Waller was a mere mechanist. It is easy distinguishing the characters. The mechanist has probably not one original thought in his mind. He is perhaps even incapable of appreciating the original thoughts of others. It is to say much if we grant that a "plastic stress," such as called in chaos, might perhaps stir him into the genuine animation of mind. As it is, he neither thinks, nor dreams of thinking. Far from welcoming those impulses to deep and thrilling meditation, which more or less affect all intellects, he repulses them, and turns eagerly to his machinery. There, however, he is perfectly at home. He can handle his tools to admiration. He can throw off a poem, which, though not a Paradise Lost, tickles the ear a great deal more, and is far more easily understood. He can dash down commonplaces on any given subject as fast as his pen can move. He can perhaps mimic all sorts of styles in succession with the skill of a mocking-bird. He can write a Poetical Mirror, though a Kilmeny be beyond him. Nay, he can perhaps even shed off apparent and surface originalities as fast as the thistle its down: and he may be able to do all this, and much more, without the appearance of effort, at a moment's warning, and at all times equally. He is subject to no moods, no shadows, no sudden loathings of his occupation, no ambitious towering above the dead level of the paper on which he is inscribing his thoughts. His merit is thus great; and, what is more, is beyond all question. He has done all this; and no one doubts but he will do it again. Still his merit is very different from the merit of a man of genius. What his merit is we may afterwards see; what it is not let us now partially notice: — The man of genius, then, cannot refrain from thinking. All impulses which affect him are so many summonses to vigorous intellectual exertion. His originality, never ostentatious, is nevertheless the element of his mind. He cannot stifle an inducement to thought, except it be for the sake of indulging in imagination, which is just thought on fire. He cannot sacrifice sense to sound, except it be for an instant, that he may afterwards link both in unchanging harmony. He cannot complacently indite commonplace, unless it be for the purpose of relieving the pressure of his originality. He can write centos, but he will d o so rarely, and only for the pleasure of gratifying his sympathy by plunging more completely into another's habits of thought and feeling. He cannot, finally, do any thing equally well at any time. It may be asked, why not? We reply, because he is a man, not a machine. He is not screwed up to a pitch whence he can only descend by a struggle. His brains move freely. The constant whirl supposed can only be produced by two causes: first, the result of mechanical straining, and, secondly, madness. He is neither mad nor a machine. It may be asked, Does not cultivation bring the powers to such. perfection that their fruit in any circumstances must be excellence? All things, no doubt, are possible, and consistency of style may thus be secured even by men of impulse; but we believe that the highest pressure can rarely effect any more. Who more intensely cultivated than Milton? And yet who more dependent upon moods and moments? If nobody has written better, who has written worse? We are far indeed. from denying that some men have great mechanical power added to their genius; and that it is better that they have. But such a conjunction is rare; and when it does occur, the mechanical part of the power ever appears to be subordinate. It must indeed have this appearance, else the man may deserve the name of a man of skill and tact, but never for a moment of a man of genius. And better want art entirely than sacrifice to its shrine one atom of nature. Better, than that Apollo's locks be cropped and queued, that they be dashed and dishevelled by the hurricane. Mechanism has done much; it has often licked the rude offspring of genius into shapedissipated the darkness that often shrouds the tabernacle of original thought — not only translated but improved the productions of original genius. Still it must ever be kept separate and inferior.

Dexterity, then, or cleverness, is not genius. So neither is talent. By talent we understand the power of acute and metaphysical analysis. This is doubtless a nearer approximation to the beau-ideal of power; and it is often found in waiting upon genius. It is just the mode of accounting for and substantiating the products of original thoughts. It is the art of rendering reasons for the intuitions of the poet. We may distinguish it from cleverness by saying that cleverness is a mere cast from the features of original genius, while talent enters into the rationale of the painting, the adjustment of the proportions, and the quality of the colouring; attempting to explain and to sanction what has been executed only from a fine and original sense of the natural and the beautiful. Cleverness makes the parody, talent the dissertation and the review. Cleverness is generally acknowledged, talent is a deeper and stronger power, and may be as little appreciated as genius. Genius and talent are often combined. Newton had genius, and it gave him the thought of gravitation; but he had also talent, and he proved it. Had Newton died after the sublime conjecture, he had still been counted a man of genius, and his follower, who should have afterwards substantiated his assertion, would never have been placed above him, nor by his side. Thirdly, Genius is not mere imagination. Nat Lee had probably as vivid impressions as those of any poet that ever lived, because his impressions were those of dreams or of madness; but such impressions have no ultimate end. They resemble separated shadows, with no body behind or before them. They suppose the dormancy of the reasoning faculty. They resemble the Northern Lights, which appear to flash and flicker in ragged confusion, as if they embraced earth by chance, not sun-beams, shed from a steadfast centre on an attendant and worshipping world. They are as incapable of being subordinated to the great purposes of thought or passion, as a madman's dreams of basin, a moral or metaphysical system. They stand for themselves as distinctly as if they were bits of chaos. Imagination is doubtless essential to genius. Even although the man of genius be not born in its light, he must grow to meet it; but it cannot of itself constitute genius, as long as bedlam is not the temple of fame. Had Milton created only the "Limbo of Vanity" or the "Sin and Death," would he have had more reputation now than any visible victim of inveterate night-mare? This test will, we think, be enough to blow Macpherson's fame to fragments. We hear continually of the imagination of Ossian's Poems. Doubtless there is imagination; but may we not ask with Newton, what does it prove? — nothing: illustrate? — nothing: enforce? — nothing. Is it the appropriate drapery of original characters? No; there is only one very interesting character in it all, and that is Ossian himself; and, after all, he is but Milton transplanted into Morven. Or is it the grand accompaniment to illustrious action? No: Fingal's striking, amid the shadows of midnight, at the mighty form of the spirit of Loda, is the only powerful incident we remember. Homer, however, had sent a mightier than he bellowing to heaven ere Macpherson was born. And even in him the incident, so redolent of "celestial ichor," was evidently a piece of glorious humbug. And if mere effect be considered, a hundred ghost stories have raised the hair higher than the tale of Loda's gigantic ghost. By the way, what a striking proof have we here of the force of Scottish prejudice! Who ever mentioned the Mars affair without laughing at it? and who, from Blair downwards, has ever alluded to the Loda miscreation without admiration? What do either of them prove? The important lessons, first, that spirit is matter; and, secondly, that it is no difficult matter to take the conceit out of a god.

Poetry must prove something ere it be good for much. Newton's error lay in not perceiving what the Paradise Lost did prove, — in not perceiving the sublime moral lessons which are scattered over its every page. Perhaps no new principle is demonstrated in it; but every book cannot be expected to contain a principle like gravitation. It brings, however, a logic of its own, — a testimony of fire to the great Christian moralities. The character of Moloch is worth the whole work on "Fanaticism." In Satan, it is as if the hell of a thousand hearts, burning with pride and ambition, were disclosed. And, in Raphael, has not Milton represented the perfection of moral excellence, blended with the perfection of the affable and the tender — something softer than angel, and sublimer than man? And to the question, were it asked, what do Shakspere's works prove? we could as easily find a reply, for there is not one of them that is destitute of its deep and distinct moral. It may be asked, what does Falstaff prove? Why, it proves what rigid moralists are very apt to forget, that sensuality and selfishness may co-exist with much that is amiable. Who does not love Falstaff, and wish him a better man? But, again, for Timon's frantic misanthropy, we would have wanted the strong light cast on the character of the faithful Flavius. What finer moral than thus to wring from maddened misery a testimony to human worth and virtue? It is far better than Byron's sneering, reluctant, and sullen acknowledgment, that "virtue is no jest, and happiness no dream." And, for a final instance, think on Othello. Perhaps, as Coleridge holds, it is not jealousy that is dissected there; perhaps Othello's passion is just injured pride struggling to get rid of boundless and unutterable affection, by cutting the tie at once and for ever. Jealousy, indeed, supposes doubt. It is a transition state — a state of struggle when the elements of strong hope, and stronger fear, contend for mastery. Now Shakspere hurries over this point. Othello is very soon convinced of Desdemona's worthlessness; and certainty is no more jealousy than despair is doubt. And Othello is as indignant as if a man were to find himself, by some monstrous means, in love with an object which he felt and knew to be despicable. It is this feeling which spurs him to the murder. He at once loves and contemns her. And the moral, therefore, lies in the vileness of the malignity which has driven him to this. All the blame is thus shifted on Iago. He collects the gloom of the whole passion of the play; and, to use an expression of Foster's, "the mind labours for a greater ability" of detesting him, and, in the fury of its hatred, regrets that his intellect has exalted him above the relief we should receive from equally despising him. Thus it appears that all great works of genius have a moral and a meaning, while mere imagination may be found disconnected from both.

Fourthly, The mere expression of passion is not genius. Genius, indeed, includes passion. But it is not identical with strong passion, nor with its expression; else every man that could swear were a man of genius, and the blackguard and the bully might set up claims to the title. It is true, that passion lifts even the low into something like genius; in other words, rouses them to express their feelings in the language of imagination. We have heard a very competent judge declare, that the most powerful eloquence he ever heard was that of an insulted carter. But, in general, passion finds its vulgar vent in mere gesticulation or blasphemy. Burns does not thus inveigh. Nor does Timon. His curses have oracular dignity and grandeur. The dark pages of his passion are laid before us in the light of imagination. We do not recollect a more striking example of the distinctions we are drawing, than the difference between Titus Andronicus and Lear. In the one, a man is outraged, and his complaints have passion, but no poetry. In the other, the injured old man appeals to the heavens to avenge his cause, "as they themselves are old." He erects, on the basis of his wrong, a majestic morality, — he ascends, on the ladder of madness, the highest heaven of invention. In the one, passion stands alone; in the other, it is linked to imagination, to morality, and to reason; it agitates the whole being like an earthquake; it does not hurry, with selfish instinct, to that mode of expression which shall soonest relieve its paroxysms and its pangs, but accumulates and intensifies till it becomes a delight and a luxury.

Ere now proceeding to say what genius is, we may, in order to narrow the ground a little more, mention some things which, though never said to be genius, are yet, somehow, thought to be necessarily connected with it. Genius is not necessarily connected with taste. This, perhaps, requires no proof; for if by taste is meant a keen sense of minute delicacies and beauties, then a thousand instances of acknowledged genius will occur, where this was wanting. Although, if by taste we mean the feeling connected with the operations of genius, then, as it obviously springs from the power, whatever it be, it may, at least in our imaginations, be identified with it. Nor is genius necessarily connected with judgment; or, in other words, with an intense perception and avoidance of the bad and the absurd. The author of Lear wrote Love's Labours Lost, and had, very likely, far less feeling of the inferiority of the latter than other men. Wordsworth does not yet perceive the inanity of a few of the Lyrical Ballads. Genius is not necessarily connected with any particular kind of intellectual thought, far less with any mechanical mode of expressing that thought. That is to say, a man with the essential elements of genius may be a mathematician or a poet, — may write in verse or in prose; in other words, poetry, which is the essence of genius, is extractable from every thing. Genius is not necessarily connected with the moral nature. It has, indeed, been described, by a high authority, as "steeped and saturated in the moral nature." If facts could be forgotten, these words might pass for true, as well as beautiful. These, however, we fear, only teach us that instances of gross disconnexion are rare. But the existence of even a few such cases, destroys the idea of necessary connexion. Was Rousseau's genius "steeped and saturated" in the moral nature or Voltaire's, or Byron's? It would be very easy to deny these men's claims to genius, but not so easy to convince us, that the denial was any thing else than an interested impertinence. With Heart we hold genius to be inseparably united, but Heart is only one element in the moral nature. Genius, then, if we may hazard a definition, is natural or original thought invested with the power of passion, and expressed in the language of the imagination. It is just the highest power of reason, added to the force of imagination and passion. We have thus three results secured, which are actually those of genius; first, truth, or originality of thought; secondly, impulsive power; and, thirdly, a peculiar diction. First, originality of thought. The thought, however, must not only be new, but of such importance as to stir the surges of passion. It must also be true, that is, consistent with nature, and having even a rigid logic of its own, else it is mere fancy. The second element is passion. Genius moves as well as makes. All passion, more or less, moves, and genius is a stronger breath, doubling the agitation. The last element, and that which colours its language, is imagination. Without it thought, unless of an inferior quality, could not adequately express itself. All great thought links itself instantaneously to imagery, and imagery, as we have seen already, is the life of passion. Genius thus appears to be the joint product of three elements, different, but intimately connected. And these exhaust the depth and the power of the human spirit.

Has Thomas Macaulay genius? He has, but he has got it as the alchymists expected to get gold, by transmutation. He has transmuted vast learning, and varied accomplishments into one sweet and subtle thing, which really deserves the name of genius. He, was wont, even when young, to be surnamed, by his associates, "Macaulay the Omniscient." History, law literature, political economy, nay, theology and science, seem, so far as purposes of illustration require, to be perfectly at his command. There are, probably, many who know as much, or more, than he; but few have so wrought their knowledge into the substance of their minds — few have so sublimated the dead fuel into flame — flame brisk and unburdened by the masses it has consumed. Many call for their stores of knowledge, and it comes forth from the lumber-room of their mind-lumber, as it had entered, cold, and stiff, and dead; but, from Macaulay's inner chamber, it issues "as in dance;" warm, spiritualized, moving to the music of his eloquent mind. Thomas Macaulay is not an original thinker; he has no insight into any part of this universe entirely new, — no burning gold of inspiration has been emptied on his young head, — no swarm of bees fastened on his infant lips; he has not been called, like Milton, Burke, and Coleridge, by a special mission to utter transcendental truth in transcendental eloquence; nor, like Bentham, to lay the foundations of a new science, deep, strong, and smooth, as "a pavement of adamant;" but he is the poet of facts. In conversation he pours out torrents of facts. In his review articles you find floods of facts. In his speeches, he hangs strings of facts around one or two master principles. In his poetry, he sets fire to facts, in themselves as dry as Homer's catalogue of ships, and you are reminded of stubble a-blaze. Like his own favourite, Bunyan, he unites prosaic and literal to ideal and imaginative qualities. Scarcely one of his sentences is poetical, and yet the whole of his article is a perfect poem. Just as hardly a sentence of Bunyan has an image or flower, and yet the whole is steeped in the essence of imagination. The stream of poesy, flowing under ground, is in both betrayed by now and then a solitary word. And the reason is, that, to both, facts are real existences, — they do not lie leaning upon the cold page, — they stand upright, and, through the golden haze which covers the eye of the seer, look ideal. The facts, too, though simple, are select, and suitable for imaginative treatment. There is a youthful freshness of imagination about Macaulay, which is most delightful to see. Shallow criticasters say of him, in rebuke and derision, that he writes like a schoolboy, paying him, unintentionally, one of the highest compliments they could bestow upon a full grown and thoroughly furnished man. The secret, as it seems to us, of perfect composition, is manly wisdom, uttered in youthful language. Coleridge calls genius "the power of producing the feelings and freshness of youth into the powers and passions of manhood." So Macaulay, to this hour, talks of the deepest speculations of policy and poesy with all the enthusiasm of an Eton boy. One "childish thing," however, it were well for him to put away; we mean a certain mannerism of style, which adheres to all his articles. He is the most easily detected of writers, except, perhaps, Christopher North. You cannot read two sentences without being aware of his identity. All his prominent qualities, — his muscular nerve, — his balanced antithesis, — his sharp short form of sentence, — his thoroughly English spirit, — his enthusiasm breaking out at intervals, — his elaborate pictures set at distances, — his decisive tone, — his unbounded command of illustration, — his keen and crushing contempt, — his intimate knowledge of floating personal history, all these lie upon the surface, and are perpetually reproduced, in every one of his compositions. He is not the most profound, or poetical, or ingenious, but he is the most rhetorical of critics. Byron was often blamed for snatching the sentiments of the Lakers out of their mouths, and uttering them in prouder and more impassioned accents. So Macaulay seizes the paradoxes of Coleridge and Hazlitt, and presents them in more imposing and commanding forms, and bedecks them from the exuberant riches of his own learning; and announces them in a tone of more perfect assurance. And, as Byron was the interpreter between the Lakers, as poets, and the public, so is Macaulay between them and the public, as critics. Men receive from him dicta, which were caviare to them from less popular authorities. And an eloquent Aaron he is! Who looks not back to the first perusal of his "Milton" with delight? The picture of the Puritans "looking down upon the rich and the eloquent, upon nobles and upon priests, with contempt, esteeming themselves rich in a more enduring treasure, and eloquent in a more sublime language, — nobles by the right of an earlier creation, and priests by the imposition of a mightier hand," — was magnificent. And with a like power has he since depicted Dryden and Machiavelli, Byron and Johnson, Bunyan and Bacon, Frederick the Great and Warren Hastings. Some poet says, that after reading Dante he could never write-from sheer despair of emulating his excellence. So to a critic, reading Macaulay is the worst possible preparative for composition. He can only wonder and shrink into insignificance.

But far better than even these celebrated articles are his Lays of Ancient Rome. He goes down the battle like a scythed chariot. What homely grandeur stamps their every line! How completely does he reproduce those early Roman days! Standing on the old Tarpeian rock, he blows his magic horn, and History gives up the dead which are in it, and the "foster, babes" of the old shewolf, — "the men of iron," rise an exceeding great army, and range around him, and, hark, he shouts, and they echo the thriller cry:

Hail to the great Asylum;
Hail to the hill-tops seven;
Hail to the fire which burns for aye,
And the shield which fell from Heaven.

Since Homer or since Hardyknute, we have had nothing like those ballads except Lockhart's, and his own brilliant fragment, the Armada.

And yet there are those who talk as if Macaulay had come to the dregs and lees of his mind, — had, forsooth, exhausted himself. So is the sky exhausted at the close of a long day of rain. But the clouds, after the rain, return; and so, if he has exhausted one vein, there are hundreds — thousands — ampler and deeper still, which it is in his power to open and to empty. We wish him God-speed, especially in the devoirs which, if report speak correctly, he is paying to the Muse of History. Let Hallam, and Alison, and Tytler, in this case, look to their laurels. Dear, and deservedly dear, are they to Clio; but dearer still is our illustrious author, any one of whose articles is worth a hundred of the ordinary works which are dignified by the proud name of history.