Popular Fallacies. ["The Sanity of True Genius."]

New Monthly Magazine (May 1826) 519-20.

Charles Lamb

In an anonymous contribution to the New Monthly's "Popular Fallacies" series, Charles Lamb (who knew the matter familiarly) discriminates between madness and poetry. Even Spenser's Cave of Mammon "is a proof of that hidden sanity which still guides the poet in his wildest seeming-aberrations." The context of these remarks is very likely the relentless nineteenth-century criticism of Spenser's allegory for its lack of probability — applying naturalistic standards appropriate to a novel where they cannot and should not be applied.

Lamb wittily turns the table, comparing Spenser to popular novels where "we meet phantoms in our known walks; fantasques only christened. In the poet we have names which announce fiction; and we have absolutely no place at all, for the things and persons of the Fairy Queen prate not of their 'whereabout.' But in their inner nature, and the law of their speech and actions, we are at home and upon acquainted ground. The one turns life into a dream; the other to the wildest dreams gives the sobrieties of every day occurrences" p. 520.

The phrase "maddest fits" is quoted from George Wither's much-admired "Praise of Poetry" in Shepherds' Hunting. This essay, later much revised, is better known under the title "Sanity of True Genius."

Charles Lamb also touches on this theme in "Witches, and Other Night Fears" (1821): "What stops the Fiend in Spenser from tearing Guyon to pieces — or who made it a condition of his prey that Guyon must take assay of the glorious bait — we have no guess. We do not know the laws of this country" Works, ed. Lucas (1903) 2:65-66.

Speaking of grace before meals, Lamb proposes "a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen" Works, ed. Lucas (1903) 2:91-92.

Henry Nelson Coleridge: "The readers even of this passage — much more those who peruse the writings of Lamb generally, and his Essays in particular — must be struck with a certain air and trick of the antique phrase, unlike anything in the style of any contemporary writer. This manner has been called affected; many think it forced, quaint, unnatural. They suppose it all done on purpose. Now nothing can be farther from the fact. That the cast of language distinguishing almost all Lamb's works is not the style of the present day is very true; but it was his style nevertheless. It is altogether a curious matter one strongly illustrating the assimilative power of genius — that a man, very humbly born, humbly educated, and from boyhood till past middle life nailed, as a clerk, to a desk in the South Sea or India Houses, should so perfectly appropriate to himself, to the expression of his own most intimate emotions and thoughts, the tone and turn of phrase of the writers, pre-eminently the dramatic writers, of the times of James and Charles I. Their style was as natural to him as the air he breathed. It was a part of his intellect; it entered into and modified his views of all things — it was the necessary dialect of his genius" "Last Essays of Elia" Quarterly Review 54 (July 1835) 62-63.

Oliver Elton: "Lamb is so often called one of the Elizabethans that we forget how much better his prose can be, how much more in compass and manageable, than most of theirs — speaking, that is, of the authors who at all correspond to him, and not of the Hookers and Bacons who fly at high speculative matters. In other words, he has made his profit by the ages that come between, and especially by Dryden and the colloquial easy writers following in his train. Few of Dryden's predecessors, except Shakespeare, could talk naturally or easily in prose. They are apt either to trip entangled in the purple train of their long sentences, or to deal in curt and teasing short phrases without bearable transitions. There is current on this matter a good deal of antiquarian idolatry, in which Lamb, no doubt, as one of the great rediscoverers, himself genially shared. But what he has gained from the long intervening discipline of prose, is best seen from the lightness and rightness of his more imaginative papers, which are 'prose poetry' in the lawful sense of the term. For sheer purity of immortal plain English, without anything to chill or let down the spirits, it would be hard to find anything of the same length in Renaissance times like 'Dream-Children.' It is in this sense and this only, that we can talk of any art as 'progressing'; — that is, when some craftsman arises, once in centuries, who can thus discern, and blend in use, the powers and accomplishment of different ages past. General progress there is none, nor can be, for there is no entail of genius" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:352.

Compare Leigh Hunt, "A Few Thoughts on Sleep" in The Indicator (1819-21, 1845) 1:116-21, which quotes the Morpheus episode from the Faerie Queene. See also Morris Eaves's essay on Lamb in the Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 424-25.

"That great wit is allied to madness." — So far from this being true, the greatest wits will ever be found to be the sanest writers. It is impossible for the mind to conceive of a mad Shakspeare. The greatness of wit, by which the poetic talent is here chiefly to be understood, manifests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties. Madness is the disproportionate straining or excess of any one of them. "So strong a wit," says Cowley, speaking of a poetical friend,

—did Nature to him frame,
As all things but his judgment overcame;
His judgment, like the heavenly moon did show,
Tempering, that mighty sea below.

The ground of the fallacy is, that men, finding in the raptures of the higher poetry a condition of exaltation, to which they have no parallel in their own experience, besides the spurious resemblance of it in dreams and fevers, impute a state of dreaminess and fever to the poet. But the true poet dreams being awake. He is not possessed by his subject, but has dominion over it. In the groves of Eden he walks familiar as in his native paths. He ascends the empyrean heaven, and is not intoxicated. He treads the burning marl without dismay; he wins his flight without. self-loss through realms of chaos "and old night." Or if, abandoning himself to that severer chaos of a "human mind untuned," he is content awhile to be mad with Lear, or to hate mankind (a sort of madness) with Timon, neither is that madness, nor this misanthropy, so unchecked, but that, — never letting the reins of reason wholly go, while most he seems to do so, — he has his better genius still whispering at his ear, with the good servant Kent suggesting saner counsels, or with the honest steward Flavius recommending kindlier resolutions. Where he seems most to recede from humanity, he will be found the truest to it. From beyond the scope of Nature if he summon possible existences, lie subjugates them to the law of her consistency. He is beautifully loyal to that sovereign directress, even when he appears most to betray and desert her. His ideal tribes submit to policy; his very monsters are tamed to his hand, even as that wild sea-brood, shepherded by Proteus. He tames, and he clothes them with attributes of flesh and blood, till they wonder at themselves, like Indian Islanders forced to submit to European vesture. Caliban, the Witches, are as true to the laws of their own nature (ours with a difference), as Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Herein the great and the little wits are differenced; that if the latter wander ever so little from nature or actual existence, they lose themselves, and their readers. Their phantoms are lawless; their visions night-mares. They do not create, which implies shaping and consistency. Their imaginations are not active — for to be active is to call something into act and form — but or something passive, as men in sick dreams. For the super-natural, or something super-added to what we know of nature, they give you the plainly non-natural. And if this were all, and that these mental hallucinations were discoverable only in the treatment of subjects out of nature, or transcending it, the judgment might with some plea be pardoned if it ran riot, and a little wantonized: but even in the describing of real and every-day life, that which is before their eyes, one of these lesser wits shall more deviate from nature — show more of that inconsequence, which has a natural alliance with frenzy, — than a great genius in his "maddest fits," as Withers somewhere calls them. We appeal to any one that is acquainted with the common run of Lane's novels, — as they existed some twenty or thirty years back, — those scanty intellectual viands of the whole female reading public, till a happier genius arose, and expelled for ever the innutritious phantoms, — whether he has not found his brain more "betossed," his memory more puzzled, his sense of when and where more confounded, among the improbable events, the incoherent incidents, the inconsistent characters, or no-characters, of some third-rate love intrigue — where the persons shall be a Lord Glendamour and a Miss Rivers, and the scene only alternate between Bath and Bond-street — a more bewildering dreaminess induced upon him, than he has felt wandering over all the fairy grounds of Spenser. In the productions we refer to, nothing but names and places is familiar; the persons are neither of this world nor of any other conceivable one; an endless string of activities without purpose, of purposes destitute of motive: — we meet phantoms in our known walks; fantasques only christened. In the poet we have names which announce fiction; and we have absolutely no place at all, for the things and persons of the Fairy Queen prate not of their "whereabout." But in their inner nature, and the law of their speech and actions, we are at home and upon acquainted ground. The one turns life into a dream; the other to the wildest dreams gives the sobrieties of every day occurrences. By what subtile art of tracing the mental processes it is effected, we are not philosopher enough to explain, but in that wonderful episode of the cave of Mammon, in which the Money God appears first in the lowest form of a miser, is then a worker of metals, and becomes the god of all the treasures of the World; and has a daughter, Ambition, before whom all the world kneels for favours — with the Hesperian fruit, the waters of Tantalus, with Pilate washing his hands vainly, but not impertinently, in the same stream — that we should be at one moment in the cave of an old hoarder of treasures, at the next at the forge of the Cyclops, in a palace and yet in hell, all at once, with the shifting mutations of the most rambling dream, and our judgment yet all the time awake, and neither able nor willing to detect the fallacy, — is a proof of that hidden sanity which still guides the poet in his widest seeming-aberrations.

It is not enough to say that the whole episode is a copy of the mind's conceptions in sleep; it is, in some sort — but what a copy! Let the most romantic of us, that has been entertained all night with the spectacle of some wild and magnificent vision, recombine it in the morning, and try it by his waking judgment. That which appeared so shifting, and yet so coherent, while that faculty was passive, when it comes under cool examination, shall appear so reasonless and so unlinked, that we are ashamed to have been so, deluded; and to have taken, though but in sleep, a monster for a god. But the transitions in this episode are every whit as violent as in the most extravagant dream, and yet the waking judgment ratifies them.


[pp. 519-20]