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EDINBURGH ECCLESIASTICAL JOURNAL.
THE CALAMITIES OF GENIUS.
The poverty, the misfortunes, and the sufferings of genius have from the earliest times been a subject on which genius has delighted to dwell, and the lamentations which genius has poured forth, have been very faithfully and constantly re-echoed by the world. As the great mass of those who are called men of genius, have belonged to the writing class who could make their sorrows legible, they have had the advantage of telling their tale of woe in their own way. On the other hand, " the world,” which is said to have all along persecuted genius, being a very large body, has liberally enough taken upon its shoulders all the guilt in this way with which it has been charged. As “the world” for the last five or six thousand years, has, according to the declarations of genius and the world's own belief, been neglecting, despising, and oppressing genius,—the share of odium which any single individual in any existing generation of men has to take to himself of this great guilt is so very small as not to afflict the most delicate conscience. But besides this, the existing generation has it always in its power, like those who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous whose blood their fathers shed, to shift off the responsibility from its own shoulders to those of a preceeding and less worthy age. In the age of Augustus, the patrons or professed patrons of literature would no doubt declare that they would not have allowed Homer to beg—if the fable of his begging was then a popular belief. In the age in which we live, people quite ready to persecute others for innovations less daring than those of Galileo, look back with horror on the history of that great man as a frightful evidence of the ignorance of the times on which his lot was cast.
From one cause or another it has come to be a belief scarcely ever
disputed, that the world has been unjust to genius ; this is assumed as a fact in a multitude of essays and volumes. With regard to authors, it is a doctrine laid down in the plainest and most unqualified terms, in the first sentence of Mr. D’Israeli's “ Calamities of Authors." Calamities of Authors," says this agreeable and interesting, if not very profound writer, “have often excited the attention of the lovers of literature; and from the revival of letters to this day, this class of the community, the most ingenious and the most enlightened, have in all the nations of Europe, been the most honoured and the least remunerated.” A hundred literary men, have in substance made the same declaration. It is in the mean time no part of the business of genius to contradict a belief out of which it may hope to make a profit; and the world so much railed at for its neglect of genius, is good enough to take the statements of genius on its own word without investigation. Hence has grown up a vast collection of fables regarding the fate of men of learning and genius, which are implicitly believed by ninety-nine out of the hundred of mankind.
An enquiry into this question between the world and genius will scarcely fail to leave an impartial person convinced that the world has rarely failed in rewarding great learning and great genius, but, on the contrary, has liberally heaped its honours and its wealth on the heads of men of the higher class of intellect; while, in return, many of these men have not manifested that gratitude to the world which has been called for at their hands. Several of them have left behind them complaints of poverty, not very well supported by unexceptionable evidence; very few have imitated the grateful honesty of Vitruvius, the favourite of Julius and Augustus, who, in the outset of his great work, has left on record his declaration, which the latest posterity will read with pleasure, that the liberality of his patrons had placed him beyond the fear of want to the end of his life.
Rarely, indeed, has any contradiction been given to the complaints which men of learning and genius have accumulated against the world. An honest reflection on the subject occurs in the preface to a very entertaining little work of literary history, entitled, “ Biographia Gallica," which contains notices and anecdotes of some hundred or so, of French writers, from Budæus to Cardinal Polignac. The writer of the preface says, “ Here, by real instances, is seen the advantage of literature and genius, many, by these talents, emerging from want and obscurity to a splendid figure. Here the great world is unanswerably vindicated from the charge of neglecting merit; for if ever the distresses of a fine writer have been extreme, they have been owing to his own profuseness, and an irreclaimable abuse of his patron's generosity.” It is not necessary to subscribe to this statement to its full extent.
We have already alluded to the circumstance, that the great mass of men who are considered geniuses, have belonged to the writing class ; and from this fact we wish to draw a practical inference. There is a story of a lion and a painter, which is to our purpose. The painter had made a picture, in which was represented a man in the act of slaying a lion. One day a lion dropped in on the artist, expressed his
displeasure with the piece, and told the painter, that if lions had been limners, the common pictures would have represented lions tearing men to pieces. The moral to be drawn from this tale, and applied to our subject is, that as the calamities of the writing portion of our fellow creatures, have been related by themselves, a fair deduction ought, in reason and honesty, to be allowed for fiction, perversion of facts, high colouring, and discontent. The element of discontent is a most important one to be taken into consideration ; for it is a fact, that many men of genius have, in regard to this world's goods, not bounded their ambition by the wise wish of Agur, the son of Jakeh, “ give me neither poverty nor riches,” but have desired to vie with the sons of luxury. We know, for instance, that Ariosto is placed amongst the neglected men of genius; we know that he complains of his poverty. But we know also, that he lived on terms of familiarity and favour with the great, that he was courted and carressed by princes—that he refused offices of honour and profit in the state, in order to addict himself the more closely to his poetical studies—that he led the life of a licentious courtier—that one of his natural sons was appointed to lucrative benefices in the Church, and another advanced to high command in the army. We know that he built a house, * which he himself, in the inscription which he placed over its door, tells us was "small, but fit for me”—not sordid;" and what is most to the purpose“ procured out of my own money:"
" Parva sed apta mihi, sed nulli obnoxia, sed non
Sordida, parta meo sed tamen ære doinus." It is a strong proof of the attachment men often show to mere theories in preference to substantial facts, that in his Curiosities of Literature, D'Israeli instances the case of Ariosto under the head of “ The Poverty of the Learned.” In relating the facts which we have here mentioned, we follow the whole of the biographies of this great poet, that have appeared. We have so far anticipated the exposure which we have to make, of the falsehoods of most of the stories told about the calamities of genius; but as Ariosto has himself complained of poperty, we could not resist sketching a short chapter, which ought to be entitled “ The Discontent of the Learned.” It is the business of the poet to deal in fiction ; and where the poverty of great poets has not been the natural and just punishment of their vices, it has generally been the imagination of their brains, or the fruit of a thirst for immoderate wealth. This thirst, both where it has, and where it has not been gratified, has more or less impaired the genius of those who have been afflicted with it; and there is sound truth in the homely and unpoetical maxim, that—“ Equi et poetæ alendi sunt, non saginandi.”
Poets, it has been said, rarely build houses, having a preference for lodgings, and particularly attic lodgings. There is a French story to the effect, that a poet having bought a house, his brethren cailed a meeting and censured his conduct as an unprecedented innovation of dangerous character, ordering him at the same time to sell the house, and lay out the proceeds in a stock of wine for the benefit of the sons of Parnassus, and henceforth to live like the rest of them, in lodgings.
If “the world” which has so long been calumniated by charges of injustice, inhumanity, cold-heartedness, and so on, towards genius, would only speak out, it could tell plenty of pathetic stories of the ingratitude and general wickedness of geniuses—of the many crimes which they have committed against the unoffending world, in addition to the slanders against the world's character in which, ever since the invention of literature, they bave indulged, do indulge, and will continue to indulge. Such a history ought, besides their greater crimes against society, to include an account of the many ways in which, by their vanity, selfishness, and ill-temper, men of genius have barrassed and annoyed their fellow-creatures. Under this head, the anecdote of Barthe, the French dramatist, would come in with excellent effect. When his brother poet Colardeau lay on his death-bed, Barthe came to him and insisted on reading over to him the whole of his comedy of “ The Selfish Man.” When he had concluded, Colardeau said to him, “ you have omitted what would be a fine trait in the character of your Selfish Man; you should make him read a whole comedy in five acts to a dying friend."
Almost the whole history of the calamities of genius is made up of fables, or of perversions of truth worse than fables, or of narratives of the woes and sufferings which men of genius have brought on themselves by their ambition or their grovelling vices. In a great many cases the story of the alleged suffering is unfounded; in a great many others, where the fact of the alleged suffering is true, that suffering was the penalty of transgression which must be paid alike by men of the greatest genius and by men of no genius. In speaking of the work of Pierius Valerianus, De Infelicitate Literatorum, (the work by the bye of a man who, as D’Israeli tells us“ twice refused a bishopric” in order that he might have full leisure to write about the misfortunes of the learned ;) even D'Israeli admits that the writer “is so unphilosophical that he places among the misfortunes of literary men those fatal casualties to which all men are alike liable."
A candid review of some of the principal instances given by men of genius of the calamities that have befallen the craft may, we think, not be without instruction. Before entering on the lists which have travelled through so many volumes, pamphlets, and periodicals, we may perhaps be allowed to give a short supplementary list quite in the spirit of the other lists; the only difference being that in this supplementary list the calamities will be ascribed to their true causes.
Anacreon choked himself over his cups ; Apicius having reduced a splendid fortune by making a god of his belly, and being afraid that he could not continue long at the same rate, poisoned himself rather than condescend to live on ordinary fare; Sallust was whipped, and obliged, out of his great wealth, to give large damages to Milo in a crim. con. case ; farther, this unfortunate genius was degraded from the senatorial rank for general profligacy, and so little reverence had the mob for his unquestionable genius, that he run a great risk of being murdered for his intolerable rapine and oppression. Arcesilaus and Lacydas, the Platonic philosophers, died of excessive drinking, and Avicenna, the Arabian physician, is at the head of a large class of modern geniuses who went the same way. Berenicius, an eminent linguist, while drunk, was drowned in a bog; Sir George Etheridge in the same state fell down a stair and broke his neck; Sir Charles Sedley was fined in the sum of L.500 for riotous and disorderly behaviour while in a state of intoxication ; Robert Greene the poet died of overmuch pickled herrings and Rhenish wine ; Morland the painter was at various times put into confinement for being drunk and disorderly; Dr. Gilbert Stuart frequently fell into pits and severely bruised himself when completely senseless from drink. Michael Angelo, in a quarrel with his brother artist, Torregiano, got his nose flattened for life ; Tycho Brache bad his nose cut off in a duel ; the poets Francisco Molza and Sir William Davenant also lost their noses. Christopher Marlowe, a splendid genius, was killed in a scuffle in a brothel ; Ben Johnson was imprisoned for killing a brother actor in a duel; Muretus more than once narrowly escaped being burned to death for his crimes. Alfieri, with all his genius, was frequently obliged to leave one town for another to avoid the vengeance of injured husbands. Dr. Dodd was hanged for forgery, and was driven to forgery by his licentious life.* To attempt to enumerate even a part of the cases in which the poverty of men of learning and genius was the direct consequence of their profligacy, would be out of the question. Tristan L'Hermite, the French dramatist, has had his special poverty recorded in the epigrams of his admirers; he never had a decent coat or cloak about him, but he received immense sums of money which he spent in debauchery. The cause of the great poverty of the famous Abelard is fully detailed in a record of unquestionable veracity—the famous epistle addressed to that profligate genius by his friend, admonisher, and comforter, the Prior Fulco.t
Such is a fair enough specimen of the “calamities of genius,” though told in a plainer manner than may be generally relished by geniuses. It will be seen that the instances which we have referred to might more properly have been placed under the title of “the crimes of genius,” or “ the wickedness of genius,” or, more generally, “ warning to profligates," than under the head which we have given to this article.
As if to show that men of genius, and particularly poets, have been * Dr. Johnson did not consider that forgery was the greatest of Dr. Dodd's crimes. Those who talk in lofty strains of the high moral influence of the press, and call it " the best possible instructor” and so on, will be rather shocked to find “the great moralist” representing Dr. Dodd's connection with the press as the blackest stain on his character. “ His extravagance," says the doctor, “continued unabated, and drove him to crimes which covered him with infamy; he descended so loro as to become the editor of a newspaper.” There can be little donbt that “the great moralist” was in this instance gratifying some private pique; and there can be as little doubt that the fulsome eulogiums which we sometimes hear bestowed on the newspaper press are dictated by a desire to get some acknowledgment in kind in return.
† Quicquid rere scientiæ tuæ venditione perorando præter quotidianum victum et usum Decessarium, sicut relatione didici, acquirere poteras, in yoruginem fornicariæ consumptionis derergere non cessabas." —Epist. Fulconis. apud' Aberlardi et Heloissæ Epist. p. 274. London. 1718.