Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Anecdotes of Abstraction of Mind.

Some have exercised this power of abstraction to a degree that appears marvellous to volatile spirits, and puny thinkers.

To this patient habit, Newton is indebted for many of his great discoveries; an apple falls upon him in his orchard — and the system of attraction succeeds in his mind! he observes boys blowing soap bubbles, and the properties of light display themselves! Of Socrates, it is said, that he would frequently remain an entire day and night in the same attitude, absorbed in meditation; and why should we doubt this, when we know that La Fontaine and Thomson, Descartes and Newton, experienced the same abstraction? Mercator, the celebrated geographer, found such delight in the ceaseless progression of his studies, that he would never willingly quit his maps to take the necessary refreshments of life. In Cicero’s Treatise on Old Age, Cato applauds Gallus, who, when he sat down to write in the morning, was surprised by the evening; and when he took up his pen in the evening was surprised by the appearance of the morning. Buffon once described these delicious moments with his accustomed eloquence:—“Invention depends on patience; contemplate your subject long; it will gradually unfold, till a sort of electric spark convulses for a moment the brain, and spreads down to the very heart a glow of irritation. Then come the luxuries of genius! the true hours for production and composition; hours so delightful, that I have spent twelve and fourteen successively at my writing-desk, and still been in a state of pleasure.” The anecdote related of Marini, the Italian poet, may be true. Once absorbed in revising his Adonis, he suffered his leg to be burnt for some time, without any sensation.

Abstraction of this sublime kind is the first step to that noble enthusiasm which accompanies Genius; it produces those raptures and that intense delight, which some curious facts will explain to us.

Poggius relates of Dante, that he indulged his meditations more strongly than any man he knew! whenever he read, he was only alive to what was passing in his mind; to all human concerns, he was as if they had not been! Dante went one day to a great public procession; he entered the shop of a bookseller to be a spectator of the passing show. He found a book which greatly interested him; he devoured it in silence, and plunged into an abyss of thought. On his return he declared that he had neither seen, nor heard, the slightest occurrence of the public exhibition which had passed before him. This enthusiasm renders everything surrounding us as distant as if an immense interval separated us from the scene. A modern astronomer, one summer night, withdrew to his chamber; the brightness of the heaven showed a phenomenon. He passed the whole night in observing it, and when they came to him early in the morning, and found him in the same attitude, he said, like one who had been recollecting his thoughts for a few moments, “It must be thus; but I’ll go to bed before ’tis late!” He had gazed the entire night in meditation, and did not know it.

This intense abstraction operates visibly; this perturbation of the faculties, as might be supposed, affects persons of genius physically. What a forcible description the late Madame Roland, who certainly was a woman of the first genius, gives of herself on her first reading of Telemachus and Tasso. “My respiration rose; I felt a rapid fire colouring my face, and my voice changing, had betrayed my agitation; I was Eucharis for Telemachus, and Erminia for Tancred; however, during this perfect transformation, I did not yet think that I myself was any thing, for any one. The whole had no connexion with myself, I sought for nothing around me; I was them, I saw only the objects which existed for them; it was a dream, without being awakened."— Metastasio describes a similar situation. “When I apply with a little attention, the nerves of my sensorium are put into a violent tumult. I grow as red in the face as a drunkard, and am obliged to quit my work.” When Malebranche first took up Descartes on Man, the germ and origin of his philosophy, he was obliged frequently to interrupt his reading by a violent palpitation of the heart. When the first idea of the Essay on the Arts and Sciences rushed on the mind of Rousseau, it occasioned such a feverish agitation that it approached to a delirium.

This delicious inebriation of the imagination occasioned the ancients, who sometimes perceived the effects, to believe it was not short of divine inspiration. Fielding says, “I do not doubt but that the most pathetic and affecting scenes have been writ with tears.” He perhaps would have been pleased to have confirmed his observation by the following circumstances. The tremors of Dryden, after having written an Ode, a circumstance tradition has accidentally handed down, were not unusual with him; in the preface to his Tales he tells us, that in translating Homer he found greater pleasure than in Virgil; but it was not a pleasure without pain; the continual agitation of the spirits must needs be a weakener to any constitution, especially in age, and many pauses are required for refreshment betwixt the heats. In writing the ninth scene of the second act of the Olimpiade, Metastasio found himself in tears; an effect which afterwards, says Dr. Burney, proved very contagious. It was on this occasion that that tender poet commemorated the circumstance in the following interesting sonnet:—

Sonnet from Metastasio.

Scrivendo l’Autore in Vienna l’anno 1733 la sua Olimpiade si senti commosa fino alle lagrime nell’ esprimere la divisione di due teneri amici: e meravigliandosi che un falso, e da lui inventato disastro, potesse cagionargli una si vera passione, si fece a riflettere quanto poco ragionevole e solido fondamento possano aver le altre che soglion frequentamente agitarci, nel corso di nostra vita.

Sogni e favole io fingo, e pure in carte

Mentre favole, e sogni, orno e disegno,

In lor, (folle ch’ io son!) prendo tal parte

Che del mal che inventai piango, e mi sdegno.

Ma forse allor che non m’ inganna l’arte,

Più saggio io sono e l’agitato ingegno

Forse allo più tranquillo? O forse parte

Da più salda cagion l’amor, lo sdegno?

Ah che non sol quelle, ch’io canto, o scrivo

Favole son; ma quanto temo, o spero,

Tutt’ è manzogna, e delirando io vivo!

Sogno della mia vita è il corso intero.

Deh tu, Signor, quando a destarmi arrivo

Fa, ch’io trovi riposo in sen del VERO.

In 1733, the Author, composing his Olimpiade, felt himself suddenly moved, even to tears, in expressing the separation of two tender lovers. Surprised that a fictitious grief, invented too by himself, could raise so true a passion, he reflected how little reasonable and solid a foundation the others had, which, so frequently agitated us in this state of our existence.

Sonnet — Imitated.

Fables and dreams I feign; yet though but verse

The dreams and fables that adorn this scroll,

Fond fool! I rave, and grieve as I rehearse;

While GENUINE TEARS for FANCIED SORROWS roll.

Perhaps the dear delusion of my heart

Is wisdom; and the agitated mind,

As still responding to each plaintive part,

With love and rage, a tranquil hour can find.

Ah! not alone the tender RHYMES I give

Are fictions: but my FEARS and HOPES I deem

Are FABLES all; deliriously I live,

And life’s whole course is one protracted dream.

Eternal Power! when shall I wake to rest

This wearied brain on TRUTH’S immortal breast?

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37