Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed with Some Particulars Respecting the Author, by William Godwin

ESSAY III.

OF INTELLECTUAL ABORTION.

In the preceding Essay I have endeavoured to establish the proposition, that every human creature, idiots and extraordinary cases excepted, is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him.

There is however a sort of phenomenon, by no means of rare occurrence, which tends to place the human species under a less favourable point of view. Many men, as has already appeared, are forced into situations and pursuits ill assorted to their talents, and by that means are exhibited to their contemporaries in a light both despicable and ludicrous.

But this is not all. Men are not only placed, by the absurd choice of their parents, or an imperious concurrence of circumstances, in destinations and employments in which they can never appear to advantage: they frequently, without any external compulsion, select for themselves objects of their industry, glaringly unadapted to their powers, and in which all their efforts must necessarily terminate in miscarriage.

I remember a young man, who had been bred a hair-dresser, but who experienced, as he believed, the secret visitations of the Muse, and became inspired. “With sad civility, and aching head,” I perused no fewer than six comedies from the pen of this aspiring genius, in no page of which I could discern any glimmering of poetry or wit, or in reality could form a guess what it was that the writer intended in his elaborate effusions. Such are the persons enumerated by Pope in the Prologue to his Satires,

a parson, much bemused in beer,
A maudlin poetess, a rhyming peer,
A clerk, foredoomed his father’s sou to cross,
Who pens a stanza, when he should engross.

Every manager of a theatre, and every publishing bookseller of eminence, can produce you in each revolving season whole reams, almost cartloads, of blurred paper, testifying the frequent recurrence of this phenomenon.

The cause however of this painful mistake does not lie in the circumstance, that each man has not from the hand of nature an appropriate destination, a sphere assigned him, in which, if life should be prolonged to him, he might be secure of the respect of his neighbours, and might write upon his tomb, “I have filled an honourable career; I have finished my course.”

One of the most glaring infirmities of our nature is discontent. One of the most unquestionable characteristics of the human mind is the love of novelty. Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. We are satiated with those objects which make a part of our business in every day, and are desirous of trying something that is a stranger to us. Whatever we see through a mist, or in the twilight, is apt to be apprehended by us as something admirable, for the single reason that it is seen imperfectly. What we are sure that we can easily and adequately effect, we despise. He that goes into battle with an adversary of more powerful muscle or of greater practice than himself, feels a tingling sensation, not unallied to delight, very different from that which would occur to him, when his victory was easy and secure.

Each man is conscious what it is that he can certainly effect. This does not therefore present itself to him as an object of ambition. We have many of us internally something of the spirit expressed by the apostle: “Forgetting the things that are behind, we press forward to those that remain.” And, so long as this precept is soberly applied, no conduct can be more worthy of praise. Improvement is the appropriate race of man. We cannot stand still. If we do not go forward, we shall inevitably recede. Shakespear, when he wrote his Hamlet, did not know that he could produce Macbeth and Othello.

But the progress of a man of reflection will be, to a considerable degree, in the path he has already entered. If he strikes into a new career, it will not be without deep premeditation. He will attempt nothing wantonly. He will carefully examine his powers, and see for what they are adapted. Sudet multum. He will be like the man, who first in a frail bark committed himself to the treachery of the waves. He will keep near to the shore; he will tremble for the audaciousness of his enterprise; he will feel that it calls for all his alertness and vigilance. The man of reflection will not begin, till he feels his mind swelling with his purposed theme, till his blood flows fitfully and with full pulses through his veins, till his eyes sparkle with the intenseness of his conceptions, and his “bosom labours with the God.”

But the fool dashes in at once. He does not calculate the dangers of his enterprise. He does not study the map of the country he has to traverse. He does not measure the bias of the ground, the rising knolls and the descending slopes that are before him. He obeys a blind and unreflecting impulse.

His case bears a striking resemblance to what is related of Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith was a man of the most felicitous endowments. His prose flows with such ease, copiousness and grace, that it resembles the song of the sirens. His verses are among the most spirited, natural and unaffected in the English language. Yet he was not contented. If he saw a consummate dancer, he knew no reason why he should not do as well, and immediately felt disposed to essay his powers. If he heard an accomplished musician, he undertook to enter the lists with him. His conduct was of a piece with that of the countryman, who, cheapening spectacles, and making experiment of them for ever in vain upon the book before him, was at length asked, “Could you ever read without spectacles?” to which he was obliged to answer, “I do not know; I never tried.” The vanity of Goldsmith was infinite; and his failure in such attempts must necessarily have been ludicrous.

The splendour of the thing presented to our observation, awakens the spirit within us. The applause and admiration excited by certain achievements and accomplishments infects us with desire. We are like the youthful Themistocles, who complained that the trophies of Miltiades would not let him sleep. We are like the novice Guido, who, while looking on the paintings of Michael Angelo, exclaimed, “I also am a painter.” Themistocles and Guido were right, for they were of kindred spirit to the great men they admired. But the applause bestowed on others will often generate uneasiness and a sigh, in men least of all qualified by nature to acquire similar applause. We are not contented to proceed in the path of obscure usefulness and worth. We are eager to be admired, and thus often engage in pursuits for which perhaps we are of all men least adapted Each one would be the man above him.

And this is the cause why we see so many individuals, who might have passed their lives with honour, devote themselves to incredible efforts, only that they may be made supremely ridiculous.

To this let it be added, that the wisest man that ever existed, never yet knew himself, especially in the morning of life. The person, who ultimately stamped his history with the most heroic achievements, was far perhaps even from suspecting, in the dawn of his existence, that he should realise the miracles that mark its maturity. He might be ready to exclaim, with Hazael in the Scriptures, “Is thy servant more than man, that he should do this great thing?” The sublimest poet that ever sung, was peradventure, while a stripling, unconscious of the treasures which formed a part of the fabric of his mind, and unsuspicious of the high destiny that in the sequel awaited him. What wonder then, that, awaking from the insensibility and torpor which precede the activity of the soul, some men should believe in a fortune that shall never be theirs, and anticipate a glory they are fated never to sustain! And for the same reason, when unanticipated failure becomes their lot, they are unwilling at first to be discouraged, and find a certain gallantry in persevering, and “against hope believing in hope.”

This is the explanation of a countless multitude of failures that occur in the career of literature. Nor is this phenomenon confined to literature. In all the various paths of human existence, that appear to have something in them splendid and alluring, there are perpetual instances of daring adventures, unattended with the smallest rational hope of success. Optat ephippia bos piger.

All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.

But, beside these instances of perfect and glaring miscarriage, there are examples worthy of a deeper regret, where the juvenile candidate sets out in the morning of life with the highest promise, with colours flying, and the spirit-stirring note of gallant preparation, when yet his voyage of life is destined to terminate in total discomfiture. I have seen such an one, whose early instructors regarded him with the most sanguine expectation, and his elders admired him, while his youthful competitors unreluctantly confessed his superiority, and gave way on either side to his triumphant career; and all this has terminated in nothing.

In reality the splendid march of genius is beset with a thousand difficulties. “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” A multitude of unthought-of qualifications are required; and it depends at least as much upon the nicely maintained balance of these, as upon the copiousness and brilliancy of each, whether the result shall be auspicious. The progress of genius is like the flight of an arrow; a breath may turn it out of its course, and cause that course to terminate many a degree wide of its purposed mark. It is therefore scarcely possible that any sharpness of foresight can pronounce of the noblest beginnings whether they shall reach to an adequate conclusion.

I have seen such a man, with the most fervent imagination, with the most diligent study, with the happiest powers of memory, and with an understanding that apparently took in every thing, and arranged every thing, at the same time that by its acuteness it seemed able to add to the accumulated stores of foregone wisdom and learning new treasures of its own; and yet this man shall pass through the successive stages of human life, in appearance for ever active, for ever at work, and leave nothing behind that shall embalm his name to posterity, certainly nothing in any degree adequately representing those excellencies, which a chosen few, admitted to his retired and his serenest hours, knew to reside in him.

There are conceptions of the mind, that come forth like the coruscations of lightning. If you could fix that flash, it would seem as if it would give new brightness to the sons of men, and almost extinguish the luminary of day. But, ere you can say it is here, it is gone. It appears to reveal to us the secrets of the world unknown; but the clouds congregate again, and shut in upon us, before we had time to apprehend its full radiance and splendour.

To give solidity and permanence to the inspirations of genius two things are especially necessary. First, that the idea to be communicated should be powerfully apprehended by the speaker or writer; and next, that he should employ words and phrases which might convey it in all its truth to the mind of another. The man who entertains such conceptions, will not unfrequently want the steadiness of nerve which is required for their adequate transmission. Suitable words will not always wait upon his thoughts. Language is in reality a vast labyrinth, a scene like the Hercinian Forest of old, which, we are told, could not be traversed in less than sixty days. If we do not possess the clue, we shall infallibly perish in the attempt, and our thoughts and our memory will expire with us.

The sentences of this man, when he speaks, or when he writes, will be full of perplexity and confusion. They will be endless, and never arrive at their proper termination. They will include parenthesis on parenthesis. We perceive the person who delivers them, to be perpetually labouring after a meaning, but never reaching it. He is like one flung over into the sea, unprovided with the skill that should enable him to contend with the tumultuous element. He flounders about in pitiable helplessness, without the chance of extricating himself by all his efforts. He is lost in unintelligible embarrassment. It is a delightful and a ravishing sight, to observe another man come after him, and tell, without complexity, and in the simplicity of self-possession, unconscious that there was any difficulty, all that his predecessor had fruitlessly exerted himself to unfold.

There are a multitude of causes that will produce a miscarriage of this sort, where the richest soil, impregnated with the choicest seeds of learning and observation, shall entirely fail to present us with such a crop as might rationally have been anticipated. Many such men waste their lives in indolence and irresolution. They attempt many things, sketch out plans, which, if properly filled up, might illustrate the literature of a nation, and extend the empire of the human mind, but which yet they desert as soon as begun, affording us the promise of a beautiful day, that, ere it is noon, is enveloped in darkest tempests and the clouds of midnight. They skim away from one flower in the parterre of literature to another, like the bee, without, like the bee, gathering sweetness from each, to increase the public stock, and enrich the magazine of thought. The cause of this phenomenon is an unsteadiness, ever seduced by the newness of appearances, and never settling with firmness and determination upon what had been chosen.

Others there are that are turned aside from the career they might have accomplished, by a visionary and impracticable fastidiousness. They can find nothing that possesses all the requisites that should fix their choice, nothing so good that should authorise them to present it to public observation, and enable them to offer it to their contemporaries as something that we should “not willingly let die.” They begin often; but nothing they produce appears to them such as that they should say of it, “Let this stand.” Or they never begin, none of their thoughts being judged by them to be altogether such as to merit the being preserved. They have a microscopic eye, and discern faults unworthy to be tolerated, in that in which the critic himself might perceive nothing but beauty.

These phenomena have introduced a maxim which is current with many, that the men who write nothing, and bequeath no record of themselves to posterity, are not unfrequently of larger calibre, and more gigantic standard of soul, than such as have inscribed their names upon the columns of the temple of Fame. And certain it is, that there are extraordinary instances which appear in some degree to countenance this assertion. Many men are remembered as authors, who seem to have owed the permanence of their reputation rather to fortune than merit. They were daring, and stepped into a niche that was left in the gallery of art or of science, where others of higher qualifications, but of unconquerable modesty, held back. At the same time persons, whose destiny caused them to live among the elite of an age, have seen reason to confess that they have heard such talk, such glorious and unpremeditated discourse, from men whose thoughts melted away with the breath that uttered them, as the wisest of their vaunted contemporary authors would in vain have sought to rival.

The maxim however, notwithstanding these appearances, may safely be pronounced to be a fallacious one. It has been received in various quarters with the greater indulgence, inasmuch as the human mind is prone in many cases to give a more welcome reception to seeming truths, that present us at the first blush the appearance of falshood.

It must however be recollected that the human mind consists in the first instance merely of faculties prepared to be applied to certain purposes, and susceptible of improvement. It cannot therefore happen, that the man, who has chosen a subject towards which to direct the energy of his faculties, who has sought on all sides for the materials that should enable him to do that subject justice, who has employed upon it his contemplations by day, and his meditations during the watches of the night, should not by such exercise greatly invigorate his powers. In this sense there was much truth in the observation of the author who said, “I did not write upon the subject you mention because I understood it; but I understood it afterward, because I had written upon it.”

The man who merely wanders through the fields of knowledge in search of its gayest flowers and of whatever will afford him the most enviable amusement, will necessarily return home at night with a very slender collection. He that shall apply himself with self-denial and an unshrinking resolution to the improvement of his mind, will unquestionably be found more fortunate in the end.

He is not deterred by the gulphs that yawn beneath his feet, or the mountains that may oppose themselves to his progress. He knows that the adventurer of timid mind, and that is infirm of purpose, will never make himself master of those points which it would be most honourable to him to subdue. But he who undertakes to commit to writing the result of his researches, and to communicate his discoveries to mankind, is the genuine hero. Till he enters on this task, every thing is laid up in his memory in a certain confusion. He thinks he possesses a thing whole; but, when he brings it to the test, he is surprised to find how much he was deceived. He that would digest his thoughts and his principles into a regular system, is compelled in the first place to regard them in all their clearness and perspicuity, and in the next place to select the fittest words by which they may be communicated to others. It is through the instrumentality of words that we are taught to think accurately and severely for ourselves; they are part and parcel of all our propositions and theories. It is therefore in this way that a preceptor, by undertaking to enlighten the mind of his pupil, enlightens his own. He becomes twice the man in the sequel, that he was when he entered on his task. We admire the amateur student in his public essays, as we admire a jackdaw or a parrot: he does considerably more than could have been expected from him.

In attending to the subject of this Essay we have been led to observe the different ways, in which the mind of man may be brought into a position tending to exhibit its powers in a less creditable and prepossessing point of view, than that in which all men, idiots and extraordinary cases excepted, are by nature qualified to appear. Many, not contented with those occupations, modest and humble in certain cases, to which their endowments and original bent had designed them, shew themselves immoderately set upon more alluring and splendid pursuits in which they are least qualified to excel. Other instances there are, still more entitled to our regret, where the individual is seen to be gifted with no ordinary qualities, where his morning of life has proved auspicious, and the highest expectations were formed of a triumphant career, while yet in the final experiment he has been found wanting, and the “voyage of his life” has passed “in shallows and in miseries.”

But our survey of the subject of which I treat will not be complete, unless we add to what has been said, another striking truth respecting the imperfection of man collectively taken. The examples of which the history of our species consists, not only abound in cases, where, from mistakes in the choice of life, or radical and irremediable imperfection in the adventurer, the most glaring miscarriages are found to result — but it is also true, that all men, even the most illustrious, have some fatal weakness, obliging both them and their rational admirers to confess, that they partake of human frailty, and belong to a race of beings which has small occasion to be proud. Each man has his assailable part. He is vulnerable, though it be only like the fabled Achilles in his heel. We are like the image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream, of which though the head was of fine gold, and the breast and the arms were silver, yet the feet were partly only of iron, and partly of clay. No man is whole and entire, armed at all points, and qualified for every undertaking, or even for any one undertaking, so as to carry it through, and to make the achievement he would perform, or the work he would produce, in all its parts equal and complete.

It is a gross misapprehension in such men as, smitten with admiration of a certain cluster of excellencies, or series of heroic acts, are willing to predicate of the individual to whom they belong, “This man is consummate, and without alloy.” Take the person in his retirement, in his hours of relaxation, when he has no longer a part to play, and one or more spectators before whom he is desirous to appear to advantage, and you shall find him a very ordinary man. He has “passions, dimensions, senses, affections, like the rest of his fellow-creatures, is fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter.” He will therefore, when narrowly observed, be unquestionably found betraying human weaknesses, and falling into fits of ill humour, spleen, peevishness and folly. No man is always a sage; no bosom at all times beats with sentiments lofty, self-denying and heroic. It is enough if he does so, “when the matter fits his mighty mind.”

The literary genius, who undertakes to produce some consummate work, will find himself pitiably in error, if he expects to turn it out of his hands, entire in all its parts, and without a flaw.

There are some of the essentials of which it is constituted, that he has mastered, and is sufficiently familiar with them; but there are others, especially if his work is miscellaneous and comprehensive, to which he is glaringly incompetent. He must deny his nature, and become another man, if he would execute these parts, in a manner equal to that which their intrinsic value demands, or to the perfection he is able to give to his work in those places which are best suited to his powers. There are points in which the wisest man that ever existed is no stronger than a child. In this sense the sublimest genius will be found infelix operas summa, nam ponere totum nescit. And, if he properly knows himself, and is aware where lies his strength, and where his weakness, he will look for nothing more in the particulars which fall under the last of these heads, than to escape as he can, and to pass speedily to things in which he finds himself at home and at his ease.

Shakespear we are accustomed to call the most universal genius that ever existed. He has a truly wonderful variety. It is almost impossible to pronounce in which he has done best, his Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or Othello. He is equally excellent in his comic vein as his tragic. Falstaff is in his degree to the full as admirable and astonishing, as what he achieved that is noblest under the auspices of the graver muse. His poetry and the fruits of his imagination are unrivalled. His language, in all that comes from him when his genius is most alive, has a richness, an unction, and all those signs of a character which admits not of mortality and decay, for ever fresh as when it was first uttered, which we recognise, while we can hardly persuade ourselves that we are not in a delusion. As Anthony Wood says4, “By the writings of Shakespear and others of his time, the English tongue was exceedingly enriched, and made quite another thing than what it was before.” His versification on these occasions has a melody, a ripeness and variety that no other pen has reached.

4 Athenae Oxonienses, vol. i. p. 592.

Yet there were things that Shakespear could not do. He could not make a hero. Familiar as he was with the evanescent touches of mind en dishabille, and in its innermost feelings, he could not sustain the tone of a character, penetrated with a divine enthusiasm, or fervently devoted to a generous cause, though this is truly within the compass of our nature, and is more than any other worthy to be delineated. He could conceive such sentiments, for there are such in his personage of Brutus; but he could not fill out and perfect what he has thus sketched. He seems even to have had a propensity to bring the mountain and the hill to a level with the plain. Caesar is spiritless, and Cicero is ridiculous, in his hands. He appears to have written his Troilus and Cressida partly with a view to degrade, and hold up to contempt, the heroes of Homer; and he has even disfigured the pure, heroic affection which the Greek poet has painted as existing between Achilles and Patroclus with the most odious imputations.

And, as he could not sustain an heroic character throughout, so neither could he construct a perfect plot, in which the interest should be perpetually increasing, and the curiosity of the spectator kept alive and in suspense to the last moment. Several of his plays have an unity of subject to which nothing is wanting; but he has not left us any production that should rival that boast of Ancient Greece in the conduct of a plot, the OEdipus Tyrannus, a piece in which each act rises upon the act before, like a tower that lifts its head story above story to the skies. He has scarcely ever given to any of his plays a fifth act, worthy of those that preceded; the interest generally decreases after the third.

Shakespear is also liable to the charge of obscurity. The most sagacious critics dispute to this very hour, whether Hamlet is or is not mad, and whether Falstaff is a brave man or a coward. This defect is perhaps partly to be imputed to the nature of dramatic writing. It is next to impossible to make words, put into the mouth of a character, develop all those things passing in his mind, which it may be desirable should be known.

I spoke, a short time back, of the language of Shakespear in his finest passages, as of unrivalled excellence and beauty; I might almost have called it miraculous. O, si sic omnia! It is to be lamented that this felicity often deserts him. He is not seldom cramp, rigid and pedantic. What is best in him is eternal, of all ages and times; but what is worst, is crusted with an integument, almost more cumbrous than that of any other writer, his contemporary, the merits of whose works continue to invite us to their perusal.

After Shakespear, it is scarcely worth while to bring forward any other example, of a writer who, notwithstanding his undoubted claims to excellencies of the highest order, yet in his productions fully displays the inequality and non-universality of his genius. One of the most remarkable instances may be alleged in Richardson, the author of Clarissa. In his delineation of female delicacy, of high-souled and generous sentiments, of the subtlest feelings and even mental aberrations of virtuous distress strained beyond the power of human endurance, nothing ever equalled this author. But he could not shape out the image of a perfect gentleman, or of that winning gaiety of soul, which may indeed be exemplified, but can never be defined, and never be resisted. His profligate is a man without taste; and his coquettes are insolent and profoundly revolting. He has no resemblance of the art, so conspicuous in Fletcher and Farquhar, of presenting to the reader or spectator an hilarity, bubbling and spreading forth from a perennial spring, which we love as surely as we feel, which communicates its own tone to the bystander, and makes our very hearts dance within us with a responsive sportiveness. We are astonished however that the formal pedant has acquitted himself of his uncongenial task with so great a display of intellectual wealth; and, though he has not presented to us the genuine picture of an intellectual profligate, or of that lovely gaiety of the female spirit which we have all of us seen, but which it is scarcely possible to fix and to copy, we almost admire the more the astonishing talent, that, having undertaken a task for which it was so eminently unfit, yet has been able to substitute for the substance so amazing a mockery, and has treated with so much copiousness and power what it was unfit ever to have attempted.

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