Literary Character of Men of Genius Drawn from Their Own Feelings and Confessions
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LITERARY CHARACTER OF MEN OF GENIUS
Drawn from Their Own Feelings and Confessions
A New Edition Edited by His Son THE EARL OF BEACONSFIELD.
London: Frederick Warne and Co., Bedford Street, Strand. London: Bradbury, Agnew, &Co., Printers, Whitefriars.
The following Preface is of interest for the expression of the author's own view of these works.
This volume comprises my writings on subjects chiefly of our vernacular literature. Now collected together, they offer an unity of design, and afford to the general reader and to the student of classical antiquity some initiation into our national Literature. It is presumed also, that they present materials for thinking not solely on literary topics; authors and books are not alone here treated of,-a comprehensive view of human nature necessarily enters into the subject from the diversity of the characters portrayed, through the gradations of their faculties, the influence of their tastes, and those incidents of their lives prompted by their fortunes or their passions. This present volume, with its brother "CURIOSITIES OF LITERATURE," now constitute a body of reading which may awaken knowledge in minds only seeking amusement, and refresh the deeper studies of the learned by matters not unworthy of their curiosity.
The LITERARY CHARACTER has been an old favourite with many of my contemporaries departed or now living, who have found it respond to their own emotions.
THE MISCELLANIES are literary amenities, should they be found to deserve the title, constructed on that principle early adopted by me, of interspersing facts with speculation.
THE INQUIRY INTO THE LITERARY AND POLITICAL CHARACTER OF JAMES THE FIRST has surely corrected some general misconceptions, and thrown light on some obscure points in the history of that anomalous personage. It is a satisfaction to me to observe, since the publication of this tract, that while some competent judges have considered the "evidence irresistible," a material change has occurred in the tone of most writers. The subject presented an occasion to exhibit a minute picture of that age of transition in our national history.
The titles of CALAMITIES OF AUTHORS and QUARRELS OF AUTHORS do not wholly designate the works, which include a considerable portion of literary history.
Public favour has encouraged the republication of these various works, which often referred to, have long been difficult to procure. It has been deferred from time to time with the intention of giving the subjects a more enlarged investigation; but I have delayed the task till it cannot be performed. One of the Calamities of Authors falls to my lot, the delicate organ of vision with me has suffered a singular disorder,[A]-a disorder which no oculist by his touch can heal, and no physician by his experience can expound; so much remains concerning the frame of man unrevealed to man!
In the midst of my library I am as it were distant from it. My unfinished labours, frustrated designs, remain paralysed. In a joyous heat I wander no longer through the wide circuit before me. The "strucken deer" has the sad privilege to weep when he lies down, perhaps no more to course amid those far-distant woods where once he sought to range.
[Footnote A: I record my literary calamity as a warning to my sedentary brothers. When my eyes dwell on any object, or whenever they are closed, there appear on a bluish film a number of mathematical squares, which are the reflection of the fine network of the retina, succeeded by blotches which subside into printed characters, apparently forming distinct words, arranged in straight lines as in a printed book; the monosyllables are often legible. This is the process of a few seconds. It is remarkable that the usual power of the eye is not injured or diminished for distant objects, while those near are clouded over.]
Although thus compelled to refrain in a great measure from all mental labour, and incapacitated from the use of the pen and the book, these works, notwithstanding, have received many important corrections, having been read over to me with critical precision.
Amid this partial darkness I am not left without a distant hope, nor a present consolation; and to HER who has so often lent to me the light of her eyes, the intelligence of her voice, and the careful work of her hand, the author must ever owe "the debt immense" of paternal gratitude.
ROBERT SOUTHEY, LL.D.,
&c. &c. &c.
In dedicating this Work to one of the most eminent literary characters of the age, I am experiencing a peculiar gratification, in which few, perhaps none, of my contemporaries can participate; for I am addressing him, whose earliest effusions attracted my regard, near half a century past; and during that awful interval of time-for fifty years is a trial of life of whatever may be good in us-you have multiplied your talents, and have never lost a virtue.
When I turn from the uninterrupted studies of your domestic solitude to our metropolitan authors, the contrast, if not encouraging, is at least extraordinary. You are not unaware that the revolutions of Society have operated on our literature, and that new classes of readers have called forth new classes of writers. The causes and the consequences of the present state of this fugitive literature might form an inquiry which would include some of the important topics which concern the PUBLIC MIND, -but an inquiry which might be invidious shall not disturb a page consecrated to the record of excellence. They who draw their inspiration from the hour must not, however, complain if with that hour they pass away.
For the fifth time I revise a subject which has occupied my inquiries from early life, with feelings still delightful, and an enthusiasm not wholly diminished.
Had not the principle upon which this work is constructed occurred to me in my youth, the materials which illustrate the literary character could never have been brought together. It was in early life that I conceived the idea of pursuing the history of genius by the similar events which had occurred to men of genius. Searching into literary history for the literary character formed a course of experimental philosophy in which every new essay verified a former trial, and confirmed a former truth. By the great philosophical principle of induction, inferences were deduced and results established, which, however vague and doubtful in speculation, are irresistible when the appeal is made to facts as they relate to others, and to feelings which must be decided on as they are passing in our own breast.
It is not to be inferred from what I have here stated that I conceive that any single man of genius will resemble every man of genius; for not only man differs from man, but varies from himself in the different stages of human life. All that I assert is, that every man of genius will discover, sooner or later, that he belongs to the brotherhood of his class, and that he cannot escape from certain habits, and feelings, and disorders, which arise from the same temperament and sympathies, and are the necessary consequence of occupying the same position, and passing through the same moral existence. Whenever we compare men of genius with each other, the history of those who are no more will serve as a perpetual commentary on our contemporaries. There are, indeed, secret feelings which their prudence conceals, or their fears obscure, or their modesty shrinks from, or their pride rejects; but I have sometimes imagined that I have held the clue as they have lost themselves in their own labyrinth. I know that many, and some of great celebrity, have sympathised with the feelings which inspired these volumes; nor, while I have elucidated the idiosyncrasy of genius, have I less studied the habits and characteristics of the lovers of literature.
It has been considered that the subject of this work might have been treated with more depth of metaphysical disquisition; and there has since appeared an attempt to combine with this investigation the medical science. A work, however, should be judged by its design and its execution, and not by any preconceived notion of what it ought to be according to the critic, rather than the author. The nature of this work is dramatic rather than metaphysical. It offers a narration or a description; a conversation or a monologue; an incident or a scene.
Perhaps I have sometimes too warmly apologised for the infirmities of men of genius. From others we may hourly learn to treat with levity the man of genius because he is
Upwards of forty years have elapsed since, composed in a distant county, and printed at a provincial press, I published "An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character." To my own habitual and inherent defects were superadded those of my youth. The crude production was, however, not ill received, for the edition disappeared, and the subject was found more interesting than the writer.
During a long interval of twenty years, this little work was often recalled to my recollection by several, and by some who have since obtained celebrity. They imagined that their attachment to literary pursuits had been strengthened even by so weak an effort. An extraordinary circumstance concurred with these opinions. A copy accidentally fell into my hands which had formerly belonged to the great poetical genius of our times; and the singular fact, that it had been more than once read by him, and twice in two subsequent years at Athens, in 1810 and 1811, instantly convinced me that the volume deserved my renewed attention.
It was with these feelings that I was again strongly attracted to a subject from which, indeed, during the course of a studious life, it had never been long diverted. The consequence of my labours was the publication, in 1818, of an octavo volume, under the title of "The Literary Character, illustrated by the History of Men of Genius, drawn from their own feelings and confessions."
In the preface to this edition, in mentioning the fact respecting Lord Byron, which had been the immediate cause of its publication, I added these words: "I tell this fact assuredly not from any little vanity which it may appear to betray;-for the truth is, were I not as liberal and as candid in respect to my own productions, as I hope I am to others, I could not have been gratified by the present circumstance; for the marginal notes of the noble author convey no flattery;-but amidst their pungency, and sometimes their truth, the circumstance that a man of genius could reperuse this slight effusion at two different periods of his life, was a sufficient authority, at least for an author, to return it once more to the anvil."
Some time after the publication of this edition of "The Literary Character," which was in fact a new work, I was shown, through the kindness of an English gentleman lately returned from Italy, a copy of it, which had been given to him by Lord Byron, and which again contained marginal notes by the noble author. These were peculiarly interesting, and were chiefly occasioned by observations on his character, which appeared in the work.
In 1822 I published a new edition of this work, greatly enlarged, and in two volumes. I took this opportunity of inserting the manuscript Notes of Lord Byron, with the exception of one, which, however characteristic of the amiable feelings of the noble poet, and however gratifying to my own, I had no wish to obtrude on the notice of the public.[A]