'Of Genius', in The Occasional Paper, and Preface to The Creation by Aaron Hill


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Page 2

In the works of many Augustan writers, too, it is easy to see how
the enthusiasm for individualism, later to become one of the
hallmarks of romanticism, actually sprang from an earlier faith
in a God-directed universe of law and order. There is a kind of
universal law of supply and demand, and the argument is simply
that each link in the human chain, like those in the animate and
inanimate worlds above and below it, is predestined to a specific
function for the better ordering of the whole. Lewis Maidwell,
for instance, still employs the medieval and Renaissance analogy
of the correspondence between the human body and the social
organism (_An Essay upon the Necessity and Excellency of
Education_):

Upon Consideration we find this Difference of Tempers to
arise from Providence, and the Law of the Creation, and to
be most Evident in al Irrational, and Inanimat Beings ... One
Man is no more design'd for Al Arts, than Al Arts for
One Man. We are born Confaederats, mutually to help One
another, therefor appropriated in the Body Politic, to
this, or that Busyness, as our Members are in the Natural
to perform their separat Offices.

This same comparison between the body politic and the body human
occurs in the essay of 1719, and even the author's chief analogy
drawn from musical harmony bears with it some of the flavor of an
older system of universal correspondences. His comparison of the
force of genius to the pull of gravity, however, evokes a newer
picture. Yet it is a picture no less orderly and one from which
the preordained function of each individual could be just as
logically derived. And his rhapsodic praise of the infinite
diversity of human temperaments is based on that favorite
comparison with natural scenery and that familiar canon of
neoclassical esthetics: ordered variety within unity, whether it
be in nature or in art.

The author of the pamphlet of 1719 introduces another refinement
on the idea of an inborn bent or genius. A man is born not only
with a peculiar aptitude for the vocation of writing, but with a
peculiar aptitude for a particular _style_ of writing. Some such
aptitude had presumably resulted in that individuality of style,
that particular "character," which 17th-century Biblical critics
were busily searching out in each of the writers of Scripture.

Individuality or originality in the form or plan of a work of
art, however, was quite another thing, and praise of it far more
rare. Yet there had always been protests against the imposition
of a universal classical standard, and our author's insistence
that some few geniuses have the right to discard the "Rules of
Art" and all such "Leading-strings" follows a well-worn path of
reasoning. His scientific analogy, drawn from those natural
philosophers who had cast off the yoke of Aristotle and all
"other Mens Light," is one which had appeared at least as early
as 1661 in Robert Boyle's _Considerations Touching the Style of
Holy Scripture_. It had been reiterated by Dryden and several
others who refused to recognize an _ipse dixit_ in letters any
more than in science.

It must be noted, however, that this rejection of authority for a
few rare individuals in no way constitutes a rejection of reason
or conscious art. The genius has the right to cast off the
fetters only after he has well studied them. Only in one instance
does our author waver toward another conception. This is when he
pauses to echo Rowe's preface to Shakespeare and Addison's famous
_Spectator_ no. 160. Then indeed he boasts that England has had
many "Originals" who, "without the help of Learning, by the meer
Force of natural Ability, have produc'd Works which were the
Delight of their own Times, and have been the Wonder of
Posterity." But when he doubts whether learning would have helped
or "spoiled" them, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is
still poised on the horns of the typical neoclassical antithesis:
that supposed enmity between reason, which was generally thought
to create the form of the poem, and the emotions and imagination,
which were considered largely responsible for its style.

Only when the admiration for such emotional and imaginative
qualities should outweigh the desire for symmetrical form; when
"primitive" literature should be preferred to Virgil and Horace;
and when this preference should be joined with a belief in the
diversity and fatality of literary bents--only then could the
concept of original genius burst into full bloom.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 10th Jul 2020, 11:45