Hannah More

Miscellaneous observations on genius, taste, good sense, &c.

Good sense is as different from genius as perception is from invention; yet, though distinct qualities, they frequently subsist together. It is altogether opposite to wit, but by no means inconsistent with it. It is not science, for there is such a thing as unlettered good sense; yet, though it is neither wit, learning, nor genius, it is a substitute for each, where they do not exist, and the perfection of all where they do.

Good sense is so far from deserving the appellation of common sense, by which it is frequently called, that it is perhaps one of the rarest qualities of the human mind. If, indeed, this name is given it in respect to its peculiar suitableness to the purposes of common life, there is great propriety in it. Good sense appears to differ from taste in this, that taste is an instantaneous decision of the mind, a sudden relish of what is beautiful, or disgust at what is defective, in an object, without waiting for the slower confirmation of the judgment. Good sense is perhaps that confirmation, which establishes a suddenly conceived idea, or feeling, by the powers of comparing and reflecting. They differ also in this, that taste seems to have a more immediate reference to arts, to literature, and to almost every object of the senses; while good sense rises to moral excellence, and exerts its influence on life and manners. Taste is fitted to the perception and enjoyment of whatever is beautiful in art or nature: Good sense, to the improvement of the conduct, and the regulation of the heart.

Yet the term good sense, is used indiscriminately to express either a finished taste for letters, or an invariable prudence in the affairs of life. It is sometimes applied to the most moderate abilities, in which case, the expression is certainly too strong; and at others to the most shining, when it is as much too weak and inadequate. A sensible man is the usual, but unappropriated phrase, for every degree in the scale of understanding, from the sober mortal, who obtains it by his decent demeanor and solid dullness, to him whose talents qualify him to rank with a Bacon, a Harris, or a Johnson.

Genius is the power of invention and imitation. It is an incommunicable faculty: no art or skill of the possessor can bestow the smallest portion of it on another: no pains or labour can reach the summit of perfection, where the seeds of it are wanting in the mind; yet it is capable of infinite improvement where it actually exists, and is attended with the highest capacity of communicating instruction, as well as delight to others.

It is the peculiar property of genius to strike out great or beautiful things: it is the felicity of good sense not to do absurd ones. Genius breaks out in splendid sentiments and elevated ideas; good sense confines its more circumscribed, but perhaps more useful walk, within the limits of prudence and propriety.

The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And, as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.

This is perhaps the finest picture of human genius that ever was drawn by a human pencil. It presents a living image of a creative imagination, or a power of inventing things which have no actual existence.

With superficial judges, who, it must be confessed, make up the greater part of the mass of mankind, talents are only liked or understood to a certain degree. Lofty ideas are above the reach of ordinary apprehensions: the vulgar allow those who possess them to be in a somewhat higher state of mind than themselves; but of the vast gulf which separates them, they have not the least conception. They acknowledge a superiority, but of its extent they neither know the value, nor can conceive the reality. It is true, the mind, as well as the eye, can take in objects larger than itself; but this is only true of great minds: for a man of low capacity, who considers a consummate genius, resembles one, who seeing a column for the first time, and standing at too great a distance to take in the whole of it, concludes it to be flat. Or, like one unacquainted with the first principles of philosophy, who, finding the sensible horizon appear a plain surface, can form no idea of the spherical form of the whole, which he does not see, and laughs at the account of antipodes, which he cannot comprehend.

Whatever is excellent is also rare; what is useful is more common. How many thousands are born qualified for the coarse employments of life, for one who is capable of excelling in the fine arts! yet so it ought to be, because our natural wants are more numerous, and more importunate, than the intellectual.

Whenever it happens that a man of distinguished talents has been drawn by mistake, or precipitated by passion, into any dangerous indiscretion; it is common for those whose coldness of temper has supplied the place, and usurped the name of prudence, to boast of their own steadier virtue, and triumph in their own superior caution; only because they have never been assailed by a temptation strong enough to surprise them into error. And with what a visible appropriation of the character to themselves, do they constantly conclude, with a cordial compliment to common sense! They point out the beauty and usefulness of this quality so forcibly and explicitly, that you cannot possibly mistake whose picture they are drawing with so flattering a pencil. The unhappy man whose conduct has been so feelingly arraigned, perhaps acted from good, though mistaken motives; at least, from motives of which his censurer has not capacity to judge: but the event was unfavourable, nay the action might be really wrong, and the vulgar maliciously take the opportunity of this single indiscretion, to lift themselves nearer on a level with a character, which, except in this instance, has always thrown them at the most disgraceful and mortifying distance.

The elegant Biographer of Collins, in his affecting apology for that unfortunate genius, remarks, “That the gifts of imagination bring the heaviest task on the vigilance of reason; and to bear those faculties with unerring rectitude, or invariable propriety, requires a degree of firmness, and of cool attention, which does not always attend the higher gifts of the mind; yet difficult as Nature herself seems to have rendered the task of regularity to genius, it is the supreme consolation of dullness, and of folly to point with gothic triumph to those excesses which are the overflowing of faculties they never enjoyed.”

What the greater part of the world mean by common sense, will be generally found, on a closer enquiry, to be art, fraud, or selfishness! That sort of saving prudence which makes men extremely attentive to their own safety, or profit; diligent in the pursuit of their own pleasures or interests; and perfectly at their ease as to what becomes of the rest of mankind. Furies, where their own property is concerned, philosophers when nothing but the good of others is at stake, and perfectly resigned under all calamities but their own.

When we see so many accomplished wits of the present age, as remarkable for the decorum of their lives, as for the brilliancy of their writings, we may believe, that, next to principle, it is owing to their good sense, which regulates and chastises their imaginations. The vast conceptions which enable a true genius to ascend the sublimest heights, may be so connected with the stronger passions, as to give it a natural tendency to fly off from the strait line of regularity; till good sense, acting on the fancy, makes it gravitate powerfully towards that virtue which is its proper centre.

Add to this, when it is considered with what imperfection the Divine Wisdom has thought fit to stamp every thing human, it will be found, that excellence and infirmity are so inseparably wound up in each other, that a man derives the soreness of temper, and irritability of nerve, which make him uneasy to others, and unhappy in himself, from those exquisite feelings, and that elevated pitch of thought, by which, as the apostle expresses it on a more serious occasion, he is, as it were, out of the body.

It is not astonishing, therefore, when THE spirit is carried away by the magnificence of its own ideas,

Not touch’d but rapt, not waken’d but inspir’d,

that the frail body, which is the natural victim of pain, disease, and death, should not always be able to follow the mind in its aspiring flights, but should be as imperfect as if it belonged only to an ordinary soul.

Besides, might not Providence intend to humble human pride, by presenting to our eyes so mortifying a view of the weakness and infirmity of even his best work? Perhaps man, who is already but a little lower than the angels, might, like the revolted spirits, totally have shaken off obedience and submission to his Creator, had not God wisely tempered human excellence with a certain consciousness of its own imperfection. But though this inevitable alloy of weakness may frequently be found in the best characters, yet how can that be the source of triumph and exaltation to any, which, if properly weighed, must be the deepest motive of humiliation to all? A good-natured man will be so far from rejoicing, that he will be secretly troubled, whenever he reads that the greatest Roman moralist was tainted with avarice, and the greatest British philosopher with venality.

It is remarked by Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, that,

Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss.

But I apprehend it does not therefore follow that to judge, is more difficult than to write. If this were the case, the critic would be superior to the poet, whereas it appears to be directly the contrary. “The critic, (says the great champion of Shakespeare,) but fashions the body of a work, the poet must add the soul, which gives force and direction to its actions and gestures.” It should seem that the reason why so many more judge wrong, than write ill, is because the number of readers is beyond all proportion greater than the number of writers. Every man who reads, is in some measure a critic, and, with very common abilities, may point out real faults and material errors in a very well written book; but it by no means follows that he is able to write any thing comparable to the work which he is capable of censuring. And unless the numbers of those who write, and of those who judge, were more equal, the calculation seems not to be quite fair.

A capacity for relishing works of genius is the indubitable sign of a good taste. But if a proper disposition and ability to enjoy the compositions of others, entitle a man to the claim of reputation, it is still a far inferior degree of merit to his who can invent and produce those compositions, the bare disquisition of which gives the critic no small share of fame.

The president of the royal academy in his admirable Discourse on imitation, has set the folly of depending on unassisted genius, in the clearest light; and has shewn the necessity of adding the knowledge of others, to our own native powers, in his usual striking and masterly manner. “The mind, says he, is a barren soil, is a soil soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized, and enriched with foreign matter.”

Yet it has been objected that study is a great enemy to originality; but even if this were true, it would perhaps be as well that an author should give us the ideas of still better writers, mixed and assimilated with the matter in his own mind, as those crude and undigested thoughts which he values under the notion that they are original. The sweetest honey neither tastes of the rose, the honeysuckle, nor the carnation, yet it is compounded of the very essence of them all.

If in the other fine arts this accumulation of knowledge is necessary, it is indispensably so in poetry. It is a fatal rashness for any one to trust too much to their own stock of ideas. He must invigorate them by exercise, polish them by conversation, and increase them by every species of elegant and virtuous knowledge, and the mind will not fail to reproduce with interest those seeds, which are sown in it by study and observation. Above all, let every one guard against the dangerous opinion that he knows enough: an opinion that will weaken the energy and reduce the powers of the mind, which, though once perhaps vigorous and effectual, will be sunk to a state of literary imbecility, by cherishing vain and presumptuous ideas of its own independence.

For instance, it may not be necessary that a poet should be deeply skilled in the Linnæan system; but it must be allowed that a general acquaintance with plants and flowers will furnish him with a delightful and profitable species of instruction. He is not obliged to trace Nature in all her nice and varied operations, with the minute accuracy of a Boyle, or the laborious investigation of a Newton; but his good sense will point out to him that no inconsiderable portion of philosophical knowledge is requisite to the completion of his literary character. The sciences are more independent, and require little or no assistance from the graces of poetry; but poetry, if she would charm and instruct, must not be so haughty; she must be contented to borrow of the sciences, many of her choicest allusions, and many of her most graceful embellishments; and does it not magnify the character of true poesy, that she includes within herself all the scattered graces of every separate art?

The rules of the great masters in criticism may not be so necessary to the forming a good taste, as the examination of those original mines from whence they drew their treasures of knowledge.

The three celebrated Essays on the Art of Poetry do not teach so much by their laws as by their examples; the dead letter of their rules is less instructive than the living spirit of their verse. Yet these rules are to a young poet, what the study of logarithms is to a young mathematician; they do not so much contribute to form his judgment, as afford him the satisfaction of convincing him that he is right. They do not preclude the difficulty of the operation; but at the conclusion of it, furnish him with a fuller demonstration that he has proceeded on proper principles. When he has well studied the masters in whose schools the first critics formed themselves, and fancies he has caught a spark of their divine Flame, it may be a good method to try his own compositions by the test of the critic rules, so far indeed as the mechanism of poetry goes. If the examination be fair and candid, this trial, like the touch of Ithuriel’s spear, will detect every latent error, and bring to light every favourite failing.

Good taste always suits the measure of its admiration to the merit of the composition it examines. It accommodates its praises, or its censure, to the excellence of a work, and appropriates it to the nature of it. General applause, or indiscriminate abuse, is the sign of a vulgar understanding. There are certain blemishes which the judicious and good-natured reader will candidly overlook. But the false sublime, the tumour which is intended for greatness, the distorted figure, the puerile conceit, and the incongruous metaphor, these are defects for which scarcely any other kind of merit can atone. And yet there may be more hope of a writer (especially if he be a a young one), who is now and then guilty of some of these faults, than of one who avoids them all, not through judgment, but feebleness, and who, instead of deviating into error is continually falling short of excellence. The meer absence of error implies that moderate and inferior degree of merit with which a cold heart and a phlegmatic taste will be better satisfied than with the magnificent irregularities of exalted spirits. It stretches some minds to an uneasy extension to be obliged to attend to compositions superlatively excellent; and it contracts liberal souls to a painful narrowness to descend to books of inferior merit. A work of capital genius, to a man of an ordinary mind, is the bed of Procrustes to one of a short stature, the man is too little to fill up the space assigned him, and undergoes the torture in attempting it: and a moderate, or low production to a man of bright talents, is the punishment inflicted by Mezentius; the living spirit has too much animation to endure patiently to be in contact with a dead body.

Taste sesms to be a sentiment of the soul which gives the bias to opinion, for we feel before we reflect. Without this sentiment, all knowledge, learning and opinion, would be cold, inert materials, whereas they become active principles when stirred, kindled, and inflamed by this animating quality.

There is another feeling which is called Enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of sensible hearts is so strong, that it not only yields to the impulse with which striking objects act on it, but such hearts help on the effect by their own sensibility. In a scene where Shakespeare and Garrick give perfection to each other, the feeling heart does not merely accede to the delirium they occasion: it does more, it is enamoured of it, it solicits the delusion, it sues to be deceived, and grudgingly cherishes the sacred treasure of its feelings. The poet and performer concur in carrying us

Beyond this visible diurnal sphere,

they bear us aloft in their airy course with unresisted rapidity, if they meet not with any obstruction from the coldness of our own feelings. Perhaps, only a few fine spirits can enter into the detail of their writing and acting; but the multitude do not enjoy less acutely, because they are not able philosophically to analyse the sources of their joy or sorrow. If the others have the advantage of judging, these have at least the privilege of feeling: and it is not from complaisance to a few leading judges, that they burst into peals of laughter, or melt into delightful agony; their hearts decide, and that is a decision from which there lies no appeal. It must however be confessed, that the nicer separations of character, and the lighter and almost imperceptible shades which sometimes distinguish them, will not be intimately relished, unless there be a consonancy of taste as well as feeling in the spectator; though where the passions are principally concerned, the profane vulgar come in for a larger portion of the universal delight, than critics and connoisseurs are willing to allow them.

Yet enthusiasm, though the natural concomitant of genius, is no more genius itself, than drunkenness is cheerfulness; and that enthusiasm which discovers itself on occasions not worthy to excite it, is the mark of a wretched judgment and a false taste.

Nature produces innumerable objects: to imitate them, is the province of Genius; to direct those imitations, is the property of Judgment; to decide on their effects, is the business of Taste. For Taste, who sits as supreme judge on the productions of Genius, is not satisfied when she merely imitates Nature: she must also, says an ingenious French writer, imitate beautiful Nature. It requires no less judgment to reject than to choose, and Genius might imitate what is vulgar, under pretence that it was natural, if Taste did not carefully point out those objects which are most proper for imitation. It also requires a very nice discernment to distinguish verisimilitude from truth; for there is a truth in Taste nearly as conclusive as demonstration in mathematics.

Genius, when in the full impetuosity of its career, often touches on the very brink of error; and is, perhaps, never so near the verge of the precipice, as when indulging its sublimest flights. It is in those great, but dangerous moments, that the curb of vigilant judgment is most wanting: while safe and sober Dulness observes one tedious and insipid round of tiresome uniformity, and steers equally clear of eccentricity and of beauty. Dulness has few redundancies to retrench, few luxuriancies to prune, and few irregularities to smooth. These, though errors, are the errors of Genius, for there is rarely redundancy without plenitude, or irregularity without greatness. The excesses of Genius may easily be retrenched, but the deficiencies of Dulness can never be supplied.

Those who copy from others will doubtless be less excellent than those who copy from Nature. To imitate imitators, is the way to depart too far from the great original herself. The latter copies of an engraving retain fainter and fainter traces of the subject, to which the earlier impressions bore so strong a resemblance.

It seems very extraordinary, that it should be the most difficult thing in the world to be natural, and that it should be harder to hit off the manners of real life, and to delineate such characters as we converse with every day, than to imagine such as do not exist. But caricature is much easier than an exact outline, and the colouring of fancy less difficult than that of truth.

People do not always know what taste they have, till it is awakened by some corresponding object; nay, genius itself is a fire, which in many minds would never blaze, if not kindled by some external cause.

Nature, that munificent mother, when she bestows the power of judging, accompanies it with the capacity of enjoying. The judgment, which is clear sighted, points out such objects as are calculated to inspire love, and the heart instantaneously attaches itself to whatever is lovely.

In regard to literary reputation, a great deal depends on the state of learning in the particular age or nation, in which an author lives. In a dark and ignorant period, moderate knowledge will entitle its possessor to a considerable share of fame; whereas, to be distinguished in a polite and lettered age, requires striking parts and deep erudition.

When a nation begins to emerge from a state of mental darkness, and to strike out the first rudiments of improvement, it chalks out a few strong but incorrect sketches, gives the rude out-lines of general art, and leaves the filling up to the leisure of happier days, and the refinement of more enlightened times. Their drawing is a rude Sbozzo, and their poetry wild minstrelsy.

Perfection of taste is a point which a nation no sooner reaches, than it overshoots; and it is more difficult to return to it, after having passed it, than it was to attain when they fell short of it. Where the arts begin to languish after having flourished, they seldom indeed fall back to their original barbarism, but a certain feebleness of exertion takes place, and it is more difficult to recover them from this dying languor to their proper strength, than it was to polish them from their former rudeness; for it is a less formidable undertaking to refine barbarity, than to stop decay: the first may be laboured into elegance, but the latter will rarely be strengthened into vigour.

Taste exerts itself at first but feebly and imperfectly: it is repressed and kept back by a crowd of the most discouraging prejudices: like an infant prince, who, though born to reign, yet holds an idle sceptre, which he has not power to use, but is obliged to see with the eyes, and hear through the ears of other men.

A writer of correct taste will hardly ever go out of his way, even in search of embellishment: he will study to attain the best end by the most natural means; for he knows that what is not natural cannot be beautiful, and that nothing can be beautiful out of its own place; for an improper situation will convert the most striking beauty into a glaring defect. When by a well-connected chain of ideas, or a judicious succession of events, the reader is snatched to “Thebes or Athens,” what can be more impertinent than for the poet to obstruct the operation of the passion he has just been kindling, by introducing a conceit which contradicts his purpose, and interrupts his business? Indeed, we cannot be transported, even in idea, to those places, if the poet does not manage so adroitly as not to make us sensible of the journey: the instant we feel we are travelling, the writer’s art fails, and the delirium is at an end.

Prosperine, says Ovid, would have been restored to her mother Ceres, had not Ascalaphus seen her stop to gather a golden apple, when the terms of her restoration were, that she should taste nothing. A story pregnant with instruction for lively writers, who by neglecting the main business, and going out of the way for false gratifications, lose sight of the end they should principally keep in view. It was this false taste that introduced the numberless concetti, which disgrace the brightest of the Italian poets; and this is the reason, why the reader only feels short and interrupted snatches of delight in perusing the brilliant but unequal compositions of Ariosto, instead of that unbroken and undiminished pleasure, which he constantly receives from Virgil, from Milton, and generally from Tasso. The first-mentioned Italian is the Atalanta, who will interrupt the most eager career, to pick up the glittering mischief, while the Mantuan and the British bards, like Hippomenes, press on warm in the pursuit, and unseduced by temptation.

A writer of real taste will take great pains in the perfection of his style, to make the reader believe that he took none at all. The writing which appears to be most easy, will be generally found to be least imitable. The most elegant verses are the most easily retained, they fasten themselves on the memory, without its making any effort to preserve them, and we are apt to imagine, that what is remembered with ease, was written without difficulty.

To conclude; Genius is a rare and precious gem, of which few know the worth; it is fitter for the cabinet of the connoisseur, than for the commerce of mankind. Good sense is a bank-bill, convenient for change, negotiable at all times, and current in all places. It knows the value of small things, and considers that an aggregate of them makes up the sum of human affairs. It elevates common concerns into matters of importance, by performing them in the best manner, and at the most suitable season. Good sense carries with it the idea of equality, while Genius is always suspected of a design to impose the burden of superiority; and respect is paid to it with that reluctance which always attends other imposts, the lower orders of mankind generally repining most at demands, by which they are least liable to be affected.

As it is the character of Genius to penetrate with a lynx’s beam into unfathomable abysses and uncreated worlds, and to see what is not, so it is the property of good sense to distinguish perfectly, and judge accurately what really is. Good sense has not so piercing an eye, but it has as clear a sight: it does not penetrate so deeply, but as far as it does see, it discerns distinctly. Good sense is a judicious mechanic, who can produce beauty and convenience out of suitable means; but Genius (I speak with reverence of the immeasurable distance) bears some remote resemblance to the divine architect, who produced perfection of beauty without any visible materials, who spake, and it was created; who said, Let it be, and it was.

The Author begs leave to offer an apology for introducing this Essay, which, she fears, may be thought foreign to her purpose. But she hopes that her earnest desire of exciting a taste for literature in young ladies, (which encouraged her to hazard the following remarks) will not OBSTRUCT her general design, even if it does not actually PROMOTE it.


MLA Citation

More, Hannah. “Miscellaneous observations on genius, taste, good sense, &c..” 1777. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 14 Feb 2007. 25 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/more/miscellaneous_observations/>.

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