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Before Genius
by [?]

If there did not something else go to the making of literature besides mere literary parts, even the best of them, how long ago the old bards and the Biblical writers would have been superseded by the learned professors and the gentlemanly versifiers of later times! Is there to-day a popular poet, using the English language, who does not, in technical acquirements and in the artificial adjuncts of poetry,–rhyme, metre, melody, and especially sweet, dainty fancies,–surpass Europe’s and Asia’s loftiest and oldest? Indeed, so marked is the success of the latter-day poets in this respect, that any ordinary reader may well be puzzled, and ask, if the shaggy antique masters are poets, what are the refined and euphonious producers of our own day?

If we were to inquire what this something else is which is prerequisite to any deep and lasting success in literature, we should undoubtedly find that it is the man behind the book. It is the fashion of the day to attribute all splendid results to genius and culture. But genius and culture are not enough. “All other knowledge is hurtful to him who has not the science of honesty and goodness,” says Montaigne. The quality of simple manhood, and the universal human traits which form the bond of union between man and man,–which form the basis of society, of the family, of government, of friendship,– are quite overlooked; and the credit is given to some special facility, or to brilliant and lucky hit. Does any one doubt that the great poets and artists are made up mainly of the most common universal human and heroic characteristics?–that in them, though working to other ends, is all that construct the soldier, the sailor, the farmer, the discoverer, the bringer-to-pass in any field, and that their work is good and enduring in proportion as it is saturated and fertilized by the qualities of these? Good human stock is the main dependence. No great poet ever appeared except from a race of good fighters, good eaters, good sleepers, good breeders. Literature dies with the decay of the un-literary element. It is not in the spirit of something far away in the clouds or under the moon, something ethereal, visionary, and anti-mundane, that Angelo, Dante, and Shakespeare work, but in the spirit of common Nature and of the homeliest facts; through these, and not away from them, the path of the creator lies.

It is no doubt this tendency, always more or less marked in highly refined and cultivated times, to forget or overlook the primary basic qualities, and to parade and make much of verbal and technical acquirements, that led Huxley to speak with such bitter scorn of the “sensual caterwauling of the literary classes,” for this is not the only country in which books are produced that are a mere skin of elegant words blown up by copious literary gas.

In imaginative works, especially, much depends upon the quality of mere weight. A stern, material inertia is indispensable. It is like the immobility and the power of resistance of a piece of ordnance, upon which the force and efficacy of the projectile finally depend. In the most daring flights of the master, there is still something which remains indifferent and uncommitted, and which acts as reserve power, making the man always superior to his work. He must always leave the impression that if he wanted to pull harder or to fly higher he could easily do so. In Homer there is much that is not directly available for Homer’s purposes as poet. This is his personality,–the real Homer,–which lies deeper than his talents and skill, and which works through these by indirections. This gives the authority; this is the unseen backer, which makes every promise good.

What depths can a man sound but his own, or what heights explore? “We carry within us,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “the wonders we seek without us.”