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No. 160 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

No. 160
Monday, September 3, 1711.

‘… Cui mens divinior, atque os

Magna sonaturum, des nominis hujus honorem.’


There is no Character more frequently given to a Writer, than that of being a Genius. I have heard many a little Sonneteer called a fine Genius. There is not an Heroick Scribler in the Nation, that has not his Admirers who think him a great Genius; and as for your Smatterers in Tragedy, there is scarce a Man among them who is not cried up by one or other for a prodigious Genius.

My design in this Paper is to consider what is properly a great Genius, and to throw some Thoughts together on so uncommon a Subject.

Among great Genius’s those few draw the Admiration of all the World upon them, and stand up as the Prodigies of Mankind, who by the meer Strength of natural Parts, and without any Assistance of Arts or Learning, have produced Works that were the Delight of their own Times, and the Wonder of Posterity. There appears something nobly wild and extravagant in these great natural Genius’s, that is infinitely more beautiful than all the Turn and Polishing of what the French call a Bel Esprit, by which they would express a Genius refined by Conversation, Reflection, and the Reading of the most polite Authors. The greatest Genius [which [1]] runs through the Arts and Sciences, takes a kind of Tincture from them, and falls unavoidably into Imitation.

Many of these great natural Genius’s that were never disciplined and broken by Rules of Art, are to be found among the Ancients, and in particular among those of the more Eastern Parts of the World. Homer has innumerable Flights that Virgil was not able to reach, and in the Old Testament we find several Passages more elevated and sublime than any in Homer. At the same time that we allow a greater and more daring Genius to the Ancients, we must own that the greatest of them very much failed in, or, if you will, that they were very much above the Nicety and Correctness of the Moderns. In their Similitudes and Allusions, provided there was a Likeness, they did not much trouble themselves about the Decency of the Comparison: Thus Solomon resembles the Nose of his Beloved to the Tower of Libanon which looketh toward Damascus; as the Coming of a Thief in the Night, is a Similitude of the same kind in the New Testament. It would be endless to make Collections of this Nature; Homer illustrates one of his Heroes encompassed with the Enemy by an Ass in a Field of Corn that has his Sides belaboured by all the Boys of the Village without stirring a Foot for it: and another of them tossing to and fro in his Bed and burning with Resentment, to a Piece of Flesh broiled on the Coals. This particular Failure in the Ancients, opens a large Field of Raillery to the little Wits, who can laugh at an Indecency but not relish the Sublime in these Sorts of Writings. The present Emperor of Persia, conformable to this Eastern way of Thinking, amidst a great many pompous Titles, denominates himself The Sun of Glory and the Nutmeg of Delight. In short, to cut off all Cavilling against the Ancients and particularly those of the warmer Climates who had most Heat and Life in their Imaginations, we are to consider that the Rule of observing what the French call the Bienseance in an Allusion, has been found out of latter Years, and in the colder Regions of the World; where we would make some Amends for our want of Force and Spirit, by a scrupulous Nicety and Exactness in our Compositions.

Our Countryman Shakespear was a remarkable Instance of this first kind of great Genius’s.