THE publication of a biography of Ouida may serve to remind us that it once was more the fashion than it is to-day for people rightly or wrongly believing in their own genius to behave accordingly, and to import into their everyday behaviour some of the colour and music of romance. The more modest methods of the present time are partly a reflection in fact of the realism we demand in fiction; we all conduct our lives as if we were characters in real life. If we are geniuses, we yet never forget that we are citizens. The formulae of polite society fall like pearls from the lips of prophets, and literary lions will roar you as gently as any parrot. There are, of course, exceptions—members of the more spasmodic schools of art; but on the whole the posturing and gesturing of greatness and would-be greatness are out of date. The poet is presumably no less sure than before of the divine afflatus; but, if he turns it into song, he does not make a song about it.
We still attribute striking qualities to each other in print, yet in our hearts we are sceptical about contemporary greatness. No generation can be sure of its own values ; we realise that we may either be dazzled by proximity, and need distance to lend disenchantment to the view, or else be the victims of that opposite process by which familiarity breeds contempt. We are drawn irresistibly, therefore, to consider the values of the past, since of them we can be sure. Did those whose reputations are now established strike their contemporaries as anything very remarkable? Some did, and some did not—a startling conclusion! But one must not flinch from facts.
The enquiry is easiest among the giants of literature, for they, by the nature of their occupation, are most given to registering their relationship with others, and a man is generally (after certain allowances have been made) one of the best authorities about himself. It is fascinating indeed to attempt the reconstruction of the vast dim reputations of antiquity: to imagine the Socratic dialogues in being, or Aristotle at the court of Philip, or Caesar in casual conversation with Antony. The simple physical tricks of the great sometimes illuminate them oddly : Caesar was not always bald, and we would surrender several volumes of historical research rather than that remark about his hair which Cicero made and Plutarch records for us : the passage in North’s quaint version runs thus:
And yet, said he, when I consider how finely he combeth his fair bush of hair, and how smooth it lieth, and that I see him scratch his head with one finger only : my mind gives me then, that such a kind of man should not have so wicked a thought in his head, as to overthrow the state of the commonwealth.
Most of us retain enough instinct of hero-worship to be a little shocked by reminders that this or that colossus was only a contemporary to his contemporaries. Everyone has spent time wondering how Shakespeare struck those who knew him : yet there is reason to suppose he did not strike them forcibly. At any rate, we have no evidence that that soul whose unmatchable heights and depths of passion are recorded in the Sonnets, whose scope could include the inhuman machinations of Iago and the superhuman agonies of Lear, informed a body of such kind as to overawe those with whom it associated. We have a far more imposing picture of Ben Jonson. Shakespeare seems to have been a man of quiet tastes and business aptitudes : this, perhaps, is why people have since tried to deprive him of his bare identity. Burke, too, in spite of his public eminence, had in private life an innate modesty that sometimes caused him to be superseded by lesser men. There is a pleasant story in Boswell of an evening spent by Burke with Johnson and Langton ; Langton afterwards, walking home with Burke, agreed that Johnson had been “very great that night,” but added he could have wished to hear more from “another person.” The reply was characteristic : “Oh no, it is enough for me to have rung the bell to him.” Pleasant, too, is it to realise that Johnson reciprocated the admiration. He once rebuked Boswell for believing in “extraordinary characters which you hear of people,” on the ground that “you do not see one man shoot a great deal higher than another.” Boswell retorted with the mention of Burke, and Johnson capitulated. “Yes,” he said, “Burke is an extraordinary man. His stream of mind is perpetual.”
Some great men impress their most casual acquaintance with the zest and force of their personality : Dr. Johnson himself owes his enormous and deathless reputation to this impressiveness rather than to anything he wrote, and the same is true in its degree of William Morris. Some insist, more or less openly, upon their own greatness ; Swift was painfully conscious of his amazing powers, and displayed what he called “that scorn of fools, by fools mistook for pride.” Byron, in a different and more obvious way, paraded his genius to the astonishment of the natives. He was always, so to speak, photographing himself by flashlight—though he, too, had that nameless power of involuntarily impressing people with his personality. Harriette Wilson (whose vivacity was so much greater than her virtue) wrote to him to seek his acquaintance, and he replied:
I think you must be aware that a writer is in general very different from his productions, and always disappoints those who expect to find in him qualities more agreeable than those of others.
Harriette was not discouraged. “I had not aspired to Lord Byron’s love, and I did not despair of making his acquaintance,” is her comment; and later on she realised her ambition in romantic fashion, coming upon him alone in a “still, quiet room” at a masquerade.
His head was uncovered, and presented a fine model for the painter’s art. He was unmasked, and his bright, penetrating eyes seemed earnestly fixed ; I could not discover on what. “Surely he sees beyond this gay scene into some other world, which is hidden from the rest of mankind,” thought I, being impressed for the first time in my life with an idea that I was in the presence of a supernatural being. His attitude was graceful in the extreme. His whole countenance so bright, severe and beautiful, that I should have been afraid to have loved him.
Congreve cultivated the odd affectation of contemning his literary powers, and priding himself only on his position as a man of fashion. When, a few years before his death, he was visited by Voltaire, he begged his visitor to regard him as merely a gentleman. “If you had been merely a gentleman,” replied Voltaire, “I should not have come to see you.” Byron was not by any means free from a similar affectation ; but if we want to get as far away as possible from any sort of affectation whatever, we have only to turn to his friend Shelley.
And did he stop and speak to you,
And did you answer him again?
How strange it seems and new!
he would tumble in the most inconceivable manner in ascending the commodious, facile and well-carpeted staircase of an elegant mansion, so as to bruise his nose or his lip on the upper steps, or to tread upon his hands.
“Trying” is, we feel, the adjective which most aunts would apply to nephews of genius. One understands the exasperation which led De Quincey (who had a little of the aunt in his composition) to hold forth so mercilessly about Wordsworth and Coleridge (if only Mr. George Moore knew how to do his imitation of this sort of thing with one thousandth part the art and grace!) De Quincey in one place says calmly of Wordsworth: “He was, upon the whole, not a well-made man. His legs were pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs.” How different from the home life of Sir Willoughby Patterne!
It is, however, an old and not altogether unsound theory that exceptional men must be granted exceptional treatment. If we get too lenient the impostors will have an easy time ; but perhaps it is worth the risk. Genuinely great men always suffer. They learn in suffering what they teach in song or statesmanship; and, indeed, in a sense their capacity for suffering is the measure of their greatness. Those of them whose sphere is public life have necessarily public recognition, since that is the material they work in: the pure artist has often a deep personal diffidence. There is no talisman by which we can tell genius, if we dare not trust our judgment. “I only knew one poet in my life,” wrote Browning, and conceived that one as
Thro’ a whole campaign of the world’s life and death,
Doing the King’s work all the dim day long,
In his old coat and up to knees in mud,
Smoked like a herring, dining on a crust.