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An essay by James Runciman

Genius And Respectability

Title:     Genius And Respectability
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

A very lengthy biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley appeared recently, and the biographer thought it his duty to give the most minute and peculiar details concerning the poet's private life. In consequence, the book is a deplorable one in many respects, and no plain-minded person can read it without feeling sorry that our sweet singer should be presented to us in the guise of a weak-minded hypocrite. One critic wrote a great many pages in which he bemoans the dreary and sordid family-life of the man who wrote the "Ode to the West Wind." I can hardly help sympathizing with the critic, for indeed Shelley's proceedings rather test the patience of ordinary mortals, who do not think that poetic--or rather artistic--ability licenses its possessor to behave like a scoundrel. Shelley wrote the most lovely verse in praise of purity; but he tempted a poor child to marry him, deserted her, insulted her, and finally left her to drown herself when brutal neglect and injury had driven her crazy. Poor Harriet Westbrook! She did not behave very discreetly after her precious husband left her; but she was young, and thrown on a hard world without any strength but her own to protect her. While she was drifting into misery the airy poet was talking sentiment and ventilating his theories of the universe to Mary Godwin. Harriet was too "shallow" for the rhymester, and the penalty she paid for her shallowness was to be deceived, enticed into a rash marriage, brutally insulted, and left to fare as well as she might in a world that is bitterly cruel to helpless girls. The maker of rhymes goes off gaily to the Continent to enjoy himself heartily and write bewitching poems; Harriet stays at home and lives as best she can on her pittance until the time comes for her despairing plunge into the Serpentine. It is true that the poet invited the poor creature to come and stay with him; but what a piece of unparalleled insolence toward a wronged lady! The admirers of the rhymer say, "Ah, but Harriet's society was not congenial to the poet." Congenial! How many brave men make their bargain in youth and stand to it gallantly unto the end? A simple soul of this sort thinks to himself, "Well, I find that my wife and I are not in sympathy; but perhaps I may be in fault. At any rate, she has trusted her life to me, and I must try to make her days as happy as possible." It seems that supreme poets are to be exempt from all laws of manliness and honour, and a simple woman who cannot babble to them about their ideals and so forth is to be pitched aside like a soiled glove! Honest men who cannot jingle words are content with faith and honour and rectitude, but the poet is to be applauded if he behaves like a base fellow on finding that some unhappy loving creature cannot talk in his particular fashion. We may all be very low Philistines if we are not prepared to accept rhymers for chartered villains; but some of us still have a glimmering of belief in the old standards of nobility and constancy. Can any one fancy Walter Scott cheating a miserable little girl of sixteen into marriage, and then leaving her, only to many a female philosopher? How that noble soul would have spurned the maundering sentimentalist who talked of truth and beauty, and music and moonlight and feeling, and behaved as a mean and bad man! Scott is more to my fancy than is Shelley.

Again, this poet, this exquisite weaver of verbal harmonies, is represented to us by his worshippers as having a passion for truth; whereas it happens that he was one of the most remarkable fibbers that ever lived. He would come home with amazing tales about assassins who had waylaid him, and try to give himself importance by such blustering inventions. "Imagination!" says the enthusiast; but among commonplace persons another word is used. "Your lordship knows what kleptomania is?" said a counsel who was defending a thief. Justice Byles replied, "Oh, yes! I come here to cure it." Some critical justice might say the same of Shelley's imagination. We are also told that Shelley's excessive nobility of nature prevented him from agreeing with his commonplace father; and truly the poet was a bad and an ungrateful son. But, if a pretty verse-maker is privileged to be an undutiful son, what becomes of all our old notions? I think once more of the great Sir Walter, and I remember his unquestioning obedience to his parents. Then we may also remember Gibbon, who was quite as able and useful a man as Shelley. The historian loved a young French lady, but his father refused consent to their marriage, and Gibbon quietly obeyed and accepted his hard fate. The passion sanctified his whole life, and, as he says, made him more dear to himself; he settled his colossal work, and remained unmarried for life. He may have been foolish: but I prefer his behaviour to that of a man who treats his father with contumely and ingratitude even while he is living upon him. We hear much of Shelley's unselfishness, but it does not appear that he ever denied himself the indulgence of a whim. The "Ode to the West Wind," the "Ode Written in Dejection near Naples," and "The Skylark" are unsurpassed and unsurpassable; but I can hardly pardon a man for cruelty and turpitude merely because he produces a few masterpieces of art.

A confident and serene critic attacks Mr. Arnold very severely because the latter writer thinks that poets should be amenable to fair and honest social laws. If I understand the critic aright, we must all be so thankful for beautiful literary works that we must be ready to let the producers of such works play any pranks they please under high heaven. They are the children of genius, and we are to spoil them; "Childe Harold" and "Manfred" are such wondrous productions that we need never think of the author's orgies at Venice and the Abbey; "Epipsychidion" is lovely, so we should not think of poor Harriet Westbrook casting herself into the Serpentine. This is marvellous doctrine, and one hardly knows whither it might lead us if we carried it into thorough practice. Suppose that, in addition to indulging the spoiled children of genius, we were to approve all the proceedings of the clever children in any household. I fancy that the dwellers therein would have an unpleasant time. Noble charity towards human weakness is one thing; but blind adulation of clever and immoral men is another. We have great need to pity the poor souls who are the prey of their passions, but we need not worship them. A large and lofty charity will forgive the shortcomings of Robert Burns; we may even love that wild and misguided but essentially noble man. That is well; yet we must not put Burns forward and offer our adulation in such a way as to set him up for a model to young men. A man may read--

The pale moon is setting beyont the white wave,
And Time is setting with me, oh!

The pathos will wring his heart; but he should not ask any youth to imitate the conduct of the great poet. Carlyle said very profoundly that new morality must be made before we can judge Mirabeau; but Carlyle never put his hero's excesses in the foreground of his history, nor did he try to apologize for them; he only said, "Here is a man whose stormy passions overcame him and drove him down the steep to ruin! Think of him at his best, pardon him, and imitate, in your weak human fashion, the infinite Divine Mercy." That is good; and it is certainly very different from the behaviour of writers who ask us to regard their heroes' evil-doing as not only pardonable, but as being almost admirable.

This Shelley controversy raises several weighty issues. We forgive Burns because he again and again offers us examples of splendid self-sacrifice in the course of his broken life, and we are able to do so because the balance is greatly on the good side; but we do not refrain from saying, "In some respects Burns was a scamp." The fact is that the claims of weak-headed adorers who worship men of genius would lead to endless mischief if they were allowed. Men who were skilled in poetry and music and art have often behaved like scoundrels; but their scoundrelism should be reprobated, and not excused. And my reason for this contention is very simple--once allow that a man of genius may override all salutary conventions, and the same conventions will be overridden by vain and foolish mediocrities. Take, for example, the conventions which guide us in the matter of dress. Most people grant that in many respects our modern dress is ugly in shape, ugly in material, and calculated to promote ill-health. The hard hat which makes the brow ache must affect the wearer's health, and therefore, when we see the greatest living poet going about in a comfortable soft felt, we call him a sensible man. Carlyle used to hobble about with soft shoes and soft slouch-hat, and he was right But it is possible to be as comfortable as Lord Tennyson or Carlyle without flying very outrageously in the face of modern conventions; and many everyday folk contrive to keep their bodies at ease without trying any fool's device. Charles Kingsley used to roam about in his guernsey--most comfortable of all dresses--when he was in the country; but when he visited the town he managed to dress easily and elegantly in the style of an average gentleman.

But some foolish creatures say in their hearts, "Men of genius wear strange clothing--Tennyson wears a vast Inverness cape, Carlyle wore a duffel jacket, Bismarck wears a flat white cap, Mortimer Collins wore a big Panama; artists in general like velvet and neckties of various gaudy hues. Let us adopt something startling in the way of costume, and we may be taken for men of genius." Thus it happened that very lately London was invested by a set of simpletons of small ability in art and letters; they let their hair grow down their backs; they drove about in the guise of Venetian senators of the fifteenth century; they appeared in slashed doublets and slouched hats; and one of them astonished the public--and the cabmen--by marching down a fashionable thoroughfare on a broiling day with a fur ulster on his back and a huge flower in his hand. Observe my point--these social nuisances obtained for themselves a certain contemptible notoriety by caricaturing the ways of able men. I can forgive young Disraeli's gaudy waistcoats and pink-lined coats, but I have no patience with his silly imitators. This is why I object to the praise which is bestowed on men of genius for qualities which do not deserve praise. The reckless literary admirer of Shelley or Byron goes into ecstasies and cries, "Perish the slave who would think of these great men's vices!"--whereupon raw and conceited youngsters say, "Vice and eccentricity are signs of genius. We will be vicious and eccentric;" and then they go and convert themselves into public nuisances.

That vice and folly are not always associated with genius scarcely needs demonstrating. I allow that many great men have been sensual fools, but we can by no means allow that folly and sensuality are inseparable from greatness. My point is to prove that littleness must be conquered before a man can be great or good. Macaulay lived a life of perfect and exemplary purity; he was good in all the relations of life; those nearest to him loved him most dearly, and his days were passed in thinking of the happiness of others. Perhaps he was vain--certainly he had something to be vain of--but, though he had such masterful talent, he never thought himself licensed, and he wore the white flower of a blameless life until his happy spirit passed easily away. Wordsworth was a poet who will be placed on a level with Byron when an estimate of our century's great men comes to be made. But Wordsworth lived his sweet and pious life without in any way offending against the moral law. We must have done with all talk about the privileges of irregular genius; a clever man must be made to see that, while he may be as independent as he likes, he cannot be left free to offend either the sense or the sensibility of his neighbours. The genius must learn to conduct himself in accordance with rational and seemly custom, or he must be brought to his senses. When a great man's ways are merely innocently different from those of ordinary people, by all means let him alone. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci used often to buy caged wild-birds from their captors and let them go free. What a lovely and lovable action! He hurt no one; he restored the joy of life to innocent creatures, and no one could find fault with his sweet fancy. In the same way, when Samuel Johnson chose to stalk ponderously along the streets, stepping on the edges of the paving-stones, or even when he happened to roar a little loudly in conversation, who could censure him seriously? His heart was as a little child's: his deeds were saintly; and we perhaps love him all the more for his droll little ways. But, when Shelley outrages decency and the healthy sense of manliness by his peculiar escapades, it is not easy to pardon him; the image of that drowned child rises before us, and we are apt to forget the pretty verses. Calm folk remember that many peculiarly wicked and selfish gentry have been able to make nice rhymes and paint charming pictures. The old poet Francois Villon, who has made men weep and sympathize for so many years, was a burglar, a murderer, and something baser, if possible, than either murderer or burglar. A more despicable being probably never existed; and yet he warbles with angelic sweetness, and his piercing sadness thrills us after the lapse of four centuries. Young men of unrestrained appetites and negative morality are often able to talk most charmingly, but the meanest and most unworthy persons whom I have met have been the wild and lofty-minded poets who perpetually express contempt of Philistines and cast the shaft of their scorn at what they call "dross." So far as money goes, I fancy that the oratorical, and grandiose poet is often the most greedy of individuals; and, when, in his infinite conceit, he sets himself up above common decency and morality, I find it difficult to confine myself to moderate language. A man of genius may very well be chaste, modest, unselfish, and retiring. Byron was at his worst when he was producing the works which made him immortal; I prefer to think of him as he was when he cast his baser self away, and nobly took up the cause of Greece. When once his matchless common sense asserted itself, and he ceased to contemplate his own woes and his own wrongs, he became a far greater man than he had ever been before. I should be delighted to know that the cant about the lowering restrictions imposed by stupidity on genius had been silenced for ever. A man of transcendent ability must never forget that he is a member of a community, and that he has no more right wantonly to offend the feelings or prejudices of that community than he has to go about buffeting individual members with a club. As soon as he offends the common feelings of his fellows he must take the consequences; and hard-headed persons should turn a deaf ear when any eloquent and sentimental person chooses to whine about his hero's wrongs.

_March, 1888._

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James Runciman's essay: Genius And Respectability