Words can be presences that inspire and encourage us forward; words can act like a pillory holding you down, keeping you confined. Great poets recreate the language, making it new. That was what Wordsworth and the great Romantics did. But the language was ready for them to act on it.

As Logan Pearsall Smith (see “Looking at the Word “Romantic” Part 1) argues there is a group of terms that come under the umbrella of the word “romantic” that suddenly came to the fore and were used in different ways from what they had been before. They are words that reflect our consciousness of what is possible and of what poetry can do. These words broke the ground assisting the startling growth of Romantic creativity.

The words Logan Pearsall Smith focused on are words we might use every day. They have become ordinary.

“We had creative writing today at school.” “To improve our sales we need to be creative”. “What a beautifully creative shot!” But how did the word “creative” used, as in these examples, come into being?

“She just repeats things. There is not an original thought in her head!” “Can’t think of anything to do? Be original!” Where did “original” as a term of commendation come from?

“I’ve just watched Federer play tennis. He is a genius!” Genius : someone who stands out away above every one else. There have always been geniuses -however rare-haven’t there?

Actually in English Literature there has been one genius and because his genius required explaining this set of words came into new being and it was taken up by the great Romantics as a vocabulary that entailed new ideas about what it was to be a poet.

if poetry was the product of the imagination; if the imagination was creative, and “originality” was the mark of its creations, then a word was needed to describe this special kind of poetic imagination.”

The word was “genius” and the “genius” was Shakespeare and the Romantics saw in Shakespeare the epitome of what it meant to write great literature. Words such as “creative”, “original”, “genius” do have ancient antecedents but the way they are used nowadays, as every day words, only came into being, and developed in popularity because they were required by a new way of thinking, stimulated by Shakespeare’s genius, and a new kind of practice, associated with Romanticism.

With “creative”, derived from “create”, and “original”, the antecedents are theological. “Create” spoke of the “original” creator acting in Genesis 1. “Creative power” would have belonged to Him and Him only. Original” that from which everything is derived” came to English in the fourteenth century, especially with the use of the term “original sin “.

By a middle route “original” took on a secular meaning. It developed from the vocabulary of painting. Let Logan Smith take up the story:

It was easy to borrow from painting the distinction between an original picture and a copy; the distinction is found in literary criticism in the middle of the seventeenth century; it was adopted by Dryden, who speaks of Shakespeare’s Juliet and Desdemona as “originals”; and it soon became a current term with reference to Shakespeare being authorised by Pope’s famous sentence in his preface to Shakespeare’s works : “If ever an author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespear “.…..

All art, the early critics agree, was imitation; but there were two kinds of imitation: the writer who drew his materials from observation of Nature was an original writer….. Originality was simply newness and truth of observation or invention. The great original poets, like Homer and Shakespeare, were those who had most directly imitated Nature ( by Nature they meant very much what we mean by life) and given the richest and most profound renderings of what they found there.

But the word “imitation” was found inadequate for Shakespeare. For Shakespeare had formed characters not found in Nature. This included his characterisation of faeries and presentation of scenes of magic and, especially for Dryden, the “creation” of Caliban.

“Shakespeare seems to have created a person which was not in Nature”.

When first used the word that stood out in the quoted sentence above was “created”. God created. Humans made or “invented” ie. made out of exising materials: hence the medieval “makars” ( makers) of Scotland. But did humans “create” as God created? Surely that power was only divine. John Donne, a poet of genius, however, pointed to the new possible recognition. In one of his Sermons he says ” Poetry is a counterfeit creation and makes things that are not as though they were”. (Sermons 1640 LXXX)

So because of Shakespeare(reinforced by Homer) it was possible to speak of art being “original” and because his work was more than “imitation” or ” invention” it became possible to speak of poetic creation or a human “creator”. In using this gift, poets were being “creative”. The word was first used in English in the mid-seventeenth century and came to be linked with “Imagination” (which we looked at in Part 1) and with “originality”. Let Pearsall Smith take up the story again:

Dryden was not the first writer to employ in literary criticism the word “create” but its use in this connexion, before he gave it currency, was sporadic. We find it after Dryden in…Addison who echoes much of Dryden’s criticism in the Spectator, this use of the word when, writing of ” fairies, witches, magicians , departed spirits… “he says, “we are led as it were into a new creation” and “cannot forbear thinking them natural, though we have no rule by which to judge them”. In speaking of the power of affecting the imagination, which “is the very life and highest perfection of poetry” he says in a phrase which became famous : “It has something in it like creation. It bestows a kind of existence, and draws up to the reader’s view several objects which are not found in being.” Shaftesbury in his Characteristicks (1711) , joins together the notion of originality and creation, when he somewhat ironically the new and free way of writing with the manufacture of silks and stuffs; each new pattern he says, must be an “original”, and the designer “must work originally and in a manner create each time anew”.

Originality thus acquired a new signification; it came to mean, in the critical parlance of the time, not only the direct observation of Nature, but also the invention or creation of things (for the most part supernatural beings) which did not exist in Nature. This notion of “creation”, and of the artist as a “creator” soon became current, and before long it began to beget a group of other terms which were needed for its adequate expression. Among these we may note the important adjective creative, which first appearing in the seventeenth century, became …..by the eighteenth century, a common adjective in literary criticism. We find it usually in connexion with the words “imagination ” and “fancy”, for it was to the imagination this power of creation was ascribed. ….. Thomson writes of Shakespeare’s ” creative fancy”, and Joseph Warton of his “lively creative imagination”, and calls The Tempest “the most striking instance of his creative power. He has thus given the reins to his boundless imagination, and has carried the romantic, the wonderful, the wild, to the most pleasing extravagance” . In Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) … he calls “creative imagination the distinguishing characteristic of true genius”.

(Logan Pearsall Smith Words and Idioms : ” Four Romantic Words”)

In the last two quotations we notice a combination of words completely at odds with the prized regularity and formality of typically admired eighteenth century Augustan (or classical verse) and the celebration of a kind of imaginative creativity that finds room for the extravagant and wild (neither of which were Augustan qualities), uniting the poetry of Shakepeare with the word “romantic” and “Genius”. We shall come to “genius” in the next of these linguistic explorations, but with our eye to the words we have focused on we can see a movement. “Originalty”, ” create” , “creative” all words associated with God and His creative power have become identified with the human capacity to form poetry. Ultimately this appropriation of a vocabulary relating to the divine was to inform the great outburst of a poetic that took many different manifestations but combined a belief in the supremacy of the imagination and bestowed on the poet divinely inspired qualities.

If, for us, words like “imagination”, “create”, “creative”, “original”, “originality” have been reduced to becoming ordinary, that is a loss of potency of our vocabulary that might betoken a diminution of insight into the significance of these words that we surely need to rectify: perhaps by going back to the same poets!

We need to rediscover our words’ worth!

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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