So great a genius was Shakespeare that the very word “genius” had to be adapted in meaning to account for him.

That is quite a fact so please read the first sentence again to make sure you have taken it in!

For earlier meanings I refer again to our authority Logan Pearson Smith:

In classical Latin the word “genius” meant promarily a person’s tutelary god or attendant spirit…… It was also used , but rarely in Latin, as more or less a synonym for ingenum, “natural bent and disposition”. in this latter sense the word frequently appears in English in the seventeenth century, meaning both with endowment of natural ability or capacity, and also, occasionally, the person so endowed. Dr. Johnson (who in his Dictionary 1755) defined the “true genius” as ” a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.” But long before Dr. Johnson’s time the word had begun to acquire other meanings and associations.

Other meanings derived from the Latin ingenum emphasised the connection with a particular, special talent.

So far so straightforward but then like other words which developed in the pre-Romantic era that we have noted (“original”, “create”, “creative”-see previous posts on the word “romantic”) the word took off from religious roots.

One association was the Arabic word “jinn”. Jinn are supernatural spirits or demons often harmful, sometimes supportive associated with Arabian mythology and then adopted by Islam. We are likely to know this association through the genie (jinn) in the story of Aladdin and the genie of the magic lamp . The first edition of Arabian Nights in English appeared in the early 18th century.

The second influence was “inspiration.” Let Pearson Smith take up the story:

the word (genius) came to be connected with the ancient term inspiration, which, with its half-evaporated classical and religious associations, lingered on in the poetical vocabulary, with its meaning, as Dr. Johnson gives it of “infusion into the mind of a superior power”.

Confer the frequency with which the Muse is addressed by poets when seeking inspiration. In Greek mythology the Muses were nine sister-goddesses who presided over various arts and branches of learning.

This idea of inspiration managed to continue in an age of increasing scepticism set by rationalist minded intellectuals of the seventeenth century who regarded words like inspiration and enthusiasm as doubtful (as they treated the word “Romantic”- see post (1) of this series). Following the Civil War there was a reaction against words associated with the enthusiasm of religious fanatics and with the philosopher Hobbes this included invocations to the Muses by those who should know better : “by which a man enabled to speak wisely from the principles of Nature and his own meditations, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a Bagpipe”. Pearson Smith, however, goes on to show that this prevailing intellectual reaction was a limited view:

Every Ass that’s Romantick believes he’s inspired”…..and the notion that the pretence to inspiration was either a delusion. or more probably an imposture of the poets, devised to give worth to their poetry in vulgar minds, recurs not infrequently in the criticism of the time. But no ridicule could banish this idea of inspiration, based as it was on real experience; for poets, finding that their idea came to them in special moments of excitement, and from some source as it were outside themselves, would by natural symbolism still call the poetic impulse a gift from the gods.

So where does Shakespeare come in all this? Until the Romantics there seemed to be no satisfactory explanation for Shakespeare. His genius was such that mere “talent” could not explain (were not contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson also exceptionally talented?) It was such that learning was not the explanation. From his contemporary Ben Johnson (Shakespeare “had small Latin and less Greek”) to the learned Milton to whom Shakespeare was “Fancy’s child” whose “strains were native woodnotes wild” the explanation for his outpouring of creative work was “natural genius”.

It was in fact the tremendous achievement of Shakespeare , his “originality”, his miraculous power of “creating” supernatural beings as well as his unprecedented and untutored genius as they conceived it, which did more than anything else to disintegrate the neo-classical theory of poetry.”

A last flurry of opposition to the idea of “natural genius” was raised by Dr Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the classical artist in the grand style and President of the Royal Academy who in his Discourses warned “students against what he called “the phantom of Inspiration” the false opinion, “too prevalent among artists, of the imaginary powers of native genius, and its sufficiency in great works”.

The contradictory attempt to explain Shakespeare despite his classical short-comings was transformed by the appearance of the great Romantics, particularly by the criticism of Samuel Talor Coleridge.

But, before Coleridge, the word “genius” was strongly reinforced by taking a trip to Germany. The starting point for this curious journey was a work by a writer you have likely never heard of ,Edward Young, entitled Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), which you are even less likely to have heard of, which got translated into German very quickly where it had an “electrical effect” (Herder). Let Pearson Smith again take up the story.

The new generation [in Germany] were eager to free themselves from the tyranny of French classism; and in the book by Young they found the faith, the gospel and the watchwords which they needed. Young boldly proclaimed the superiority of the original genius, who went direct to Nature, who performed great things by the force of his inborn powers, untaught by rules and precedents and models; and declared that Shakespeare was the great original genius of modern times.

In England the popular conception of Shakespeare as a wild, untutored genius was generally stated apologetically; he had, it was admitted, great faults, but these were condoned by his great and original merits. Above all things he was regarded as inimitable; but Young, on the contrary declared that he must be imitated; writers should try to be original like Shakespeare, should imitate, not his works but his methods; they should, like him, disregard all rules and traditions and go direct to Nature.

It was on this conception of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s methods, and on Young’s belief that they could and should be imitated, that the Germans seized with propagandist zeal. The duty of every artist to rely on his own gifts and inspiration became the fashionable doctrine; and in that wild period, which was called at the time Genieperiode, but has since acquired the name of Sturm and Drang, the great watchwords Genius, Originalty, Creative acquired a resonance, an aggressive and propagandist momentum, which they had certainly never possessed in England. And these terms acquired moreover in Germany a much greater profundity of philosophical meaning, and became the foundation stones of a metaphysical aesthetic; when we read in Kant that ” creative imagination is the true source of genius and the basis of originality”; that Genius makes rules instead of receiving them; that it embodies in art aesthetic ideas which are creations of the imagination, and suggest more than can be exhausted by any definite concept, we become aware that our home-bred English words have indeed undergone a strange sea-change by being so deeply immersed in the vast and bottomless ocean of Teutonic thought.

The great Romantic poets – Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats- brought in a new poetic, individual to each, but stressing imaginative creativity and the originality of genius. Coleridge, had absorbed the new German thinking and both as a critic and philosopher he made the positive case for Shakespeare as being the great poet to celebrate, one whose poetic genius was based on a rooted imaginative art rather than a more cerebral, willed deployment of poetic fancy. (We shall return to this in a future post).

Appreciation of Shakespeare’s creativity had led to a new understanding of what the word “genius” meant. In the more prosaic language of the Shorter English Oxford Dictionary genius had predominantly come to mean:

inborn, exalted, intellectual power; instinctive and extraordinary imaginative, creative or inventive capacity, talent”.

Without the struggle to make sense of the capacity of Shakespeare that definition would have been wanting. And from Shakespeare it would come to be applied to other exalted company such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Einstein.

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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