We may say that when we use language, or a probe, or a tool, and thus make ourselves aware of these things as we are of our body, we interiorize these things and make ourselves dwell in them. Such extensions of ourselves develop new faculties in us; our whole education operates in this way; each of us interiorizes our cultural heritage, he grows into a person seeing the world and experiences life in terms of this outlook. (from Michael Polyani “The Logic of Tacit Inference” (Knowing and Being)

What do you think of this quotation?

I love it because it challenges the idea that education is an accumulation of facts, of external knowledge, of developing skills detached from who we are.

Education is to do with “indwelling”, within a science, an art, a language, a literature, a history; so that it becomes “interiorised” within our person.

It challenges the idea that education is simply for utility and not for our personal growth.

Let me know what you think.


"But tell me,tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing-
What makes that ship drive on so fast? 
What is the ocean doing?" 

Still as slave before his lord, 
The ocean hath no blast; 
His great bright eye most silently 
Up to the moon is cast-

If he may know which way to go; 
For she guides him smooth or grim. 
See, brother, see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him." 

"But why drives on that ship so fast, 
Without or wave or wind?"
"The air is cut away before, 
And closes from behind. 

Fly, brother fly! more high,more high! 
Or we shall be belated: 
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner's trance is abated. 

I woke, and we were sailing on 
As in a gentle weather; 
Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together. 

All stood together on the deck, 
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes, 
That in the moon did glitter. 

The pang, the curse, with which they died, 
Had never passed away: 
I could not draw my eyes from theirs, 
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more 
 I viewed the ocean green, 
And looked far forth, yet little saw 
Of what had else been seen-

Like one that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me, 
Nor sound nor motion made: 
Its path was not upon the sea, 
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek 
Like a meadow gale of spring- 
It mingled strangely with my fears, 
Yet it felt like a welcoming. 

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too: 
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Oh! dream of joy is this indeed 
The light-house top I see? 
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? 
Is this mine  own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar, 
And I with sobs did pray-
Oh let me be awake, my God! 
Or let me sleep alway. 

The harbour-bar was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn! 
And on the bay the moonlight lay, 
And the shadow of the Moon. 

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less, 
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness 
The steady weathercock. 

And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same, 
Full many shapes, that shadows were, 
In crimson colours came. 

A little distance from the prow 
Those crimson shadows were: 
I turned my eyes upon the deck-
Oh, Christ what saw I there! 

Each corse flat, lifeless and flat, 
And by the holy rood! 
A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph- band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart-
No voice;but oh, the silence sank 
Like music on my heart. 
But soon I heard the dash of oars, 
I heard the Pilot's cheer; 
My head was turned perforce away 
And I saw the boat appear. 

The Pilot and the pilot's boy, 
I heard them coming fast: 
Dear Lord in heaven! it was a joy 
The dead men could not blast. 

I saw a third- I heard his voice: 
It is the Hermit good! 
He singeth loud his godly hymns 
That he makes in the wood. 
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.



It seems to me there are two ways readers might regard Part VI. If the poem is seen as simply story, plotting a development from a wicked misdeed, with gothic incident, spells, supernatural visitations thrown in to create a tale of fantastic incident, then the ending of the poem over this part and the next might seem a malingering. What has to be done is after all becoming clear: the mariner has to be got home, an exit has to be arranged for the corpses, a moral neatly relayed. For such readers Part VI might seem unduly extended. But increasingly I have become aware that this is a spiritual poem in every sense, that it is an organic poetic unity and I am more and more impressed by the way in which mythological and cosmic elements give depth to the redemptive process. The mariner- and we along with him -has to learn that his crime is meaningless destruction; it is something that goes against not only the natural order but the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings. The conclusion has therefore to be given time for working out.

In terms of the poem’s unity note how effects are repeated. Stanzas and phrases are repeated, recalling earlier stages of the (spiritual) journey. The mariner although on the way towards home and redemption has flashbacks which threaten to immerse him. Once again he cannot escape the accusing eyes of the dead, he is trapped by the inability to pray, he is, as before ( in Part 1), like one pursued by a foe. In effect, Coleridge is maintaining dramatic interest as we shift between the possibilities of the mariner being trapped and finding escape. An example of this is the invocation of Christ ( another echo, this time from Part 2) which leads us to expect the worst when in fact, this time, it leads to a wondrous seraphic visitation.

Coleridge knew -if anyone knew-that the road to spiritual redemption is not linear. Malcolm Guite in his marvellous book on the poem (Mariner) and Coleridge’s life which I would encourage every reader interested in this series of posts to read, links these reversions to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Guite connects this condition with the agonies and self- recriminations the opium- addicted Coleridge had to contend with. It is true when Coleridge first wrote the poem (which appeared with Wordsworth’s in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads) he was not an addict but Guite argues that imaginative fore-seeing is one of the powers at work within the poem. It is certainly remarkable the extent to which the mariner’s journey towards redemption reflects that of the great poet. as Guite so effectively shows..

The Part re-invokes the spiritual and redemptive qualities the Moon retains throughout the poem (see earlier parts of the discussion):

See, brother,see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him.


The supernatural aspect is brought out by the seraphic -band:

A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph -band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart- 
No voice; but oh! the silence sank 
Like music on my heart.   

This has a spiritual beauty underlined by the redemptive effect of a silence compared with the power of music. The passage seems to me to possess a wondrous quality which is nevertheless connected with a practical purpose. The ship having reached the harbour-bay would normally signal by light to the harbour pilot for guidance for entering the harbour walls.

The Part then continues the marvellous interplay of story with spiritual symbolism, with the regressive pull of defeat mixed with the progressive urge towards redemption encouraged by the ever present gracious Moon and the startling supernatural sublimity of the seraphic presence. It ends with a note of hope- on the mariner spying the Hermit on the pilot boat with the inevitable final recall of the last stanza to the (always capitalised) Albatross:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.


All aspiring writers can learn from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” on writing good English as opposed to bad. Written in 1945 it remains an essay that is very much up-to date. Although the title suggests a political aspect to the discussion this is limited and does not affect the essay’s relevance. It continues to offer good advice on how to avoid bad writing.

Orwell’s starting point is the state of the language, English in general. Many bemoaned its state and thought the language was in decline .

Orwell agrees with the charge but he denies the language is beyond rescue:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilisation is decadent, and our language -so the argument runs- must inevitably share in the general collapse. …… Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument we can shape for our purposes.

Perhaps we hear less these days about the state of the language in general but we certainly tend, I think, to the idea there is not much we can do about it anyway. There is plenty of protest about individual uses of bad practice,

( For instance I get irked by the generality of the use of “Awesome” for what arouses admiration but certainly not awe, the tendency to introduce unnecessay prepositions -why do we need to say ” Let’s meet up for a coffee !” when meaning “Let’s meet for a coffee”; the tendency to answer questions as if they have not been asked, beginning “So…”)

but we, perhaps more than in Orwell’s time think it rather democratic to see language as a natural growth so there is not much you can do about and should not indeed wish to. It might be called a populist view of language use. (There are also some activist groups in opposition who see language as inherently biassed against their position and needs to be changed: hence the recent debate on personal pronouns. But that I shall leave for another day.)

But to get back to Orwell: he has some very pointed challenges to a just-let-be attitude:

The language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

( Those of you who have any experience of social media debates will see justice in this in this on our present -day English.).


The point is the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think more clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Orwell then takes some contemporary examples of English prose which are badly expressed and discusses the main weaknesses. These include the use of:

dying metaphors ie. one-time metaphors repeated so often they have lost freshness(eg toe the line, ride roughshod over,stand shoulder to shoulder, grist to the mill,no axe to grind)

Phrasal verbs or verbal false limbsthese are often unnecessary verb extensions eg,render inoperative, prove unacceptable,be subjected to, give rise to,take effect. Phrases like this often take the place of a single simple verb.

Pretensious diction.The choice of vocabulary that is meant to sound impressive: expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine.

Meaningless words. Such will depend on the subject but in-group jargon words might be an example or specialised vocabulary not adequately explained.


  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are use to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short word would do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an every day English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

By following such rules Orwell does not claim you will become a good writer but you should become a clearer one. So when drafting your next blog remember his six rules.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose the worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them.

(Let me know, dear reader, of any laguage use you cannot abide. Also I am very aware writing on this subject I put my own writing up for inspection. Let me know with this- or any other blog post- if you find the prose is not as good as it ought to be. When it comes to writing we are all learners, as T.S. Eliot once memorably said:

So here am I, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt 
Is a wholly new start
T.S.Eliot East Coker Four Quartets )


When words are allowed to weaken, they may need to be re-charged. After all language, as well as being out there, is within. When a valuable word becomes softened something is diminished within us: a meaning that might be precious. Take the word comfort” or its cognate “comfortable”. We say to “live in comfort” and we mean to live at ease, in comparative prosperity. “Comfortable” we may associate through advertising and colour supplements with furniture: a comfortable sofa. “Are you sitting comfortably, then I will begin!” reminds us of being young children, listening to a story.

It may surprise you then to hear that the word originates from the Latin fortis meaning “with strength”. To give strength, to give encouragement to, is its verbal meaning, widening to being a source of solace, relief or support in distress or affliction.

It is the emphasis on strengthening or solace that tends to be its Biblical meaning. So the quotation, in the heading, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people ” is from the prophecy of Isaiah (Is, 40: 1-2). You may well have come across this use of the word from the stirring Handel aria of that name from the oratario The Messiah . Dr Patrick Sookhedo of the Barnabas Charity for persecuted Christians writing in the Charity Newsletter adds a further dimension to our understanding of the word.

“the Hebrew word is nachamu …..Its literal meaning is “to cause to breathe again”, letting ones breath out in relief. It is an emotionally charged word that certainly includes the idea of consolation in grief… But it means more . It also describes a process of learning to think differently about a situation. A rabbi explains : ” Comfort begins when we can re-frame the immediate pain of a loss in a larger, more encompassing way”.

All of which suggests in using the word we should think less of material and physical benefit, more of spiritual strengthening. For finding ” comfort” as spiritual strengthening may lead to a deeper, wider understanding of your affliction and encouragement to face the future with renewed determination.


The Crucifixion

“String him up,” some repoman shouted, (repossessor)

He’s a weirdo” “In the bin, in the bin”,

Yelled another and grabbed some thorns,

Sharp as needles, twisting them round

A fresh-cut-thorn branch. He made

A wreath and forced it down on his head,

The pain piercing his flesh. “Morning vicar”,

This comedian said and darted twigs

At him, aiming at his eyes. With three

Nails, he nailed him naked to the cross,

Lifted bitter drink to his lips, telling

Him drink and stop dropping off, hang

On a bit longer. “Now if he’s really something,”

He said, “He’ll get himself out of this one.

If you’re Christ, and if Christ is God’s

Son, come on down off that cross.

We’ll believe it then, you’ve got a life

On a string, you’re nevergoing to be

A goner”

“That’s it”

Christ said,

“That’s it”.

His senses

Began to fade

Pale and piteous

Like a prisoner

In death, the Lord

Of life and light

Closed his eyes, day

Shrank back, appalled,

And the sun darkened.

The Temple wall

Shattered and split

The solid rocks

Of earth ruptured,

It was dark

As thickest night,

Earth convulsed,

Quaked like a live thing.

The noise brought

Dead men clambering up

From the coffined depths

Who told why the tempest raged so long.

One corpse said

“There is in darkness

Here a bitter fight

Life and Death

Destroy each other, None can know

For sure who wins

Till Sunday

As the sun rises”,

And with these words

Sank back in earth.

From Piers Plowman by William Langland 1330?-1400?

translated by Ronald Tamplin. (from “The Lion Christian Poetry Collection” compiled by Mary Batchelor Lion Publishing 1995)

This translation combines a vivid recent colloquial language with the freshness of Langland’s great medieval poem ( contemporary with Chaucer). Tamplin gives us a sense of Langland’s realism in the frank brutal savagely comic talk going on round the crucifixion spectacle. The cosmic consequences of the death is based on some less familiar details to be found in Matthew’s gospel, much more readily grasped by the common people in the medieval period.

“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom ;and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves opened: and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came of the graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many”.

I’d be delighted if this extact encouraged readers to look at Langland’s work which has become too much neglected in recent years. Langland was a contemporary of Chaucer who uses Middle English rather than Chaucer’s “southren”. It is in unrhymed alliterative form based on Old Germanic (as was Beowulf in Old English).

Try reading aloud to get the sound of the alliterative verse. Individual words can be checked from the above translation- although this will not always be exact. The two Latin phrases quoted from the Bible are in Latin (” “It is finished” and “Indeed this was the Son of God”).

The passage from Langland starts from “His senses Began to fade” in the translation. Enjoy having a go and getting a feel of our ancient tongue and its poetry!

Consummatum est, quod Crist,and comsede for to swoune,
Pitousliche and pale as a prison that deieth;
The lord of lif and of light tho leide hise eighen togideres.
The day for drede withdrough and derk bicam the sonne.
The wal waggede and cleef, and al the world quaved,
Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so long tyme durede. 
"For a bitter bataille" the dede bodie seide;
" Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir boother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shal have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng- and sank with that til erthe
Some saide he was Goddes sone, that so faire deyde:
Vere filius Dei erat iste
And some seide he was a wicche- "Good is that we assaye
Wher he be deed or noght deed, doun er he be taken."   


Language is not natural but a young child’s love of language, of words, of rhymes, of rhythms seems to be part of who they are, as essential to their development as learning to eat, to walk, or to explore. They absorb the words spoken to them and seek to repeat those words. They are taught nursery rhymes and told fairy stories. This love of rhythm or desire to explore words is not something that children should be weaned away from, as babies from the breast, to be replaced by sturdier more prosaic studies it is something that should be fostered through all levels of schooling.

“Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business” said the twelve year old Jesus to his bemused parents when they lost him and rediscovered him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the clerics there. When I first heard the word “Wist”, no doubt read out from the pulpit, I was puzzled and fascinated. What could this word mean? I loved the sound of the word. It caught my attention, made me wonder.

“Wist” is of course, now I can put it in more learned words is the past participle of the verb “to wit”. It is an ancient word deep rooted in Anglo-Saxon. “To wit” was the verb to know; from “witan” (cognate with German wusste, past tense “wissen” to know”). So I learn from an etymological dictionary .

It has been a disastrous error of both churches and schools to say “We must simplify the language of possibly difficult texts so that they are within the easy understanding of all children, especially the less bright”. Good language read with feeling will attract children even when they do not understand particular words. From the context, given age-careful choice of reading, they will grasp enough of the meaning and will find pleasure in seeking to feel their way into what the word might mean.

The important thing that teachers should instil into children is a love of language and from that a readiness to follow unfamiliar language because the sound of it awakens something in them, that makes them keen to follow. There are many stories of gifted teachers able to teach supposed limited learners Shakespeare with amazing success.

I will always be grateful that I emerged from school with a varied knowledge of Shakespeare plays and some acquaintance with the major English poets. I also was fortunate as a church-going youngster of hearing the Authorised Version of the Bible read every week.

Making the word alive for children does not mean keeping close to the language that is familiar to them and relevant to their lives but leading them into places they would otherwise not know about .

So love your language, find what is deepest in it and pass the love on to the children in your care!


Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer Book of Common Prayer

Mother Teresa claimed her work was to make something beautiful for God. If beauty matters to God then questions must be raised about public prayer in the banal language so prevalent in churches today.

Cranmer ( 1489-1556) developed powerful and beautiful prayers by in turn developing the English sentence. He is rightly adjudged one of the first great writers of English prose. And he did so, as did Tyndale(1494-1536) and Coverdale (1488-1569), for the praise and worship of God. Read this prayer slowly, take in its sense and admire the perfect balance and rhythmic strength, which comes from placing the beat on the words or syllables that most require it, so that the meaning is brought to life by the style. Just as a medieval cathedral should be treasured so should a prayer of this quality.


Questioner: Excuse me, I am looking for language. Where can I find it?

Answerer:”I’m not sure what you mean. You are using language.

Q: Yes but where is the centre of the language I am using ?

A: Ah get a good dictionary. The Oxford one has a good reputation.!

Q: Yes, I have seen that. But it just gives me words and their meanings.

A : Ah, so you must need a book of grammar!

Q: That gives me the rules but it still doesn’t tell me where the centre is.

A: Again I am not with you. The English language is words in the minds of people who speak English. Likewise the French language is in the heads of French people. And so it goes on.

Q: So language is just subjective?

A: Yes and no. We need dictionaries to tell us the correct words and grammar to tell us the correct grammar. And language is public and it is important that it is used to tell truth and not lies. Hence all the controversy about fake news.

Q: So language is both subjective and objective, private and public.?

A: Yes. It’s rather like money. You have it in your pocket-it’s your private possession but then you take it out to buy something in public, in the market place. Langage is like currency. It’s in your head but it is also shared with others.

Q. : So, like the currency has or, at least had, the gold standard to give it official status and guarantee its validity, language has the dictionary and the grammar book.

A: Ah, now you’ve got it!

Q. : But no I haven’t!. I haven’t got to the centre of it yet. The dictionary is just lists of words and the grammar book is just rules to do with use. I guess I mean not so much language as individual words, but words in thinking, words in speech. Where does language in speech centre?

A: I’m baffled at what you mean. There are millions of dialogues , conversations, group discussions going on all the time. There is no centre, there is just development.

Q: So are there models of good speech, are there speech modes that guide people?

A: Well, there are examples of good speaking! There is received pronunciation. There is Queen’s English . There is great oratory-like say Winston Churchill. There is poetry. There are phrases from great books like the Bible or Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer or Shakespeare that have seeped into the language. Do you mean that kind of thing?

Q : Well that’s getting closer!

A: The thing is, these kind of models operate on people less and less. They are not so fashionable. No one bothers if you speak proper or not. Perhaps we are more democratic today and don’t need models. Or perhaps we live such fast lives we don’t develop speech as an art anymore. Perhaps its new electronic technology that affects laguage and the way we use it and it is all very much more streamlined.

Q: Now here’s a thing. All these speeches you referred to, going on all the time-as they have done in every era, carry with them evaluations what is good, what is bad, what is cool. fashionable. That is they carry with them moral implications of the good and the bad; right and wrong. The society of the day gives a certain weight of approval or disapproval to these valuations. They may vary according to political views etc.- one person might be politically correct in their speech. Another might be deliberately provocative. Is that right?

A: Yes as long as you accept- as towards the end of what you said- there that these “evaluations”, as you call them, will be tremendously various.

Q: Now before that you said something tremendously interesting. You mentioned Churchill but also great works of literature like Shakespeare and also having religious significance like the Bible and Cranmer. Apart from Churchill, did you notice all these works stemmed from around the Elizabethan age- a little before with Cranmer , a little after with the Authorised Version?.

A: Yes, but nowadays you don’t hear the Authorised Version even in church . They all use modern translations with up to date commonplace language, not so much for the public voice. Cranmer is rare. Shakespeare, too, may be popular but is a minority interest.

Q: Exactly. Now for centuries English centred there. The language of the Bible, of Cranmer and what his language made of the language of marriage-“for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish and forsaking all other” and funerals: “Rest eternal grant unto them, O lord; and let light perpetual shine upon them.” This language and its rhythms penetrated the lives of everyone, whether they attended church or not because they still got married and went to funerals. It did not mean they held to the valuations but the valuations were known to them. Shakespeare too is all about the moral evaluations of an immense array of characters. He would have been known to the educated. Remember the character in Jane Austen who said,” Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s consitution.” And this language of strong moral evaluation was carried on by the great poets and writers. But now if all that is gone I repeat the question: “Where does English centre? Where is or are the great public forums where the language is most profoundly alive as it was alive and is still alive in Cranmer, Shakespeare, the Authorised Version created for public worship. Where is the real English now ? Where does it centre? “

A: I’m afraid I cannot answer that.



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.