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.


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 … 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!


We have been looking at Romanticism in general and some aspects of pre-romanticism ( the picturesque, the sublime etc) and the history of “romantic” as a word. We shall be looking at various examples of Romantic poetry and prose and asking questions as to its continuing influence on us today. But here is another angle: what does romanticism mean to the philosopher? Below is a passage from Simon Blackburn’s “The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy” first published 1994.(O.U.P.).

Romanticism. The movement that swept European and thence American culture between about 1775 and 1830, although heralded by preceding elements in the 18th century ( antiquarianism, novels of sensibility, the taste for the sublime and the picturesque, and above all Rousseau’s elevation of nature and sentiment above civilisation and intellect). Romanticism was partly a reaction against the stiff intellectuality of the Enlightenment and its official, static, neo-classical art, in favour of the spontaneous, the unfettered, the subjective, the imaginative and emotional, and the inspirational and heroic. In philosophy, the Romantics took from Kant both the emphasis on free will and the doctrine that reality is ultimately spiritual, with nature itself a mirror of the human soul. In Schelling, nature became a creative spirit whose aspiration is ever fuller and more complete self-realisation. Knowledge of the nature of this spirit (the Absolute) cannot be acquired by rational and analytic means, but only by emotional and intuitive absorption within the process. The spontaneous innocence of the child (and of humanity in its childhood) is corrupted with the onset of intellectual separation from nature, but the individual, and equally human history, can overcome this separation by a spiritual process of regaining the lost unity, albeit cleansed and improved by the journey. Romantic art is thus essentially one of movement, figured in quests, journeys and pilgrimages whose aim is to return to a lost home or haven.”

Much of this points to what attracted me as a young man to the Romantics. When D. H. Lawrence-perhaps the last great Romantic- wrote “The two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.” The former I knew was the knowing inculcated by our schooling and mental predispositions and promoted by our technological, computer-based civilisation. But it was “knowing in togetherness” I craved. Hence, I went especially to the poetry of the Romantics, particularly Blake and Wordsworth and in seeking a sense of the religious I sought a “spiritual process of regaining lost unity”. As, when I read Carlyle’s classic Sartor Resartus years later, I found that he put it: ” that Communing of Soul with Soul; for only in looking heavenward…does what we can call Union, mutual love, Society, begin to be possible.”