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pg 200Life and Literature, Lecture I:"Genius and Temperament9 April 1861"——————————————————————————————

Emerson delivered "Genius and Temperament" on 9 April 1861 as the first in a series of six lectures at Meionaon Hall in Boston. He netted $474.10 for the series. There are one-paragraph accounts of the lecture in the Boston Daily Advertiser and the Boston Daily Evening Transcript and a three-paragraph summary in the Boston Post (10 April 1861, 1; 10 April 1861, 2; "Lecture by Mr. Emerson—Genius and Temperament," 10 April 1861, 4). This lecture has never been published.

I cannot tell you with how much satisfaction I meet once more this company. In all other audiences, I have a painful sense of my deficiences,—real enough, and everywhere to be deplored,—but forced on my own attention elsewhere by the necessity of meeting the expectation and general average of an assembly to whom I am partially known. But here I have no such embarrassment. The company,—substantially the same persons for so many years,—know what to look for and what to pardon, when they come to the class, and do not demand of me,—what they might of another,—a more formal and precise external method,—but are content that I should use my own, knowing that I value a thought or a scientific law, for itself, without insisting that it should stand in a syllogism. They know that a scholar loves any piece of truth better than the most coherent system, because he well knows that every truth is one face of the world.

A scholar is a diamond merchant, and, when he has got from old caskets, or from the mine, a true gem, is not very careful to set it in a coronet, or in a jewel-case. It shows its light very well in a wooden box, or in your hand.

And in this presence, and here alone, I may say, I feel that it is not quite so imperative that I bring you jewels at all. I have had the happiness from time to time for many years of meeting here a company of friends, of a culture so superior, and so advantageously known to each other, that the assembly itself beamed courtesy and intelligence, and if they encouraged the speaker, they made it less important what he should say. In the best company, good sense is taken for granted, and we are contented not to shine. Of course, I wish to justify the inviting of a class, by offering you thoughts and facts which may have struck my own pg 201mind with force in the late months; but I shall think I pay my audience a just compliment if I state them carelessly and incidentally, so only that I state them, as knowing that they will detect fast enough what is important, without too much pains to give it perspective.

I may say, too, that the critical times rather invite than repel the entertainment of such themes as I have proposed. From the tumults of angry debate; from the greed and hypocrisy of politics; from the fears of property and the interruption of our prosperity so vain and expense-loving; from the alarms that shake and threaten the fall of our character-destroying civilization, it will be wholesome and manly to turn our eyes to what is pure and permanent.

Genius is one of the consolers of our mortal condition. See how men revere it, and draw from it presentiments of higher power and benefit. They attribute to the possessor a rare and exceptional nature; believe, as was said of Alexander, he had the eyes of a god, and a fragrance as of flowers exhaled from his skin. Once known and acknowledged, everyone in his nation delights in his name; feels strict relation to him; welcomes him to all hospitality; gives him the freedom of houses, of towns, of public institutions. The interest of every fact that occurs, is, how does it lie in his mind? And when he departs out of life, nations adorn their walls with his statue and picture; his name is a proverb in fair and in learned mouths; and what he said and did is an argument, not only against the contrary opinion, but even against the truth itself.

And what is Genius, which pours this deep infusion into every man's cup of life, so that he goes about the willing adorer of his fellows, dead or living, as if they were not his fellows, but visitants from some superior sphere? It is because they are his fellows, and live from his own superior sphere. In all works, looks, acts, manners, words, to which this sacred emphasis of genius attaches, it is not a private man, but more than man that worketh. The energy is not a knack, or skill of practice, or any old rule or empirical skill whatever; not anything which the man can handle, or describe, or communicate, or can even do or not do, but always a power which overawes himself, an enthusiasm which takes him off his feet, draws him this way and that, and is the master not the slave.

Genius is no casualty, but to be ranged with day and night, with organic life, with chemistry and gravitation, is the plan of things. It belongs to all. It is not admired as the evening star, a beauty outside of us, isolated, unattainable, but most humane and near, really ours, nothing of it but we know and use, and make flesh of our flesh, thought of our thought. All it does we can do, only not yet.

It is the inside of things. Facts, science, keep us outside, but a good word lets us into the secret of the world. It gives us the great moments, the memorable days. We are raised to the upper platforms. We are searched and purified. You must have seen that growth of mind and character revolutionizes. One of its pg 202marked effects is to take you out of relation to mass and number: the census is insignificant; territory is dwarfed. Chinese millions signify nothing; Siberian wastes, American prairie, Antarctic continents, as little beside Jerusalem, Athens, Florence, and London. A loom, or a sewing machine, or a telegraph, is a piece of wit: but 'tis for clerks and almanacks to count curiously the number of spindles or telegraph lines. A million are as easy as one. Genius has intimate mysterious relations, to be sure, to the soil, climate, race, and food. The king himself is served by the field, but we are only curious to know that one Confucius, one Calidasa, one Pindar, one Franklin, one Goethe was born in such a knot of nations, that the unfolding of this finest flower and fruit, for which all else was preparation, was proven, and not that nations of dunces propagated dunces, as oysters do oysters, for a million years.1 A reef of corallines, or a Florida made of reefs of reefs, adds nothing to the performance of the first coralline.

Neither do we highly value what is called Talent. Every creature to be sure has its own mouth, its own weapon—sting, fang, horn, leg of swiftness, fin to swim, wing to fly, suction pump, snare, spider web, ambush, jumping apparatus, lacerating, pounding, skinning, salivating, swallowing—wherewith, as capital, to keep its little shop and plant its pipe in the great vat and laboratory of food which the chemistry of nature provides. And each man comes into life with a certain constitutional apparatus determining him on some one activity which is easy and delightful to him. He can fight, or climb, or run, or remember, or rhyme, or barter, or saw and split, or tame horses, or hunt, or farm, or sail, or trundle a wheelbarrow on a rope across the Niagara River.

And a cultivated state shows a variety of skills or determinations. One can make telescopes, cannons, or yachts, while another can dance, handle men, persuade or intimidate caucuses, control bank corporations, do the honors as marshals and presiders at feasts, argue cases, or trace titles, master the Greek grammar, the binomial theory, or ecclesiastical history and law. And here come the shining talents—military, political, literary—with affinities to genius: historians, orators, artists, architects, poets, and romancers who do feats in their several provinces with more success than genius can, and are believed for a time to be that, or better than that. But they are of no value.

Talent is a habitual facility of execution. We find its indispensable values every day. I like people who can do things. And, whether it is a cook who can make good bread; or a sailor, who can find his way through shoals and floating sentries to Fort Sumter, and land his supplies; or a lawyer, who can tell the story with such skill as to lay all the good points in light, and drop all the insignificant lumber out of sight, and so make all see it as he sees it; or a builder who charms us with pg 203a perfect house; or Mr. Olmsted who can lay out the Central Park; or a poet, who writes so that you cannot separate the story from the rhyme, or repeat it but in his words; 'tis always grateful and useful to men.2

Each of these talents is born to be unfolded and set at work for the use and delight of men. And at every point in our various manifold needs, the man with the talent is the need of mankind: everywhere to take out the bungler, and put in the adept; or, as the phrase is, put the round post in the round hole, and the square post in the square. And the whole ponderous machinery of the State has really for its aim just to bring out and to place this skill of each where it is wanted.

I have a great regard for talent,—none greater.—'Tis an excellent worker, a good speaker, an excellent editor, a special pleader, a president, a judge, a historian. The world can't get on without it; twelve hours in the day, 'tis good; every day in the year, 'tis useful, only let it carefully keep out of the way, when, for a moment now and then, genius comes in; then its face is changed, it becomes a dreary old mummy, wig, and boots.

The powers we call talents spring from a temporary and personal origin, grow out of the severalty of the man, and they work to the pot and tub, but genius grows out of his universality and works for all men, and respects the most wide and abstract good. It is for beauty and delight, and its works are done for beauty and joy, and would be done if there were no reward.

The organs, the faculties, as memory, wit, and judgment, are the same in John Milton and in Lord Rochester; but in one the powers are predominated by his thought. You may say the man is mortgaged to his ideas; and in the other the faculties are disengaged, masterless, and at auction. But this difference is immense in effect. For in one the motive power is quite infinite, and in the other superficial.

Talent is the substitute, the vice president, to hold the place, and keep up the routine, in the absence of the chief. But genius is the king himself, the Improvisator, whose every word and act are royal, original, and final. There is nobody behind his chair. It is the year One, and the Emperor is here.

The distinctions I speak of are by no means superficial or factitious; neither are they abstruse, but of the utmost importance to our sanity and must enter into all true culture. Many definitions have been attempted. Walter Scott thought genius consisted in perseverance, and Newton, in attention:—"By always intending my mind." De Quincey said, with much acuteness, it is "Talent impregnated by moral sentiment." Goethe said, with larger comprehension, "Genius is that which, by living and working, gives laws and rules." Schelling calls the sole pg 204privilege of genius, that effort of identity between the conscious and the unconscious activities. "The infinite or perfect presented as the finite is Beauty."

On first confronting this power which we call genius, it may not be quite easy to give a definition, and perhaps it is as well to enumerate the traits and tests which mark it.

First, Veracity. In every moment Genius draws its inspiration from truth,—is an emanation of that it tells of: no wilfulness, but a realist, and out of a love of the truth, it celebrates, and not for a by-end.

I think the reason why the Greek mythology holds its place to this day, and we cannot do without it—Jove, Mercury, Apollo, Minerva, Venus, the Fates, the Muses, the Graces—is, that it is more catholic than any other,—expresses natural and permanent ideas, and the old instinct brings back the old names. Contrast it with the Norse mythology which makes our English nursery tales, which, though now and then conveying some piece of truth and nature, is in the main childish and insignificant. How can we compare Blue Beard, and Jack the Giant killer, and the endless bloodshed of the Scandinavian fable, with the Prometheus, Apollo, the Nemesis, and the Eumenides which are at once beautiful and covering Science?3

Talent is a knack of doing something well and popularly, perhaps a gift of public speaking, like William Pitt's or Daniel Webster's, on any topic of the day's politics; or diatribes like Junius; or a gift of satire, like Churchill; or criticism like Jeffrey or Gifford, or like Macaulay with cleverness treating with wit and literary effect any topic that chanced to have the public ear.4 But the end is vulgar and popular merely.

Men of talent create a certain artificial position, a camp in the wilderness somewhere, about which they contrive to keep much noise, and firing of guns, and running to and fro of boys and idlers, with what uproar they can. They have talents for contention, and they nourish a small difference into a loud quarrel, and persuade the surrounding population that it is the cause of the country and mankind. But the world is wide; nobody will go there after tomorrow. The gun can defend nothing but itself, nor itself longer than the man is by.

But genius deals with all its heart in real, elemental things, which are powers, self-defensive, which subsist and resist unweariably forevermore. Genius loves pg 205truth, and clings to it, so that what it does and says is not a by-road, but on the great highways of nature, which were before the Appian was built, and will be as good when its last stone is powder, and which all Souls must travel. Genius delights in statements which are themselves true, which attack and wound any who opposes them.

Genius is the truest soul, the most articulate and precise of speakers, hating delusion and words, loving things. When genius arrives, the good heart speaks, because it has something to say,—using such words as show that the man was an eyewitness of the fact, and not a repeater of what he was told. It pauses never,—and utters things for the worthiness of the things. It is taxed with loving fiction and air-castles, because its sight is piercing, and pauses not at the surface fact, but looks through it to the causal thought. Whilst others give undivided heed to the fact, Genius has been startled out of its propriety by perceiving the fact to be a mask, and detecting eyes that peer through it to meet its own. It knows that facts are not ultimates, but that a state of mind is the ancestor of everything. English common sense stops at a fact; to it, a fact is sacred; it will not go behind a fact and reckons mad all who do. But there is somewhat higher than English common sense.

We define genius as a sensibility to the laws of the world: things make a natural impression on it; without refraction or excess, what it sees is not falsely reported through defects in its structure, but is universal fact, and belongs to us as well.

Do you not see how right the poets and the legends are in their praise of youth? What is best in life is that wine of youth which once intoxicated us. When we were alive all over; tremulous, warm, the brain all musical; it did not signify much what objects surrounded us: no costly toys, no rich museum, no sumptuous theatre, no heating, food, or wine, was wanted. Our own life ran over and filled all the precinct with perfume. What joy in the grimmest landscape! in the farmhouse! in humble company! Senses all open to splendors of color, to symmetries of form, to nimble motion, to flowing life. The air was full of jocund sound. The whistle of a bird more than literature. A note of a horn was romance enough.

"Did you never observe, while rocking winds are piping loud, that pause, as the gust is recollecting itself, and rising upon the ear in a shrill and plaintive note like the swell of an Aeolian harp? I do assure you, there is nothing in the world so like the voice of a spirit."5 Or, I can tell you a delight like it which spoke to the eye, when you stood by a lake in the woods in summer, and saw, when the little pg 206flows of wind whip spots or patches of the water into fleets of ripples, so sudden, so slight, so spiritual, that it was more like the rippling of the aurora borealis at night, than any spectacle of day.

The tragedy of life is not poverty or pain, not bad politics nor bad rulers, not eastwind nor snow in summer, but age, the suspension of growth, ossification, sudden arrest of flower and fruit, and running to dead log. But see what a society of bankrupt faculty—once heaven-daring youths—suddenly checked. A blight, a palsy, arrested development and people, they are all two years old, all on their backs, indulging in a siesta extending to fifty-one years, and for that renovation of the world which the siren sung to them and they promised us, they say over their cradle songs.

Now genius is the mover! That is the Greek definition of Intellect, the motive power. It keeps its liquid life like the air; like water it adapts itself utterly to such channels as it finds and carries life and power in its bosom to the new exigency of this hour.

Genius never pauses. Transition, shooting the gulf, is the essential act of life. Men interest us only as long as they advance. Transition is the attitude of power, and that is true of all fine souls: that they keep the tenderness and flexibility of youth into age, and the same air of eternal youth belongs to their works, so that the oldest books still speak to our children. The Apollo, the Antinous, the youths of Phidias, are older than any of the history we know much about, yet how young!6

Genius is never lonely. Genius is happy, like beauty, in its own company; always in life: but intellect is only itself.

Another trait of Genius is surprise. You cannot guess what it shall say, and yet it is the most natural thing in the world. It uses things near and low with wonderful effect, using commonly the vulgar speech, but to poetic purpose. We seem to be near, to have been there, but cannot anticipate it. Nobody shares in its finding. 'Tis seen and done before he tells you: he sees what we instantly confirm, but cannot see till he tells us. Did he stand on our shoulders?

Find your subject where you are. When a poet goes abroad to Europe, or Asia, for his subject, he avows his want of insight. The secret of genius is to stand out of the way, and encourage the organic motion of the soul. For, 'tis certain, that, thought has its own proper motion; and the hints that flash on us, we know not how, and the thoughts and words that are, as it were, overheard by us when uttered by the mind at unawares, are incomparably better than any which are tutored by the will. Who taught Raffaelle and Correggio to draw? They were taught of God in a dream.

pg 207Sometimes the mind drops all its hoarded memories, and, from some text of the moment, carelessly discloses a value equal to all the hoards. Without preparation, the friend may write a letter, or the poet write a song, which turns out, on later examination, to be the best fruit of your tree. You did not think until you tried, that in your dooryard such delicious roses and sacred lilies would grow.

If you go among wits, one relates what he has read in a book, and one matches it with an anecdote from another book; and a third caps it by a verse from Horace; and a fourth tells a good story of something droll which befel himself long ago; and the conversation is kept at a certain height honorable to the culture of the company. But do you not see that all are living from their memory; that each of these brilliant scraps was put into the repertory long ago; is an old fossil; is the obituary eloquence of memory; and, that, if there is thus a repertory, it makes no difference whether there are six or sixty thousand facts in it: if the conversation should last a year, it would keep the same low level, and the talkers would go out the same and no better men than they came in.

These things are often amusing, even charming. We are well entertained. We must be humbly thankful. None can prize them more than I, and yet 'tis strange that if an obscure person or a boy throws out on the instant a bit of motherwit that could be spoken only then and there, how like a flash of lightning it licks up our spirits,—as the old prayer said; how it silences all the learning, and makes memory an old pedant.

How haughtily Pindar asserts his inspiration despising all knowledge but such.

"Neither by sea nor by land canst thou find the way to the Hyperboreans."

"There are many swift darts under my elbow, within my quiver, which have a voice for those with understanding; but to the crowd they need interpreters."

"He is gifted with genius who knoweth much by natural talent; but those who have learned, boisterous in gabbling, like daws, clamor in fruitless fashion against the divine bird of Zeus."

The primary point for the conduct of the intellect is to have control of the thoughts, without losing their natural attitudes and action.

The power of genius is the power of nature. It is the same nature working through man which made the man and the world. He builds his house, as the palm rears its tower of verdure; or the crystal juts its angle; or the animal its kindly form: every stick is numbered and flies into its place. Every atom which the genius uses, it does not arbitrarily put here or there, but gently and securely lays it in its preappointed place; it works as in a dream with happy obedient fingers, and the work grows like a dream, wonderful to the beholder.

Professor Poikilos had one advantage over the rest of the University, that when the class gaped, or began to diminish, he would, with great celerity, throw pg 208his heels into the air, and stand upon his head, and continue his lecture in that posture; a feat which seemed to invigorate his audience, who would listen with marked cheerfulness, as long as he would speak to them in that attitude.7 But genius is self-respecting, grave, religious. Every man has the like potency in him when he shall come to it. Wit is related to the secret of the world, to the primitive power and incessant creation. There is no luck or choice about it, but law in it from first to last, the next finer ascent or metamorphosis of gravity, vegetation, and animal life; the same thing on the next higher plane, as the moral is a still higher ascent and kindred to it.

I think that when we use the word Genius with emphasis—'this man is able, that man has shining talent, but this other has genius'—we always imply imagination, the use of symbols or figurative speech; and this, because a deep insight will always do, as nature does, ultimate its thought in a thing. If a man speaks in a technical speech of abstract propositions, he may show much technical truth, conscientiousness, and diligence, but it is a petty learning, does not concern any but his class; but the moment he masters the principle, and sees his facts in their relation to humanity, he speaks a new language, he calls the field, the waters, the skies and elements to his aid, and clothes his thoughts in natural images. Then all understand him. Parthian, Mede, Chinese, and Spaniard hear their own dialect. A good image is essential poetry. It makes us happy. It flies round the globe. I think we never forget one that we have heard.

Skidbladnir, the ship of the gods, as soon as its sails are unfurled, a favorable gale arises, and carries it of itself to whatever place the gods wish to go. It will hold them all, were they never so many, with all their war-gear, and when they have no mind to sail, they can fold it up like a cloth in the hem of their robe. So Miollner, the hammer of Thor, when it flew out of his fist, directed itself on the mark to be crushed, and instantly returned to his hand. And Chakra, the disc or boomerang of Vishnoo, flies about the field of itself, cuts in pieces his foes, and, returning through the air, alights on the footstool of his throne. The Hindoo Maha¯ba¯rat describes the weapon of Narayan.

"The faithful weapon, ready at the mind's call, flew down from heaven with direct refulgent speed, beautiful yet terrible to behold, and, arrived, glowing like a sacrificial flame, and spreading terror around. Narayan hurled forth the ponderous orb, the speedy messenger, and glorious ruin of hostile towns. It bounded forth, killing thousands of the Asuras in its flight: burning and involving like the lambent flame, and cutting down all that would oppose him. When the enemies were slain, the Chakra cooled, and climbeth the heavens from whence it came."

pg 209Now why are these fables in every nation so parallel to each other, as if they were only versions of one fable? Why, but because the human mind, when it paints the god, must paint after itself. They all describe the best force of the intellect in its happiest hour.

Genius usually comes armed with talents, as if the germ, full of life, and aimed at one use, put out such organs as it wanted. Thus is there a perfect unity between the parts and the life. But the spectacle which society offers is, men born without aim, and their talents are at auction to the first bidder as if we should see some animal who had picked up the wings of a bird, the fins of a fish, the snout of a mole, the trunk of an elephant, and the feet of a lion. They have admirable faculties, but all thrown away or mischievous, for want of a purpose.

But there are sometimes found those in whom the genius exists, but without suitable organ, who might yet be masters; as Lessing asks, "Pray, Prince, if Raffaelle were born without hands, would he not still be the prince of painters?" And, in real life, we know that Beethoven played his wonderful music, when his own hearing was utterly gone. Miners tell us, there is sometimes found in California, a gold ore, in which the gold is in combination with such elements, that no chemistry has yet been able to separate it without great loss. And there are men of unquestionable perception, from whom no doctrine, or sentence, or act of excellence can be detached and quoted.8

When we walk out of doors, nature transcends all poetry so far, that our talent appears of no account. In her presence, we lose the lust of performance, and are content to be silent and see others pass silent into the depths of a universe so resonant and beaming. Genius is, first of all, sensibility,—the most tremulous fibre, tender to the touch of light. The faintest violet rays impinge on it, and it vibrates like an Aeolian harp. There are plenty of men who are pachyderms, and beating them with clubs makes less impression than a bird's whistle on the other. The ballads got their excellence as, perhaps, Homer and the Cid by being conventional stories, conventionally treated, by many hands, with rhymes and tunes and images done over and over, until at last all the strokes were right, and the faults were thrown away. Thus, Logan got his "sought him east and sought him west."9 Genius certifies its entire possession of a thought by translating it into a fact which perfectly represents it.

There is a class of grand men who possess powerful intellect, not only without vulgar talent, but without talent of any kind, whose insight is commanding, and in whose presence even what is commonly called genius is diminished of its beams. We have seen an intellectual Torso, without hands or feet, without any or-pg 210gans whereby to reproduce his thought in any form of art whatever; no musical power, no gift of eloquence, no plastic skill to carve, or build, or paint, or write his thought: a churl in the drawingroom, an idiot in the legislature, and only working by presence, as a test and standard of other minds. Such I call, not so much men, as Influences. Perhaps the office of the Saint is highest of all, in the great society of souls. How often we lament the compensations of power, when we see talent suck the substance of the man. How often we repeat the disappointment of inferring general ability from conspicuous particular ability. But the accumulation on one point has drained the trunk, and we say, Blessed are those who have no talent.10

The great expressors, Shakspeare, Dante, Plato, are the gods of the world. But the same men whom these public souls revere, are the silent, poised lovers of justice and truth who make the reserved guard the central sense and conscience of the world. Those who in perfect humility receive every truth and rejoice in every superiority of others are perhaps the highest in the true scale.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1. Calidasa (or Kalidisa), fifth-century Hindu poet and dramatist.
Editor’s Note
2. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), landscape gardener who planned Central Park in New York City.
Editor’s Note
3. Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retributive justice, also a curse or source of ruin; Eumenides, the Furies in Greek mythology: Tisiphone (the blood avenger), Alecto (the uneasy), and Megaera (the denier).
Editor’s Note
4. "Junius," the pseudonym of a series of letters critical of the English government published in the London Public Advertiser (1769–71), probably written by Sir Philip Francis (1740–1818), administrator and critic; Charles Churchill (1731–64), English clergyman and satirical poet; Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850), English jurist, critic, and essayist; William Gifford (1756–1826), English poet and critic.
Editor’s Note
5. Attributed to Thomas Gray (1716–71), author of the immensely popular Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), in Emerson's note in the manuscript.
Editor’s Note
6. Antinous (ca. 110–ca. 130), a favorite and lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, was deified by the latter after his death. He is portrayed as a model of youthful beauty in Roman art.
Editor’s Note
7. "Professor Poikilos," Emerson's punning on the meaning of the Greek poikilos, meaning "abstruse" or "wily."
Editor’s Note
8. Amos Bronson Alcott is the "man of unquestionable perception" (see JMN, 11:19).
Editor’s Note
9. "The Drowned Lovers" by John Logan (1748–88), Scottish lyric poet (see JMN, 14:193).
Editor’s Note
10. Emerson refers to Alcott again: see Ronald A. Bosco, "'Blessed Are They Who Have No Talent': Emerson's Unwritten Life of Amos Bronson Alcott," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 36 (1st quarter 1990): 27–38.
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