Wordsworth on Genius and the Creative Responsibility of Elevating Taste
By Maria Popova
What is genius — what is its nature and its proof? For Beethoven, genius was based on a foundation of talent, but required additional “freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit.” “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Kerouac proclaimed in weighing whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius. Schopenhauer furnished what remains the finest metaphor for the difference between genius and talent. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. And yet genius — that singular creative force capable of bowling us over with truth and beauty, leaving us transformed and enlarged — continues to fascinate and puzzle with its elusive essence.
This eternal question of what genius actually is and how we measure it — one of the major themes in Figuring — is what the Romantic poet laureate of human consciousness, William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770–April 23, 1850), examines in a prefatory essay from the 1815 edition of the two-volume set Poems by William Wordsworth (public library | free ebook).
Wordsworth — who fervently championed the shared bedrock of genius in science and the arts — writes:
Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before: Of genius, in the fine arts, the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honor, and benefit of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown.
True genius, he argues, does not merely bestow a work of art or a discovery upon a passive audience but cultivates in that audience the very capacity for understanding, appreciating, and being transformed by the product of genius — something another great poet, Joseph Brodsky, would echo generations later in his meditation on how to develop one’s taste in reading. A century and a half before the pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner asserted in his analysis of the psychology of storytelling that “the great writer’s gift to a reader is to make him a better writer,” Wordsworth adds:
What is all this but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the Poet? Is it to be supposed that the Reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian Prince or General — stretched on his Palanquin, and borne by his Slaves? No, he is invigorated and inspirited by his Leader, in order that he may exert himself, for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried like a dead weight. Therefore to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.
Published November 12, 2018