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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On Thomas Moore’s Theory of Genius

By William Ellery Channing (1780–1842)

[Letter to Joanna Baillie. 1824.—From Memoir of W. E. Channing. By W. H. Channing. 1848.]

I CAN hardly express the feeling the news of Lord Byron’s death has given me. That a mind so gifted should have been left to devote its energies to the cause of impiety and vice, and should be so soon and suddenly taken, without making reparation to insulted truth and virtue,—that such a mind is to live for ages in its writings only to degrade and corrupt,—in all this we see the mysterious character of God’s providence. I always hoped, that, after the fever of youthful passion, this unhappy man would reflect, repent, and prove that in genius there is something congenial with religion. But he is gone—where human praise and human reproaches cannot follow him. Such examples of perverted talent should reconcile the less gifted to their obscure lot.

In his whole life he was by way of eminence a lawless man, spurning all restraint, whether divine or human, whether from his own conscience or from society; and he seems to have valued no power more than that of defying and resisting all wills which interfered with his own. That any talent, however stupendous, should have made such a man an idol to your sex shows that you must divide with us the reproach too justly brought against our age of great moral degradation. I learn that there is not on the face of the earth a more corrupt class than the fashionable young men of England. Would this be so, if young women were more true to the cause of virtue? This is almost too grave for a letter; but the toleration of gross vice, so common in what are called the higher classes, is not to be thought of without sorrow and indignation.

You ask me what I think of Moore’s doctrine, that men of the first genius are naturally unfitted for friendship or domestic life. I have no faith in it…. I have no doubt that genius is often joined with vice, but not naturally or necessarily. Mediocrity can boast of as many irritable, self-willed, licentious subjects as high talent. Moore seems to think genius a kind of fever, madness, intoxication. How little does he understand its divinity! I know that sometimes the “great deeps” in the heart of a man are broken open, and the mind is overwhelmed with a rush of thought and feeling; but generally genius is characterized by self-mastery. It is true of this inspiration what Saint Paul says of a higher,—“The spirit of a prophet is subject to the prophet.” The highest genius, I believe, is a self-guiding, calm, comprehensive power. It creates in the spirit of the Author of the Universe, in the spirit of order. It worships truth and beauty. There is truth in its wildest inventions, and it tinges its darkest pictures with hues of beauty. As to Moore’s notion, that genius, because it delights in the ideal, is soon wearied and disgusted with the real, it is false. The contrary is rather true. He who conceives and loves beauty in its highest forms is most alive to it in its humblest manifestation. He loves it not by comparison, or for its degree, but for its own sake; and the same is true of beauty. The true worshipper of beauty sees it in the lowliest flower, meets it in every path, enjoys it everywhere. Fact is against Moore. The greatest men I have known have been the most beautiful examples of domestic virtue, Moore’s doctrine makes genius a curse, and teaches that the Creator, the source of harmony, has sown discord between the noblest attributes of the soul. I shall not wonder if some half-witted pretenders to genius should, on the strength of Moore’s assertion, prove their title by brutality in their domestic and social relations.