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Inequalities of Genius

SINGULAR inequalities are observable in the labours of genius; and particularly in those which admit great enthusiasm, as in poetry, in painting, and in music. Faultless mediocrity industry can preserve in one continued degree; but excellence, the daring and the happy, can only be attained, by human faculties, by starts.

Our poets who possess the greatest genius, with, perhaps, the least industry, have at the same time the most splendid and the worst passages of poetry. Shakespeare and Dryden are at once the greatest and the least of our poets. With some, their great fault consists in having none.

Carraccio sarcastically said of Tintoret—Ho veduto il Tintoretto hora eguale a Titiano, hora minora del Tintoretto—” I have seen Tintoret now equal to Titian, and now less than Tintoret.”

Trublet very justly observes—The more there are beauties, and great beauties, in a work, I am the less surprised to find faults and great faults. When you say of a work—that it has many faults; that decides nothing: and I do not know by this, whether it is execrable, or excellent. You tell me of another—that it is without any faults; if your account be just, it is certain the work cannot be excellent.


Editor’s Notes

 § In later editions of the Curiosities, D’Israeli adds the following, taken from his article ‘Conception and Expression:’

It was observed of one pleader, that he knew more than he said; and of another, that he said more than he knew
Lucian happily describes the works of those who abound with the most luxuriant language void of ideas. He calls their unmeaning verbosity “anemone-words;” for anemonies are flowers, which, however brilliant, only please the eye, leaving no fragrance. Pratt, who was a writer of flowing but nugatory verses, was compared to the daisy; a flower indeed common nough, and without odour.

 ¶ This short article is slightly amended from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. One point made in its previous versions is omitted here:

The imitative powers of Pope, who possessed more Industry than Genius—though his Genius was nearly equal to that of the greatest Poet—has contrived to render every line faultless: yet it may be said of Pope, that his greatest fault consists in having none.