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Ballou Maturin Murray
Genius in Sunshine and Shadow


The volume in hand might perhaps better have been entitled "Library Notes," as the pages are literally the gathered notes of the author's library-hours. The reader will kindly peruse these pages remembering that they assume only to be the gossip, as it were, of the author with himself, – notes which have grown to these proportions by casual accumulation in the course of other studies, and without consecutive purpose. That these notes thus made have been put into printed form, is owing to the publisher's chance knowledge and hearty approval of them. These few lines are by way, not of apology, – no sensible person ever made an apology, according to Mr. Emerson, – but of introduction; so that the reader may not fancy he is to encounter a labored essay upon the theme suggested by the title of the volume.

These pages may not be without a certain wholesome influence, if, fortunately, they shall incite others to analyze the character of genius as exhibited by the masters of art and literature. The facts alluded to, though familiar to many, are not so to all; wherefore the volume may indirectly promote the knowledge of both history and biography, at the same time leading the thoughtful reader to seek further and more ample information concerning those individuals who are here so briefly introduced.

M. M. B.


The ever-flowing tide of time rapidly obliterates the footprints of those whom the world has delighted to honor. While it has caused heroic names, like their possessors, to lapse into oblivion, it has also shrouded many a historical page with the softened veil of distance, like ivy-grown towers, rendering what was once terrible now only picturesque. In glancing back through thousands of years, and permitting the mind to rest on the earliest recorded epochs, one is apt to forget how much human life then, in all its fundamental characteristics, was like our own daily experience. There never was a golden age; that is yet to come. The most assiduous antiquarian has only corroborated the fact that human nature is unchanged. Conventionalities, manners and customs, the fashions, may change, but human nature does not. As an example of the mutability of fame, we have only to ask ourselves what is actually known to-day of Homer,1 Aristophanes, and their renowned contemporaries, or even of our more familiar Shakespeare?2 Of the existence of the first named we have evidence in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey; but, though deemed the most famous poet that ever lived, we do not even know his birthplace.

"Ten ancient towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread."

The cautious historian only tells us that he is supposed to have flourished about nine hundred years before the time of Christ; while there are also learned writers who contend that no such person as Homer3 ever lived, and who attribute the two most famous poems of antiquity to various minstrels or ballad-mongers, who celebrated the "tale of Troy divine" at various periods, and whose songs and legends were fused into unity at the time of Pisistratus.

Over the personality of Aristophanes,4 the great comic poet of Greece, who is supposed to have flourished some five or six hundred years later than Homer, there rests the same cloud of obscurity, and he is clearly identified only by eleven authentic comedies which are still extant, though he is believed to have written fifty. Of Shakespeare, born some two thousand years later (1564), how little is actually known beyond the fact of his birthplace! Even the authorship of his plays, like that of Homer's poems, is a subject of dispute. Perhaps, however, this loss of individuality but adds to the influence of the poet's divine mission. The really great men of history, benefactors of their race, are those who still live in the undying thoughts which they have left behind them.

In this familiar gossip we propose to glance briefly at such names as may suggest themselves, without observing any strict system of classification. The theme is so fruitful, the pages of history so teem with portraits which stand forth in groups to attract the eye, that one hardly knows where to begin, what matter to exclude, what to adduce; and therefore, closing the elaborate records of the past, we will trust to momentary inspiration and the ready promptings of memory.

The first thought which strikes us in this connection is, that the origin of those whom the world has called great – men who have written their names indelibly upon the pages of history – is often of the humblest character. Such men have most frequently risen from the ranks. In fact, genius ignores all social barriers and springs forth wherever heaven has dropped the seed. The grandest characters known in art, literature, and the useful inventions have illustrated the axiom that "brave deeds are the ancestors of brave men;" and it would almost appear that an element of hardship is necessary to the effective development of true genius. Indeed, when we come to the highest achievements of the greatest minds, it seems that they were not limited by race, condition of life, or the circumstances of their age. "It is," says Emerson, "the nature of poetry to spring, like the rainbow daughter of Wonder, from the Invisible, to abolish the past and refuse all history." But this of course refers only to poetry in its loftiest and noblest conceptions and sentiments; and then only in passages of a great work.

Æsop, the fabulist, who flourished six hundred years before Christ, and whose fables are as familiar to us after the lapse of twenty-five hundred years as household words; Publius Syrus,5 the eminent moralist, who lived in the time of Julius Cæsar, and whose wise axioms are to be found in every library; Terence,6 the Carthaginian poet and dramatist; Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, – all were slaves in early life,7 but won freedom and lasting fame by force of their native genius. No man is nobler than another unless he is born with better abilities, a more amiable disposition, and a larger heart and brain. The field is open to all; for it is fixedness of purpose and perseverance that win the prizes of this world, – qualities that can be exercised by the most humble.

Protagoras, the Greek sophist and orator, was in his youth a street porter of Athens, carrying loads upon his back like a beast of burden. He was a singularly independent genius, and was expelled from his native city because he openly doubted the existence of the gods. His countryman, Cleanthes the stoic, was also "a hewer of stone and drawer of water," but rose among the Athenians to be esteemed as a rival of the great philosopher Zeno. He wrote many works in his day, – about three hundred years before the Christian Era, – none of which have been preserved except a hymn to Jupiter, which is remarkable for purity of thought and elevation of sentiment.

We need not confine ourselves, however, to so remote a period to illustrate that genius is independent of circumstances. In our random treatment of the subject there occurs to us the name of Bandoccin, one of the most learned men of the sixteenth century, who was the son of an itinerant shoemaker, and who was himself brought up to the trade. Gelli, the prolific Italian author, and president of the Florentine Academy, was a tailor by trade, and of very humble birth. His moral dialogues entitled, I Capricci del Bottajo ("The Whims of the Cooper"), have been pronounced by competent critics to be extraordinary for originality and piquancy, while all his works are remarkable for purity of diction. Canova, the sculptor of world-wide fame, was the son of a day-laborer in the marble quarries. Opie, the distinguished English painter, earned his bread at the carpenter's trade until his majority, but before his death became professor of painting in the Royal Academy. Amyot, the brilliant scholar, and professor of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, who is ranked among those who have contributed most towards the perfection of the French language, learned to write upon birch-bark with charcoal, while he lived on a loaf of bread per day. This man rose to be grand almoner of France, and proved that courage, perseverance, and genius need no ancestors.8

Akenside, the English didactic poet, wit, essayist, and physician, author of the "Pleasures of the Imagination," was a butcher's boy. His developed genius caused him to be appointed to the Queen's household. Sir Humphry Davy was an apothecary's apprentice in his youth. Matthew Prior, the English poet and diplomatist, began life as a charity scholar. Rollin, famous for his "Ancient History," was the son of a poor Parisian cutler, and began life at an iron-forge. James Barry, the eminent historical painter, was in his minority a foremast hand on board an Irish coasting-vessel. D'Alembert, the remarkable French mathematician, author, and academician, was at birth a poor foundling in the streets of Paris, though it must be added that he was the illegitimate and discarded son of Madame de Tencin, one of the wickedest, most profligate, most cynical, and ablest of the high-placed women of France. D'Alembert scorned her9 proffered help when she, learning that he was the offspring of one of her desultory amours, attempted to assist him by her money and patronage. He lived austerely poor, and his love was lavished, not on his natural, or rather unnatural, mother, but on the indigent woman who had picked him up in the street, and who by self-denial had enabled him to obtain sustenance and education. As soon as he was old enough to realize his true situation, he said, "I have no name, but with God's help I will make one!" The time came when Catherine II. of Russia offered him one hundred thousand francs per annum to become the educator of her son, which he declined.

Béranger, the lyric poet of France, whose effectiveness and purity of style defy criticism, was at one time a barefooted orphan on the boulevards of the great city. His verses, bold, patriotic, and satirical, were in every mouth among the masses of his countrymen, contributing more than any other cause to produce the revolution of 1830.10 He had the noble independence to refuse all official recognition under government. Rachel, it will be remembered, was in her childhood a street-ballad singer. A resident of the French capital once pointed out to the writer a spot on the Champs Élysées where at the age of twelve, so pale as to seem scarcely more than a shadow, she used to appear daily, accompanied by her brother. A rude cloth was spread on the ground, upon which she stood and recited tragic scenes from Corneille and Racine, or sang patriotic songs for pennies, accompanied upon the violin by her brother.

Her attitudes, gestures, and voice always captivated a crowd of people. Rachel was a Jewish pedler's daughter, though she was born in Switzerland; and in these youthful days she wore a Swiss costume upon the boulevards.11

Boccaccio, the most famous of Italian novelists, was the illegitimate son of a Florentine tradesman, and began life as a merchant's clerk. It is well known that Shakespeare borrowed the plot of "All's Well that Ends Well" from Boccaccio.12



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Genius in Sunshine and Shadow

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