Wednesday, August 31, 2016


The word "geniality" has obtained great currency of late years, and the popularity of any word which describes mental peculiarities is always a circumstance worth notice. The word "Genial," in the last century, was saved from the imputation of being pedantic only by its claim to be poetical. When Gray said of the obscure heroes of Stoke churchyard—
"Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of their souls"— 
he was thinking, as he constantly did, rather of the Latin poets than of the English language, and he probably failed altogether to convey any definite notion of his meaning to the vast majority of his readers. In our own times, the use and the meaning of the word have both become popular. One of the commonest of the laudatory phrases which form the stock-in-trade of a certain class of reviewers is— "This is a thoroughly genial book." It is a word which is used when it is desired to praise a man's temper, not so much at the expense of his understanding as at the expense of the carefulness and accuracy of his style. It is not common to speak of a book as genial which is written in a style thoroughly formed and well considered. All the higher qualities of the mind, in so far as they are expressed in style, are, if not opposed to geniality, at least foreign to it. Clearness, force, logical arrangement, beauty of thought and expression, not only may exist apart from geniality, but generally are apart from it. The writers who have the highest reputation for this quality are usually too well pleased with themselves, and too intent on pleasing their readers, to give themselves the trouble of measuring their thoughts or phrases with any great amount of care. Indeed, they almost always rely for their popularity, especially in the case of a school which is obtaining a noxious decree of influence in the present day, on a studied negligence and licence of expression, which is the most odious of all tricks.

The principal element of geniality is, no doubt, the power of, and taste for, enjoyment. A "genial" writer is almost always a writer who not only enjoys the act of writing—for this is frequently the case with the bitterest cynics—but has an affection for the things about which he writes, and feels all the kindly elements of his nature drawn out by their contemplation. A genial novelist likes his characters, and a genial essayist puts forward pleasant views of men and things. The word is not so frequently applied to the graver and more sustained kinds of composition. People do not talk of genial history, genial science, or genial treatises on morality; and if they do talk sometimes of genial philosophy, it is because philosophy, in these days, is much addicted to preferring the shooting-jacket and slippers of reviews and magazines to the more carefully-adjusted dress which is appropriate to elaborate books.
Every one who has observed the feelings of his neighbours with care will admit that the power of enjoyment and the taste for enjoying life are not only not universal, but even rather uncommon. Most people begin with a certain friskiness of temper, but even in boys this is an uncertain and intermitting state of mind. The common impression made, perhaps on men in general, but certainly on Englishmen in particular, by the observation in life, is sedate and commonplace. An indefinitely large proportion of the energy which is employed in life is employed upon those great standing occupations by which society is carried on; and, though these occupations are the source of an almost endless variety of satisfactions to the persons who are sedulously engaged in them, those satisfactions are almost always of a quiet sort. They consist far more in the general sense of life, vigour, and interest which is attached by the constitution of our nature to the successful prosecution of any occupation whatever, than in that dwelling on, and revelling in, something pleasant which is implied by the word enjoyment. Dryden's celebrated lines briefly and happily contrast the two tempers :—
"Glory is an empty bubble,
Warfare is but toil and trouble,
Never ending, still beginning,
Fighting still, and still destroying.
If the world is worth thy winning,
Think, oh! think it worth enjoying.
Lovely Thais sits beside thee,
Take the goods the gods provide thee." 
Whatever Timotheus might say or sing, the greatest part of the happiness of the world lies in the toil and trouble never ending, still beginning, with which he contrasts in so emphatic a manner the temper which contentedly dwells upon and enjoys the goods the gods provide. This enjoying temper is precisely that which constitutes what is known as geniality. Horace's picture of the man who "indulges his genius" is made up of plenty of logs on the hearth, and a day passed in drinking, whilst Soracte is white with snow; and the popular notions of Christmas run parallel to this.

The greatly increased importance attached of late years to this temper of mind is significant; and it is still more significant that almost all popular writers seem to feel that to be without it is not only a defect on their part, but something like a sin which they make the most frantic efforts to avoid. The factitious geniality with which they succeed in providing themselves consists of two main branches, one of which owes its origin principally to quasi-artistic, and the other to quasi-theological considerations. The former class of writers constitute what may be called the neo-Cockney school. Their theory of literature, like that of their predecessors of thirty years ago, is that the rules and principles which were formerly supposed to be authoritative on the subject are exploded, and that the true method of writing is for the author to put himself at once upon terms of the most unrestricted familiarity with his readers, to take every sort of liberty with them, to joke and gambol before them on every occasion, and to be constantly clapping them on the back, and calling them "old fellow." This art has occasionally been cultivated by men of really great powers, of whom Professor Wilson was perhaps the most remarkable. The broad Scotch, the whisky, the sporting, and all the other drapery of the Noctes Ambrosinae, were only modes of perpetually pressing on the attention of the readers of Blackwood's Magazine the reflection that its principal contributors were jolly fellows, who enjoyed life to the utmost. A little of this is all very well; but it is curious to observe how soon we get more than enough of it. When the whole series of the Noctes came to be published, the most ardent Scotchman must have felt that the four or five volumes acted upon the intellectual appetite much as the six Solan geese acted upon the physical appetite of the man in the old story, who ate them as a whet. With the swarm of small writers who have not a spark of Professor Wilson's powers, the effort to be genial is from first to last simply disgusting. One of these gentlemen, for example, wished to give the public an account of a railway accident at which he was present. The genial mode of doing so required that he should begin with an account of his breakfast, and hints about his landlady. So he began somewhat in this style :— "Breakfast. Hot coffee and buttered rolls. Splendid coffee—how I admire you, Mrs. Jones! The juiciest of mutton-chops. I could kiss you, Mrs. Jones!" and so on through any number of little jerking collections of words, which had as much claim to be considered sentences as a polypus has to be treated as a vertebrate animal. This style of writing is only a way of saying "See what a pleasant, lively fellow I am! What a fund of enjoyment and animal spirits I possess! See how I overflow with playfulness and frolic, and admire and love me accordingly."

The other class of genial works consist principally of novels written by men who consider themselves hound to protest against ascetic views of religious belief in favour of that kind of theology which pervades Mr. Kingsley's publications. This way of writing is less objectionable than the Cockney style, for those who adopt it are generally men of more thought, education, and refinement, than the gentlemen who view literature as an arena, which they are to enter head over heels, shouting, "Here we are again;" but they agree with them in the determination to put a cheerful enjoying colour upon life by some means or other. The device to which they most commonly resort is the introduction into their books of a superabundance of amusements and adventures, and the endowment of their heroes with every conceivable attribute of physical perfection. The athletic and courageous clergymen, the sturdy infidels who are converted to a manly Christianity, and marry lovely schoolmistresses in consequence, the accounts of hunting, fishing, shooting, and boating which fill so large a portion of their books, are introduced for the sake of the inference that righteous, God-fearing men (the word "religious" has a bad reputation with writers of this school) enjoy the world in which they live, and the existence to which their Maker has introduced them.

To many—it is to be Loped to most readers—the writers of the one school are simply disgusting, whilst the confident bearing of the other is not free from a strong tinge of swagger and a strong suspicion of hollowness. Enjoyment forms a small and unimportant element in the life of most men. The material of which life is made may be, and probably in most cases is, satisfactory, for there can be no doubt that if life not only was an evil, but was felt and perceived to be such, the population would be speedily thinned by suicide or by vice. People would not bring into the world and rear up families of children, if they did not on the whole find life a pleasant thing. It does not, however, follow that because they find it pleasant they enjoy it. With the majority of men, enjoyment is casual and transitory. It fills up only their lighter moments, and has not much to do with their deepest feelings and most permanent concerns. To this majority, therefore, geniality is frequently unwelcome; at least, it is welcome only because it takes them out of themselves, and leads them into a train of thought and feeling foreign to that in which the greater part of their lives is passed. For a man who has no wish to protest against this habitual level of feeling, who recognizes it as the temper of mind in which life ought to be passed, geniality has comparatively few charms. It is at best an amusement, sometimes elegant, often disgusting. If it is habitually indulged and artificially forced to pervade all the relations of life, it becomes as nauseous as sweetmeats mixed with meat and bread and cheese. To such persons no comment seems so appropriate to much of the popular literature of the day as the saying of Solomon—"I said of laughter, It is mad; and of mirth, What doeth it?"

Saturday Review, December 24, 1859.

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