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Without this feeling he can scarcely have a sense of his own identity. It is only in modern times, and in very courtly and insincere societies, that men have found it necessary to conceal their self-approbation. The ancients publicly applauded their own actions and boasted of their fame, and savages, who have not learned to conceal their nature, record their own personal exploits in the presence of their assembled countrymen. “ If you desire glory,” says Epicurus, writing to a friend, " nothing can bestow it more than the letters which I write to you ;” and Seneca, observes D’Israeli, in quoting these words, adds, " what Epicurus promised to his friend, that, my Lucilius, I promise to you." Lucan has not hesitated to speak of his own immortality. In the following passage from the ninth book of the Pharsalia (as translated by Rowe) he thus proudly asserts his own merits.
Nor Cæsar thou disdain, that I rehearse
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, has expressed a similar sentiment with equal boldness.
“Come, soon or late, death's undetermined day,
One half of round eternity is mine." Perhaps if men could really know themselves, and only take credit for their actual merits, the world would be less impatient of their self-laudations. What raises our indignation is the feel. ing that their claims exceed their deserts, or that the latter are at least doubtful and require confirmation. Nobody is offended at the self-consciousness of indisputable genius, when it does not exceed the limits of strict truth and justice. When a man speaks correctly and with a modest pride of his own capacity, no one has either a right or an inclination to complain. There is a natural sense of justice in the human mind. A real claim is always willingly conceded as soon as it is fairly proved. It is only when, like the fly upon the chariot-wheel, some insignificant human insect imagines he raises all the dust and turmoil of the world, that we feel disposed to be angry at his folly and presumption. We are not so much vexed at a man's turning his own trumpeter, as at his giving himself titles which are not his due.
It occasionally happens that what we take for an overweening self-conceit is quite the reverse. A man will sometimes talk of his talents and acquirements from a painful mistrust, both of his own judgment and of the feelings of others. He craves their sympathy and support. In the same way individuals of a certain fixed rank in society never trouble themselves about it, while those whose station is more equivocal are for ever talking of their rights of precedency and distinction. Noblemen think and speak less of their titles than tradesmen of their gentility. A man of mere wealth is jealous of hereditary rank or the claims of genius, and when he rings his purse in our ears it is only to conceal his real uneasiness with respect to the doubtful nature of his position.
The most offensive kind of egotism is, “ the pride that apes humility.” There are authors and eminent men who mince their greatness, and make themselves small in company, from a dread of exciting too much envy, or of throwing all their associates into a disheartening shade. They talk on trifling matters only, and with an affectation of simplicity, as men, let themselves down to children. They will not " turn their silver lining” on the
sight of their ordinary acquaintance. They wish not to dazzle their admirers with excess of brightness. They check the expression of their sublimer thoughts, and look mild and gracious. They are modest in their triumphs.
“ And of their port as meek as is a maid.”
Such proud condescension is insufferably disgusting, and is sufficient to irritate a saint. It cannot be denied that there is a slight touch of this species of egotism in Addison's Spectator. His affectation of lowering himself to the understanding of the ladies is a very bad compliment to his fair readers, and not very creditable to himself. Allowances, however, must be made for the low standard of female accomplishments at the period at which he wrote; and we must also admit that the extreme elegance, the benevolent feeling, and the vein of quiet humour which characterize his essays make us disposed to forget a little too much self-complacency and pretension. But still Addison was not altogether an amiable egotist. He was too apt to give his little senate laws, and to look askance at the best efforts of his rivals. His celebrated quarrel with Pope and the latter's exquisite satire upon the occasion, have placed the ungenerous nature of his egotism in a light as strong as it is unfavourable. Pope was no less an egotist than Addison, but his egotism took a more generous turn. Addison's authorial egotism, however, was not generally offensive, for he had too nice a sense of his own reputation and influence as a writer to betray any unworthy jealousies to the public. It was in private life, that his uneasy reserve, his impatience of equality, and his love of small flatterers and sycophants, gave so much real cause of regret to the better order of his admirers.
It is a hard and nice subject,” says Cowley, “ for a man to speak of himself ; it grates his own heart to say any thing of disparagement, and the reader's ears to hear any praise from him.” Cowley, however, was himself an egotist, and ventured
to grapple with the difficulty of which he speaks. There is no doubt that self is a very delicate and dangerous theme, not exactly because a man cannot say any thing in his own praise without presumption, but because the subject is so delightful to himself, and at the same time so rife with delusion, that he is apt to be carried away by his enthusiasm into an extravagant and absurd over-estimate of his own merits. If we are candid in our egotism, and exult only in the right place, and do not weary the reader or the hearer with a too elaborate detail, we may not only escape the giving actual offence, but excite a sympathy in our favour. The personal feelings and peculiarities of real genius are always interesting to the public, and it is difficult to conceive any species of writing more pleasant than a great man's autobiography. There is no page of Hume's History of England that we read with deeper interest than the brief but beautiful life by which it is preceded. It is a model of graceful self-history. Sir Walter Scott was also a most agreeable egotist. His little personal allusions and reminiscences are almost as precious as his inimitable fictions. The reason why the egotism of some writers is unpleasing, is not that they talk too much, but too extravagantly, of their own powers, and too contemptuously of their opponents. When a man ventures to estimate his own genius he cannot be too cautious of taking more than he deserves, or of doing injustice to others. In either case he commits an error peculiarly offensive to the rest of mankind.
It has been made a question whether true genius is conscious of its powers, but I think there can be little doubt upon the subject. It is certain that both Milton and Shakespeare were fully aware of the greatness of their endowments, though a modern Essayist has maintained that the ease hich the latter produced his works is an argument a
bossession great self-satisfaction on their acc
not thin Both the author and the artist hav
their power when they dash off some wondrous work with a masterly hand, and with the rapidity and happiness of inspiration. They are often perhaps as much struck with the beauty of their own creations as the admiring world is. Shakspeare's Sonnets, which by their personal traits have so delighted the two Schlegels, who are puzzled to account for the neglect with which they have been treated by the poet's own countrymen, abound in illustrations of that proud and lofty confidence with which the writer anticipated his immortality. The following noble sonnet will afford a specimen of the style in which this great man dared to speak of his own fame :
“ Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhime ;
Milton's glorious egotism is almost as conspicuous as his genius. He felt that he had produced a work which the world would not willingly let die*.” Dr. Johnson has touchingly remarked, that “ fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterranean cur
* In the “ Paradise Lost”-indeed in every one of his poems—it is Milton himself whom you see ; his Satan, his Adam, his Raphael, almost his Eve-are all John Milton ; and it is a sense of this intense egotism that gives me the greatest pleasure in reading Milton's works. The egotism of such a man is a revelation of spirit.-Coleridge's Table Talk.