The Ancestry of Genius

MANY books have been written about genius. Usually they have been constructed by heaping up anecdotes of more or less dubious authenticity; or else by bringing to the front those unhappy subjects of genius who, like Tasso and Rousseau and Cowper, have been the victims of insanity. Within the last few months, under the inspiring influence of Lombroso, a new step has been taken, and an attempt made to measure accurately the physical capacities of genius. A dozen or more Italian scientists and artists obligingly lent themselves to minute ophthalmoscopic and other investigations, without startling results; and later on, no doubt, the man of genius, like the criminal and the lunatic, will be systematically examined and measured.

Little attention has, however, been given to the interesting study of the elements that go to the making of genius, to what we may call its etiology, and which must be sought for mainly before birth. How did the shiftless Stratford tradesman come to he Shakespeare’s father, and Micawber the father of Dickens ? To what extent can the facts of the parentage of genius be reduced to law? That this question has not yet been seriously considered is due in part, no doubt, to its complexity, in part to the extreme difficulty of obtaining reliable and precise information; insurmountable, indeed, in the case of an individual who lived several centuries ago. Even in fairly recent times, the most elementary facts regarding the mothers of many men of genius are quite unknown ; and in estimating the race to which men of genius belong, it is not unusual to disregard the mother, although, it is scarcely necessary to say, modern investigations in heredity lead us to regard the mother’s contribution of tendencies as of absolutely equal value with the father’s. It is only by the patient collection of facts that we can hope to throw light on the causes that determine genius, and I propose to bring forward a portion of the results of investigations I have lately made into this subject. I select a small but interesting group of facts bearing upon a single aspect of the matter: the ancestry of some of the chief English poets and imaginative writers of recent years, with reference to the question of race.1

Let us, first of all, take the five English poets whose supremacy during the last quarter of a century is universally acknowledged, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris. What is to he learned from an inquiry into the races, or combinations of races, that have gone to the making of these men ?

Tennyson was one of the most English of English poets. He came of a family long established in the most Scandinavian county, and that containing the fairest - featured people to be found south of the Humber; and the name itself (Tönnesen) remains to-day purely Scandinavian.

“The Tennysons, ” writes Lord Tennyson, “come from a Danish part of England, and I have no doubt that you and others are right in giving them a Danish origin. An ancestor of my mother’s, a M. Fauvel, or de Fauvel, one of the exiles at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, is French.” He adds, “I have myself never made a study of my ancestry, but those who have tell me that through my great - grandmother, and through Jane Pits, a still remoter grandmother, I am doubly descended from Plantagenets (Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and John of Lancaster), and this through branches of the Barons d’Eyncourt.” These remoter interminglings are, however, of slight interest. Taken altogether, we see a predominantly Scandinavian stock of Tennysons mingling with the Fytches, Lincolnshire people, also, but with the foreign Huguenot strain.

Swinburne’s ancestry, from the point of view of race, has, with some important differences, a general resemblance to Tennyson’s. That is to say, the foundation is Scandinavian, but in this case the more emphatic and turbulent Scandinavian of the north country modified by distinct foreign Celtic and other influences. As Swinburne himself clearly expresses it, “The original root, of course, is purely Scandinavian, modified (possibly) by repeated exile in the cause of the Stuarts, and consequent French alliances.” His great-grandfather, for instance, married a wife from the family of the Auvergnat Princes of Polignac. It is to this alliance that there is allusion in the Summer in Auvergne, in the second series of Poems and Ballads, when the poet gazes on the ruin

“Of the old wild princes’ lair
Whose blood in mine hath share.
Dead all their sins and days;
Yet in this red crime’s rays
Some fiery memory stays
That scars their land.”

With William Morris we reach a totally different district of England, and a new combination. He belongs to the Welsh border; and a border country, it may he noted in passing, is as favorable to the production of genius as it is to the production of crime. Both on the father’s and the mother’s side he belongs to Worcestershire, the home of a varied and well-compounded race, perhaps predominantly Saxon,2 though Mr. Morris is predominantly Welsh. The paternal grandmother, however, came from the Anglo-Danish county of Nottingham. “My father’s father was Welsh. I believe, ” Mr. Morris writes, “and my mother’s mother, also. My name is very common all along the border. The name, ” he adds, “is undoubtedly Cymric.” It is certainly remarkable that the poet who, of all English poets of the century, has most closely identified himself with the Scandinavian traditions of the race should have, apparently, so little blood relationship with the north.

It is equally remarkable that Rossetti, a poet whose imagination has appeared to many critics distinctly and intimately English in character, should be English only on the side of one grandparent; the English blood, that is, being numerically equivalent only to twenty-five per cent. Gabriele Rossetti, the father, came of a family which throughout the eighteenth century, at all events, had lived on the Abruzzi coast, at Vasto. When an exile in London, Rossetti married the daughter of Gaetano Polidori, a Tuscan, who had married Anna Maria Pierce, who seems to have been of unmixed English blood, and who belonged to a family some of whose members attained to a certain amount of distinction. Her mother’s name is believed to have been Arrow. It is worthy of note that the name Rossetti seems to indicate a fair and ruddy northern race. Gabriele Rossetti used to say that the original name of his race was Della Guardia (families of that name still live at Vasto), but that, ruddy hair and complexion having been brought into the family, the generation of Della Guardia children on whom it became impressed came to be known as the Rossetti, a name which stuck to that branch of the race, and became its actual surname. Two of Gabriele’s brothers (to say nothing of himself) were counted as local celebrities. His mother’s surname was Pietrocola.3

In Browning’s case we are able to go back a considerable distance, and to ascertain his component races with fair precision. The Brownings belonged to Dorset, and the poet’s great-grandfather, Thomas Browning, was, as his name shows, of West Saxon stock, modified considerably, no doubt, by the old dark British blood which is plentiful in that neighborhood. Thomas Browning married a Morris. This union produced a Robert Browning, who came up to London, entered the Bank of England, and played a successful though not brilliant part in the world. He married Margaret Tittle, a Creole, born in the West Indies. The poet himself, it may be added, was in early life of “olive ” complexion, and liable to be mistaken for an Italian. In after life he became lighter. Robert Browning, the poet’s father, was a versatile and talented man, though not so able an official as his father. He was a good draughtsman and a clever verse-writer. He married Sarianna Wiedemann, of Dundee. This was an entirely new departure, and united the dark southern stock to the fair northern race; for Sarianna Wiedemann’s father was a German, said to belong to Hamburg, and her mother was Scotch. Browning’s ancestry is very significant. If the Browning race had consciously conspired to make a cumulative series of trials in the effects of cross - breeding, they could not have chosen a more crucial series of experiments, and the final result certainly could not have been more successful. Browning himself was true to the instincts of his race when he carried the experiments one step farther, though on quite different lines, and married the chief English woman poet of his time.

When we turn from these five poets to contemporary writers whose claim to very high rank is not universally conceded, it is no longer easy to choose, and one is liable to the charge of admitting only those cases which seem to Support a theory. I will bring forward a small but very varied group, containing the best known living English imaginative writers (beyond those already mentioned), of whose ancestry I have detailed knowledge. There is, however, no reason to suppose that the addition of other names of equal rank would alter the character of the results. The list includes Mr.Coventry Patmore, Mr. Austin Dobson, the Hon. Roden Noel, Miss Olive Schreiner, Mr. Walter Pater, Mr. Baring Gould, and Mr. Thomas Hardy. It will be observed that there are here several writers of prose, but these are in their best work essentially poets. The most questionable figure is Mr. Thomas Hardy, whose poetic and yet delicately realistic work serves as a transition from the work of writers like the authors of Mehalah and The Story of an African Farm to that of essentially prosaic writers, like the authors of All Sorts and Conditions of Men and A Mummer’s Wife. Mr. Coventry Patmore is English on the father’s side, Scotch on the mother’s, and one of his great - great - grandfathers (Beckmann, the painter) was Prussian. Mr. Austin Dobson belongs to a Devonshire family on his mother’s side, and his father was born in France, of a French mother. Mr. Roden Noel, who (as Lord Tennyson was also supposed to be) is descended from the Plantagenets, and who claims the Sidneys and Shakespeare’s Earl of Southampton among his ancestors, inherits on both sides very various strains, recent and remote. These include an Irish (purely Celtic) element, Scotch Douglases, and Dutch Bentincks. Miss Schreiner is German, English, and Jewish. On her mother’s side she belongs to an English family of Lyndalls, and on her father’s to a Würtemberg family in the neighborhood of Stuttgart. The German paternal element (associated with dark brown hair and gray-blue eyes) by no means necessarily involves a marked Teutonic strain. Würtemberg is the home of a brachycephalic race (very carefully studied from the anthropological standpoint by Von Hölder), which is much more closely related to the typical Celts than to the typical Teutons; and Swabia, unlike the genuinely Teutonic regions of northern and eastern Germany, which have produced few or no poets, has always been a land of song, the birthplace of Schiller and Victor von Scheffel, and the richest nest of singing birds that Germany has to show. The maternal Lyndalls came from Scandinavian parts of England, and the name is Scandinavian. But the physical characteristics of the Lyndalls are not Scandinavian ; they have very dark hair, and large dark eyes which impress strangers as Jewish. It is somewhat remarkable that this strongly marked element which has been so persistent is rather remote, and was introduced in the person of a Jewess, who was a great-great-grandmother to Miss Schreiner.

Mr. Pater, as the name indicates, comes of a family that on the father’s side was originally French. Mr. Pater believes that the family is that to which the painter, J. B. Pater, belonged; not, however, descended from the painter, who had no children. The Paters certainly came from the same neighborhood ; that is, from Flanders, somewhere near Valenciennes. They were lace-makers and Catholics, and Mr. Pater’s greatgreat - grandfather settled in the very Anglo-Danish neighborhood of Norwich. The family then took root in Buckinghamshire, where one branch of it. still Catholic, possesses considerable property. Watteau also belonged to Valenciennes, and it is curious to observe how faithfully Mr. Pater, with his subtle and delicate art, has preserved the instincts of his Belgic race.

Mr. Baring Gould’s interesting account of his ancestry I will give in his own words: “My family have held property in Devon for three hundred years and more, and have intermarried almost wholly in the Devon families, till the heiress married Charles Baring, son of John Baring of Exeter, son of Dr. Franz Baring of Bremen. But Charles Baring’s mother was an Exeter woman. The Barings were pure Saxons. Before that, among the Goulds, the hair was dark and the eyes were hazel, judging from their pictures; after that, fair hair and blue eyes. My mother was a Bond, a Cornish family; my grandmother, a Sabine, and partly Irish ; that is, in seventeenth century in Ireland, after that settled in Herts.” One traces here very clearly the influence of race and its effects on one of the most singularly brilliant and versatile writers of our time. Mr. Thomas Hardy belongs to a Dorset family, which has not. apparently, encouraged foreign alliances, although the Hardys at a remote period are believed to have been a French family who emigrated from Jersey. Of Mr. Hardy’s four grandparents, all belonged to Dorset except one, who came from Berkshire. His paternal great-grandmother, Mr. Hardy believes, was Irish. On the paternal side, also, a black-haired ancestor left very distinct traces, while on the mother’s side the race was fairer, and closer to the ordinary Wessex-Saxon type.

From the examination of these two groups of imaginative writers, chosen without reference to the question of heredity, the interesting fact emerges that, of the twelve persons cited, not one can he said to be of pure English race, while only four or five are even predominantly English. A more extended investigation would bring out the same result still more clearly. England is at the present time rich in poets. A general knowledge of a considerable number of them enables me to say that very few indeed are of even fairly pure English blood; the majority are, largely or predominantly, of Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, or Cornish race, as a single glance, without any inquiry, is often enough to reveal.

If we turn to the rich and varied genius of France, we shall find similar results brought out in a way that is even more remarkable. In France, we meet with very various and distinct races, and we see the interaction of these races, as well as the commingling of remote foreign elements, from the negro blood which it is still easy to trace in the face of Alexandre Dumas, in certain respects, to the Iroquois blood in Flaubert. French genius, from the point of view of race, is a large and attractive subject; but as I am dealing with it elsewhere, I will leave it untouched here. However, it is worthy of notice that the two imaginative French writers of this century who have attained widest fame, and have exercised the most revolutionary influence on literature, Victor Hugo and Zola, are both marked examples of the influence of cross-breeding. Hugo belonged, on the father’s side, to the tall, fair, powerful Germanic race of Lorraine, where his ancestors cultivated the soil in the Vosges; on the mother’s side, he belonged to the Breton race of the opposite end of France, a race with widely different physical and spiritual characteristics. Zola is the son of a distinguished Italian mathematician, born at Venice; his mother came from the central Beauce country of France: he has Italian, French, and Greek blood in his veins. The only living imaginative writer besides Zola who is exerting international revolutionary influence on literary art is Ibsen, another example of complex racial intermixture. His great-grandmother was Scotch, his paternal Scandinavian stock has received repeated infusions of German blood, and his mother was of German extraction.

In many of these complex combinations, we come upon the result not only of accretion of power due to crossbreeding, but of the fascination exerted by a startlingly new and unfamiliar personality. Ronsard, that brilliant child of the French Renaissance, whose name has scarcely yet lost its charm, though so few know his work, came of Hungarian or Bulgarian stock allied with the noblest families of France. St. Thomas, the one saint who for three hundred years charmed the cautious and sturdy English race, was the son of a French father, possibly also of a French mother. Pushkin, whose personality was as delightful to his contemporaries as his poetry, bore one of the proudest of Russian names, and in his veins ran the blood of an Abyssinian negro. A whole nation would never have gone joyfully to destruction under a leader they had themselves chosen, if that leader had not been Napoleon, — the result of the mixture of two very distinct races, the Tuscan and the Corsican,— who carried about him the charm of the unknown. Boulanger, who for a short time exerted an attraction that seemed so unaccountable, was the son of a Scotch lady, whom he was said to resemble, and to whom, doubtless, more than to his father, the Breton notary at Rennes, he owed his power of fascination.

The evidence I have brought forward as to the frequency of racial mingling in men of imaginative genius has been confined to a few particular groups; it could easily be increased, and I have made no use of the materials in my possession concerning Spanish, Italian, and Russian poets. It is clear that the proportion of mixed and foreign blood in the groups dealt with is much greater than would he found in a similar group of average persons. Any one may test this by writing down at random the names of a like number of his acquaintance of average ability, and then investigating their race. In England, in such a group of seven ordinary persons, it is rare to find more than one of decidedly mixed race. But in the groups we have been considering the proportion of such individuals varies, at a moderate estimate, from fifty to seventy-five per cent, and the mingling is usually most distinct in the men of most distinguished genius.

I believe that if we take other groups of somewhat similar character, eminent painters, for example, we shall find the proportion smaller, though still marked. Among notable scientific men we should find the proportion of those with mixed blood lower still. Mr.Galton, who made a long list of contemporary British scientific men of ability,remarks that, “on an analysis of the scientific status of the men on my list, it appeared to me that their ability is higher, in proportion to their numbers, among those of pure race.’’ The Border men come out exceedingly well, but the Anglo-Welsh and the Anglo-Irish would on the whole rank last. While we have found that among twelve eminent British imaginative writers no less than ten show more or less marked traces of foreign blood, and not one can be said to be pure English, Mr. Galton found that out of every ten distinguished British scientific men five were pure English, and only one had foreign blood. Among successful politicians, again, mixture of race appears to be still less common. It is worth while, however, in this connection, to quote an utterance of the most distinguished of living English politicians. “Now, you must know that I am a Scotchman, ” said Mr. Gladstone to an interviewer, “pure Scotch. In fact, no family can be purer than ours, which never mixed with extraneous blood except once in the seventeenth century.” As a matter of fact, Mr. Gladstone unites, on his father’s side, the Saxon Lowlander of the south of Scotland with, on his mother’s side, the typical Highlander of the north, two utterly distinct races, although by accident confined within the same country. We always have to guard against these fallacies, but as a rule, no doubt, politicians of ability are of comparatively pure race. It has generally been believed by those who have concerned themselves with the philosophy of art that poetry is the highest and most complex form of human expression, and the result indicated by the evidence before us seems in accordance with that conclusion.

Looking at the matter somewhat broadly, and omitting minor variations, it may be said that two vigorous but somewhat widely divergent races (or groups of races) now occupy Europe and the lands that have been peopled from Europe. The one race is tall, fair, and usually long - headed; the other, short, dark, and usually broadheaded. Since the dawn of European history, at least, and with special vigor about a thousand years ago, the tall, fair, energetic race has been shed as a seminal principle from the northeast of Europe over a great part of the continent held by a darker and perhaps more civilized race. The physical characteristics of Europe have been very favorable to the spread and fusion of these fine races, and the outcome has been the strongest and most variously gifted breed of men that the world has seen. Wherever the races have remained comparatively pure we seldom find any high or energetic civilization, and never any fine flowering of genius. Sweden, where the tall, fair, long-headed race exists in its purest form, has produced no imaginative genius. Auvergne, where the dark, broad - headed race may be found in great purity, has, in like manner, produced a vigorous but an undistinguished breed of men. Corsica and the Pyrénées-Orientales, where a fairly unmixed race of dark, long-headed men live, have, unlike Sicily or Gard, produced no poets. Wherever, on the other hand, we find a land where two unlike races, each of fine quality, have become intermingled and are in process of fusion, there we find a breed of men who have left their mark on the world, and have given birth to great poets and artists. Such are the men of Sicily, a race compounded of the most various elements from east and south and north, which has produced, and is to-day producing, so large a share of the genius of the Italian peninsula. Such are the fair and tall but broad-headed men of Lorraine, a cross between Celt and Teuton. Such are the Lowland Scotch, on the border land between Gael and Saxon. Such well-tempered breeds have been yielded by Normandy and Tuscany and Swabia. We know little of the physical anthropology of the ancient Greek, but it is certain that one of his most characteristic types was the tall, fair man we know in the north; and the geographical and geological characteristics of Greece present in perfection the conditions which enable varying races to settle and develop in the closest proximity to one another.

Great Britain and Ireland were placed, by a happy chance, broadside on to the invasion of the fair race. The elongated islands thus presented the maximum of opportunity for intercourse between the two races. Even at the present time the process of fusion is still going on. The comparatively fair race extends along the east coasts of both islands, and the comparatively dark race along the west coasts. The islands form, therefore, a well-arranged pair of compact electric batteries for explosive fusion of the two elements. Both races are necessary for the production of imaginative genius, at all events, for it is a mistake to suppose that high imaginative genius is a characteristic of the unmixed dark races. In Dr. Beddoe’s map of the British Isles, showing what he terms the index of nigrescence, one solitary islet of the dark race only may be seen in England, east of the Welsh border, and apparently at one time joined to it. This islet is in Warwickshire ; that is, in the county of Shakespeare. Milton’s family belonged to a neighboring county, and Milton himself, we know, had Welsh blood in his veins. Out of the play of these two races has come all that is finest in English imaginative genius.

It need scarcely be said that this cross-breeding is not the only factor in the causation of genius. If that were so, genius would be much more common than it is, while it would be the rule, instead of a rare exception, to find it shared by brothers and sisters. There are other influences that tend to produce genius, and various conditions that promote its development. I have here simply tried to indicate one of the factors in the determination of imaginative genius.

Havelock Ellis.

  1. The information on which this article is founded has in most cases been obtained from the writers in question. I am indebted to them for the readiness with which they have answered my questions. Only in the case of Browning, among the English writers brought forward, have I been unable to add to the information already made public.
  2. Dr. Beddoe says that the physical type in East Worcestershire “seems to be across between the Saxon and the Iberian.”
  3. For much of the information given above I am indebted to Mr. W. M. Rossetti.