What is genius?

McGonagall’s poem on genius is somewhat subversive, pointing out that reputation for genius can rely entirely on wealth or social position, rather than actual ability or talent. In this he poetically builds on the thoughts of Adam Smith, that giant of the Scottish enlightenment, who so memorably declared in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that:

“We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent…The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness. “(Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.III.29)

This is indeed the subject matter of William McGonagall’s poem.


What is genius?
’Tis a thing seldom rewarded;
If you are in poverty
’Tis sure to be disregarded.
But if you are a rich man
Your company is courted
By the high and the low,
Throughout the world wherever you go.
Whereas the poor man
By his fellow-workmen is spurned;
They look on him with a jealous eye,
And their noses upturn’d,
And they say to themselves,
You are no greater than we;
If you are, show it,
And we’ll all worship thee.
And rally around you,
And applaud you to the skies;
And none of us all
Will ever you despise,
Because you can help yourself,
You are a very great man,
And every one of us
Will do all that we can,
You for to please,
And never will tease,
Nor try to offend you,
By any misbehaviour;
And to court your favour
We will always endeavour.
That is the way genius
Is rewarded;
But if you are in poverty
’Tis sure to be disregarded.

From <http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/gems/genius&gt;

Its very simple – a rich man is highly regarded, and a poor man is disregarded, even if their relative abilities are completely the other way round. In this worldview, the assumption is that wealth, success and social standing must come from superior ability, not luck or cheating. Maybe even today we still see this, despite the spread of education and democracy,

The Poetry Dude


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