23 August 2019

Put not your trust in princes — or committees

Charles McCreery points out that princes, like committees, can be capricious, and that relying on them as sources of support can be hazardous, as Richard Wagner discovered.

One disadvantage of being financed by someone else’s money and not your own is that the patron may always decide to cut off his patronage. At one stage King Ludwig became impatient with the length of time Wagner was taking to complete The Ring and decided to stage the first, completed half in his own theatre in Munich. Wagner resisted this premature staging of his truncated work in every way he could, but the king had the last word. ‘These theatre people must learn to obey my orders, not Wagner’s whims,’ he said. ‘Pereat the whole lot of them.’ What is more to the point, he threatened to withhold Wagner’s allowance if he persisted in his opposition. Wagner, who had certainly not been saving out of his royal income, could only retire in dudgeon to his house in Zurich.

Needless to say, a committee is just as likely to change its mind about supporting someone as is an individual. In fact, to the extent that it is more susceptible to outside pressure (being accountable to some collective entity for its funds), it may be expected to be even more unreliable.

By contrast, Coleridge and Wordsworth both benefited from more enlightened patronage.
However, there is one form of patronage that is not open to the objection that it may be cut off at any time, and that is where the beneficiary is given capital rather than income. In 1798 two members of the Wedgwood family decided to give Coleridge an annuity of £150 a year so that he would not have to enter the Unitarian Ministry to obtain an income and could continue working at literature. The Wedgwoods had ideas about improving the human condition and decided that Coleridge was the man to help them do it, apparently because of his powers as a thinker rather than as a poet.

Wordsworth benefited from a similarly antisocial act of generosity, albeit on a rather more modest scale. When he was twenty-three he formed a friendship with a young man of private means called Raisley Calvert. Calvert suffered from consumption, and aware that he was gravely ill, determined to make a will bequeathing a legacy to Wordsworth sufficient to enable him to live without a profession. As Wordsworth put it, the purpose of the bequest was:

‘to secure me from want, if not to render me independent [and] to enable me to pursue my literary views or any other views with greater success [...]. I had had but little connection [with Calvert], and the act was done entirely from a confidence on his part that I had powers and attainments which might be of use to mankind.’

From The Abolition of Genius, available from Amazon.