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The Irish members of
Parliament looked upon us with some hostility because we had made it a
matter of principle never to put a politician in the chair, and upon other
grounds. One day, some old Irish member of Parliament made perhaps his
only appearance at a gathering of members. He recited with great emotion a
ballad of his own composition in the manner of Young Ireland, repeating
over his sacred names, Wolfe Tone, Emmet, and Owen Roe, and mourning that
new poets and new movements should have taken something of their
sacredness away. The ballad had no literary merit, but I went home with a
troubled conscience; and for a dozen years perhaps, till I began to see
the result of our work in a deepened perception of all those things that
strengthen race, that trouble remained. I had in mind that old politician
as I wrote but the other day--

"Our part
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child."

The Rhymers had begun to break up in tragedy, though we did not know that
till the play had finished. I have never found a full explanation of that
tragedy; sometimes I have remembered that, unlike the Victorian poets,
almost all were poor men, and had made it a matter of conscience to turn
from every kind of money-making that prevented good writing, and that
poverty meant strain, and for the most part, a refusal of domestic life.
Then I have remembered that Johnson had private means, and that others who
came to tragic ends, had wives and families. Another day I think that
perhaps our form of lyric, our insistence upon emotion which has no
relation to any public interest, gathered together, overwrought, unstable
men; and remember the moment after that the first to go out of his mind
had no lyrical gift, and that we valued him mainly because he seemed a
witty man of the world; and that a little later another who seemed, alike
as man and writer, dull and formless, went out of his mind, first burning
poems which I cannot believe would have proved him as the one man who saw
them claims, a man of genius. The meetings were always decorous and often
dull; some one would read out a poem and we would comment, too politely
for the criticism to have great value; and yet that we read out our poems,
and thought that they could be so tested, was a definition of our aims.
_Love's Nocturne_ is one of the most beautiful poems in the world, but no
one can find out its beauty, so intricate its thought and metaphor, till
he has read it over several times, or often stopped his reading to think
out the meaning of some passage, and the _Faustine_ of Swinburne, where
many separate verses are powerful and musical, could not, were it read
out, be understood with pleasure, however clearly it were read, because it
has no more logical structure than a bag of shot. I shall, however,
remember all my life that evening when Lionel Johnson read or spoke aloud
in his musical monotone, where meaning and cadence found the most precise
elocution, his poem suggested "by the Statue of King Charles at Charing
Cross." It was as though I listened to a great speech. Nor will that poem
be to me again what it was that first night. For long I only knew Dowson's
_O Mors_, to quote but the first words of its long title, and his
_Villanelle of Sunset_ from his reading, and it was because of the desire
to hold them in my hand that I suggested the first _Book of The Rhymers'
Club_. They were not speech but perfect song, though song for the speaking
voice. It was perhaps our delight in poetry that was, before all else,
speech or song, and could hold the attention of a fitting audience like a
good play or good conversation, that made Francis Thompson, whom we
admired so much--before the publication of his first poem I had brought to
the Cheshire Cheese the proof sheets of his _Ode to the Setting Sun_, his
first published poem--come but once and refuse to contribute to our book.
Preoccupied with his elaborate verse, he may have seen only that which we
renounced, and thought what seemed to us simplicity, mere emptiness. To
some members this simplicity was perhaps created by their tumultuous
lives, they praised a desired woman and hoped that she would find amid
their praise her very self, or at worst, their very passion; and knew that
she, ignoramus that she was, would have slept in the middle of _Love's
Nocturne_, lofty and tender though it be. Woman herself was still in our
eyes, for all that, romantic and mysterious, still the priestess of her
shrine, our emotions remembering the _Lilith_ and the _Sybilla Palmifera_
of Rossetti; for as yet that sense of comedy, which was soon to mould the
very fashion plates, and, in the eyes of men of my generation, to destroy
at last the sense of beauty itself, had scarce begun to show here and
there, in slight subordinate touches among the designs of great painters
and craftsmen. It could not be otherwise, for Johnson's favourite phrase,
that life is ritual, expressed something that was in some degree in all
our thoughts, and how could life be ritual if woman had not her symbolical
place?

If Rossetti was a sub-conscious influence, and perhaps the most powerful
of all, we looked consciously to Pater for our philosophy. Three or four
years ago I re-read _Marius the Epicurean_, expecting to find I cared for
it no longer, but it still seemed to me, as I think it seemed to us all,
the only great prose in modern English, and yet I began to wonder if it,
or the attitude of mind of which it was the noblest expression, had not
caused the disaster of my friends. It taught us to walk upon a rope,
tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet
upon a swaying rope in a storm. Pater had made us learned; and, whatever
we might be elsewhere, ceremonious and polite, and distant in our
relations to one another, and I think none knew as yet that Dowson, who
seemed to drink so little and had so much dignity and reserve, was
breaking his heart for the daughter of the keeper of an Italian eating
house, in dissipation and drink; and that he might that very night sleep
upon a sixpenny bed in a doss house. It seems to me that even yet, and I
am speaking of 1894 and 1895, we knew nothing of one another, but the
poems that we read and criticised; perhaps I have forgotten or was too
much in Ireland for knowledge, but of this I am certain, we shared nothing
but the artistic life. Sometimes Johnson and Symons would visit our sage
at Oxford, and I remember Johnson, whose reports however were not always
to be trusted, returning with a sentence that long ran in my head. He had
noticed books on political economy among Pater's books, and Pater had
said, "Everything that has occupied man, for any length of time, is worthy
of our study." Perhaps it was because of Pater's influence that we, with
an affectation of learning, claimed the whole past of literature for our
authority, instead of finding it like the young men in the age of comedy
that followed us, in some new, and so still unrefuted authority; that we
preferred what seemed still uncrumbled rock, to the still unspotted foam;
that we were traditional alike in our dress, in our manner, in our
opinions, and in our style.

Why should men, who spoke their opinions in low voices, as though they
feared to disturb the readers in some ancient library, and timidly as
though they knew that all subjects had long since been explored, all
questions long since decided in books whereon the dust settled--live lives
of such disorder and seek to rediscover in verse the syntax of impulsive
common life? Was it that we lived in what is called "an age of transition"
and so lacked coherence, or did we but pursue antithesis?


VI

All things, apart from love and melancholy, were a study to us; Horne
already learned in Botticelli had begun to boast that when he wrote of him
there would be no literature, all would be but learning; Symons, as I
wrote when I first met him, studied the music halls, as he might have
studied the age of Chaucer; while I gave much time to what is called the
Christian Cabala; nor was there any branch of knowledge Johnson did not
claim for his own. When I had first gone to see him in 1888 or 1889, at
the Charlotte Street house, I had called about five in the afternoon, but
the man servant that he shared with Horne and Image, told me that he was
not yet up, adding with effusion "he is always up for dinner at seven."
This habit of breakfasting when others dined had been started by insomnia,
but he came to defend it for its own sake. When I asked if it did not
separate him from men and women he replied, "In my library I have all the
knowledge of the world that I need." He had certainly a considerable
library, far larger than that of any young man of my acquaintance, so
large that he wondered if it might not be possible to find some way of
hanging new shelves from the ceiling like chandeliers. That room was
always a pleasure to me, with its curtains of grey corduroy over door and
window and book case, and its walls covered with brown paper, a fashion
invented, I think, by Horne, that was soon to spread. There was a portrait
of Cardinal Newman, looking a little like Johnson himself, some religious
picture by Simeon Solomon, and works upon theology in Greek and Latin and
a general air of neatness and severity; and talking there by candle light
it never seemed very difficult to murmur Villiers de L'isle Adam's proud
words, "As for living--our servants will do that for us." Yet I can now
see that Johnson himself in some hidden, half-conscious part of him
desired the world he had renounced, desired it as an object of study. I
was often puzzled as to when and where he could have met the famous men or
beautiful women, whose conversation, often wise, and always appropriate,
he quoted so often, and it was not till a little before his death that I
discovered that these conversations were imaginary. He never altered a
detail of speech, and would quote what he had invented for Gladstone or
Newman for years without amplification or amendment, with what seemed a
scholar's accuracy.



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