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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. His favourite quotations were from Newman, whom, I
believe, he had never met, though I can remember nothing now but Newman's
greeting to Johnson, "I have always considered the profession of a man of
letters a third order of the priesthood!" and these quotations became so
well known that at Newman's death, the editor of _The Nineteenth Century_
asked them for publication. Because of his delight in all that was formal
and arranged he objected to the public quotation of private conversation
even after death, and this scruple helped his refusal. Perhaps this
dreaming was made a necessity by his artificial life, yet before that life
began he wrote from Oxford to his Tory but flattered family, that as he
stood mounted upon a library ladder in his rooms taking a book from a
shelf, Gladstone, about to pass the open door on his way upstairs to some
college authority, had stopped, hesitated, come into the room and there
spent an hour of talk. Presently it was discovered that Gladstone had not
been near Oxford on the date given; yet he quoted that conversation
without variation of a word until the end of his life, and I think
believed in it as firmly as did his friends. These conversations were
always admirable in their drama, but never too dramatic or even too
polished to lose their casual accidental character; they were the
phantasmagoria through which his philosophy of life found its expression.
If he made his knowledge of the world out of his phantasy, his knowledge
of tongues and books was certainly very great; and yet was that knowledge
as great as he would have us believe? Did he really know Welsh, for
instance, had he really as he told me, made his only love song, his
incomparable _Morfydd_ out of three lines in Welsh, heard sung by a woman
at her door on a walking tour in Wales, or did he but wish to hide that he
shared in their emotion?

"O, what are the winds?
And what are the waters?
Mine are your eyes."

He wanted us to believe that all things, his poetry with its Latin weight,
his religion with its constant reference to the Fathers of the Church, or
to the philosophers of the Church, almost his very courtesy were a study
and achievement of the intellect. Arthur Symons' poetry made him angry,
because it would substitute for that achievement, Parisian impressionism,
"a London fog, the blurred tawny lamplight, the red omnibus, the dreary
rain, the depressing mud, the glaring gin shop, the slatternly shivering
women, three dexterous stanzas telling you that and nothing more." I, on
the other hand, angered him by talking as if art existed for emotion only,
and for refutation he would quote the close of the Aeschylean Trilogy,
the trial of Orestes on the Acropolis. Yet at moments the thought came to
him that intellect, as he conceived it, was too much a thing of many
books, that it lacked lively experience. "Yeats," he has said to me, "You
need ten years in a library, but I have need of ten years in the
wilderness." When he said "Wilderness" I am certain, however, that he
thought of some historical, some bookish desert, the Thebaid, or the lands
about the Mareotic sea. His best poetry is natural and impassioned, but he
spoke little of it, but much about his prose, and would contend that I had
no right to consider words made to read, less natural than words made to
be spoken; and he delighted in a sentence in his book on Thomas Hardy,
that kept its vitality, as he contended, though two pages long. He
punctuated after the manner of the seventeenth century and was always
ready to spend an hour discussing the exact use of the colon. "One should
use a colon where other people use a semi-colon, a semi-colon where other
people use a comma," was, I think, but a condescension to my ignorance for
the matter was plainly beset with many subtleties.


VII

Not till some time in 1895 did I think he could ever drink too much for
his sobriety--though what he drank would certainly be too much for that of
most of the men whom I knew--I no more doubted his self-control, though we
were very intimate friends, than I doubted his memories of Cardinal
Newman. The discovery that he did was a great shock to me, and, I think,
altered my general view of the world. I had, by my friendship with
O'Leary, by my fight against Gavan Duffy, drawn the attention of a group
of men, who at that time controlled what remained of the old Fenian
movement in England and Scotland; and at a moment when an attempt, that
came to nothing, was being made to combine once more our constitutional
and unconstitutional politics, I had been asked to represent them at some
convention in the United States. I went to consult Johnson, whom I found
sitting at a table with books about him. I was greatly tempted, because I
was promised complete freedom of speech; and I was at the time enraged by
some wild articles published by some Irish American newspaper, suggesting
the burning down of the houses of Irish landlords. Nine years later I was
lecturing in America, and a charming old Irishman came to see me with an
interview to write, and we spent, and as I think in entire neglect of his
interview, one of the happiest hours I have ever spent, comparing our
tales of the Irish fairies, in which he very firmly believed. When he had
gone I looked at his card, to discover that he was the writer of that
criminal incitement. I told Johnson that if I had a week to decide in I
would probably decide to go, but as they had only given me three days, I
had refused. He would not hear of my refusal with so much awaiting my
condemnation; and that condemnation would be effective with Catholics, for
he would find me passages in the Fathers, condemning every kind of
political crime, that of the dynamiter and the incendiary especially. I
asked how could the Fathers have condemned weapons they had never heard
of, but those weapons, he contended, were merely developments of old
methods and weapons; they had decided all in principle; but I need not
trouble myself about the matter, for he would put into my hands before I
sailed the typewritten statement of their doctrine, dealing with the
present situation in the utmost detail. He seemed perfectly logical, but a
little more confident and impassioned than usual, and I had, I think,
promised to accept--when he rose from his chair, took a step towards me in
his eagerness, and fell on to the floor; and I saw that he was drunk. From
that on, he began to lose control of his life; he shifted from Charlotte
Street, where, I think, there was fear that he would overset lamp or
candle and burn the house, to Gray's Inn, and from Gray's Inn to old
rambling rooms in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and at last one called to find his
outer door shut, the milk on the doorstep sour. Sometimes I would urge him
to put himself, as Jack Nettleship had done, into an Institute. One day
when I had been very urgent, he spoke of "a craving that made every atom
of his body cry out" and said the moment after, "I do not want to be
cured," and a moment after that, "In ten years I shall be penniless and
shabby, and borrow half-crowns from friends." He seemed to contemplate a
vision that gave him pleasure, and now that I look back, I remember that
he once said to me that Wilde got, perhaps, an increase of pleasure and
excitement from the degradation of that group of beggars and blackmailers
where he sought his pathics, and I remember, too, his smile at my
surprise, as though he spoke of psychological depths I could never enter.
Did the austerity, the melancholy of his thoughts, that spiritual ecstasy
which he touched at times, heighten, as complementary colours heighten one
another, not only the Vision of Evil, but its fascination? Was it only
Villon, or did Dante also feel the fascination of evil, when shown in its
horror, and, as it were, judged and lost; and what proud man does not
feel temptation strengthened from the certainty that his intellect is not
deceived?


VIII

I began now to hear stories of Dowson, whom I knew only at the Rhymers, or
through some chance meeting at Johnson's. I was indolent and
procrastinating, and when I thought of asking him to dine, or taking some
other step towards better knowledge, he seemed to be in Paris, or at
Dieppe. He was drinking, but, unlike Johnson, who, at the autopsy after
his death, was discovered never to have grown, except in the brain, after
his fifteenth year, he was full of sexual desire. Johnson and he were
close friends, and Johnson lectured him out of the Fathers upon chastity,
and boasted of the great good done him thereby. But the rest of us counted
the glasses emptied in their talk. I began to hear now in some detail of
the restaurant-keeper's daughter, and of her marriage to the waiter, and
of that weekly game of cards with her that filled so great a share of
Dowson's emotional life. Sober, he would look at no other woman, it was
said, but, drunk, would desire whatever woman chance brought, clean or
dirty.

Johnson was stern by nature, strong by intellect, and always, I think,
deliberately picked his company, but Dowson seemed gentle, affectionate,
drifting. His poetry shows how sincerely he felt the fascination of
religion, but his religion had certainly no dogmatic outline, being but a
desire for a condition of virginal ecstasy. If it is true, as Arthur
Symons, his very close friend, has written, that he loved the
restaurant-keeper's daughter for her youth, one may be almost certain
that he sought from religion some similar quality, something of that which
the angels find who move perpetually, as Swedenborg has said, towards "the
dayspring of their youth." Johnson's poetry, like Johnson himself before
his last decay, conveys an emotion of joy, of intellectual clearness, of
hard energy; he gave us of his triumph; while Dowson's poetry is sad, as
he himself seemed, and pictures his life of temptation and defeat,

"Unto us they belong
Us the bitter and gay,
Wine and women and song."

Their way of looking at their intoxication showed their characters.
Johnson, who could not have written _Dark Angel_ if he did not suffer from
remorse, showed to his friends an impenitent face, and defeated me when I
tried to prevent the foundation of an Irish convivial club--it was brought
to an end after one meeting by the indignation of the members'
wives--whereas the last time I saw Dowson he was pouring out a glass of
whiskey for himself in an empty corner of my room and murmuring over and
over in what seemed automatic apology "The first to-day."


IX

Two men are always at my side, Lionel Johnson and John Synge whom I was to
meet a little later; but Johnson is to me the more vivid in memory,
possibly because of the external finish, the clearly-marked lineaments of
his body, which seemed but to express the clarity of his mind.



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