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I think
Dowson's best verse immortal, bound, that is, to outlive famous novels
and plays and learned histories and other discursive things, but he was
too vague and gentle for my affections. I understood him too well, for I
had been like him but for the appetite that made me search out strong
condiments. Though I cannot explain what brought others of my generation
to such misfortune, I think that (falling backward upon my parable of the
moon) I can explain some part of Dowson's and Johnson's dissipation--

"What portion in the world can the artist have,
Who has awaked from the common dream,
But dissipation and despair?"

When Edmund Spencer described the islands of Phaedria and of Acrasia he
aroused the indignation of Lord Burleigh, "that rugged forehead" and Lord
Burleigh was in the right if morality were our only object.

In those islands certain qualities of beauty, certain forms of sensuous
loveliness were separated from all the general purposes of life, as they
had not been hitherto in European literature--and would not be again, for
even the historical process has its ebb and flow, till Keats wrote his
_Endymion_. I think that the movement of our thought has more and more so
separated certain images and regions of the mind, and that these images
grow in beauty as they grow in sterility. Shakespeare leaned, as it were,
even as craftsman, upon the general fate of men and nations, had about him
the excitement of the playhouse; and all poets, including Spencer in all
but a few pages, until our age came, and when it came almost all, have had
some propaganda or traditional doctrine to give companionship with their
fellows. Had not Matthew Arnold his faith in what he described as the
best thought of his generation? Browning his psychological curiosity,
Tennyson, as before him Shelley and Wordsworth, moral values that were not
aesthetic values? But Coleridge of the _Ancient Mariner_, and _Kubla
Khan_, and Rossetti in all his writings made what Arnold has called that
"morbid effort," that search for "perfection of thought and feeling, and
to unite this to perfection of form," sought this new, pure beauty, and
suffered in their lives because of it. The typical men of the classical
age (I think of Commodus, with his half-animal beauty, his cruelty, and
his caprice), lived public lives, pursuing curiosities of appetite, and so
found in Christianity, with its Thebaid and its Mariotic Sea the needed
curb. But what can the Christian confessor say to those who more and more
must make all out of the privacy of their thought, calling up perpetual
images of desire, for he cannot say "Cease to be artist, cease to be
poet," where the whole life is art and poetry, nor can he bid men leave
the world, who suffer from the terrors that pass before shut-eyes.
Coleridge, and Rossetti though his dull brother did once persuade him that
he was an agnostic, were devout Christians, and Steinbock and Beardsley
were so towards their lives' end, and Dowson and Johnson always, and yet I
think it but deepened despair and multiplied temptation.

"Dark Angel, with thine aching lust,
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious angel, who still dost
My soul such subtil violence!

When music sounds, then changest thou
A silvery to a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire.

Through thee, the gracious Muses turn
To Furies, O mine Enemy!
And all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.

Because of thee, the land of dreams
Becomes a gathering place of fears:
Until tormented slumber seems
One vehemence of useless tears."

Why are these strange souls born everywhere to-day? with hearts that
Christianity, as shaped by history, cannot satisfy. Our love letters wear
out our love; no school of painting outlasts its founders, every stroke of
the brush exhausts the impulse, Pre-Raphaelitism had some twenty years;
impressionism thirty perhaps. Why should we believe that religion can
never bring round its antithesis? Is it true that our air is disturbed, as
Malarmé said, by "the trembling of the veil of the temple," or "that our
whole age is seeking to bring forth a sacred book?" Some of us thought
that book near towards the end of last century, but the tide sank again.


X

I do not know whether John Davidson, whose life also was tragic, made that
"morbid effort," that search for "perfection of thought and feeling," for
he is hidden behind failure, to unite it "to perfection of form." At
eleven one morning I met him in the British Museum reading room, probably
in 1894, when I was in London for the production of _The Land of Heart's
Desire_, but certainly after some long absence from London. "Are you
working here?" I said; "No," he said, "I am loafing, for I have finished
my day's work." "What, already?" "I work an hour a day--I cannot work
longer without exhaustion, and even as it is, if I meet anybody and get
into talk, I cannot write the next day; that is why I loaf when my work is
finished." No one had ever doubted his industry; he had supported his wife
and family for years by "devilling" many hours a day for some popular
novelist. "What work is it?" I said. "I am writing verse," he answered. "I
had been writing prose for a long time, and then one day I thought I might
just as well write what I liked, as I must starve in any case. It was the
luckiest thought I ever had, for my agent now gets me forty pounds for a
ballad, and I made three hundred out of my last book of verse."

He was older by ten years than his fellow Rhymers; a national schoolmaster
from Scotland, he had been dismissed, he told us, for asking for a rise in
his salary, and had come to London with his wife and children. He looked
older than his years. "Ellis," he had said, "how old are you?" "Fifty,"
Edwin Ellis replied, or whatever his age was. "Then I will take off my
wig. I never take off my wig when there is a man under thirty in the
room." He had endured and was to endure again, a life of tragic penury,
which was made much harder by the conviction that the world was against
him, that he was refused for some reason his rightful position. Ellis
thought that he pined even for social success, and I that his Scots
jealousy kept him provincial and but half articulate.

During the quarrel over Parnell's grave a quotation from Goethe ran
through the papers, describing our Irish jealousy: "The Irish seem to me
like a pack of hounds, always dragging down some noble stag." But I do not
think we object to distinction for its own sake; if we kill the stag, it
is that we may carry off his head and antlers. "The Irish people," O'Leary
used to say, "do not know good from bad in any art, but they do not hate
the good once it is pointed out to them because it is good." An infallible
Church, with its Mass in Latin, and its mediaeval philosophy, and our
Protestant social prejudice, have kept our ablest men from levelling
passions; but Davidson with a jealousy, which may be Scottish, seeing that
Carlyle had it, was quick to discover sour grapes. He saw in delicate,
laborious, discriminating taste, an effeminate pedantry, and would, when
that mood was on him, delight in all that seemed healthy, popular, and
bustling. Once when I had praised Herbert Horne for his knowledge and his
taste, he burst out, "If a man must be a connoisseur, let him be a
connoisseur in women." He, indeed, was accustomed, in the most
characteristic phrase of his type, to describe the Rhymers as lacking in
"blood and guts," and very nearly brought us to an end by attempting to
supply the deficiency by the addition of four Scotsmen. He brought all
four upon the same evening, and one read out a poem upon the Life Boat,
evidently intended for a recitation; another described how, when
gold-digging in Australia, he had fought and knocked down another miner
for doubting the rotundity of the earth; while of the remainder I can
remember nothing except that they excelled in argument. He insisted upon
their immediate election, and the Rhymers, through that complacency of
good manners whereby educated Englishmen so often surprise me, obeyed,
though secretly resolved never to meet again; and it cost me seven hours'
work to get another meeting, and vote the Scotsmen out. A few days later I
chanced upon Davidson at some restaurant; he was full of amiability, and
when we parted shook my hand, and proclaimed enthusiastically that I had
"blood and guts." I think he might have grown to be a successful man had
he been enthusiastic instead about Dowson or Johnson, or Horne or Symons,
for they had what I still lacked, conscious deliberate craft, and what I
must lack always, scholarship. They had taught me that violent energy,
which is like a fire of straw, consumes in a few minutes the nervous
vitality, and is useless in the arts. Our fire must burn slowly, and we
must constantly turn away to think, constantly analyse what we have done,
be content even to have little life outside our work, to show, perhaps, to
other men, as little as the watch-mender shows, his magnifying glass
caught in his screwed-up eye. Only then do we learn to conserve our
vitality, to keep our mind enough under control and to make our technique
sufficiently flexible for expression of the emotions of life as they
arise. A few months after our meeting in the Museum, Davidson had spent
his inspiration. "The fires are out," he said, "and I must hammer the cold
iron." When I heard a few years ago that he had drowned himself, I knew
that I had always expected some such end. With enough passion to make a
great poet, through meeting no man of culture in early life, he lacked
intellectual receptivity, and, anarchic and indefinite, lacked pose and
gesture, and now no verse of his clings to my memory.


XI

Gradually Arthur Symons came to replace in my intimate friendship, Lionel
Johnson from whom I was slowly separated by a scruple of conscience. If
he came to see me he sat tongue-tied unless I gave him the drink that
seemed necessary to bring his vitality to but its normal pitch, and if I
called upon him he drank so much that I became his confederate.



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