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Chapter 11

Soon after I began to attend the lectures, a French class was
started in the old coach-house for certain young socialists who
planned a tour in France, and I joined it and was for a time a
model student constantly encouraged by the compliments of the old
French mistress. I told my father of the class, and he asked me to
get my sisters admitted. I made difficulties and put off speaking
of the matter, for I knew that the new and admirable self I was
making would turn, under family eyes, into plain rag doll. How
could I pretend to be industrious, and even carry dramatization to
the point of learning my lessons, when my sisters were there and
knew that I was nothing of the kind? But I had no argument I could
use and my sisters were admitted. They said nothing unkind, so far
as I can remember, but in a week or two I was my old procrastinating
idle self and had soon left the class altogether. My elder sister
stayed on and became an embroideress under Miss May Morris,
and the hangings round Morris's big bed at Kelmscott House,
Oxfordshire, with their verses about lying happily in bed when
'all birds sing in the town of the tree,' were from her needle
though not from her design. She worked for the first few months
at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, and in my imagination I cannot
always separate what I saw and heard from her report, or indeed
from the report of that tribe or guild who looked up to Morris
as to some worshipped mediaeval king. He had no need for other
people. I doubt if their marriage or death made him sad or glad,
and yet no man I have known was so well loved; you saw him
producing everywhere organisation and beauty, seeming, almost in
the same instant, helpless and triumphant; and people loved him as
children are loved. People much in his neighbourhood became
gradually occupied with him, or about his affairs, and without any
wish on his part, as simple people become occupied with children.
I remember a man who was proud and pleased because he had
distracted Morris' thoughts from an attack of gout by leading the
conversation delicately to the hated name of Milton. He began at
Swinburne. 'Oh, Swinburne,' said Morris, 'is a rhetorician; my
masters have been Keats and Chaucer for they make pictures.' 'Does
not Milton make pictures?' asked my informant. 'No,' was the
answer, 'Dante makes pictures, but Milton, though he had a great
earnest mind, expressed himself as a rhetorician.' 'Great earnest
mind,' sounded strange to me and I doubt not that were his
questioner not a simple man, Morris had been more violent. Another
day the same man started by praising Chaucer, but the gout was

worse and Morris cursed Chaucer for destroying the English
language with foreign words.

He had few detachable phrases and I can remember little of his
speech, which many thought the best of all good talk, except that
it matched his burly body and seemed within definite boundaries
inexhaustible in fact and expression. He alone of all the men I
have known seemed guided by some beast-like instinct and never ate
strange meat. 'Balzac! Balzac!' he said to me once, 'Oh, that was
the man the French bourgeoisie read so much a few years ago.' I
can remember him at supper praising wine: 'Why do people say it is
prosaic to be inspired by wine? Has it not been made by the
sunlight and the sap?' and his dispraising houses decorated by
himself: 'Do you suppose I like that kind of house? I would like a
house like a big barn, where one ate in one corner, cooked in
another corner, slept in the third corner & in the fourth received
one's friends'; and his complaining of Ruskin's objection to the
underground railway: 'If you must have a railway the best thing
you can do with it is to put it in a tube with a cork at each
end.' I remember too that when I asked what led up to his
movement, he replied, 'Oh, Ruskin and Carlyle, but somebody should
have been beside Carlyle and punched his head every five minutes.'
Though I remember little, I do not doubt that, had I continued
going there on Sunday evenings, I should have caught fire from his
words and turned my hand to some mediaeval work or other. Just
before I had ceased to go there I had sent my 'Wanderings of
Usheen' to his daughter, hoping of course that it might meet his
eyes, & soon after sending it I came upon him by chance in
Holborn. 'You write my sort of poetry,' he said and began to
praise me and to promise to send his praise to 'The Commonwealth,'
the League organ, and he would have said more of a certainty had
he not caught sight of a new ornamental cast-iron lamp-post and
got very heated upon that subject.

I did not read economics, having turned socialist because of
Morris's lectures and pamphlets, and I think it unlikely that Morris
himself could read economics. That old dogma of mine seemed germane
to the matter. If the men and women imagined by the poets were the
norm, and if Morris had, in, let us say, 'News from Nowhere,' then
running through 'The Commonwealth,' described such men and women
living under their natural conditions or as they would desire to
live, then those conditions themselves must be the norm, and could
we but get rid of certain institutions the world would turn from
eccentricity. Perhaps Morris himself justified himself in his own
heart by as simple an argument, and was, as the socialist D... said
to me one night walking home after some lecture, 'an anarchist
without knowing it.' Certainly I and all about me, including D...
himself, were for chopping up the old king for Medea's pot. Morris
had told us to have nothing to do with the parliamentary socialists,
represented for men in general by the Fabian Society and Hyndman's
Socialist Democratic Federation and for us in particular by D...
During the period of transition mistakes must be made, and the
discredit of these mistakes must be left to 'the bourgeoisie;' and
besides, when you begin to talk of this measure or that other you
lose sight of the goal and see, to reverse Swinburne's description
of Tiresias, 'light on the way but darkness on the goal.' By
mistakes Morris meant vexatious restrictions and compromises--'If
any man puts me into a labour squad, I will lie on my back and
kick.' That phrase very much expresses our idea of revolutionary
tactics: we all intended to lie upon our back and kick. D..., pale
and sedentary, did not dislike labour squads and we all hated him
with the left side of our heads, while admiring him immensely with
the right. He alone was invited to entertain Mrs. Morris, having
many tales of his Irish uncles, more especially of one particular
uncle who had tried to commit suicide by shutting his head into a
carpet bag. At that time he was an obscure man, known only for a
witty speaker at street corners and in Park demonstrations. He had,
with an assumed truculence and fury, cold logic, an universal
gentleness, an unruffled courtesy, and yet could never close a
speech without being denounced by a journeyman hatter with an
Italian name. Converted to socialism by D..., and to anarchism by
himself, with swinging arm and uplifted voice this man perhaps
exaggerated our scruple about parliament. 'I lack,' said D..., 'the
bump of reverence;' whereon the wild man shouted 'You 'ave a 'ole.'
There are moments when looking back I somewhat confuse my own figure
with that of the hatter, image of our hysteria, for I too became
violent with the violent solemnity of a religious devotee. I can
even remember sitting behind D... and saying some rude thing or
other over his shoulder. I don't remember why I gave it up but I did
quite suddenly; and I think the push may have come from a young
workman who was educating himself between Morris and Karl Marx. He
had planned a history of the navy and when I had spoken of the
battleship of Nelson's day, had said: 'Oh, that was the decadence of
the battleship,' but if his naval interests were mediaeval, his
ideas about religion were pure Karl Marx, and we were soon in
perpetual argument. Then gradually the attitude towards religion of
almost everybody but Morris, who avoided the subject altogether, got
upon my nerves, for I broke out after some lecture or other with all
the arrogance of raging youth. They attacked religion, I said, or
some such words, and yet there must be a change of heart and only
religion could make it. What was the use of talking about some near
revolution putting all things right, when the change must come, if
come it did, with astronomical slowness, like the cooling of the sun
or, it may have been, like the drying of the moon? Morris rang his
chairman's bell, but I was too angry to listen, and he had to ring
it a second time before I sat down. He said that night at supper:
'Of course I know there must be a change of heart, but it will not
come as slowly as all that. I rang my bell because you were not
being understood.' He did not show any vexation, but I never
returned after that night; and yet I did not always believe what I
had said and only gradually gave up thinking of and planning for
some near sudden change for the better.


William Butler Yeats

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