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Chapter 12

I spent my days at the British Museum and must, I think, have been
delicate, for I remember often putting off hour after hour
consulting some necessary book because I shrank from lifting the
heavy volumes of the catalogue; and yet to save money for my
afternoon coffee and roll I often walked the whole way home to
Bedford Park. I was compiling, for a series of shilling books, an
anthology of Irish fairy stories and, for an American publisher, a
two volume selection from the Irish novelists that would be
somewhat dearer. I was not well paid, for each book cost me more
than three months' reading; and I was paid for the first some
twelve pounds, ('O Mr. E...' said publisher to editor, 'you must
never again pay so much') and for the second, twenty; but I did
not think myself badly paid, for I had chosen the work for my own
purposes.

Though I went to Sligo every summer, I was compelled to live out of
Ireland the greater part of every year and was but keeping my mind
upon what I knew must be the subject matter of my poetry. I believed
that if Morris had set his stories amid the scenery of his own Wales
(for I knew him to be of Welsh extraction and supposed wrongly that
he had spent his childhood there) that if Shelley had nailed his
Prometheus or some equal symbol upon some Welsh or Scottish rock,
their art had entered more intimately, more microscopically, as it
were, into our thought, and had given perhaps to modern poetry a
breadth and stability like that of ancient poetry. The statues of
Mausolus and Artemisia at the British Museum, private, half animal,
half divine figures, all unlike the Grecian athletes and Egyptian
kings in their near neighbourhood, that stand in the middle of the
crowd's applause or sit above measuring it out unpersuadable
justice, became to me, now or later, images of an unpremeditated
joyous energy, that neither I nor any other man, racked by doubt and
enquiry, can achieve; and that yet, if once achieved, might seem to
men and women of Connemara or of Galway their very soul. In our
study of that ruined tomb, raised by a queen to her dead lover, and
finished by the unpaid labour of great sculptors after her death
from grief, or so runs the tale, we cannot distinguish the
handiworks of Scopas and Praxiteles; and I wanted to create once
more an art, where the artist's handiwork would hide as under those
half anonymous chisels, or as we find it in some old Scots ballads
or in some twelfth or thirteenth century Arthurian romance. That
handiwork assured, I had martyred no man for modelling his own image
upon Pallas Athena's buckler; for I took great pleasure in certain
allusions to the singer's life one finds in old romances and
ballads, and thought his presence there all the more poignant
because we discover it half lost, like portly Chaucer riding behind
his Maunciple and his Pardoner. Wolfram von Eschenbach, singing his
German Parsival, broke off some description of a famished city to
remember that in his own house at home the very mice lacked food,
and what old ballad singer was it who claimed to have fought by day
in the very battle he sang by night? So masterful indeed was that
instinct that when the minstrel knew not who his poet was he must
needs make up a man: 'When any stranger asks who is the sweetest of
singers, answer with one voice: "A blind man; he dwells upon rocky
Chios; his songs shall be the most beautiful for ever."' Elaborate
modern psychology sounds egotistical, I thought, when it speaks in
the first person, but not those simple emotions which resemble the
more, the more powerful they are, everybody's emotion, and I was
soon to write many poems where an always personal emotion was woven
into a general pattern of myth and symbol. When the Fenian poet says
that his heart has grown cold and callous, 'For thy hapless fate,
dear Ireland, and sorrows of my own,' he but follows tradition, and
if he does not move us deeply, it is because he has no sensuous
musical vocabulary that comes at need, without compelling him to
sedentary toil and so driving him out from his fellows. I thought to
create that sensuous, musical vocabulary, and not for myself only
but that I might leave it to later Irish poets, much as a mediaeval
Japanese painter left his style as an inheritance to his family, and
was careful to use a traditional manner and matter; yet did
something altogether different, changed by that toil, impelled by my
share in Cain's curse, by all that sterile modern complication, by
my 'originality' as the newspapers call it. Morris set out to make a
revolution that the persons of his 'Well at the World's End' or his
'Waters of the Wondrous Isles,' always, to my mind, in the likeness
of Artemisia and her man, might walk his native scenery; and I, that
my native scenery might find imaginary inhabitants, half planned a
new method and a new culture. My mind began drifting vaguely towards
that doctrine of 'the mask' which has convinced me that every
passionate man (I have nothing to do with mechanist, or
philanthropist, or man whose eyes have no preference) is, as it
were, linked with another age, historical or imaginary, where alone
he finds images that rouse his energy. Napoleon was never of his own
time, as the naturalistic writers and painters bid all men be, but
had some Roman Emperor's image in his head and some condottiere's
blood in his heart; and when he crowned that head at Rome with his
own hands, he had covered, as may be seen from David's painting, his
hesitation with that Emperor's old suit.


William Butler Yeats

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