Chapter 13




I had various women friends on whom I would call towards five
o'clock, mainly to discuss my thoughts that I could not bring to a
man without meeting some competing thought, but partly because their
tea & toast saved my pennies for the 'bus ride home; but with women,
apart from their intimate exchanges of thought, I was timid and
abashed. I was sitting on a seat in front of the British Museum
feeding pigeons, when a couple of girls sat near and began enticing
my pigeons away, laughing and whispering to one another, and I
looked straight in front of me, very indignant, and presently went
into the Museum without turning my head towards them. Since then I
have often wondered if they were pretty or merely very young.
Sometimes I told myself very adventurous love stories with myself
for hero, and at other times I planned out a life of lonely
austerity, and at other times mixed the ideals and planned a life of
lonely austerity mitigated by periodical lapses. I had still the
ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of
Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when
walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle
of water and saw a fountain in a shop window which balanced a little
ball upon its jet and began to remember lake water. From the sudden
remembrance came my poem 'Innisfree,' my first lyric with anything
in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an
escape from rhetoric, and from that emotion of the crowd that
rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that
I must, for my special purpose, use nothing but the common syntax. A
couple of years later I would not have written that first line with
its conventional archaism--'Arise and go'--nor the inversion in the
last stanza. Passing another day by the new Law Courts, a building
that I admired because it was Gothic,--'It is not very good,' Morris
had said, 'but it is better than any thing else they have got and so
they hate it.'--I grew suddenly oppressed by the great weight of
stone, and thought, 'There are miles and miles of stone and brick
all round me,' and presently added, 'If John the Baptist, or his
like, were to come again and had his mind set upon it, he could make
all these people go out into some wilderness leaving their buildings
empty,' and that thought, which does not seem very valuable now, so
enlightened the day that it is still vivid in the memory. I spent a
few days at Oxford copying out a seventeenth century translation of
_Poggio's Liber Facetiarum_ or the _Hypneroto-machia_ of _Poliphili_
for a publisher; I forget which, for I copied both; and returned
very pale to my troubled family. I had lived upon bread and tea
because I thought that if antiquity found locust and wild honey
nutritive, my soul was strong enough to need no better. I was always
planning some great gesture, putting the whole world into one scale
of the balance and my soul into the other, and imagining that the
whole world somehow kicked the beam. More than thirty years have
passed and I have seen no forcible young man of letters brave the
metropolis without some like stimulant; and all, after two or three,
or twelve or fifteen years, according to obstinacy, have understood
that we achieve, if we do achieve, in little diligent sedentary
stitches as though we were making lace. I had one unmeasured
advantage from my stimulant: I could ink my socks, that they might
not show through my shoes, with a most haughty mind, imagining
myself, and my torn tackle, somewhere else, in some far place 'under
the canopy ... i' the city of kites and crows.'

In London I saw nothing good, and constantly remembered that
Ruskin had said to some friend of my father's--'As I go to my work
at the British Museum I see the faces of the people become daily
more corrupt.' I convinced myself for a time, that on the same
journey I saw but what he saw. Certain old women's faces filled me
with horror, faces that are no longer there, or if they are, pass
before me unnoticed: the fat blotched faces, rising above double
chins, of women who have drunk too much beer and eaten too much
meat. In Dublin I had often seen old women walking with erect
heads and gaunt bodies, talking to themselves in loud voices, mad
with drink and poverty, but they were different, they belonged to
romance: Da Vinci has drawn women who looked so and so carried
their bodies.



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