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Chapter 15

Nettleship said to me: 'Has Edwin Ellis ever said anything about
the effect of drink upon my genius?' 'No,' I answered. 'I ask,' he
said, 'because I have always thought that Ellis has some strange
medical insight.' Though I had answered 'no,' Ellis had only a few
days before used these words: 'Nettleship drank his genius away.'
Ellis, but lately returned from Perugia, where he had lived many
years, was another old friend of my father's but some years
younger than Nettleship or my father. Nettleship had found his
simplifying image, but in his painting had turned away from it,
while Ellis, the son of Alexander Ellis, a once famous man of
science, who was perhaps the last man in England to run the circle
of the sciences without superficiality, had never found that image
at all. He was a painter and poet, but his painting, which did not
interest me, showed no influence but that of Leighton. He had
started perhaps a couple of years too late for Pre-Raphaelite
influence, for no great Pre-Raphaelite picture was painted after
1870, and left England too soon for that of the French painters.
He was, however, sometimes moving as a poet and still more often
an astonishment. I have known him cast something just said into a
dozen lines of musical verse, without apparently ceasing to talk;
but the work once done he could not or would not amend it, and my
father thought he lacked all ambition. Yet he had at times
nobility of rhythm--an instinct for grandeur--and after thirty
years I still repeat to myself his address to Mother Earth:

O mother of the hills, forgive our towers;
O mother of the clouds, forgive our dreams

and there are certain whole poems that I read from time to time or
try to make others read. There is that poem where the manner is
unworthy of the matter, being loose and facile, describing Adam
and Eve fleeing from Paradise. Adam asks Eve what she carries so
carefully and Eve replies that it is a little of the apple core
kept for their children. There is that vision of 'Christ the
Less,' a too hurriedly written ballad, where the half of Christ,
sacrificed to the divine half 'that fled to seek felicity,'
wanders wailing through Golgotha; and there is 'The Saint and the
Youth' in which I can discover no fault at all. He loved
complexities--'seven silences like candles round her face' is a
line of his--and whether he wrote well or ill had always a manner,
which I would have known from that of any other poet. He would say
to me, 'I am a mathematician with the mathematics left out'--his
father was a great mathematician--or 'A woman once said to me,
"Mr. Ellis why are your poems like sums?"' and certainly he loved
symbols and abstractions. He said once, when I had asked him not
to mention something or other, 'Surely you have discovered by this
time that I know of no means whereby I can mention a fact in
conversation.'

He had a passion for Blake, picked up in Pre-Raphaelite studios,
and early in our acquaintance put into my hands a scrap of note
paper on which he had written some years before an interpretation
of the poem that begins

The fields from Islington to Marylebone
To Primrose Hill and St. John's Wood
Were builded over with pillars of gold
And there Jerusalem's pillars stood.

The four quarters of London represented Blake's four great
mythological personages, the Zoas, and also the four elements.
These few sentences were the foundation of all study of the
philosophy of William Blake, that requires an exact knowledge for
its pursuit and that traces the connection between his system and
that of Swedenborg or of Boehme. I recognised certain attributions,
from what is sometimes called the Christian Cabala, of which Ellis
had never heard, and with this proof that his interpretation was
more than phantasy, he and I began our four years' work upon the
Prophetic Books of William Blake. We took it as almost a sign of
Blake's personal help when we discovered that the spring of 1889,
when we first joined our knowledge, was one hundred years from the
publication of 'The Book of Thel,' the first published of the
Prophetic Books, as though it were firmly established that the dead
delight in anniversaries. After months of discussion and reading, we
made a concordance of all Blake's mystical terms, and there was much
copying to be done in the Museum & at Red Hill, where the
descendants of Blake's friend and patron, the landscape painter,
John Linnell, had many manuscripts. The Linnellswere narrow in
their religious ideas & doubtful of Blake's orthodoxy, whom they
held, however, in great honour, and I remember a timid old lady who
had known Blake when a child saying: 'He had very wrong ideas, he
did not believe in the historical Jesus.' One old man sat always
beside us ostensibly to sharpen our pencils, but perhaps really to
see that we did not steal the manuscripts, and they gave us very old
port at lunch and I have upon my dining room walls their present of
Blake's Dante engravings. Going thither and returning Ellis would
entertain me by philosophical discussion, varied with improvised
stories, at first folk tales which he professed to have picked up in
Scotland; and though I had read and collected many folk tales, I did
not see through the deceit. I have a partial memory of two more
elaborate tales, one of an Italian conspirator flying barefoot from
I forget what adventure through I forget what Italian city, in the
early morning. Fearing to be recognised by his bare feet, he slipped
past the sleepy porter at an hotel calling out 'number so and so' as
if he were some belated guest. Then passing from bedroom door to
door he tried on the boots, and just as he got a pair to fit a voice
cried from the room 'Who is that?' 'Merely me, sir,' he called back,
'taking your boots.' The other was of a Martyr's Bible round which
the cardinal virtues had taken personal form--this a fragment of
Blake's philosophy. It was in the possession of an old clergyman
when a certain jockey called upon him, and the cardinal virtues,
confused between jockey and clergyman, devoted themselves to the
jockey. As whenever he sinned a cardinal virtue interfered and
turned him back to virtue, he lived in great credit and made, but
for one sentence, a very holy death. As his wife and family knelt
round in admiration and grief, he suddenly said 'Damn.' 'O my dear,'

said his wife, 'what a dreadful expression.' He answered, 'I am
going to heaven' and straightway died. It was a long tale, for there
were all the jockey's vain attempts to sin, as well as all the
adventures of the clergyman, who became very sinful indeed, but it
ended happily, for when the jockey died the cardinal virtues
returned to the clergyman. I think he would talk to any audience
that offered, one audience being the same as another in his eyes,
and it may have been for this reason that my father called him
unambitious. When he was a young man he had befriended a reformed
thief and had asked the grateful thief to take him round the
thieves' quarters of London. The thief, however, hurried him away
from the worst saying, 'Another minute and they would have found you
out. If they were not the stupidest men in London, they had done so
already.' Ellis had gone through a no doubt romantic and witty
account of all the houses he had robbed, and all the throats he had
cut in one short life.

His conversation would often pass out of my comprehension, or
indeed I think of any man's, into a labyrinth of abstraction and
subtilty, and then suddenly return with some verbal conceit or
turn of wit. The mind is known to attain, in certain conditions of
trance, a quickness so extraordinary that we are compelled at
times to imagine a condition of unendurable intellectual
intensity, from which we are saved by the merciful stupidity of
the body; & I think that the mind of Edwin Ellis was constantly
upon the edge of trance. Once we were discussing the symbolism of
sex, in the philosophy of Blake, and had been in disagreement all
the afternoon. I began talking with a new sense of conviction, and
after a moment Ellis, who was at his easel, threw down his brush
and said that he had just seen the same explanation in a series of
symbolic visions. 'In another moment,' he said, 'I should have
been off.' We went into the open air and walked up and down to get
rid of that feeling, but presently we came in again and I began
again my explanation, Ellis lying upon the sofa. I had been
talking some time when Mrs. Ellis came into the room and said:
'Why are you sitting in the dark?' Ellis answered, 'But we are
not,' and then added in a voice of wonder, 'I thought the lamp was
lit and that I was sitting up, and I find I am in the dark and
lying down.' I had seen a flicker of light over the ceiling, but
had thought it a reflection from some light outside the house,
which may have been the case.

William Butler Yeats

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