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Chapter 16


I had already met most of the poets of my generation. I had said,
soon after the publication of 'The Wanderings of Usheen,' to the
editor of a series of shilling reprints, who had set me to compile
tales of the Irish fairies, 'I am growing jealous of other poets,
and we will all grow jealous of each other unless we know each
other and so feel a share in each other's triumph.' He was a
Welshman, lately a mining engineer, Ernest Rhys, a writer of Welsh
translations and original poems that have often moved me greatly
though I can think of no one else who has read them. He was seven
or eight years older than myself and through his work as editor
knew everybody who would compile a book for seven or eight pounds.
Between us we founded 'The Rhymers' Club' which for some years was
to meet every night in an upper room with a sanded floor in an
ancient eating house in the Strand called 'The Cheshire Cheese.'
Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Victor Plarr, Ernest Radford, John
Davidson, Richard le Gallienne, T. W. Rolleston, Selwyn Image and
two men of an older generation, Edwin Ellis and John Todhunter,
came constantly for a time, Arthur Symons and Herbert Home less
constantly, while William Watson joined but never came and Francis
Thompson came once but never joined; and sometimes, if we met in a
private house, which we did occasionally, Oscar Wilde came. It had
been useless to invite him to the 'Cheshire Cheese' for he hated
Bohemia. 'Olive Schreiner,' he said once to me, 'is staying in the
East End because that is the only place where people do not wear
masks upon their faces, but I have told her that I live in the
West End because nothing in life interests me but the mask.'

We read our poems to one another and talked criticism and drank a
little wine. I sometimes say when I speak of the club, 'We had
such and such ideas, such and such a quarrel with the great
Victorians, we set before us such and such aims,' as though we had
many philosophical ideas. I say this because I am ashamed to admit
that I had these ideas and that whenever I began to talk of them a
gloomy silence fell upon the room. A young Irish poet, who wrote
excellently but had the worst manners, was to say a few years
later, 'You do not talk like a poet, you talk like a man of
letters;' and if all the rhymers had not been polite, if most of
them had not been to Oxford or Cambridge, they would have said the
same thing. I was full of thought, often very abstract thought,
longing all the while to be full of images, because I had gone to
the art school instead of a university. Yet even if I had gone to
a university, and learned all the classical foundations of English
literature and English culture, all that great erudition which,
once accepted, frees the mind from restlessness, I should have had
to give up my Irish subject matter, or attempt to found a new
tradition. Lacking sufficient recognised precedent I must needs
find out some reason for all I did. I knew almost from the start
that to overflow with reasons was to be not quite well-born, and
when I could I hid them, as men hide a disagreeable ancestry; and
that there was no help for it, seeing that my country was not born
at all. I was of those doomed to imperfect achievement, and under
a curse, as it were, like some race of birds compelled to spend
the time, needed for the making of the nest, in argument as to the
convenience of moss and twig and lichen. Le Gallienne and
Davidson, and even Symons, were provincial at their setting out,
but their provincialism was curable, mine incurable; while the one
conviction shared by all the younger men, but principally by
Johnson and Horne, who imposed their personalities upon us, was an
opposition to all ideas, all generalisations that can be explained
and debated. E... fresh from Paris would sometimes say--'We are
concerned with nothing but impressions,' but that itself was a
generalisation and met but stony silence. Conversation constantly
dwindled into 'Do you like so and so's last book?' 'No, I prefer
the book before it,' and I think that but for its Irish members,
who said whatever came into their heads, the club would not have
survived its first difficult months. I knew--now ashamed that I
thought 'like a man of letters,' now exasperated at their
indifference to the fashion of their own river bed--that Swinburne
in one way, Browning in another, and Tennyson in a third, had
filled their work with what I called 'impurities,' curiosities
about politics, about science, about history, about religion; and
that we must create once more the pure work.

Our clothes were for the most part unadventurous like our
conversation, though I indeed wore a brown velveteen coat, a loose
tie and a very old Inverness cape, discarded by my father twenty
years before and preserved by my Sligo-born mother whose actions
were unreasoning and habitual like the seasons. But no other
member of the club, except Le Gallienne, who wore a loose tie, and
Symons, who had an Inverness cape that was quite new & almost
fashionable, would have shown himself for the world in any costume
but 'that of an English gentleman.' 'One should be quite
unnoticeable,' Johnson explained to me. Those who conformed most
carefully to the fashion in their clothes generally departed
furthest from it in their hand-writing, which was small, neat and
studied, one poet--which I forget--having founded his upon the
handwriting of George Herbert. Dowson and Symons I was to know
better in later years when Symons became a very dear friend, and I
never got behind John Davidson's Scottish roughness and
exasperation, though I saw much of him, but from the first I
devoted myself to Lionel Johnson. He and Horne and Image and one
or two others shared a man-servant and an old house in Charlotte
Street, Fitzroy Square, typical figures of transition, doing as an
achievement of learning and of exquisite taste what their
predecessors did in careless abundance. All were Pre-Raphaelite,
and sometimes one might meet in the rooms of one or other a ragged
figure, as of some fallen dynasty, Simeon Solomon, the Pre-
Raphaelite painter, once the friend of Rossetti and of Swinburne,
but fresh now from some low public house. Condemned to a long term
of imprisonment for a criminal offence, he had sunk into
drunkenness and misery. Introduced one night, however, to some man
who mistook him, in the dim candle light, for another Solomon, a
successful academic painter and R. A., he started to his feet in a
rage with 'Sir, do you dare to mistake me for that mountebank?'
Though not one had harkened to the feeblest caw, or been spattered
by the smallest dropping from any Huxley, Tyndall, Carolus Duran,
Bastien-Lepage bundle of old twigs, I began by suspecting them of
lukewarmness, and even backsliding, and I owe it to that suspicion
that I never became intimate with Horne, who lived to become the
greatest English authority upon Italian life in the fourteenth
century and to write the one standard work on Botticelli.
Connoisseur in several arts, he had designed a little church in
the manner of Inigo Jones for a burial ground near the Marble
Arch. Though I now think his little church a masterpiece, its
style was more than a century too late to hit my fancy at two or
three and twenty; and I accused him of leaning towards that
eighteenth century

That taught a school
Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit
Till, like the certain wands of Jacob's wit,
Their verses tallied.

Another fanaticism delayed my friendship with two men, who are now
my friends and in certain matters my chief instructors. Somebody,
probably Lionel Johnson, brought me to the studio of Charles
Ricketts and Charles Shannon, certainly heirs of the great
generation, and the first thing I saw was a Shannon picture of a
lady and child arrayed in lace, silk and satin, suggesting that
hated century. My eyes were full of some more mythological mother
and child and I would have none of it, and I told Shannon that he
had not painted a mother and child but elegant people expecting
visitors and I thought that a great reproach. Somebody writing in
'The Germ' had said that a picture of a pheasant and an apple was
merely a picture of something to eat, and I was so angry with the
indifference to subject, which was the commonplace of all art
criticism since Bastien-Lepage, that I could at times see nothing
else but subject. I thought that, though it might not matter to
the man himself whether he loved a white woman or a black, a
female pickpocket or a regular communicant of the Church of
England, if only he loved strongly, it certainly did matter to his
relations and even under some circumstances to his whole
neighbourhood. Sometimes indeed, like some father in Moliere, I
ignored the lover's feelings altogether and even refused to admit
that a trace of the devil, perhaps a trace of colour, may lend
piquancy, especially if the connection be not permanent.

Among these men, of whom so many of the greatest talents were to
live such passionate lives and die such tragic deaths, one serene
man, T. W. Rolleston, seemed always out of place. It was I brought
him there, intending to set him to some work in Ireland later on.
I have known young Dublin working men slip out of their workshop
to see 'the second Thomas Davis' passing by, and even remember a
conspiracy, by some three or four, to make him 'the leader of the
Irish race at home & abroad,' and all because he had regular
features; and when all is said, Alexander the Great & Alcibiades
were personable men, and the Founder of the Christian religion was
the only man who was neither a little too tall nor a little too
short but exactly six feet high. We in Ireland thought as do the
plays and ballads, not understanding that, from the first moment
wherein nature foresaw the birth of Bastien-Lepage, she has only
granted great creative power to men whose faces are contorted with
extravagance or curiosity or dulled with some protecting
stupidity.

I had now met all those who were to make the nineties of the last
century tragic in the history of literature, but as yet we were
all seemingly equal, whether in talent or in luck, and scarce even
personalities to one another. I remember saying one night at the
Cheshire Cheese, when more poets than usual had come, 'None of us
can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The
only thing certain about us is that we are too many.'

William Butler Yeats

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