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Chapter 2

I could not understand where the charm had gone that I had felt,
when as a school-boy of twelve or thirteen, I had played among the
unfinished houses, once leaving the marks of my two hands, blacked
by a fall among some paint, upon a white balustrade. Sometimes I
thought it was because these were real houses, while my play had
been among toy-houses some day to be inhabited by imaginary people
full of the happiness that one can see in picture books. I was in
all things Pre-Raphaelite. When I was fifteen or sixteen, my
father had told me about Rossetti and Blake and given me their
poetry to read; & once in Liverpool on my way to Sligo, "I had
seen 'Dante's Dream' in the gallery there--a picture painted when
Rossetti had lost his dramatic power, and to-day not very pleasing
to me--and its colour, its people, its romantic architecture had
blotted all other pictures away." It was a perpetual bewilderment
that my father, who had begun life as a Pre-Raphaelite painter,
now painted portraits of the first comer, children selling
newspapers, or a consumptive girl with a basket offish upon her
head, and that when, moved perhaps by memory of his youth, he
chose some theme from poetic tradition, he would soon weary and
leave it unfinished. I had seen the change coming bit by bit and
its defence elaborated by young men fresh from the Paris art-
schools. 'We must paint what is in front of us,' or 'A man must be
of his own time,' they would say, and if I spoke of Blake or
Rossetti they would point out his bad drawing and tell me to
admire Carolus Duran and Bastien-Lepage. Then, too, they were very
ignorant men; they read nothing, for nothing mattered but 'Knowing
how to paint,' being in reaction against a generation that seemed
to have wasted its time upon so many things. I thought myself
alone in hating these young men, now indeed getting towards middle
life, their contempt for the past, their monopoly of the future,
but in a few months I was to discover others of my own age, who
thought as I did, for it is not true that youth looks before it
with the mechanical gaze of a well-drilled soldier. Its quarrel is
not with the past, but with the present, where its elders are so
obviously powerful, and no cause seems lost if it seem to threaten
that power. Does cultivated youth ever really love the future,
where the eye can discover no persecuted Royalty hidden among oak
leaves, though from it certainly does come so much proletarian
rhetoric? I was unlike others of my generation in one thing only.
I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I
detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had
made a new religion, almost an infallible church, out of poetic
tradition: a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of
emotions, a bundle of images and of masks passed on from
generation to generation by poets & painters with some help from
philosophers and theologians. I wished for a world where I could
discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and in
poems only, but in tiles round the chimney-piece and in the
hangings that kept out the draught. I had even created a dogma:
'Because those imaginary people are created out of the deepest
instinct of man, to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can
imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to
truth.' When I listened they seemed always to speak of one thing
only: they, their loves, every incident of their lives, were
steeped in the supernatural. Could even Titian's 'Ariosto' that I
loved beyond other portraits, have its grave look, as if waiting
for some perfect final event, if the painters, before Titian, had
not learned portraiture, while painting into the corner of
compositions, full of saints and Madonnas, their kneeling patrons?
At seventeen years old I was already an old-fashioned brass cannon
full of shot, and nothing kept me from going off but a doubt as to
my capacity to shoot straight.


William Butler Yeats

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