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Chapter 4

Some quarter of an hour's walk from Bedford Park, out on the high
road to Richmond, lived W. E. Henley, and I, like many others,
began under him my education. His portrait, a lithograph by
Rothenstein, hangs over my mantlepiece among portraits of other
friends. He is drawn standing, but, because doubtless of his
crippled legs, he leans forward, resting his elbows upon some
slightly suggested object--a table or a window-sill. His heavy
figure and powerful head, the disordered hair standing upright,
his short irregular beard and moustache, his lined and wrinkled
face, his eyes steadily fixed upon some object, in complete
confidence and self-possession, and yet as in half-broken reverie,
all are exactly as I remember him. I have seen other portraits and
they too show him exactly as I remember him, as though he had but
one appearance and that seen fully at the first glance and by all
alike. He was most human--human, I used to say, like one of
Shakespeare's characters--and yet pressed and pummelled, as it
were, into a single attitude, almost into a gesture and a speech,
as by some overwhelming situation. I disagreed with him about
everything, but I admired him beyond words. With the exception of
some early poems founded upon old French models, I disliked his
poetry, mainly because he wrote _Vers Libre_, which I associated
with Tyndall and Huxley and Bastien-Lepage's clownish peasant
staring with vacant eyes at her great boots; and filled it
with unimpassioned description of an hospital ward where his leg
had been amputated. I wanted the strongest passions, passions that
had nothing to do with observation, and metrical forms that seemed
old enough to be sung by men half-asleep or riding upon a journey.
Furthermore, Pre-Raphaelitism affected him as some people are
affected by a cat in the room, and though he professed himself at
our first meeting without political interests or convictions, he
soon grew into a violent unionist and imperialist. I used to say
when I spoke of his poems: 'He is like a great actor with a bad
part; yet who would look at Hamlet in the grave scene if Salvini
played the grave-digger?' and I might so have explained much that
he said and did. I meant that he was like a great actor of
passion--character-acting meant nothing to me for many years--and
an actor of passion will display some one quality of soul,
personified again and again, just as a great poetical painter,
Titian, Botticelli, Rossetti may depend for his greatness upon a
type of beauty which presently we call by his name. Irving, the
last of the sort on the English stage, and in modern England and
France it is the rarest sort, never moved me but in the expression
of intellectual pride; and though I saw Salvini but once, I am
convinced that his genius was a kind of animal nobility. Henley,
half inarticulate--'I am very costive,' he would say--beset with
personal quarrels, built up an image of power and magnanimity till
it became, at moments, when seen as it were by lightning, his true
self. Half his opinions were the contrivance of a sub-consciousness
that sought always to bring life to the dramatic crisis, and
expression to that point of artifice where the true self could
find its tongue. Without opponents there had been no drama,
and in his youth Ruskinism and Pre-Raphaelitism, for he was
of my father's generation, were the only possible opponents. How
could one resent his prejudice when, that he himself might play a
worthy part, he must find beyond the common rout, whom he derided
and flouted daily, opponents he could imagine moulded like
himself? Once he said to me in the height of his imperial
propaganda, 'Tell those young men in Ireland that this great thing
must go on. They say Ireland is not fit for self-government but
that is nonsense. It is as fit as any other European country but
we cannot grant it.' And then he spoke of his desire to found and
edit a Dublin newspaper. It would have expounded the Gaelic
propaganda then beginning, though Dr. Hyde had as yet no league,
our old stories, our modern literature--everything that did not
demand any shred or patch of government. He dreamed of a tyranny
but it was that of Cosimo de Medici.

William Butler Yeats

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