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Chapter 6

My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never
before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had
written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous.
There was present that night at Henley's, by right of propinquity
or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dullness, who
interrupted from time to time and always to check or disorder
thought; and I noticed with what mastery he was foiled and thrown.
I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think
all Wilde's listeners have recorded, came from the perfect
rounding of the sentences and from the deliberation that made it
possible. That very impression helped him as the effect of metre,
or of the antithetical prose of the seventeenth century, which is
itself a true metre, helps a writer, for he could pass without
incongruity from some unforeseen swift stroke of wit to elaborate
reverie. I heard him say a few nights later: 'Give me "The
Winter's Tale," "Daffodils that come before the swallow dare" but
not "King Lear." What is "King Lear" but poor life staggering in
the fog?' and the slow cadence, modulated with so great precision,
sounded natural to my ears. That first night he praised Walter
Pater's 'Essays on the Renaissance:' 'It is my golden book; I
never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of
decadence. The last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was
written.' 'But,' said the dull man, 'would you not have given us
time to read it?' 'Oh no,' was the retort, 'there would have been
plenty of time afterwards--in either world.' I think he seemed to
us, baffled as we were by youth, or by infirmity, a triumphant
figure, and to some of us a figure from another age, an audacious
Italian fifteenth century figure. A few weeks before I had heard
one of my father's friends, an official in a publishing firm that
had employed both Wilde and Henley as editors, blaming Henley who
was 'no use except under control' and praising Wilde, 'so indolent
but such a genius;' and now the firm became the topic of our talk.
'How often do you go to the office?' said Henley. 'I used to go
three times a week,' said Wilde, 'for an hour a day but I have
since struck off one of the days.' 'My God,' said Henley, 'I went
five times a week for five hours a day and when I wanted to strike
off a day they had a special committee meeting.' 'Furthermore,'
was Wilde's answer, 'I never answered their letters. I have known
men come to London full of bright prospects and seen them complete
wrecks in a few months through a habit of answering letters.' He
too knew how to keep our elders in their place, and his method was
plainly the more successful for Henley had been dismissed. 'No he
is not an aesthete,' Henley commented later, being somewhat
embarrassed by Wilde's Pre-Raphaelite entanglement. 'One soon
finds that he is a scholar and a gentleman.' And when I dined with
Wilde a few days afterwards he began at once, 'I had to strain
every nerve to equal that man at all;' and I was too loyal to
speak my thought: 'You & not he' said all the brilliant things. He
like the rest of us had felt the strain of an intensity that
seemed to hold life at the point of drama. He had said, on that
first meeting, 'The basis of literary friendship is mixing the
poisoned bowl;' and for a few weeks Henley and he became close
friends till, the astonishment of their meeting over, diversity of
character and ambition pushed them apart, and, with half the
cavern helping, Henley began mixing the poisoned bowl for Wilde.
Yet Henley never wholly lost that first admiration, for after
Wilde's downfall he said to me: 'Why did he do it? I told my lads
to attack him and yet we might have fought under his banner.'

William Butler Yeats

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