Elihu Vedder.

The digressions of V. online

. (page 21 of 29)
Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 21 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ting at a table one evening in the bower of "Tragedy in Re-
tirement," plunged in gloomy meditation. Only ladies were
present, and they tried in vain to lighten his gloom, when sud-
denly T., seizing a pencil before him, wrote something hurriedly


on a scrap of paper, and with no more ado, quitted the room.
The ladies rushed to see what he had written and found these
words, "I must have fame or dye." He was young. I remem-
ber when I was young, having had trouble with that same word.

The three ladies lived where from the windows of their apart-
ment they could see the back of T.'s studio. One morning, see-
ing T. out on his balcony clad in an old-fashioned American linen
duster, engaged in the laudable occupation of dusting his pictures,
they concluded it would be a good time to call on him, as they
would not be interrupting him in his painting. They did so and
were kept a long time waiting. When he did appear, he came to the
door clad in a velvet jacket, with a copy of Browning in his hand.

I must tell another incident, showing how cleverly he extricated
himself from a bad position. Meeting him one day, I told him of
having read the account of a sale in which one of his pictures
changed hands. " Do you know which picture it was ? " he
asked. "Was it one of my large ones ? " " Yes, it was one of
your large thousand dollar ones." "And what did it bring ? "
" Exactly three hundred and fifty." "I am amazed ; it
was the worst thing I ever painted."

One more. It was one of his after-glows, a subject which he
treated very well. The sun had gone down ; you were looking at
San Giorgio with the glow full on it, and yet he had painted a
crescent moon over the church. "How can this be ?" I asked;
"it would be a full moon, would n't it?" "Ha, my dear fel-
low ; I Ve got you there ! I painted it from Nature." Now it was
not painted from Nature ; he never had painted a large picture
from Nature in his life, but he was apt in making his assevera-
tions to use the same breadth he sought for in his art. I only
told him to think it over, and left. The next day he hailed me


LANG 353

in the Piazza di Spagna. .." Oh, I say, V. you were right
about that moon."

I do not believe he was a great reader, but when he did read he
seemed to make discoveries. Thus it was on his discovery of Em-
erson he at once hastened to proclaim the glad tidings to his
friends and asserted that it was his profound conviction that
America owed as much to Emerson as China did to Copernicus.

In the Club at home we all knew that Lang dyed his hair had
it dyed a fine black. " Why," he would say, " if I should see myself
in the glass with grey hair, I would not know myself."

Now when Lang was in Rome he became negligent and allowed
the grey to grow beyond the due line. All remarked what a pity,
with such a good head of hair, he should not leave it its natural
colour. The fact was, he had no hair at all, but dyed his wig in-
stead. This mentioning of hair naturally leads to what follows.

My wife was once calling on the wife of an eminent man of let-
ters, art-critic, poet, etc. Now this interesting person had an
enormous head of hair, like William Beard, Parke Godwin, or
Eggleston the Hoosier novelist ; the main thing in his case was that
he had a very big head of hair. On the centre table was lying
Hare's "Walks about Rome." Whereupon she said, "Oh, I see
you have Hare!" This fact was so patent to our friend and all
those present that it caused a start ; but she quickly added, " I
mean Hare's 'Walks about Rome.'" I wonder if she bettered it.

Below in this same house is Piale's Library. This happening
I know to be true (as the funny editor in the magazine says), for
the lady in question, coming out of Piale's, met my wife and
told her that it had just occurred. The lady went in to get Max
O'Rell's "John Bull and his Island," and asked for it. The


young man in attendance said, "Madame, I think you have
made a mistake. Marcus Aurelius has never written anything
about England at least not recently.' 1 Here his knowledge of
French was a disadvantage.

A strange little picture. I have often wanted to make known
to my friends a strange little picture or sketch I found in a bric-
a-brac shop here in Rome a long time ago. I take this oppor-
tunity to do so, for though I have shown it to those I have
thought would be interested, I have yet to find the one who could
make an approximate guess as to its author, date, or meaning.

Description of pictures I think a nuisance, especially needless
when they are shown by engraving or photograph, but I think it
allowable to point out in this one what I see, and tell in this
book what I think for if you left out the / in this book, there
would be no book left.

The illustration is a reduction from a very much larger drawing
made from the picture ; the actual size of the picture being only
ten and one half by five and one half inches. It is painted on
paper in oil-colour, and was as brittle as the gill of a Russola
so that I was obliged to glue it at once on a board to prevent its
utter ruin. The colour is very rich and I think well distributed.
First, as to its being a sketch for a picture, or a copy of a picture :
On close examination you find what the Italians call " pentimenti"
changes. The height of a door on the right has been changed,
and especially a hand which has eight fingers, thus recalling that
famous horse of Velasquez with his eight legs, once painted out,
now showing through again. This would make it out a sketch
were it not for some very carefully studied draperies looking as if
copied from some picture.


From the haste shown in some of the heads, and their being out
of proportion when compared with the figures, and the jamming
in of figures where they could not possibly go, we are thrown
back on the sketch theory again. Subject : at first and for a long
time I thought it represented a mad-house ; but I found so much
system in the madness that I was driven to the conclusion that it
represented a Theological Discussion a conclusion I still hold.
That must be it. All the persons seem to be passing through, not
so much a mind-storm as a mind-cyclone. They argue, dispute,
and differ but most of them simply yell. If it is not about
religion, what is it about? Spelling?

The gigantic Moses-like figure in the centre shows the influence
of Michelangelo; the introduction of the Phrygian cap in two
instances, and a Voltaire-like head, would indicate the time of
David. The Giant with his scroll represents, to my mind, Tradi-
tion. The Idiot, backed by an absolutely crazy crowd, seems to
say, as he lays his hand reverently on the Giant, "What?
would you dare touch the very foundation-stone ? " The seated
figure in front of the Giant, with his little head turned away
from the figure seeking to persuade him, must represent ab-
solute pig-headed Belief, as deaf to all reason as the duck is
impervious to water. The one on hands and knees with no head
shown presumably kissing the Giant's foot must be idolatry
of tradition pure and simple. Back of Tradition comes boiling
out of the dark inner chamber a perfect mass of raving madmen
one with staring eyeballs seems in a fit of frenzied glee, while
close to him, in sharp contrast, sits a philosophic figure who
turns away from it all with an expression of fatigue and disgust.

The sketch theory is here sustained by the evident change in
the position of the head of the last indicated figure. To the left


are the doubters and sceptics all howling at the Giant the
clenched fist of the last figure on the left pounding the bench is
great. As to the background, I am sure Mr. Dooley would de-
scribe it as Hall Caine let loose. The more you look at these
little heads, the more their expression seems to vary, although the
intention of the expression always remains. I would only add
that when I made a similar subject in the Omar Khayyam, I
had not seen this little picture. Otherwise I should have been so
much influenced by it that I might have given up making my
drawing altogether, for I hate to steal that is, knowingly.

I was introduced to James Smetham by my old friend Davies,
and although I visited him, saw his family, and walked with him
through what must have been to him the familiar scenes of his
daily life, I have no idea where he lived except that it was some-
where in the outskirts of London. I seem to be far more familiar
with the workings of his ever-pondering mind than with his out-
ward habitation.

He was a tall, spare man with a very serious cast of counten-
ance, not so much sad as deeply thoughtful ; but he had a vein of
humour which lightened all and made him one of the most sym-
pathetic and charming of companions. His studio was more of
a library than a studio, filled with books and small pictures
mere little panels of pictures, but only small in size, for the ideas
were large and expressed in a richness of colour most satisfying ;
not realistic colour, studied from Nature, but a colour which
caressed the eye. But they were above all filled with thoughts,
and expressing moods, and all had a certain lyrical quality;
they seemed to sing. I cannot remember many, but one I shall
never forget a thing one longed to have and keep as a treasure.


It represented two men, evidently intimate friends, seated by a
fire which was the only light in the picture. The room was a rich
gloom, with gleams of books, rugs, and gilt frames, but above
all it represented perfect quiet a retired room and an intimate
hour. One was stretched in an easy chair, with his feet to the fire,
smoking and lost in pleasing thoughts, while his companion
seemed striking chords on a guitar. A long low window opened
out into what Blake would have called "a little moony night";
winter was indicated by a few bare branches crossing this little
bit of cool radiance. You were not looking at them ; you seemed
to be with them. Another was " Pilate's Wife's Dream. " It was
night, and a blood-red counterpane seemed like a sea of blood
creeping up towards her breasts, threatening to overwhelm her
as she lay under the spell of some nightmare. There were
many more equally interesting, and his friends are fortunate in
having had the good judgement to buy his pictures while it was
yet time.

But the most extraordinary thing is yet to come. He showed
me, in one corner, piles of books rising from the floor many
piles as high as three feet or more. Picking one out, he opened it.
It was a Bible, evidently selected for its wide margin, and this
white wide margin had disappeared under crowded notes written
in a small hand ; and there were three piles of these Bibles, all
annotated in the same manner. No wonder he had more the
air of a clergyman than of a painter. But he was not that ; he was
simply a great and incessant thinker. But there was more than
that here I must make a little digression.

A lady once gave me a book. What her object was, I cannot
tell ; perhaps she thought I dealt in symbolism and it would inter-
est me. It was called "Symbolic Logic," written by the author


of "Alice in Wonderland," and it accounts for the pragmatic
manner assumed toward Alice by the animals the Red Queen
in particular. He calls it a pleasing pastime. Why, my phonetic
alphabet is positively hilarious compared with this most doleful
of all the inventions of man. In it he makes squares and uses
counters, and with these he takes sentences and dissects them,
and you find out if their grammar is logically correct or not.
Now, piles and piles of books Smetham showed me were note-
books filled with curious squares, thought squared off, as he
said, and virtually represented the record of his thoughts for
the greater part of his life. He would take a thought, put it in a
square, and as it developed carry it into other squares rami-
fications and so on. If he stopped, he would put it away and take
it up again no matter how long after ; put it away again, or
carry it to its logical conclusion, and then the incident was fin-
ished. It was something like this: Abraham begat Isaac, and
Isaac begat Jacob, and so forth. Sometimes the thoughts were
harmonious and a peaceful progeny of squares the result, but
often they met a cantankerous enemy and then a battle royal
ensued ; allies were called in, sides strengthened, and the fight was
on. Sometimes a hero a lucky thought brought unexpected
succour; the battle extended over many years and filled many
squares and note-books. Sometimes, when beaten, a new ad-
vance in thought or science showed him a weak point in his ene-
my's armour, and to it again. I presume that there were thou-
sands of wars commenced which were never settled, and could
we but open those dust-covered mute volumes, those struggles of
an ever-contending brain would spring to life under our eyes,
and would but too plainly show how the dust of those incess-
ant battles finally hid from view a noble mind as it sank con-



quered beneath its dark cloud. His was the end of Ruskin -
the end of all squarers of the circle, and the circle yet remains

An American is always something of a foreigner to an English-
man, but to himself when in London he can never feel that he is
a real foreigner, like a Frenchman for instance. Mentally he
is treading the ground of his childhood, the ground of Robin
Hood, and Whittington and his cat; he joins Chaucer's pilgrims
or goes roystering from tavern to tavern with Jack Falstaff. So
London has a charm no other city possesses ; it is familiar and
novel at the same time. There I go about with fussy Boswell, or
potter with Pepys, or with smiles or tears follow Dickens, through
scenes of homely joys or gloomy slums. For my part I do not
haunt the snobbish Clubs of Thackeray, nor enjoy so much his
endless social tattle, nor for an instant would I dream of breaking
into the jealously guarded grounds of Tennyson. When in Lon-
don and in the body, I invariably sought of Saturday nights
the peaceful abode of my placid friend D., a man whose very
aspect gave one's perturbed spirit peace. I left noisy High
Holborn and turned into quiet Gray's Inn Square; passing
through that, and crossing another court, at its further left-hand
corner I found a door, and ascending a time-worn staircase,
knocked and was welcomed into my friend's wainscotted cham-
bers. The windows of this bachelor abode of peace looked out
into a misty greenery of trees, and through them came the rumour
of the great city subdued to a restful murmur. My friend had,
and I hope has yet, the most placid face of any man I ever knew.
His was the face of a man at peace with himself, and his expres-
sion that of a man sustained by a modest but assured income. In
this quiet abode he made his Shakespearean commentaries and


emendations, or painted his yearly picture for the Academy.
That it was year by year rejected did not disturb him in the least ;
in fact I think he told me he would be completely upset were it
accepted ; such is the force of habit. On entering his cozy den,
it was always - "There is Scotch and Hollands and claret ; your
pipe you will find on the mantelpiece, with your name on it ; now
make yourself comfortable," and I did ; and that is how it was ;
every one felt comfortable when with D. He had been one of the
boys in Rome, and occasionally I would find one or two of such
Romans at his Saturday evenings. Stacy Marks loved to attend ;
he who painted "Toothache in the Middle Ages," and latterly,
wise-looking stuffed birds, and equally wise-looking old professors,
things that would n't move. Then I frequently met Butler, au-
thor of " Erewhon," and another book, " The Way of all Flesh,"
which made a great stir in clerical circles in its day, now mild
enough. I chiefly knew him through his "Instinct and Habit."
In this he admits that he has taken an idea from La Mark, but
has polished it a bit, as one would a rough diamond. It is, that
the egg lays the hen ; but this last was too much for the serious
scientists, and he never had that recognition which I think he
deserves. It is a little trifle the Darwinians have overlooked.

Most of D. 's guests were what are called briefless barristers ;
they all gave me the impression of being Shaksperean emendators,
highly educated, but better adapted to turn in the quiet eddies of
life than struggle in its rushing stream. Some were Scotch. Now
it is well known that no one can tell a Scotch story but a Scotch-
man. Butler tried it, under the anxious guidance and supervision
of an old boy present ; I cannot tell it, but it was something like
this : "Where are you going to bury me, Jock ? " "Well, Jennie,
the Gawbles is the nearest and most convenient, and some very


3 6 5


decent people are buried in the Gawbles." "No, no; I can
never rest easy in the Gawbles ; I want to be buried in the Wood-
lawn ; I'll not be buried in the Gawbles." "Well, Jennie, that's
very expensive, but we want to please you. I '11 tell you what we '11
do : we '11 try ye in the Gawbles, and if it does n't please ye, there '11
be plenty of time to move ye over to the Wood-lawn." Butler
thought he had been very successful, for his Scotch friend ad-
mitted that he might have told it much worse.


I then tried on them an old American story, that about the
darky and his master. "Tom, what do you think about that new
horse of mine ?" "He's a mighty fine boss, massa." "What
do you say when I tell you I paid five thousand dollars for that
horse ?" "Well, I dunno what to say, but it kinder reminds
me of dat ole tex' in de Scripters ; I furgit de fus' part, but it goes
on to say <and his money is soon parted/ 3 ' Butler and Marks
laughed, but the rest at once divided into two sides, the one main-
taining that there is no such text in the Bible, and the other
that there was, only they could n't place it.

One evening there was an artist by the name of Bland, who not
content with the good English Bird's-eye, must needs pull out a
plug of tobacco from his pocket, and also produced a most for-
midable bowie-knife which he wore "concealed about his person,"
and proceeded to cut it up and fill his pipe with what he consid-
ered the proper cut. Of course he had to explain, and said he had
acquired the habit of carrying it in South America and felt lost
without it. He also told how he had set up as a sheep-farmer
there, and how the Indians had carried off all his sheep and
reduced him to absolute poverty, and how he had developed
the talent for making lassoes which met with the approval of
the guachos, and thus made his living ; but he added that, al-
though he could make lassoes, he could never manage to throw

This reminds me of my boyhood days in Cuba. All nice Cuban
houses have back of the patio an inner court where the horses and
charcoal and ducks and hens and pigeons are kept, and the
garbage ; and where the slaves sleep, and where the kitchen is.
From this place one day a fine rooster had escaped, and was pa-
rading on a wall, from which he would soon have flown to freedom




had it not been for our Catalan porter, who, seizing a bit of cord,
at once made a little lasso, and with the greatest dexterity threw
it over the rooster's neck and dragged him back to captivity.
Then he taught me the art, which consists in the trick of letting
the ring hang halfway down the loop, so that, when you make
the throw, it the loop opens ; without knowing this, you
might try all your life without success.

This case of Bland shows that it is never safe to assume where
an Englishman has been or has n't been, or what he knows or
does n't know, and above all, never assume he is a fool. The Eng-
lishman has his little way of getting even with you. Once in the
early days, when I was fresh from our beautiful Fifth Avenue
" stages," with their landscape decorations, red-plush cushions,


and the strap and hole through which old ladies seemed de-
termined to pull the driver when they wished to stop, I was
complaining to an Englishman of the hard springs and general
discomfort of their omnibuses, and particularly making fun of
having a conductor hanging on behind, when he observed that
I had forgotten to notice one thing, that the English omnibus was
made in England, by Englishmen, for Englishmen. Here I stopped
him, telling him he need n't go on ; that I thought I had grasped
the idea and that I would save it up for future use.

As a good American, I cannot let the Englishman have the last
word. There was one in New York finding fault with our fish,
our strawberries, pine-apples, and so forth, and telling how much
better most things were in his own country ; finally an American
surprised him by saying that he would admit they had some
things better in England than America. "What are they?"
asked the Englishman. "Why, Englishmen."

I never could understand what was the matter with D.'s pict-
ures ; they were mostly subjects from Shakspere or Rabelais, in
which the costumes were correct, the actions and expressions ap-
propriate, the drawing not bad, the colour discreet, no end of
work, and yet (as an American quoting French said) there was a
"Genesee squaw" lacking. I think myself that had his hopes of
salvation depended on his pictures, it would have gone hard with
him. Yet when I recall his sweet blandness, I cannot imagine
that anything ever had gone or would go hard with D.

"Intermezzo." -Did you never meet with a man who
seemed to have the top of his head turned the other way ? I mean
presenting a straight, high forehead which then slopes down
to the back of his head, as Shakspere's cliff steeply faces the


English Channel and then slopes downwards and backwards into
the country behind, thus looking, in the man's case, like an
intellectual bluff ? Well, I seem to have gotten these Digressions
somewhat into that state. You would think that the long-haired
youth who steamed way into the misty future on the occasion of
his second trip to Europe was a poor, sad, Absalom-looking chap,
dim and sad as the portrait of that fierce old scold, Carlyle, in the
picture of him by Whistler, but with a better-fitting coat. This
was not the case. I fear you can easily see that these things are
not written with the plump hand of youth. The real youth in
question is to be found described in the pages of Marryat or
Charles Lever. The dishes I set before you I fear lack seasoning.
But as it is never too late to mend, I shall try to season them now
more in conformity with the truth, even if hot to the reader's

In childhood, little boys were like playful puppies, little girls
were kittenish, and remained so until late in life. Let the sea-
soning here be ginger. Did you never see a puppy get a scamper
on ? When he puts his tail between his legs, flattens his ears, and
rushes wildly around ? That was Boyhood. Add pepper and salt,
and to the Paris of boyhood add Cayenne pepper. In Florence
this sad youth was as the frisky lamb and his demivolts, or the
funny goat and his caprioles, pepper, salt, and a little mustard.
Wartime was Donnybrook Fair, with reels and rumpuses and
rigadoons, all mustard. Roman days, all minuets and pic-
nics and suppers with much curry, and so forth and so on. But
now, when I am sad indeed and long for the peace of the her-
mit and his simple fare, just because I am healthy-looking, my
friends expect me to stand with a racquet in one hand and a
golf-stick in the other, one foot on land and one on sea, to one


thing certain never, except the modest but assured income,

Now you see how the man looked who had the top of his head
on the wrong way, and the mistake I have made in not seasoning
these Digressions as I went along. This reminds me that unless I
jot down things as they occur, they are gone for ever, so I tell of
meeting again in Paris the Rhodes of my first trip to Italy. He
had been getting balder and greyer, while I had been getting mar-
ried and children. He was lame from an accident which had
happened years ago, during the War period, but was strong and
hearty, quite unchanged. I wondered if it could have been
from his carrying out one of his innumerable theories. His prac-

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 21 of 29)