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FOUR YEARS

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS.




FOUR YEARS 1887-1891.

At the end of the eighties my father and mother, my brother and
sisters and myself, all newly arrived from Dublin, were settled in
Bedford Park in a red-brick house with several wood mantlepieces
copied from marble mantlepieces by the brothers Adam, a balcony,
and a little garden shadowed by a great horse-chestnut tree. Years
before we had lived there, when the crooked, ostentatiously
picturesque streets, with great trees casting great shadows, had
been anew enthusiasm: the Pre-Raphaelite movement at last
affecting life. But now exaggerated criticism had taken the place
of enthusiasm; the tiled roofs, the first in modern London, were
said to leak, which they did not, & the drains to be bad, though
that was no longer true; and I imagine that houses were cheap. I
remember feeling disappointed because the co-operative stores,
with their little seventeenth century panes, were so like any
common shop; and because the public house, called 'The Tabard'
after Chaucer's Inn, was so plainly a common public house; and
because the great sign of a trumpeter designed by Rooke, the
Pre-Raphaelite artist, had been freshened by some inferior hand. The
big red-brick church had never pleased me, and I was accustomed,
when I saw the wooden balustrade that ran along the slanting edge
of the roof, where nobody ever walked or could walk, to remember
the opinion of some architect friend of my father's, that it had
been put there to keep the birds from falling off. Still, however,
it had some village characters and helped us to feel not wholly
lost in the metropolis. I no longer went to church as a regular
habit, but go I sometimes did, for one Sunday morning I saw these
words painted on a board in the porch: 'The congregation are
requested to kneel during prayers; the kneelers are afterwards to
be hung upon pegs provided for the purpose.' In front of every
seat hung a little cushion, and these cushions were called
'kneelers.' Presently the joke ran through the community, where
there were many artists, who considered religion at best an
unimportant accessory to good architecture and who disliked that
particular church.




II


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.




III


I was not an industrious student and knew only what I had found by
accident, and I had found "nothing I cared for after Titian - and
Titian I knew chiefly from a copy of 'the supper of Emmaus' in
Dublin - till Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites;" and among my father's
friends were no Pre-Raphaelites. Some indeed had come to Bedford
Park in the enthusiasm of the first building, and others to be
near those that had. There was Todhunter, a well-off man who had
bought my father's pictures while my father was still
Pre-Raphaelite. Once a Dublin doctor he was a poet and a writer of
poetical plays: a tall, sallow, lank, melancholy man, a good
scholar and a good intellect; and with him my father carried on a
warm exasperated friendship, fed I think by old memories and
wasted by quarrels over matters of opinion. Of all the survivors
he was the most dejected, and the least estranged, and I remember
encouraging him, with a sense of worship shared, to buy a very
expensive carpet designed by Morris. He displayed it without
strong liking and would have agreed had there been any to find
fault. If he had liked anything strongly he might have been a
famous man, for a few years later he was to write, under some
casual patriotic impulse, certain excellent verses now in all
Irish anthologies; but with him every book was a new planting and
not a new bud on an old bough. He had I think no peace in himself.
But my father's chief friend was York Powell, a famous Oxford
Professor of history, a broad-built, broad-headed, brown-bearded
man, clothed in heavy blue cloth and looking, but for his glasses
and the dim sight of a student, like some captain in the merchant
service. One often passed with pleasure from Todhunter's company
to that of one who was almost ostentatiously at peace. He cared
nothing for philosophy, nothing for economics, nothing for the
policy of nations, for history, as he saw it, was a memory of men
who were amusing or exciting to think about. He impressed all who
met him & seemed to some a man of genius, but he had not enough
ambition to shape his thought, or conviction to give rhythm to his
style, and remained always a poor writer. I was too full of
unfinished speculations and premature convictions to value rightly
his conversation, in-formed by a vast erudition, which would give
itself to every casual association of speech and company precisely
because he had neither cause nor design. My father, however, found
Powell's concrete narrative manner a necessary completion of his
own; and when I asked him, in a letter many years later, where he
got his philosophy, replied 'From York Powell' and thereon added,
no doubt remembering that Powell was without ideas, 'By looking at
him.' Then there was a good listener, a painter in whose hall hung
a big picture, painted in his student days, of Ulysses sailing
home from the Phaeacian court, an orange and a skin of wine at his
side, blue mountains towering behind; but who lived by drawing
domestic scenes and lovers' meetings for a weekly magazine that
had an immense circulation among the imperfectly educated. To
escape the boredom of work, which he never turned to but under
pressure of necessity, and usually late at night with the
publisher's messenger in the hall, he had half filled his studio
with mechanical toys of his own invention, and perpetually
increased their number. A model railway train at intervals puffed
its way along the walls, passing several railway stations and
signal boxes; and on the floor lay a camp with attacking and
defending soldiers and a fortification that blew up when the
attackers fired a pea through a certain window; while a large
model of a Thames barge hung from the ceiling. Opposite our house
lived an old artist who worked also for the illustrated papers for
a living, but painted landscapes for his pleasure, and of him I
remember nothing except that he had outlived ambition, was a good
listener, and that my father explained his gaunt appearance by his
descent from Pocahontas. If all these men were a little like
becalmed ships, there was certainly one man whose sails were full.
Three or four doors off, on our side of the road, lived a
decorative artist in all the naive confidence of popular ideals
and the public approval. He was our daily comedy. 'I myself and
Sir Frederick Leighton are the greatest decorative artists of the
age,' was among his sayings, & a great lych-gate, bought from some
country church-yard, reared its thatched roof, meant to shelter
bearers and coffin, above the entrance to his front garden, to
show that he at any rate knew nothing of discouragement. In this
fairly numerous company - there were others though no other face
rises before me - my father and York Powell found listeners for a
conversation that had no special loyalties, or antagonisms; while
I could only talk upon set topics, being in the heat of my youth,
and the topics that filled me with excitement were never spoken
of.




IV


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.




V


We gathered on Sunday evenings in two rooms, with folding doors
between, & hung, I think, with photographs from Dutch masters, and
in one room there was always, I think, a table with cold meat. I
can recall but one elderly man - Dunn his name was - rather silent
and full of good sense, an old friend of Henley's. We were young
men, none as yet established in his own, or in the world's
opinion, and Henley was our leader and our confidant. One evening
I found him alone amused and exasperated.

He cried: 'Young A... has just been round to ask my advice. Would
I think it a wise thing if he bolted with Mrs. B...? "Have you
quite determined to do it?" I asked him. "Quite." "Well," I said,
"in that case I refuse to give you any advice."' Mrs. B... was a
beautiful talented woman, who, as the Welsh triad said of
Guinevere, 'was much given to being carried off.' I think we
listened to him, and often obeyed him, partly because he was quite
plainly not upon the side of our parents. We might have a
different ground of quarrel, but the result seemed more important
than the ground, and his confident manner and speech made us
believe, perhaps for the first time, in victory. And besides, if
he did denounce, and in my case he certainly did, what we held in
secret reverence, he never failed to associate it with things, or
persons, that did not move us to reverence. Once I found him just
returned from some art congress in Liverpool or in Manchester.
'The Salvation Armyism of art,' he called it, & gave a grotesque
description of some city councillor he had found admiring Turner.
Henley, who hated all that Ruskin praised, thereupon derided
Turner, and finding the city councillor the next day on the other
side of the gallery, admiring some Pre-Raphaelite there, derided
that Pre-Raphaelite. The third day Henley discovered the poor man
on a chair in the middle of the room, staring disconsolately upon
the floor. He terrified us also, and certainly I did not dare, and
I think none of us dared, to speak our admiration for book or
picture he condemned, but he made us feel always our importance,
and no man among us could do good work, or show the promise of it,
and lack his praise.

I can remember meeting of a Sunday night Charles Whibley, Kenneth
Grahame, author of 'The Golden Age,' Barry Pain, now a well known
novelist, R. A. M. Stevenson, art critic and a famous talker,
George Wyndham, later on a cabinet minister and Irish chief
secretary, and Oscar Wilde, who was some eight years or ten older
than the rest. But faces and names are vague to me and, while
faces that I met but once may rise clearly before me, a face met
on many a Sunday has perhaps vanished. Kipling came sometimes, I
think, but I never met him; and Stepniak, the nihilist, whom I
knew well elsewhere but not there, said 'I cannot go more than
once a year, it is too exhausting.' Henley got the best out of us
all, because he had made us accept him as our judge and we knew
that his judgment could neither sleep, nor be softened, nor
changed, nor turned aside. When I think of him, the antithesis
that is the foundation of human nature being ever in my sight, I
see his crippled legs as though he were some Vulcan perpetually
forging swords for other men to use; and certainly I always
thought of C..., a fine classical scholar, a pale and seemingly
gentle man, as our chief swordsman and bravo. When Henley founded
his weekly newspaper, first the 'Scots,' afterwards 'The National
Observer,' this young man wrote articles and reviews notorious for
savage wit; and years afterwards when 'The National Observer' was
dead, Henley dying & our cavern of outlaws empty, I met him in
Paris very sad and I think very poor. 'Nobody will employ me now,'
he said. 'Your master is gone,' I answered, 'and you are like the
spear in an old Irish story that had to be kept dipped in
poppy-juice that it might not go about killing people on its own
account.' I wrote my first good lyrics and tolerable essays for
'The National Observer' and as I always signed my work could go my
own road in some measure. Henley often revised my lyrics, crossing
out a line or a stanza and writing in one of his own, and I was
comforted by my belief that he also re-wrote Kipling then in the
first flood of popularity. At first, indeed, I was ashamed of
being re-written and thought that others were not, and only began
investigation when the editorial characteristics - epigrams,
archaisms and all - appeared in the article upon Paris fashions and
in that upon opium by an Egyptian Pasha. I was not compelled to
full conformity for verse is plainly stubborn; and in prose, that
I might avoid unacceptable opinions, I wrote nothing but ghost or
fairy stories, picked up from my mother, or some pilot at Rosses
Point, and Henley saw that I must needs mix a palette fitted to my
subject matter. But if he had changed every 'has' into 'hath' I
would have let him, for had not we sunned ourselves in his
generosity? 'My young men out-dome and they write better than I,'
he wrote in some letter praising Charles Whibley's work, and to
another friend with a copy of my 'Man who dreamed of Fairyland:'
'See what a fine thing has been written by one of my lads.'




VI


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.'




VII


It became the custom, both at Henley's and at Bedford Park, to say
that R. A. M. Stevenson, who frequented both circles, was the
better talker. Wilde had been trussed up like a turkey by


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