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    Chapter 15

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    Chapter 15
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    Nettleship said to me: 'Has Edwin Ellis ever said anything about
    the effect of drink upon my genius?' 'No,' I answered. 'I ask,' he
    said, 'because I have always thought that Ellis has some strange
    medical insight.' Though I had answered 'no,' Ellis had only a few
    days before used these words: 'Nettleship drank his genius away.'
    Ellis, but lately returned from Perugia, where he had lived many
    years, was another old friend of my father's but some years
    younger than Nettleship or my father. Nettleship had found his
    simplifying image, but in his painting had turned away from it,
    while Ellis, the son of Alexander Ellis, a once famous man of
    science, who was perhaps the last man in England to run the circle
    of the sciences without superficiality, had never found that image
    at all. He was a painter and poet, but his painting, which did not
    interest me, showed no influence but that of Leighton. He had
    started perhaps a couple of years too late for Pre-Raphaelite
    influence, for no great Pre-Raphaelite picture was painted after
    1870, and left England too soon for that of the French painters.
    He was, however, sometimes moving as a poet and still more often
    an astonishment. I have known him cast something just said into a
    dozen lines of musical verse, without apparently ceasing to talk;
    but the work once done he could not or would not amend it, and my
    father thought he lacked all ambition. Yet he had at times
    nobility of rhythm--an instinct for grandeur--and after thirty
    years I still repeat to myself his address to Mother Earth:

    O mother of the hills, forgive our towers;
    O mother of the clouds, forgive our dreams

    and there are certain whole poems that I read from time to time or
    try to make others read. There is that poem where the manner is
    unworthy of the matter, being loose and facile, describing Adam
    and Eve fleeing from Paradise. Adam asks Eve what she carries so
    carefully and Eve replies that it is a little of the apple core
    kept for their children. There is that vision of 'Christ the
    Less,' a too hurriedly written ballad, where the half of Christ,
    sacrificed to the divine half 'that fled to seek felicity,'
    wanders wailing through Golgotha; and there is 'The Saint and the
    Youth' in which I can discover no fault at all. He loved
    complexities--'seven silences like candles round her face' is a
    line of his--and whether he wrote well or ill had always a manner,
    which I would have known from that of any other poet. He would say
    to me, 'I am a mathematician with the mathematics left out'--his
    father was a great mathematician--or 'A woman once said to me,
    "Mr. Ellis why are your poems like sums?"' and certainly he loved
    symbols and abstractions. He said once, when I had asked him not
    to mention something or other, 'Surely you have discovered by this
    time that I know of no means whereby I can mention a fact in
    conversation.'

    He had a passion for Blake, picked up in Pre-Raphaelite studios,
    and early in our acquaintance put into my hands a scrap of note
    paper on which he had written some years before an interpretation
    of the poem that begins

    The fields from Islington to Marylebone
    To Primrose Hill and St. John's Wood
    Were builded over with pillars of gold
    And there Jerusalem's pillars stood.

    The four quarters of London represented Blake's four great
    mythological personages, the Zoas, and also the four elements.
    These few sentences were the foundation of all study of the
    philosophy of William Blake, that requires an exact knowledge for
    its pursuit and that traces the connection between his system and
    that of Swedenborg or of Boehme. I recognised certain attributions,
    from what is sometimes called the Christian Cabala, of which Ellis
    had never heard, and with this proof that his interpretation was
    more than phantasy, he and I began our four years' work upon the
    Prophetic Books of William Blake. We took it as almost a sign of
    Blake's personal help when we discovered that the spring of 1889,
    when we first joined our knowledge, was one hundred years from the
    publication of 'The Book of Thel,' the first published of the
    Prophetic Books, as though it were firmly established that the dead
    delight in anniversaries. After months of discussion and reading, we
    made a concordance of all Blake's mystical terms, and there was much
    copying to be done in the Museum & at Red Hill, where the
    descendants of Blake's friend and patron, the landscape painter,
    John Linnell, had many manuscripts. The Linnellswere narrow in
    their religious ideas & doubtful of Blake's orthodoxy, whom they
    held, however, in great honour, and I remember a timid old lady who
    had known Blake when a child saying: 'He had very wrong ideas, he
    did not believe in the historical Jesus.' One old man sat always
    beside us ostensibly to sharpen our pencils, but perhaps really to
    see that we did not steal the manuscripts, and they gave us very old
    port at lunch and I have upon my dining room walls their present of
    Blake's Dante engravings. Going thither and returning Ellis would
    entertain me by philosophical discussion, varied with improvised
    stories, at first folk tales which he professed to have picked up in
    Scotland; and though I had read and collected many folk tales, I did
    not see through the deceit. I have a partial memory of two more
    elaborate tales, one of an Italian conspirator flying barefoot from
    I forget what adventure through I forget what Italian city, in the
    early morning. Fearing to be recognised by his bare feet, he slipped
    past the sleepy porter at an hotel calling out 'number so and so' as
    if he were some belated guest. Then passing from bedroom door to
    door he tried on the boots, and just as he got a pair to fit a voice
    cried from the room 'Who is that?' 'Merely me, sir,' he called back,
    'taking your boots.' The other was of a Martyr's Bible round which
    the cardinal virtues had taken personal form--this a fragment of
    Blake's philosophy. It was in the possession of an old clergyman
    when a certain jockey called upon him, and the cardinal virtues,
    confused between jockey and clergyman, devoted themselves to the
    jockey. As whenever he sinned a cardinal virtue interfered and
    turned him back to virtue, he lived in great credit and made, but
    for one sentence, a very holy death. As his wife and family knelt
    round in admiration and grief, he suddenly said 'Damn.' 'O my dear,'

    said his wife, 'what a dreadful expression.' He answered, 'I am
    going to heaven' and straightway died. It was a long tale, for there
    were all the jockey's vain attempts to sin, as well as all the
    adventures of the clergyman, who became very sinful indeed, but it
    ended happily, for when the jockey died the cardinal virtues
    returned to the clergyman. I think he would talk to any audience
    that offered, one audience being the same as another in his eyes,
    and it may have been for this reason that my father called him
    unambitious. When he was a young man he had befriended a reformed
    thief and had asked the grateful thief to take him round the
    thieves' quarters of London. The thief, however, hurried him away
    from the worst saying, 'Another minute and they would have found you
    out. If they were not the stupidest men in London, they had done so
    already.' Ellis had gone through a no doubt romantic and witty
    account of all the houses he had robbed, and all the throats he had
    cut in one short life.

    His conversation would often pass out of my comprehension, or
    indeed I think of any man's, into a labyrinth of abstraction and
    subtilty, and then suddenly return with some verbal conceit or
    turn of wit. The mind is known to attain, in certain conditions of
    trance, a quickness so extraordinary that we are compelled at
    times to imagine a condition of unendurable intellectual
    intensity, from which we are saved by the merciful stupidity of
    the body; & I think that the mind of Edwin Ellis was constantly
    upon the edge of trance. Once we were discussing the symbolism of
    sex, in the philosophy of Blake, and had been in disagreement all
    the afternoon. I began talking with a new sense of conviction, and
    after a moment Ellis, who was at his easel, threw down his brush
    and said that he had just seen the same explanation in a series of
    symbolic visions. 'In another moment,' he said, 'I should have
    been off.' We went into the open air and walked up and down to get
    rid of that feeling, but presently we came in again and I began
    again my explanation, Ellis lying upon the sofa. I had been
    talking some time when Mrs. Ellis came into the room and said:
    'Why are you sitting in the dark?' Ellis answered, 'But we are
    not,' and then added in a voice of wonder, 'I thought the lamp was
    lit and that I was sitting up, and I find I am in the dark and
    lying down.' I had seen a flicker of light over the ceiling, but
    had thought it a reflection from some light outside the house,
    which may have been the case.
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