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    Chapter 16

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    Chapter 16
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    I had already met most of the poets of my generation. I had said,
    soon after the publication of 'The Wanderings of Usheen,' to the
    editor of a series of shilling reprints, who had set me to compile
    tales of the Irish fairies, 'I am growing jealous of other poets,
    and we will all grow jealous of each other unless we know each
    other and so feel a share in each other's triumph.' He was a
    Welshman, lately a mining engineer, Ernest Rhys, a writer of Welsh
    translations and original poems that have often moved me greatly
    though I can think of no one else who has read them. He was seven
    or eight years older than myself and through his work as editor
    knew everybody who would compile a book for seven or eight pounds.
    Between us we founded 'The Rhymers' Club' which for some years was
    to meet every night in an upper room with a sanded floor in an
    ancient eating house in the Strand called 'The Cheshire Cheese.'
    Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Victor Plarr, Ernest Radford, John
    Davidson, Richard le Gallienne, T. W. Rolleston, Selwyn Image and
    two men of an older generation, Edwin Ellis and John Todhunter,
    came constantly for a time, Arthur Symons and Herbert Home less
    constantly, while William Watson joined but never came and Francis
    Thompson came once but never joined; and sometimes, if we met in a
    private house, which we did occasionally, Oscar Wilde came. It had
    been useless to invite him to the 'Cheshire Cheese' for he hated
    Bohemia. 'Olive Schreiner,' he said once to me, 'is staying in the
    East End because that is the only place where people do not wear
    masks upon their faces, but I have told her that I live in the
    West End because nothing in life interests me but the mask.'

    We read our poems to one another and talked criticism and drank a
    little wine. I sometimes say when I speak of the club, 'We had
    such and such ideas, such and such a quarrel with the great
    Victorians, we set before us such and such aims,' as though we had
    many philosophical ideas. I say this because I am ashamed to admit
    that I had these ideas and that whenever I began to talk of them a
    gloomy silence fell upon the room. A young Irish poet, who wrote
    excellently but had the worst manners, was to say a few years
    later, 'You do not talk like a poet, you talk like a man of
    letters;' and if all the rhymers had not been polite, if most of
    them had not been to Oxford or Cambridge, they would have said the
    same thing. I was full of thought, often very abstract thought,
    longing all the while to be full of images, because I had gone to
    the art school instead of a university. Yet even if I had gone to
    a university, and learned all the classical foundations of English
    literature and English culture, all that great erudition which,
    once accepted, frees the mind from restlessness, I should have had
    to give up my Irish subject matter, or attempt to found a new
    tradition. Lacking sufficient recognised precedent I must needs
    find out some reason for all I did. I knew almost from the start
    that to overflow with reasons was to be not quite well-born, and
    when I could I hid them, as men hide a disagreeable ancestry; and
    that there was no help for it, seeing that my country was not born
    at all. I was of those doomed to imperfect achievement, and under
    a curse, as it were, like some race of birds compelled to spend
    the time, needed for the making of the nest, in argument as to the
    convenience of moss and twig and lichen. Le Gallienne and
    Davidson, and even Symons, were provincial at their setting out,
    but their provincialism was curable, mine incurable; while the one
    conviction shared by all the younger men, but principally by
    Johnson and Horne, who imposed their personalities upon us, was an
    opposition to all ideas, all generalisations that can be explained
    and debated. E... fresh from Paris would sometimes say--'We are
    concerned with nothing but impressions,' but that itself was a
    generalisation and met but stony silence. Conversation constantly
    dwindled into 'Do you like so and so's last book?' 'No, I prefer
    the book before it,' and I think that but for its Irish members,
    who said whatever came into their heads, the club would not have
    survived its first difficult months. I knew--now ashamed that I
    thought 'like a man of letters,' now exasperated at their
    indifference to the fashion of their own river bed--that Swinburne
    in one way, Browning in another, and Tennyson in a third, had
    filled their work with what I called 'impurities,' curiosities
    about politics, about science, about history, about religion; and
    that we must create once more the pure work.

    Our clothes were for the most part unadventurous like our
    conversation, though I indeed wore a brown velveteen coat, a loose
    tie and a very old Inverness cape, discarded by my father twenty
    years before and preserved by my Sligo-born mother whose actions
    were unreasoning and habitual like the seasons. But no other
    member of the club, except Le Gallienne, who wore a loose tie, and
    Symons, who had an Inverness cape that was quite new & almost
    fashionable, would have shown himself for the world in any costume
    but 'that of an English gentleman.' 'One should be quite
    unnoticeable,' Johnson explained to me. Those who conformed most
    carefully to the fashion in their clothes generally departed
    furthest from it in their hand-writing, which was small, neat and
    studied, one poet--which I forget--having founded his upon the
    handwriting of George Herbert. Dowson and Symons I was to know
    better in later years when Symons became a very dear friend, and I
    never got behind John Davidson's Scottish roughness and
    exasperation, though I saw much of him, but from the first I
    devoted myself to Lionel Johnson. He and Horne and Image and one
    or two others shared a man-servant and an old house in Charlotte
    Street, Fitzroy Square, typical figures of transition, doing as an
    achievement of learning and of exquisite taste what their
    predecessors did in careless abundance. All were Pre-Raphaelite,
    and sometimes one might meet in the rooms of one or other a ragged
    figure, as of some fallen dynasty, Simeon Solomon, the Pre-
    Raphaelite painter, once the friend of Rossetti and of Swinburne,
    but fresh now from some low public house. Condemned to a long term
    of imprisonment for a criminal offence, he had sunk into
    drunkenness and misery. Introduced one night, however, to some man
    who mistook him, in the dim candle light, for another Solomon, a
    successful academic painter and R. A., he started to his feet in a
    rage with 'Sir, do you dare to mistake me for that mountebank?'
    Though not one had harkened to the feeblest caw, or been spattered
    by the smallest dropping from any Huxley, Tyndall, Carolus Duran,
    Bastien-Lepage bundle of old twigs, I began by suspecting them of
    lukewarmness, and even backsliding, and I owe it to that suspicion
    that I never became intimate with Horne, who lived to become the
    greatest English authority upon Italian life in the fourteenth
    century and to write the one standard work on Botticelli.
    Connoisseur in several arts, he had designed a little church in
    the manner of Inigo Jones for a burial ground near the Marble
    Arch. Though I now think his little church a masterpiece, its
    style was more than a century too late to hit my fancy at two or
    three and twenty; and I accused him of leaning towards that
    eighteenth century

    That taught a school
    Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit
    Till, like the certain wands of Jacob's wit,
    Their verses tallied.

    Another fanaticism delayed my friendship with two men, who are now
    my friends and in certain matters my chief instructors. Somebody,
    probably Lionel Johnson, brought me to the studio of Charles
    Ricketts and Charles Shannon, certainly heirs of the great
    generation, and the first thing I saw was a Shannon picture of a
    lady and child arrayed in lace, silk and satin, suggesting that
    hated century. My eyes were full of some more mythological mother
    and child and I would have none of it, and I told Shannon that he
    had not painted a mother and child but elegant people expecting
    visitors and I thought that a great reproach. Somebody writing in
    'The Germ' had said that a picture of a pheasant and an apple was
    merely a picture of something to eat, and I was so angry with the
    indifference to subject, which was the commonplace of all art
    criticism since Bastien-Lepage, that I could at times see nothing
    else but subject. I thought that, though it might not matter to
    the man himself whether he loved a white woman or a black, a
    female pickpocket or a regular communicant of the Church of
    England, if only he loved strongly, it certainly did matter to his
    relations and even under some circumstances to his whole
    neighbourhood. Sometimes indeed, like some father in Moliere, I
    ignored the lover's feelings altogether and even refused to admit
    that a trace of the devil, perhaps a trace of colour, may lend
    piquancy, especially if the connection be not permanent.

    Among these men, of whom so many of the greatest talents were to
    live such passionate lives and die such tragic deaths, one serene
    man, T. W. Rolleston, seemed always out of place. It was I brought
    him there, intending to set him to some work in Ireland later on.
    I have known young Dublin working men slip out of their workshop
    to see 'the second Thomas Davis' passing by, and even remember a
    conspiracy, by some three or four, to make him 'the leader of the
    Irish race at home & abroad,' and all because he had regular
    features; and when all is said, Alexander the Great & Alcibiades
    were personable men, and the Founder of the Christian religion was
    the only man who was neither a little too tall nor a little too
    short but exactly six feet high. We in Ireland thought as do the
    plays and ballads, not understanding that, from the first moment
    wherein nature foresaw the birth of Bastien-Lepage, she has only
    granted great creative power to men whose faces are contorted with
    extravagance or curiosity or dulled with some protecting
    stupidity.

    I had now met all those who were to make the nineties of the last
    century tragic in the history of literature, but as yet we were
    all seemingly equal, whether in talent or in luck, and scarce even
    personalities to one another. I remember saying one night at the
    Cheshire Cheese, when more poets than usual had come, 'None of us
    can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The
    only thing certain about us is that we are too many.'
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