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Title: Essays Irish and American
Author: Yeats, John Butler
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Essays Irish and American" ***

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                     Essays Irish and American

                    _First Edition, May, 1918._
                   _Reprinted, December, 1918._

                 [Illustration: JOHN BUTLER YEATS]

                        Irish and American

                     JOHN BUTLER YEATS, R.H.A.

                     With an Appreciation by Æ


              DUBLIN                            LONDON
       The Talbot Press Ltd.             T. Fisher Unwin Ltd.
         89 Talbot Street                  1 Adelphi Terrace


           “_Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto._”



               An Appreciation                     5

               Recollections of Samuel Butler      9

               Back to the Home                   23

               Why the Englishman is Happy        37

               Synge and the Irish                51

               The Modern Woman                   63

               Watts and the Method of Art        75

  Four of the following Essays have appeared in _Harper’s Weekly_
  and one in _The Seven Arts_. The thanks of The Talbot Press,
  Limited, are due to the proprietors and editors of both Journals,
  for permission to reprint.

                          AN APPRECIATION

We admire some because of their accomplishment, others because
of what they are. I admire Mr. John Yeats as an artist as much
as any, but I feel that nature’s best gift to him was a humanity
which delights in the humanity of others. Few artists I think
found it more easy to be interested in the people they met or
painted. All his portraits, whether of men or women, seem touched
with affection. Rarely has he pourtrayed any, young or old, where
something like a soul does not look at us through the eyes. I
have liked people after seeing Mr. Yeats’ portraits of them, and
I am sure I would not have liked them so much if I had not first
looked at them with his vision. In his delightful letters, of
which extracts have been already published, and in his essays he
lets us unconsciously into the secret of his meditation about his
sitters. He is always discriminating between themselves and their
ideas, searching for some lovable natural life. He complains in
one of his essays that the American women whom he admires cannot
be easily natural. They want so much to be the ideal daughter or
the ideal wife or the ideal friend that poor ordinary human nature
is not good enough for them. He perhaps never heard of Laotze--how
few people know of that fount of wisdom--but Mr. Yeats, who is,
I fancy, unhappy in the society of metaphysicians, economists or
theorists, would, I believe, have loved the Chinese sage who made
a religion with this law, “Be ye natural.” All the other religions
draw us away from hearth and home and love and dominate us by an
overlaw, but Laotze alone among religious teachers heaves a sigh
when he hears of someone setting out to reform the world because
he knows there will be no end to it. When Laotze says in his
ideal state people would be contented in themselves, think their
poor clothes beautiful and their plain food sweet, I think of
Mr. Yeats and his fear that the reformer will improve the Irish
peasant off the face of the earth. He delights in him as he is.
Why should anybody want to alter what is already natural, wild
and eloquent? To be primitive is to be unspoiled. Mr. Yeats seems
to be seeking everywhere in art and letters for the contours and
emotions which are the natural mould of face or mind. Mr. Orpen
can astonish us with technical accomplishment and Mr. John with
masterly drawing, but if we look at the face of a woman painted
by Mr. Yeats we will be attracted, not by the transient interest
of novelty in treatment, but because of some ancient and sweet
tradition of womanhood in the face, the eyes, the lips. We find the
eyes so kind that it is so we imagine mothers or wives from the
beginning of time have looked upon their children or have bewitched
men to build about them the shelter of home and civilisation.
Mr. Yeats in his art had this intimacy with the heart’s desire,
which is not external beauty, as those who have degenerated art
into the pourtrayal of prettiness suppose, but beauty of spirit.
Those who knew Mr. Yeats will remember that enchanting flow of
conversation which lightened the burden of sitting; and nature
was wise in uniting the gift of conversation with the gift of
portrait painting, because the artist was so happy in his art and
so reluctant to finish his work; without that grace of speech
few sitters could have endured to the end with an artist always
following up some new light of the soul, obliterating what already
seemed beautiful to substitute some other expression which seemed
more natural or characteristic. To those who knew Mr. Yeats these
essays will recall that conversation with which we did not always
agree but which always excited us and started us thinking on our
own account. The reader will find here thoughts which are profound,
said so simply that their wisdom might be overlooked, and also
much delightful folly uttered with such vivacity and gaiety that
it seems to have the glow of truth. Perhaps these fantasies and
freaks of judgment are as good as if they were true. One of the
most delightful inventions of nature is the kitten chasing its own
tail, and this and many other inventions of nature seem to indicate
that a beautiful folly is one of the many aspects of wisdom. What
is it but mere delight in life for its own sake, in invention for
its own sake, or, as Mr. Yeats puts it elsewhere, a disinterested
love of mischief for its own dear sake. How dear that is to us
Irish who have often had nothing but love of mischief to console
us when all the substantial virtues and prizes of life had been
amassed by our neighbours. How witty Mr. Yeats is those who read
these essays will discover. “When a belief rests on nothing you
cannot knock away its foundations,” he says, perhaps half slyly
thinking how secure were some of his own best sayings from attack.
I refuse to argue over or criticise the philosophy of the man who
wrote that, for I do not know how to get at him. I am content to
enjoy, as I am sure his friends will, and new friends also who will
be made by a reading of this book, and who will be grateful to
Mrs. Bellinger of New York, who cut out and preserved from various
papers these essays as they appeared; for the writer, unlike the
kitten, had no interest in chasing his own tail, and had forgotten
what he had written or where it had appeared. Gathered in one book
these essays reflect a light upon each other and recreate for us
a personality which has deserted Dublin, but which none who knew
would wish to forget.

                                                              A. E.


I knew Butler. In the year 1867-68 I was a pupil at Heatherleigh’s
Art School, Newman Street, London, and Butler was there also. It is
not true that Butler had talent. To be a painter after the manner
of John Bellini was for years the passion of his life. It was vain;
he had no talent. At the time I knew him he was beginning to see
this and it was pathetic! We tried to comfort him and would have
cheered him with false hopes. All the intellect in the world won’t
make a painter if it is not the right kind of intellect.

A Scotch friend of mine and his, whom Butler loved because of his
knowledge of music, would sometimes say, “Yes, Mr. Butler, you are
a dominie”--and he would chuckle slowly in his Scotch manner. Like
a dominie he kept us all in order. We called each other briefly
by our surnames without the prefix of the Mr.--Butler was always
_Mr._ Butler. Once a daring citizen of London ventured, “Have you
been to the Alhambra, Butler?” He pronounced it “Al’ambra”--that
gave Butler his opportunity. The Englishman in possession of all
his aitches can always hold the many in check because of their
deficiency in aitches. “Is there an aitch in the word?” said
Butler. Never again did my poor friend venture, or for that matter
any of us.

The Irishman likes his equal and is, as every one admits, the best
of comrades; the German likes his superior; but the Englishman
likes to be with his inferior and is not comfortable in any other
relation. He is sent to the public school and the university by
his anxious parents and guardians that he may acquire the superior
manner. There are two sneers in England, the cockney variety which
no one respects, and the university and public school sneer which
compels respect, even among foreigners. It impressed Goethe. The
footman puts it on but overdoes it, so that at a glance we know it
to be counterfeit. Butler was the politest, the most ceremonious of
men, but the sneer was there and all the more palpable because so
carefully veiled.

We were art students and tried to be Bohemian, or would have done
so had not Butler been one of us. There was a student whom he much
liked; one day he took him in hand and in his most paternal manner
admonished him that he must not use the word “chap.” Butler was
an Englishman through and through and an Englishman of “class.”
The Englishman of class will part with his faith, with his wife
and children, with his money, even, or his reputation and be
cheerful about it, but closer than his skin sticks to him his class
conceit; and in his accent, his voice, his gestures, his phrases he
carefully preserves all its insignia. Possessed of these he knows
he may go anywhere and associate with anyone; it is a passport
entitling him to a nobleman’s freedom. Every Englishman, gentle
or simple, either by force or by patient groping will try for a
sheltered spot where he may have his own thoughts and his own ways
hampered by none. But the Englishman of class is freest of all; a
policeman, even he, will hesitate to interfere with you if he knows
that you are a gentleman.

In his “Way of All Flesh,” Butler describes English home life and
he enables us to see that affection and sympathy do not form part
of it. Butler, the product of that life, sets little importance
on either affection or sympathy; and yet there never was a kinder
man. Good nature was fundamental in his character and was, I think,
the source of most of his writings and opinions. The English going
about life in an intensely selfish way and doing this on principle
are obliged to have strict laws strictly enforced; yet outside
these laws they claim and allow the utmost license of action and
thought. It is their distinction among nations that they love
personal liberty so much,--that is for themselves, for they are
quite ready to enslave other people. With this love for personal
freedom has grown up, side by side with it and as part and parcel
of it, an immense appreciation of human nature itself. Against this
appreciation Puritanism has vainly and indeed dolorously struggled.
Butler’s good nature was due to his liking for human nature itself;
hence his zeal against all the conventions and illusions and
veiling “respectabilities” that would snatch from human nature its
proper food.

The continental nations may hate human nature and produce their
Goyas, but such art among Englishmen excites only a lazy contempt.
Notwithstanding their passion for law and rule, a necessary thing
among people so selfishly bent on their own gains, the Englishman
does not actually hate his neighbour, even though he keeps aloof
from him. He has indeed a genial relish for the selfishness in his
neighbour which is so strong in himself. Edmund Burke has some
such sentence as “the _good nature_ and integrity of this ancient
people.” The Dutch, being a freedom-loving people, have a similar
good nature. Rembrandt and Shakespeare get artistic pleasure out
of the ugly but with laughter, not as in Goya with a grin of
hatred. Indeed, looking at some of Goya’s work, one is forced to
believe that he hated even the people who looked at his pictures
and wished through them to insult and offend all his friends,--a
kind of disorderly impulse which in him and others prompts to the
disgusting and obscene in art. Butler’s emancipated intellect had
won for his soul and senses a freedom which he wished to share
with others; he had as it were acquired a freedom to be on good
terms with himself. To be sure, a Scotchman is on good terms with
himself when he is conceited. Butler wanted people to be on good
terms with their senses and appetites and everything else that goes
into our make-up as men, to all of which Scotch conceit is the
enemy. For this he was always fighting, and he began to fight at
Heatherleigh’s Art School. He found us, as he thought, enslaved by
this or that convention or illusion and by his mockeries and his
wit worked for our liberation.

He always occupied one place in the school chosen so that he
could be as close as possible to the model and might paint with
small brushes his kind of John Bellini art. There he would stand
very intent and mostly quite silent, intent also on our casual
conversation, watchful for the moment when he could make some sally
of wit that would crush his victim. He had thick eyebrows and grey
eyes,--or were they light hazel? These eyes would sometimes look
tired as he plied his hopeless task of learning how to paint. But
the discovery of any mental slavery or insincerity among our band
of students would bring a dangerous light into them, and he would
say things that perhaps hurt very much men who were absolutely
sincere, however mistaken. Then Butler, who respected, as he often
told me, every kind of sincerity, would humble himself and make
apologies that were not always accepted, and in the grey eyes, like
a little fire on a cold hearth, I would see a melting kindness that
it must have been hard to resist. The virtuous are not always the
generous, neither are they always as wise as Solomon.

At that time I was a very busy student working from morning to
night, otherwise I should have tried to see more of Butler.
There is nothing so winning as a look of helpful kindness in a
mocking face. Besides, he was a good deal my senior and seniority
is attractive to ingenuous youth; and I was then ingenuous. I
sometimes think I have lost all my opportunities; the chance
of knowing Butler well was one of these. Slowly I have come to
feel that affection for human nature which is at the root of all
poetry and art, whether the poet be pessimist or optimist. Had I
stayed much with Butler I should have learned my lesson almost at
once. Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light” was not much to his
taste, and he cared nothing for the high ethics of Wordsworth. An
affectionate mother, such as we have among the peasants of Ireland,
where mother-love is a passion, does not want her children to be
good half as much as she wants them to be happy. It was so Butler
regarded poor, struggling and deceived human nature. _There_ was
the source of his “good nature” and of his influence. In this
he was pre-eminently English of the English, and in this there
was nothing of the system maker or the philanthropist. Nor was
he a philosopher or anything else except a mere man touching and
handling the concrete matters of everyday life. With tenderness of
humour and a most real poetry he touched, healingly, all the sores
of ailing humanity.

Butler liked women but disapproved of marriage. He liked women
because, as I heard him say, they are so good natured. They would
laugh with him but never at him. Then they are obedient and
teachable and the dominie within him liked pupils. His attitude
towards them was a smiling indulgence. The charming women of those
backward days were still in the Middle Ages, apologetic, almost
penitential, as if they asked pardon for being so beautiful or so
merry and engaging, and did not a bit mind if Butler regarded them
as inferior, especially as towards them he was always kindly and
fatherly and innocent. It is quite easy to see why Butler disliked
marriage; it would have curtailed his freedom to follow out all
his queer vagaries of Butlerian thought and inclination. This
consideration does not affect the ordinary Englishman of coarser
grain, tenacious of his ancient right to do what he likes with his
own, his own being his wife and children and servants and “all that
he possesses.” The ordinary Englishman lives alone in his English
home, lord and master of it, with his wife second in command.
Butler, of course, could not so live; therefore to keep his liberty
he dismissed forever the thought of a married home. Had he married
I have no doubt he would have chosen a helpmate not likely to
dispute his supremacy. I knew Miss Savage, the model for his good
woman in “The Way of All Flesh.” She was a student at the art
school and not very young, and she was lame; life had disciplined
her. She was fair, with a roundish face and light blue eyes that
were very sensitive and full of light; a small head, her features
charmingly mobile and harmonious. She radiated goodness and sense.
She kept herself very much to herself, yet all liked her, even
though we never spoke to her. Butler soon discovered that she
laughed easily; but as usual he was cautious. One day he consulted
me as to whether he could with safety ask her a school-boy riddle
he had picked up somewhere, a school-boy riddle in that, though
quite innocent, it was not altogether nice. I don’t remember how I
advised, only that they became fast friends.

Though he avoided marriage, his flesh was weak. “I have a little
needle-woman, a good little thing. I have given her a sewing
machine. I go to see her.” As he made his confession he retired
backwards, bowing his head several times as in mockery of himself
and acknowledgment of a sad necessity from which even he was not
exempt. For it was given to him also to tread “The Way of All
Flesh.” It was always part of his philosophy that he should confess
his sins, besides being a necessity to his social nature and one of
his most engaging qualities.

Though he professed to despise Greek plays he was a good classical
scholar. Outside the classics he had read nothing except
Shakespeare and “The Origin of Species” and the Bible. For him “The
Origin of Species” was the book of books. If he took a fancy to a
student he would watch him for a few days and then approach him
with cautious ceremony--he was always ceremonious--and ask him if
he had read _the book_ and perhaps offer to lend it to him. I am
proud to remember that he lent it to me. “The Origin of Species”
had, as he told me, completely destroyed his belief in a personal
God; so occasionally instead of the usual question he would ask the
student if he believed in God. In this he did not confine himself
to students. There was a nude model named Moseley who often sat
to us at Heatherleigh’s. He liked this model, in whom he found a
whimsical uprightness that appealed to his sense of things. Once
in the deep silence of the class I heard him asking, “Moseley,
do you believe in God?” Without altering a muscle or a change
of expression, Moseley replied, “No, sir, don’t believe in old
Bogey.” The form of the answer was unexpected; its cheerful cockney
impudence was beyond even Butler’s reach of courage. He retired in
confusion, and we laughed. We liked a laugh at Butler’s expense.
Besides, in those days most of us were orthodox; in fact had never
given a thought to the question of Deity. But that fear kept them
quiet, there were some valiant spirits who would have cried out
against him, since then as well as now, in America as well as in
England, an orthodox inertia was characteristic of artists. They
do not go to church, they never give a thought to religion, but
they are profoundly orthodox in a deep, untroubled somnolency. I
remember that one man, a very successful student, did engage in
controversy and was highly sentimental in a dandified, affected
way. Butler’s reply was one word repeated several times--“Pooh!”
that ended it. I have no doubt that that gentleman still retains
his orthodoxy. When a belief rests on nothing you cannot knock away
its foundations.

Butler’s father was a wealthy dean of the Church of England, and, I
fancy, pompous and authoritative. He told me that his father never
became excited unless the dinner was late. When he broke away from
orthodoxy and announced his intention of becoming an artist instead
of a clergyman, his family refused him all assistance. Nor is it
true that his father helped him in his New Zealand venture. He
himself told me that he managed to borrow from friends £10,000, and
that he was more proud of that than of anything else in his life.
He stayed in New Zealand four years, after which a lucky turn on
the market enabled him to return to England and repay the money,
while keeping enough to support himself in his pursuit of art. He
liked to tell of his New Zealand life and of his hatred of sheep.
They were always getting lost, so that he said the word “sheep”
would be found engraved on his heart. He did not know one of his
horses from another or from anybody else’s horse, and said he was
like the Lord, whose delight is not in the strength of a horse.

Sam Butler’s desire for truth and his stripping away from life
and belief all the veils of illusion was the characteristic of a
man truly poetic. He and his pupil, G. B. Shaw, by their passion
for sincerity, help the imaginative life. When Michael Angelo
maintained that only the Italians understood art, Vittoria Colonna
pointed out that the German pictures touched the feelings. “Yes,”
he replied, “because of the weakness of our sensibilities.”
Poetry and the imaginative life can only flourish where truth
is of supreme moment; an education which contents itself with
half-knowledge and half-thought will inevitably produce a crowd
of sentimentalists and false poets and rhetoricians. The great
artist and the great poet have rigorous minds. Michael Angelo
said of those German pictures that they were only fit for “women,
ecclesiastics and people of quality.” After all a poet must
believe, and without rigorous thinking there is no sense of belief.

To know things thoroughly, or not at all,--this was the habit of
Butler’s mind, derived from his classical education, in which the
whole stress is on the minutiæ of scholarship. For instance, he
told me that he never studied music till he was twenty-one years
of age, after which he gave to it every moment he could spare. Yet
he only cared for Händel, content that all the rest should be to
him an unknown world. What he could not study thoroughly he would
not study at all. In his eyes superficial knowledge was superficial
ignorance and the mental habits engendered by it disastrous. Among
painters he valued chiefly those who, like John Bellini, are
thorough to minuteness. Though he professed to despise style he was
a precisian in words. At a restaurant which he and I frequented
for our midday meal he met a man who said he never “used” hasty
pudding. This application of the verb “use” was to him a source of
endless amusement. I have heard him tell the story many times.

I think he read Shakespeare continually. I know he read no other
poetry, although he did glance once a little wistfully at
Whitman,--“the catalogue man,” he called him. All the same he was
a genuine Englishman and brooded in the imaginative mood of a
self-centred solitude which could not be shared with anyone, as the
sympathetic Frenchman lives in the imaginative mood of an expansive
existence which he would share with everyone.

I remember the last time I saw Butler. I was sitting at breakfast,
alone, in a lodging in an out of the way part of London, having
come from Ireland the night before after an absence of seven or
eight years. I saw him passing and in glad surprise at once raised
the window, meaning to hail him. But I reflected sadly and changed
my mind, closing the window and returning to my breakfast, as I
thought: “God forbid that I should intrude myself uninvited on any

                         BACK TO THE HOME

Everywhere or almost everywhere among English-speaking peoples the
monarchical principle is under notice to quit. In the school it is
the boy and not the master who rules; even in the courts the judges
interpreting the law go cautiously, in fear of public disfavour;
finally, change has reached the home and the family, which were
wont to be a dual monarchy--the mother ruling within the house and
the father his own world outside. Just as business is a matter of
committees and syndicates and corporations--the individual man a
mere wheel or pulley in some immense machine which is controlled by
a cold-blooded arithmetician--so, inside the home, the mother is
superseded by an expert, some specialist in up-to-date science or
quackery who occupies her place and asks to sit where she sat. Can
we wonder that she sometimes leaves vacant her chair and goes in
pursuit of distraction?

It is a curious change and means much; for one thing, the world
has lost its two most picturesque figures--the master of the house
and its mistress. When hospitality was hospitality, it meant that
you were admitted for a brief while to bask in the smiles of two
gracious sovereigns--the lord and the lady of the house that
entertained you--their good-will, radiating forth to warm you, the
real attraction, to which the wine and the food and the guests were
only secondary, so much heart on their side creating a heart within
your own narrow ribs. Now all is changed, and the entertainment
is more important than the entertainers. We come to be pleased,
we no longer come to please; the old delicious autocracy with its
smiling court of sympathetic and affectionate guests has tumbled
into the dust, the feelings of host and hostess, the home cookery
and the old-fashioned house with its gathered associations are
nothing to us; we demand to dine where the food and drink are up
to date, so we dine at a restaurant, where are noise, distraction
and confusion. I myself would sooner dine in a good man’s kitchen.
Personal rule is at an end. The host used authoritatively to lead
the talking and the hostess controlled it, for, though too busy
to talk, she was never too busy to listen, and the guests took
care that the conversation flowed in her direction and sought her
approval. In my youth, after the dinner-things were removed, we
sat around an ancient mahogany table, on which there was not, as
in later times, any garish white cloth. It would have been gloomy
but for the many-coloured reflections cast into its polished depths
from wine-filled glasses and decanters and from the faces and
dresses of the guests. Overhead were candelabra, the sole light in
the room; outside the circle of diners such deep shadows that the
faces looked like portraits by Rembrandt; and when, at the proper
moment, the hostess and her ladies swept out of the room, leaving
us to our men-talk, how lean would fall the entertainment! And it
was our hostess we missed, so much divinity did hedge her.

The monarchical principle is extinct in the home, it is likewise
extinct in the schools. I was educated at a school where the master
ruled by terror. He was a Scotchman and knew no other method,
and we were not in the least bit democratic. But if we trembled
before him we did not fear one another. There were between fifty
and sixty of us, a curious collection of diversities; not a boy in
the place who had not something marked in him, either by his own
strength or because of his home individuality. It was a time when
parents had little money and travelling expenses were heavy, so
that holidays were scanty and far apart. For instance, we never
went home at Christmas. The cheap railway had not yet everywhere
supplanted the mail coach. Yet we lived haunted by the thought of
our homes,--it possessed us, it obsessed us, it was our food and
drink with which we fed our imaginations and spiritually nourished
ourselves. We would talk incessantly to one another of our homes;
and friendships, our only solace in that abode of sternness, were
made up of similarities of taste and experience in the matter of
homes. The methods of education were, if you like, brutal; but
the brutality made our homes all the dearer. We leaned heavily
on the thought of our homes; while in our happiness, as in our
misery, we possessed a faculty of concentration unknown to boys
educated in the latitudinarian methods of the modern schools.
Whether it was our first Latin author, Cornelius Nepos, or our
Latin exercises, or the horrible Latin grammar of that period, or
the big Latin dictionary or Greek lexicon--implements of education
whose repulsiveness was supposed to add to their efficiency--or
our letters from home, or our long talks of home and yearnings for
home--no matter what the subject, we brought to it an intensity
that would have been foreign to the careless boys of this
effeminate age. I remember a boy under twelve who talked to me in
whispers of his father and mother not being friendly, and of his
mother preferring to him his younger brother. There was another boy
whose trouble was that there was so little money at home. There was
yet another very little boy, who would take me aside and read long
letters from a beautiful sister married to a military officer in
India. Depend upon it, there is nothing that concentrates the mind
like having for schoolmaster a conscientious Scotchman teaching
Greek and Latin in the old clumsy methods.

A young boy is mostly regarded as something quite outside the pale
of sympathy and understanding. Only his mother can endure him,
and she because, as many think, love has made her blind. Yet in
himself he is of all beings the most ingenuously and ingeniously
human, and a veritable fountain of imaginative desire, who, if
he do but retain his spontaneity, may become a Charles Lamb or a
Coleridge or a Shelley; or, if he be built on the grand scale, a
Dante or a Michael Angelo. The mission of the modern school is for
the boys themselves to take in hand this little boy and, by force
of their own rude animalism and with joyous pressure, strip him of
everything exceptional and compel him to take on another likeness.
I remember an English lady telling me that she had been to visit a
great public school to see her son, a little boy. She told me that
at a distance she could not distinguish him from any other boy;
and she smiled helplessly as she added that it was the ambition of
every little boy in that famous school to be exactly like the other
little boys. And yet we wonder that the world no longer produces
distinguished individualities. This mother knew that her boy would
come back to her the average boy, to grow into the average man,
like his father, like his uncle, like everybody else. A friend of
mine, a most interesting man, very happy in his hobbies and in his
dreams and visions and beliefs, a poet though without learning, and
without the sweet accomplishment of verse, lamented that he had not
been kept longer at school, where, as he said, he might have had
all the “nonsense knocked out of him.” The poor fellow does not
know how happy and interesting he is; he only knows that his wife
and all his friends find him different from other people and on
this account disapprove of him. Yet there was an old French artist
in 1830 who advised his friends to cultivate their faults carefully.

The old methods were brutal and made the boys brutal, yet they, at
any rate, did not break down and insidiously destroy singularity
of character as is being done every day by the democratic methods
of modern schools. A celebrated master of Eton in the eighteenth
century said, “My business is to teach Greek, not morality.” In
that robust century people did not take much thought about one
another. You might be unhappy and all astray, but they let you
alone; provided you did your Greek right, your morals were your own
affair. Chatham may have left Eton a “cowed” boy, as he implied
he did, yet he brought with him an individuality of a quality
so angular and so challenging that it is impossible to believe
it could have survived had it been ground between the upper and
nether millstones of modern school-boy life. These schools, both in
America and in England, with their great prestige and with the boys
in full control, have become so powerful in moulding character that
it is no longer accurate to say “the boy is father of the man,” but
rather, “the school-boy is father of the man.” In Ireland things
are different. The old brutal methods being discarded, the boys
do not fear the master, neither do they fear each other, and the
explanation is that the Irishman, man and boy, gentle and simple,
is much more of an aristocrat than a democrat. He belongs to his
home and to his family; he has the passion for home and family, he
passes through school or college without really belonging to either
of them.

For that reason the home among the Irish remains stronger than
any school or college, exactly the reverse of what has happened
in England and may happen in America. When I say an Irishman,
gentle or simple, is an aristocrat, I do not mean that he is a
person of class or wants to be one, or that he bears the slightest
resemblance to the modern English nobleman, but I do mean that he
likes to think that he is a person of distinction, and that he
differs from all other men, and values himself accordingly. Nature
herself would, if we did not thwart her, evolve each man on a
different plan; as she makes every leaf and every twig and every
tree in the forest different from all its fellows. She has an Irish
delight in diversity, and smiles to see her sturdy children each
fighting for its own hand.

The typical Irish family is poor, ambitious, and intellectual; and
all have the national habit, once indigenous in “Merry England,”
of much conversation. In modern England they like a dull man and
so they like a dull boy. We like bright men and bright boys.
When there is a dull boy we send him to England and put him into
business where he may sink or swim; but a bright boy is a different
story. Quickly he becomes the family confidant, learning all about
the family necessities; with so much frank conversation it cannot
be otherwise. He knows every detail in the school bills and what it
will cost to put him through the university, and how that cost can
be reduced by winning scholarships and prizes. As he grows older
he watches, like an expert, the younger brothers coming on, and
is eager to advise in his young wisdom as to their prospects. He
studies constantly, perhaps overworks himself while his mother and
sisters keep watch; and yet he is too serious, and they on their
side are too anxious for compliments. It is indeed characteristic
of the Irish mother that, unlike the flattering mothers of
England, she loves too anxiously to admire her children; with her
intimate knowledge there goes a cautious judgment. The family
habit of conversation into which he enters with the arrogance of
his tender years gives him the chance of vitalizing his newly
acquired knowledge. Father, mother, brothers and sisters are all
on his mind; and the family fortunes are a responsibility. He is
not dull-witted, as are those who go into business to exercise
the will in plodding along some prescribed path; on the contrary,
his intellect is in constant exercise. He is full of intellectual
curiosity, so much conversation keeping it alive, and therein is
unlike the English or the American boy. Indeed, he experiences
a constant temptation to spend in varied reading the time that
should be given to restricted study. He is at once sceptical and
credulous, but, provided his opinions are expressed gaily and
frankly, no one minds. With us intellect takes the place which
in the English home is occupied by the business faculty. We love
the valour of the free intellect; so that, the more audacious his
opinion, the higher rise the family hopes. He and all his family
approve of amusement--to do so is an Irish tradition unbroken from
the days before St. Patrick; but they have none. They are too poor
and too busy; or rather they have a great deal, but it is found
in boyish friendships and in the bonds of the strongest family
affection, inevitable because they are Irish and because they have
hopes that make them dependent upon one another. The long family
talks over the fire, the long talks between clever boys on country
walks--these are not the least exciting amusements--even though
they bear no resemblance to what is called “sport.”

These are the gifts of the Irish home; among the poor, affection
infinite as the sea, which, because of an idleness which is not
their fault, has had full scope to grow into an intensity of
longing that makes it sometimes hungry as the sea; among the
better-off, ambition also and a free intellect; and in everybody an
ancient philosophy of human nature which warms rather than chills
human relations.

The English boy has an entirely different history. He enters some
famous historical school, anxious, like his parents and all his
aunts and cousins, that he be stamped and sealed with its approval.
His desire is to be an Eton, Harrow, or Rugby boy, after which
he will become an Oxford or Cambridge man, marked in his accent,
clothes, and manner with the sign-manual of his university. For
the Irish boy this is as impossible as it is repugnant. His home
is stronger than his school and his college. In the great English
schools the boys manage one another; a system of rules and of
etiquette has democratically grown up which all must obey; this
kind of docility is English and not Irish. Our boys cannot thus
surrender themselves, for behind the Irish boy is the drama of a
full home life. There is no such drama in English home life--it is
prosperous, uneventful, and lies icily cold in the lap of law.
The Irish home, in which so much happens, awaits its novelist;
but, alas! English readers won’t read novels about Ireland, and
Irish readers are too few to make their custom worth anybody’s
attention. All we know is that the Irishman is, boy and man, a
detached personality. He is often the gayest and most sociable of
beings, and a true comrade, and he may be able to adapt himself to
every situation, yet he remains apart; even with his friends he
is inscrutable, he cannot be read. And this to my mind is right,
for no one should be able to read another’s secret, except the
mother who bore him, and sometimes a sweetheart. The ordinary
well-to-do Englishman has no secrets, for you can read them all
in his bank-book, in his Catechism, in the rules of his club and
the laws of his country. He is an admirable citizen on whom you
can calculate as on a railway time-table. The English mother when
she parts from her boy at the school doors may sigh to think that
she has lost her boy, yet be proud to think that he will return
remodelled into the smart Eton or Harrow boy. The Irish mother
has no such hopes and no such fears; her boy will come back what
he was when he left her side, and though he go to India, and rule
provinces, with many well-trained public-school Englishmen working
under him, he will still remain the passionate Irish boy of her
heart’s desire.

The great factor in the Irish education is not the school, but the
Irish home, unique in its combination of small means, intellect,
and ambition with conversation. Without this conversation the home
would not be Irish. From every manor-house and cabin ascends the
incense of pleasant talk; it is that in which we most excel. With
us all journeys end in talkers’ meeting; “we are the greatest
talkers since the Greeks,” said Oscar Wilde. When any Irish reform
is proposed--and they are innumerable--I always ask, how will it
affect our conversation? France has her art and literature, England
her House of Lords, and America her vast initiative; we have our
conversation. We watch impatiently for the meals, because we are
hungry and thirsty for conversation; not for argument’s sake or to
improve ourselves, but because we spontaneously like one another.
We like human voices and faces and the smiles and gestures and all
the little drama of household colloquy, varying every moment from
serious to gay, with skill, with finesse; we like human nature
for its own sake, and we like it vocal--that is why we talk; we
even like our enemies, on the Irish principle that it is “better
to be quarrelling than to be lonesome.” Arthur Symons, staying in
a pilot’s cottage on the west of Ireland, said to my daughter: “I
don’t believe these people ever go to bed.” No, they have so much
to say to one another.

“England,” said Bernard Shaw, “cannot do without its Irish and
Scots to-day because it cannot do without at least a little
sanity.” Both these nations are conversational.

The home must play its part vigorously if the race is to be saved
for affection and happiness, and if we would bring back the
conditions from which spring art and poetry.

                    WHY THE ENGLISHMAN IS HAPPY


In the long quest for self-knowledge and self-fulfilment there are
two types of men and two methods. There are some who would have the
individual man care only for himself morning, noon, and night, for
his spirit, his mind, his body, his temporal and eternal welfare.
There are others who would say he should forget himself and lose
himself in great ideas, great causes, great enthusiasms, in
passionate love or humanitarianism, or even in the anger of battle.
Of these two methods the second is found in France while the first
is the Englishman’s creed.

The English are a fortunate people, or seemed so in the happy past,
their primal good fortune being that they lived and grew up on an
island surrounded by stormy seas and fenced in by high cliffs.
Their second good fortune sprang out of the first; they never
submitted themselves to a strong central government. Of all people
in the known world, they were the least governed; of all men the
Englishman was the freest, little more being required of him than
that he should live on good terms with his neighbours. Doubtless
one of these neighbours was the brutal Norman noble who regarded
him as an inferior being of an inferior race, and as a landlord
oppressed him. Outside this relation of landlord and tenant, and
of superior and inferior, he lived a free man among his fellows
without, indeed, the dignity and honour of being a soldier, but
also without his constant subjection and unrelaxing discipline. He
was a boor, but his thoughts were his own; and his language, being
different from that of his oppressor, afforded him an additional
protection. He lived in his own world--he lived apart among his own
race and kindred.

The other nations on the continent of Europe, notably France, lay
open to one another’s ravages; and for that reason had always to
remain under arms, every man a soldier, martial law superseding all
other laws. However England might war with other nations, however
she might despoil them, pursuit and revenge were impossible;
behind her cliffs she was safe. No matter how great the cloud of
hatred or what it threatened, she lived in security and laughed
at her enemies. The peasant returned in peace to his village and
his plough, the merchant to his shop, and the noble to his castle;
while crimes that could not be punished left no visitings of
remorse. The English grew in liberty and in the arts of peace while
other nations grew in the arts of war and lost their liberty. The
English poor man was never taught his military dignity, but he
was taught his social inferiority; yet, while he bowed down, as
he still does, before his social superior, his thoughts remained
free; the better part of liberty remained to him. Froissart was
astonished at the squalor in which the English peasant lived; yet,
had he looked a little closer, he would have seen that under the
smouldering ashes on his hearth a fire was burning that had long
been extinct in his own country.

The French government was a military despotism, and since tyranny
begets tyranny and seeks to extend itself, it speedily drew to
itself the forces of religion, art and education, and allied
them in one vast conspiracy against the forces of freedom; so
that from the first the people were trained in submission to
power, authority and tradition. It was an eager and spontaneous
submission, the soldier proud to follow his captain, the student
eager to listen to his teacher, and the Catholic anxious to obey
the command of his priest. The people were accomplices in their own
enthralment; the more so since there was this discretion reserved
in the exercise of dominion: all were free to think out and draw
their own conclusions, provided that the State, the Church, and
the academies furnished the premises. Deductive logic was free;
inductive logic, the higher order, the kings, soldiers, magistrates
and statesmen kept in their own hands. As time advanced the French
became a nation of teachers and orators as well as soldiers, while
the creative impulse was everywhere arrested and hampered Welded
together and bound and clamped into a nation by their military
and ecclesiastical organizations, the French rapidly acquired the
instinct of solidarity; and the individual dwindled until he became
a mere unit of the state. This feeling of solidarity combined with
the free exercise of deductive logic, resulting in a fertility of
beautiful ideas--beautiful as rainbows on a stormy sky--and the
missionary habit. Of all men the Frenchman is the most picturesque
and the most attractive, as he is also the most eloquent and the
most persuasive. In literature, in life, in everything, the French
genius is social and sympathetic and propagandist.

The Englishman is the contrary of all this. He has a passion for
liberty and cares little for equality, fraternity, or any of the
ideals which are the glory of the French intellect. He is, indeed,
so entirely without the faculty of ideas that even his feeling
for liberty has never become an idea or a doctrine; he has no
intellectual cognizance of it; it is merely his habit. A something
which from long use has grown into him and become part almost of
his physiology, it is in his blood and in his bones and remains
by him always, keeping vigilant watch and ward. But it is for
himself alone; it is not for universal application; it is not his
philosophy. So that when he robs another nation, as in the case
of India or Ireland, and, in order to facilitate the theft, first
takes away that nation’s liberty, his conscience does not smite
him, for by liberty he always means English liberty, which includes
the privilege of robbing any nation that is weak enough to stand
it. To me a Frenchman is always like a student; either as he is
when he works diligently at his studies or as he is when he plays
truant, breaks away from discipline, and defies his teachers. An
Englishman, on the other hand, is a person untutored, who has
never been either to school or to college; he has neither the
attractiveness of the diligent student nor the excesses of the
rebel student. He is still almost what he was when he came first
from his Maker’s hands.

Besides his exemption from military organization and a central
government, there is yet another fact to be noted in the
Englishman’s history. A peaceful immigration into his country
has been as difficult as a warlike invasion. In other countries,
when the population was reduced by plague and pestilence, the
void was quickly filled up by an inrush of hungry foreigners; in
England this was impossible. There a sudden fall in population
meant a sudden rise in the abundance of food, because there was
no one to come from outside to take the food out of men’s mouths.
The population of mediæval England remained always small. The
Englishman’s native joviality and ease of heart were his song of
triumph over a condition in which, if he managed to survive, he
lived easily and fed well and clothed himself warmly. If other
people died, so much the worse for them and the better for him. To
this day the Englishman takes extraordinary care of his health. The
French and Irish contempt for death is to him a continual and a
shocking surprise. He never needed to work hard; he faced no great
struggles; he merely took care of his health.

In those far-off days of ease, little work, and much mortality
the Englishman acquired all his habits, all his positive and
negative qualities, together with that fear of death which we know
oppressed Dr. Johnson; and though the last hundred years have
much blunted his characteristics, the pattern still remains. He
is still given to much self-contemplation in its various forms
of self-complacency, self-examination, self-condemnation, and
self-exultation. He talks continually of himself; deprived of that
subject and of what is akin to it, he is a silent man. Not to be
the subject of conversation, neither to be praised nor abused, is
to him a disconcerting experience. He is not vain; it is merely
that his occupation is gone. The Americans are too busy with their
own growing fortunes to remember his existence, and for that reason
he is, here in New York, either so gentle and sad or so peppery and
quarrelsome as to be quite unrecognizable. He is no longer himself.
In his own country he is an unwearied egotist. When pleased it
is with himself, when displeased it is still with himself. With
his neighbours he is often sulky; yet his worst quarrels are with
himself, and therefore the hardest to reconcile. His variations are
variations not of idea, but of mood. The French live in a ferment
of opinion; it is their atmosphere--man contending against man with
noise, vociferation, oratory, and much action and movement. Among
the English there is always the silence of inward communing, the
stillness of a people overweighted with meditation. In France new
schools of art and movements in literature are the triumphs or--it
may be--the eccentricities and freaks of the logical process. In
England such movements mean the welcome or unwelcome emergence into
light of a new species. French impressionism was ushered into the
world with loud argument. Turner’s art was something inscrutable
and mysterious, the expression of a temperament that did not
argue and looked for no converts. Under any strong excitement the
Englishman withdraws into himself as into the security of his own
home. The Frenchman, on the contrary, gets away from himself
into the world of friends and ideas and starts a propaganda to
embrace the world. He seeks to impress; his literature and art
are full of dramatic surprises, while English art and literature
have always avoided startling effects; and, if they impress, do
so accidentally, as a tall mountain might the people who lived
in the valley. They continually spring forth from the mysterious
depths of personality, and, concerning themselves only with moods
of feeling, rely for expression on rhythm and music. A personality
cannot explain itself or account for itself; it can only cure its
ache and soothe its irritability by the music--the long-drawn-out
or fantastic music of artistic creation. French art and literature
concern themselves with ideas, and their effort is to make these
brilliant, orderly and specious, using the emphasis and animation
and sonorousness of art rather that its deeper music. So that in
France they watch for a distinguished intellect, while in England
we look for an individuality that is at once powerful, strange,
and intimate, its expression intelligible only to those who have
explored the farthest recesses of consciousness. In France we
find a garden, in England a wilderness. Yet, do not forget, the
gardener will often visit the wilderness in search for new plants
and shrubs. The inductive mind sows that which the deductive mind
plants out and waters.

The egotist is popularly supposed to be a wearisome chatterbox
incessantly talking about himself; and such men do abound in
England. An egotist is any man who habitually and instinctively
makes himself, his likings and dislikings, the sole test of truth;
and it is only when there is some streak of folly or childishness
that he becomes the garrulous chatterbox. Of these men some are
delightful humorists, as was Charles Lamb, or undelightful, as was
his boisterous brother John. Among them are, in fact, all sorts,
including all the bores, cranks and faddists, with the innumerable
company of monologists; including also the great pioneers and
forerunners of thought in poetry and art: the Shakespeares,
Turners, Hogarths, and Constables.

Socially, the egotist, where there is not some great compensating
charm, is a failure; he does not amalgamate; he is ever an alien
in the company, a difficult person. You don’t know whether to
make much of him or drop him altogether. At a dinner-party the
Englishman is apt to be that sad mistake, a guest who has to
be apologized for. Lovers are always poor company except with
each other. This is proverbial, and the Englishman is always in
love--that is, with himself. The sociable man, the welcome guest,
is in love with other people. As it is in the lighter matters of
social intercourse, so it is in graver matters. Gladstone, who, as
a Scotchman in England, was an acute critic, once wrote that the
Englishman needed a great deal of discipline; and this is true.
A community whose members are not spontaneously amenable to one
another’s feelings must have definite rules laid down and enforced
by definite penalties. On the other hand, the Frenchman, with his
social impulses and social training, knows “how to behave.” He
does not need to get rules by heart, for he has intuition; and
where he has not this inner light he turns naturally to reason, the
great sociable spirit, the friendly arbiter, the wise judge before
whom all men are equal. The English egotist has not this social
impulse; neither does he willingly appeal to reason. Latterly
he has become saturated with class feeling, which is neither
sociable nor reasonable; but his original instinct, to which he
constantly returns, is to regard himself as neither a superior nor
an inferior, but different; a humorist who cannot be classed and to
whom no general rules can apply; and such a man will not readily
appeal to a tribunal before which all men are equal.

The Frenchman is a gentleman; he has the finer instinct, the finer
training, and the finer intelligence; wanting these, the Englishman
has to be taught by the cumbrous methods of reward and punishment;
he learns under the whip and becomes more like a well-trained
animal than a reasonable human being. Yet--such is the blessedness
of mere habit--even he ends by doing quite cheerfully what he
learned most unwillingly. Legality, hard-and-fast rules that must
not be broken and that are interpreted in the narrowest spirit,
depressing enough in all conscience although they be, are to him
an enjoyment and a matter of incessant thought; since if they
circumscribe, they also define and secure the spaces of personal
liberty. They are his substitute for ideas, and, if they excite
no enthusiasm and are some of them admittedly bad, all the same,
he makes it his glad duty to obey them. Outside these laws he is
intractable and inclined to be surly, quarrels with his neighbours,
and is as jealous and suspicious of his rights as a dog with a
bone. Yet the Englishman is not unhappy. He has the happiness of a
perpetual self-complacency. Indeed, your self-absorbed egotist will
sometimes extract enjoyment of a kind out of the consciousness that
he is a wet blanket and a perpetual embarrassment and kill-joy;
it does not quicken the pulses, but it flatters his sense of
power, and, strange as it may seem, his sense of hatred. At any
rate, I have met such men both in England and elsewhere. And yet
there is another side to the picture; for this self-contained
egotist, when trained in a good school and taught the amenities
of good behaviour, and when he has received the discipline which
Gladstone said he so much needed, utters the best kind of talk,
since it flows not out of the logic which divides, but out of
the inner personality which makes the whole world kin. There is
in his conversation almost always a flavour of the intimate and
the confidential. He listens well, too, and never contradicts or
seeks to convince. Indeed, it disappoints him to find one opinion
where he thought there had been two. Cultivated Englishmen talking
together are like men sitting in the woods through a long summer’s
night and listening during the intervals of silence to the noise
made by a near-by stream or of a wind among the branches or to the
singing of a nightingale. So always should mortals talk: clamorous
and confident argument are the resource of the intellectual

Out of his habit of mind the egotist gains two valuable qualities.
First of all he learns how to manage himself. This, of course,
is not the same as the high and difficult art of self-mastery,
yet it counts for much that a man should know how to get the best
and leave out the worst from his life, even though that life be
in its essential mean and meagre or vicious and self-indulgent.
Self-management, smooth and adroit, is eminently the Englishman’s
accomplishment. The other quality is still more important; the
egotist makes the best of all husbands if regard be had to the
ordinary woman’s needs; for what are these if they are not all
summed up in the one word--companionship? Now a wife cannot find
a sufficing companionship in her husband’s business concerns. Here
she is beaten by the confidential clerk. There is, however, one
kind of friendship, one kind of companionship, which she alone can
supply in the required abundance; it is when the husband talks of
himself. Here is the chamber into which the wife enters willingly
when everybody else keeps away: the husband’s talk of his pains
and aches and tribulations. There is the pain in his knee or his
elbow, or the never-to-be-sufficiently-indicated pain in his head
or his back, or his cough, and how it differs from every previous
cough in his experience, or bears a dangerous resemblance to some
other body’s cough, together with the innumerable aches of his
wounded and exaggerated self-love. All this wearisome detail about
what is mostly nothing at all and which everybody else flees from,
the “pleasing wife” listens to with an attentive and intelligent
and credulous ear. It is her duty, or so she thinks it, and the
greater the intelligence the greater the credulity. There are
happy wives married to husbands whom it would bore to talk about
themselves, but the happiest woman, in whom content ripens to its
fullest, is the egotist’s wife. Like a bee in a flower, she hides
herself almost out of sight in wifely devotion. He finds happiness
in living in and for himself, she in living out of herself and
in him. Both are pleased. This is English conjugal life as I have
observed it; and here in perfection we have side by side our two
methods of human growth.

                       SYNGE AND THE IRISH.

The acrimonious dispute carried on in the newspapers over John
M. Synge and his plays is the eternal dispute between the man of
prose and the man of imagination. Synge’s plays, his prefaces to
his plays, and his book on the Aran Islands, like his conversation,
describe a little community rich in natural poetry, in fancy, in
wild humour, and in wild philosophy; as wild flowers among rocks,
these qualities spring out of their lives of incessant danger and
incessant leisure; there are also bitter herbs. When I used to
listen to Synge’s conversation, so rare and sudden, as now when I
read or listen to what he has written, I can say to myself, “Here
among these peasants is the one spot in the British Islands, the
one spot among English-speaking people, where Shakespeare would
have found himself a happy guest.”

The people in Mr. Shaw’s plays would not have bored him, only
because nothing human would have ever bored Shakespeare; but they
would not have inspired him. And though in their company he
might have stayed for a time and been perhaps as witty as Oscar
Wilde or Shaw, the lyrical Shakespeare, the poetical and creating
Shakespeare, would soon have tired of their arid gaieties, and have
gone to sit with the courteous peasants round their turf fires,
that he might listen to their words, musical sentences, musical
names, folk tales, and tales of apparitions, embodying images
and thoughts and theories of life and a whole variegated world
of lovely or bitter and sometimes savage emotion out of which to
construct poetical drama--a very different thing from the drama of
wit or satire or sensationalism whose inspiration is prose.

It was Synge’s luck that he found this people before the modern
reformer had improved them off the face of the earth. Each of us
has his destiny, and this was his. Every event in his life and
every chance encounter did but help to push him along till he
found his real self by living among them in the intimacy of their
family life and in the closer intimacy that came from speaking
with them a language into which they put their inmost feelings and
longings, using English for what was merely external. It was his
destiny to know these people and reveal them, and then die; and
to be denounced as an obscene and indecent writer and artist by a
set of people who will not listen and therefore cannot know, and
whose service to Ireland consists in striving to shout down every
distinguished Irishman.

Synge’s people are primitive in the sense that they are unspoiled.
A lady of fashion among the Chinese would regard the foot of a
European woman as primitive; we think it is unspoiled. Synge’s
offence consists in showing that these people have never been
moulded into the pattern that finds favour with the convent parlour
and in the fashionable drawing-room. New York is proud of its
progress and makes pretensions to high culture; and yet New York
might do worse than turn aside and learn of these humble people. A
young girl told a friend of mine that what she and her companions
always look forward to in Ireland are the long winter evenings
around the kitchen fire when the neighbours come in to talk. I
fancy all New York is in constant conspiracy to cut as short as
possible its dull winter evenings.

In Ireland we are still medieval, and think that how to live is
more important than how to get a living. When I was a young man
if I announced that I intended next morning at break of day to
start on some enterprise of amusement, or it might be of high
duty, the whole family would get up to see me off; but if it were
on some matter of mere commercial gain, I would breakfast in the
care of the servants. It was thus through the whole of Irish life.
If Curran, for instance, fought a duel in Phœnix Park at some
unearthly hour, five hundred sleepy Dublin citizens would rouse
themselves out of their beds and be there to see the fight, to
witness the courage of the combatants and enjoy the wit of Curran,
that never failed when danger threatened--and in those days and in
that country people shot to kill. We Irish are still what we’ve
always been, a people of leisure; like people sitting at a play, we
watch the game of life, we enjoy our neighbours, whether we love or
hate them.

Because of this enjoyment of the spectacle of life, we have
produced the ablest dramatists of latter-day England: Farquhar,
Goldsmith, Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw, and finally John
Synge. And of these, Synge, though he died so young, is the
greatest. He stands apart from them all, because he portrays
peasant poetry and passion, and a humour which cuts deep into
the mystery and terror of life. In the other dramatists we have
abundance of wit and liveliness, great powers of enjoyment, and a
commendable contempt for the prudential virtues; but there is also
a denial of spirituality and but a modicum of poetry; the deeper
feelings are never sounded, while their pathos is only a dainty
pity, not the genuine article: not one of them could have written
“Riders to the Sea.” Behind the Irish humour and pity are will
and intellect, as in Swift. In the drawing-room plays of Synge’s
predecessors there is merely the sensitive nature, so easily
chilled by what is not nice, becoming, and charming. Those who
object to Synge’s plays are suffering from the delicate stomach of
people who have lived effeminate lives. Dr. Swift would have come
to Synge’s plays and applauded them.

A good many years ago cultivated people and others began to take
an interest in the Irish peasant; it added something to the gaiety
of London and Dublin drawing-rooms. But socialism and communism,
the labour party and anarchy, had not then been invented to teach
people the seriousness of starving poverty. So Carleton and other
writers set to work to exploit the Irish peasant and make him into
something “fit for a lady’s chamber.” Hence has arisen the foolish
tradition that the Irish are all gentleness and innocence, and,
though wildly amusing, still within the bounds of good taste; hence
also came the comic Irishman, a buffoon without seriousness who
lived by making laughter for his patrons.

Synge’s plays exist to prove the contrary of all this. And yet
there is some truth in the picture. The Irish character has a
side which is turned toward spirituality and poetry, a musical
instrument exquisitely attuned to the beauties of nature and life.
Among this fighting race, square-chinned and with short features,
is scattered another type, with long, oval faces and soft eyes,
born to all hoping gentleness and affection, with imagination fed
on the mysteries of life and death and religion. This type Stella
might have discovered had she not been too English; Swift could
not, because probably he frightened it away. Yet Dr. Goldsmith was
as true an Irishman as Dr. Swift. How vividly Synge knew this side
of the Irish mind is shown in his book on the Aran Islands. The
other side is in his plays.

“A picture,” said Blake, “should be like a lawyer presenting a
writ.” Synge presents us with such a picture. Let us be patient;
people brought up on the literature of good taste cannot be
expected all at once to enjoy the literature of power.

“I can look at a knot in a piece of wood until I am frightened by
it,” so spake William Blake. This is the creative imagination,
and it is that of folklore and of the Aran Islands. These people
know no distinction between natural and supernatural; they believe
everything to be carried on by miracle; and the civilized man who
does not know that behind all science and reason and all moral
systems there is a something transcending all knowledge and which
is a continued miracle of love and beauty is not only incapable of
culture, he is incapable of desiring it. To him the Bible is as
inscrutable as Shelley. These peasants are not as well educated
as, say, Mr. Rockefeller, yet they have this feeling, this feeling
which is the religion of children and poets, and which is not
subject for reason at all--even though it be the source of our
whole intellectual life.

False education is like the pressure which the Chinese mother
applies to the feet of her infant. True education liberates. The
industrial movement would turn these peasants into smug artisans,
without a thought that consoles or a hope that elevates, greedy,
envious, and covetous, seeking only the triumphs of selfishness.
And yet man is naturally a singing bird; sometimes he is singing in
a cage of childish and brutish ignorance; and sometimes, though the
cage be roomy and handsome, he does not sing at all, has not the
heart to do so. True education would liberate him so that he could
sing in the open sky of knowledge and power and desire.

Synge says of these people that they have “some of the emotions
thought peculiar to people who have lived with the arts.” He also
speaks of “the singularly spiritual expression which is so marked”
on the faces of some of these women. And again he says that “they
are a people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in
the oldest legend and poetry.” A priest told me that on his return
from America the servant said she was glad to see him back, “for,”
said she, “while you were away there was a colour of loneliness in
the air.” In these people’s words, as in their lives, is the colour
of beauty, as the blue sky reflects itself in every little pool of
water among the rocks.

As to Synge’s great comedy, “The Playboy of the Western World,”
could Synge have chosen a better type for his hero than Christy
Mahon? Despite certain newspaper critics who have written of the
play, he is neither a weakling nor a fool, but a young poet in the
supreme difficulty of getting born; only in this case the struggle
is a little worse than usual. He has a drink-maddened father of
great strength and most violent passions, whose cruelty, backed
by his strength, has driven away all his family except this young
boy. Of course, Christy has no education, and his circumstances
are altogether so dreadful that to live at all he must live the
life of the imagination, wandering on the hills poaching and
snaring rabbits. Finally he strikes his father with a spade, and
in his terror runs away from home. After travelling for many days
he arrives in Mayo and finds himself a hero; not because he is a
murderer, but because he is a good-looking fellow in distress,
and, as the sequel proves, spirited withal and athletic. His
talk about the murder is a sudden freak of self-advertisement;
no one so cunning as your young poet! Besides, he liked to be
frightening himself. No one really believes it, and the Widow
Quinn is scornfully sceptical; and when, later on, as they think,
he actually murders his father, every one turns against him--his
sweetheart, though it breaks her heart, joining actively in handing
him over to justice.

In every well-constructed drama there is some central point of
interest around which all the other incidents are grouped. The
personality of the girl Pegeen, Christy’s sweetheart, is here the
central interest. She towers over every one, not only by her force,
but by her maidenly purity and Diana-like fierceness; nothing,
neither the coarseness she herself utters in wild humour, nor what
the others say or do, can soil her sunshine. And in the love-talk
between the lovers, he is all imagination and poet’s make-believe,
and she all heart and passion and actuality, which is the peasant
woman’s good sense! It is among peasants of the west of Ireland
that the poetical dramatist must henceforth find his opportunity.
Young gentlemen and young ladies in America have doctrinaire minds;
they have grown up attending classes and listening to lectures in
the atmosphere of a specious self-improvement, and know nothing of
the surroundings amid which this peasant girl grew up straight and
tall as a young tree. Some day people will recognize in this play
Synge’s tribute to the Irish peasant girl. “And to think it’s me is
talking sweetly, Christy Mahon, and I the fright of seven townlands
for my biting tongue. Well, the heart’s a wonder, and I’m thinking
there won’t be our like in Mayo for gallant lovers from this hour.”

The peasants of the west of Ireland are like Christy Mahon; sorrow
and danger and ignorance are their daily portion, yet like
him they live the life of the imagination. Liberate them from
what oppresses, but so that they may still live the life of the

Synge’s history was peculiar. He took up music as his profession
and studied it in Germany, Rome, and Paris; and having only a
very small income, for economy’s sake always lived with poor
people. In Paris he stayed with a man cook and his wife, who was
a _couturière_. He told me that they had but one sitting-room, in
which the man did his cooking and the wife her sewing, with another
sewing-woman who helped. When, as sometimes happened, a large
order for hats came in, Synge, who by this time had given up music
for philology, would drop his studies and apply himself also to
hat-making, bending wires, etc. After a year or so he moved into a
hotel, where he met my son, who urged him to leave Paris for the
west of Ireland and apply himself to the study of Irish. Among
these western peasants he thenceforth spent a great part of every
winter, living as one of the family, they calling one another by
their Christian names; and he told me that he would rather live
among them than in the best hotel.

Synge was morally one of the most fastidious men I ever met, at
once too sensitive and too proud and passionate for anything
unworthy. He was a well-built, muscular man, with broad shoulders,
carrying his head finely. He had large, light-hazel eyes which
looked straight at you. His conversation, like his book on the Aran
Islands, had the charm of entire sincerity, a quality rare among
men and artists, though it be the one without which nothing else
matters. He neither deceived himself nor anybody else, and yet he
had the enthusiasm of the poet. In this combination of enthusiasm
and veracity he was like that other great Irishman, Michael Davitt.
Like Davitt, also, he was without any desire to be pugnacious;
resolute, yet essentially gentle, he was a man of peace.

                         THE MODERN WOMAN


Queen Elizabeth, we know, had many lovers, but was herself never
in love; and so she was able to get the better of her cousin, Mary
Queen of Scots, who, poor soul! allowed herself to be ensnared by
the tender passion. Queen Elizabeth, on the historic page, is a
monster. Yet what was singular in her is now quite general.

It has been America which has given the world, this strange type;
like everything else that happens in this country, she has sprung
suddenly upon us, as if she had neither father nor mother nor any
visible ancestry.

She may be in a minority, yet she is not difficult to discover, for
she is most active, showing herself everywhere. Nor is it difficult
to describe her, since she spends much of her time in describing
herself. In the first place, like the orator, she is made rather
than born; indeed, she is herself a good deal of an orator, always
being ready to harangue her friends, explaining and enforcing
her ideas. Self-improvement is her passion; improvement in what
direction? you will ask. She herself does not know. Meantime she
insists on absolute personal liberty--moral, physical, mental, and
also political. That she may be free she places a ban on the senses
and upon sex; either of these would put her back under subjugation.
She announces herself to be eager for affection, but its object
must be some person who is supernaturally perfect and complete;
anything else would be illogical and unworthy and enslaving. And
while her mother dreamed of a life of love and duty in a world
where both are necessary because of its sorrowful imperfections,
she will be satisfied with nothing less than a perfect love and
a perfect affection. At the same time, while resolved on liberty
she does not forget that she is born into a business community;
therefore she has adopted the business man’s creed--efficiency:
“Whatsoever thou doest, do it with all thy might.”

The young men know liberty to be a chimera--that vision has never
flattered their eyes. Life to them means hard work and obedience
and a constant struggle in circumstances where everything is
compromise, and where even honesty is not always the best policy;
and as to success and the making of money, even the greatest energy
will not suffice if there be not good luck and the opportunity.
Unlike the women, these young men have their dreams, for dreams
are the solace of labour and abstinence: dreams, first of all,
of success and fortune, of which they constantly speak; and then
another dream not so easy to talk about: that each may marry some
day the girl of his choice.

Here you have American life as it is among the young. The man
under discipline and a dreamer; the woman a triumphant egotist,
and without any dreams at all. And as to this liberty which she
haughtily demands, what is it, among the girls, except the right
to choose and dismiss her teachers, abandoning everything and
everybody as soon as she ceases to feel interested? Never having
been curbed, she has not learned to prefer another to herself.
In vain nature cries out within her for the sweet burden of
service and sacrifice; she is much too busy listening to her
own voice, repeating its new catch words: “I will be myself.
I belong to myself, I must lead my own life.” Once she enters
society and becomes a woman and meets men, she acquires a very
definite purpose, and goes straight for it. Since she will not
serve the men, let the men serve her. “The American woman,” said a
languidly insolent Englishman to me, “are interesting; the men are
nonentities.” In the Englishman’s conception, the man who does not
take the upper hand with his women is a poor creature.

The ladies in England do not like the modern American woman. Her
success with their own menkind is bitter to bear; yet they envy
her. For these men are serving woman as they never served before;
and it is precisely because, like the Englishman, the modern woman
is herself an egotist. Egoism the Englishman understands: it has
always been his honoured creed and his practice; and here at last
is a woman who, because of her frank selfishness, is perfectly
intelligible; no longer the mystery she used to be, but simple
like a child’s puzzle. Her frantic, brand-new egoism is not quite
the sober article he patronizes for himself, but it delights him
nevertheless, because it is so like his own daily contest with
antagonists whom he must overcome in business. And here is a
beautiful enemy, whom he must both overcome and capture and carry
away with him as a prize of war; to be the ornament of his house
and a delight to the eyes, to be his courtier, his worshipper,
his wife; and as to the extravagance of her egoism, he feels
that as a man he can soon teach her a different lesson, so that
she will settle back into tameness and play her woman’s part,
and be his English wife. And even if she does not, consider what
an advantage it is to have within doors a wife who is perfectly
intelligible, and with whom he knows what to do! Why, he can be
as logical in his own home as in his place of business. The woman
used to be the greatest mystery in the world--you might defy her,
or be kind and yield to her, or crush her with your iron will; but
you couldn’t understand her. No man could read that riddle. The
writers of comedy, the writers of tragedy, all tried their hands
at it. Satirists and wits were never tired of the fascinating
theme. Yet it was all guess-work. No one pretended to know, and
the husbands least of all. Henry the Eighth, who cut off the heads
of his wives, knew no more than last year’s lover. Such used to be
woman. Now she is as easy to read as an old almanac. Watch her as
she paces Fifth Avenue, with her businesslike air. How bright her
eyes, and yet hard as jewels! Her smile how thin-lipped! and her
figure that of a young athlete. Her mode of dress and of personal
array, how smart and efficient and almost military! She is the
very embodiment of briskness, and of commanding decision. But all
the lines of allurement are vanished, and she no longer undulates
with slow grace. She is not feline, neither is she deerlike; and
she no longer caresses, for her voice is as uncompromising as her
style of dress. The ordinary man, unless he was a gentleman of the
old school, or a high-placed nobleman, or an Irish peasant, has
always despised the arts of pleasing, until some charming woman has
taken him in hand; but the modern woman has ceased to instruct him,
and has become his imitator, so that her manners are almost as
intimidating as those of the successful business man. Where is that
threefold charm of mystery, subtlety and concealment, under which
womanhood was wont to veil its powers; and while so many bow down
before the conquering woman, where are the poets? The astronomers,
the mathematicians, the scientists, the men of business, the
lawyers, especially the lawyers, _are_ at her feet, but no music
comes from the poet; and she--is she so happy?

Egoism is unhappiness for man and woman. Talleyrand called Napoleon
“the unamusable.” It used to be the man who was egotist and the
woman who served, for she said: Our mission is to please. Hence her
all-prevailing charm, and hence also her invincible happiness, for
happiness is the denial of egoism. However it be at other times,
the happy woman and the happy man are righteous--in man’s sight and
in God’s.

Happiness is the secret known only to poets and to women; and it
was the women who taught it to the poets. Mere man knows little
about it; least of all the successful man, for risking everything
he has mostly lost everything; under his prosperity there is
generally distaste. And how sorrow and disaster can at times
degrade a man we all know; he becomes gloomy, bitter, or drearily
self-contained, or he drops into dissipation and becomes vulgar.
The woman, on the other hand, finds in disaster her opportunity;
and sorrow, which the woman’s life seldom escapes, however it
be with the men, only intensifies her womanhood, so that she
anticipates a later wisdom, and luminously refuses to recognize any
distinction except that between the happy and the unhappy. There
are only two people who are perfectly content--a woman busy in
her home and a poet among his rhymes. They have the secret; they
share it between them; they break bread together, they are of the
company, even though the poet knows nothing of domestic life nor
the other of rhymes. The true, the natural woman is like a bird,
she has wings. When she is a young girl she is like a bird just
spreading her wings for flight; when she is a matured woman she
is like a bird in full flight: desire gives her wings, and stirs
within her the creative impulse; and nothing can stop her strong
flight towards happiness. She has the creative gifts--wherever her
eye lights, there is happiness--she gilds with “heavenly alchemy”
whatever she touches.

The resolute, practical man puts away the thought of happiness, and
for it substitutes pleasures, which are the gratification of the
senses, and his unquenchable thirst for variety and movement. These
gratifications he can resign with little effort--mere pleasure is
ashes in the mouth, while the other he thinks would unnerve him;
that is for poets, he will tell you. The woman does not believe in
pleasures, she believes in happiness. A supreme belief in happiness
is the woman’s soul. It awakens in her the moment she is in love
or has a child, and accompanies her everywhere. It explains, I
think, the curious self-centredness of her mind, and that strange
aloofness which seems to envelop her who has husband and children.
In her presence we talk of this and that, and do this and that, and
she watches us with eyes in which is the light of knowledge and

The man is a worker and a fighter; with strenuous effort he pushes
along the car of progress, and dies under its wheels; and we make
lamentations. But these women should be carried to their graves
with song of hope and wistful triumph; any other kind of music
would be wounding to our recollections. A man talks mysticism and
he argues; and I am bored. A woman looks and perhaps smiles, and
almost as by the touching of hands communicates her own unfading
hopes. She does not use words, and we do not oppose her with words.

Long ago people talked much of ladies’ eyes, and ancient Homer, as
we know, sang of the x-eyed Juno and the azure-eyed Minerva. Now
ladies’ eyes are too bright and too exacting to be so eloquent, so
persuading; and for all her dominating ways she is not the queen
she was, nor for all her witchlike effectiveness is she so calmly
beautiful. By turning egotist she has dropped down to our level.
She is one of us.

And yet the modern woman is right and has arrived in the nick
of time; she is needed because the modern man is not always a
gentleman. Some fifteen years ago I was witness to a strange
scene on Kew Bridge, outside London, one Sunday morning. A line
of five young ladies came riding by on cycles, wearing bloomers.
This excited the loud derision of some loafers, some half-breeds,
standing together on the side-path, and one of them said something,
I did not know what, but the last of the girls heard it and
understood. She stopped, and, carefully adjusting her machine so
that it stood up against the curb of the side-path, walked back to
the young man and asked him if he had used the offensive words; she
then knocked him down, and he fell, probably not so much because
of her strength as because of his own surprise. Sheepishly he got
up, brushing his clothes, and his companions laughed as sheepishly,
while she remounted and rode after her friends. Here was the modern
woman but immature, effective on this occasion, yet much too crude
for anything except a guerrilla war. In Belfast, famous for its
bad manners, every one tries to be “boss” over some one else; yet
if every one can’t be “boss” in Belfast, there is no man even now
who cannot find, both in Belfast and New York and everywhere else,
a woman whom he may “boss.” This is one of the solid comforts of
the masculine existence; but young ladies teaching in the public
schools are watching sympathetically the career of the modern woman.

It insults a woman nowadays to say that the woman’s destiny is
to be always dependent on some man; but we who say this know
perfectly well that it is equally true to say of the man that
it is his destiny to be dependent on some woman. These two must
patch up their differences. Man must yield to woman equality and
dignity; and she must take him back into favour. There is no such
companionship as that between a man and a woman. She brings her
wisdom, traditional with her sex, and derived from a long study
of the question how to live, and he brings his energy, derived
from his long study of how to make a living. When energy makes him
say, Let us forget the present and think about the future, she
will reply: Let us enjoy the present--am I not young? Is not the
childhood of these children exquisite?

People forget or do not know that man’s desire for liberty is
not greater than his desire for restraint. By practising the art
of happiness he gets both. The gratification of all the desires,
tempered each by each, is happiness--hope restrained by memory and
the lust of the flesh by affection and sympathy; herein is richest
harmony and a servitude which is perfect freedom. Pleasure is the
gratification of some one desire pushed to excess and followed by
weariness and satiety; and while pleasure overwhelms intellect and
silences it, happiness makes intellect supreme. Happiness enforces
discipline spontaneously; pleasure relaxes it and brings on
licence, which is the shadow of liberty and its final destruction.

It is character, they say, that saves the world. Does this mean
the will that is strong to grasp and hold? If so, then I know of
something infinitely greater: the full and varied knowledge that
comes from the whole complex human personality--every instrument
in the orchestra--being developed in our consciousness, so that
no single desire is “refused a hearing,” as in a good democracy
where every citizen has his rights secured. Here we have the benign
wisdom of Shakespeare and of good women, and its motive is the
deliberate search for happiness; it kindles the heart and shines in
the eyes of a beautiful woman when she goes about in her home and
among her friends and neighbours--beautiful and a sceptre-bearing
queen; because in a world where every one runs mad after this and
that falsehood, she stands for the simple truth of human happiness
and all its possibilities. Wisdom is better than force, and
supersedes it.

                  WATTS AND THE METHOD OF ART.[1]

I have often wished that some great painter had written his
autobiography, beginning with his earliest childhood. Saints and
sinners have left us their memoirs in more than sufficient detail;
and we have also the autobiographies of many famous writers.

As yet we have not had the confessions of the Painter; for I am
sure they would be called confessions, since it would have been
with a sense of shame that these men, including the magnificent
Michael Angelo himself, would have confessed their failures at
school to learn as other boys learned, and receive, as other boys
did, instruction from their teachers.

We are all familiar with instances of boys who, exceptionally
quick and clever to ordinary observation, are almost unteachable
at school. It would be thought cruel, as well as impossible,
to attempt teaching grammar and arithmetic to a young musical
genius in a concert-room where musicians were playing; yet this is
precisely what is done every time we try to teach grammar and such
things to a boy with the eyes of a painter. Time and experience
have at last taught us to be respectful and tender with the
musical mind; we accept, and we understand it; and the boy with
the wonderful ear is caught up and carried away and instructed and
fondled, and the world is made smooth for him. But how about the
boy with the wonderful eye? And yet the musical boy is only tempted
when music is actually being played, whereas this other is never
free from solicitation, since to him there is always, except in the
dark, colour and form and light and shade. He will know the shape
and surface of every object in his schoolroom, and how light falls
on desk and table; he will know among his school-fellows all the
profiles and all the front faces, what colour the eyes are, and how
they are shaped; every detail of form and colour will be familiar
to him, since to watch these things and to draw from them a
continuous, intellectual intoxication is the very purpose for which
he has been created; for with him the eyes are the gates of wisdom;
and with young children these eyes are so thronged by wisdom trying
to get in that all their time is taken up in opening the gates to
its inrush.

In this progress of the painter--in this preparation for what, if
the conditions are favourable, ought to be the solemn business
of painting or sculpture--there will be various stages. At first
it will be all observation; after that will come a time in which
the boy will make inferences; to him the face will be the index
of the mind; and, looking round on master and boy, he will be a
physiognomist who has never heard of Lavater, or a craniologist
or phrenologist, until some happy moment when, having exhausted
his interest in scientific inquiry, there will burst upon him the
glorious world of intellectual desire.

A friend of mine--an old painter, who went to school in the North
of Scotland--described to me his experience. The dominie had one
morning been particularly drastic in his methods, and this led
to great concentration of thought among the pupils, while at the
same time it did not in the least alter the usual current of their
ideas. My friend, for instance, busied himself as usual, observing
form and colour, only with a keener zest and, as I have said,
a more concentrated purpose. It was a spring morning, and, for
the first time that year, a ray of sunshine came into the room,
making a square of yellow light on the dusty floor at his feet. It
was only at that particular period of the year such a thing was
possible: later on there would be too many leaves on the trees,
and in winter the sun was not in that quarter of the heavens. My
friend was an unhappy and anxious schoolboy, but the events of that
morning and the menaces of the dominie, combined with the sudden
sunlight at his feet, made a new boy of him, and he looked at the
square of brightness which stirred his heart. He received, as it
were, his mystical message; and some time afterwards, leaving
school, he became a landscape-painter.

With a man like Mr. Watts the world of desire would have burst
differently. He was the greatest figure-painter England has ever
produced. With the exception of Blake, who hardly counts, I may say
he was the one painter who worked in the grand manner and on great
subjects. Years ago, by a happy accident, I met him in my studio. I
remember his handsome face and a certain air, as it seemed to me,
of imperious detachment; in his voice also there was a touch of
austerity. He looked at my pictures without a word, till I asked
him for his opinion. It then came clear, frank, and to the point. I
did not tell him what, nevertheless, was the fact--that, though I
had never seen him before, I had been his diligent pupil for years,
and that from him first I learned the true meaning of painting, and
why I, or indeed anyone else, had been induced to take up the craft.

All his days Watts was a hermit and a recluse; had he loved life
and enjoyed it, he would have lived in it and painted it, as
Hogarth lived and painted; yet he loved his fellow-man, and sought
unweariedly whatever made for his happiness: indeed it might be
said that he painted because he loved his fellow-man. With such a
man the world of desire must have burst in some scene that excited
his indignation or his pity, or his moral admiration and love,
and from that moment he would become a dreamer who incessantly
re-builds life, according to the dictates of a kindled imagination;
for since the eye finds what it looks for, the world of desire
becomes in the self-same moment the world of creation; the desiring
eye is the creating eye: the world itself is neither beautiful
nor ugly; it is a formless vast out of which we create, according
to our desires, new worlds; the madman and the poet look out on
the same scene, but where the one finds ugliness the other finds
beauty; and the world Watts looked out on was the world of men when
they suffer or when they strive together in serious purpose.

In speaking about Watts, I would begin with his portraits. As
regards these, there is no controversy; some people harden their
hearts against his pictures, but no one denies his portraits. Now
it seems to me that the genius of portrait-painting is largely a
genius for friendship; at any rate, I am quite sure that the best
portraits will be painted where the relation of the sitter and the
painter is one of friendship; and it considerably helps my argument
to know that in Watts’ case he mostly painted people whom he had
himself invited to sit.

The technique of portrait-painting is mainly a technique of
interpretation; to get the colour, to model the face adequately,
this to the practised hand is comparatively easy; to so paint that
people should, perforce, see the particular curve, the particular
shadow, and the particular shape of brow or eye that interest the
painter; here is the true difficulty, here the true enjoyment and
exquisite triumph of the painter.

In his early portraits there is little attempt at this
interpretation. There is, indeed, the charm of atmosphere never
absent from Watts’ work at any time, and there is a very obvious
decorative purpose; but these early portraits do not grip the
attention as the later portraits do, because the technique of
interpretation is lacking.

I have heard people say they liked his male portraits better than
his portraits of women, but I cannot share this preference; each in
its degree is perfect. Watts will paint a young lady in fashionable
evening attire--surely the most modern and up-to-date arrangement
possible--and he will so paint her, so gild her with the heavenly
alchemy of his art, that she shall appear like a Venetian beauty
gazing at us from the page of history.

Indeed, over all his portraits, whether of men or women, he spreads
a sort of dim religious light; so that while painted with Dutch
realism, they yet seem to come to us out of the mists of memory and

Before speaking of his pictures of imagination, I will discuss a
little the whole purpose of art and artists.

The moralist says: I teach morality, without which society would
not hold together.

The trader says: I teach trade, without which there would be no
wealth, and life would not be worth living.

The religious teacher: I teach religion, without which people would
forget that there was another world or a judgment to come.

And the scientist says: I teach truth, which is the basis of

What can the artist say for himself in presence of this congress
of teachers, before whom we stand silent with hats off in age-long

First, what is his record?

He works only to please himself, and regards it as the most
egregious folly--indeed, a kind of wickedness--to try and please
anybody else; he admires wrong as often as right; at one time
he occupies himself with the things of the spirit, and again he
turns just as eagerly to the things of sense; without conscience
and without scruple he flatters in turn every passion and every
instinct, good or bad; he will make the unhappy more unhappy,
and the wicked he will make worse; he inculcates no lessons, and
preaches no dogma; yet often the noble will become nobler for his

He is to be found in every community; among the sinners he is a
sort of father confessor, whose absolution is light, so that you
may confess all your sins to him, and you may still go on sinning;
he will laugh at the faces of the good, finding them guilty of
self-complacency, of formalism, of insincerity, of prudence, of
cowardice, of half-heartedness; indeed he is often much more
respectful to sinners than he is to good people of the earth; and
withal is it not from the hands of the painter and the poet that,
as in some royal caprice, the hero receives his crown?

This strange creature with the dubious record; what use is he in
the scheme of things? He seems to stand outside the whole circle of
the utilities.

Why there is morality, why there is commerce, and why there is
science, and why there is religion; these questions are easy to
answer. But why there are painters, and sculptors, and poets, and
musicians, is another mystery; it is as if you asked me why there
are billions of suns rolling through illimitable space.

Among these august teachers the mere artist stands like another
Lucifer among the angels. And yet all these teachers, high and
mighty though they be, pay to the artist continual court, and would
fain make him one of themselves: would indeed rescue him as a very
wanton from his bad surroundings, and persuade him to live with
them always; and this partly because human nature is strong within
them, and they love the craft we practise, and partly because they
recognize that where men are gathered together the artist--that
is, the poet, the painter, the musician, and the sculptor--wields,
for good or evil, the mightiest power on earth. Where is the
theologian that the poet does not help? Where is the moralist? At
the present moment, here in this exhibition, it seems to me that,
in their astute way, the theologian, the moralist, and even the
metaphysician, all think that they have patched up an admirable
working arrangement with one of the greatest of our artists.

The titles “Love and Death,” “Time, Death, and Judgment,” “The
Temptation of Eve,” “The Penitence of Eve,” “The Contrition
of Cain,” etc., do perhaps explain the facts that in Scotland
Presbyterian ministers crowded the Watts’ Gallery; and also that
here in Dublin, for the first time in the history of our animated
city, a splendid collection of pictures has been shown, and the
voice of detraction and malignant criticism remains silent.

Well! do these pictures teach anything? Has Mr. Watts been
captured? Is he a theologian or a moralist, or a metaphysician? Or
is he merely a highly-gifted man, working out his salvation by way
of art?

Take his two pictures of Eve. In all this collection there are none
more poetical.

In the first of these, “The Temptation,” what have we? A woman
in the fulness of her magnificent animalism, and we have this
animalism in the moment of its highest provocation. She seems to
curl herself and to quiver with delight as she listens to the
whispers of the subtle serpent; how voluptuously she leans over
to the tempter, her body elastic with health and vitality. It is
womanhood; it is splendid animalism, as yet untouched by conscience
or doubt, and unchilled by the thoughts of death; all about her
summer flowers and rich perfumes. At her feet a leopard rolls,
itself a faint echo or reverberation of her vast personality.

It is the merest sophistry to call this moral teaching; it
celebrates the deliciousness of temptation as Pindar, the ancient
poet, celebrates the wine-cup. In both these pictures Watts
celebrates the beauty of the nude and the beauty of the flesh.
Leighton would have painted Eve grand and statuesque--a figure out
of the penumbra of that decorative world where nothing is quite
real. But this woman, colossal and demi-god though she be, is as
real as one of his portraits--that of J. S. Mill, for instance, or
the Earl of Ripon. She is so real, that you feel almost that you
could touch her golden flesh, and hear her cries and murmurs of
delight; while the other Eve is so realistically painted that it
might be said she weeps audibly.

Next take his picture of Paolo and Francesca. Of all pictures in
this gallery it is the most complete, possibly because his friends
liked it, and gave him the encouragement all artists need. It is at
once beautifully imaginative and a piece of charming decoration.
But these poor guilty lovers, these wrecks of humanity, these
fragments of tenuity, afloat on the winds like dead leaves, like
lightest gossamer, teach no moral lesson. This picture illustrates
afresh the sad fate of true lovers, and makes their punishment
tender and beautiful. I should like to have had John Knox’s opinion
of this picture. There was a certain grimness, a certain severity
in the painter. A meeting between these two champions would have
been interesting.

Yet we are so hemmed about with difficulty, and so bewildered by a
multitude of counsellors, and have got so much into the pestilent
habit of seeking guidance everywhere, that one must needs find a
moral even in the bosom of a rose.

Therefore--although it be quite unnecessary to the true
appreciation of art--I will, reluctantly as it were, entirely on my
own responsibility, pluck some moral guidance from imaginative art.

If morality frames for our guidance rules of conduct which, if we
do not obey, we are to be punished--if it bids us shun temptation
and remove temptation from our path and from the paths of all
the world--Art, on the contrary, seems to say, with all its
strength and with all its voices: “Seek temptation; run to meet
it; we are here to be tempted.” Art does not say--“Be happy, or
be miserable, or be wise, or be prudent”; but it says--“Live,
have it out with fortune, don’t spare yourself, be no laggard
or coward, have no fear.” And this also is part of the message:
“Abide where Watts lived, and where the true artist always
lived--on the high table-lands, in the unshaded sunshine of
intellectual happiness--never descending into the valleys, where
hang, mist-like, the languors and lethargies, the low miseries,
sensualities, and adulteries which afflict human nature when it is
defeated, discouraged, disintegrated.”

At the end of this room there is a large picture enormously
impressive--“Time, Death and Judgment.” To be impressive is itself
a great artistic merit; yet I do not think this a great picture;
there is, indeed, a fine arrangement of colour, and mass, and line,
yet behind it all there is no energy of conviction.

Time moves forward, a striding figure, carrying a scythe; beside
him walks Death, his wife, a weary woman, tenderly gathering into
her lap the flowers of life; above these two figures is Judgment.
These figures are vague and conventional as regards any meaning or
intention they might convey. If this picture has any meaning, it is
as if Watts had said to himself: “I am a figure-painter and will,
by my craft of figure-painting, translate into a picture the kind
of pleasing terror which is excited by watching a fine sunset or
listening to an oratorio.” This is not art, as Michael Angelo gave
it. Blake said a picture should be like a lawyer presenting a writ.

“Love and Death” seems much finer--it grips the attention at once.
Before the other picture we stand idly pensive; but here we want
to get at the root of the matter--to grope our way into the very
heart of the picture. There is the naked figure of Love, wavering,
falling backwards; and then Death, this huge bulk; draped, and
hooded, and horrid. Is it man? Is it woman? and its face is hidden;
and is this because it was in the thought of the painter that no
one has ever seen the face of Death except the piteous dead, who
carry their knowledge into the grave?

As regards a famous picture not in this collection--the picture
called “Hope”--I would say that pleasing though it be, it owes
its success mainly to its faults; and that people like it because
no one can say exactly what it means. A man who really lived by
hope--a Krapotkin or a William Morris--would find its vagueness
utterly displeasing.

England likes her artists to preserve a soft, indefinite touch,
because in her world of action and practical effort ideas must not
be pushed too far, and compromise rules. Art, on the contrary,
does not like half thoughts--she will have a positive yea or
nay. If thought is not pursued to its furthest bourne and limit,
the picture lacks energy, and is without effect. In Art, as in
everything else, energy is the true solvent.

In my mind, pictures of this kind are meant to hang in the rooms
of the idle rich--because intended for people who wish, without
effort, to indulge themselves--and see all things past, present,
and to come, rosily and smilingly, however falsely. There are
artists, poets, and painters--and in this case Watts is among
them--who seem to keep in stock a sort of pharmacopœia of drugs and
opiates and soothing mixtures to be served out as required. Michael
Angelo owed his terribleness, his black melancholy, to the fact
that in his pride he would not accept any soothing mixtures; he
faced all the facts of life.

Now, let me say a word in reply to those who are so ready to point
out defects in Watts’ technique. To find fault is easy--is at all
times easy. In this vivacious city it is a special accomplishment,
where, indeed, everyone has learned logic, but no one has learned
enthusiasm, and few care for the ideal or for poetry.

In answer to these people I would enter a plea of confession and

Granted all they say about these faults, I would ask, in all the
roll of English painters, is there one who would have given us that
magnificent Eve of the Temptation? How royally she leans forward as
she stoops to her fate: what swing and what pose in her movement.
In the strain, in the ecstacy of her sinning, every nerve and
every muscle seems to tremble. Not Millais, nor Leighton, nor Alma
Tadema--far more accomplished artists than Watts--could have done
it; nor Reynolds, nor Gainsborough, nor Vandyke. None of these men
had the technique to do what Watts has here done. Watts triumphs by
his technique.

But it has not been always so in Watts’ work. When not roused to
great exertion by his theme, he fell away into carelessness and
into haste. You see, this man who lived so long a life had such a
teeming mind that his hands could not work fast enough.

And here let me allude for a moment to Watts the man. All accounts
that have reached us represent him as singularly humble and modest.
It was so with Michael Angelo, and it is so with all men who work
among great ideas. When The Last Judgment was finished, and all
Italy burst into praise, and princes, cardinals, and poets, vied
with each other in presenting homage, Michael Angelo waved them
off with scorn. “If,” he said, “I carried Paradise in my bosom,
these words would be too much”; and he wrote in reply to one of
them: “I am merely a poor man, working in the Art God has given
me, and trying to lengthen out my life.” When an artist or poet
gives himself airs, puts on side, as we say, it is because, like
Lord Byron, he is working away from great ideas, and because in
all simplicity and good faith he finds nothing which asks his
reverence, nothing greater than his own fortunes and his own
sensations. Art for Art’s sake is for those who hate life, as many
poets do, or who hate ideas, as again many poets do. The great
artist is also a man like unto ourselves, and great personality is
the material out of which is woven all his Art.

Now, let me offer most respectfully a startling opinion. I think
that as a religious painter Watts failed; and that he failed
because he was bound to fail.

The spiritual world is as much with us as it was with the people
of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; but we seek to explore
its recesses, by tabulated observation, by sequences of thought, by
scientific guesses, and carefully planned experiments: things not
to be expressed in pictorial or plastic forms, even though Michael
Angelo has said everything might be expressed as sculpture.

Is it that Nature never repeats herself? She has produced her
religious painter; his day is over; and Watts was trying to do what
was impossible.

In those far-off days people believed--and actually, with the most
vivid realisation, believed--at one and the same time in angels,
archangels, and saints, and gods, and goddesses, and prophets, and
sybils, and fiends of the under-world, and all the machinery of
the supernatural, including angels, such as that which Watts has
painted in the picture “Love and Life”; and the painter who painted
those images worked under the exacting criticism of an alert and
expectant people. Now, in place of these beautiful or terrible
personages, we have substituted the forces of nature.

Examine his picture called “Love and Life.” It is a vast subject.
The whole mind of the civilized world is groping a way among
its problems. But this picture is wholly inadequate. Life is
represented as a feeble mendicant sort of creature, blindly
stumbling up rocky stairs. This is a poor image of life. Milton
would have scorned it. Watts should have remembered his own “Eve.”
And “Love” is represented as a strong angel. It is precisely
because Love is not a strong angel that all the trouble is upon
us. If his picture of “Hope” should be placed in a lady’s boudoir,
this picture should hang in the cabinets of those who think life
is to be saved merely by the clasping of hands and turning eyes

In “Eve’s Repentance” there is a cold light bursting through the
blue clouds, and shining over the back and shoulders. We have here
the old Venetian harmony of blue and yellow and white; and because
of it, in some subtle way, we have an enhanced sense of the warmth
of the palpitating, naked flesh. But, bless you! this is not all.
By this light breaking through the clouds, Watts symbolizes that
there is redemption for sinners. And who is interested? Compare
this symbolism with that in Michael Angelo’s picture, where the
just-created and half-awakened Adam raises his arm in superb
languor to receive Divine knowledge by the touching of God’s
forefinger. I do not here include the picture “Love and Death,”
because it does not seem to me in any sense a religious picture.
It suggests no dogma nor mystical theory, nor is there any kind
of sentiment. The artist, by his labour, has placed before us in
monumental effectiveness certain facts now and always with us. It
is a great picture, but it is not a religious picture.

Watts is a portrait-painter beyond all praise; he is singular among
all painters for the interest he imparts to his subject. Before
most portraits people stand and say, “What dull things portraits
are! why are they ever exhibited?” or perhaps they say, “What a
clever painter! but what an ugly man to paint!” In presence of a
Watts we are interested in a face; we feel liking or aversion, or
a tantalizing curiosity.

In Watts’ portraits craftsmanship attains its perfection, because
here he worked in an atmosphere of exacting criticism; everyone
understands a portrait, and the stupidest is interested when it is
his own portrait.

When Watts painted his imaginative work, it was done in an
atmosphere of polite indifference. It is a strange paradox that
Watts lived surrounded by the most distinguished and intellectual
society of his time, and yet he worked in solitude. When he went
wrong, there was no one to tell him; and when he was right, equally
there was no response. They were interested in the artist, but not
in his art. This lofty-minded recluse, who laboured by his painting
to give the world great thoughts, impressed these cultivated
worldlings: they were interested in the man, but neither in his
thoughts nor in his pictures. At a private view in the Grosvenor
Gallery a friend of mine overheard Watts saying to a lady:
“Everyone is interested in my velvet coat, but no one asks me about
my pictures.”

It was not so in ancient Italy. When Michael Angelo, at the
imperious command of the impetuous Pope Julius, uncovered half his
work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he stood to receive
the judgment of a people who were superstitious, ignorant men of
violence, men of war, homicidal, but each one of them impassioned
for Art.

“Italy,” said the Spanish painter to Michael Angelo, “produces
the best Art, because Italians hate mediocrity.” We are clay in
the hands of the potter. We may affect to be proud and solitary
as Lucifer, but in vain; the artist gives that he may receive; to
seek sympathy and desire companionship is as instinctive as hunger
and thirst. To the true artist exacting criticism is comforting as
mother’s love; and, wanting this exacting criticism, Watts fell
away into slackness of work and of thought.

We can only say that had he lived in Dublin his fate would have
been worse. Indifference, however polite and respectful, is bad:
but destructive criticism kills.

There was once a small but mighty nation, now numerous as the sands
of the seashore, and no longer so interesting. To this nation was
born a poet, and they made him the poet of all time. They took him
and taught him all they knew--and they had great things to teach;
and when, at their command, he made great dramas, they stood at his
elbow; and everything they gave him he gave back to them tenfold.

England was then Shakespeare’s land.

The poet is always amongst us: the difficulty is how to find him;
he is like the proverbial needle in a bundle of hay.

But one thing is certain--logicians without love will not find
him; they leave a desolation, and call it peace--nay, they call it
culture. Critics of this sort will allow nothing to exist except
themselves. No; I am wrong. There is one thing they admire more
even than themselves--the _fait accompli_, a mundane success. Had
Watts been born in Dublin, he would have read for the “Indian
Civil,” and perhaps--passed.

                                                J. B. YEATS, R.H.A.



[1] A report of a lecture delivered in the spring of 1907 at the
Hibernian Academy, Dublin.



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  Except for those changes noted below, all misspellings in the
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