Read CHAPTER VII of The Book-Bills of Narcissus, free online book, by Le Gallienne‚ Richard, on


‘He is a true poet,’ or ‘He is a genuine artist,’ are phrases which irritate one day after day in modern criticism. One had thought that ‘poet’ and ‘artist’ were enough; but there must be a need, we regretfully suppose, for these re-enforcing qualifications; and there can be but the one, that the false in each kind do so exceedingly abound, that none can be taken as genuine without such special certificate. The widespread confusion with the poet of the rhetorician and sentimentalist in verse, and again of the mere rhymer without even rhetoric, not to refer to finer differentiation of error, is also a fruitful source of bewilderment. The misuse of the word has parallels: for instance, the spurious generic use of the word ‘man’ for ‘male,’ the substitution of ‘artist’ for ‘painter.’ But here we have only to deal with that one particular abuse. Some rules how to know a poet may conceivably be of interest, though of no greater value.

Of course, the one first and last test is his work, but ’how to know poetry’ is another matter, which I do not propose treating of here; my intention rather being to dot down a few personal characteristics not so much his ‘works’ as his ‘ways.’ I write as they come into my head; and to any Reader about to cry out against digression, let me add: I write thinking of Narcissus; for know all men, friend or Philistine, if you have yet to learn it, my Narcissus is a poet!

First, as to the great question of ‘garmenting.’ The superstition that the hat and the cloak ‘does it’ has gone out in mockery, but only that the other superstition might reign in its stead that the hat and cloak cannot do it. Because one great poet dispensed with ‘pontificals,’ and yet brought the fire from heaven, henceforward ‘pontificals’ are humbug, and the wearer thereof but charlatan, despite ’the master yonder in the isle.’ Pegasus must pack in favour of a British hunter, and even the poet at last wear the smug regimentals of mediocrity and mammon. Ye younger choir especially have a care, for, though you sing with the tongues of men and angels, and wear not a silk hat, it shall avail you nothing. Neither Time, which is Mudie, nor Eternity, which is Fame, will know you, and your verses remain till doom in an ironical editio princeps, which not even the foolish bookman shall rescue from the threepenny box. It is very unlikely that you will escape as did Narcissus, for though, indeed,

’He swept a fine majestic sweep
Of toga Tennysonian,
Wore strange soft hat, that such as you
Would tremble to be known in,’

nevertheless, he somehow won happier fates, on which, perhaps, it would be unbecoming in so close a friend to dilate.

The ‘true’ poet is, first of all, a gentleman, usually modest, never arrogant, and only assertive when pushed. He does not by instinct take himself seriously, as the ‘poet-ape’ doth, though if he meets with recognition it becomes, of course, his duty to acknowledge his faculty, and make good Scriptural use of it.

He is probably least confident, however, when praised; and never, except in rare moments, especially of eclipse, has he a strong faith in the truth that is in him. Therefore crush him, saith the Philistine, as we crush the vine; strike him, as one strikes the lyre. When young, he imagines the world to be filled with one ambition; later on, he finds that so indeed it is but the name thereof is not Poesy. Strange! sighs he. And if, when he is seventeen, he writes a fluent song, and his fellow-clerk admire it, why, it is nothing; surely the ledger-man hath such scraps in his poke, or at least can roll off better. ’True bards believe all able to achieve what they achieve,’ said Naddo. But lo! that ambition is a word that begins with pounds and ends with pence like life, quoth the ledger-man, who, after all, had but card-scores, a tailor’s account, and the bill for his wife’s confinement in his pocket.

All through his life he loves his last-written most, and no honey of Hybla is so sweet as a new rhyme. Let no maid hope to rival it with her lips she but interrupts: for the travail of a poet is even as that of his wife after the pain comes that dear joy of a new thing born into the world, which doting sipping dream beware to break. Fifty repetitions of the new sweetness, fifty deliberate rollings of it under the tongue, is, I understand, the minimum duration of such, before the passion is worked off, and the dream-child really breathing free of its dream-parent. I have occasionally come upon Narcissus about the twenty-fifth, I suppose, and wondered at my glum reception. ’Poetry gone sour,’ he once gave as the reason. Try it not, Reader, if, indeed, in thy colony of beavers a poet really dwells.

He is a born palaeontologist: that is, he can build up an epic from a hint. And, despite modern instances, the old rule obtains for him, he need not be learned that is, not deeply or abundantly, only at points superficially, the superficial would say. Well, yes, he has an eye for knowing what surfaces mean, the secret of the divining rod. Take it this way. We want an expression, say, of the work of Keats, want to be told wherein lies his individuality. You take Mr. Buxton Forman’s four volumes, and ‘work at’ Keats! and, after thirty nights and days, bring your essay. On the morning of the thirtieth the poet read again the Grecian Urn, and at eventide wrote a sonnet; and on the morning of the thirty-first, essay and sonnet are side by side. But, by the evening, your essay is in limbo or in type, all’s one while the sonnet is singing in our heart, persistently haunting our brain. Some day the poet, too, writes an essay, and thus plainly shows, says the essayist, how little he really knew of the matter he didn’t actually know of the so-and-so and yet it was his ignorance that gave us that illuminating line, after all.

I doubt if one would be on safe ground in saying: Take, now, the subject of wine. We all know how abstemious is the poetical habit; and yet, to read these songs, one would think ‘twas Bacchus’ self that wrote, or that Clarence who lay down to die in a butt of Malmsey. Though the inference is open to question,

’I often wonder if old Omar drank
One half the quantity he bragged in song.’

Doubtless he sat longest and drank least of all the topers of Naishapur, and the bell for Saki rang not from his corner half often enough to please mine host. Certainly the longevity of some modern poets can only be accounted for by some such supposition in their case. The proposition is certainly proved inversely in the case of Narcissus, for he has not written one vinous line, and yet well, and yet! Furthermore, it may interest future biographers to know that in his cups he was wont to recite Hamlet’s advice to the players, throned upon a tram-car.

The ‘true’ poet makes his magic with the least possible ado; he and the untrue are as the angler who is born to the angler who is made at the tackle-shop. One encumbers the small of his back with nameless engines, talks much of creels, hath a rod like a weaver’s beam; he travels first class to some distant show-lake among the hills, and he toils all day as the fishermen of old toiled all night; while Tom, his gardener’s son, but a mile outside the town, with a willow wand and a bent pin, hath caught the family supper. So is it with him who is proverbially born not made. His friends say: ’O, you should go to such-and-such falls; you ’d write poetry there, if you like. We all said so’; or, ’What are you doing in here scribbling? Look through the window at the moonlight; there’s poetry for you. Go out into that if you want sonnets.’ Of course, he never takes his friends’ advice; he has long known that they know nothing whatever about it. He is probably quite ignorant of metrical law, but one precept instinct taught him from the beginning, and he finds it expressed one day in Wordsworth (with a blessed comfort of assurance like in this little, O, may be like, somehow, in the great thing too!): ‘Poetry is emotion remembered in tranquillity.’ The wandlike moments, he remembers, always came to him in haunts all remote indeed from poetry: a sudden touch at his heart, and the air grows rhythmical, and seems a-ripple with dreams; and, albeit, in whatever room of dust or must he be, the song will find him, will throw her arms about him, so it seems, will close his eyes with her sweet breath, that he may open them upon the hidden stars.

‘Impromptus’ are the quackery of the poetaster. One may take it for granted, as a general rule, that anything written ‘on the spot’ is worthless. A certain young poet, who could when he liked do good things, printed some verses, which he declared in a sub-title were ’Written on the top of Snowdon in a thunderstorm.’ He asked an opinion, and one replied: ‘Written on the top of Snowdon in a thunderstorm.’ The poet was naturally angry and yet, what need of further criticism?

The poet, when young, although as I said, he is not likely to fall into the foolishness of conceit which belongs to the poetaster, is yet too apt in his zeal of dedication to talk much of his ‘art,’ or, at least, think much; also to disparage life, and to pronounce much gratuitous absolution in the name of Poetry:

Did Burns drink and wench? yet he sang!

Did Coleridge opiate and neglect his family? yet he sang!!

Did Shelley well, whatever Shelley did of callous and foolish, the list is long yet he sang!!!

As years pass, however, he grows out of this stage, and, while regarding his art in a spirit of dedication equally serious, and how much saner, he comes to realise that, after all, art but forms one integral part, however great, of a healthy life, and that for the greatest artist there are still duties in life more imperative than any art can lay upon him. It is a great hour when he rises up in his resolution first to be a man, in faith that, if he be such, the artist in him will look after itself first a man, and surely all the greater artist for being that; though if not, still a man. That is the duty that lies’ next’ to all of us. Do that, and, as we are told, the other will be clearer for us. In that hour that earlier form of absolution will reverse itself on his lips into one of commination. Did they sing? yet they sinned here and here; and as a man soweth, so shall he reap, singer or sot. Lo! his songs are stars in heaven, but his sins are snakes in hell: each shall bless and torment him in turn.

Pitiable, indeed, will seem to him in that hour the cowardice that dares to cloak its sinning with some fine-spun theory, that veils the gratification of its desires in some shrill evangel, and wrecks a woman’s life in the names of Liberty and Song! Art wants no such followers: her bravest work is done by brave men, and not by sneaking opium-eaters and libidinous ‘reformers.’ We all have sinned, and we all will go on sinning, but for God’s sake, let us be honest about it. There are worse things than honest sin. If, God help you, you have ruined a girl, do penance for it through your life; pay your share; but don’t, whatever you do, hope to make up for a bad heart by a good brain. Foolish art-patterers may suffer the recompense to pass, for likely they have all the one and none of the other; but good men will care nothing about you or your work, so long as bad trees refuse to bring forth good fruit, or figs to grow on thistles.

We have more to learn from Florentine artists than any ‘craft mystery.’ If the capacity for using the blossom while missing the evil fruit, of which Mr. Pater speaks in the case of Aurelius, were only confined to those evil-bearing trees: alas! it is all blossom with us moderns, good or bad alike, and purity or putrescence are all one to us, so that they shine. I suppose few regard Giotto’s circle as his greatest work: would that more did. The lust of the eye, with Gautier as high-priest, is too much with us.

The poet, too, who perhaps began with the simple ambition of becoming a ‘literary man,’ soon finds how radically incapable of ever being merely that he is. Alas! how soon the nimbus fades from the sacred name of ‘author.’ At one time he had been ready to fall down and kiss the garment’s hem, say, of of a ‘Canterbury’ editor (this, of course, when very, very young), as of a being from another sphere; and a writer in The Fortnightly had swam into his ken, trailing visible clouds of glory. But by and by he finds himself breathing with perfect composure in that rarefied air, and in course of time the grey conviction settles upon him that these fabled people are in no wise different from the booksellers and business men he had found so sordid and dull no more individual or delightful as a race; and he speedily comes to the old conclusion he had been at a loss to understand a year or two ago, that, as a rule, the people who do not write books are infinitely to be preferred to the people who do. When he finds exceptions, they occur as they used to do in shop and office the charm is all independent of the calling; for just as surely as a man need not grow mean, and hard, and dried up, however prosperous be his iron-foundry, so sure is it that a man will not grow generous, rich-minded, loving, and all that is golden by merely writing of such virtues at so much a column. The inherent insincerity, more or less, of all literary work is a fact of which he had not thought. I am speaking of the mere ‘author,’ the writer-tradesman, the amateur’s superstition; not of men of genius, who, despite cackle, cannot disappoint. If they seem to do so, it must be that we have not come close enough to know them. But the man of genius is rarer, perhaps, in the ranks of authorship than anywhere: you are far more likely to find him on the exchange. They are as scarce as Caxtons: London possesses hardly half-a-dozen examples.

Narcissus enjoyed the delight of calling one of these his friend, ’a certain aristocratic poet who loved all kinds of superiorities,’ again to borrow from Mr. Pater. He had once seen him afar off and worshipped, as it is the blessedness of boys to be able to worship; but never could he have dreamed in that day of the dear intimacy that was to come. ’If he could but know me as I am,’ he had sighed; but that was all. With the almost childlike naturalness which is his greatest charm he confessed this sigh long after, and won that poet’s heart. Well I remember his bursting into our London lodging late one afternoon, great-eyed and almost in tears for joy of that first visit. He had pre-eminently the capacity which most fine men have of falling in love with men as one may be sure of a subtle greatness in a woman whose eye singles out a woman to follow on the stage at the theatre and certainly, no other phrase can express that state of shining, trembling exaltation, the passion of the friendships of Narcissus. And although he was rich in them rich, that is, as one can be said to be rich in treasure so rare saving one only, they have never proved that fairy-gold which such do often prove. Saving that one, golden fruit still hangs for every white cluster of wonderful blossom.

‘I thought you must care for me if you could but know me aright,’ Narcissus had said.

’Care for you! Why, you beautiful boy! you seem to have dropped from the stars,’ the poet had replied in the caressing fashion of an elder brother.

He had frankly fallen in love, too: for Narcissus has told me that his great charm is a boyish naturalness of heart, that ingenuous gusto in living which is one of the sure witnesses to genius. This is all the more piquant because no one would suspect it, as, I suppose, few do; probably, indeed, a consensus would declare him the last man in London of whom that is true. No one would seem to take more seriously the beau monde of modern paganism, with its hundred gospels of La Nuance; no one, assuredly, were more blase than he, with his languors of pose, and face of so wan a flame. The Oscar Wilde of modern legend were not more as a dweller in Nirvana. But Narcissus maintained that all this was but a disguise which the conditions of his life compelled him to wear, and in wearing which he enjoyed much subtle subterranean merriment; while underneath the real man lived, fresh as morning, vigorous as a young sycamore, wild-hearted as an eagle, ever ready to flash out the ‘password primeval’ to such as alone could understand. How else had he at once taken the stranger lad to his heart with such a sunlight of welcome? As the maid every boy must have sighed for but so rarely found, who makes not as if his love were a weariness which she endured, and the kisses she suffered, cold as green buds, were charities, but frankly glows to his avowal with ‘I love you, too, dear Jack,’ and kisses him from the first with mouth like a June rose so did that blase poet cast away his conventional Fahrenheit, and call Narcissus friend in their first hour. Men of genius alone know that fine abandon of soul. In such is the poet confessed as unmistakably as in his verse, for the one law of his life is that he be an elemental, and the capacity for great simple impressions is the spring of his power. Let him beware of losing that.

I sometimes wonder as I come across the last frivolous gossip concerning that poet in the paragraphs of the new journalism, or meet his name in some distinguished bead-roll in The Morning Post, whether Narcissus was not, after all, mistaken about him, and whether he could still, season after season, go through the same stale round of reception, private view, first night, and all the various drill of fashion and folly, if that boy’s heart were alive still. One must believe it once throbbed in him: we have his poems for that, and a poem cannot lie; but it is hard to think that it could still keep on its young beating beneath such a choking pressure of convention, and in an air so ’sunken from the healthy breath of morn.’ But, on the other hand, I have almost a superstitious reliance on Narcissus’ intuition, a faculty in him which not I alone have marked, but which I know was the main secret of his appeal for women. They, as the natural possessors of the power, feel a singular kinship with a man who also possesses it, a gift as rarely found among his sex as that delicacy which largely depends on it, and which is the other sure clue to a woman’s love. She is so little used, poor flower, to be understood, and to meet with other regard than the gaze of satyrs.

However, be Narcissus’ intuition at fault or not in the main, still it was very sure that the boy’s heart in that man of the world did wake from its sleep for a while at the wandlike touch of his youth; and if, after all, as may be, Narcissus was but a new sensation in his jaded round, at least he was a healthy one. Nor did the callous ingratitude of forgetfulness which follows so swiftly upon mere sensation ever add another to the sorrows of my friend: for, during the last week before he left us, came a letter of love and cheer in that poet’s wonderful handwriting handwriting delicious with honeyed lines, each word a flower, each letter rounded with the firm soft curves of hawthorn in bud, or the delicate knobs of palm against the sky.