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- Without Prejudice - 10/66 -


drunk is to be artistic? It was Murger who invented the Bohemian artist, poor and gay and of an easy morality. "Musette and Mimi!" says Sarcey. "The image of those ideal beings shone on every man who was twenty-one about 1848. 'La Vie de Bohème' was youth's breviary--fifty years ago." The great dramatic critic goes on to complain of the onslaught made upon him because he wrote against this "idleness of disposition, this heedlessness for the morrow, this inclination to look for the day's tobacco and the quarter's rent from loans and debts rather than from honest work, this witty contempt for current morality." But this is scarcely the teaching of the ever delightful book, which catches the spirit of youth and gaiety and irresponsibility wedded to artistic ardour as no other book has done before or since, and for which one might put in the plea that Charles Lamb made for the dramatists of the Restoration. Its world is only a pleasing fiction, and the ordinary rules of morality do not carry over into it. It is the East of Suez of literature, "where there ain't no Ten Commandments, and a man may raise a thirst." The real Bohemia, as Jules Valdes showed in "Réfractaires," is a world of misery and discontent. Still more sordid is the English Bohemia expounded by Mr. Gissing in "New Grub Street." Mr. Robert Buchanan indeed writes as if there had been a Murgerian Bohemia in England in his young days. "_Et ego fui in Bohemiâ_. There were inky fellows and bouncing girls, _then_; _now_ there are only fine ladies, and respectable God-fearing men of letters." Really! Surely there are plenty of bouncing girls and inky fellows still, just as there were respectable God-fearing men of letters and fine ladies even in the roaring forties. I doubt if Bohemia was ever so amusing as Mr. Buchanan imagines now, and I suspect the bouncing girls were "gey ill to live with." What is true in the immortal Bohemian myth, what appeals to the universal human instinct, is the eternal contrast between the dreams and aspirations of youth and the sobrieties of success and middle age. As Jeffery Prowse sang:

I dwelt in a city enchanted, And lonely, indeed, was my lot; Two guineas a week, all I wanted, Was certainly all that I got. Well, somehow I found it was plenty, Perhaps you may find it the same, If--_if_ you are just five-and-twenty, With industry, hope, and an aim; Though the latitude's rather uncertain, And the longitude also is vague, The persons I pity who know not the City, The beautiful City of Prague!

This Bohemia will never disappear, because every generation of youth reconstructs it afresh, to migrate from it into the world of respectability above or the world of shame below. "Qu'on est bien à vingt ans!" will always be a cry to fill the breast of portly respectability with tender regret. As Thackeray put it in that delightful poem, which is almost an improvement on Béranger:

With pensive eyes the little room I view, Where, in my youth, I weathered it so long; With a wild mistress, a staunch friend or two, And a light heart still breaking into song; Making a mock of life and all its cares, Rich in the glory of my rising sun, Lightly I vaulted up four pair of stairs In the brave days when I was twenty-one.

What a pity that life is so stern and severe, that for the light morality of Bohemia somebody must pay, some life be wrecked! Nature fills us with youth and romance, but for her own purposes only. She is the great matrimonial agent, and heavy is the penalty she exacts from those who would escape her books, and extract from life more poetry than it holds. And so the beautiful roselight of Bohemia veils many a tragedy, many a treachery. Yet will the _grisette_ be ever a gracious memory, and literature will always embalm the "Mimi Pinson" of De Musset.

She is dead now, _la grisette_, even in Paris, and "hic jacet" may be written over the bonnet she threw _pardessus les moulins_.

Ah, Clemence! When I saw thee last Trip down the rue de Seine, And turning, when thy form had pass'd, I said, "We meet again," I dreamed not in that idle glance Thy latest image came, And only left to Memory's trance A shadow and a name.

That is how she affected even the Puritan Oliver Wendell Holmes. Yes, there is something in the Bohemian tradition that touches the sternest of us--not the roystering, dissolute, dishonourable, shady Bohemia that is always with us, bounded by the greenroom, the racecourse, the gambling club, and the Bankruptcy Court, but the Bohemia that is as unreal as Shakespeare's "desert country near the sea," the land of light purses and light loves, set against the spiritual blight that sometimes follows on pecuniary and connubial blessedness. For, after all, morality is larger than a single virtue, and Charles Surface is always more agreeable than Joseph or Tom Jones than Blifil, even when Joseph or Blifil is as proper as he pretends. And if Tom or Charles is a poet to boot, what can we not forgive him? The poet must have his experiences--be sure that nine tenths of them are purely of the imagination. For the other tenth--well, if Burns had been strictly temperate, "the world had wanted many an idle song," and we should not have celebrated his centenary so enthusiastically. The poet expresses the joy and sorrow of the race whose silent emotions become vocal in him, and it is necessary that he should have a full and varied life, from which "nihil humanum" is alien. Mr. Barry Pain once wrote a subtle story, which only three persons understood, to show that a great poet might be an elegant egotist, of unruffled life and linen. If so, I should say that such a poet's genius would largely consist of hereditary experience; he would, in language that is not so unscientific as it sounds, be a reincarnation of a soul that had "sinned and suffered." But as a rule the poet does his own sinning and suffering, and catches for himself that haunting sense of the glory and futility of life which is the undertone of the modern poet's song, and which finds such magical expression in Heine's verses:

I have loved, oh, many a maiden kind, And many a right good fellow,-- Where are they all? So pipes the wind, So foams and wanders the billow.

But the poet's morals are maligned. The fierce light which beats upon the throne of song reveals the nooks and crannies of the singers' lives, which for the rest they themselves expose rather than conceal. I should say that the average morality of the poet is much superior to the average morality of the man of the world who sins in well-bred silence. The poet gloats over his sins--is musically remorseful or swingingly defiant; he hints or exaggerates or invents. That is where the poet's imagination comes in--to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. The poet's imagination is often far more licentious than his life; the "poet's licence" is rightly understood to be limited to his language. To have written erotic verses is almost a certificate of respectability: the energy that might have been expended in action has run to rhyme. _Qui ose tout dire arrive à tout faire_, say the French. Arrives _at_, perhaps, though even this is doubtful, but certainly does not start from that platform. Much less questionable were it to say: _Qui ose tout faire arrive à ne rien dire._

The late M. Verlaine will be cited as a substantiation of the popular idea of the vagabond poet. The Verlaine legend has now been consecrated by his death; and for all time, I suppose, Verlaine will rank with Villon as an impossible person. He may have been all that is said, all that is hinted, even in Mr. George Moore's famous description of him. "I once saw Verlaine. I shall not forget the bald prominent forehead (_une tête glabre_), the cavernous eyes, the macabre expression of burnt-out lust smouldering upon his face."

But there is another side to him, and it is perhaps because I do not go about the world with Mr. Moore's "macabresque" eye, which to-day happily sees things in a soberer colouring, that I saw this other side of Verlaine when, like Mr. George Moore, I hunted him up on his native heath. For one thing, I was not prepared to see anything very lurid and _diabolique_: life is really not so picturesque as all that. I knew besides that he had been a schoolmaster in England; and can you imagine anything more tedious and toilsome than to be the "French master," the poor, despised, "frog-eating Mounseer Jacques" of boys' stories, the butt of all their facetious brutality? If ever anything was calculated to make a man _diabolique_! I trust biographers will not forget to place all this depressing drudgery to our "vagabond's" credit. Think of it! The first poet of France correcting French exercises! The poet of the passions conjugating the verb _aimer_ in its hideous grammatical reality!

Fumons philosophiquement, Promenons-nous Paisiblement: Rien faire est doux.

So might Verlaine write, though contradicting himself by doing something in so doing; but in the absurd actual he had to earn his bread and butter, and man cannot live by poetry alone, unless one sings the joys and sorrows of the middle classes. It was rather late at night before, having vainly hunted for him in his favourite restaurants, I found the narrow, poverty-stricken _rue_ in which Verlaine was living a year or so ago. Passing through a dark courtyard, I had to mount interminable stone stairs, lighting foul French matches as I went, to relieve the blackness. At last I arrived outside his door, very near the sky. I knocked. A voice called out, "I've gone to bed." I explained my lateness and said I would call to-morrow.

"No, no! _Attendez!_" I heard him jump out of bed, stumble and grope about, and then strike a match; and in another instant the door opened, and in the interstice appeared a homely nightcapped _bourgeois_ pulling on his trousers. There flashed on me incongruously the thought of our English laureate's stately home by the sea, in which, jealously guarded by hedges and flunkeys, the poet chiselled his calm stanzas; and all the vagabond in me leapt out to meet the unpretentious child of Paris. He greeted me with simple cordiality; and, ugly and coarse though his face was, it was lit up throughout by a pleasant smile. His notorious leg was bandaged, but not repulsively. No, "homely" is the only impression I shall ever have of Verlaine, the man. Even in that much maligned "macabresque" head of his, there was more of the _bonhomme_ than of the poet or the satyr. The little garret was his all in all; a bed took up half the space. On the table stood the remains of supper. A few shelves of books, a sketch or two, and a bird-cage with a canary were the only attempts at ornament.

Such was Verlaine at the climax of his fame, when he had won a sure immortality; simple and childlike, and with a child's unshamed acceptance of any money one might leave behind on the mantelpiece. He seems to have made very little by his verses. He spoke English quite well, having probably acquired it when teaching French; and he was perhaps more proud of it than of his poems. Mr. Moore says he wished to translate Tennyson. He read aloud a poem he had just written in celebration of his own fiftieth birthday. There was an allusion to a "crystal goblet." "_Ce verre-là!_" he interpolated, with a humorous smile, pointing to a cheap glass with the dregs of absinthe that stood on the table. There was also an allusion to a "blue-bird," a sort of symbol of the magic of spring, I


Without Prejudice - 10/66

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