A Complaint of the Imagination

I CANNOT make my imagination grow up. My dreams are the dreams of a child. I cannot live down the Fairy Prince and the Golden Slippers, the Magic Tree and the Swan with a wizard’s voice in his long white throat.

I wonder if my imagination ought to grow up along with the rest of me. There is nothing, to be sure, that I can do about it. I cannot say to it, ‘ Go to now. Grow up.’ It has its own manner of life, wherein it will doubtless persist to the end of time.

I was thinking to-day, ‘If I want to, I can fill this room, most commonplace and cheerful, with Fairy-Tale People and Fairy-Tale Things.” So I tried. The first result was a row of gnomes, sittingon the rail of the brass bedstead. A green gnome, a purple gnome, a russet gnome, and a scarlet gnome: there they were. One fiddled; one had a flute and puffed his cheeks to play. One was pulling at a spider’s web (it was clear silver). One was yawning so that he almost tipped over backwards. I saw no reason for their existence, nor for their occupations; but there they were.

Then I stopped paying attention to them, and looked at the couch in the opposite corner. On it lay a beautiful woman, not a princess. Perhaps I am half grown-up or it would have been a princess. She was asleep. Her face was very pale, and the eyelids were almost luminous. She nearly smiled, not quite; and in not quite smiling, seemed infinitely sad. She had dark hair coiled and coiled above a quiet forehead. She was covered with long folds of heavy dull green, silver-broidered cloth. And she would be asleep till the end of Time. I knew no more about her; she was beautiful, and I desired to kiss her eyelids. But she would not have awakened, for me.

I glanced from her to the doorway, for in it stood a very tall and very young man, with a bush of hot yellow hair. He was clad in dull green, and carried a willow wand in one hand. He laughed, showing splendid teeth. He was not paying any attention to me; he was just there. I gathered that he was an out-doors sort of person; the kind that sleeps under hedges and haystacks, and knows more about the snaring of rabbits and foxes than about the philosopher’s stone. The air was fresher because of him. But he did not seem to realize that. He did not even notice my beautiful sad lady.

Just then the Silver Shadow fell through the window. I must explain about the Silver Shadow. I dreamed it in a true sleeping dream, once, and sometimes it returns to me. It is the shadow of a dove, passing outside in the strong sunlight; but it is all of silver. I see every feather wrought in hoary glistening tracery that, flashes over the floor and is gone. A mystic with whom I once held converse told me that the Silver Shadow meant ‘The Shadow of the World. It is fleeting, yet weighs upon the soul.’ I do not know how that may be, but I am glad of the Shadow for my eyes’ delighting. To-day it came, and made me forget the gnomes, the lady, and the youth. But when it had passed, I became aware of a rosebush in the corner by the desk. It bore roses of saffron, yellow, small, starry, sweet with briarscent. A butterfly balanced on the topmost spray, and his wings shone as heavy with gold as the Shadow had shone delicate with silver. He opened them out to the sunlight, showily, luxuriously; and I saw that they were freckled with sapphire moons and spots. His antennæ were bright and fringy. Altogether he was a butterfly de luxe, even for a fairy tale. And there he sat, on a yellow rosebush, beside my desk.

There were other things in the room by this time. A green-and-blue dragon had gotten himself under the couch, and was thrusting out a slender shinysteel tongue to catch innumerable ruby-bodied flies. They resembled a shower of crimson beads, pierced one by one on that dragon’s needle tongue. He was a pleasant-featured dragon, and did not disturb me. And the lady did not awaken because of him.

Also I saw that in the Morris chair a simple-faced old man in not over-antique garb was sitting. He had a Bible on his knees, and smiled gently at what he read. I should not have expected the society of gnomes and dragons to suit him, but he did not appear to notice. That is a property of my make-up people and things: they are detached entities. They never notice — me or each other.

The room seemed rather full, and I looked out of the window to see what could be done with the courts. Red brick city courtyards they are, graced with washing on a Monday. This was Monday, and zero weather. I had to work a little over them, but the result was fair. I managed apple trees in full pink bloom, with a blue bird in the nearest. There was a fountain in a green plaisaunce. It could not have been zero weather, or the water would have frozen; whereas it was glimmering in a silky rainbow web of light; and in the porphyry pool at the base, two curly little boys sailed bits of vessels, and spattered the water like sparrows. Doves waddled and cocked along the rim; their necks shone. There was a peacock out beyond: I heard him scream. Through the rosy trees I caught the marble apparition of a nymph’s limbs. And down a path all flickering with sun and shadow, all aflurry with petals, strolled a very youthful pair, the morning in their faces, enchantment over their clasping hands.

I could not manage much more with those courtyards, although I tried moonlight on them and liked it fairly well. I also tried a convent garden, where blue nuns were pacing prim paths and the chapel bell was tinkling for Vespers. Then I tried a wicked garden, where closed shutters, dusty lattice, overgrown fleshly flowers, a certain opulence coupled with barrenness, suggested clandestine love and transgression. But the apple trees pleased me best.

Just as I had come back to look at the lady asleep on the couch, and to see the yawning gnome (he was the purple one) slip back till his fat knees caught on the rail, and the green one and the scarlet one had to drop their flute and fiddle to pull him up, the front-door-bell rang, and the landlady’s knock on my door reminded me that I was grown up, even if my imagination was not.

The person who called on me never guessed that when she began to sit down in the Morris chair, the old gentleman with the Bible slipped out with a courteous but wholly detached bow, and continued his researches standing near-sightedly by the window. Nor did she notice how carefully I sat on the edge of the couch, being in some fear of disturbing the lady.

The young man in green had gone out when my guest came in. I knew that he was up on a windy hill-road by this time. It was just as well, after all, that he had gone, as it was also well that the green-and-blue dragon drew in his head and went to sleep, and the gnomes had grace enough to stop their capers and reedy fluting and fiddling. For my guest might not have understood their presence, exactly, and I might not have found explanations easy.

She glanced out of the window. ‘Clothes drying!’ she commented. ‘Ugh! how cold those brick walls look! And the coal smoke! — Isn’t the city the ugliest, at this time of year?’

The butterfly on the yellow rosebush opened his glorious wings suddenly, and sailed straight out of the window-crack into the blue. My eyes followed him, till he was only a speck of sunny light.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I answered vaguely. For I saw that the old gentleman with the Bible had edged to the door, and that the gnomes had climbed down puffily and were playing silent tag after him. When I turned to look at the lady, only the pale mask of her lovely features appeared for an instant on the pillow, then flickered and went out.

And the Silver Shadow passed.

Then I began to entertain my caller with a truer attention. I had been in danger of becoming one of those dreampeople, and of taking no notice. And when one is grown-up and has an unfading inconvenient body, one must, take notice.

But the trouble is not with taking notice or with the callers. The trouble is that my imagination is not grown-up as much as I am, or ought to be, and I cannot see that it ever will be. For it is not concerned with deep eternal things or fierce human things. It is probably no imagination at all, only fancy. And no one who understands the difference ever says ‘fancy’ without a bit of a sneer.

I wish it were not so. I should like to have a constructive piercing vision into the middle of everything. I should like to fashion the wedding garment or the shroud of humanity, as it were; and I can only embroider the hems of its dancing dress. I should like to know unity, and I know only division.

Sometimes when I see the Silver Shadow, I have more hope for my imagination’s maturity. ‘The Shadow of the World. It is fleeting, yet weighs upon the Soul.’ The Silver Shadow means more to me than my gnomes and ladies and butterflies. Yet it does not mean enough to satisfy the part of me that is grown-up.

For I have known joy and sorrow, wealth, and meagreness of spirit. I am aware of high nobility and of deep crime. I have felt the hand of Greatness and the breath of Holiness. These things I know with my mind. But with my dreams, which are the happiest part, of me and the part I can use the best, I know Fairy-Tale People and Fairy-Tale Things; shapes and colors and gleams; apparitions, not realities.

So my imagination is not grown-up. And I cannot help it, though my hair shall presently fade and be gray.

Yet, — oh, lack-a-day — how I love it all the same!