To write about Oxford — that was my ambition! But first of all I must learn to write.
Oxford had been celebrated by Matthew Arnold in ‘Thyrsis’ and ‘The Scholar Gypsy’; Bablock Hythe, the river above Godstow, Cumnor and Fifield and the road to Hinksey, the edge of Bagley Wood — all had won their place, and I believe their permanent place, in poetry. But what had been written of Oxford in prose that one cared to remember?
There was Lamb’s essay on Oxford in the Vacation; there was Matthew Arnold’s famous passage about the home of Tost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties,’ and his description of the sight of Newman gliding into the pulpit of St. Mary’s, and then breaking the silence in ‘the most entrancing of voices.’ Then there was Newman’s own mention of the snapdragon growing on the walls of Trinity College, and of the spires of Oxford, seen after many years as he traveled in the train to Birmingham. These passages lingered in my imagination, but they were brief and casual; why should n’t I try to repay my debt to Oxford by attempting to write a longer book about it? Would n’t it be pleasant even to fail in such an attempt?
But the art of writing such a book as it should be written was not to be learned at Oxford. The Cursus honorum that led upwards from one academic and worldly success to another was not the way that led to any achievement of this kind.
The example of my prophet, however, seemed to justify the hope that somewhere, somehow, I might possibly create for myself the talent necessary for my purpose. For Pater’s accomplishment was in no way due to what we call genius, but to perfected talent — was indeed a classical example of such a talent, created by almost infinite artifice and pains. It was talent, moreover, for writing prose; and with my delight in the beauty of English prose, — the ‘ fine writing,’ as it is derisively called, of our older authors, — I welcomed his declaration that to limit prose to mere lucidity was no more than a narrow and puritanical restriction. It was and could be, he said, an instrument of many stops, musical, picturesque, intimate, and fervid; and, thus conceived, it was the appropriate and most promising medium for the rendering of modern life.
All this was to me the most precious gospel, and when I heard that, in a group of young men who were discussing poetry, Pater had said his ambition was to shine as a writer of good prose, I rejoiced the more, since I believed that this suggestion had come from the lips of the commander of that castle of the Philistines in which I then happened to be dwelling.
Pater, deep-buried among the aborigines of Brasenose, could pursue in that uncomprehending solitude whatever moral or æsthetic purpose pleased his fancy — no one there would have the slightest inkling of his purpose. But in Balliol they were cleverer than that; they knew that I had openly professed my ambition to be a writer, that I had mocked at the examination system, declaring that none of the Oxford authors who had become famous, not Matthew Arnold or Newman or Walter Pater or Robert Bridges, had achieved anything but second or third class in its Schools, but only Frederic Harrison and Oscar Wilde. They knew, moreover, that I had persuaded more than one of my contemporaries to decline the membership of clubs, advantageous from a worldly point of view, to which they had been elected. Jowett was dead; rebels and mockers had no longer a patron in the college, and it was felt, and rightfully felt, that it would be well for me to betake myself elsewhere with my volumes of Pater, my French novels, and above all, perhaps, with the oil painting by Blake which I had acquired and which was regarded by the dons of Balliol with considerable suspicion.
Whither should I go? There was, of course, but one answer. In all the inhabited world there exists, and has existed, only one centre of disinterested artistic interest. Paris welcomes wouldbe artists with its urbane, heartless grace; it provides them with every facility for learning the art they will never learn to practise; it appropriates with a charming smile the savings they have brought with them, and with the same smile it watches them fade away or perish, knowing that new generations will soon appear to occupy their little hotels and lodgings. All are doomed, as Paris knows, to inevitable failure, but it goes on with its own business, remunerated and undisturbed.
Every year they arrive out of the darkness like flights of birds; they rejoice for brief or longer periods in the Paris sunshine, and then they disappear, and what becomes of them no one knows or cares. Do they return to their original homes, to teach art in provincial art schools and to paint the portraits of local magnates, or do they simply moulder away and die? Nobody, as I say, knows or cares.
The immense forgathering, as if drawn by some irresistible magnet, of all æsthetic Americans in Paris was remarkable as a mass phenomenon, but the individuals who composed that mass, though I lived among them for a while, I did not find interesting. They had come to Paris from almost every region of my native country, at who knows what sacrifice to themselves and to their parents, to study art; but in art itself they seemed to take hardly any interest
— they almost never visited the Louvre, nor did they discuss any of the great masterpieces of European painting. Their talk was all of their own or each other’s pictures and of the little twopenny shows where they were to be seen on exhibition. These pictures, painted with elaborate pains, were all alike, all imitative of each other; the narrow space of their little shows was filled with a vast, an almost intolerable monotony.
Most interesting among these American art students I found the indomitable old ladies who, released by the happy demise of their husbands and the maturity of their children, had escaped at last, at the age of seventy, perhaps, or even eighty, to realize their dreams of studying art in Paris. But these old ladies, whom one would see seated in their prim bonnets in the art schools, industriously making drawings of huge and naked males, all painted the same picture as their young contemporaries
— it was not possible to distinguish among them.
And yet no generalization is ever absolutely true. From among the thousands of indistinguishable art students of our race had emerged the American Whistler, the Englishmen Sickert and Charles Conder. Of these Whistler and Conder were then living in Paris.
On leaving Oxford, I had rented for twenty pounds a year a charming apartment — three rooms looking on a great cherry tree in a little garden — in the curious, shabby, provincial, yet cosmopolitan, Montparnasse quarter of Paris, with its little shops, its vast mysterious convents, its broad boulevards close by. It so happened that Whistler had his studio almost round the corner, and I often saw him either at this studio or at the charming pavilion where he lived with his English wife in the garden of an aristocratic hotel not far off.
Whistler was then engaged in what was for him the almost interminable process of painting a portrait — the subject was the Comte de Montesquieu. This nobleman (whom Proust afterwards made famous), depicted in an aristocratic pose, standing with a fur coat on his arm, could not be expected to give the almost innumerable sessions which Whistler demanded of his subjects; but I could be easily called in to act as his substitute in certain aspects of his appearance. I was, like him, tall and slim, and could competently stand there with what was the principal feature of the picture, the fur coat flung across the arm. I was pleased to oblige the great painter, I was delighted to enjoy his company and watch him paint; but the task was one of the most arduous I have ever undertaken.
Whistler had not the slightest pity for his subjects; art was to him something sacred, and the sufferings of those in its service were a matter of complete indifference to him. If, when he had finished his portraits of his sitters, they should all perish, what could that have mattered to the world? From the point of view of eternity, there is much to be said for this attitude of the artist. Of what interest or importance to us now are all their models? They are now all dust, and, as Donne would have pointed out, dust that is no longer even capable of emitting an evil odor. Why should we bother ourselves about them?
But to die in the effort to make immortal the fur coat of a stranger seemed to me a somewhat excessive sacrifice, and when I had stood until I felt I should die if I stood there longer, and would beg for a little rest or some change of position, ’In a moment, in just a moment,’ Whistler would cheerfully answer, and then would go on painting.
His method, as I observed it, was first of all to arrange his subject with incredible pains and care, so that every detail was to his liking, and to paint it with infinite touches and retouches; and then, when it seemed finished and perfect in execution, to stand back, gaze at it, and cry ‘ Ha!’ and rush at it in a kind of fury and paint the whole thing out. It was like an actor rehearsing a part over and over again till he gets it perfect; its final performance, which may take a minute, has been preceded by many hours of rehearsal. This was the case, I think, even with Whistler’s life-size portraits — the actual painting of each, as we now see it, was performed in the briefest of periods, but these had been preceded by an almost infinite number of rehearsals.
Such at least were my reflections as I stood till I almost dropped, bearing on my arm the Count’s fur coat, which would be painted again and again with exquisite care in every detail, then again and again be painted out. But all things have an end, and at last respite would come. Whistler would abandon his brushes, and we would sit down to an entertainment which consisted not only in a delicious luncheon, but in talk as amusing as any I have ever heard. Whistler was not only incomparable as a wit (his Gentle Art of Making Enemies is proof enough of that), but he had accumulated (and I think repolished by frequent repetition) a long series of anecdotes concerning his life in England, in which every person of distinction, every institution of importance with which he had come into contact in that country, was made more ridiculous than words can say.
Self-important people, who take themselves seriously, have always worn for me a slightly comic aspect, and Whistler’s mockery of the official side of English institutions I found extremely amusing. Outside of his art I did not regard him as a person deserving of much estimation. The record of his quarrels is more funny than edifying, and he was too fond of publicity and self-advertisement for my taste. But these failings hardly matter in a painter who, with regard to his painting, possessed a conscience of the utmost delicacy, and a sense of honor surpassing all I have ever known or heard of in what is after all perhaps the most honorable of all the arts.
To do anything second-rate for money, or for any kind of personal or social advantage, would never have been possible to Whistler; and though at times there was a touch in him of the loud, bar-frequenting American, his taste in matters of art was infallible and exquisite; he loved his paintings, and I think he could have told at any moment in what gallery or private collection even the most insignificant of them could be found. The paintbrush was his appropriate weapon, and I remember once, when he was writing a series of outrageous letters, Mrs. Whistler’s remarking that Jimmy would be all right if he could only be kept from the inkpot.
Whistler I came to know through the means of three Irish-American young women who were devoted friends of his. They were rich, were lovely, and all as good as gold. Both their parents dying suddenly, they had come to finish their education (for they were Roman Catholics) at the Sacré-Cœur in Paris, and had then stayed on vaguely month by month, year by year, in France. They lived in a charming manner, either in their Paris apartment or in a house in the noble landscape of the lower Seine, first at Giverny (where Monet lived) and then in the little town of Vétheuil, not far off. Giverny was a village situated on a little brimming tributary of the Seine; Vétheuil stood on the banks of that noble stream itself. In each village there were enchanting little inns, and these inns were largely populated, especially in the springtime, by the young artists and writers.
We all adored these ladies, who, though they were not averse to the admiration they excited, preferred to live in the freedom of maiden meditation. They were willing to sit endlessly for their portraits, however, and no better subjects could be found. The second sister was, I think, with her blonde beauty, her golden hair, and her expression of gentle softness, the most lovely human being I have ever seen. Charles Conder, gentle, handsome, and silent, was invited at my suggestion to Giverny, and, falling in love with her at once, never really painted any other human being. She died too soon, but she still lives in the pictures he made of her amid the apple blossoms of Vétheuil, and in Whistler’s portrait of her, where she stands, somewhat startled, like a forgotten princess, gazing at a fete in which she had no part.
Do I exaggerate the charm of these ladies? To prove that they are not creatures of my imagination, I will quote a letter written by Sir Walter Raleigh, after a visit they had paid to England: —
My wife and I are agreed — you do not care for us a bit. The plaguy part of the business is that we dote on you, so farewell to all hope of preserving dignity of attitude. May you never be crossed in love. Meanwhile how can we prevent your shameful escape to Trance?
And us with a beautiful house at that emporium of elegance and culture, Oxford, and never a day’s pleasure to be had out of it, but breaking the furniture and all, because you are in a hateful little packet boat that plies for hire between Dover and Calais. O worthless world, O transitory things. And you laughing at us. Of all the ladies I have ever loved you display the least pretence of reciprocity. It was not a sincere petition of that Prince of Insincerity, Mr. Robert Burns:
At least be pity on me shown —
but it has been customary nevertheless to drop a pennyworth of pity into the hat that was taken off for love’s sake.
If only I knew what string to pull, to agitate your hearts. And if only I could reach it. However dark or high, it must exist. . . . But there it is — we breakfast on it, lunch on it, dine on it, see it in the glass, and in the papers; get thin on it, pray on it, and swear on it: you don’t care for us.
P. S. You know quite well we can’t bear it. Tell us what to do.
The Raleighs came afterward to Vetheuil, joining our little community there. Thither came also D. S. MacCall, as well as other writers and painters I might mention, and one or two of my chosen Balliol friends. One day I was lunching in a little restaurant in Paris and happened to sit by two young Englishmen with whom I soon fell into conversation. We talked for a long time together and agreed to meet again. One was Roger Fry, with whom I formed a friendship that lasted till his death. The other was Lowes Dickinson. They represented the purest strain of Cambridge apostles, and thus was begun a relation with the Cambridge intellectuals which was much strengthened by the marriage, some years later, of Bertrand Russell to my younger sister. In the meantime, however, I told Roger Fry and Dickinson of the charms of Vetheuil and took them thither — at least I took Roger Fry, who fell (and fell badly) under the spell of that place and of those ladies.
I turn to my text from Homer: Why, Apollo asks of the great Earth-shaker, why should we concern ourselves with human beings who flourish only as the leaves flourish and then fall forgotten to the earth? Of those who frequented Vetheuil forty years ago almost all have perished. But to be remembered, or at least to save the places and people one has cared for from being utterly forgotten, is not the least unworthy of human desires. Perhaps someone may read these pages when I am no longer living; more probably those April-blossoming days at Vétheuil will survive in Conder’s pictures. I should be sorry if their petals were mingled in the unremembered dust.
All this time I was working, either at Vétheuil or in my apartment in Paris, at my book about Oxford. Youth must find its nourishment in the work of its contemporaries. Of my contemporaries Whitman had died in 1892, Pater two years later, while Matthew Arnold had preceded Pater by six years. But Flaubert, martyr as he was of the art of writing, though he had died before I went to Paris, was my saint and hero. The four volumes of his letters were like a Bible to me, and now, when I look again at the texts I marked, the old flames illuminate those pages. The true writer is a kind of priest, he says; his devotion makes him proud, and we are none of us proud enough. ‘But when I think of my solitude and my agonies I ask myself whether I am an idiot or a saint. But without fanaticism we can accomplish nothing worth while, and, folly for folly, why not choose the noblest among them?
‘Genius is a gift of the gods, but talent is our affair; and with untiring patience one can acquire talent in the end. But why should one publish? I write for my own pleasure, as a bourgeois in his garret turns out napkin rings on his Pathé. . . . The wine of art is the cause of an intoxication that knows no end. . . . Speaking with all sincerity everything is ignominy here below but art.’
These are some of the sentences I copied out from Flaubert’s letters. I believed them all — and, idiotic as it may seem, I still believe them.
From Flaubert’s letters I turned to the writings of his disciple, Guy de Maupassant, who died when I was in Paris, and whose short stories seemed to me just the hard, poignant, accomplished masterpieces I should have liked to produce myself. To these influences must be added the thrill of beautiful modernity (and than that can anything be more thrilling?) produced by the high noon of impressionism which was just then revealing to our young, astonished eyes a new, fresh-painted world of bright sunlight and mauve trees and blue grass and blue shadows which we had never seen before.
The inevitable product of all this was a volume of short stories about Oxford, impressionist in their coloring, and matching in form the neat, accomplished construction of De Maupassant. This labored, imitative, rather lifeless book was published in 1895, and of course it fell completely flat. On rereading it the other day, however, I felt that it was not entirely devoid of merit, and that probably if it were published now, when attention is somewhat more alert in these matters, it might perhaps win at least enough success to encourage its author to proceed in a way of writing for which he had no natural vocation. If I had had a gift for writing stories no one failure would have stifled it.
Still, I liked my little book, and was disappointed that it had no interest for the public. It brought me two friends, one of whom was Robert Bridges, who after reading it asked me to come to see him at Yattendon, where he was then living; the other was Phelps, the Dean of Oriel, who later became the Provost of that most charming of the little colleges in Oxford. Bridges and Phelps remained my friends till their death years later, and the other day I heard, after forty years of oblivion, my book of short stories mentioned with appreciation.
It occurs to me now that this was success after all, a success more to be valued than the sale of numerous editions.
But was there not then a great lion in my path with whom it was folly to think of competing? It was just about this period that my fellow expatriate, Henry James, was writing his best short stories; and in the year my little book was published appeared the volume called Terminations, in which are contained three at least of his masterpieces, ‘The Death of the Lion,’ ‘The Coxon Fund,’ and ‘The Altar of the Dead.’ I sent this master, with whom I was slightly acquainted, my little book; he mislaid it in the Underground, and after some weeks he wrote a letter full of apologies in which he told me that he had procured another copy, and asked me to come and see him and talk the book over.
Of course I went; Henry James was to me then but a revered master, not the friend he became afterwards, and I listened with reverent ears to what he said about my stories. His praise was kindly but tepid; I think he saw the gift for story writing was not my gift; and, as he said in another connection, although one may lie about everything else, about matters of art one does n’t lie.
About the profession of letters in general, the desire to do the best one could with one’s pen, — and this I confessed was my ambition, — he made one remark which I have never forgotten. ‘My young friend,’ he said, ‘and I call you young, — you are disgustingly and, if I may be allowed to say so, nauseatingly young, — there is one thing that, if you really intend to follow the course you indicate, I cannot too emphatically insist on. There is one word — let me impress upon you — which you must inscribe upon your banner, and that,’ he added after an impressive pause, ‘that word is Loneliness.’