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A Discursion on Style

I saw George Moore daily, we were at work on “Diarmuid and Grania.” Lady Gregory thought such collaboration would injure my own art and was perhaps right. Because his mind was argumentative, abstract, diagrammatic, mine sensuous, concrete, rhythmical and we argued about words. In later years through a knowledge of the stage, and through the exfoliation of my own style, I learned that occasional prosaic words gave the impression of an active man speaking. In dream poetry, in “Kubla Khan,” in “The Stream Secret,” every line, every word, can carry its unanalyzable, rich associations; but if we dramatize some possible singer or speaker we remember that he is moved by one thing at a time, certain words must be numb and dry. Here and there in correcting my early poems I have introduced such numbness and dryness, turned, for instance, “the curd, pale moon” into the “brilliant moon,” that all might seem, as it were, remembered with indifference, except some one vivid image. When I began to rehearse a play I had the defects of my early poetry; I insisted upon obvious all-pervading rhythm. Later on I found myself saying that only in those lines or words where the beauty of the passage came to its climax, must rhythm be obvious. Because Moore thought all drama should be about possible people set in their appropriate surroundings, because he was fundamentally a realist (“Who are his people?” he said after a performance of Russell’s “Deirdre,” “ours were cattle merchants”), he required many dry, numb words. But he put them in more often than not because he had no feeling for words in themselves, none for their historical association. He insisted for days upon calling the Fianna “soldiers.” In “The Story-Teller’s Holiday” he makes a young man in the thirteenth century go to the “salons” of “the fashionable ladies” in Paris; in his last story men and women of the Homeric age read books.

Our worst quarrels, however, were when he tried to be poetical, to write in what he considered my style. He made the dying Diarmuid say to Fionn: “I will kick you down the stairway of the stars.” My letters to Lady Gregory show that we made peace at last, Moore accepting my judgment upon words, I his upon construction. To that he would sacrifice what he had thought the day before not only his best scene, “the best scene in any modern play,” and without regret: all must receive its being from the central idea; nothing be in itself anything. He would have been a master of construction, but that his practice as a novelist made him long for descriptions and reminiscences. If “Diarmuid and Grania” failed in performance, and I am not sure that it did, it failed because the second act, instead of moving swiftly from incident to incident, was reminiscent and descriptive; almost a new first act. I had written enough poetical drama to know this and point it out to Moore. After the performance and just before our final quarrel the letters speak of an agreement to rewrite this act. I had sent Moore a scenario.

When in later years some play after months of work grew more and more incoherent, I blamed those two years’ collaboration. But whatever effect it had on me it was unmixed misfortune for Moore, it set him upon a pursuit of style that made barren his later years. I no longer underrate him, I know that he had written, or was about to write, five great novels. “The Mummer’s Wife,” “Esther Waters,” “Sister Teresa” (everything is there of the convent, a priest said to me, but the religious life), “Muslin,” “The Lake,” these two Irish in theme, gained nothing from their style. I may speak later of the books he was to write under what seems to me a misunderstanding of his powers.

England had turned from style, as it has been understood from the translators of the Bible to Walter Pater, and sought mere clarity in statement and debate, a journalistic effectiveness, at the moment when Irish men of letters began to quote the saying of Sainte-Beuve, “There is nothing immortal in literature except style.” Style was his growing obsession, he would point out all the errors of some silly experiment of mine. It was from some such experiment that he learned those long flaccid structureless sentences, “and, and and, and and”; there is one of twenty-eight lines in “Muslin.” Sometimes he rebelled: “Yeats, I have a deep distrust of any man who has a style,” but it was generally I who tried to stop the obsession. “Moore, if you ever get a style,” I said, “it will ruin you. It is colored glass and you need a plate-glass window.” When he formed his own circle he found no escape; the difficulties of modern Irish literature, from the loose, romantic, legendary stories of Standish O’Grady to James Joyce and Synge, had been in the formation of a style. He heard those difficulties discussed, all his life he had learned from conversation, not from books. His nature, bitter, violent, discordant, did not fit him to write the sentences men murmur again and again for years. Charm and rhythm had been denied him. Improvement makes straight roads; he pumice-stoned every surface because will had to do the work for nature. “You work so hard that like the Lancelot of Tennyson, you will almost see the Grail.” But now, his finished work before me, I am convinced that he was denied even that “almost.”

Douglas Hyde was at Coole in the summer of 1899. Lady Gregory, who had learned Gaelic to satisfy her son’s passing desire for a teacher, had founded a branch of the Gaelic League; men began to know the name of the poet whose songs they had sung for years. Lady Gregory and I wanted a Gaelic drama, and I made a scenario for a one-act play founded upon an episode in my “Stories of Red Hanrahan”; I had some hope that my invention, if Hyde would but accept it, might pass into legend as though it were a historical character.

In later years Lady Gregory and I gave Hyde other scenarios and I always watched him with astonishment. His ordinary English style was without charm; he exploited facts without explaining them, and in the language of the newspapers—Moore compared one of his speeches to frothing porter. His Gaelic, like the dialect of his “Love Songs of Connaught,” written a couple of years earlier, had charm, seemed all spontaneous and joyous, every speech born out of itself. Had he shared our modern preoccupation with the mystery of life, learned our modern construction, he might have grown into another and happier Synge. But emotion and imagery came as they would, not as he would, somebody else had to put them together; he had the folk mind as no modern man has had it, its qualities and its defects, and for a few days in the year Lady Gregory and I shared his absorption in that mind. When I wrote verse, five or six lines in two or three laborious hours were a day’s work, and I longed for somebody to interrupt me. But he wrote all day, whether in verse or prose, and without apparent effort. Effort was there, but in the unconscious—he had given up verse writing because it affected his lungs or his heart—Lady Gregory kept watch, to draw him from his table after so many hours; the gamekeeper had the boat and the guns ready; there were ducks upon the lake. He wrote in joy and at great speed because emotion brought the appropriate word. Nothing in that language of his was abstract, nothing worn-out; he need not, as must the writer of some language exhausted by modern civilization, reject word after word, cadence after cadence; he had escaped our perpetual, painful, purification. I read, translated by Lady Gregory or by himself into that dialect which gets from Gaelic its syntax and keeps its still partly Tudor vocabulary; little was, I think, lost:

I was myself one time a poor barnacle goose;

The night was not plain to me more than the day

Till I got sight of her.

That does not impress me today; it is too easy to copy; too many have copied it; when I first read it, it was fresh from my struggle with Victorian rhetoric. I began to test my poetical inventions by translating them into like speech. Lady Gregory had already, I think, without knowing it, begun a transformation of her whole mind into the mind of the people, begun “to think like a wise man” but to express herself like “the common people.”

On October 2, 1901, “Diarmuid and Grania” preceded by Douglas Hyde’s “The Twisting of the Rope,” was produced for a week by the Benson Company in the Gaiety Theatre. London theatre managers must have thought it failed, or that the newspapers’ comments had taken freshness from it, for the London managers who had admired it in manuscript were silent. Yet it did not seem to fail; when Maud Gonne and I got into our cab to go to some supper party after the performance, the crowd from the gallery wanted to take the horse out of the cab and drag us there, but Maud Gonne, weary of public demonstrations, refused. What was it like? York Powell, Scandinavian scholar, historian, an impressionable man, preferred it to Ibsen’s “Heroes of Heligoland.” I do not know. I have but a draft of some unfinished scenes, and of the performance I can but recall Benson’s athletic dignity in one scene and the notes of the horn in Elgar’s dirge over the dead Diarmuid. “The Twisting of the Rope,” Hyde as the chief character—he had always acted his speeches—the enthusiasm of his Gaelic Leaguers for the first Gaelic play ever acted in a theatre, are still vivid. But then Lady Gregory’s translation of the Gaelic text has renewed my memory.

Moore had inherited a large Mayo estate, and no Mayo country gentleman had ever dressed the part so well. He lacked manners, but had manner; he could enter a room so as to draw your attention without seeming to, his French, his knowledge of painting, suggested travel and leisure. Yet nature had denied to him the final touch: he had a coarse palate. Edward Martyn alone suspected it. When Moore abused the waiter or the cook, he had thought, “I know what he is hiding.” In a London restaurant on a night when the soup was particularly good, just when Moore had the spoon at his lip, he said: “Do you mean to say you are going to drink that?” Moore tasted the soup, then called the waiter, and ran through the usual performance; Martyn did not undeceive him, content to chuckle in solitude. Moore had taken a house in Upper Ely Place; he spent a week at our principal hotel while his furniture was moving in: he denounced the food to the waiter, to the manager, went down to the kitchen and denounced it to the cook. “Fie has written to the proprietress,” said the manager, “that the steak is like brown paper. How can you believe a word such a man would say, a steak cannot be like brown paper.” He had his own bread sent in from the baker and said on the day he left: “How can these people endure it.” “Because,” said the admiring headwaiter, “they are not comme il faut.” A little later I stayed with him and wrote to Lady Gregory: “He is boisterously enduring the sixth cook.” Then from Sligo a few days later: “Moore dismissed the sixth cook the day I left—six in three weeks. One brought in a policeman, Moore had made so much noise. Moore dragged the policeman into the dining room and said: “Is here a law in this country to compel me to eat this abominable omelette?”

Sometimes Moore, instead of asking us to accept for true some monstrous invention, would press some spontaneous action into deliberate comedy; starting in bad blood or blind passion, he would all in a moment see himself as others saw him. When he arrived in Dublin, all the doors in Upper Ely Place had been painted white by a general agreement between the landlord and the tenants. Moore had his door painted green, and three Miss Beams—no, I have not got the name quite right—who lived next door, protested to the landlord. Then began a correspondence between Moore and the landlord wherein he insisted on his position as an art critic, and that the whole decoration of his house required a green door—I imagine that he had but wrapped the green flag around him—then the indignant young women bought a copy of “Esther Waters,” tore it up, put the fragments into a large envelope, wrote thereon: “Too filthy to keep in the house,” dropped it into Moore’s letter-box. I was staying with Moore, let myself in with a latch-key some night after twelve, and found a note on the hall table asking me to put the door on the chain. As I was undressing, I heard Moore trying to get in; when I had opened the door and pointed to the note he said: “Oh, I forgot. Every night I go out at eleven, at twelve, at one, and rattle my stick on the railing to make the Miss Beams’ dog bark.” Then I saw in the newspapers that the Miss Beams had hired organ-grinders to play under Moore’s window when he was writing, that he had prosecuted the organ-grinders.

Moore had a large garden on the other side of the street, a blackbird sang there; he received his friends upon Saturday evening and made a moving speech upon the bird. “I enjoy its song, if I were the bad man people say I am, could I enjoy its song?” He wrote every morning at an open window on the ground floor, and one morning saw the Miss Beams’ cat cross the street, and thought, “That cat will get my bird.” He went out and filled his pocket with stones and whenever he saw the cat, threw a stone. Somebody, perhaps the typist, must have laughed, for the rest of the tale fills me with doubt. I was passing through Dublin just on my way to Coole; he came to my hotel. “I remembered how early that cat got up. I thought it might get the blackbird if I was not there to protect it, so I set a trap. The Miss Beams wrote to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and I am carrying on a correspondence with its secretary, cat versus bird.” (Perhaps after all, the archives of the Society do contain that correspondence. The tale is not yet incredible.) I passed through Dublin again, perhaps on my way back. Moore came to see me in seeming great depression. “Remember that trap?” “Yes.” “Remember that bird?” “Yes.” “I have caught the bird.”