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MIST hung gray along the river, and upon the fields. From the
cottage, little and lonely, shone candlelight, that looked sad to the
wanderer without in the autumnal dark: he turned and faced the
fields, and the dim river. And the music, the triumphing music, the
rich voices of the violin, came sounding down the garden from the
cottage. His mood, his mind, were those of the Flemish poet, who
murmurs in sighing verse:

Et je suis dans la nuit. . . . Oh! c’est si bon la nuit!
Ne rien faire . . . se taire . . . et bercer son ennui,
Au rhythme agonisant de lointaine musique. . . .

    For this was the last evening of his life: he felt sure of that: and,
foolish martyr to his own weakness that he was, he fell to meditating
upon the sad scenery and circumstance of his death. The gray mist
upon river and field, the acrid odours of autumn flowers in the garden,
the solitariness of melancholy twilight, these were right and fitting: but
there, in the cottage behind him, was his best friend, speaking with
him through music, giving him his Ave atque Vale upon the violin. A
choice incident! And instinctively he began to find phrases for it,
plangent, mournful, suitable to the elegiac sonnet. True, his friend was
not all that he could have wished: an excellent musician of common
sense, well dressed and healthy, with nothing of Chopin about him,
nothing of Paganini. But the sonnet need not mention the musician,
only his music. So he looked at the dim river and the misty fields,
and thought of long, alliterative, melancholy words. Immemorial,
irrevocable, visionary, marmoreal. . . .

    The Lyceum was responsible for this. That classic journal, reviewing
his last book of verses, had told him that though he should vivisect
his soul in public for evermore, he would find there nothing worth
revealing, and nothing to compensate the spectators for their painful and
pitying emotions. He had thought it a clumsy sarcasm, ponderous no
less than rude: but he could not deny its truth. Tenderly opening his
book, he lighted upon these lines:

Ah, day by swift malignant day,
Life vanishes in vanity:
Whilst I, life’s phantom victim, play
The music of my misery.
Draw near, ah dear delaying Death!
Draw near, and silence my sad breath.


The lines touched him; yet he could not think them a valuable utter-
ance: nor did he discover much fine gold in his sonnet, which began:

Along each melancholy London street,
Beneath the heartless stars, the indifferent moon,
I walk with sorrow, and I know that soon
Despair and I will walk with friendly feet.

    It was good, but Shakespeare and Keats, little as he could comprehend
why, had done better. He sat in his Temple chambers, nursing these
dreary cogitations, for many hours of an October day, until the musician
came to interrupt him: and to the violinist the versifier confessed.

    ‘I am just thirty,’ he began, ‘and quite useless. I have a good
education, and a little money. I must do something: and poetry is
what I want to do. I have published three volumes, and they are
entirely futile. They are not even bad enough to be interesting. I have
not written one verse that any one can remember. I have tried a great
many styles, and I cannot write anything really good and fine in any one
of them.’ He turned over the leaves with a hasty and irritated hand.
‘There, for instance!’ This is an attempt at the sensuous love-lyric:

Sometimes, in very joy of shame,
Our flesh becomes one living flame:
And she and I
Are no more separate, but the same.

Ardour and agony unite;
Desire, delirium, delight:
And I and she
Faint in the fierce and fevered night.

Her body music is: and ah,
The accords of lute and viola,
When she and I
Play on live limbs love’s opera!

    It’s a lie, of course: but even if it were true, could any one care to
read it? Then why should I want to write it? And why can’t I
write better? I know what imagination is, and poetry, and all the rest
of it. I go on contemplating my own emotions, or inventing them, an
nothing comes of it but this. And yet I’m not a perfect fool. That,
said the musician, ‘is true, though it is not your fault: but you soon


will be, if you go on maundering like this by yourself. Come down to
my cottage by the river, and invent a new profession.’ And they went.

    But the country is dangerous to persons of weak mind, who examine
much the state of their emotions; they indulge there in delicious
luxuries of introspection. The unhappy poet brooded upon his futility,
with occasional desperate efforts to write something like the Ode to Duty
or the Scholar Gypsy: dust and ashes! dust and ashes! Suddenly the
horror of a long life spent in following the will-o’-the-wisp, or in questing
for Sangrails and Eldorados, fell upon him: he refused to become an
elderly mooncalf. The river haunted him with its facilities for death,
and he regretted that there were no water-lilies on it: still, it was cold
and swift and deep, overhung by alders, and edged by whispering reeds.
Why not? He was of no use: if he went out to the colonies, or upon
the stock exchange, he would continue to write quantities of average
and uninteresting verse. It was his destiny: and the word pleased him.
There was a certain distinction in having a destiny, and in defeating it
by death. He had but a listless care for life, few ties that he would
grieve to break, no prospects and ambitions within his reach. Upon
this fourth evening, then, he went down to the end of the garden, and
looked towards the river.

    The sonnet was done at last, and he smiled to find himself admiring
it. In all honesty, he fancied that death has inspired him well. He had
read, surely he had read, worse sestets.

‘I shall not hear what any morrow saith:
I only hear this my last twilight say
Cease thee from sighing and from bitter breath,
For all thy life with autumn mist is gray!
Dirged by loud music, down to silent death
I pass, and on the waters pass away.’

    A pity that it should be lost: but to leave it upon the bank would
be almost an affectation. Besides, there was pathos in dying with his
best verses upon his lips: verses that only he and the twilight should
hear. Night fell fast and very gloomy, with scarce a star. Leaning
upon the gate, he tried to remember the names of modern poets who
have killed themselves: Chatterton, Gerard de Nerval. They, at least,
could write poetry, and their failure was not in art. Yet he could live
his poetry, as Milton and Carlyle, he thought, had recommended: live it
by dying, because he could not write it. ‘What Cato did and Addison
approved’ had its poetical side: and no one without a passion for poetry


would die in despair at failure in it. The violin sent dancing into the
night an exhilarating courtly measure of Rameau: ‘The Dance of
Death!’ said the poet, and was promptly ashamed of so obvious and
hackneyed a sentiment. At the same time, there was something strange
and rare in drowning yourself by night to the dance-music of your
unconscious friend.

    The bitter smell of aster and chrysanthemum was heavy on the air;
‘balms and rich spices for the sad year’s death,’ as he had once written:
and he fancied, though he could not be sure, that he caught a bat’s thin
cry. The ‘pathetic fallacy’ was extremely strong upon him, and he
pitied himself greatly. To die so futile and so young! A minor Hamlet
with Ophelia’s death! And at that, his mind turned to Shakespeare,
and to a famous modern picture, and to the Lady of Shalott. He
imagined himself floating down and down to some mystical mediaeval
city, its torchlights flashing across his white face. But for that, he
should be dressed differently; in something Florentine perhaps: certainly
not in a comfortable smoking-coat by a London tailor. And at that, he
was reminded that a last cigarette would not be out of place: he lighted
one, and presently fell to wondering whether he was mad or no. He
thought not: he was sane enough to know that he would never write
great poetry, and to die sooner than waste life in the misery of vain
efforts. The last wreath of smoke gone upon the night, not without a
comparison between the wreath and himself, he opened the garden gate,
and walked gently down the little field, at the end of which ran the
river. He went through the long grass, heavy with dew, looking up at
the starless sky, and into the impenetrable darkness. Of a sudden, with
the most vivid surprise of his life, he fell forward, with a flashing sensa-
tion of icy water bubbling round his face, blinding and choking him; of
being swirled and carried along-, of river weeds clinging round his head;
of living in a series of glimpses and visions. Mechanically striking out
across stream, he reached the bank, steadied and rested himself for an
instant by the branch of an overhanging alder, then climbed ashore.
There he lay and shivered; then, despite the cold, tingled with shame,
and blushed; then laughed; lastly, got up and shouted. The shout rose
discordantly above the musician’s harmonies, and he heard some one
call his name. ‘It’s that moon-struck poet of mine,’ said he, and went
down to the gate. ‘Is that you?’ he cried, ‘and where are you?’ And
out of the darkness beyond came the confused and feeble answer
fell into the river—and I’m—on the wrong side.’ The practical man


wasted no words, but made for the boathouse, where he kept his punt:
and in a few minutes the shivering poet dimly descried his rescuer in
mid-stream. The lumbering craft grounded, and the drowned man, with
stiff and awkward movement, got himself on board. ‘What do you
mean,’ said the musician, ‘by making me play Charon on this ghostly
river at such an hour?’ ‘I was—thinking of things,’ said the poet, ‘and
it was pitch dark—and I fell in.’ They landed; and the dewy field, the
autumnal garden, the rich night air, seemed to be mocking him. His
teeth chattered, and he shook, and still he mumbled bits of verse. Said
the musician, as they entered the little cottage: ‘The first thing for you
to do is to take off those things, and have hot drinks in bed, like Mr.
Pickwick.’ Said the doomed man, quaking like an aspen: ‘Yes, but I
must write out a sonnet first, before I forget it.’ He did.

                                                                                                LIONEL JOHNSON

MLA citation:

Johnson, Lionel. “Incurable.” The Pageant, 1896, pp. 131-139. Pageant Digital Edition, edited by Frederick King and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021.