OTES of an A
discoverer of this volume, and therefore, by default, its
editor, I have little to say in the way of an introduction. I
have been pressed by the publisher to comment on its author, and
its mode of transmission to me, in the briefest possible terms.
This is all to the good, since my knowledge of Mr. Mathis begins
and ends with the "autobiography" (for lack of a
better word) that follows, and since its transmission to me is
explained in one sentence. I found it in the house I had just
bought, and which I had assumed was empty of my predecessor's
perquisites. Actually the house was littered with the most
personal objects imaginable, not just papers and drawings, but
all manner of what some might call "interesting"
finds, quite a few of them unmentionable. I was in the way of
burning everything I could sweep into a pile when Amelia, my
wife, arrived and immediately stopped my housecleaning. It was
her opinion that, with some people's perverse interest in art,
we might have something worth publishing. Unfortunately, the
fire had already consumed all the drawings and paintings, so we
will never see their value at auction. The illustrations in the
book survived with it, and they may give you an idea of the
author's taste. All I am allowed to say is that I am not an
artist, but his tastes are not mine.
Amelia and I
divided the typing of the work between us, deciphering Mr.
Mathis' handwriting and blots of inks as we could and correcting
spellings and filling in the most obvious word omissions or
doubles as we went. We did not edit for content, or for
readability (obviously). I can't honestly say that we read
everything for meaning, since, in my opinion, that would have
been futile. I am told that the publisher has gone back and
reinstated the British spellings, as a nod to authenticity, but
even the author's usage is inconsistent, and the whole issue is
a hash. Amelia believes that the work should be read as a diary,
not as a novel, making such matters irrelevant. For me this
changes nothing, but that is all I will add.
questions I have gotten from those who have read at least the
first few pages concern not the narrative, but the
illustrations. Where are all these works? The author claims that
none are extant. Is this true? If true, where did he get these
reproductions? Are these the only extant reproductions? I have
no information to share on this, and I'm not sure anyone does. I
destroyed a number of works, but not the work of a lifetime.
Even the author admits this. He recounts how many were lost, and
dismisses the rest early on. I am almost certain that none of
these works were among the ashes I swept out. I think it is best
to accept that we are dealing with a figure of slight historical
importance, and to leave it at that. Many people have lived who
we know absolutely nothing about. It should not be surprising
that some were artists, or that some have died only recently.
Certainly my several calls to England have been unfruitful, and
the corroboration of other claims of the author will have to be
left to those with more interest in the subject.
I will close
with the theory that much of this autobiography, or diary
if you will, is a creative fiction. Whether these works ever
existed in the context the author claims is unprovable, in the
same sense that the rest of the story is. All we know is that a
very old man lived in my house on Canyon Road, that he died
there, and that he wrote, or at least signed, this book. The
rest is speculation. The whole adventure, from meetings with
famous artists, and remembered dialogue, to the poems (his own
and those of others), to the paintings and drawings, are none of
them backed up with any scientific evidence. Just as an example,
what is one to make of a poem from a ghost? I am sorely
afraid that, despite everyone's wishes to the contrary, this
work must stand or fall on its own. My best wishes to the
author, for his good fortune is mine.
Lockley, PhD (September, 1940)
It will be
noticed that 58 years have passed between the composition of the
Preface and the publication. The events of 1941 precluded
release by the original publisher, which company is now defunct.
The Lockley family lost interest in the project until recently,
when it was exhumed by George Channing Lockley, Vice Provost for
Womens Studies at New Mexico State University, Portales, and
grandson of Eugene Lockley, PhD (1903-1971). Mr. Lockley has
requested that his grandfather's prefatory remarks stand in lieu
of his own.
the desires of these "editors," we have treated this
document as an historical one, whose value is yet to be proven
or disproven. Obtaining the temporary possession of the original
manuscript, we have printed all of the author's words as he
wrote them. This has always been our policy, as is stated below
our colophon. Likewise, as another part of the historical
record, and by the same policy, we have printed the editor's
remarks unedited for content; that is, unexpurgated. Mr.
Lockley, as the owner of this manuscript (by that age old law of
finders-keepers), is entitled to his opinion as to its value and
authenticity. And you, as the reader, are entitled to know that
is an otter
swimming rings around the moon
writing runes around the sun
Life is a
gills wide in flight from webby paws
son-of-stars, stippled child of middlenight
Death is a
dancing a buzzing whirlpool fur-fearless
Life is a
pollen-dusted in sexy flower hop
unaware of ursa
apocalypse arrive tomorrow, crashing down like waves of glass,
galloping down a black and sea-torn wind, Satan clawing up from
under us with his mass of horses, bridling and stamping for our
souls, there are a few things I would like to have done with. To
have finished that is, so that they stand in time regardless.
One of these things is already done. One of these things is my
paintings. Another is this letter, this letter posted to my
bones, that I must surely scribble more quickly if my hand, with
the world, is in fact shrivelling tomorrow. This letter I am
writing, from my head to my hand and back again (a tight,
feckless circle I am willing to admit), must be finished
if I am to sleep in peace as the Demons go roaring overhead. It
tells my story. And in telling it closes it.
understand this, diggers beyond the blast, unearthing loaming
pages for your re-education: I am not who you were told I was. I
am not that larger-than-life toppling monolith of a statue-man.
Nor am I no one. I am who I say I was, and if you don't think
so, you are wrong.
Who I am at
this point, before the beginning, before I start telling you
this story, is an old man, writing at an old desk, with a
goddamned old pen that I would like to stomp on and give to the
goddamned devil, except that it's the only one I have. I now
understand why the sages have retired to the tops of their
pillars, silently muttering curses; or measured deserts by the
length of their bodies, like mad caterpillars; or whirled like
frenzied dervishes, as in some manic attempt to dislodge
earmites: the reason, of course~spluttery nibs. The holy man
goes into the wilderness in search of a typist.
The year is
1939, you see, and I am in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where proper
nibs are very hard to find. Goosefeathers everywhere, so to
speak, but nary a usable nib. Also, I am angry whenever I have
to write paragraphs like these two instead of that first one.
Straight narrative bores me to bloody hell, but I have been
assured by all concerned (I'm fibbing here~I'm the only
one concerned) that I have to offer the reader at least the
smallest and most widely and haphazardly placed steppingstones
through this bog of my remembrance. That is, I must find a way
to use a number of pedestrian writing devices, which even the
most Zennish and progressive reader requires, such as times,
places, people, dialogue. A certain Ladyfriend, who I am proud
to say is not quite as old as I am~who is still partially
mobile, that is~assures me that, at least at the beginning, I
need to provide the groundwork of a shore before I fling (to
speak jauntily) my fidus Achates, my faithful reader,
into the ocean's maw. This I am attempting, with almost no
success (I am told from the bed). This Ladyfriend is mouthing,
with the largest possible fishmouth, the word "description"
at me from under a blanket of cats and pillows, but is not happy
that I am describing her, even if in the tersest and
least incriminating of ways. She suggests I invent some
succulent adjectives for my bald head and blue-green legs, but I
think I'll pass. All you need to know about me, physically, at
this point in my maturity, is that I retain the hands that Degas
himself once called elegantes, and that I sleep unright,
like a horse, with my coat coppertacked to oversize stretcher
of that. I know you clever people, who study fossils and other
muddy things, find it amusing that I will not be young or normal
or happy or whatever it is that all of our grandchildren and
their hopping offspring are becoming after the Millenium (or
just around the corner, leave it to me not to know). But in the
back of my tottering brain, where the future exists for me,
where possibilities beyond my brain are created by my brain for
my brain's pathetic amusement, there is a boy, or maybe a girl.
A little artist who has survived all the genetic upheavals and
the masses of black and scary horses, chomping and chomping. An
anachronistic egg hatched by the warmth of an unloved Sun. A
solitary sea turtle flapping in an eddyless ocean. To this
little dot of green, making his way, making his way, I say flap,
my friend, as the laughing gull flaps above you, as the
coelecanth still sucks below you. Make your way and I will see
you somewhere, maybe, there where van Gogh, like a pale-blue
peasant, coughs up his absinthe and toothes his pipe, where
Cellini pulls down the very angels to crack a head, where
Michelangelo sleeps on stone, a fine white dust clinging to his
eyebrows like pollen on an oblivious bee.
And one more
thing. You non-turtles, you slippery spirits of the aftermath
who study letters like mine for profit, analyzing and
interpreting for the amusement of your pathetic brains (brains
which cannot paint to save their lives): To you I say this, and
I am right. Leave us be. Let alone this message. It is not
Dear Little Turtle, I
am you. I am neither the hand writing nor the eye reading.
The hand reflects. The page reflects. The eye reflects. And I
am back to you.
What will I tell you in
this story of yours? Whose voice will you hear in your head?
Read fast or you may hear yourself telling me this story of
When you were born you were very
small and somewhat younger than you became. You were
senses~movement, sounds, pains, pleasures. Everything you saw
was you. Everything you felt was you. It was yours.
Do you know better now?
Once you reached for the
breast. You saw it: you touched it, you tasted it. Once you
reached for the moon. You saw it: you could not touch it, you
could not taste it. And you understood. Near. Far. Big. Little.
Dark. Light. Me. You.
But you were not
wrong before. The breast is still as the moon, yours and
What must you forget to
remember what you have never known?
you. Tell me.
When you were born you were
very large and older than you would ever be again. Nothing was
not you. Since then you have whittled you down to
When will you tire of
An old man is a master
carver, his life a pile of shavings. Sweep them into a pile and
burn them to keep the young warm.
old man is dead.
You have in your head,
Lord knows why, what Leonardo said: "I thought I was
learning to live. I was only learning to die."
you know better now?
blood. No master carver he. But blood is no more nourishing than
breastmilk. Or moonbeams. Or board nails. Fire consumes wood.
The tree consumes the sun.
Are you tree
As a baby, you brought
everything to your mouth. You were the world and the world
became you as you consumed it. The moon and the breast.
The tree and the sun. Before you knew the difference, all
were equally nourishing. Do you know better now?
me tell you. I am you.
As a child you
slept eighteen hours a day, nourished by dreams, nourished by
the you that is now not you. Awake, your work was play. Not
whittling, but building. Now, no longer a child, you die by
degrees. You burn your wood. The sun burns you. All is
whittling. You master carver, asleep on a bed of shavings. But
you do not swallow moonbeams whole, or blood or breastmilk
You have told me this, so I
In sculpting clay the sculptor
adds on until a whole is reached. In sculpting stone the
sculptor chips away until a remainder is reached. Are you stone
Tell me as I sculpt
What were you at eight? Do you
remember? Has it been chipped away or does your clay still
This you must know.
there are who feel that every breath is owed to the air, and who
exhale only from a sense of guilt. Those who cannot justify the
length of their arms or the width of their beds. Those who are
abashed to find their own footprints behind them in the
In ballet it is the dancer's duty to
fill as much space as possible, to devour the air and to blanket
the four dimensions.
This is called
In painting it is the artist's
duty to consume the world, to demolish it and rebuild it with in
the blink of an eye, to surround it as with a net, or the grip
of a vast hand, and to squeeze from it its essence.
is called beauty.
Dear Little Green Dot,
flapping a frothy sea, This is our latest story: my life. Or, if
you like, the events ~such as I remember them~ from 1858
to now (interspersed, nay, crammed, with an extravaganza of
extraneous and only obliquely related diversions). Those who
like a straight line, pointing neatly and quickly to the last
page of the book are invited to read the last page of another
book. This one hits some narrative~I can't say for how
I was born a
speckled egg and blue.
In hot bath and
cold bath Mummy would scrubb me white and shiny~would have
scrubbed all my corners oval if she could, I think~but as soon
as I was towelled and replaced under the chickens to sleep till
dawn I would dream a spotty dream, holding myself by the heels
over a cerulean Styx and counting the river monsters. Closing my
eyes and holding my breath, I would dive for dragons' teeth and
smooth black stones, my speckles being bites from those stygian
beasties where the blue would not dye. These were the pores of
my vulnerability, my St. Sebastian's arrowholes. I kept them
plastered with rabbitskin glue and champagne chalk. Mummy and
Poppy did not know these things.
just a morsel more prosaic, and for those who find such
information indespensible: I also had a red birthmark on my left
knee, which soon went away. No doubt this was some omen of great
urgency, which I have never been able to unravel. I leave it to
the art critics of the future, who, if they are incredibly
creative (and what art critic isn't), may be able to spin a
Master's thesis or two out of such rich biographical material.
Personally, I would tie that red knee into the poesy dream in
the preceding paragraph, if I could find any way to do it
without getting mawkish. But I can't. What else? Eggshell blue
eyes and wavy blond hair (that went spirally at fourteen; and
grey at 45; and mostly gone at 60). But never chubby, never
cherubic (that was my little brother). Not a lap child:
marginally pinchable, if at all. I have been told there is
something devilish about my eyes~or my gaze, at any rate. I know
who I am~I have never really scared myself~but no one
listens to such things. A man is no longer taken at his own
estimation. I may be guilty, I don't know, of a faraway look, or
an unnatural seriousness, or perhaps even a good dose of
standoffishness. None of that Stephen Daedalus blather, mind: I
was no playground wimp~no muling, sickly, watcher-from-the-wings
(remember that Leonardo, invert that he was, nevertheless could
bend iron bars with his bare hands; that Cellini and Caravaggio
fought anyone who said a crooked word to them--Cellini called
himself 'Il primo uomo del mondo: the best man in the
world'; and that Raphael was the most glittering jewel of the
Court, sleeping with every Florentine woman between the ages of
15 and 25. Only the modern artist is a milquetoast). If I were
being completely honest here, and I know that is beyond the
realm of hope, and probably of necessity, I would describe
myself, even in the crib, as an old man just waiting to get
grouchy. Only my closest acquaintances can tell you what a
bullseye that is. But it is also misleading, given away as a
tidbit this early. For I was by no means a teary child, or a
screamer. Mummy wrote quite proudly in my babybook that my
'terrible twos' lasted only a week (apparently I was very
impressed by the beatings). I don't know how interesting any of
this is to perfect strangers, but I do feel I have to flesh out
my early life a bit, just to keep this whole enterprise from
going completely topheavy.
Here I remind
myself, before I lose all confidence, that my reader is but a
tiny green turtle, with the patience of all long swimmers, and
who will beak up even seaweed if times are hard.
as I was beginning to imply, I was rather a melancholy tot,
comparatively. Not terribly social. Although friendly enough
when pressed. I keep going back to my babybook for verification,
(which is the only piece of corroboration I have from that
period) because of course I want to believe that I was
the perfect child, serenely well-adjusted from the zygote, only
with the ill fortune to be birthed into a poorly adjusted world.
Mummy is good enough to supply me with this quote, on page 18
(one year, eight months): 'Child quite (sic) as a mause (sic).
Cheery, long as he has his thum (sic).' I don't think I need add
much to that, except perhaps the fact that my 'thum' later saved
me much trouble with tobacco.
I might say
here that this babybook I have already mentioned twice was
posted to me from my little brother Fritz some years ago when
Poppy died. Fritz, as the son that stayed on, of course got
everything else, and a precious little everything it was, but he
thought I might know what to do with this babybook (short of
burning it, he said). It arrived, in San Geminiano I believe,
just before the war, complete with a number of my earliest
drawings interleaved throughout, on the yellowest and most
sawtoothed of pages. For some reason there were also included,
as bookmarks, a number of old twigs and larch leaves that I
could make nothing of. When this parcel was delivered to me I
was working on an outdoor mural for an Italian cakemaker named
Potino or Pitono, I can't remember and don't care, and the mural
began to disintegrate almost before I got to the train station,
so I had other worries. I later heard, through a tortuous and
transcontinental grapevine, that all my lovely fresco heads
lasted until the next heavy rain, but no longer. Whether that is
true or not, I can't say; but I didn't look at the baby book
again for almost thirty years, until I got here and set up this
tortilla stand/studio, and began thinking about writing this,
this, this whatever this is.
tangible piece of evidence I have that my life has not been a
complete fiction, the hallucination of some drowsy orangutan or
precocious porpoise, is this scrap I offer you dated 1860. It is
only one of many similar figures scrawled across a page. This, I
take it, is my first portrait:
I do not remember who this
might be a portrait of, although I suppose it is a
self-portrait, my little brother being some three years younger
and Poppy not having any hair at all. Also, his legs were
longer. I found this little doodle~which is hardly prophetic of
any future talent, despite the oracular ears~next to page 26,
which shared this complaint of Mummy: 'cant keep him from
marking the walls.' Her words are proved on the same page, which
is covered with pen marks that look, to the untrained eye, like
french fries floating from margin to margin. In my mother's
tiniest printing, at the bottommost edge, is this: 'him
I almost forgot. The title of my
baby book is Baby Milestones. This title caused me some
trouble when I was a hobbledehoy. I still consider it, to this
day, a perplexing co-incidence, but one I have never had the
proper fortitude to pursue. At three, the question that became
foremost in my mind, understandably, was why my brother's book
was not entitled Baby Fritztones. I leave it to the
historians and art therapists, whose thesis cups are beginning
to runneth over.
So I need not exaggerate,
I am sure: I was no Mozart or Thomas Lawrence. I did not perform
for Princes or Popes. I was only speckled. Speckled-and-blue.
Not that everyone could see that I was, mind. Auntie
Joan, more optimistic than accurate, liked to say that I was
'sunnyside up.' Uncle Nigel never failed to retort, my oddities
being evident from an early age, 'Contrariwise, the boy is
scrampled.' Until I learned, like Pavlov's dog, to flee at the
beginning of these pronouncements, I suffered Uncle's inevitable
follow-up to this witticism, which was, of course, a
make-believe egg being cracked on my downy pate, fingers running
down like yolk.
Be that as it may, my
natural propensities did begin to assert themselves, and to
demand recognition, even as I looked on blamelessly, unaware of
my own fate. My speckles, which were both my arrowholes and my
bowstrings, would not fade or be blended. I will show you
another one of these speckles, hiking my trousers and rolling my
sock like a schoolchild exhibiting a precious scab (another
Pie, whyever is the caboose so so small?
Me (age three years, three
Mummy, 'tis further 'way, course.
This dialogue is
imaginary. I needed it, so I made it up. But some conversation
much like it, if not so lollypoppy, did take place (Mummy's pet
name for me is no creation of mine, and I still have it
sewn into all my frocks and pantaloons). One of my earliest
memories is the family myth that built around the drawing of
that train. I think the shock of it forever dazzled Mummy, and
she could never look at me after that without confusion, as if
trying to figure just how we were related, what incubus had
known her. For if you think my parents were shocked that I had
some innate understanding of perspective at age three, you see
only half the story. They were shocked to discover that there
was such a thing as perspective. They had never noticed
it, and didn't want to admit it when they did. I honestly think
Poppy considered it a sort of black magic, that two train
carriages, which everyone knew to be identical, could look
larger or smaller, according to position. I could see him look
at the ground, to avoid considering the implications. He swore
off looking at faraway objects, especially people, though he
never admitted it, because he couldn't but imagine them as
Lilliputians, stuck forever in three-inch bodies. If he espied
them, in this faery state, he might curse them to that world
forever, and end up a Giant in a land of Tom Thumbs,
inadvertantly crushing friends and family under his
Brobdingnagian boots,like errant eggs.
[That was all from
chapter 1. The following is an excerpt from chapter 2]
had made it near to London, past the village of Woking, near the
banks of the river Wey, and all my store of apples had long
since vanished. I sat down upon a mossy rock, listening to the
chitter-chatter of the tiny birds in the rushes, when I became
aware that the birdlets and I had other human company. There was
a faint song wafting up from nearer the river, and it was not
coming from the breast of any feathered beastie, no matter how
small and quick of heartbeat~for it contained words! Nearly as
high-pitched as birdsong, it yet meandered in ways too beautiful
even for them, and betrayed a complexity of melody beyond the
reach of beak. I crept closer to the sound, slipping amongst
willowy fronds and tufts of stalky grass, and stepping gingerly
between small patches of peaty water and cupfuls of bog. On the
bank of the slow-moving Wey, about a stag's-leap in front of me,
knelt an elf of a girl, maybe half my age~that is, five or
six~with nothing on her white body but a pair of brown muddy
clogs. Compared to the dark girl in Salisbury, she seemed near
an infant: heartbreakingly small and delicate, almost
pocket-sized, or duodecimo. And her hair was the lightest
possible shade of tow: so light, you know, that her eyebrows
were all but invisible. In a portrait, the shadow cast by her
eyebrows would be darker than the eyebrows themselves, and would
be the only thing you could paint, the only indication that she
had them. Try it and you will see what I mean. Her skin was
bluish white, especially in those areas normally covered. White
to the point of transparency. The blue cast was caused by the
veins underneath. Despite this, she did not look sickly or
pale~not pale in an abnormal sense. She was not wasted or bony,
just very small. Her clogs looked as if they had been stolen
from a ragdoll, or from Benjamin Bunny. I might have used one to
She was in the process of
washing her dress in the current; and, as it was a warm day,
and, more to the point, since she had no other clothing, this
was her method. It mattered not, for her little corpuscle of a
behind and miniscule torso were completely undifferentiated, and
if not for the length of her hair and the dress she rinsed among
the weeds, I could not have told her sex. Still, I wondered
momentarily at her lonely choice of worksite and seeming
abandonment, until I espied, not twelve steps to my left, a
sleeping man, whom I took to be the child's father or guardian.
He looked as if he had just fallen from a Brueghel painting,
minus the codpiece. He was very poorly dressed, and needed the
same dunking his daughter's dress was receiving, both his
clothes and his person. But he had nevertheless such a wholesome
and carefree air, and smiled as he dreamed, that I never once
feared for the safety of the child, or even of myself, should I
wake him. He was clearly a vagabond, but I judged him none the
worse for that, being for the time a wanderer myself, and
scarcely cleaner even than him.
continued to listen to the child's song for a moment, enchanted
by the carefree manner and unselfconscious wording she gave to
the common tavern song she chirped~in a register surely two
octaves above what it had ever benefitted from before~and by the
curious lilt she gave it with an accent I judged to be
Scots~although it was different from and much stronger than that
I had encountered in Meg's speech. No doubt she had learned this
rather bawdy rhyme from her father, and the words were not those
one is accustomed to hear from a six year old. But, like a
first-time opera-goer who speaks not a word of Italian, and yet
is transported therefore all the more by the delicious quality
and sheer virtue of the human voice, I attended only to sound
and not to meaning, and the child's message might have been a
holy cantata directed straight to heaven for all I knew or
cared. And, in fact, it was, from her point of view and my point
of view and heaven's, all other considerations being null.
As she paused between staves, I halloed in the smallest possible
voice, so as not to alarm her. She peeped around, and then,
without a hint of shame or awkwardness, stood up and began
wringing out her dress. I suppose my visage has never been one
to cause sensible beings much fear; and besides, it occured to
me later, this sprite was a world-traveler, camper with gypsies,
and all-night walker. The sight of a twelve-year-old boy was
nothing to her, whoever he might be.
'I 'as to let me drress drra-ee', she began, 'or I'll be a mite
col'er than I am. Yer nae a scared a gayerls, are ya?'
This was her sound, though I'm not sure I'll keep up the
dialect. I never cared much for reading a lot of misspelled
dialogue, no matter how realistic it seemed. Her effect was
singular, though, you may be sure: such a strong accent~as I had
never heard~from such a wee thing. My accent was strong, too, as
you have seen, but it was completely different. And I didn't
know I had one, whereas hers was almost untranslatable to my
provincial brain. Even more shocking was her question about
girls, which put me at a complete disadvantage. Not only did she
seem to see right through boys of all ages, with her very
framing of the sentence, but she seemed to have a knowledge of
relationships that I would never have, and even to be somehow
above that knowledge, even at six. Such has the feminine mind
always seemed to me, whether at its greatest complexity, or, as
with her, at its least.
which, the situation at hand was so ludicrous~and I was quite
unclear to what extent she saw that. Even were I unafraid of
girls under normal circumstances, these were not normal
circumstances. A naked female, of whatever age, dazzles the
spirit of the male, even in a childish predicament like this.
From the time of Uranus and Ge, from the time that Sky looked
down on Earth unclouded, there have been unexplainable storms
and winds; and my feet seemed to move beneath me and I swayed
perceptibly. It was not fear I felt. Call it awe. It was a tiny
sandwich of awe I chewed. It was not so much how she looked, for
the physical differences between us were still small. But I now
knew she was a girl and that made all the difference. She was no
more woman than I was man, and yet the slimmest sliver of iron
has its own magnetic current, and my fascination at her
nakedness could not be quelled. The queerest thing of all,
though, and what made some part of me laugh~some part beyond the
storms and the tug and the pull~was that she was without dress,
but it was I that seemed transparent to her.
Her cleft drew me to look at it. And so I did, like a child. I
felt no excitement, for I was all pre-sexual body, but I am sure
I beheld it with a more artistic eye, found in it more
amazement, than she would have beheld me and mine, had our
places been switched. She might have laughed. I was bemused, but
I explained my
fascination with all such feminine things as strictly artistic
for many years, my middle years of confusion and timidity. I
lied even to myself. Or I would separate some interests as
sexual and others as artistic. Or I would feel obliged to
separate my models from my lovers, to keep my art impulse
'pure.' All nonsense, as I now see. Desire and inspiration are
hopelessly and needfully muddled from the beginning, and there
is no distinguishing them, or any reason to.
So I stared, intently and long. Remember, I had only seen myself
and my brother up to that point. Finally informed, my ignorance
abated for the time, I remembered myself and continued the
conversation. What I liked most, though, is that she gave me
time to look, did not tease me for looking, and never mentioned
my looking. Everything was understood from the beginning.
'I'm not scared,' I answered her.
'Help me with these clogs then. You can wash this one. Don't
drop it or you'll have to get in and get it. They float.' She
hopped on one foot, twisting her clog off. Then handed it to me.
It was wood-soled and it did float. 'This is the river Wey, you
know. Deddy says always when we come here, "We be going by
London and we'll stop by Woking on the way. Ha, ha! Deddy is
very clever like that, you know."'
We washed the grime off, using rocks and twigs to scrape away
the mud caked around the soles. Then, without further ado, she
leapt in and paddled about for a bit. Suddenly she cried, 'I
forgot soap,' and ran out of the water to her father. She found
a cake of yellowy soap in one of their bundles, none too fresh
it looked to me, and skipped back into the water. I watched all
in the highest interest. I might have been there or not been
there, it was the same to her. She washed her hair and splashed
around in a desultory, dreamy sort of fashion, looking close at
the ripples in the water, and then 'Ah! A fish! A fish. I don't
like him!' she screamed, laughing, and jumped back on the
riverbank like a frog. She shook her hair out good and long, and
wiped as many droplets from her skin as she could, especially
from her arms and legs, to avoid the chill. Then she ran up and
snuggled into one of her father's folds of clothing, on the
downwind side. She might have just as easily crawled into one of
his pockets, like a puppy, or a large shiny coin, so little
space did she occupy in the three dimensions. At this, the great
bear awoke, put a massive paw on the shivering child and, seeing
me, said with an uneven grin,
hoi! So ye've met me little salmon, have ye? Me little
waterbabby? Whenever I "swear by the salmon,"* that's
what I'm swearing by, the very thing,' he said, motioning at the
little girl with his elbow. 'Looks laike we could use the same
sort o' biling, you and me, a bit o'water on the limbs 'ould do
us roight, eh, Laddy?' And without further discussion or
introduction he got up, putting his great tattered coat over the
clean child, and proceeded to bathe just as she had. A hulking,
shapeless, hairy figure he was, of not so much interest to my
eye, I need not say. But I watched all the same, if only out of
curiosity this time. His hair was reddish blonde, rather long
and scraggly. His beard was of like color, with flecks of grey,
and was perhaps four inches long. His nose was long and
straight. His eyes deep set but blue. Well over average height,
he weighed possibly 17 or 18 stone, or more. He smelled
strongly, though not of drink, and markedly less so after he had
soaked for a while. But, as he did not wash his clothes, and as
more than half the smell of him was in them, he ridded himself
of less than half in the water.
declined his friendly invitation to bathe not so much from
shyness (I was, after all, a cottager, and therefore not above
river bathing) but from the awareness that the sun was going
down, and that I didn't want to get back into my clothes wet.
Once he had got his trousers and shirt back on, though not
buttoned, he came over and shook my hand.
*An oath of
great antiquity and solemnity used by gypsies and other
wanderers, originating in the ancient Gaelic myths of Tuan mac
'Trelawney's the name.
But you can call me Trelawney.' This impressed him as humor of
the highest sort, and he chuckled long and low to himself,
subsiding only when he could see there was no chance of me
joining him. 'Over there, that little fish is called Sif. Just
Sif. S-I-F-as-in-fish Sif, she is. Ane that roight, wriggles?
Caught her one day on me great line and never threw her back.
And never will throw her back, till she grows scales and swims
away before me eyes.'
She looked up
at him sheepishly, without expression, but obviously in full
agreement. This was what he always said. And that is the way she
always looked when he said it.
a time I explained to Sif and Trelawney that I was on my way to
London, and I said that if they were also going into the city,
perhaps we could travel on together. Trelawney answered that
they were stopping just outside London, about five miles from
here, but that they would be happy to accompany me that far. As
we walked I asked him advice about London and learned somewhat
of his history, and Sif's. He carried a great pack on his
shoulders, a pea-green pack in which a whole brood of Sifs might
have ridden comfortably. I did later see her ride on the top of
it at times, as a matter of fact, like a wee Sultan on the
shoulders of a hoary pachyderm. Whenever Sif walked, though, the
pack flowered with various poles and rods and nameless (for me)
tools of great length that Trelawney left assembled, the easier
to re-use. The tools were used in various skilled trades that
Trelawney practiced throughout the Two Isles, mostly outside the
biggest cities (where he felt 'like a plum in a pudding'). He
knew somewhat of masonry, in which he could do the roughest
repairs or the finest carving; of knife sharpening and sawblade
retoothing; of woodworking of all kinds, from carpentry to
simple sculpture; and he even dealt in scrimshaw and other ivory
work of the most divers and wondrous kind. This last trade he
plied as both dealer and artisan, collecting salable pieces in
ports from Lochiver to Bantry Bay to Yarmouth, and carving his
own intricate specimens from whalebone and sharktooth and
elephant tusk. A few of these last he showed me, digging into
his pack and pulling out a felt-lined purse about the size of a
lady's muff. Unrolled it contained the most miraculous
cornucopia of figurines imaginable: horse's heads, icons,
mermaids, phalluses, porpoises leaping, stags jumping, unicorn
horns, and naked ladies in every possible degree of contortion.
These ladies impressed me the most, not so much for their
accuracy in proportion and gesture, which was minimal, but for
the loving attention obviously paid by the artist to certain
anatomical particulars~which particulars may be imagined, and
therefore need not be listed. Trelawney assured me he did a
brisk trade in these chaste ladies, hinting that perhaps his
very existence depended on them, both in inspiration and in
coin. I won't say that Trelawney's example suggested to me the
heights to which an artist could reach, given the proper
subject; but it was perhaps put into my mind that art, of
whatever level, might at least pass for one of the trades.
Sif also had a collection which I was duly shown, and duly
appreciated. In Trelawney's pack was another purse, heavier and
unlined, which contained Sif's rocks. This was proof of the
level of devotion from the father to the daughter, for this
purse easily weighed more than the little girl herself. I
couldn't have carried it across the road in a bet with the
devil, much less circumambulated the British Isles with it.
There were some lovely finds, to be sure and none to argue. A
demi-geode was the star of the collection, which also included
various polished river stones and a medley of sparklies~quartz,
porphyry, mica, and the like. There was a chip of lapis lazuli,
a natural agate marble, a disc of obsidian or jet (I could not
tell), and a miscellany of serpentines, nephrites, and diorites.
There were also bits of coral, a couple of very imperfect
pearls, and other maritime refuse. One yellow sparkly caught my
eye, seeming to be neither beryl nor topaz, and I asked Sif
'That one is a cairngorm.
Cairn Gorm is great mountain in Grampian, where the Avon comes
bubblin' out o' the ground. The northern Avon, you know. The
river is only a fountain at Cairn Gorm, a rindle you could stop
with your toe. But Cairn Gorm is high and buirdly, not as high
as Ben Nevis, but a'most. Cairn Gorm is the brother of Cairn
Toul and Ben Macdhui. Ben Macdhui is the tallest o' them by a
bit. I learned that from the man at Balmoral Castle. He said at
the heart of Cairn Gorm was a great yellow rock as big as the
moon, and that if you peeked into holes in Cairn Gorm at night
you could see it glowin' like a fiery di'mint. He said if you
crawled in the wrong cave in Cairn Gorm at night, you'd be
blindit. It's that bright. There was a blind man at Braemar, and
he said that's what happened to him! Right, Deddy?'
'Thars right, shiny fish. Thars what they said, a'right.
Blindit. Couldn' see no more'n a cuttlefish in a kettle. No
more'n a mole in a hole, Begore.' ('Begore' was, as I quickly
learnt, Trelawney's pet oath, an exclamation for every
occassion, like Poppy's 'Begad' or an Irishman's
I learned that Sif's
mother had been a dancer, and that she had died in giving birth
to Sif. Trelawney had buried her himself on the banks of the
river Blackwater, County Cork, and had placed a dancing ivory
figurine, carved by himself in her likeness, in her cold hands
before throwing on the dirt. She and Trelawney had not been
married, but he had known her longtimes, meeting on many
travels. Trelawney had little else to say about her, and fell
silent. Sif told me that since she was born in Cork she must be
an Irish lassie, didn't I think so? I said I didn't know, to be
sure. I asked if her mother were Irish.
'Oh, yes. She was named Becuma, and had long white hands, the
prettiest that ever were. And the reason she died was that
Manannan, the god of the ocean, wanted her to be his bride, and
Deddy couldna' say no to Manannan. So she sailt in her curragh
down the Blackwater and out into Youghal Bay and Mannanan took
her to wife in the sea and they have many pretty fishgirls who
are all my sisters and I will see them someday and they will
teach me to swim very fast.'
this all quite fascinating, and said so. I think I believed it
then, and I am not sure I disbelieve it now.
But I said, 'Your way of speaking, is it Scots or Irish? I
thought it was Scots at first.'
dunno but its both and more again,' answered Trelawney, arising
from his brood. 'I meself 'ave picked up so many ways o' talkin'
and so many chopped words, I can't rightly say me ownself.
Started out as to be Scots, as I'm Scots: Highlander until ten
years old. Then Shetlan's, then Irelan', then 'Meriker, then
Porch-e-geese (where I didn't know a word spoke for two years),
then here again and all around here, stayin' on these islands
for good. Sif's picked up a little word chice here and there,
and allovers, same's meself. Might be mistook for just about
anyone, 'cept a Porch-e-geese goose, right goosefish?'
'How can I be a goosefish?' asked Sif, chickettin'. 'I'd have to
have feathers and fins, then wouldn't I be a silly?'
'Nae, there be a fish with a long neck, loike, and flippers
looks like wings, long and flappy, and a beak, like this (making
a long pointed kiss beyond his mustaches and chasing Sif like a
great bird). Ay!!! Ayyy!!! 'Tis a wallopin' goosefish, and I'm
the wallopinest one of all, and you're me little sea wormicle
for breakfast, you are, rouff, rouff!' (grabbing Sif like a
firelog and pretending to bite her arms and belly).
Sif pummeled his head with her little fists~which had somewhat
of the effect of pummeling a copper basin with live frogs~and
Trelawney, pretending to be overwhelmed by the buffeting,
released his catch. She scurried away to the grass on the edge
of the lane, looked at us half-menacing, and then broke, almost
as against her own will, into a slight grin. Then she yelped,
'I'm a gooseyfish~ goosey, goosey....rawwnk, rawwnk,' and
circled us with her arms wide and her mouth open wide, wide.
'None can catch a gooseyfish, none can. Cause they swim fast.
Look! Fast!' She passed Trelawney and swiped him with one of her
'wings.' 'You aren't fast enough to catch the goosey fish, you
big walloping walrus mon, you big walloping whalehead mon!'
'Nae, I doan think I am, fishy. Me whalehead is a might ploated
from swimming roun' the whole world today. I think as I might
just wallie about here and spout from me blowhole.' He reached
into his breastpocket and pulled out a well-worn pipe, carved
into the shape of a porpoise, and made ready to smoke. As he
filled it with tobacco, strong and sweet, he put a hand to his
mouth (to block his words from Sif) and spoke low just to my
ear: 'Start a'fishing for the Sif-fish and she'll be tugging on
yer line all day. Won't hardly leave you time to scratch your
own itches, she won't.'
in her circling, seeing me addressed, and said, 'Bet you can't,
anyway. None can't.' I smiled a half-smile at Trelawney, to
throw Sif off-guard, and then suddenly lunged at her with a
silly growl. She screamed and ran as fast as she could straight
away from me, laughing. I gave a not too rigorous chase, letting
her stay just out of reach, or slipping out of my grasp at the
last moment. Finally I scooped her up into my arms like a great
fleeing hen. She squirmed, and I held her, and we both laughed.
Then, we stopped laughing. I didn't know what to do with her.
She said, 'Put me down, Mister Boy.'
Trelawney said, 'Ee's name's Miles, Sif.'
'I know,' she answered. 'But it's a silly name and I don't like
it. It reminds me of a signpost.'
'Ee didn't name eemself, fishlet. Let 'em be.'
'That I won't. I'm not hurting his feelings. Little people can't
hurt bigger people. I'll call you Elfie,' she addressed to me,
with complete finality and all the proper etiquette she could
muster. 'Cause you look like an Elf, all curly and pointed
I thought 'curly' must apply to
my hair (which was wavy but not yet curly, I think) and
'pointed' to my chin or nose. It wasn't to my ears. They have
always been small and round and close to my head. So I took it
all as a compliment. Impertinent, like Meg's impertinence, but
still meaning no harm. And I have always appreciated a bit of
That settled, Trelawney proceeded to give me a
wink and a nod as to the ways of the Great City on the
'There be a kinder blighty
area eastsides by the name of Little Saffron Hill. It's poor,
but there's some good folks living there, same as anywheres.
They's more like to take kinder on a half-growed feller as you
is: which I can't promise for they gents westsides. Bloatin'
around Picadilly or Chelsea'll get you nowhere but throwed in
the workus or took for a thief and shipped to Australer. No
matter what Mr. Dickings says, ant no Orphant made a Gentlemint
everydays. Stay yerself east o' Sint Pauls and you'll have a
chance of getting some bread from a mother whose wee heart'll
beat for yer little angel's eyes for a day or three, til ye can
get some work carrying something or scrubbing something else.
Ant gonna be easy, Laddy. Ye'ed best a stayed in the fields,
where food can be got or stole more easy, specially from them as
you knowed. Be chary of the police, who's behind ever lamppost,
and the thimbleriggers, who'll rob ye of yer wristbones and yer
eyeteeth. Most important, Elfie (he said with a wink at Sif, who
was now listening to his warnings to me), stay away from the
lads of yer own age what's not got nae jobs. Them lads'll get ye
in a kettle ye canna get the lid off.
'Last time I took meself through London, that great den o'
vipers~which I dunna do no more without verra dire need~there
was a kind lady lived in Little Safron Hill, as I was tellin' ye
'bout. Look for The City Arms pub, under a great sign says
Charrington's ales and stouts. If ye can't read, look for the
letter C, like this (making a sign like that letter), like a
great O with a bite took out on it, perched up high on a sign,
and writ there bigger'n a man and black as the dewil's eye. Next
door, or next door to that, I canna remember exactly, is a
widder, poor but not too poor to give a good working lad a bit a
porridge or a loaf if he's well-seemin'. If she's there yet,
tell 'er it were Trelawney as sent ya. And Sif, too: she knowsa
Sif. Sif doan know o' her, but she's seen the little bundle,
when all Sif was is a bundle I kept next to me tobacker.'
I thanked Trelawney for all his help~although I had forgotten
most of it five minutes later~and shook his great hand (in which
mine was lost) once more. Sif's hand I also shook, for she would
have it so.
Trelawney added, at
parting, 'Keep to the narrow, Laddy, and look for us on the
road, if ye have a mind to travel more. I wouldna' be sherprised
if ye did, Begore. I wouldna' be tall sherprised.'
Sif only said, 'Bye, Elfie.'
[painting of Sif here]
This is Sif
at six, as I drew her from memory some years later. My drawings
and paintings of her from life (as you will see later) look more
like her. But somehow this one has always felt most like her, if
you know what I mean.
I was reading this incident aloud
to my editor-in-the-bed, rapturously caught up in my
storytelling skills, when I suddenly received a pillow to the
head. I ducked instinctively, half expecting it to be followed
by a flying cat. The Aged Odalisque is of the violent opinion
that my wordings are prosecutable, and that I will get us all
thrown into prison. She takes especial opposition to Sif's
'cleft', or more precisely my cheek at calling it such, or even
mentioning it. But, Dearest Lady Reclining, how am I supposed to
have painted innumerable putti~the seraphim and cherubim~without
having noticed the nude body? Is it possible to paint whilst
looking the other way? And does God above, who created these
naked children, not know all of their parts, by whatever name,
not only their faces and arms? As Michelangelo said, 'Let me not
be displeased by what is not displeasing to God.'
But the hysteria does not subside. I am told that none but
myself painted 'clefts' on his female putti, others preferring
fortuitously or miraculously placed ribands or leafage; and that
if my murals were always washed away or defaced, or crumbled of
their own volition, it was divine judgment, judgment I surely
Will the world never grow a day older?
following is from chapter 3]
But I'm getting ahead of
my story again. At this point I should still be twelve,
alighting from the piano and wishing Gerber luck at Cremorne
Gardens, where he hoped to pass the hat and enlighten the
masses. As the donkeys clopped slowly away, I stepped up to pull
the bell, carrying my little clothes with me in a bundle. I
looked up at the whitish walls dully reflecting the slow moving
Thames. Then I looked out behind me as I waited, over Battersea
Reach and toward Old Battersea House, barely visible in the fog.
I sniffed the air, as one does on moist days, and caught a
strange scent falling down over me, coming from above. 'Bobadee!
[my own oath when I was that age, don't laugh],' I said to
myself aloud, for I seemed to recognize that scent, as from a
recurring dream. It was the smell of turpentine! I had never
before smelled it, but I was immediately drawn to it, as one is
drawn to ones past and to ones future. I don't know enough about
life or death, even at my age now, to give a firm opinion on
reincarnation; but I swear to you that there was a sort of
recognition in that smell. It somehow confirmed to me, as much
as anything before or since, that I was on my path, and that my
map had led me straight so far. Nothing that day that was new
seemed new; nothing that others might have found strange was
strange to me. Linseed oil, too, smelled to me like my own
pillow, so familiar it was. A man, married for ten years, who
goes to war and returns, smells his wife's hair and knows he is
home. These smells were that to me, though I can never explain
As I stood there on the
threshhold, agog in the telling of my own subconscious fortune,
a youngish man opened the door and asked my business. I still
was dressed as Mrs. Curlew had dressed me~that is, not too
poorly~so the man was not impolite. I had no card to show him,
so I explained as well as I could Mr. Whistler's request that I
sit for him. He seemed to find nothing at all out of the
ordinary in my story and invited me inside. We walked directly
up to Whistler's studio and the man pulled me through the open
door and presented me like a letter from the post. Whistler was
standing at an easel looking out a window over the river below.
There was a painting in progress, but he seemed not to be at
work. Presently he turned and looked at me.
'Walter, what is this? Where's Mother? I thought we were going
to have tea.'
'Mr. Whistler, Sir,
this is a model what you met and asked to come see you. He says
you asked for him to sit and all.'
'Really, Walter. He has the cheek to say that, does he? Do you
believe him? Would I ask him to come here looking like that? Do
you think he looks paintable at all? Do you now? Say
'I dunno as I can say. He
looks well enough to me.'
enough, eh? Not garish at all? Not a little overworked? Not like
one of Burne-Jones pretty little angels? Not like some awful
Botticelli? Hah, hah!' Here his fingers went into action,
flippiting around like a handful of brushes. Dab, dab, dab they
went, pretending to paint my cheeks, now nearly touching my
hair. 'Not like Goldilocks, what do you say, yellow, yellow,
yellow? Like a little canary? White collar? Blue frock? Black
stockings? Who could paint it? No, Walter, I leave him to your
brushes. I haven't enough colors, I'm afraid.' Walter looked a
bit put out, not so much on my account as on his own. But I had
'Sir, I brought me old
clothes from Evershot like you said. Remember you said that you
had a parrot that you fed to a man-goose and that the ladies
should dress in mud and straw and that you would paint me if I
came to this address what you wrote on that card.'
Whistler and Walter (it was Walter Greaves I later found out)
exchanged glances and then burst into laughter.
'I said ladies should dress in mud and straw, did I? I do have
some rather good ideas sometimes don't I, Walter? I really
should do a large canvas of Lady What's-her-title in mud and
straw to show at the Academy. About 90 inches should do it,
don't you think? A 'Harmony in Brown and Gold,' I'll call it.
Yes, fetching, quite fetching. A capital idea. Five hundred
guineas. Lady Mud-n-Straw. And her husband Lord Loincloth.
Brilliant! Hah, hah! Ah. But now, what about our little model
here? Can we make something of him or not, Walter? Can he be
dirtied up enough to have any character at all? Or is it
Before Walter could
answer (I'm not sure any answer was really expected), Whistler
went on, 'Have the boy change into what he has there and take
him down to the river. Once you get him properly muddied bring
him back and well see what we have. You and Henry might take him
hunting for turtles, or whatever it is you do. Take your time.
And, Walter, where the devil is Mother? If I don't eat soon,
I'll never hear the end of it. I'll never get back to
Walter told him he would look
in on Mother Whistler on the way down, and we left him still
talking to himself and waving into the air. After a few words
with an old woman, who I understood to be Mrs. Anna Whistler,
Walter led me into a back room where I could change. In a moment
he and Henry, his brother, came for me and we walked down to the
water's edge. They took me out on a little boat that they had
moored there. There were some painting materials, a rickety
portable easel and a rusted-out paintbox, still stowed in the
bottom of it. But Walter and Henry only talked of Whistler, with
mixed adulation and envy. I was ignored until we rowed back to
shore. Walter and Henry had checked some lines and waved at
three girls on the bank, but had otherwise done nothing. I,
being a rather fastidious child, was not a speck dirtier than
when we left. I had instinctively avoided even the small amount
of mud on the rails of the boat. Even my shoes were clean.
Walter looked at me disapprovingly.
'You're not much of a lad, are you Boy?' he said to me. 'Ye've
got the dialect of an urchin but the fingernails of a little
lord. Me or Henry'd a been in the reever by now at your age,
soaked to the skin and an eel in both 'ands. Well, no matter,
the Master chose you, and we'll make you presentable, like he
With that, the brothers
proceeded to besplatter me with all the jetsam available from
that foul river, and I soon not only looked an urchin, I stank
like one~or more than one. Henry even gave me a turtle to carry
into the studio, meaning to make a small joke on the
When we walked in,
Whistler and his mother Anna were having dinner at a small
table, lightly but nicely set. They were waited on by a young
woman I hadn't noticed before, a servant. Anna was a thin and
tidy woman of about 60 or 65, I should say, well dressed in
black and white with an unfashionable but very respectable and
very well-pressed bonnet of the whitest white. Jemie (as Anna
called Whistler) had removed his grey smock and was now seated
lazily in striped pants, grey and white, and a long darker grey
coat. His tie was muted red of quite a dark shade and was tied
very jauntily. Whistler always dressed a bit provocatively by
modern standards, or one might say a bit French by English
standards (except that even in France he was an ostentatious
dandy~Degas once said of Whistler that if he were not a genius
he would be the most ridiculous man in Paris). There is a
portrait by Sargent of Robert Louis Stevenson lounging in a
large wicker chair twirling his mustaches or some such thing,
looking all legs, and everytime I think of my first encounter
with Whistler I think of him like that, thin and birdlike,
dapper and razor-sharp. Much shorter that Stevenson, he yet had
a way of sprawling in a chair that made one feel somehow
inferior. He had a way of looking up at one whilst appearing to
look down. It was uncanny. And not just for me as a child.
Always. Sometimes it was impressive, often infuriating, but
chewing a piece of bread when we entered and playing with his
forelock, which was already grey even at this time. He was
thirty five or six then, I believe, but that lock of grey was
already his trademark, and he flipped it incessantly. Anna, upon
seeing me and the state of my appearance, let out a small cry,
and Jemie woke from his reverie. He looked first at her and then
at me, and then smiled broadly.
'It's all right, Mother, just another model for the arts. I'm
thinking of working him into a new Wapping, as a goblin crawling
from the ooze. What do you think?'
'Oh, Jemie, do you really need that turtle in the house? It's
still alive, I believe. You can't possibly be thinking of
painting a live turtle, dear.'
yes, yes. They simply adore that sort of thing at the Academy. A
fish on a plate, you know. Absolutely nothing sells better.
Shiny scales. Gaping red mouth. Lovely gore. And if you can have
a fish on a plate, why not a turtle in the... saltcellar, say?
I'll do the entire series. Fish on a plate, turtle in the salt
cellar, frog in a spoon. The public will be mad for it. It's
genius, by God. I can't wait to tell Burnsie!' [he meant his
friend, the poet Algernon Swinburne].
'Well,' interrupted Anna, 'If you must keep the child here, at
least take him upstairs, where you sweep your own floors. And
put him near the stove. He'll freeze to death with all that mud
on him if he don't dry soon. And if the turtle dies, please
throw him out promptly (she meant only the turtle, not me~I
I found that Anna was not
easily rattled. She was clearly used to living with the pranks
of Jemie and his artistic crowd. The Greaves brothers took me
back upstairs to the studio and sat me by the stove. I was
already fairly dry. The mud had hardly soaked through, but I was
glad for the warmth anyway. While we waited for Whistler to
finish his dinner, I chatted with Henry a bit. Walter returned
downstairs. Henry said little worth relating, but he was
friendly and fairly talkative, once away from his brother. Henry
was two years the elder, but one always felt that Walter had a
bit more artistic talent. Neither one had much talent, but they
both doted on Whistler, seeing him perhaps as their one way out
of the family boating business. They acted in the way of
apprentices, but they got on very slowly, in the main due to the
fact that Whistler was more interested in treating them simply
as unpaid 'help.' The Greaves brothers seemed not to mind this,
however, and were glad to be of any use at all. Their sister
Alice, whom Whistler liked to call 'Tinnie' (he found her rather
unmusical~she didn't know his musical terms~he said she had a
'tin' ear), might also be seen about Lindsey Row, 'helping'
Whistler. Tinnie avoided Anna for the most part. I later saw
Whistler and Tinnie together at various times at Cremorne
Gardens or in Hyde Park, and I suppose that the relationship may
have occasionally transcended business or even art. Hence Mother
Whistler was sailed around at a goodly radius.
Be that as it may, Whistler finally floated up the stairs and
joined Henry and me. Walter had gone back to the Greaves' house
nearby on the river. The Master then explained to me, in all
seriousness, how things would proceed. The turtle we wouldn't
need again, and I might 'plop him back in the pond' on my way
out. My clothes were now satisfactory, although the amount of
mud was perhaps a bit excessive. I could see to that. We
wouldn't be working today, since he required preparation:
ordering the proper size canvas, toning it, and so on. When he
was ready he would send for me. Payment was nine pence a day,
not to exceed six hours any one day. With that he dismissed me
and immediately began working, moving his easel about and
looking for brushes. 'Oh,' he cried, as I was at the top of the
stairs. 'Don't cut your hair for anything in the world. If you
do I shall have to find someone else. Au revoir!'
following is from chapter 4]
I suppose my near
illiteracy might have continued unabated, despite my classes
with M'Smina, were it not for another fortunate run-in that
occurred at about this time in my life. Conn and I had planned a
trip to see Whistler again, and so sometime during that summer
of my fourteenth year we went. Whistler had been travelling back
and forth from the Leyland's. Frederick Leyland and his wife,
Frances, were both having portraits painted, and Whistler spent
a good deal of time at Speke Hall. He had become close to
Frances, especially (rather too close as it turned out later).
Whistler had also become engaged to Frances' sister, Lizzie
Dawson. This was a short-lived engagement that went nowhere.
Whistler was fond of the ladies, but preferred that they remain
someone else's wives, I think.
was also busy that summer on a grand portrait of the famous
writer, Thomas Carlyle. Whistler had finished the painting of
his mother in the winter, and it had hung at the Royal Academy
Exhibition in the spring. I had seen it there with Mrs. Curlew.
Carlyle's portrait was to be similar in colouring and mood~ grey
and somber, a study in low tones.
When Conn and I arrived the house was full. We were expected
(had been invited), but we were by no means the only ones. We
were not early, but everyone else, it appears, was running late.
Frances Leland had just finished a two-hour sitting. Mr. Leyland
was downstairs, talking to Anna Whistler. Carlyle had also just
arrived. He was to sit for an hour or so after Mrs. Leyland. We
were to be fit in anyhow. We had only come for advice (and so
that Conn could meet Whistler.) We had both brought a painting
for Whistler to look at. When we walked in Carlyle was saying to
Anna and the room in general,
about to take off my coat, but I suppose I shall leave it on.
That's what the whole thing is about anyway, isn't it? Shall it
be called "Carlyle" or "Carlyle's Coat" when
it is finished, the painting, do you think?"'
Frances Leyland, just entering the room from the stairs,
answered, 'Oh no, Mr. Carlyle. You mustn't say it. Why, it's
about the background, of course. Mine is to be called "A
Lovely Composition of Blues and Greys... oh, and Mrs. Leyland,
too."' She laughed archly~ a single ascending 'hah-ah'~ and
moved into the room, next to her husband.
'Frederick and I were just discussing music,' said Anna
Whistler. 'I believe you play, Mr. Carlyle?'
'I once did, in a way,' he answered. 'I haven't played in
'Frederick is quite the
virtuoso,' she continued.
don't say it, Anna,' interrupted Frederick Leyland. 'If you
build me up so, I shall be sure to fall. I only play a bit now
'You need a piano here,'
said Carlyle. 'Then we might judge for ourselves.'
'I know, but Jemmy won't have one,' Anna responded. 'He says
they have to be tuned too often, and he can't stand to have the
tuner here playing the same note over and over. I always kind of
liked it myself. Found it soothing. But you know his
'What nerves, Mother?' said
Whistler himself, now joining the downstairs party, still wiping
his hands on his sleeves. 'I've an oriental patience. I must, to
put up with such comments behind my back.' He patted Anna twice
on the shoulder and exploded in his little 'hah, hah!'
'Have you all met the boys?' he continued. 'Miles here is
another of my disgruntled sitters. He began sitting at birth, so
you see, and we've only just wrapped it up. Isn't that,
'No, Sir. It were only a few
'But it felt like a
lifetime, eh? Never do it again for less than a quid a hour, I'm
'I wish I could get a
quid an hour for sitting for James McNeil Whistler,' said
Carlyle, emphasizing the Scots McNeil. 'I'd retire today a
wealthy man.' Everybody laughed.
'And I'd be bankrupt,' Whistler added. 'Who is your friend,
'Thiseers Conn Wycliffe. He
be a painter also.'
'Of course he
is. Everyone is a painter. Hah, hah! Painting is a universal
right. We need a painters' suffrage, wouldn't you say,
'Oh, to be sure,' answered
she, in some confusion.
Laddy, let's be started, what,' Carlyle said to Whistler, to
save Frances from further embarrassment. 'If I don't get off my
legs soon, I'll fall off them.'
Whistler and Carlyle retired upstairs, and we were left to
listen to the conversation continue with Anna and the Leylands.
Conn and I were mostly ignored. They talked more about music,
and I discovered that Whistler had taken his musical titles from
a suggestion of Frederick. Mr. Leyland had been learning part of
Chopin's rather large oeuvre, and Chopin's use of the word
'nocturne' to describe a certain type of work for the piano
seemed appropriate also for the sort of night scenes that
Whistler had been painting of the Thames.
I asked Mr. Leyland if he knew Gerber Gamish?
'Pardon? Gerber Gamish, did you say? I don't believe I have had
the privilege. Is he a professional musician?'
'Oh, yes Sir! He plays lots o' that there Chopin man. Bery bery
fast he plays it. His piano be'ent the sweetest in the world.
But he makes a pretty penny when he takes the donkeys out.'
'He has donkeys in his piano!?' asked Frances Leyland, her
eyebrows leaving her face entirely.
'No, ma'am. He straps 'em to the front of 'er. That be why she's
called "the portable." Gerber says it's the only piano
in England you can take cross town and back, and not have to
hire a cab on top of it!'
'Fascinating,' answered Mr. Leyland.
'Astonishing,' said Mrs. Leyland.
'Incredible,' said Anna.
But as I
look back, I don't think any of them meant it. For they changed
the subject completely. Jealously is powerful powerful emotion
(that is what Gerber would have said.)
I don't remember what else happened that day. I think Conn and I
showed Whistler our paintings and got a few hurried comments.
Whistler was tired after a full day of painting, and I think he
only wanted to have a drink and a smoke. But the next time I saw
him he asked me about Conn. It was several weeks later, when I
ran into him outside the Adam and Eve (a pub on the river: I was
painting, not imbibing~ if you were wondering), and he
'That big lad you were with.
What's his name? Dan. Van.'
'Yes, yes. Conn. I need him
to sit in Carlyle's coat for me. You won't do. You're too small.
But Conn has the same shoulders as Carlyle. I've done with the
head and Carlyle says what do I need him for anymore? He's an
old man and he has better things to do than prop up his coat. I
don't know what, exactly. Prop up his hat, I suppose, or fill
out his gloves. Hah, hah! Anyway, tell Conn to send me a note
where I can reach him. And don't get too much black in that
water, Laddy! You don't want it to look like ink. There's colour
even in black, so you see! Au revoir and Cheerio! At the
I don't think I would
have understood this last little joke, except he said
'reservoir' like re-serv-wah. It became one of my own goodbyes,
and I don't think anyone in my group ever understood what I was
talking about. It didn't matter. They didn't understand what I
was talking about at other times, so it was all the same. Best
not to ask.
A little known fact of
history: Conn did sit for that coat. That portrait is a portrait
of Carlyle and my friend Conn Wycliffe. I saw it many years
later in Glasgow, and I said to them I was with, There's me
friend Conn Wycliffe. They hadn't a clue what I meant. And they
Alright, but I still haven't told you what
helped me to become the astonishing writer I now am (thank the
gaelic gods that the Aged Lady is away visiting at the moment~ I
would have surely gotten a cuff for that one). What happened is
this, as far as you know. I began to read at this time
everything I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, Mrs. Curlew's
library was rather limited. A few religious tracts left behind
by visitors, some ancient issues of Household Words, and a
tea-stained copy of Guy Mannering. I wasn't ready for Sir Walter
Scott, so I had to look elsewhere. I borrowed a book or two from
Mr. Simms, who had grown sons and therefore the books for boys
they had left behind. But there were too few of these and I was
soon left hungry again for print.
One day, when I had accompanied Conn to Whistler's to watch him
paint the great black coat of Carlyle, I happened to meet little
Miss Cicely Alexander. Miss Alexander was having her portrait
done, too, and her session ended just before Conn's began, as I
suppose. She was a few years younger than me, perhaps ten or
eleven~ but she had an eye for either Conn or me, we couldn't
tell which. She lingered after her sitting, looking at the
'nocturnes' on the wall. She said, half-turning and speaking to
no one in particular, 'My mother must be late again. She's
always late.' This even though I had just passed her mother
sitting downstairs waiting for her. Cicely wanted one of us to
talk to her. Conn was busy getting the coat to fold in all the
proper places (and he seemed uninterested in Cicely anyway~ she
was very young for Conn). So I asked her if her portrait was
'I don't think I should
say, here,' she said in a whisper, looking over at Whistler in
both fear and exasperation. 'Come out in the hall.' I followed
her into the hall and she took me by the sleeve. 'You wouldn't
believe what a monster he is!' she said, still in low tones but
with great intensity. Her eyes were very wide and she showed me
every one of her pretty little teeth, I believe. 'He always
forgets to let me sit down. I sometimes go hours without a
break! Monday he forgot lunch. If Mrs. Whistler didn't come up
to check on me, I think I would faint daily!'
I found all this quite distressing, and said so. But then I said
I didn't think he was really a monster. He just forgot.
'Oh, yes, he forgot. He would forget until I fainted right away
and never woke up again. Then he might remember!'
I don't know that I saw the complete logic of this, but I gave
her my arm with much commiseration and led her downstairs. She
pretended great surprise at finding her mother there. As they
prepared to walk out, Cicely said that I should come visit
'Mother, this young man is
going to be a famous artist (I had told her nothing of the kind~
she was making it up). He is the most... best student of Mr.
Whistler. Can he come visit? I will show him my sketchbook and
he will give me free lessons. He said so if you will give him
Mrs. Alexander said yes (just
to hurry Cicely out the door, I think) and she gave me a card
with their address on it. I peeked out the door after them as
they strolled down Chene Walk looking for a cab. Cicely looked
back and waved grandly and showed me all those teeth once
A few days later I called on Cicely. They lived in
a large beautiful house somewhere in Brompton. It may have been
Drayton Gardens, I don't remember. I only went there the once.
Her mother allowed us to go out with a nurse. We ignored the
poor nurse entirely. She might have been a piece of baggage for
all she was to us that day, I am sure. We kept running ahead to
look at things in shop windows, and the nurse would cry out,
'Miss Cicely, do stop running! You are supposed to stay with me,
do you hear?' But Cicely would ignore her like a lamppost, and
say to me,
'Miles, look at that
doll. Isn't it the most hideous thing you've ever seen? I have a
doll that is ten times prettier than that one. I would never put
my doll in a dress like that. I would kill myself first!'
We came to a bookshop and I stopped, finally interested in
something myself. There was a small octavo copy of Blake's Songs
of Innocence in the window. An illustrated copy! Oh, how I
wanted it. Cicely was impatient, though. She cared nothing for
books. When I told her how wonderful Blake was, she said 'Well
buy it then. We have things to do!' And when I admitted that I
had no money, she said, 'Take it then, you silly boy. I bet you
won't. I bet you daren't.'
But I did
dare. Before she could say another word I was in the door and
out again, with the Blake in my hand. But it was not to be so
easy. For everyone had seen me: the nurse, the shopkeeper, and
several others I hadn't even noticed. Before I could begin to
think of running away, they were all down upon me.
'The little thief!' cried the nurse. 'I told my Lady not to let
Miss Cicely walk out with the likes of 'im. And now e's gone and
pinched that book, right before me eyes!'
'Got you!' cried the shopkeeper. 'That there book's not for you,
you young rascal. But you're for the police. Help! Police!
Before he could cry out
again, though, a tall slightly stooped man clapped a hand over
his mouth and whispered in his ear. The shopkeeper turned
angrily... and then recognized the man. He immediately became
subservient and said not another word.
'No, the boy was only getting the book for me and he must have
thought I came out into the street,' said the man. 'Here I am,
Laddy. Now, you and the lassie follow me. We don't need this
book after all, Sir (to the shopkeeper). I have one just like it
at home, you know.' The man pulled me along and Cicely and the
nurse followed. When we got round the corner the man stopped and
put his hands on my shoulders.
'You're the puir lad from Whistler's, aren't you?' he said. And
then I recognized him. Of course, it was Thomas Carlyle, in a
different coat!~ a fawn-coloured greatcoat with a huge collar,
just like the black one Conn had been wearing for Whistler. I
nodded in answer to his question and he continued, 'If a lad has
to be stealing, let it be books, I say. If it had been pocket
handkerchiefs or watchfobs I'd a left ye to the man. But I've a
soft spot for books, I do~ which'll be a shock to none. And for
that book especially. Ye chose well, lad. Ye chose well. If they
made books properly available to the young and the puir, people
wouldn't have to pinch them, that's what I say! We need a
library where people can pinch books legally. That's what a
library is for, begod!' He signaled us to follow him and we
We went back down to
Chene Walk. Carlyle lived only down the street from Whistler.
The nurse was lagging behind us, obviously not used to all the
walking, and regretting that she would have to walk back as
well~ she had been given no purse for cabfare by her Lady.
Carlyle took us up to his study. It was crammed with books from
floor to ceiling. There was barely room to turn round in. Papers
were piled on his desk in endless stacks, and dust covered
everything except the seat of his chair. He rummaged through
some shelves in the dark corner behind the chair for several
moments before coming upon his copy of Blake. He had both the
Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. They were
illustrated as well, but they looked nothing like the book in
the shop window. Carlyle's copy was very old~ it looked as if it
may have passed through the hands of Blake himself. Still, it
was legible and the binding was good, and it was rather charming
to have a well-thumbed copy. One already soft and frayed and
smelling of tobacco. I have always liked old books.
Carlyle told me to take it with me. 'And come back when you need
something else. Just bring them back when you're finished. And
don't drop them in the water or read them in the rain, you know.
Oh, and that tall fellow that was with you at Whistler's. With
the black eyebrows? He can come, too. Does he read as
'Yes, Sir. He reads all the
time. And he writes good, too. His letters be'est something to
see, Sir, letters this tall (I held my hands three or four
inches apart) and black as coal. And it don't hardly take him no
time at all to write them!'
that would be something to see, I'm sure. You tell your friend
he is welcome here. The letters may be somewhat smaller, but I
have every book in four languages in this house, and there is no
use letting them go to waste. No one I know reads them. You
young lads may as well have a go at them. What about you, little
Lassie? (to Cicely). Are you a reader?'
'Oh, yes, Sir.'
'You come, too,
then. We'll make a party of it. Like one of Dodgson's boating
parties, and you can be Alice. You can see yourselves to the
door now. Goodbye!'
Chapter 8} ...I sat down on a small grouping of stones at the
edge of the little lake. The sky was overcast but it was rather
warm for the season. It felt like rain. The city lights
reflected off the clouds and lit the surface of the Serpentine
with a dim green glow. Tiny insects made circular patterns in
this reflection, and one had the impression of a dizzy
background of random movement, ill-lit and slightly confusing,
like the patterns one's mind makes in the dark, waiting for
sleep. At those times, I have fancied I could see the atomic
structure of the universe, just as Democritus said, as the
little dots and wands flickered in my head; and I felt the
chaotic energy of the All-and-All first hand, as if it might at
any moment disintegrate and re-integrate me at will into nothing
or everything. Now I felt the same. As if those inchoate
patterns disappearing on the surface of the water were the only
final reality one could hope for. My hands, which I could also
see~ what were they but another pattern, shorter or longer
lived? And the mind that was seeing them: was it a flickering
dancing pattern of dots and wands more permanent than my hands?
Or less permanent? Or no more or less?
As I thought
of Sif, and my inconceivable loss of her, I began to question my
own control over what I had thought to be my own emotions. I had
always known that my control over a situation was limited by the
actions of others. But my own actions began to take on the same
mysterious qualities. What had I done? And why? And what was to
be expected of a future where even my own life seemed to move of
its own volition, arriving at places willy-nilly. What of a
position like the one I found myself in, where one could only
say, 'This is not where I thought I would be now'?
Just as my
self-composure was unravelling~ my thoughts going to pieces in
the way thoughts will at such times, with the visual world
swirling and the internal world caught madly in that buzzing
whirlpool of its own making~ suddenly a larger ripple in the
whole fabric made me re-align: whether with fear or only with
the effect of a larger, more substantial agent that required my
attention, I do not know. But the surface of the Serpentine
suddenly changed! The tiny insects were superceded by a greater
force. Symmetrical ripples, originating some yards away, made me
aware of the movement of a more massive body nearby. At first I
thought it was just a swan frightened by some creature of the
night, or maybe a large fish rising to the surface for its own
reasons. But some electricity in the air, some fire in the
atmosphere that surrounded the entire occurrence suggested to me
that it was something else. I felt a thrill, a serrated push
from within, a distant moan of the spirit that set me on edge.
Not frightened, my awareness yet increased in a way that I can't
explain. I watched the lake expectantly, as in a dream where one
knows what is there but cannot utter what it is.
And then the
concentric circles began to outline a head, a head rising
slowly, awash in long flowing hair and dark green leaves. Then
the shoulders broke the surface, and there were clothes, or the
remains of clothes~ long rags clinging still to the rising body.
What had once been a dress of white, or perhaps pale blue. But
now the figure was clear of the surface, all except the feet
which remained in the water. She was naked, beyond the now
useless dress which fell away in dripping tatters and floated
about her knees. A beautiful woman she was, or had been, that
was clear. Tall, thin, with long arms and neck. But it was her
face that coloured all. Her eyes were wild with some internal
madness, her lips half-parted in some eternal cry. Her eyebrows
arched to heaven, she looked first up at the clouds and then
down at the water. She seemed completely unaware of my presence,
and I felt that I could not have gotten her attention
regardless. This was a role not to be interrupted.
looked again at the sky and held out her arms, as if in
preparation for something, or as if making some wordless plea to
the nameless gods, I noticed, just above the black delta of her
wet netherhair, the slight swell of her belly. And I knew. I
knew why she was here. I knew what she had done.
suddenly she began to chant a long meandering verse, at first
seemingly to herself. But as the verses changed, they began to
be directed at a person, a person who may or may not have been
present for her. The verses flowed on, beautiful iambs all
end-rhymed, but chanted so naturally, with so much meaning, one
barely noticed the scheme. One was only aware that it all danced
with a sad cadence too regular to be prose. The words had a
terrible terrible power to them, and her voice, cutting with a
clear low reediness, put in thrall the very stars and moon, and
all stopped to hear her self-elegy. The curve of her words even
had a strange sound, and an odd turn she gave to 'Ghosts' and
'poesy' left me eerily nostalgic, as when reading an old book or
seeing a picture of a man long dead.
This is what
she said that night~ if my memory, and later dreams of that
scene may be trusted.
Self-Elegy of Harriet Westbrook Shelley]
I look down into the
my own reflected face
flanked by clouds
inhabiting yet the heavens
cold and cruel
unloose the binding
dresses destined shrouds
I speak as listening to
whispering my life unto
promises broken promises
overheard by ghosts ghosts
will not rescind
and aweful Queen of Ghosts
these promises will tend
Water swirling through my
washing billowing blouse
and filling dresses
with muddy Serpentine
swelled with rains
to rinse with ash-blonde
foam my flowing tresses
Water chilling skin with
taking our child and me
down slowly dreamily
almost weightless as the
its silty sound swallowing
me and our baby
will swallow you too My
Love as Your Soul at last confesses
We haunt these waters
gliding scaleless finless
naked with the naked
They like us adrift
rising up from sunless
at dancing rays filtering
of warm red light above,
gliding through air and
Fate's breath unrelenting
burdened only by wind and
and voices mouthed all
round, soundless unseen preachers
Listen to the water
flowing over my grave
Listen to the current
running down to sea
washing among the rounded
with muddy sediment. This
soil will, free
from stream bed and bank,
resalt the mineral sea
with the salt and dust of
me and our baby's bones
It will flavor the ocean
floor, far Normandy
and the coast of farther
Leghorn as it moans
with the Tyrrhene tidal
winds squalling in blackest tones
I did not even know
doubting but 'gratitude
I saw you write, 'demand I
shall love her forever'
But what sad dreamer
dreaming since time began
kept such vow being but
flesh and man
unless his vow and dream
artist will not plan
and god, foreseeing
future, matches bride
with dream unchanging,
dreamers dreaming side by side
Mediterranean waves washed
wept for by all as genius lost
while I must grovel in
London mud, no more
bemoaned than fishes or
frogs or flotsam wave-tossed
For Poesy I am but the
glassy-eyed from Serpent's flank
Of me Faith's Child the
poets never guessed
You will Muse but never
For you my maidenhead
naively led twice sank
You say you cannot love
what you do not
but I am lost My God
unloved and then from
pitying hands unsought
a child that unfathered
must never be carried
My past my present haunts
cannot be buried
Fled you think a love is
right or not
if not then virtue is to
But I am no mistake to be
as fish of ghostly form I
cannot be uncaught
That Deep that sparkles
with riddles and grinning monsters
spread out around you
though morning had dawned clear cloudless
and blue, sky reflecting
the silvery surface.
Waveless nearly windless
the mast hardly cocked the
stockstill lazy compass
Beneath this idyll Naiades
eyed their prey
above Erinyes preened and
The Sea grave of all
waters watched lidless fey
the sea floor swelled to
receive the salt of one more your clay
Fate tempted She rose from
her deep abode
flanked by Furies followed
out from their caves of
darkness Sea Ghosts flowed
in circling waves of
dancing writhing cotillions
and Percy you saw before
you joined the billions
my billowing blouse
rippling from every crest
my eyes in the faces of
and seaweed that sewed
each frond a lover's tress
enwrapping you Love like
curling sea snakes vengeance-blest
bacchantes, screamed alone
or beating wing for breast
tearing through the veils
of Delphic mists as
swirling maidens swore atone
Below there leapt blue
dolphins, breaching whales
who slapping flukes on
briny greenswell wail
a long-drawn song an ocean
awash with centuries-old
of languishment and death
and bones half-hid
by silt and wavy seaweed
and eddies Neptune-bid
Pipers primly skipped from
Scuttling crabs retreated
every beast that day did
from Supernature's cast in
as Venus made a count of
all the days
crushing under dainty
or whitest barest foot him
the uttermost farthing and
then must kneel and kiss her
lips with redeemed lips
that then must ever miss her
Someday when I awake when
when earth and water mix
and look my drown
poet in the eyes
as Cronus meets the eyes
of mother Rhea
and Uranus the gaze of
remember once you loved me
knew not why
marred by Adam's sin non
son of father's d
back to Sky
who rains on Gaea as a
cloud gone floating by
That dark night unrestful
I will wake
beneath the blowing
cattails lulling you
to sleep, that night I
will at last forsake
the quiet earth and
At midnight belly rounding
with the moon
I will arise Astarte-like
from the rushes
I will arise respirited
like her whose presence
all the Spirit hushes
display the perished bloom
and hectic flushes
the falsely beating heart
and warming womb
the graying lips of red
and mother's blushes
I will awake untimely
bones best left enearthed
and flesh and feeling numb
Then when Chaos stirs the
remixing limbs eyes Souls
and making every death a
infusing salty water into
confused by Change and
Time and Judgment starts
my water and your storm
will be the same
I, Immortal Bird, will
sing the Arts
and you will mouthe my
pain not in name
but kissed from storm to
storm no weather-lover's blame
You who hate the seed for
will also hate the cloud
that whitens high
the storm that overwaters
bass-boom thunder and the
of washed-out life
weakening to die
beneath unsheltered sky.
You will curse
the rain that fills the
drowning stream and I
Skylark blithe but long
deflowered and worse
unignorant of pain to
my strains to pure
but Sacred Soilure, the
Dirt of Ages
will bless my songbird
bones~I will cloudless see
what you must miss
unmuddied: the ghost-watched wages
of sin to Art and Love are
not on gold-gilt pages
in Heaven but are writ in
Runes upon the Earth
bloody kana venting
at Nazarene. Magdalene
knew: not worth
pap a Pure Conception or a
I will learn to rain and
you to rust
The mud will take us both
and both the sky
Sea-silt and Cloud-froth
will bed our breath and dust
and we will learn to live
and so to die
For now I wait the rain
drips past my eye
you dig deep beneath the
seas of Rome
The seas will rise and
fall in circles by the bye
and when the sea floor
meets the starry dome
soaked and salty you will
take our baby home
Just as she
finished it began to rain. She stood for a moment or two longer,
as if waiting for some empyreal reaction, or an answer from the
unknown listener. But I heard nothing and she heard nothing and
she sank back down into the lake, ripples rolling out again as
before in ever-widening circles.
in a daze for perhaps ten minutes before I began to be seriously
chilled by the rain and the cool night breeze. Then I huddled
myself back home and sat drying in front of the fire thinking of
what had happened. I stared at the flames for hours in the
belief, with or without reason, that the apparition had not been
random. That whether or not she~ that is the ghost of
Harriet~ meant me to hear, somehow I was meant to hear it. This
belief does not tally well with my thoughts just preceding her
recitation on the chaos of the dots and fluttering wands and
meaningless motes in the eye of the universe. But I only report
what I felt. And my feelings that night were far from
At the time
I did not know who she was or what it all was about. I only saw
what it meant for me. But I had understood what she said of
Percy Shelley, and I meant to find out who she might be. What
her relationship to Shelley had been, and why she was in the
Serpentine. It took many weeks of research to discover that she
was Harriet, and that Harriet had been Percy's first wife,
before Mary Godwin. She had been a sixteen-year-old daugther of
a tavern keeper when she met Shelley. Percy was only nineteen
himself. The marriage soon soured, due, if we are to believe
Percy, on grounds of intellectual inequality. Harriet was
beautiful, but apparently unable to maintain Shelley's
astonishing level of discourse. So her physical charms were
quickly superceded by another. One nearly as charming and much
better read: Mary, daughter of two writers, William Godwin and
discovered~what I already knew~ that Harriet had been pregnant
when she drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816. Her body was
not discovered for two weeks, and a ghastly discovery it must
have been. Beyond all this, I found (and I believe I am the
first to say it) that Shelley may have been the father of this
child. Shelley and Mary had fled to Italy two years previously,
to be rid of public opinion at their cohabitation. But in late
1815 they returned to England. As it turns out, Mary was also
pregnant. Nine or ten months prior to Harriet's suicide, Shelley
had been travelling back and forth from London to the
countryside where he and Mary were now living. Imagine the
situation. Mary is irritable in the cottage, due to her
confinement, and Shelley is spending much time away from her.
This much is known, for there is a large body of correspondence
extant between Shelley and Mary. Because Shelley was often away,
and because he needed to at least voice constant concern
over the health of Mary, many letters crossed during these
months. Mary, in fact, complains often of Shelley's absence.
Then imagine this. While in London, Shelley runs across Harriet.
Still full of guilt from his abandonment of her, and also
sexually keyed up due to the circumstances~ Mary's pregnancy and
his absence~ he falls to the attractions of a still young and
beautiful Harriet. For old times sake, or what you will, they
re-unite temporarily. Afterwards, Shelley repents of his
weakness and flees again. But it is too late. This time, an
older and more fertile Harriet has conceived. Months later,
knowing she cannot expect Shelley to return, and fully
recognizing that now no other man will ever have her, and
fearing that society will ostracize her even though she is
having the child of her own husband (since she has no way to
prove it), she decides to kill herself. She goes to Hyde Park at
night and throws herself off the bridge.
There is no
way to know whether it happened this way or not. It is true that
Harriet would have been distaught enough to consider suicide no
matter who she was pregnant by. But it is doubtful that in her
situation she would have slept with a man besides Shelley
without some sort of promise or plan. Then she should have had
at least him to turn to in an emergency. She and this lover
might have fled to America or the Continent or any number of
things. That she would have slept with someone of absolutely no
means simply from loneliness is not of course out of the
question. But it is much much easier to believe that she could
justify sleeping with a man who was, after all, her husband~
despite the complications of the situation. And that she may
have thought she could woo him back by sleeping with him.
Nothing would be more natural, don't you see. The poor girl may
have even been happy when she first discovered the pregnancy,
thinking surely this would weigh quite heavily with the
conscience of Shelley. She may have found, however, that it did
not. Or she may have come to that conclusion on her own, after
more consideration, and remembering how little real conscience
Shelley had ever displayed.
I became convinced of it myself. What is more, I learned that
Shelley also died by drowning! Only six years later, while
sailing in the Mediterranean, he and a friend were swept
overboard in a storm off the coast of Leghorn.
This was the subject I had
been looking for. Almost immediately I began working. I had
always been told that there is nothing new under the sun. That
all the great subjects had been exhausted by 1870. That is why,
I was told, the Impressionists had to begin obsessing with
color, and the Post-Impressionists with line, and the Moderns
with more and more arcane and theoretical concerns. There was
nothing left to paint; so one had to now just look at the
paint, not the painting. Ones subject was no longer external to
the canvas; ones subject was the canvas. Art then began
to evaporate until, with Duchamp, it disappeared altogether. But
I am getting ahead of myself. At that time, I simply felt I had
found an important subject (or been granted it by the Muse).
Here was a true story, set in the recent past, yet untapped by
any poet or painter or musician~what Wagner might have done with
it! Coincidence, the Sea, death, pregnancy, return, Fate,
penance and retribution. The great contest of male and female,
decided by the womb and the sea.