Œuvres posthumes (Verlaine)/Notes respecting Alexandre dumas the younger
NOTES RESPECTING ALEXANDRE DUMAS THE YOUNGER
Between this man and ourselves, the absolute and exclusive poets, whether Parnassians, Décadents, or Romans, to whom I have the honour to belong, and who form the sole object and proof of my life, the bonds of unison are so vague that they are scarcely visible.
Then we thought we had cornered him, and we said softly : « Why dont’t you do it if it’s so easy ? »
« Why don’t I ? » said the philosopher. « Why don’t I ? Why — I think it must be because I am a man of education, and it’s beneath me. »
We could not refrain from smiling, albeit lie was not so unmitigated a Wessex mann as he had seemed at first, and in Fleet Street we know the vernacular of the pressman does not entirely coincide with his editorial style.
« I can do it », said the philosopher, snappishly ; « do it on my head. What do you think an old — » (he checked himself, and went on hastily) — « an old pressman like me and cant write the New Humour ? Why, so I have — many a time ». Here he glanced down his coat, which lacked ail its buttons save one, and concluded :
« I ain’t thriven over it, — no, — and why ? Because this bloomin’ world simply plays pitch and toss with us — and I’ve corne down tails — and you can’t help it, and neither can I. » (He was a philosopher after ail.) « But as to writing (if that’s what you call it) the New Humour, — look here, give me half-a-quid » (see Gloss. — Ed.) « and a couple of hours, and I’ll hand you a bit of the real New Humour, all about landladies, and lodgers, and such-like — quite the regular thing. And you can publish it if you give me the crédit for it. I sign myself The Yak — I’m well-known about here under that style » (which was certainly mystic although a little suggestive).
We were so tickled by this that we duly concluded a contract with him, gave him our card, and two hours and twenty minutes afterwards The Yak handed in a package to Sam our concierge, and received his half-a quid. Furthermore, being a sociable mann, he invited Sam out for refreshment in célébration thereof, and confided to the latter that lie and his friends were projecting a journal to be styled « Shreds » which he expected would astonish the world, and as it was to be controlled by a Limited Company having a Stock Exchange quotation, he advised Sam to take up a few shares. In the parcel he had enclosed his prospectus, which stated his charges lor the foot run, or offering specially cheap ternis for matter by the year.
This is what The Yak had written. It is evident he knows something about fiction, and if he isn’t a New Humorist, what is he ?
Shreds, Limited, will assuredly be quoted at a premium.
We have heard, as we have said elsewhere, many excellent people tell most barefaced lies, but we never heard anybody tell so un-principled a lie as to say that an Income Tax Collector lias a soul. Of course he hasn’t. He doesn’t want one. What use would it be to him ? It would only interfere with the pursuit which he describes as his profession, and might get him into trouble. He wouldn’t be able to go far enough to satisfy his masters. If anyone said the Income Tax Gollector had claws, we should say at once, « Yves, he has ; he can’t send us a letter without a nasty claws or two in it. » But as to soul he has no soul any more than he has a conscience. In these respects the species which cornes nearest to him is the publisher.
When we speak of publishers we are always carried away by the warmth of our feelings, and launch into anti-panegyrics at great length — therefore we had better stop short here and say all this is a digression.
We had intended when we took up our pen to talk about letter-writing, and since so far we have wandered from the point we will proceed to make amends by a strict attention to brevity ; and hope by carefully combining business principles with literary style, to give every satisfaction.
Letter-writing. — Our landlady, Mrs. Kilwhipple, has, we consider, a great gift for letter-writing. She is fluent, candid, artless, and absorbing. She is above grammar, and she wanders through the mazes of prose.
I do not know whether appearances now more than at other times are not deceptive. For my own part, I must own that — poetical and mournful el poeta doliente as I have lately been called in a too flattering dedication of the well-known General Marsilla of the Argentine Republic — since I know my own mind, I am more inclined to like rather than to esteem and admire the man, so upright, forcible and brilliant, so sceptical and so good-natured, who has struck me ever since my birth as a literary genius.
Truly by instinct I liked the man before being able to appreciate the writer, and I liked the writer before being able to thoroughly appreciate him, which I have only comparatively lately, too lately, succeeded in doing. One cannot be more accurate or perhaps more precise in expressing a frankness which is not difficult to me and still less troublesome since it contributes in an infinitesimal degree to the just glory, the glory which naturally belongs and will always be associated with one whose sole efforts were to be amiable, and who fînally found sympathy and approbation except amongst the weak-minded, who must not be counted, although they arc unfortunately in such large numbers.
I cannot boast of what might be called an acquaintance with Alexandre Dumas the younger, but I have often seen him under the circumstances which I will here relate. Chance has caused me always to take a great interest in him and to hear frequently about him I might almost say ever since my childhood.
Every Sunday morning after hearing mass in the wooden church of the Trinity in the Rue Clichy, which has been pulled down and rebuilt, I used to start oiï furnished with an exeat in due form from the principal of the school, who conducted me to the Lycée Bonaparte, and quickly emerged from the Rue Chaptol, where the scholastic, establishment, which has now been replaced by private houses, was situated, in order to find my way to Batignolles, some distance off, where my family resided, and running more than walking, I used to reach the Rue de Boulogne, now, I believe, the Rue Ballu. In that same street, the Rue de Boulogne, near the top as you go from the Rue Blanche on the right, and pass a row of small private hotels, more or less artistic, with frontages in the Renaissance style, and « terra-cottaed » according to the latest bad taste, with windows of doubtful mediajval style, stood an almost imperceptible house, with one window on the ground floor, one on the first floor, and a garret at the top. A story recently resuscitated says that Old Dumas (the only one, as Lecomte de Lisle said thoughtlessly when he was informed that he was about to be received into the Acadamy by Alexandre Dumas the younger) was once dining with his son on a very hot suramer day in the small garden, when even the flowers were wretchedly drooping, and he opened the window of the house in order to get some fresh air. As I have never been in the house I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the story, but I can certify as to the small size of the residence : it was nicely appointed and prettily furnished, as I knew through catching a passing glimpse when slackening pace at that part of the trottoir of the Rue de Boulogne now called Rue Ballu. I can still remember seeing the ever lively and vivacious occupier walking up and down the room which looked on to the street and occasionally going out for a walk, or returning to lunch. He was then a man of about thirty years of age, tall, his face had rather a creole appearance, but it gradually became more Europeanised until at last he became the fine old Parisian of late days : well formed, rather thin, and a fast walker. In a word, his appearance was that of a vigorous man, and one who would be considered as a serious nature. At the time about which we are speaking he was already the famous author of the Dame aux Camélias, this Manon Lescaut, who it seems really existed, and who was certainly idealised by this illustrious and severe dramatic author of the demi-monde. It was with curiosity that I then contemplated with my fourteen-yearold eyes the son of old Alexandre Dumas, at the same time, however, not too admiringly. He was no poet, and that fact of his not being a poet — that is to say of not writing verses — was to be deplored from my point of view, for mind you, the man whatever he may be who writes verses, the man who goes to the absurd trouble of versifying is in a sense somewhat of a poet.
The life which made Dumas the younger considerably and deservinlgy rich has made of me poet who now writes these lines. His work, so severe and even decidedly austere, with occasional flashes of terrible logic, raises him to the highest rank of writers of no extraordinary style, but it also possesses higher flights which in his case are perhaps more suitable.
He was passionate during the calm course of his work, which he aimed at making first good and afterwards better if possible — passionate for the good and for the better — I know the proverb about the Good and his foe the Better : spare me from speaking of it. But his Lettres sur les choses du jour are really extreme, and I was astonished when I read the signature. The brochure Tue la, however, brought me back to my original ideas concerning the febrility of this man, that the apparent serenity of the numerous gifts spread through them in the form of genius and subtlety of mind, was to me up till then sacred, impassable, and it, the brochure, brought back to my memory the cruel pamphlet written with a good motive, so brutal in its frankness, full of insupportable hypocrisy, respecting the very sensitive and good man necessarily irritable, somestimes imprudent when it was a matter of esteem or love.
With the younger Dumas I have only had dealings of courtesy, of which the last was his sending me a postcard in acknowledgment of my latest book Les Confessions de Paul Verlaine which contained the following words, so precious perhaps to my justifiable vanity — Merci bien affectueusement. (Thank you very kindly). Alexandre Dumas, 37, Rue Descarbes, Paris.