The Tragic Muse, by Henry James


Nick Dormer found his friend Nash that evening at the place of their tryst — smoking a cigar, in the warm bright night, on the terrace of the café forming one of the angles of the Place de l’Opéra. He sat down with him, but at the end of five minutes uttered a protest against the crush and confusion, the publicity and vulgarity of the place, the shuffling procession of the crowd, the jostle of fellow-customers, the perpetual brush of waiters. “Come away; I want to talk to you and I can’t talk here. I don’t care where we go. It will be pleasant to walk; well stroll away to the quartiers sérieux. Each time I come to Paris I at the end of three days take the Boulevard, with its conventional grimace, into greater aversion. I hate even to cross it — I go half a mile round to avoid it.”

The young men took their course together down the Rue de la Paix to the Rue de Rivoli, which they crossed, passing beside the gilded rails of the Tuileries. The beauty of the night — the only defect of which was that the immense illumination of Paris kept it from being quite night enough, made it a sort of bedizened, rejuvenated day — gave a charm to the quieter streets, drew our friends away to the right, to the river and the bridges, the older, duskier city. The pale ghost of the palace that had perished by fire hung over them a while, and, by the passage now open at all times across the garden of the Tuileries, they came out upon the Seine. They kept on and on, moving slowly, smoking, talking, pausing, stopping to look, to emphasise, to compare. They fell into discussion, into confidence, into inquiry, sympathetic or satiric, and into explanations which needed in turn to be explained. The balmy night, the time for talk, the amusement of Paris, the memory of younger passages, gave a lift to the occasion. Nick had already forgotten his little brush with Julia on his leaving Peter’s tea-party at her side, and that he had been almost disconcerted by the asperity with which she denounced the odious man he had taken it into his head to force upon her. Impertinent and fatuous she had called him; and when Nick began to plead that he was really neither of these things, though he could imagine his manner might sometimes suggest them, she had declared that she didn’t wish to argue about him or ever to hear of him again. Nick hadn’t counted on her liking Gabriel Nash, but had thought her not liking him wouldn’t perceptibly matter. He had given himself the diversion, not cruel surely to any one concerned, of seeing what she would make of a type she had never before met. She had made even less than he expected, and her intimation that he had played her a trick had been irritating enough to prevent his reflecting that the offence might have been in some degree with Nash. But he had recovered from his resentment sufficiently to ask this personage, with every possible circumstance of implied consideration for the lady, what had been the impression made by his charming cousin.

“Upon my word, my dear fellow, I don’t regard that as a fair question,” Gabriel said. “Besides, if you think Mrs. Dallow charming what on earth need it matter to you what I think? The superiority of one man’s opinion over another’s is never so great as when the opinion’s about a woman.”

“It was to help me to find out what I think of yourself,” Nick returned.

“Oh, that you’ll never do. I shall bewilder you to the end. The lady with whom you were so good as to make me acquainted is a beautiful specimen of the English garden-flower, the product of high cultivation and much tending; a tall, delicate stem with the head set upon it in a manner which, as a thing seen and remembered, should doubtless count for us as a gift of the gods. She’s the perfect type of the object raised or bred, and everything about her hangs together and conduces to the effect, from the angle of her elbow to the way she drops that vague, conventional, dry little ‘Oh!’ which dispenses with all further performance. That degree of completeness is always satisfying. But I didn’t satisfy her, and she didn’t understand me. I don’t think they usually understand.”

“She’s no worse than I then.”

“Ah she didn’t try.”

“No, she doesn’t try. But she probably thought you a monster of conceit, and she would think so still more if she were to hear you talk about her trying.”

“Very likely — very likely,” said Gabriel Nash. “I’ve an idea a good many people think that. It strikes me as comic. I suppose it’s a result of my little system.”

“What little system?”

“Oh nothing more wonderful than the idea of being just the same to every one. People have so bemuddled themselves that the last thing they can conceive is that one should be simple.”

“Lord, do you call yourself simple?” Nick ejaculated.

“Absolutely; in the sense of having no interest of my own to push, no nostrum to advertise, no power to conciliate, no axe to grind. I’m not a savage — ah far from it! — but I really think I’m perfectly independent.”

“Well, that’s always provoking!” Nick knowingly returned.

“So it would appear, to the great majority of one’s fellow-mortals; and I well remember the pang with which I originally made that discovery. It darkened my spirit at a time when I had no thought of evil. What we like, when we’re unregenerate, is that a new-comer should give us a password, come over to our side, join our little camp or religion, get into our little boat, in short, whatever it is, and help us to row it. It’s natural enough; we’re mostly in different tubs and cockles, paddling for life. Our opinions, our convictions and doctrines and standards, are simply the particular thing that will make the boat go — our boat, naturally, for they may very often be just the thing that will sink another. If you won’t get in people generally hate you.”

“Your metaphor’s very lame,” said Nick. “It’s the overcrowded boat that goes to the bottom.”

“Oh I’ll give it another leg or two! Boats can be big, in the infinite of space, and a doctrine’s a raft that floats the better the more passengers it carries. A passenger jumps over from time to time, not so much from fear of sinking as from a want of interest in the course or the company. He swims, he plunges, he dives, he dips down and visits the fishes and the mermaids and the submarine caves; he goes from craft to craft and splashes about, on his own account, in the blue, cool water. The regenerate, as I call them, are the passengers who jump over in search of better fun. I jumped over long ago.”

“And now of course you’re at the head of the regenerate; for, in your turn”— Nick found the figure delightful —“you all form a select school of porpoises.”

“Not a bit, and I know nothing about heads — in the sense you mean. I’ve grown a tail if you will; I’m the merman wandering free. It’s the jolliest of trades!”

Before they had gone many steps further Nick Dormer stopped short with a question. “I say, my dear fellow, do you mind mentioning to me whether you’re the greatest humbug and charlatan on earth, or a genuine intelligence, one that has sifted things for itself?”

“I do lead your poor British wit a dance — I’m so sorry,” Nash replied benignly. “But I’m very sincere. And I have tried to straighten out things a bit for myself.”

“Then why do you give people such a handle?”

“Such a handle?”

“For thinking you’re an — for thinking you’re a mere farceur.”

“I daresay it’s my manner: they’re so unused to any sort of candour.”

“Well then why don’t you try another?” Nick asked.

“One has the manner that one can, and mine moreover’s a part of my little system.”

“Ah if you make so much of your little system you’re no better than any one else,” Nick returned as they went on.

“I don’t pretend to be better, for we’re all miserable sinners; I only pretend to be bad in a pleasanter, brighter way — by what I can see. It’s the simplest thing in the world; just take for granted our right to be happy and brave. What’s essentially kinder and more helpful than that, what’s more beneficent? But the tradition of dreariness, of stodginess, of dull, dense, literal prose, has so sealed people’s eyes that they’ve ended by thinking the most natural of all things the most perverse. Why so keep up the dreariness, in our poor little day? No one can tell me why, and almost every one calls me names for simply asking the question. But I go on, for I believe one can do a little good by it. I want so much to do a little good,” Gabriel Nash continued, taking his companion’s arm. “My persistence is systematic: don’t you see what I mean? I won’t be dreary — no, no, no; and I won’t recognise the necessity, or even, if there be any way out of it, the accident, of dreariness in the life that surrounds me. That’s enough to make people stare: they’re so damned stupid!”

“They think you so damned impudent,” Nick freely explained.

At this Nash stopped him short with a small cry, and, turning his eyes, Nick saw under the lamps of the quay that he had brought a flush of pain into his friend’s face. “I don’t strike you that way?”

“Oh ‘me!’ Wasn’t it just admitted that I don’t in the least make you out?”

“That’s the last thing!” Nash declared, as if he were thinking the idea over, with an air of genuine distress. “But with a little patience we’ll clear it up together — if you care enough about it,” he added more cheerfully. Letting his companion proceed again he continued: “Heaven help us all, what do people mean by impudence? There are many, I think, who don’t understand its nature or its limits; and upon my word I’ve literally seen mere quickness of intelligence or of perception, the jump of a step or two, a little whirr of the wings of talk, mistaken for it. Yes, I’ve encountered men and women who thought you impudent if you weren’t simply so stupid as they. The only impudence is unprovoked, or even mere dull, aggression, and I indignantly protest that I’m never guilty of that clumsiness. Ah for what do they take one, with their beastly presumption? Even to defend myself sometimes I’ve to make believe to myself that I care. I always feel as if I didn’t successfully make others think so. Perhaps they see impudence in that. But I daresay the offence is in the things that I take, as I say, for granted; for if one tries to be pleased one passes perhaps inevitably for being pleased above all with one’s self. That’s really not my case — I find my capacity for pleasure deplorably below the mark I’ve set. This is why, as I’ve told you, I cultivate it, I try to bring it up. And I’m actuated by positive benevolence; I’ve that impudent pretension. That’s what I mean by being the same to every one, by having only one manner. If one’s conscious and ingenious to that end what’s the harm — when one’s motives are so pure? By never, never making the concession, one may end by becoming a perceptible force for good.”

“What concession are you talking about, in God’s name?” Nick demanded.

“Why, that we’re here all for dreariness. It’s impossible to grant it sometimes if you wish to deny it ever.”

“And what do you mean then by dreariness? That’s modern slang and terribly vague. Many good things are dreary — virtue and decency and charity, and perseverance and courage and honour.”

“Say at once that life’s dreary, my dear fellow!” Gabriel Nash exclaimed.

“That’s on the whole my besetting impression.”

Cest là que je vous attends! I’m precisely engaged in trying what can be done in taking it the other way. It’s my little personal experiment. Life consists of the personal experiments of each of us, and the point of an experiment is that it shall succeed. What we contribute is our treatment of the material, our rendering of the text, our style. A sense of the qualities of a style is so rare that many persons should doubtless be forgiven for not being able to read, or at all events to enjoy, us; but is that a reason for giving it up — for not being, in this other sphere, if one possibly can, an Addison, a Ruskin, a Renan? Ah we must write our best; it’s the great thing we can do in the world, on the right side. One has one’s form, que diable, and a mighty good thing that one has. I’m not afraid of putting all life into mine, and without unduly squeezing it. I’m not afraid of putting in honour and courage and charity — without spoiling them: on the contrary I shall only do them good. People may not read you at sight, may not like you, but there’s a chance they’ll come round; and the only way to court the chance is to keep it up — always to keep it up. That’s what I do, my dear man — if you don’t think I’ve perseverance. If some one’s touched here and there, if you give a little impression of truth and charm, that’s your reward; besides of course the pleasure for yourself.”

“Don’t you think your style’s a trifle affected?” Nick asked for further amusement.

“That’s always the charge against a personal manner: if you’ve any at all people think you’ve too much. Perhaps, perhaps — who can say? The lurking unexpressed is infinite, and affectation must have begun, long ago, with the first act of reflective expression — the substitution of the few placed articulate words for the cry or the thump or the hug. Of course one isn’t perfect; but that’s the delightful thing about art, that there’s always more to learn and more to do; it grows bigger the more one uses it and meets more questions the more they come up. No doubt I’m rough still, but I’m in the right direction: I make it my business to testify for the fine.”

“Ah the fine — there it stands, over there!” said Nick Dormer. “I’m not so sure about yours — I don’t know what I’ve got hold of. But Notre Dame is truth; Notre Dame is charm; on Notre Dame the distracted mind can rest. Come over with me and look at her!”

They had come abreast of the low island from which the great cathedral, disengaged today from her old contacts and adhesions, rises high and fair, with her front of beauty and her majestic mass, darkened at that hour, or at least simplified, under the stars, but only more serene and sublime for her happy union far aloft with the cool distance and the night. Our young men, fantasticating as freely as I leave the reader to estimate, crossed the wide, short bridge which made them face toward the monuments of old Paris — the Palais de Justice, the Conciergerie, the holy chapel of Saint Louis. They came out before the church, which looks down on a square where the past, once so thick in the very heart of Paris, has been made rather a blank, pervaded however by the everlasting freshness of the vast cathedral-face. It greeted Nick Dormer and Gabriel Nash with a kindness the long centuries had done nothing to dim. The lamplight of the old city washed its foundations, but the towers and buttresses, the arches, the galleries, the statues, the vast rose-window, the large full composition, seemed to grow clearer while they climbed higher, as if they had a conscious benevolent answer for the upward gaze of men.

“How it straightens things out and blows away one’s vapours — anything that’s done!” said Nick; while his companion exclaimed blandly and affectionately:

“The dear old thing!”

“The great point’s to do something, instead of muddling and questioning; and, by Jove, it makes me want to!”

“Want to build a cathedral?” Nash inquired.

“Yes, just that.”

“It’s you who puzzle me then, my dear fellow. You can’t build them out of words.”

“What is it the great poets do?” asked Nick.

Their words are ideas — their words are images, enchanting collocations and unforgettable signs. But the verbiage of parliamentary speeches —!”

“Well,” said Nick with a candid, reflective sigh, “you can rear a great structure of many things — not only of stones and timbers and painted glass.” They walked round this example of one, pausing, criticising, admiring, and discussing; mingling the grave with the gay and paradox with contemplation. Behind and at the sides the huge, dusky vessel of the church seemed to dip into the Seine or rise out of it, floating expansively — a ship of stone with its flying buttresses thrown forth like an array of mighty oars. Nick Dormer lingered near it in joy, in soothing content, as if it had been the temple of a faith so dear to him that there was peace and security in its precinct. And there was comfort too and consolation of the same sort in the company at this moment of Nash’s equal appreciation, of his response, by his own signs, to the great effect. He took it all in so and then so gave it all out that Nick was reminded of the radiance his boyish admiration had found in him of old, the easy grasp of everything of that kind. “Everything of that kind” was to Nick’s sense the description of a wide and bright domain.

They crossed to the farther side of the river, where the influence of the Gothic monument threw a distinction even over the Parisian smartnesses — the municipal rule and measure, the importunate symmetries, the “handsomeness” of everything, the extravagance of gaslight, the perpetual click on the neat bridges. In front of a quiet little café on the left bank Gabriel Nash said, “Let’s sit down”— he was always ready to sit down. It was a friendly establishment and an unfashionable quarter, far away from the caravan-series; there were the usual little tables and chairs on the quay, the muslin curtains behind the glazed front, the general sense of sawdust and of drippings of watery beer. The place was subdued to stillness, but not extinguished, by the lateness of the hour; no vehicles passed, only now and then a light Parisian foot. Beyond the parapet they could hear the flow of the Seine. Nick Dormer said it made him think of the old Paris, of the great Revolution, of Madame Roland, quoi! Gabriel said they could have watery beer but were not obliged to drink it. They sat a long time; they talked a great deal, and the more they said the more the unsaid came up. Presently Nash found occasion to throw out: “I go about my business like any good citizen — that’s all.”

“And what is your business?”

“The spectacle of the world.”

Nick laughed out. “And what do you do with that?”

“What does any one do with spectacles? I look at it. I see.”

“You’re full of contradictions and inconsistencies,” Nick however objected. “You described yourself to me half an hour ago as an apostle of beauty.”

“Where’s the inconsistency? I do it in the broad light of day, whatever I do: that’s virtually what I meant. If I look at the spectacle of the world I look in preference at what’s charming in it. Sometimes I’ve to go far to find it — very likely; but that’s just what I do. I go far — as far as my means permit me. Last year I heard of such a delightful little spot; a place where a wild fig-tree grows in the south wall, the outer side, of an old Spanish city. I was told it was a deliciously brown corner — the sun making it warm in winter. As soon as I could I went there.”

“And what did you do?”

“I lay on the first green grass — I liked it.”

“If that sort of thing’s all you accomplish you’re not encouraging.”

“I accomplish my happiness — it seems to me that’s something. I have feelings, I have sensations: let me tell you that’s not so common. It’s rare to have them, and if you chance to have them it’s rare not to be ashamed of them. I go after them — when I judge they won’t hurt any one.”

“You’re lucky to have money for your travelling expenses,” said Nick.

“No doubt, no doubt; but I do it very cheap. I take my stand on my nature, on my fortunate character. I’m not ashamed of it, I don’t think it’s so horrible, my character. But we’ve so befogged and befouled the whole question of liberty, of spontaneity, of good humour and inclination and enjoyment, that there’s nothing that makes people stare so as to see one natural.”

“You’re always thinking too much of ‘people.’”

“They say I think too little,” Gabriel smiled.

“Well, I’ve agreed to stand for Harsh,” said Nick with a roundabout transition.

“It’s you then who are lucky to have money.”

“I haven’t,” Nick explained. “My expenses are to be paid.”

“Then you too must think of ‘people.’”

Nick made no answer to this, but after a moment said: “I wish very much you had more to show for it.”

“To show for what?”

“Your little system — the æsthetic life.”

Nash hesitated, tolerantly, gaily, as he often did, with an air of being embarrassed to choose between several answers, any one of which would be so right. “Oh having something to show’s such a poor business. It’s a kind of confession of failure.”

“Yes, you’re more affected than anything else,” said Nick impatiently.

“No, my dear boy, I’m more good-natured: don’t I prove it? I’m rather disappointed to find you not more accessible to esoteric doctrine. But there is, I confess, another plane of intelligence, honourable, and very honourable, in its way, from which it may legitimately appear important to have something to show. If you must confine yourself to that plane I won’t refuse you my sympathy. After all that’s what I have to show! But the degree of my sympathy must of course depend on the nature of the demonstration you wish to make.”

“You know it very well — you’ve guessed it,” Nick returned, looking before him in a conscious, modest way which would have been called sheepish had he been a few years younger.

“Ah you’ve broken the scent with telling me you’re going back to the House of Commons,” said Nash.

“No wonder you don’t make it out! My situation’s certainly absurd enough. What I really hanker for is to be a painter; and of portraits, on the whole, I think. That’s the abject, crude, ridiculous fact. In this out-of-the-way corner, at the dead of night, in lowered tones, I venture to disclose it to you. Isn’t that the æsthetic life?”

“Do you know how to paint?” asked Nash.

“Not in the least. No element of burlesque is therefore wanting to my position.”

“That makes no difference. I’m so glad.”

“So glad I don’t know how?”

“So glad of it all. Yes, that only makes it better. You’re a delightful case, and I like delightful cases. We must see it through. I rejoice I met you again.”

“Do you think I can do anything?” Nick inquired.

“Paint good pictures? How can I tell without seeing some of your work? Doesn’t it come back to me that at Oxford you used to sketch very prettily? But that’s the last thing that matters.”

“What does matter then?” Nick asked with his eyes on his companion.

“To be on the right side — on the side of the ‘fine.’”

“There’ll be precious little of the ‘fine’ if I produce nothing but daubs.”

“Ah you cling to the old false measure of success! I must cure you of that. There’ll be the beauty of having been disinterested and independent; of having taken the world in the free, brave, personal way.”

“I shall nevertheless paint decently if I can,” Nick presently said.

“I’m almost sorry! It will make your case less clear, your example less grand.”

“My example will be grand enough, with the fight I shall have to make.”

“The fight? With whom?”

“With myself first of all. I’m awfully against it.”

“Ah but you’ll have me on the other side,” Nash smiled.

“Well, you’ll have more than a handful to meet — everything, every one that belongs to me, that touches me near or far; my family, my blood, my heredity, my traditions, my promises, my circumstances, my prejudices; my little past — such as it is; my great future — such as it has been supposed it may be.”

“I see, I see. It’s splendid!” Nash exclaimed. “And Mrs. Dallow into the bargain,” he added.

“Yes, Mrs. Dallow if you like.”

“Are you in love with her?”

“Not in the least.”

“Well, she is with you — so I understood.”

“Don’t say that,” said Nick Dormer with sudden sternness.

“Ah you are, you are!” his companion pronounced, judging apparently from this accent.

“I don’t know what I am — heaven help me!” Nick broke out, tossing his hat down on his little tin table with vehemence. “I’m a freak of nature and a sport of the mocking gods. Why should they go out of their way to worry me? Why should they do everything so inconsequent, so improbable, so preposterous? It’s the vulgarest practical joke. There has never been anything of the sort among us; we’re all Philistines to the core, with about as much esthetic sense as that hat. It’s excellent soil — I don’t complain of it — but not a soil to grow that flower. From where the devil then has the seed been dropped? I look back from generation to generation; I scour our annals without finding the least little sketching grandmother, any sign of a building or versifying or collecting or even tulip-raising ancestor. They were all as blind as bats, and none the less happy for that. I’m a wanton variation, an unaccountable monster. My dear father, rest his soul, went through life without a suspicion that there’s anything in it that can’t be boiled into blue-books, and became in that conviction a very distinguished person. He brought me up in the same simplicity and in the hope of the same eminence. It would have been better if I had remained so. I think it’s partly your fault that I haven’t,” Nick went on. “At Oxford you were very bad company for me — my evil genius: you opened my eyes, you communicated the poison. Since then, little by little, it has been working within me; vaguely, covertly, insensibly at first, but during the last year or two with violence, pertinacity, cruelty. I’ve resorted to every antidote in life; but it’s no use — I’m stricken. C’est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée — putting Venus for ‘art.’ It tears me to pieces as I may say.”

“I see, I follow you,” said Nash, who had listened to this recital with radiant interest and curiosity. “And that’s why you are going to stand.”

“Precisely — it’s an antidote. And at present you’re another.”


“That’s why I jumped at you. A bigger dose of you may disagree with me to that extent that I shall either die or get better.”

“I shall control the dilution,” said Nash. “Poor fellow — if you’re elected!” he added.

“Poor fellow either way. You don’t know the atmosphere in which I live, the horror, the scandal my apostasy would provoke, the injury and suffering it would inflict. I believe it would really kill my mother. She thinks my father’s watching me from the skies.”

“Jolly to make him jump!” Nash suggested.

“He’d jump indeed — come straight down on top of me. And then the grotesqueness of it — to begin all of a sudden at my age.”

“It’s perfect indeed, it’s too lovely a case,” Nash raved.

“Think how it sounds — a paragraph in the London papers: ‘Mr. Nicholas Dormer, M. P. for Harsh and son of the late Right Honourable and so forth and so forth, is about to give up his seat and withdraw from public life in order to devote himself to the practice of portrait-painting — and with the more commendable perseverance by reason of all the dreadful time he has lost. Orders, in view of this, respectfully solicited.’”

“The nineteenth century’s a sweeter time than I thought,” said Nash. “It’s the portrait then that haunts your dreams?”

“I wish you could see. You must of course come immediately to my place in London.”

“Perfidious wretch, you’re capable of having talent — which of course will spoil everything!” Gabriel wailed.

“No, I’m too old and was too early perverted. It’s too late to go through the mill.”

“You make me young! Don’t miss your election at your peril. Think of the edification.”

“The edification —?”

“Of your throwing it all up the next moment.”

“That would be pleasant for Mr. Carteret,” Nick brooded.

“Mr. Carteret —?”

“A dear old family friend who’ll wish to pay my agent’s bill.”

“Serve him right for such depraved tastes.”

“You do me good,” said Nick as he rose and turned away.

“Don’t call me useless then.”

“Ah but not in the way you mean. It’s only if I don’t get in that I shall perhaps console myself with the brush,” Nick returned with humorous, edifying elegance while they retraced their steps.

“For the sake of all the muses then don’t stand. For you will get in.”

“Very likely. At any rate I’ve promised.”

“You’ve promised Mrs. Dallow?”

“It’s her place — she’ll put me in,” Nick said.

“Baleful woman! But I’ll pull you out!” cried Gabriel Nash.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56