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W. B. Yeats on John Everett Millais' "Ophelia"


The second in a series of excerpts from writers talking about painters. This is from an essay called "Art and Ideas" (1913). It's drenched in Symbolist era nostalgic Romanticism, but then, it is Yeats, after all:

Two days ago I was at the Tate Gallery to see the early Millais's, and before his Ophelia...I recovered an old emotion. I saw these pictures as I had seen pictures in my childhood. I forgot the art criticism of friends and saw wonderful, sad, happy people, moving through the scenery of my dreams. The painting of the hair, the way it was smoothed from its central parting, something in the oval of the peaceful faces, called up memories of sketches of my father's on the margins of the first Shelley I had read, while the strong colours made me half remember studio conversations, words of Wilson, or of Potter, perhaps, praise of the primary colours, heard, as it may be, as I sat over my toys or a child's story-book.
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I have had like admiration many times in the last twenty years, for I have always loved those pictures where I meet persons associated with the poems or religious ideas that have most moved me; but never since my boyhood have I had it without shame, without the certainty that I would hear the cock crow presently. I remembered that as a young man I had read in Schopenhauer that no man--so unworthy a thing is life seen with unbesotted eyes--would live another's life, and had thought I would be content to paint, like Burne-Jones and Morris under Rosetti's rule, the Union at Oxford, to set up there the traditional images most moving to young men while the adventure of uncommitted life can still change all to romance, even though I know that what I painted must fade from the walls.

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