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212 ARTHUR SYMONS AS POET: THEORY AND PRACTICE By John M. Munro (University of Toronto) Though modern literary historians seem unable to agree on an acceptable definition of the word "decadent" as applied to the literature of the eighteen-nlnetles, Arthur Symons, in 1893 at least, had little doubt as to what kind of literature best suited the term. "It has," he said, "all the qualities we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity In research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity." And, he continued, "If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art—those qualities of perfect simplicity, perfect sanity, perfect proportions, the supreme qualities—then this representative literature of today, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and Interesting disease."' Though Symons later revised his definition of decadent literature,2 during the early years of the eighteen-nineties this suited him well enough, and in his literary criticism of the time he concerned himself with such figures as Verlaine, Maeterlinck, Mallarmé, Huysmans, Pater, W. E. Henley, Catulle Mendes, Beddoes, Poe, Edward Gordon Hake, and James Thompson, all of whom he appears to have considered decadent.' And in his own poetry, too, particularly in SILHOUETTES (1892) and LONDON NiGHTS (I895), he aspired to his definition of the decadent ¡deal. Understandably the critics were shocked, and, as he admitted in the "Preface" to the second edition of LONDON NIGHTS, greeted his poems with a "singular unanimity of abuse,"^ having found his "intense self-consciousness [and] restless curiosity in research, [his] over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement [and] spiritual and moral perversity" a little too strong for their tastes. Thus Symons was obliged to defend his poetry against his detractors, and in his famous plea on behalf of Patchouli asked whether there was 'any reason in nature' why we should write exclusively about the natural blush if the delicately acquired blush of rouge has any attraction for us? Both exist: both, I think, are charming in their way: and the latter, as a subject, has, at all events, more novelty. If you prefer your 'new-mown hay' in the hayfield, and 1, it may be, in a scent-bottle, why may not my individual caprice be allowed to find expression as well as yours? Probably I enjoy the hay-field as much as you do: but I enjoy quite other scents and sensations as well, and I take the former for granted, and write my poem, for a change, about the latter. There Is no necessary difference in artistic value between a good poem about a flower in the hedge and a good poem about the scent in a sachet. But, he continued, perhaps a little defensively, I do not wish to assert the kind of verse which happened to reflect certain moods at a certain period of my life, is the best kind of verse In Itself, or Is likely to seem to me, In other years, when other moods may have made me their own, the best kind of verse for my own expression of myself. Nor do 1 affect 213 to doubt that the creation of the supreme emotion is a higher form of art than the reflection of the most exquisite sensation , the evocation of the most magical impression. I claim only an equal liberty for the rendering of every mood of that variable and inexplicable and contradictory creature which we call ourselves, of every aspect under which we are gifted or condemned to apprehend the beauty and strangeness and curiosity of the visible world.5 Taking Symons' generalizations at their face value, one is inclined to feel sympathetic towards him, and to condemn his critics for their stuffy narrowmindedness . But on turning to the poems themselves one is tempted to revise one's judgment, for though their frankness may not be as offensive to modern readers as it was to those of a previous generation, the poems are, as William Archer noted in 1902, "insistently monotonous."° Constantly we are reminded of the joys and sorrows of love-making with "Juliets of a night"; of the charm of the...


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pp. 212-222
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Will Be Archived 2021
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