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Arthur Symons's 'Romantic Movement': Transitional Attitudes and the Victorian Precedent By John Stokes University of Warwick In 1909 Arthur Symons brought out a book made up of previously published essays on the great Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley, together with pieces on Crabbe, Scott, Southey, Landor, Peacock, Carlyle, Hood and many minor writers—eighty-eight sections in all.1 Whether the longer essays had been written with this eventuality in mind is unclear. Certainly Symons himself considered The Romantic Movement in English Poetry to be a magnum opus and at least equivalent to his The Symbolist Movement in Literature , of 1899, dedicated to Yeats, a work that was to be extremely influential upon Eliot and Pound. But The Romantic Movement—delivered to the publishers only weeks before the mental breakdown that was to incapacitate Symons for the rest of his life—has never been influential, nor even widely read. In comparison with The Symbolist Movement it appears at first glance to be rather characterless : an encyclopedic resume rather than a major evaluation.2 A closer reading, in the light of Symons's critical predecessors—Swinburne, Arnold, Pater—reveals his Romantic Movement to be not only a still useful textbook, but an instructive product of the notorious "age of transition"3 during which it was written. For Symons, writing at the turn of the century, Romanticism presented itself, in retrospect, as, above all, the source of a continuing split between artistic visions and historical phases. He even re-enacted that division with a contrast between the title and the preface of his own book. For while the title proclaims the book to be a study of a "movement," from which we should expect to find some distinct and shared purpose among the writers who compose it, the preface denies any such collectivity. Almost predictably the epitaph to the book is Blake's "Ages are all equal; but genius is always above the age": a favourite aphorism of Symons's that he uses here as an endorsement of his own current ideology which was increasingly individualist, vitalist, Nietzschean. Symons, of course, was not alone in seeing the comparative plenitude of the Romantic writer as both evidence of the remoteness of his revolutionary moment, and as proof of the unhistorical nature of genius. Already, in a cultural pessimist such as Matthew Arnold, the very thought of Romantic poetry had provided the consolation of nostalgia; even Walter Pater had on occasion found himself identifying with the inevitable failure of grand Romantic aspirations. In other respects, though, Symons's survey marks an undoubted shift away from both Arnoldian moral absolutes and Paterian aesthetic ideals. 133 Stokes: Arthur Symons's 'Romantic Movement' What does remain constant is critical procedure. The typically High Victorian approach to the Romantic inheritance had been through a comparative method, which Symons perpetuates. Take, for example, this famous concluding passage from the preface to Arnold's volume of selections, Poetry of Byron (1881), which attempts to capture Byron's unique qualities: Wordsworth has an insight into permanent sources of joy and consolation for mankind which Byron has not; his poetry gives us more which we may rest upon than Byron's—more which we can rest upon now, and which men may rest upon always. I place Wordsworth 's poetry, therefore, above Byron's on the whole, although in some points he was greatly Byron's inferior, and although Byron's poetry will always, probably, find more readers than Wordsworth's and will give pleasure more easily. But these two, Wordsworth and Byron, stand, it seems to me, first and preeminent in actual performance, a glorious pair, among the English poets of this century. Keats has probably, indeed, a more consummate poetic gift than either of them; but he died having produced too little and being as yet too immature to rival them. I for my part can never even think of equalling with them any other of their contemporaries; —either Coleridge, poet and philosopher wrecked in a mist of opium; or Shelley, beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain. Wordsworth and Byron stand out by themselves. When the year 1900 is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 133-150
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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