- New Edition: Symons and Symbolism
AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-ONE, Arthur Symons was a recognized literary critic, playwright, poet, and translator of four languages. His first book, An Introduction to the Study of Browning (1886), was widely praised, as was his first volume of poetry, Days and Nights (1889). A member of the Rhymers’ Club and editor of the Savoy, Symons hired [End Page 108] Aubrey Beardsley following his dismissal from the Yellow Book. In 1889 and 1890, Symons and Havelock Ellis travelled to France and met several writers and artists interested in the ideas associated with Decadence and Symbolism. Through articles such as “The Decadent Movement in Literature” (1893) and numerous translations of French poetry, Symons helped bring this work to English-speaking readers. However, it was the collection of essays published as The Symbolist Movement in Literature that cemented Symons’s reputation.
Matthew Creasy’s scholarly edition of The Symbolist Movement in Literature, the first in over fifty years, is a necessary addition to the study of Symbolism, modernism, Decadence, fin-de-siècle literature, late-nineteenth-century literary criticism, and Anglo-French literary influences. It introduced W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound to the ideas of Symbolism. In “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot wrote:
But if we can recall the time when we were ignorant of the French Symbolists, and met with The Symbolist Movement in Literature, we remember that book as an introduction to wholly new feelings, as a revelation. After we have read Verlaine and Laforgue and Rimbaud and return to Mr. Symons’ book, we may find that our own impressions dissent from his. The book has not, perhaps, a permanent value for the one reader, but it has led to results of permanent importance for him.
This edition demonstrates that The Symbolist Movement in Literature is indeed “a key source for our understanding of the influence of nineteenth-century French writers upon Modernism” and “an intervention in late nineteenth-century debates about the value and nature of Symbolism and Decadence.”
“Correspondences” from Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) (1857) by Charles Baudelaire evokes the preeminent concept of Symbolist thought: Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent (perfumes and sounds and colors correspond). Stéphane Mallarmé defined Symbolism as un esprit ouvert à la comprehension multiple (a mind open to multiple comprehension). Symbolists, reacting to the age of positivism, hearkened back to the ideas of Romanticism. They rejected realism and the visual demands of Impressionism as too connected to reality, and they rejected the idea that logic, reason, and science could explain human behavior or emotion. Symbolist poetry and art was oblique, allusive, and ambiguous. Symbolism sought to make the invisible visible and reawaken mystical, religious longings. Poets sought to use language in ways that would suggest that which words cannot describe. [End Page 109]
In his introduction to the 1908 edition Symons defines Symbolism as “a literature in which the visible world is no longer a reality, and the unseen world no longer a dream.” Symbolist poets were not concerned with provoking a singular image; they were concerned with creating sounds, while painters sought to evoke the shifting emotions and images of music. Artists identified with Symbolism, inspired by the work of Richard Wagner and Charles Baudelaire, include the painters Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin, Gustave Moreau, Puvis DeChavannes and James McNeill Whistler. The 1908 edition of The Symbolist Movement in Literature considers the poets Gérard de Nerval, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Jules Laforgue, Stéphane Mallarmé, J. K. Huysmans and Maurice Maeterlinck.
The Symbolist Movement in Literature changed several times during Symons’s lifetime. Matthew Creasy has selected the 1908 edition because it was corrected by Symons and it was the first American edition; it was the edition Eliot encountered in the library at the Harvard Union. Modern readers may be familiar with the E. P. Dutton edition containing an introduction by Richard Ellman (1958), which relied on the 1908 version. Or, perhaps, the first...