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Reviewed by:
  • Arthur Symons: Poet, Critic, Vagabond ed. by Elisa Bizzotto and Stefano Evangelista
  • Dennis Denisoff (bio)
Arthur Symons: Poet, Critic, Vagabond, edited by Elisa Bizzotto and Stefano Evangelista; pp. x + 198. London: Legenda, 2018, $99.99, $12.50 paper.

Arthur Symons’s image of himself as a vagabond reflected his cosmopolitanism, his work as a travel writer, and his critical engagement with authors and artists from various nations. His attraction to vagabondage is perhaps most profoundly reflected, however, in his Decadent poetics, which are characterized by a transient impressionism that often hovers on some threshold between current reality and an otherworldly space or time. Consider his depiction in the poem “White Heliotrope” of two lovers in the early morning:

And you half dressed and half awake,  Your slant eyes strangely watching me,  And I, who watch you drowsily,With eyes that, having slept not, ache;


The perspective here itself seems to wander cross-directionally, emotionally uncertain, or, as Symons puts it, “slant” (London Nights [Leonard Smithers, 1896], 49). As in this poem, Symons’s vagabondage situates affective engagement at the heart of his modernist poetics, a subject also central to this important and potentially groundbreaking essay collection. Arising out of a symposium organized by Elisa Bizzotto and Stefano Evangelista at the Università Iuav di Venezia in September 2015, the publication gives Symons the meticulous attention that such a pivotal cultural figure deserves. One of the most insightful aspects of Arthur Symons: Poet, Critic, Vagabond is its analysis of the wandering obliqueness of his Decadent perspective as it reflects his philosophical commitment to freedom of expression, experience, and lifestyle.

Primarily through his work The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Symons contributed perhaps more than any other individual to the transition of Decadence and symbolism into the British high modernism of authors such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. He has, nevertheless, remained a peripheral figure in the study of these movements. Fueled by the surge of recent methodological innovations in Decadence studies, Bizzotto and Evangelista’s volume offers a useful reminder of Symons’s influence on the international, multi-pathed history of Decadence. At the start of the 1890s, Symons saw Decadence as a reflection of a broad cultural zeitgeist, but in The Symbolist Movement he describes it as a “straying aside from the main road of literature” ([William Heinemann, 1899], 8). As Arthur Symons: Poet, Critic, Vagabond suggests, the act of “straying aside” effectively captures the author’s own vagabond-age and slant poetics. It also happens to reflect what, in the past ten years, has given [End Page 686] Decadence much of its fresh vitality through scholarly approaches in queer studies, global and colonialist studies, and eco-studies, among others.

The first of the collection’s three thematic sections, “Artistic Connections,” addresses the potentialities and limits of ekphrasis. Jane Desmarais analyzes the musicality that Symons located in Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings. As she demonstrates, Symons was invested in the inter-artistic, but was also keenly sensitive to the limits of comparisons across the arts. Lene Østermark-Johansen similarly teases out the nuances and limits of ekphrasis in her discussion of Symons’s correlations of sculpture and dance. John Stokes’s analysis of Symons’s works on drama brings sensitivity to his interests in dance, symbolist drama, and music-hall aesthetics, while also exploring his theories of ekphrasis and his influence on dramatic theory through Edward Gordon Craig. Particularly fascinating is Stokes’s closing consideration of mysticism in modernist drama through “the puppet cult,” in which puppets function as points of transience between different realms of being or states of awareness (50).

These pieces are followed by a section on “International Mediations,” with essays on the multi-directional migrations among cultures, influences by and on Symons, as well as his at times problematic representation of non-European cultures and societies. Evangelista uses translation theory to address Symons’s connections to the Italian decadent Gabriele D’Annunzio. Specifically, Evangelista explores the impact that Symons’s investment in French culture and D’Annunzio’s translation into French had on the British reception of the author. These trinational translations are further complicated when they evoke...


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