Arthur Symons: An Interpretation

The Critic

October 1903, XLIII No. 4, pp. 353-356


Taine’s theory of art was that an artist stood in exact and definite relations to his environment. A poet or a painter is to the spirit of the age in which he lives and works what a picture is to its frame. Besides his immediate and perceptible environment, an artist has other relations not so immediate and perceptible. He is rooted in his nationality, which, in turn, is rooted in race, and the ramifications of race extend to soil, climate, food, and the weathervane’s bias. The poet, the painter, the musician, the dramatist, are mirrors in which the age with its peculiar crotchets or the race with all its ancient habits sees itself. Looking at England to-day, a superficial glance at her poets would seem to upset this purely scientific explanation of the appearance of a genius. For how shall we dispose of those antithetical propositions: Arthur Symons and Rudyard Kipling?

That the chasm that separates Symons and Kipling is abysmal there is no gainsaying. Never before, in all probability, has such a literary phenomenon been observed. Here are two poets, of the same nationality, appealing to substantially the same public, between whom the mental differences are irreconcilable. Their intelligences differ in kind, not in degree. One can no more make a comparison between the authors of “Images of Good and Evil” and “The Seven Seas” than one can compare “The Critique of Pure Reason” to “Alice in Wonderland.” Still, both are logical productions of their race and age. Looking below the surface of things, we see that both are borne along on a stream of tendencies which fits in with Taine’s theory. The two dominating traits of the Englishman’s character are a love of battle and a tendency to saturninity. They are a race of explorers—and they voyage within and without. For this reason he is the best balanced man in [354] the world. Action and thought go everywhere hand-in-hand. It is Kipling who expresses the materialistic side of his countrymen’s nature; his is the spirit that follows the leading of the senses and would voyage without. Symons expresses in its totality the dark, dreamy, pessimistic, sceptical side of this nature; his is the spirit that cries for delivery from the tyranny of his senses, the phantasmality of the world, and would voyage within, hoping to reach a haven of rest whose harbor lights were never seen on sea or land. In “The Dance of the Seven Sins” this aspiration, this plaint, is put into the mouth of the Soul in addressing the Seven Lusts:

                         Mine eyes
Are heavy with the mockeries
Of your eternal vanities.

Here is the cry of a born renunciant thrust into the maelstrom of nineteenth-century activity. How different to the mettlesome poems in “Barrack-room Ballads” and “The Seven Seas”! One dreams with Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Idea” in his hand; the other ploughs through the world flourishing above his head the title-page of Darwin’s “Origin of Species.” The two poets are products of opposing tendencies, the expression of interacting complex forces in a century that never quite knew itself; a century that see-sawed philosophically, and hemmed and hawed artistically.

It is the fashion of the “viriles”—to coin a word—to stigmatize the poetry of Arthur Symons as “decadent” and to class that poet of exquisite sensibilities as a “decadent.” What is “decadent” and what is “virile” in literature, art, and life depend upon the point of view merely. “Virility,” pushed to its logical conclusion, will beget a decadence of spirit, and in this sense there is a kernel of decay in all virility. To the Idealist practical materialism is a form of decadence, a decline to lower forms. All those who turn away from the illusions, the brutalities, of active life, and seek their aliment within are assailed with opprobrious epithets. The outside world, engaged in its incessant rag-picking, looks with disdain upon the dreamer; when he is not a ninny he is a renegade.

Who is this god of the Occident who is incessantly calling for worshippers, whose prophet to-day in England is Kipling and to-morrow may be some other gascon? What has the world for its incessant labors; what meaning is there in this daily tragedy of which want is the prologue and the grave epilogue? Act! act! or be damned, cries the world.

Higher and higher rises the fanfare of action in these days. To Do is God and not to have done is to placard oneself a failure. The visible, the tangible, alone are worth the trouble. Poised over chaos, man, horsed upon the sightless couriers of his will, hurtles forth, excoriating the atmosphere with hoarse cries of expectancy. The Promised Land lies just around yon bend. To-morrow must see the fulfilment of To-day! Little does he know that each sweep forward but carries him farther away from his object, and that each act of his but the more completely insures the loss of the thing he is seeking. His Eldorado exists, but it is a state of mind, and cannot be attained by either forward or backward plungings, but lies quiescent in the infinite depths of the spirit.

Beneath the pomp of action the worm of time gnaws ceaselessly; and all additions are but subtractions viewed from the other side. Action takes away as much as it appears to add. I lift a weight with borrowed force, and all I possess of material goods shines with a borrowed light. The less I expend on outward things the more I have within. At the birth of each man the gods ladle into the vessel of his soul his allotted life-force. Shall he keep it at home or let it waste away through the sluices of sense and have it return to him slimed and stagnant?

Throughout all of Symons’s poetry there is displayed this hatred of action, this mænadic whirl of things, this avaricious doing. In no single poem is it expressed; rather is it a spirit that pervades all his works. A lofty soul—a [355] Rossetti, a Swinburne, a Verlaine, a Symons—is born into the world, in an age that is glued to the particular.  His eye sweeps the heaven and earth in a single penetrative glance—that glance that alone can dart from the soul of genius. Before its look the wrappings of the material world fall away. The springs of action lay bare to its gaze. These endless futile lacings to and fro in the world of sense appeal for interpretation. Life takes on a mottled appearance; every action is but a death-token, a useless expenditure of force. Where does the individual belong in these endless tides of being? At what point shall the soul debark and in what material stuff shall the mind incarnate itself? There comes a pause. Why debark at all? Why insulate mental activity in space and time? Why quit the real world of spirit for a world of shadows? Who orders him forth to run the gauntlet of life? An instinct which he will renounce; an urge which he will throttle. At this psychologic moment there is born the spirit of egoistic idealism. Thenceforth he will substitute ideas for things, doubting if there be things other than ideas; holding firm to the dream world as the one thing substantial. If he debouch now and again from his cloud-capped towers of thought to survey that world where gew-gaws pass for treasure, it is but to return to his own country more than ever convinced of its beauty. In this spiritual palace the hard-and-fast world gradually transforms itself; the solid and substantial sways and reels and cuts its moorings. The stars, the sun, the mountains are dressed in the colors of the spirit, and Orion rises beneath the scalp. The senses no longer announce to the soul. There is an usurper on the throne of life who thenceforth shall not abdicate. It is now the soul that regards the world in colors of its own. It drenches its objects in color, sound, and passion. Matter is crucified. Life is a diaphanous web.

In Symons’s poetry there is that delirious worship of beauty that has been stigmatized as decadent. It is in reality an æsthetic neo-platonism that beholds beauty as an idea independent of the object in which it is reflected. It is an eternal form hidden in the soul an streams upon the world unmuddied, ether-clear. Upon a background of nothingness it paints a gorgeous universe. It lends the odor in the flower, the hues of the sunset, and when the soul it has named it has named as its own dreams of women, it enters the universe of Love, where it laves in ideal passions.

I drank your flesh, and when the soul brimmed up
In that sufficing cup,
Then slowly, steadfastly, I drank
Your soul;
Thus I possessed you whole.

Thus sings Mr. Symons. It is supremely great poetry—the apotheosis of soul and flesh; and only the mentally unwashed can see the base in it. Because of this absolute belief in the reality of the inner life—which is everywhere the dominant note in Symons’s poetry; because of this supersensuous view of the real, the smallest personal action is laden with a significance which is not present to the ordinary observer, with his eye for “facts.” To behold a beautiful woman is not only to see her with the eyes of sense, but with the eyes of the spirit as well. She dissolves at the fairy touch of thought and runs molten into the spirit, filling the alleys and channels of his mental matrix, and simultaneously lighting up his higher thought, sending forth his soul to brood in melancholy meditation on the decay of beauty and the evanescence of to-day.

The dolorous strain in Symons’s poetry is not the cry of anguish that proceeds from the disillusionment of experience. It is not the cry of Job fallen from a high estate, smitten with boils and demanding the revocation of the irrevocable; rather is it the cry of the stoic soul who has realized in thought the agony of the world and has imaginatively drained the goblet of life to its lees of pain; a Leopardi who sits at home and listens to Sorrow and Care sweeping the strings of his soul. He need not walk forth, for he knows intuitively that events will tally with his thought and life but verify his divinations.


What joy is left in all I look upon?
I cannot sin, it wearies me. Alas!
I loathe the laggard moments as they pass;
I tire of all but swift oblivion.

The man of action detests analysis. Full-blooded and booted, he hurls himself at his object and devours it, passing on to sate a new hunger elsewhere. He is an unconscious egoist and his rights. In the world he has created the ideal melts like wax in the fires of expediency; he constructs moral codes en passant. He will neither stop to dissect the basis of his wants nor the justice of his code. To do so would sound the beginning of the end. Conscience would prick and self-complacency become self-objurgation. Of the latter form of self-depreciation Mr. Symons has given us some remarkable instances. A hatred of his finite personality pervades all his poetry. He dissects himself with knife and scalpel. He has grown to hate his lower instincts, passions, and desires. That he is linked to the vices of race and is the victim of those rending conflicts common to the human being is for him a profound tragedy. His transgressions are magnified and judged impersonally by the higher spirit that dwells within him. From this spiritual Olympus he sees his prettier self caught in the net of evil; his body, willy-nilly, plunged into the stews by the lower impulses which the ages have erected into a stratified hierarchy. This quality of being, this vision of the self by the self, is the motive for one of his most beautiful poems, “The Dogs.” The “dogs” are the desires that assail him, the baying hounds of the instincts that are forever tugging at the leash of inhibition. These impulses are always upon him, and in spite of his present negation of them he knows intuitively that one day his soul shall be their meat. He rises in a fine mystic strain, which recalls Rossetti at his best, to a perception of the supersensuous world and cries to his guardian angels to succor him in his battle; his soul, in its transcendental flight, has passed into the upper white lights of spiritual illumination and seeks cleansing at God’s very throne; looking down, he sees his desires assembling for a new assault on his soul and he asserts again in closing that they will yet rend his spirit.

My desires are upon me like dogs,
I beat them back,
Yet they yelp upon my track;
And I know that my soul one day shall lie at their feet,
And my soul be those dogs’ meat!

Of such is the poetry of dreamy introspection. The man of action oozes life; the dreamer absorbs it. Action but exhibits the profile of the soul; to see the inner self full-length and face to face one must retire to the adytum of the temple. To behold the spirit of life one must live the life of the spirit. On the gloomy background of the panorama of the world the poetic dreamer rises, gaunt in figure, channel-browed, eyes laden with veiled fires. He stands gesture less, and dominates the world through an omnipotent sixth sense. The material universe passes through his brain and is sieved in the process. The human drama is not a drama of things, but a drama of rapidly changing relations, darting, snake-like currents of being on which mosaics of flesh and blood unite and dispart. To stigmatize the poets who possess this wonderful vision as “decadent” is but the shriek of an age that is spiritually impotent, an age that must logically believe Kipling its greats poet and Clark Russell its greatest novelist.