Arthur Symons

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Arthur Symons
Photograph by Alvin Coburn, 1906
Arthur William Symons

28 February 1865
Died22 January 1945 (aged 79)
Notable workThe Decadent Movement in Literature
The Symbolist Movement in Literature
MovementDecadent Movement
SpouseRhoda Bowser (m. 1901; died 1936)

Arthur William Symons (28 February 1865 – 22 January 1945)[1] was a British poet, critic, translator and magazine editor.


Born in Milford Haven, Wales, to Cornish parents, Symons was educated privately, spending much of his time in France and Italy. In 1884–1886, he edited four of Bernard Quaritch's Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles, and in 1888–1889 seven plays of the "Henry Irving" Shakespeare. He became a member of the staff of the Athenaeum in 1891, and of the Saturday Review in 1894,[2] but his major editorial feat was his work with the short-lived Savoy.[citation needed]

In 1892, The Minister's Call, Symons's first play, was produced by the Independent Theatre Society – a private club – to avoid censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's Office.[3]

Symons conducted a long-lasting relationship with a secret lover who has never been identified, commemorated in his book Amoris Victima; in 1901 (19 June) he married Rhoda Bowser (1874–1936), an aspiring actress and eldest daughter of a Newcastle-upon-Tyne shipping magnate.[4]

Symons's 1897 book Studies in Two Literatures was one of his earliest works as a “serious critic” and established lyricism, mysticism, profundity, modernity, and sincerity as the various traits he would consider in his critiques. His work in his 1899 book The Symbolist Movement in Literature emphasized the importance of both lyricism and mysticism, with the latter being particularly important to Symons's beliefs regarding both poets and symbolists.[5]

In 1902, Symons made a selection from his earlier verse, published as Poems. He translated from the Italian of Gabriele D'Annunzio The Dead City (1900) and The Child of Pleasure (1898), and from the French of Émile Verhaeren The Dawn (1898). To The Poems of Ernest Dowson (1905) he prefixed an essay on the deceased poet, who was a kind of English Verlaine and had many attractions for Symons.[2]

In early 1908, Symons received news that a translated version of his play Tristan and Iseult: A Play in Four Acts (1917) was to be put on in Italy. Symons and his wife decided to tour Europe that autumn. While in Venice, Symons began to become overstimulated and feverish, and soon left his wife behind while traveling between several different hotels around the region. His letters to friends and family started to read vastly different than his previous work. After wandering lost through the countryside for two days, suffering fatigue and symptoms of madness, he was found and arrested by two Italian soldiers and held in prison in Ferrara. His wife soon located him, and within a few months he was transferred from an Italian ward to a doctor's care back in England.[6]

After Symons's psychotic breakdown, he published very little new work for a period of more than twenty years. His wife Rhoda took over the management of his affairs. His Confessions: A Study in Pathology (1930) has a moving description of his breakdown and treatment.

Most of Symons's work as a critic was published between 1903 and 1906, with it being included in publications such as Weekly Critical Review, the Saturday Review, and Outlook. Symons would later go on to publish his own book titled Studies on Modern Painters in 1925 using many of the articles he wrote for Weekly Critical Review and Outlook.[7]

In 1918, Vanity Fair magazine published Symons' Baudelarian essay, "The Gateway to an Artificial Paradise: The Effects of Hashish and Opium Compared." On one occasion between 1889 and 1895, John Addington Symonds, Ernest Dowson, and "some of Symons’ lady friends from the ballet all tried hashish during an afternoon tea given by Symons in his rooms at Fountain Court."[8]

His wife died in Tenterden Kent in 1936; Symons died probably in the same house (Island Cottage, Back Street, Kingsgate) in 1945.[9]

Contributions to literature[edit]

Arthur Symons is largely credited in contributing to what is best known as symbolism and decadence, though decadent became the term used more often later in his career.[10] His criticisms of French artists spread to the upcoming artists influencing those such as W. B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.[11] Symons strived to internationalize English literature and culture. Symons translated many international author’s and creator’s works. Italian writer and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio was Symons’ main focus on international writers in terms of translations as both authors focused on decadent devices within their works.[12]

Symons contributed poems and essays to The Yellow Book. He would later create a collection of short essays added over the period of 1899-1919 called The Symbolist Movement in Literature. This criticizes authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, and earlier authors like Gérard de Nerval. Though he does not directly state the definition of symbolism in his introduction, it has enough description to be understood as a movement.[10] Symons also created The Decadent Movement in Literature which was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in November 1893, where he claims decadence is the most representative literature of the day.[13]


Symons’ contemporary Holbrook Jackson stated that Symons’ “vision of the decadent idea” was clearer in his earlier works than in his later ones, and later Decadent critics focused more on his earlier writings on the subject.

Samuel Chew, another contemporary, considered Symons’ poetry and the Decadent movement as a whole to be “morbid,” “perverse,” and “unwholesome.”[14]

Symons also appears to have been heavily influenced by art and literature critic Walter Pater, both in his poetry and in his Decadent beliefs.[15]

Literary themes and devices[edit]


Autobiographical fiction work Spirited Adventures (1905), 'A Prelude to life' (1905) presents Symons in his youth and early adult life. Symons presents his mentality as aimless and destitute, which reflects Symons's partialness to the word 'vagabond' and its wandering, decadent representation within his works and writing style as a critic and writer.[12]


Many of Symons's writings recycled themselves and tended to repeat themselves, with small modifications added through each cycle. This repetition caused a need for reassessment with Symons's work, especially within his publications as a critic.[12]

Eroticism and urban life[edit]

Symons early poetry focused on capturing urban life's mysticism and displaying explicit displays of eroticism, such as Days and Nights (1889). Symons essay on French sculptor Auguste Rodin Studies in Seven Arts (1906) emphasized focus on sensuality and eroticism in Rodin's work.[12]

Verse and drama[edit]

  • Days and Nights (1889)
  • Silhouettes (1892)
  • The Minister's Call (1892). A Play.
  • London Nights (1895) a poetry collection including 'To Muriel: At the Opera'
  • Amoris victima (1897)
  • Images of Good and Evil (1899)
  • Poems in 2 volumes (contains: The Loom of Dreams in the second volume, 1901), (1902)
  • Lyrics (1903): An anthology of poetry published in the US only.
  • A Book of Twenty Songs (1905)
  • The Fool of the World and other Poems (1906)
  • A Book of Parodies (1908)
  • Poems by Arthur Symons in 2 volumes (1911)
  • Knave of Hearts (1913). Poems written between 1894 and 1908.
  • The Toy Cart (1916). A Play.
  • Tristan and Iseult: A Play in Four Acts (1917)
  • Tragedies (1922)
  • Love's Cruelty (1923)
  • Jezebel Mort, and other poems (1931)


  • An Introduction to the study of Browning (1886)
  • Studies in Two Literatures (1897)
  • Aubrey Beardsley: An Essay with a Preface (1898)
  • The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899; 1919 revised and enlarged)
  • Cities (1903), word-pictures of Rome, Venice, Naples, Seville, etc.[16]
  • Plays, Acting and Music (1903)
  • Studies in Prose and Verse (1904)
  • Studies in Seven Arts (1906)
  • William Blake (1907)
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti [International Art Series No. I] (1910)
  • Figures of Several Centuries (1916)
  • Cities and Sea-Coasts and Islands (1918)
  • Colour Studies in Paris (1918)
  • "The Gateway to an Artificial Paradise: The Effects of Hashish and Opium Compared" (1918)
  • Studies in the Elizabethan Drama (1919)
  • Charles Baudelaire: A Study (1920)
  • Dramatis Personae (1925 – US edition 1923)
  • The Cafe Royal and other Essays (1923)
  • Notes on Joseph Conrad with some Unpublished Letters (1925)
  • From Toulouse-Lautrec to Rodin (1929)
  • Studies in Strange Souls (1929). Studies of Rossetti and Swinburne.
  • Confessions: A Study in Pathology (1930). A book containing Symons's description of his breakdown and treatment.
  • Wanderings (1931)
  • A Study of Walter Pater (1932)



  1. ^ verifiable from census records and 1939 Register
  2. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Symons, Arthur". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 287.
  3. ^ Arthur Symons: 1865–1945 – A Chronology Archived 8 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 15 January 2009
  4. ^ see, or GRO registers plus census returns
  5. ^ Sklare, Arnold B. (1951). "Arthur Symons: An Appreciation of the Critic of Literature". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 9 (4): 316–322. doi:10.2307/426508. ISSN 0021-8529. JSTOR 426508.
  6. ^ Lhombreaud, Roger (1963). Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography. Unicorn Press. pp. 233–245.
  7. ^ Porterfield, Susan Azar (2001). "Arthur Symons as Critic of the Visual Arts". English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 44 (3): 260–274. ISSN 1559-2715.
  8. ^ Munro, John M., "Arthur Symons", Twayne Publishers, New York, 1969
  9. ^ GRO records accessible via
  10. ^ a b "Book Reviews". English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 49 (4): 439–487. 1 November 2006. doi:10.2487/1873-4468-41l7-n6t1. ISSN 0013-8339.
  11. ^ Symons, Arthur. "The Symbolist Movement in Literature". Retrieved 15 March 2024.
  12. ^ a b c d Arthur Symons: Poet, Critic, Vagabond. Vol. 44 (NED - New ed.). Modern Humanities Research Association. 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctv16km0qt. ISBN 978-1-78188-497-3. JSTOR j.ctv16km0qt.
  13. ^ "Harper's New Monthly Magazine". Retrieved 15 March 2024.
  14. ^ Goldfarb, Russell M. (1962). "Late Victorian Decadence". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 20 (4): 369–373. doi:10.2307/427899. ISSN 0021-8529. JSTOR 427899.
  15. ^ "Arthur Symons: Art in the Age of Urban Modernity". The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal. 9 January 2015. Retrieved 15 March 2024.
  16. ^ "Cities by Arthur Symons". The Athenaeum (Review) (3986): 641–642. 14 November 1903.
  17. ^ Freeman, Nicholas, ed. (2017). Arthur Symons, 'Spiritual Adventures'. Cambridge, UK: The Modern Humanities Research Association. pp. 57–88. ISBN 9781781886137.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beckson, Karl & Munro, John M. (eds.) Arthur Symons: Selected Letters 1880-1935 (Macmillan, 1989)
  • Lhombreaud, Roger. Arthur Symons. A Critical Biography (Unicorn Press, 1963)
  • Welby, T. Earle. Arthur Symons. A Critical Study (A. M. Philpot, 1925)

External links[edit]