Monday, July 31, 2017

Spiritual Adventures - Arthur Symons, edited by Nicholas Freeman


Nick Freeman at Loughborough University has recently edited a new edition of Spiritual Adventures, a book of short stories by the Eighteen Nineties author and poet Arthur Symons. This is volume 2 in the Jewelled Tortoise series from the Modern Humanities Research Association.

As well as the eight original stories, this edition adds seven hard-to-find early stories and essays by Symons. Nick Freeman provides an excellent introduction, a chronology of Symons’ life and work, and some pithy and helpful notes. We asked Nick to answer a few questions about the book and its author.

Arthur Symons wrote an important essay entitled ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, though when it emerged in book form, he changed it to The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Did he see his own work in these terms, moving through Decadence to Symbolism?

Symons’ influential formulation of decadence, ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in November 1893. It helped make his name, but even in this short article, the term ‘decadence’ is already problematic. Much of the essay is devoted to French literature which had not yet been made available in English translation, with lengthy considerations of Remy de Gourmont, J.-K. Huysmans, and the poetry of Paul Verlaine, but while we might now think that Oscar Wilde would be the obvious reference point for a writer trying to explain the new gospel of amoral aestheticism, especially in an American magazine, Symons instead foregrounds the poetry of W.E. Henley. By the terms of his essay, only a few of the poems in Symons’ Silhouettes (1892) qualify as ‘decadent’, and these chiefly because they avoid didactic or moral comment on the situations they describe.

The year after Symons’ essay appeared, the launch of The Yellow Book instituted a kind of ‘coffee-table decadence’ which introduced the hot topics of Anglo-French cultural debate to a wider audience than ever before, even if the journal only sold around 8,000 copies per quarterly issue. Boasting a cover design and other drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, and Symons’ controversial poem, ‘Stella Maris’, which dramatized an encounter with a prostitute, the journal seemed to endorse Wilde’s claim that ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’

At this point, proponents of decadence saw themselves as disseminating European avant-garde ideas and practices, while their critics saw them as juvenile in their determination to kick against Victorian middle-class convention. There was a lively debate between the two groups, but this came to an abrupt halt when Wilde was found guilty of Gross Indecency in the Spring of 1895. For most ‘normal’ people, ‘decadence’ now meant sexual immorality, unmanliness, and even depravity.

Symons’ shift from ‘decadence’ to ‘symbolism’ in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1900) reflects his deliberate movement away from Wildean association, but also his friendship with W.B. Yeats (whom he considered the premier English language symbolist), his discovery of William Blake, and his ever-deeper immersion in contemporary French literature and art, from Baudelaire to Odilon Redon. ‘Symbolism’ was not a dirty word in the 1890s and 1900s, and this made it useful for Symons, first because it was not tainted by the Wilde scandal, and second because it reflected his own growing interest in ways of writing about the spiritual and numinous outside a traditional Christian context.

Is Spiritual Adventures an archetypal Nineties book? How do you see Symons' stories compared with those of his contemporaries such as Dowson, Crackanthorpe, Machen?

The 1890s was the decade in which the short story established itself as a serious art form in Britain. Almost from the outset however there was a split between those who saw it as an essentially commercial form, plot-driven and easily classified according to genre, and those who sought to produce more consciously ‘artistic’ works. Symons is firmly in this camp, and he also belongs to the nineties in his recurrent investigations of the relationship between artists and the ‘ordinary’ world. He is however very different from his contemporaries. He has something of Dowson’s melancholia, but it isn’t caused by unrequited love, or a sense of physical transience. Instead, Symons focuses on the ways in which writers, painters, and musicians face what Yeats would later term the choice, ‘Perfection of the life, or of the work.’ He is less cynical than Crackanthorpe, and his style is more sensuous and elaborate. ‘The Death of Peter Waydelin’ is as close as Symons gets to Crackanthorpe’s grim seediness.

Of the above writers, he is closest to Machen, though he tends to avoid supernatural elements in his writing. Symons is probably most like Machen when writing about creative individuals whose desires or ambitions are incompatible with the everyday. Machen’s Lucian Taylor seems to have no friends, but he would probably enjoy an absinthe with Symons’ painter, Peter Waydelin, or the pianist, Christian Trevalga. There are also similarities between Machen’s Gwent and Symons’ Cornwall, both realms of visionary imagination.

One of Dowson’s books was entitled Dilemmas. Do you see that as a key theme of Symons’ book too? What are the dilemmas his characters face?


Symons held that ‘the man of genius is fundamentally abnormal’, and the behaviour of his central characters tends to emphasise the difficulty of producing art while trying to lead a ‘normal’ life. In ‘Christian Trevalga’, for instance, the main character is attempting to become a concert pianist, and finds himself torn between loving a woman and practising Chopin. Inevitably, the piano comes out on top. In ‘An Autumn City’, the newly-married Daniel Roserra takes his wife to the French town of Arles, hoping she will love it as much as he does. That she would rather go to Marseilles tells Roserra that he has made a terrible mistake in marrying her. Finally, in ‘Seaward Lackland’, a young Cornish fisherman has a profound spiritual crisis, but he isn’t torn between the love of the church and the love of a good (or not so good) woman. His torment concerns theological interpretation, and causes him to take up a very idiosyncratic spiritual position. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the ‘spiritual adventure’ Thomas Hardy most admired.

The first piece, ‘A Prelude to Life’ seems to be a fictionalised autobiography of his youth, but is perhaps more artful, more “created” than this might suggest. Was Symons consciously trying out a modern, “unreliable” form of narrative here?


Undoubtedly. Max Saunders has recently coined an ugly but helpful term, ‘autobiografiction’, which seems well suited to Symons’ approach in this story. ‘A Prelude to Life’ reconstructs Symons’ early days from the point of view of the mature aesthete; essentially, it’s a teleological account which seeks to explain how a shy boy in a devout Methodist household became a poet and connoisseur of human experience. The ‘I’ of the story is both Symons and his fictional avatar, so a lot of ‘Prelude’ is based on fact, though fact filtered through the memory and consciousness of an adult writer who is careful not to give too much away. Symons is constructing a version of himself here – perhaps the ‘Symons’ familiar to his readers rather than his family and friends. He is at times misleading as a consequence. His father in particular was far more willing to encourage his literary work than ‘Prelude’ suggests.

Several of the stories express an aesthetic consciousness, a heightened attention to fleeting impressions. Is the book as much about Sensual Adventures as Spiritual? What did Symons mean by Spiritual?

I think that Symons used ‘spiritual’ to as a catch-all word for the soul, the personality, and the imaginative life of the artist, rather than because of its religious associations. Symons is very much a sensual writer, but his reaction to the world is overwhelmingly visual. He rarely listens to anything but music or smells anything but perfume. He was happy to discuss taste, but with regard to aesthetic choice rather than food, and even his love poetry tends to put him at a remove from the world, leaving him looking at it instead of touching.

The stories seem to draw on the new French realism – they are precise, fully-imagined depictions of lives often in quiet crises. But they also often have a fateful, melancholy air. Do you see the stories as in any sense otherworldly, unearthly?

Very much so. In part, it comes from the sense that art and life are incompatible, but it also emerges from the artist’s heightened perceptions. Just as dogs can hear sounds that humans cannot, so Symons’ artists, musicians, writers, and painters seem able to detect higher frequencies of experience which they struggle to communicate to those who are not similarly attuned. There is also a preoccupation with madness – throughout the book there are many uncanny foretellings of the catastrophic breakdown Symons would suffer three years later – and with what Machen called ‘ecstasy’, the sense that exposure to certain experiences (or great art) places a person somehow outside themselves. Once someone has experienced this ecstasy, they are changed forever and can never be re-integrated into the social processes and obligations of everyday life. It’s very like what happens when you read an issue of Wormwood.

Mark Valentine

1 comment:

  1. Good to know about this new edition of Symons. And an excellent interview, too. May I recommend Karl Beckson's biography of Symons? md

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