- What types of emotions or reflections does Symons tend to project onto his sunsets and open seas? According to his own definition of "decadent," what is "decadent" about his responses?
- Is there a consistent male persona throughout most of Symons' shorter lyrics? When the male persona appears, what is his relationship to the dancing woman?
- Why is the image of the dancer dancing so significant to Symons? Does it always evoke the same complex of meanings?
- Do Symons' personae ever find happiness or satisfaction? If so, when and under what circumstances is this possible?
- Early in his career Symons wrote a critical book on Browning's poetry. For those of you familiar with his poetry, which aspects of Browning's sensibility or manner do you find reflected in Symons' poems?
- Throughout Symons' lyrics there are reiterated verbal echoes of Rossetti poems and reworkings of Rossettian themes. Are these merely fortuitous historical parallels or do they reflect a more specific psychological kinship? How does Symons alter his presentation of traits inherited from Rosssetti?
- In Symons' bohemian underworld, what, if any, are the characteristics of erotic love? Of human relationships in general?
- Why are Symons' personae repeatedly attracted to a range of non-verbal arts?
- If city life is so repellent, why are Symons' personae unable to leave it for a healthier life elsewhere?
- How is Symons' use of color different from that of Hopkins or Keats? Does it differ significantly from that of Rossetti?
- What role does religion play in his poetry? (e. g. "The Temptation of St. Anthony") In "The Temptation," what seems significant about the fact that the body of a naked man suggests the image of a lustful but also repellent woman?
Statements by Symons:
If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art—those qualities of perfect simplicity, perfect sanity, perfect proportion, the supreme qualities—then this representative literature of to-day, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease.
The Decadent Movement in Literature, 1893
Well, the doctrine of Mysticism, with which all this symbolical literature has so much to do, of which it is all so much the expression, presents us, not with a guide for conduct, not with a plan for our happiness, not with an explanation of any mystery, but with a theory of life which makes us familiar with mystery, and which seems to harmonize those instincts which make for religion, passion, and art, freeing us at once of a great bondage. The final uncertainty remains, but we seem to knock less helplessly at closed doors, coming so much closer to the once terrifying eternity of things about us, as we come to look upon these things as shadows, through which we have our shadowy passage. “For in the particular acts of human life,” Plotinus tells us, “it is not the interior soul and the true man, but the exterior shadow of the man alone, which laments and weeps, performing his part on the earth as in a more ample and extended scene, in which many shadows of souls and phantom scenes appear.” And as we realise the identity of a poem, a prayer, or a kiss, in that spiritual universe which we are weaving for ourselves, each out of a thread of the great fabric; as we realise the infinite insignificance of action, realise the delight of feeling ourselves carried onward by forces which it is our wisdom to obey; it is at least with a certain relief that we turn to an ancient doctrine, so much the more likely to be true because it has so much the air of a dream. On this theory alone does all life become worth living, all art worth making, all worship worth offering. And because it might slay as well as save, because the freedom of its sweet captivity might so easily become deadly to the fool, because that is the hardest path to walk in where you are told only, walk well; it is perhaps the only counsel of perfection which can ever really mean much to the artist.
From “Conclusion” to The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 1899
Charles Baudelaire, “L ‘Étranger”, from Petits Poèmes en Prose, 1869. trans. Arthur Symons
“Which do you love best, enigmatical man, tell me? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?”“I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.”
“You use a word the meaning which has remained to me to this very day unknown.”
“I ignore under what latitude it is situated.”
“Willingly had I loved Beauty, Goddess and Immortal.”
“I hate it as you hated God.”
“What then, do you love, extraordinary stranger?”
“I love the clouds, the clouds that pass, eternally, the marvellous clouds.”
Baudelaire, “Correspondences” (“Correspondences”, 1857, trans. Arthur Symons; from “Flowers of Evil”)
Nature is a Temple where we live ironically
In the midst of forests filled with dire confusions;
Man, hearing confused words, passes symbolically
Under the eyes of the birds watching his illusions.
Like distant echoes in some tenebrous unity,
Perfumes and colours are mixed in strange profusions,
Vast as the night they mix inextricably
With seas unfounded and with the dawn’s delusions.
And there are the perfect perfumes of the Flesh,
That are as green as the sins in the Serpent’s mesh,
And others as corrupt as our own senses,
Having the strange expansion of things infinite,
Such as amber, musk, benzoin and sweet incenses,
That seize the spirit and the senses exquisite.
Baudelaire, “Be Drunken” (“Enivrez-Vous”, 1869)
Be always drunken. Nothing else matters: that is the only question. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to the earth, be drunken continually.
Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will. But be drunken.
And if sometimes, on the stairs of a palace, or on the green side of a ditch, or in the dreary solitude of your own room, you should awaken and the drunkenness be half or wholly slipped away from you, ask of the wind, or of the wave, or of the star, or of the bird, or of the clock, of whatever flies, or sighs, or rocks, or sings, or speaks, ask what hour it is; and the wind, wave, star, bird, clock, will answer you: “It is the house to be drunken! Be drunken, if you would not be martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.”
Paul Verlaine, “Moonlight” (“Claire de Lune”, 1869, trans. C.F. MacIntyre)
Your soul is like a painter’s landscape where
charming masks in shepherd mummeries
are playing lutes and dancing with an air
of being sad in their fantastic guise.
Even while they sing, all in a minor key,
of love triumphant and life’s careless boon,
they seem in doubt of their felicity,
their song melts in the calm light of the moon,
the lovely melancholy light that sets
the little birds to dreaming in the tree
and among the statues makes the jets
of slender fountains sob with ecstasy.
The Sonnets of Michelangelo, trans. J.A. Symonds, 1878
To Giovanni da Pistoja, “On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel”
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den –
as cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
or in what other land they hap to be –
which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
my beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
my buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
my feet unguided wander to and fro;
in front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
by bending it becomes more taut and strait;
crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bosbow:
whence false and quaint, I know,
must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
for ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
to succour my dead pictures and my fame;
since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
To Vittoria Colonna, “A Matchless Courtesy”
Blest spirit, who with loving tenderness
quickenest my heart so old and near to die,
who mid thy joys on me dost bend an eye
though many nobler men around thee press!
As thou wert erewhile wont my sight to bless,
so to console my mind thou now dost fly;
hope therefore stills the pangs of memory,
which coupled with desire my soul distress.
So finding in thee grace to plead for me –
thy thoughts for me sunk in so sad a case –
he who now writes, returns thee thanks for these.
Lo, it were a foul and monstrous usury
to send thee ugliest paintings in the place
of thy fair spirit’s living phantasies.
After the Death of Vittoria Colonna, “After Sunset”
Well might I in those days so fortunate,
what time the sun lightened my path above,
have soared from earth to heaven, raised by her love
who winged my labouring soul and sweetened fate.
That sun hath set; and I with hope elate
who deemed that those bright days would never move,
find that my thankless soul deprived thereof,
declines to death, while heaven still bars the gate.
Love lent me wings; my path was like a stair;
a lamp unto my feet, that sun was given;
and death was safety and great joy to find.
But dying now, I shall not climb to heaven;
nor can mere memory cheer my heart’s despair: –
what help remains when hope is left behind?
See also Parallels Between Poetry of Rossetti and Symons, under Rossetti.