Arthur Symons

Date of birth: 
28 Feb 1865
City of birth: 
Milford Haven
Country of birth: 
Date of death: 
22 Jan 1945
Location of death: 

Arthur Symons was a British poet, critic and editor prominent in fin-de-siècle London. He is regarded as one of the foremost literary critics of the 1890s.

In London Symons made some of his early literary contacts through the Browning Society, including the eccentric philologist F. J. Furnivall. From him he secured the job of editing various scholarly editions of Shakespeare, while another commission resulted in his first critical work, An Introduction to the Study of Browning (1886). His first book of verse, Days and Nights, followed three years later and was dedicated to his friend and primary influence Walter Pater. Following the principles of the master, from here on his poetry was to move away from the character verse of Browning towards the impressionistic drama of the subjective moment. His total abandonment of moral themes and an objective tone earned him the ire of conservative critics who harangued the so-called ‘Decadent’ movement for its obsession with an aesthetic life lived ‘against nature’. His critical writings stood among the most respected of their day, and his ‘The Symbolist Movement in Literature’ of 1899 arguably counts as the most influential aesthetic treatise of the decade.

He was a major contributor to the Yellow Book and edited its successor, the Savoy, in collaboration with Aubrey Beardsley. His acquaintance embraced the entire ambit of London literary life, with Yeats and Conrad being particularly close. In 1896 at the home of Edmund Gosse he met Sarojini Naidu, who became his confidante and protégé. They corresponded after her return to India, and in 1905 he saw her book of verse The Golden Threshold into print. His Figures of Several Centuries (1916) also features an essay on her poetry.

In 1908 he suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined in a lunatic asylum. After his discharge he lived with his wife Rhoda in seclusion in rural Kent, occasionally sought out as a last surviving remnant of the much-mythologized but by then utterly vanished literary world of the ‘Nineties’.

Published works: 

Silhouettes (1892)
London Nights (1895)
Amoris victima (1897)
Studies in Two Literatures (1897)
Images of Good and Evil (1899)
The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899)
Spiritual Adventures (1905)
Studies in Seven Arts (1906)
Figures of Several Centuries (1916)
Confessions: A Study in Pathology (1930)

Secondary works: 

Beckson, Karl, Arthur Symons: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Hayes, Sebastian, Arthur Symons: Leading Poet of the English Decadence (Shaftesbury: Brimstone 2007)

Archive source: 

John Quinn Memorial Collection, New York Public Library

Berg Collection, New York Public Library