Dangerous Acquaintances

Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography

by Roger Lhombreaud
Dufour, 333 pp., $7.50

Arthur Symons
Arthur Symons; drawing by David Levine

Roger Lhombreaud disappoints the hope that this first biography of Symons might obviate the need for another. He is straightforward and affable, but Symons was affable too, and more rigor is required in his biographer. M. Lhombreaud has worked on Symons for over ten years, and he is the first to take advantage of the many unpublished papers and letters now scattered among several libraries. He sometimes summarizes these but rarely quotes from them, though his book would profit from detailed-evidence. Instead he prefers to quote at length from formal reminiscences of Symons by other writers; while correcting factual errors he fails to offer sufficient comment to bring this material within his own perspective. When problems of interpretation appear, as with Symons’s insanity or his possible obsession with evil, M. Lhombreaud offers a few psychiatric words and otherwise declines responsibility for analysis. In four long and loosely organized chapters which make up the book, he moves uncertainly from topic to topic, underplaying his hand.

Symons deserves more incisive treatment. Not a great writer, as M. Lhombreaud concedes, he was a useful and in many ways attractive one. As a young Cornishman, privately educated and precocious, he descended upon London resolved to make the metropolis aware of him. Soon he was more cosmopolitan than anybody. At a strategic moment, when Villiers, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and others were in their last years, he took to frequenting the continent, Paris above all, and to bringing back sad, bad, mad news of that brilliant and dissolute world.

Some elements of his behavior might have been predicted. That the son of a Methodist preacher should hate all clergymen is standard, of course, and the juvenile poems about Judas, Cain, and opium eating are necessary corollaries. But Symons offers a subtler confusion of would-be profligacy and innocence. He dazzled Yeats by his procession of loves, from ballet dancers to serpent-charmers. Yet he seems to have wished to suffer for his studied sinfulness by having these women reject or forsake him, and all the time he longed for a love as hopeless as Yeats’s. This was almost vouchsafed him, M. Lhombreaud indicates, by the woman who kept him waiting interminably until she decided he was worth marrying. Meanwhile Symons as a writer prided himself on poems like “Stella Maris,” where he referred to “the Juliet of a night.” It was, as he told Paul Verlaine, “un peu osé” for an English review. He was always hoping to sound as sinful as Baudelaire. But when challenged in moral terms he retreated by suggesting that the poems pictured his moods rather than his doings, a possibility with which M. Lhombreaud is inclined to agree.

Symons did in fact take up bad habits with the utmost moderation. Yeats’s example, cited here, is the best: when he and Symons shared rooms in Fountain Court, The Temple, in 1895-96, they tried for a month drinking…

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