Born on 28 February 1865, to Cornish parents in Milford Haven, Wales, Arthur Symons was a British poet, critic, and magazine editor. His father was a preacher and hence had a transferable job which compelled his family to constantly move from cities to cities.
Symons spent most of his childhood in France and Italy. This life experience had a major impact on Symons. Due to the frequent allocations, his education too was very irregular. Schooling was a distant option and hence he had to educate himself through voracious self-study and private tutoring.
Symons moved to London at the age of 16 where he found a group of people who suited his liking and forte, the vibrant and celebrated Rhymers’ Club, contributing a lot to his future literary endeavours.
Associating himself with the London literary journalists gave him the taste of literary ambit that had he urged for, much influenced by poets of the French literature like Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé.
While at the Rhymers’ Club, Symons published his poems in the humorous anthology series The Book of the Rhymers’ Club (1892), alongside literary gurus like William Butler Yeats.
As a young writer
A young prodigy, Symons published his first article on Robert Browning, at the age of seventeen, which appeared in the monthly magazine Wesleyan-Methodist.
As an occasional playwright, he also wrote seven plays of Henry Irving Shakespeare between 1888 and 1889. In that same year, Symons’ poetry appeared in his first book Days and Nights (1889), which he dedicated to his friend Walter Pater.
While in London, at the age of nineteen, Symons’ lucid paper, Is Browning Dramatic, was read to a congregation of the Browning Society. Praised for his work Symons soon developed a strong rapport in the Browning Society through which he made some of his early contacts in the literary circle, including the unconventional philologist F. J. Furnivall.
It was through Furnivall that Symons got commissioned to write the introductions to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis for the Quarto Facsimile Series (1884-1886) and his first critical work on Robert Browning, An Introduction to the Study of Browning (1886).
Symons’ greatest achievement was perhaps that of his poetry, having a strong fin de siècle feeling. Influenced by the French Decadent Movement most of Symons’ poems consisted of themes that were parallel to the undertaking – love, romance, loss, eroticism, and the passage of time.
Most widely known for his translations of French Symbolism, Symons was often considered controversial for his open avowal to eroticism. Some of his poems include To a Grey Dress, Stella Maris, and White Heliotrope. His poems have been collected into a book, Poems (1902).
A poet and a playwright
Influenced by the vivid descriptions of the modern French writers, Symons did extensive studies on writers like Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, both of whom were great influences on Symons.
During his career, he wrote many novels and books on the subtleties of human life, love, beauty and the spiritual strivings of the soul, these include Days and Nights (1889), Silhouettes (1892), London Nights (1895), Amoris victima (1897) and Images of Good and Evil (1899).
In 1892, Symons wrote a play called The Minister’s Call, performed by the Independent Theatre Society – in a secretive club, due to its censorship.
As an editor and Savoy
After mild stints at Athenaeum, Yellow Book, and Saturday Review, Symons found his editorial breakthrough with the British magazine, The Savoy (1895-1896), which dealt in the fields of art and literature.
Though short-lived the magazine had quite a status. Collaborating with Aubrey Beardsley and Leonard Smithers, Symons successfully stacked up artworks and write-ups for his publication, from the likes of Joseph Conrad, W. B. Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw.
It was during this feat as an editor that Symons got influenced by and worked for the wider propagation of the French Decadence Movement and French Symbolism.
The French Decadent Movement and The Symbolist Movement in Literature
During his expansive career, Symons’ held many roles including that of an author, an editor, and a playwright. His seminal work The Symbolist Movement in Literature, published in 1899, was an apex in bringing the French Symbolism to British readers, influencing greats like W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot on the way.
After the publication of his essay The Decadent Movement in Literature, Symons was seen as a staunch critic of the aesthetic movement for his views on aestheticism and as he quotes “unseen reality apprehended by the consciousness”.
Symons wrote an autobiographical sketch called the Spiritual Adventures, which got published in 1905. He was first to translate poems by French symbolists. W.B. Yeats referred to him as the best critic of his generation.
After his mental breakdown in 1908, Symons was compelled to take asylum in a mental institution and a hiatus from his career. Although he subsequently recovered in 1910, his literary acumen was never appreciated like it was before.
Symons spent most of his later years travelling in France and Italy before finally settling down at rural Kent with his wife Rhoda. His last work, His Confessions: A Study in Pathology, published in 1930, chronicled his earlier mental breakdown and the effects of the illness.
Arthur Symons died on 22 January 1945, a month short of his 80th birthday.