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Jam es Joyce and A r t h u r Sym o n s
by M ax Wildi
A rthur Symons, the English poet and eritic of the Nineties and the begin­
ning of this century, played a considerable part in the earlier phase of Joyce’s
development. It was, first of all, through Symons’s seminal book The Sym bol­
ist M ovem ent in Literature,1 the book that was also to draw the attention of
Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot to the work of Laforgue, Mallarmé and the other
French symbolists, that Joyce was introduced to what was then the most
m odern and most exciting body of poetry in Europe.
As a result of this first contact with Symons’s work, Joyce must have
turned to other books of the then wellknown writer, among them his volumes
of poetry, for we presently find him writing impressionist verse that echoes
Symons’s mannerisms.2
When, in November 1902, the twenty-year old Joyce stopped in London
on the way to Paris, William Butler Yeats introduced him to his friend Sy­
mons and they spent the evening together at Symons’s flat. On hearing that the
young Irishman, who struck him as »a curious mixture of sinister genius and
uncertain talent«, was on the lookout for editors who might be willing to print
articles or poems of his, Symons promised to help. He was then at the height
of his influence in the literary world, having been on the staff of the Athenaeum since 1891 and on that of the im portant Saturday R eview since 1894.
It was through his good offices that a publisher for Chamber M usic was eventually found in Elkin Matthews, one of Symons’s friends, G rant Richards,
another of his acquaintances, who had first been approached in this matter,
having declined publication.
Joyce kept in touch with Symons throughout the succeeding period. He
tried though without success to see him on the occasion of his second passage
1. The S ym bolist M o vem en t in L iterature, originally pub. 1899, is now available in a
Dutton-Everym an paperback (D 21) N ew York, 1958, w hich contains a valuable
introduction by Richard Ellmann.
2. F or a m ore detailed study o f T he L yrical P oem s o f Jam es Joyce see m y contribution
to Language and Society, Essays presented to Arthur Jensen. D et Berlingske B og­
trykkeri, C openhagen 1961 p. 169-186.
188
M ax Wildi
through London in Sept. 1904, when he was on the way to Ziirich. He enlisted
his help for the placing of Dubliners and The Portrait of the A rtist as a Young
Man, and it was G rant Richards, who had failed him over Chamber Music,
who eventually published Dubliners in 1914.
In addition to this help in bringing Joyce’s lyrics and his prose to the
notice of publishers, Symons also contributed a very favourable and careful
review of Chamber M usic, the first Joyce ever got for any work of his. As late
as 1932, Symons wrote an epilogue to The Joyce Book, edited by Herbert
Hughes.
These are the bare facts, beyond which we know very little about the rela­
tions of the two writers to each other. Joyce was not given to literary reminiscenses. Symons wrote very little after the breakdown of his health in 1908.
Both men were proud. Yet the few contacts between the difficult young genius
and the talent of the older man led to some interesting consequences, which
throw some light on the situation of letters on both sides of the Channel at the
beginning of his century.
A rthur Symons,3 born in the same year, 1865, as his friend Yeats, had
brought some unusual qualities to his career of poet and critic. His upbringing
had been, like Yeats’, avvay from the traditional schools and colleges. His parents were Cornish Nonconformists. His debut as critic and poet in the late
Eighties proclaimed him a radical individualist, for it was an admiring and very
able Introduction to the Study of Browning, dedicated to M eredith and reviewed by Pater, that made him known in literary circles, and his first volume
of poems, D ays and N ights (1889), was full of Browningesque dramatic monologues and self-pondering sonnets. In London Symons had come under the
almost irresistible influence of Walter Pater, to whom D ays and Nights is
dedicated. He adopted Pater’s aesthetic creed more wholeheartedlyand applied
it more consistently than any other of Pater’s many disciples, yet, paradoxically, he was utterly different from the master. Pater’s shy, introvert mind was instinctively turned to the past, to the old masters of the European tradition in
philosophy, literature and the fine arts, in whose work he sought an answer
to the deep craving of his soul for a solution of all the problems that the scepticism of his age and of his own mind had raised. Symons, gifted with a discriminating taste and considerable powers of analysis and expression, had no
historical sense whatever. He was intensely interested in “modernity” , in lit­
erature in the making and in the modern trends of style. In his hands the
3. A Critical Biography o f Arthur Sym ons by R oger L h om breau d has just been published
by the U n icom Press, London.
James Joyce and Arthur Symons
189
m aster’s muted, solemn and hesitating sentences aequired préeision, economy
and sharpness. »Epicureanism«, the hedonistic, individualist view of life and
art, which Pater had proclaimed with such unusual daring as a young man,
had after much pondering become but a half-way house for his hero Marius.
For Symons it became the unquestioned basis for his impressionist outlook
upon a world of vivid sensations and fleeting impressions, provided by the
world of the arts and that of the great towns, of which he was to give evocative impressions in his prose and his poems.
There is in all this a deliberateness, a sharp, clear-cut dogmatism that
makes one think rather of young Joyce’s arrogant dicta and definitions than
of P ater’s subdued, infinitely careful approximations to a truth, which had to
be intimately felt before it was stated with many reservations.
The most im portant difference between Pater and Symons lies in the
faet that the younger critic was a writer of verse throughout his career, that
he was keenly and practically interested in the problems of poetic expression
and its development, in experiment, both in subject-matter and form, whereas
Pater’s interest in that respect lay almost exclusively in the field of his own
medium of prose.
As a poet A rthur Symons, reticent, lonely and proud, hungering after
“exquisite” sensations, but essentially cold, had little of his own to give. All
the same he was a genuine artist, both by temperament and by execution.
The range of his verse is narrow and the themes and moods of many of his
poems are slight. To the modern reader they present a faded Ninetyish
modernity, with their affectation of wickedness, their insistence on what is
artificial and “decadent” . Their real quality and charm lies in their artistry,
in the purity and préeision of phrasing, in their transparent lucidity as may be
seen in the following little poem, the first and certainly one of the most
successful of the Silhouettes, entitled “A t Dieppe: After Sunset” .
The sea lies quieted beneath
The after-sunset flush
T hat leaves upon the heaped grey clouds
The grape’s faint purple blush.
Pale, from a little space in heaven
Of delicate ivory,
The sickle-moon and one gold star
Look down upon the sea.
190
M ax W ildi
In addition to such impressionist colour studies, which are inspired by the
painting of the period, with faint Whistlerian echoes of Japanese arrangements,
there are dozens of poems on ballet dancers and some few of a more symbolist
character, like »Rosa Mundi«, full of Pre-Raphaelite and Yeatsian echoes, the
same echoes that are found in the poems of young Joyce. Of all the poems
by A rthur Symons tnat had appeared by 1901/02 when Joyce composed the
first pieces of Cham ber M usic, those that made the deepest impression on the
young Irish poet were the soft song-like lyrics that Symons had translated
from Paul Verlaine.
In these poems a chord is struck and sustained with great purity through
a series of delightful variations, the whole being the bodiless expression of a
mood, “the simple liberation of a rhythm ”, as Joyce came to define it. Such
a poem is M andoline, which appeared in 1901, together with other translations
from Fétes Galantes.
The singers of serenades
Whisper their fated vows
Unto fair listening maids
Under the singing boughs.
Tircis, Aminte, are there,
Clitandre has waited long,
And Damis for many a fair
Tyrant makes many a song.
Their short vests, silken and bright,
Their long pale silken trains,
Their elegance of delight,
Twine soft blue silken chains.
And the mandolines and they,
Faintlier breathing, swoon
Into the rose and grey
Ecstasy of the moon.
With Verlaine we come to the very important theme of A rthur Symons’s ser­
vice as middleman between French and English literature at the turn of the
century. Symons was predestined for this by his independence of insular pre-
James Joyce and A rthur Symons
191
judice and by his unselfish and passionate devotion to letters. “He was possessed,” as Desmond M aeCarthy onee said, “with the idea that the beauty
which artists create and discover is as im portant as anything in the world,”
and he was capable as a poet, of rendering some of the French symbolists’
effects in his verse translations, of which the above may serve as an example.
To Joyce the discovery of an im portant body of modern verse and authoritative aesthetic theory came at the most propitious moment of his awakening
as a poet. Verlaine was the first of his admirations. As early as 1900, while
still an undergraduate, he appears to have known the disdainful line “E t tout
le reste est littérature” from A rt Poétique. In Joyce’s essay on Mangan we
read “A song by Shakespeare or Verlaine, which seems so free and living
and as remote from any conscious purpose as rain that falls in a garden
or the lights of evening, is discovered to be the rhythmic speech of an emotion
otherwise incommunicable, at least so fitly.” Any one who has read the lyrics
of Cham ber M usic will understand Joyce’s admiration for Verlaine’s verse.
Liquidity, one of its outstanding qualities, “the simple liberation of a rhythm ”,
as Joyce defined it, was to remain the test of lyric poetry to him, and it was
to be one of the qualities of his prose as well. The subtle arrangement of words
in cadenzas satisfying to the ear, which Symons and Verlaine had encouraged,
was nothing more nor less than finger-exercises that were to prove essential
for that astonishing mastery of phrasing that one admires in Joyce’s mature
prose. It is significant that for Symons as for Joyce there was no hard and
fast and essential difference between prose and verse. (In this connection we
should like to point to the interesting intermediate position of the poem in
prose with its sustained rhythmical unity and its unity of theme and mood.
Much of the superb art of such a story as The D ead lies in the sequence of its
paragraphs, which, on closer inspection, are discovered to be movements in
which one definite mood finds its liberation in prose.)
The second influential French m aster to whose art and aesthetic Joyce was
introduced by Symons is Mallarmé. One of the finest chapters, in faet the
central chapter, of Symons’s book is devoted to Mallarmé. It contains three
translations, one of them being the rendering, in English, of the prose poem
Plainte d ’automne. If Verlaine appealed to the lyrical, emotional element in
the constitution of Joyce, Mallarmé made a far less obvious but no less per­
manent appeal to his soaring artistic ambition and to his constructive genius.
Joyce must have read Symons’s pages on Mallarmé very carefully, for
almost 20 years later, he wrote down in a Triestine note-book the same
poems and some of the same prose passages, which Symons had quoted in
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M ax Wildi
his book. These and a great many other facts concerning the influence exercised by M allarmé on Joyce are revealed in the exhaustive and fascinating
study by David Hayman Joyce et M allarm é (Lettres modernes, Paris, 2 vols.
1956). As Hayman points out, there were other contemporary sources from
which Joyce could get information about French literature. His countryman
George Moore had been at M allarmé’s famous “mardis” years before Symons
was introduced to the master, and he had written about him in his Confessions
of a Young M an (1888). Moreover, there was Huysmans’s famous novel A
R ebours, (1884) with its passages of enthusiastic praise of M allarm é’s art.
But George M oore was probably too chatty for Joyce, and neither he nor
Huysmans could give him what Symons had so clearly set forth: M allarm é’s
theory of an anti-naturalist, impersonal art based on suggestion and allusion,
with a sovereign disregard of conventional rules, an art aspiring to the symphonic fullness of Wagnerian music.
It was only in later years, in Trieste and even later, in Paris, that M al­
larm é’s lesson became effective. (Hayman shows that one of the most farreaching influences started as late as 1919, when Joyce came across Un coup
de dés).
Let us, in conclusion, return to the seminal years 1900-1902, when
Joyce entered the literary world and Symons’s influence on him was at its
height. The situation in the world of letters was roughly speaking the following: In poetry the powerful impulse of romanticism and its renewal by Baudelaire and Rossetti had exhausted itself. The rhetoric of the Parnasse, of
Hugo and Swinburne was dead. In France a splendid renewal had taken place.
In the English-speaking world the need for a renewal was keenly felt and
many attempts were made to break the spell of sterile eloquence. One of
these is Symons’s experiment of impressionist verse. For a number of reasons,
some of which have been hinted at above, his effort as a poet failed. All he
could do, and it proved to be the greatest service he rendered to poetry, was
to point to the achievement of the French symbolistes, to interpret their ar­
tistic intentions and their technique to his brother poets at home.
In prose the situation was more complex. There was a rich and flourishing
native tradition, which, in its finest representative, Henry James, had innumerable contacts with Continental practice, particularly with Flaubert and
Turgenev. It is strange, that A rthur Symons did not realise that fine fiction
was being created so near at hand, appearing as it did in the very pages of
The Y ellow Book. It must be admitted in this connection that Symons’s interest
in fiction was never very keen. Though he had written some fine psychological
James Joyce and Arthur Sym ons
193
studies in the style of P ater’s Imaginary Portrait s entitled Spiritual Adventures,
he had no deeper relation to narrative art as such.
Symons’s eyes were turned to France. There the lesson of Flaubert of
scrupulous devotion to objective art and to an impersonal style was still valid.
It had been proclaimed at home by Pater and his disciples and it was accepted
and followed by Joyce. But the latest French manifestation of realism, Zola’s
naturalistic novel, had run aground in the mudflats of lifeless documentation.
Here too then, the need for some renewal was felt, and Symons, together
with many French critics, saw a new dawn in the later non-naturalistic novels
of J. K. Huysmans. In the pages of The Sym bolist M ovem ent he announced
the coming of a “spiritual realism”. In Dublin we find Joyce reading Lå-Bas
in 1901. It is significant, however, that already in 1903, Joyce turned away
from Huysmans’s writing on account of its formlessness. Though the promise
held out by such brilliant novels as A Rebours was not fulfilled and the two
writers went widely different ways, there remains a curious similarity in the
initial constellation, midway between naturalism and symbolism, under which
Joyce and Huysmans had started.
When, in December 1902, the twenty year old Joyce arrived in Paris,
the first and most im portant phase of Symons’s influence may be said to have
ended. Symons had set the door to the Continent ajar and had shown his
young reader some of the view. In doing so he had helped him to free him­
self from literary provincialism of the Celtic and the Georgian kind. Joyce had
now gone and boldly pushed the door open. He now had direct access, if not
to the symbolist poets themselves, who most of them were dead, but at least
to their world and their books.