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Saturday, September 27, 2003


Without a certain sordidness in his surroundings he was never quite comfortable, never quite himself -- Arthur Symons

My fate

The August Contemporary Review comes loaded with a nice little essay entitled "The vanishing man of letters" by Richard Whittington-Egan.

A name like that seems to go with the topic, doesn't it? The essay is full of little anecdotes about my predecessors in the line of turning a little learning into quick copy -- the milquetoast reviewers, essayists, and tepid novelists that drenched innumerable reviews and weeklies and monthlies with the ink of their deadline enthusiasms; who suffered in bed-sits, endured impossible infatuations, and died drowned, or by their own hands, or rusticated into fabulous antiquity. There's nothing worse than a peculiar kind of disease that strikes the well read -- a certain chronic bookishness. It slowly supplants the very soul, making every word ring with tinny tintinabulations of reference.

My favorite among these awesome mummies is Arthur Symonds. Now, somehow, I thought Symonds was gay. But according to Whittington-Egan, he was straight. Or at least so we can judge his sexuality when he existed on this planet. He traversed other ones during his life:

"Surely the most significant Man of Letters to emerge from the ranks of what is generally regarded as the lesser fin-de-siecle crowd was Arthur Symons (1865-1945), whose pioneering, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) was to prove seminal, introducing French Symbolisme to English literary culture, and, incidentally, introducing also the poetry of Laforgue to T.S. Eliot, which, he was later to confess, 'affected the course of my life'.

The son of a West country Wesleyan Methodist minister, Symons was a precocious youth, self-educated in English and French literature, who, joining the newly-founded Browning Society in 1881, when he was sixteen, came to the attention of the Society's co-founder, Dr. Frederick James Furnivall, who invited him to write Introductions to Venus and Adonis, and other works for the Shakespeare Quartos Facsimiles series, which he was then in process of editing. So impressed was Furnivall that he suggested to Symons that he should write a primer on Browning. An Introduction to the Study of Browning, Symons' first book, was duly published in 1886. Its author was just twenty-one. He was to become the complete Man of Letters--poet, critic of the seven arts, editor, essayist, translator, short story and travel writer, and Herrick of the music-halls. Unlike so many of his contemporaries--Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson--Symons did not die young, but he suffered a life-dimming tragedy--the Man of Letters gone to madness. It came upon him in Italy, in the city of Venice, where, in September 1908, he and his wife, Rhoda, were staying at a Palazzo that gave on to the Grand Canal. For some weeks presignatory intimations of insanity had been whispering in his ear and distorting his conceptions of his visions and envisionings. He heard, too, amplified by his mania, the awful sounds of the lunatics in the asylum on the island of St. Clemente. On September 26th, a Saturday, what he described as 'the thunderbolt from hell' fell on him. Leaving Rhoda behind in Venice, he journeyed alone to Bologna, where he took a room for himself at the Grand Hotel Brun. And there the shrieking wind of madness suddenly rose to smite him with all-piercing force. Staggering through the alien streets, he lost all consciousness of himself in a vortex, a whirling maelstrom, of hideous and terrifying hallucinatory images and imaginings. Rhoda arrived. He raved and raged and cursed, and, refusing to return with her to London, sped off, alone again, to Ferrara. It was in a cafe there that, mistaken by two Bersiglieri for a crazed vagrant, he was carried off to Ferrara's ducal Palazzo Vecchio, thrown into a dungeon cell, where, manacled hand and foot, he was left, with neither food nor drink, in darkness and in terror, to struggle with the grimacing faces of his clamouring hallucinations. Rescued through the good offices of the Italian Ambassador, he was returned safely to England, where he was certified insane, and spent long months in Brooke House, an asylum in Upper Clapton Road. But the gods relented. In April 1910, Symons, more or less restored, and, having been wrongly diagnosed at the National Hospital, Queen Square, rejoined his wife at Island Cottage, their country home at Wittersham, in Kent. One of the last photographs of him shows him in his seventeenth-century timbered cottage, resting on a sofa beside the massive open fire chimney corner. Inevitable book in hand, he somehow seems the template of all Men of Letters rolled into one; a Bookman still obstinately reading on the edge of eternity. He was to live on there for another 36 years, outliving Rhoda by eight years. Like many another Man of Letters, the fret and fume of his days in literary London left far behind him, he spent his last years in the wood-smoke calm of a green corner of the English countryside, and found his final bed in the cool, evening shadow of a quiet country churchyard."

Huh. Symons himself has described the death of a man of letters better than this. If you look around the Net, you can find scattered bits of the man -- the essay by Eliot in Sacred Woods, Symons essay on Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, etc -- but the most heartfelt piece I've found is his essay on Ernest Dowson. Dowson is one of those poets who, as Symons admits, just lacked that last bit of genius, and so is remembered now for being mentioned by better poets and writers -- for being Yeats' friend, and being associated with the Yellow Book. However, what do you expect from fame? The afterlife is as full of dying reputations as Austerlitz was full of wounded soldiers. You are rediscovered by an academic looking for tenure, or you are rediscovered because you liked to fuck men. Or you are not rediscovered at all.

In any case, this is Dowson's death:

Latterly, until the last year of his life, he lived almost entirely in Paris, Brittany, and Normandy. Never robust, and always reckless with himself, his health had been steadily getting worse for some years, and when he came back to London he looked, as indeed he was, a dying man. Morbidly shy, with a sensitive independence which shrank from any sort of obligation, he would not communicate with his relatives, who would gladly have helped him, or with any of the really large number of attached friends whom he had in London; and, as his disease weakened him more and more, he hid himself away in his miserable lodgings, refused to see a doctor, let himself half starve, and was found one day in a Bodega with only a few shillings in his pocket, and so weak as to be hardly able to walk, by a friend, himself in some difficulties, who immediately took him back to the bricklayer's cottage in a muddy outskirt of Catford, where he was himself living, and there generously looked after him for the last six weeks of his life.He did not realise that he was going to die; and was full of projects for the future, when the �600 which was to come to him from the sale of some property should have given him a fresh chance in the world; began to read Dickens, whom he had never read before, with singular zest; and, on the last day of his life, sat up talking eagerly till five in the morning. At the very moment of his death he did not know that he was dying. He tried to cough, could not cough, and the heart quietly stopped."

Somehow, that last sentence reminds me of how Wells described the death of the Invisible Man. It is the Cathedral style of English prose, and I, for one, love it.

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