rthur Symons' travel writings were uniquely suited to his varied gifts as poet, critic, and translator. The bulk of Symons' work in this genre appears in Cities (1903), Cities of Italy (1907), Colour Studies in Paris (1918) and Cities, and Seacoasts and Islands (1919) and Wanderings (1931). I have consulted all of these volumes except for the last in the preparation of this discussion. The dates of publication are quite misleading, since Symons conceived all of these books as miscellanies and was quite willing to re-cycle materials he written as far back as the 1890s for inclusion in each of these volumes. (Wanderings, for example, apparently reprints the essay on "Constantinople" that had first appeared in Cities, a volume that Symons regrettably withdrew to make way for his Cities of Italy.)

As early as the dedication to Cities, Symons showed himself eager to reveal his rationale for working in this genre when he explained that "for me cities are like people, with souls and temperaments of their own, and it has always been one of my chief pleasures to associate with the souls and temperaments congenial to me among cities" (v). A few years later, when he came to write the stories in the volume Spiritual Adventures, he re-stated this informal credo in the third person:

Places had virtues of their own for him; he supposed that he had the quality of divining their secrets; at all events, if they were places to which he could possibly be sensitive. Much of his time was spent in travelling, in a leisurely way, about Europe; not for the sake of seeing any thing in particular, for he had no interest in historical associations or in the remains of ugly things that happened to be old, or in visiting the bric-a-brac museums of the fine arts which make some of the more tolerable countries tedious. He chose a city, a village, or a seashore for its charm, its appeal to him personally; nothing else mattered. [189-190]

Travel, then, was for Symons less a matter of broadening the mind than satisfying the senses. It could be delightful in a delightful place, but what if the place in question was less than delightful? "Moscow, Naples, how I have hated them, how I have suffered in them, merely because I was there; and how clearly I see them still, with that sharp memory of discomfort!" (Cities, vi) Clearly each place was a challenge, a new secret to be explored. "A place has almost the shyness of a person with strangers; and its secret is not to be surprised by a too direct interrogation" (63). Time and again in these writing Symons refers to restlessness that compels him to travel from place to place, as if the man's nervous energy were bouncing about inside him like a rubber ball. What ought to have been a pleasure becomes almost a compulsion. He seems poised like a messenger awaiting instructions. "In the spring of 1899 I spent five days at Cadiz. I was waiting for a summons which, as it happens, never came, or was never obeyed. But that expectation gave me, all the time I was there, a peculiar sensation, a restlessness, an unsettled feeling, as of one pausing by the way." (Cities and Seacoasts and Islands, 127) The ensuing pages devoted to Cadiz are shot through with this sense of tentativeness, of expectation.

Symons in his travel writing is much more expressionistic than one might expect of an English writer popularly associated with the Decadent School of late Romanticism. An essay may be entitled "Cadiz" or "Moscow," but is actually about Symons-Cadiz or Symons-Moscow. The essay is always about what Arthur Symons is feeling at the moment. The shorter the essay, the stronger his personal and lyrical element tends to be. When Symons has more room to move about in — his essay on "Rome" in the volume Cities runs to 56 pages — he remembers that he is a professional man of letters and gives you a professional job of writing about Rome. You will find the personality of Symons present, but masked by one or more of his official personae: Symons the art-critic or Symons the literary critic or Symons the detached connoisseur of life's pleasures — the "egoist without an ego" as Wilde once styled him. Yet flashes of genius always occur: "Rome is a sea in which many worlds have gone down, and its very pavement is all in waves; so that to drive through these narrow streets, and across these broad squares, in which there no footway over which a wheel may not drive, is like rocking in a boat over slightly uneasy water." (Cities, 17)

No one can write a stronger introduction to a place, as this from "Venice" in the volume Cities will reveal.

Coming in the train from Milan, we seemed, for the last ten minutes, to be rushing straight into the sea. On each side was water, nothing but water, stretching out vaguely under the pale evening light; and at first there was not a sign of land ahead. Then a wavering line, with dark ships, and thin shafts of rigging, came out against the horizon, like the first glimpse of an island; the line broadened, lights began to leap, one after another, out of the darkness, and a great warehouse, glowing like a furnace, grew up solidly out of the water. We were in Venice. [61]

In this passage we see Symons' varied gifts coming together. Here, he is at once poet and observer. Although he is striving for a purely dramatic effect, he finds himself creating a prescient image of a danger zone where solid ground gives way to illusions and a watery abyss — a place where a man could go mad, as Symons himself would do.

Symons' descriptions of places can be fanciful. "When the soul of Autumn made for itself a body, it made Arles" (Spiritual Adventures, 196). Or they can be downright Pateresque. "All life forsakes Ravenna, which lives on with an unholy charm, like one really dead, kept in a semblance of life by witchcraft" (Cities of Italy, 177). But in any case, his descriptive abilities are only half of his arsenal. As one of the premiere critics of his day, and one of the first to blur the distinctions between genres by being as ready to discuss a sonnet of Nerval's as he was the newest vaudeville or the revival of the harpsichord, Symons managed to pack every essay he wrote with opinions and asides of great value. He presents himself to us as tour guide extraordinaire, now speaking as a scholar, now as a connoisseur. He will wax rhapsodic over the easy gait of Venetian woman or the lithe grace of gypsies and he will discuss in some detail the origins of this-or-that Spanish dance. He will critique "A Spanish Music-Hall" (Cities and Seacoasts and Islands, 145-157) and he will enliven a description of "The Islands of Aran," written in the Summer of 1896, by quoting from a seventeenth-century treatise by Roderic O'Flaherty (303-305) Occasionally Symons includes in scholarship of the significant value, as when he translates for us San Juan de la Cruz's "En una Noche escura" (Cities and Seacoasts and Islands, 67-68) or Lorenzo de Medici's "Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne" (Cities of Italy, 154-156). Because Yeats spoke so highly of Symons' work as a translator of his contemporaries, especially Mallarmé, we may forget just how wide-ranging his literary interests were. Considering that Symons proudly defined himself as "one of those for whom the visible world exists" (Cities, v), it is uncanny just how successful he was at capturing the otherworldly tone of that great Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross. I suspect Symons would sniff at my praise, claiming that this is the translator's job and claim no great merit for his achievement.

Unlike his colleague Ernest Dowson, Symons never indulged in the writing prose poems per se, yet his essays are shot through with felicitous asides that share every aspect of the prose poem save for the name. In the second section of "Dieppe, 1895" he begins with a perfectly journalistic description of the great casino, but Dieppe is nothing if not Symons-Dieppe, and in no time at all we are hearing about Symons' own introduction to the tables, a paean to gambling fever that concludes "After a time I did not even play for the sake of winning. I played for the sake of playing" (Cities and Seacoasts and Islands, 233).

He turns an account of "A Bull Fight at Valencia" into a meditation upon human cruelty.

I have always held that cruelty has a deep root in human nature, and is not that exceptional thing which, for the most part, we are pleased to suppose it. I believe it has an unadmitted, abominable attraction for almost every one; for many of us, under scrupulous disguises; more simply for others, and especially for people of certain races; but the same principle is there, under whatever manifestation, and, if one takes one's stand on nature, claiming that whatever is deeply rooted there has its own right to exist, what of the natural rights of cruelty?" [Cities and Seacoasts and Islands, 131]

Symons perhaps unwittingly testifies to the accuracy of these observations by the thoroughness with which he recounts the spectacle of the gorings, maimings and disembowelings he witnessed that afternoon. It doesn't always take strong stimuli such as gambling and bullfights to get Symons' juices flowing. During his account of a visit to Seville, he remarks, "I am coming, more and more, to measure the charm of cities, at all events their desirability for living in, by the standard of their parks, public gardens, and free spaces where one can be pleasantly unoccupied in the open air" (Cities, 110). This observation in turn occasions a discussion of the place of nature in an urban environment and the relative merit of size in regard to an urban center's degree of livability. In all of this Symons sounds quite modern in his concerns. There are 'Nineties authors like Dowson and Lionel Johnson who remain, first and foremost nineteenth-century authors, but then there are figures like Symons and John Davidson who were writing about, and to, the twentieth — which is itself now a part of history. In describing "The Gingerbread Fair at Vincennes," Symons is almost narrating a story, if a story can be told without any characters in it. This longish essay, composed in 1896 although not collected until 1918, reminds me greatly of the experiments with the prose poem form undertaken by Hubert Crackanthorpe in his Vignettes (also 1896). One wonders whether there might not have been something in the air — a new sense of the poetry of urban life, and a new tone, at once hectic and graceful, with which to express it. This new tone can be found in the poetry of John Davidson; it's there in the London Visions of Laurence Binyon too.

As I stated earlier, Symons' descriptive passages could assume a decidedly Expressionist tinge when his feelings predominated. Here is a typically overwrought passage from his description of Moscow, a city he especially disliked:

Nothing in Moscow is quite like anything one has seen anywhere else; and no two houses, all of which are so unlike the houses in any other country, are quite like one another. Their roofs are almost invariably painted green, and the water-pipes make a sort of green edging around the house-front. But the colours of the houses are endless: green, pink, blue, brown, red, chocolate, lilac, black even, rarely two of the same colour side by side, and rarely two of so much as the same general shape. Every shop has its walls painted over with rude pictures of the goods to be found inside; the draper has his row of clothed dummies, the hatter his pyramid of hats, the greengrocer his vegetables, the wine-seller his many-coloured bottles. Fruit-stalls meet one everywhere, and from the flower-like bouquet of fruits under their cool awnings there is a constant, shifting glow, the yellows and reds of apples, the purple of plums, the green and yellow of melons, and the crisp, black-spotted pink of melons sliced. And in these coloured streets, which in summer flame with the dry heat of a furnace, walk a multitude of coloured figures, brighter than the peasants of a comic opera; and the colours of their shirts and petticoats and handkerchiefs and bodices flame against the sunlight. (Cities, 163-164)

Notice the constant repetition of the word "colour." Symons seems almost to have hated Moscow because he found it too colorful and too hot. And he had that restlessness inside of him which must only have been irritated by the heat and the colors and the noise. (Elsewhere he complains about Moscow's cacophonous sounds.) It seems clear that Symons had a bad case of nerves. It might even be said that he'd been living off of his nerves for years, working himself up about things so that he could then sit down about it. It was only a matter of time before the nerves snapped.

Symons gave a preview of where his nerves might lead him during his description of the interior of the Kremlin.

To be in one of these hot and many-colored rooms is like being shut into the heart of a great tulip. Only fantastic and barbarous thoughts could reign here; life lived here could but be unreal, as if all the cobwebs of one's brain had externalised themselves, arching overhead and draping the four walls with a tissue of such stuff as dreams are made of. And it could easily seem as if unhuman faces grinned from among the iron trellis of doors, as if ropes and chains twisted themselves about doorways and ceilings, as if the floor crawled with strange scales, and the windows broke into living flames, and every wall burned inwards. The brain, driven in upon itself from such sombre bewilderments imprisoning it, could but find itself at home in some kind of tyrannical folly, perhaps in actual madness. (Cities, 172-173)

But the end for Symons came not in hateful Moscow but in his beloved Venice. Writing about his breakdown some twenty-two years after the fact in Confessions: A Study in Pathology (1930), Symons reprinted the last article he has composed prior to taking leave of his senses. Titled "Music in Venice," it begins rationally enough with a mention of the various sounds — gondoliers' songs, military bands — that one might hear on an evening in Venice. In 1897, Symons had characterized Venice thusly,

That animal content which comes over one in Venice, taking away the desire of action and the need of excitement which way-lay the mind and the senses under less perfect skies, makes it just as possible to be happy without running after amusement, as the simplicity of the conditions of life make it possible for the poor man to live on polenta and a little fruit." [Cities, 88]

But now he claimed to have detected something more, an undertone which had heretofore gone undetected by him. Now he perceives behind the songs, "crimes and carnality of Doges," which in turn leads to the underwater dungeons and torture-chambers of the long-vanished Republic. Symons is again back in the realm of human cruelty, and his article ends with a shriek. "Inexplicable soul of Venice, Satan threw dice with God and won half the game. Inexplicable soul of beauty, heroic soul, ignorant, empty, indifferent, enigmatical soul, you were tinged with cruelty, like all the Latin races" (Confessions, 7-8). Whenever a man "for whom the visible world exists" discovers Satan, it is always safe to assume that something is amiss. Without ever discerning the hand of God at work in the world, Symons has suddenly found Satan. He's also decided that cruelty, far from being a universal given, is now the property of "the Latin races." Symons protests too much here. Just as he took a bit too much literary pleasure in describing the horses of the picadors being disemboweled by the bull in Valencia, he now rushes a little too quickly to distance himself from those watery dungeons, as though no good Englishman had ever racked a traitor to the glory of Good Queen Bess.

Ultimately Symons recovered from his fit of madness, virtually writing his way back to sanity as related in Confessions, but the man was never quite the same, and the quality of his writing declined precipitously. Symons the peerless Impressionist had become Symons the professional decadent raconteur whose aim seems to have been to make the flesh of his good bourgeois readers creep with guilty pleasure. It was a sad end to a brilliant career. Had Symons been able to safely discharge his pent-up nervous energies, had he been able to come to terms with the bestial side of his nature, he would have been a commanding figure in the Age of Modernism rather than an exotic footnote to it.

Last modified 2000