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A LITERARY CAUSERIE: ON A BOOK OF VERSES

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The Database of Ornament

                                    ON A BOOK OF VERSES

    A BOOK of delicate, mournful, almost colourless, but very
fragrant verses was lately published by a young poet whom
I have the privilege to know somewhat intimately.  Whether
a book so essentially poetic, and at the same time so fragile
in its hold on outward things, is likely to appeal very much
to the general public, for which verse is still supposed to be
written, it scarcely interests me to conjecture.  It is a matter of more legitimate
speculation, what sort of person would be called up before the mind’s eye of
any casual reader, as the author of love-poetry so reverent and so disembodied.
A very ghostly lover, I suppose, wandering in a land of perpetual twilight,
holding a whispered “colloque sentimental” with the ghost of an old love :

                             “Dans le vieux pare solitaire et glacé
                               Deux spectres ont evoque le passé?”

That is not how I have seen my friend, for the most part ; and the con-
trast between the man as I have seen him and the writer of verses as I read
them, is to me the most attractive interest of a book which I find singularly-
attractive.  He will not mind, I know, if I speak of him with some of that
frankness which we reserve usually for the dead, or with which we sometimes
honour our enemies ; for he is of a complete indifference to these things, as I
shall assure myself over again before these lines are printed.

    I do not remember the occasion of our first meeting, but I remember
seeing him casually, at railway-stations, in a semi-literary tavern which once
had a fantastic kind of existence, and sometimes, at night, in various parts of
the Temple, before I was more than slightly his acquaintance.  I was struck
then by a look and manner of pathetic charm, a sort of Keats-like face, the
face of a demoralized Keats, and by something curious in the contrast of a
manner exquisitely refined, with an appearance generally somewhat dilapi-
dated.  That impression was only accentuated, later on, when I came to know

                                                          F

92                                  THE SAVOY

him, and the manner of his life, much more intimately.  I think I may date
my first real impression of what one calls “the real man—as if it were more
real than the poet of the disembodied verses !—from an evening in which he
first introduced me to those charming supper-houses, open all night through,
the cabmen’s shelters.  There were four of us, two in evening dress, and we
were welcomed, cordially and without comment, at a little place near the
Langham ; and, I recollect, very hospitably entertained.  He was known there,
and I used to think he was always at his best in a cabmen’s shelter.
Without a certain sordidness in his surroundings, he was never quite com-
fortable, never quite himself; and at those places you are obliged to drink
nothing stronger than coffee or tea.  I liked to see him occasionally, for a
change, drinking nothing stronger than coffee or tea.  At Oxford, I believe, his
favourite form of intoxication had been haschisch ; afterwards he gave up this
somewhat elaborate experiment in visionary sensations for readier means of
oblivion ; but he returned to it, I remember, for at least one afternoon, in a
company of which I had been the gatherer, and of which I was the host.  The
experience was not a very successful one ; it ended in what should have been
its first symptom, immoderate laughter.  It was disappointing, and my charming,
expectant friends, disappointed.

    Always, perhaps a little consciously, but at least always sincerely, in
search of new sensations, my friend found what was for him the supreme
sensation in a very passionate and tender adoration of the most escaping
of all ideals, the ideal of youth.  Cherished, as I imagine, first only in the
abstract, this search after the immature, the ripening graces which time can
but spoil in the ripening, found itself at the journey’s end, as some of his
friends thought, a little prematurely.  I was never of their opinion.  I only
saw twice, and for a few moments only, the young girl to whom most of his
verses were to be written, and whose presence in his life may be held to
account for much of that astonishing contrast between the broad outlines of
his life and work.  The situation seemed to me of the most exquisite and
appropriate impossibility.  She had the gift of evoking, and, in its way, of
retaining, all that was most delicate, sensitive, shy, typically poetic, in a
nature which I can only compare to a weedy garden, its grass trodden down
by many feet, but with one small, carefully-tended flower-bed, luminous with
lilies.  I used to think, sometimes, of Verlaine and his “girl-wife,” the one
really profound passion, certainly, of that passionate career ; the charming,
child-like creature, to whom he looked back, at the end of his life, with an
unchanged tenderness and disappointment : “Vous n’avez rien compris à ma

                              A LITERARY CAUSERIE                        93

simplicitc,” as he lamented.  In the case of my friend there was, however, a
sort of virginal devotion, as to a Madonna ; and I think had things gone
happily, to a conventionally happy ending, he would have felt (dare I say ?)
that his ideal had been spoilt.

    But, for the good fortune of poets, things never do go happily with them,
or to conventionally happy endings.  So the wilder wanderings began, and a
gradual slipping into deeper and steadier waters of oblivion.  That curious
love of the sordid, so common an affectation of the modern decadent, and
with him so expressively genuine, grew upon him, and dragged him into yet
more sorry corners of a life which was never exactly “gay” to him.  And
now, indifferent to most things, in the shipwrecked quietude of a sort of self-
exile, he is living, I believe, somewhere on a remote foreign sea-coast.  People
will complain, probably, in his verses, of what will seem to them the factitious
melancholy, the factitious idealism, and (peeping through at a few rare
moments) the factitious suggestions of riot.  They will see only a literary
affectation where in truth there is as poignant a note of personal sincerity
as in the more explicit and arranged confessions of less admirable poets.
Yes, in these few, evasive, immaterial snatches of song, I find, implied for the
most part, hidden away like a secret, all the fever and turmoil and the
unattained dreams of a life which has itself had much of the swift, disastrous,
and suicidal energy of genius.

                                                                                                Arthur Symons.

MLA citation:

Symons, Arthur. “A Literary Causerie: On a Book of Verses.” The Savoy, vol. 4, August 1896, pp. 91-93. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv-symons-causerie/