To W.B. Yeats1

May I dedicate to you this book on the Symbolist movement in literature, both as an expression of a deep personal friendship and because you, more than any one else, will sympathise with what I say in it, being yourself the chief representative of that movement in our country? France is the country of movements, and it is naturally in France that I have studied the development of a principle which is spreading throughout other countries, perhaps not less effectually, if with less definite outlines. Your own Irish literary movement is one of its expressions; your own poetry and A.E.’s poetry belong to it in the most intimate sense.2 In Germany it seems to be permeating the whole of literature, its spirit is that which is deepest in Ibsen, it has absorbed the one new force in Italy, Gabriele d’Annunzio. I am told of a group of Symbolists in Russian Literature,3 there is another in Dutch literature,4 in Portugal it has a little school of its own under Eugenio de Castro;5 I even saw some faint strivings that way in Spain, and the aged Spanish poet Campoamor has always fought on behalf of a ‘transcendental’ art in which we should recognise much of what is most essential in the doctrine of Symbolism.6 How often have you and I discussed all these questions, rarely arguing about them, for we rarely had an essential difference of opinion, but bringing them more and more clearly into light, turning our instincts into logic, digging until we reached the bases of our convictions. And all the while we were working as well as thinking out a philosophy of art; you, at all events, creating beautiful things, as beautiful, it seems to me, as anything that is being done in our time.

And we talked of other things besides art, and there are other sympathies, besides purely artistic ones, between us. I speak often in this book of Mysticism, and that I, of all people, should venture to speak, not quite as an outsider, of such things, will probably be a surprise to many. It will be no surprise to you, for you have seen me gradually finding my way, uncertainly but inevitably, in that direction which has always been to you your natural direction. Still, as I am, so meshed about with the variable and too clinging appearances of things, so weak before the delightfulness of earthly circumstance, I hesitate sometimes in saying what I have in my mind, lest I should seem to be saying more than I have any personal right to say. But what, after all, is one’s personal right? How insignificant a matter to any one but oneself, a matter how deliberately to be disregarded in that surely impersonal utterance which comes to one in one’s most intimate thinking about beauty and truth and the deeper issues of things!

It is almost worth writing a book to have one perfectly sympathetic reader, who will understand everything that one has said, and more than one has said, who will think one’s own thought whenever one has said exactly the right thing, who will complete what is imperfect in reading it, and be too generous to think that it is imperfect. I feel that I shall have that reader in you; so here is my book in token of that assurance.

Arthur Symons
London, June 1899


Further information about names or concepts in bold can be found in the Glossary. Editorial annotations are given after Symons’ own bibliographical notes. He prefaced these with the announcement:

The essays contained in this book are not intended to give information. They are concerned with ideas rather than with facts; each is a study of a problem, only in part a literary one, in which I have endeavoured to consider writers as personalities under the action of spiritual forces, or as themselves so many forces. But it has seemed to me that readers have a right to demand information in regard to writers who are so often likely to be unfamiliar to them. I have therefore given a bibliography of the works of each writer with whom I have dealt, and I have added a number of notes, giving particulars which I think are likely to be useful in fixing more definitely the personal characteristics of these writers.

1. Symons would omit this dedication to W.B. Yeats from the second American edition of 1919 as part of a coolness between the two writers, following his mental breakdown in 1908. Symons’ friendship with Yeats and its influence on The Symbolist Movement is discussed in my introduction.

2. AE was the pen name of the poet George William Russell (1867–1935). With Yeats, AE was a key member of the Literary Revival movement in Ireland. As well as being steeped in Irish mythology, his poetry is characterised by his strong spiritualist beliefs and interests in mysticism.

3. Between 1894 and 1895 the Russian poet and writer Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov published three slim anthologies under the title Russkie Simvolisty (Russian Symbolists), placing translations of the French Symbolists alongside original Russian works. With Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), Bryusov helped to establish Symbolism as a significant force within Russian literature.

4. Symons is not explicit about which Dutch writers he has in mind here, but in ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ he mentions Louis Couperus (1863–1923), citing his novel Extaze [Ecstasy] (1890).

5. The Portuguese poet Eugenio de Castro (1869–1944) published Oaristos [Intimate Conversations] in 1890, incorporating his own Symbolist manifesto. It helped to establish a small school of young poets around him. In 1895 he was elected to the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon. Other important Symbolist poets in Portugal include Camilo Pessanha (1867–1926) and Roberto de Mesquita (1871–1923).

6. Symons published an essay on the Spanish poet Ramon de Campoamor in Harper’s Monthly Magazine during December 1901, reprinting it in Studies in Prose and Verse (1904). He compares Campoamor with Verlaine and singles out the shorter poems published as Doloras for particular praise.