Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Delineating Decadence: The Influence of J.-K. Huysmans on Arthur Symons

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Delineating Decadence: The Influence of J.-K. Huysmans on Arthur Symons

Article excerpt

Arthur Symons, an early devotee of the works of J.-K. Huysmans, was especially drawn to A Rebours. Initially, Huysmans' novel turned Symons into a Francophile and student of Continental literature; later, it significantly entered into his delineation of Decadence, which he modified and labeled Symbolism. When he dubbed A Rebours "the breviary of the decadence," Symons helped it become exactly that among a coterie of young, impressionable British poets. Symons' essay "The Decadent Movement in Literature" is an astute reaction to the epoch epitomized by A Rebours. Symons incorporated his critical responses to Huysmans' En Route and La Cathedrale into a chapter in The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which he tided "Huysmans the Symbolist." Today, The Symbolist Movement in Literature is widely considered one of the most significant volumes of modern criticism; Huysmans' influence on its genesis is worthy of special focus.


The life of Arthur Symons, author of one of the most significant volumes of modern criticism, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, has been rather completely covered by biographers. (1) His most important letters have been collected and published. (2) All that he wrote is in print and available, as an excellent, detailed bibliography makes clear. (3) Various phases of his long life (1865-1945) have been explored and his many works have been treated in numerous articles. With all the attention he has received, one aspect of his life and work that has not received special focus is the influence that J.-K. Huysmans exerted upon Arthur Symons, especially in the formation of the latter's views on Decadence, which later he came to modify and label Symbolism.

Symons was one of the first Englishman of letters after George Moore to develop an affinity for the author of A Rebours. Before Oscar Wilde and John Gray, and before such members of the Rhymers' Club as Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Max Beerbohm, and William Butler Yeats fell under Huysmans' spell, Symons had called upon Huysmans in Paris and wrote about him and his work for the Fortnightly Review. (4) What Symons had to say about the French author was eagerly read and echoed widely by young British poets.

When he dubbed A Rebours the "breviary of the decadence," (5) Symons helped it become exactly that. He could have labelled Huysmans' novel a primer or a guide, a manual or a textbook, a compilation or a miscellany, or even an anthology; for all such terms are properly descriptive of A Rebours. Breviary, however, struck Symons as the exact word, aware that a breviary is a special book of psalms, hymns, and selected parts of the Bible read daily by ordained clergymen of the Roman Catholic Church. A Rebours, Symons implied, is a breviary of sorts, a kind of prayer book, a devotional volume, its scripture being that of art, music, flowers, gems, liqueurs, and literature that aesthetes delighted to peruse day-in and day-out.

When Symons first read A Rebours cannot be established, but he could have come across it as early as 1884, the year it was first published in Paris. Possibly he was drawn to the work after reading George Moore's review of it in the St. James Gazette in a piece entitled "A Curious Book." (6) Or maybe Symons first became curious about Huysmans' novel after reading Moore's Confessions of a Young Man, in which he characterized A Rebours as being equivalent to "a dose of opium, a glass of something exquisite and spirituous." (7) But more important than Symons' first reading of A Rebours is the impact it had on him. Initially, it helped turn him into a Francophile and devotee of Continental literature; later, it profoundly influenced his concept of literature and his delineation of Decadence.


During the spring of 1890, Arthur Symons made the first of his many trips to the Continent. He spent several months in Paris enjoying days of freedom and nights of pleasure, but his chief reason for being there was to immerse himself in the contemporary literature and art of France. …

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