Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
 
Critical Introduction by John Drinkwater
John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)
 
[Born at Bristol, 1840, of a family which had been distinguished in medicine for five generations. After a brilliant career at Oxford, he developed lung delicacy, which compelled him to live much in Italy and Switzerland, especially (after 1878) at Davos, in the company of R. L. Stevenson and other invalids of mark. For years he devoted his main studies to Italian history, and produced not only The Renaissance of Italy in many volumes but a number of shorter books and essays in prose. On these his reputation will chiefly rest; but in and after 1878 he also published, in addition to translations of Latin students’ songs and Michael Angelo’s sonnets, four books of original verse: Many Moods, 1878; New and Old, 1880; Animi Figura, 1882; and Vagabunduli Libellus, 1884. He died in Rome on April 19, 1893.]  1
 
TO read much of Symonds’s verse at a sitting is to be oppressed by a luxuriance that often runs to seed. His very facility, indeed, while it always gives his verse remarkable accomplishment, frequently leads him astray from the fine purposes of poetry, when he is content to describe the externalities of things, without exploring their sources. His work then, dazzling as it often is, becomes hard and slippery on the surface, and barren of the intimacy and precision which are the blood of poetry. In these moods—and they were not rare in his experience—he was the prey and not the master of words, and the seductiveness of a merely gorgeous verbal array confused his perception of the real nature of an image; as, for example—

 Upon the pictured walls amid the blaze
Of carbuncle and turquoise, solid bosses
Of diamonds, pearl engirt, shot fiery rays:
  
Swan’s down beneath, with parrot plumage, glosses
Cedar-carved couches on the dais deep
In bloom of asphodel and meadow mosses.
  
Here languid men with pleasure tired may sleep:
Here revellers may banquet in the sheen
Of silver cressets: gourds and peaches heap
  
The citron tables; and a leafy screen,
This way and that with blossoms interlaced,
Winds through the hall in mazed alleys green.
  2
 
  This is striking virtuosity, but it is not the disciplined manner of poetry; it produces not an image in the mind, but a glittering confusion. It is, perhaps, in the shorter lyric, that searching test of a poet’s quality, that Symonds most suffered from his lack of strict poetic control; in this manner the large and impressive if florid gesture of his more elaborate work is of little use to him, and he finds himself untutored to stricter economy of the imagination, and the result is that his short lyrics, with very few exceptions, lack all the sudden and glowing presentation of words that means distinction. His really imposing accomplishment, too, was subject to startling lapses, such as
                     Splits the throat
Of maenad multitudes with shrill sharp shrieks,
and his literary scholarship should have saved him from such an indiscretion as—
 Pestilence-smitten multitudes, sere leaves
Driven by the dull remorseless autumn breath.
  3
  And yet, in spite of his verbal ceremoniousness, and a habit of mind that too often led him from simple and stirring imaginative thought into every deft kind of fancy, he is justly allowed the honor of representation among his country’s poets. Not only had he great richness in description, which could be arresting when it was not unbridled, but there were moments when he wrote simply and with his eye on his object, as in Harvest, and the result gives him a place that we can only wish he had earned by a greater body of work of his best quality. There were other times when his very virtuosity reached such a pitch as to force something more than astonishment, as in Le Jeune Homme caressant sa Chimère, where he achieves a brilliance equalled by very few of his contemporaries. Yet better, he could now and again subject himself to real emotional truth, and express it with sustained if unequal directness, as in Stella Maris. This sonnet sequence is, I think, his best achievement as a poet. The psychology may be a little uncertain, and the lover’s attitude is sometimes (e.g., Sonnets 52 and 53) intolerable, but the sequence as a whole does give real and often beautiful expression to a profound and passionate experience. There is here a spiritual intensity which Symonds generally missed, but by virtue of his having achieved it here and in one or two other places, he claims his place in the company of genuine poets.  4
 
 
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