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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


Arthur Symons and Decadent Lyric: Art in the Age of Urban Modernity


My honors thesis seeks to examine the redemptive potential of the lyric form in urban modernity. I specifically engage critically with the lyrics in the minor Decadent poet Arthur Symons’ second volume of poetry Silhouettes (1892). In my paper, I trace the influence of English art critic Walter Pater's influence upon Symons' poetry and life. The cultural period of Decadence coincides with a burgeoning modernity and the rise of bourgeois values in London. An increasingly capitalistic urban London consequently precipitated an erosion of beauty and romance; fin-de-siècle poets such as Symons were often disillusioned with the alienating circumstances of the modern metropolis. In my honors thesis, I explore the consequences of Symons' actualization of the Paterian aesthetic outlined in Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Symons adapts Paterian impressionism in his verses in order to introduce an aesthetic moment in degraded urban spaces. However, Symons' resuscitation of the romance and beauty befitting Pater's antiquated world of art galleries proves to be problematic in London's urban landscape.

Throughout the honors thesis, I discuss Symons' hopeful belief in the potential of the Paterian aesthetic and his attempts to aestheticize sleazy or quotidian scenes in fin-de-siècle London. I ultimately argue that it is the salvific qualities of the lyric form that allows him to perpetuate and freeze these fleeting aesthetic moments in a necessarily ephemeral modernity. As a result, my thesis primarily focuses on Symons' exploitation of lyric in his career and how the form allowed him to introduce beauty and romance in even the most degraded of urban spaces.

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