The literary lion in winter

Arthur Symons by Jacques-Émile Blanche

It’s difficult to imagine someone as venerable as poet John Betjeman ever having been a young buck about town, but he was once, and it was in that mode that he glimpsed the living ghost of the 1890s. Arthur Symons, who arguably shaped that fabled decade’s literature more than any single figure, is captured here in the 1930s, in Betjeman’s poem with the auto-explanatory title “On seeing an Old Poet in the Café Royal”. The poignant confusion of the elder poet is evidently borne not just of age but the mental turmoil which engulfed the second half of his life. Symons died on this day in 1945.

      I saw him in the Café Royal
            Very old and very grand.
      Modernistic shone the lamplight
            There in London’s fairyland.
      “Devilled chicken. Devilled whitebait.
            Devil if I understand.

      Where is Oscar? Where is Bosie?
            Have I seen that man before?
      And the old one in the corner,
            Is it really Wratislaw?”
      Scent of Tutti-Fritti-Sen-Sen
            And cheroots upon the floor.



  1. James

    An under-appreciated conduit for the transfer of continental modernism (Symbolism) to the UK – both via his poetry and translations (of Verlaine etc.) and his critical work (The Symbolist Movement in Literature). I have a drawing of him in my bedroom by his fellow West-Walian (and Francophile) Gwen John which I will be sure to salute today now that I have been reminded of the anniversary. So thank you James. Despite his appreciation for the 90s poets, I always found this poem of Betjeman’s condescending rather than poignant, though it does have something of Beerbohm’s ‘Enoch Soames’ about it.

    • Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t aware that Gwen John had drawn Symons – is this the one? It’s a handy reminder that I had planned to do a post on the Tenbian triumvurate – Gwen, Augustus and Nina Hamnett.

  2. James

    That is the one yes, though there are other drawings of him by John. And, of course, forget Paris, Berlin, Zurich – Tenby was the crucible of Modernism 🙂

  3. Pingback: Places: Clifton | Strange Flowers

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