The George Eliot in me (there’s one in all of us) would turn over as a subject for a novel the life of Arthur Symons; the sort of thing Julian Barnes also could take up, with powerful results, if he’d not taken up another Arthur (and another George). The subject of his life might appeal to Eliot as a subject of waste and limitation, but also a diffuse influence beyond the intrinsic value (if we allow the fantasy) of his own achievements, and as an exploration of the cosmopolitan imagination. The subject might appeal to Barnes because Symons has come to be valued–and was valued even in his own life, once he had suffered a breakdown and his writing career was at an effective end–as a vessel for literary influence, from the French to the English, a trade route Barnes knows well. His breakdown happened in 1909; 1910 saw a post-impressionist exhibit in London; the cultural historians have another peg on which to drape the tapestry of the modern.
The Eliot novel would begin abroad–in Italy or France, Symons trembling along the nerves, a fantasia of visions in his mind, as he runs his finger impatiently along the page, tracing the words of an unnamed French poet. The Barnes novel would begin in a classroom in Oxford, in 2003; the young female protagonist, hungover, dim with regret, entering the first day of her tutorial on T.S. Eliot, and receiving for discussion, not Eliot, but a poem by Symons, introduced as a hangover of the Victorian era, regretted as an expression of that hopeful, so hopeful, but vacuous stretch of Victorian verse, from, say 1880 onward, when Tennyson and Browning were in there ruminating, rambling, repetitive dotage, when Swinburne was schoolmarm to one fortunate boy, when Yeats was Cuchalaining mellifluously. (Forget Hardy; his 1913 elegies win him entry in the 20th century; forget Housman’s jejunely dismissed pessimism and repressimism; forget Barnes already forgotten).
“Hear then”, the Oxford Scotchman Scholar hearkens the doe-eyed object of his mind’s eye, “the voice of the Bard”:
ON THE BEACH.
NIGHT, a grey sky, a ghostly sea,
The soft beginning of the rain:
Black on the horizon, sails that wane
Into the distance mistily.
The tide is rising, I can hear
The soft roar broadening far along;
It cries and murmurs in my ear
A sleepy old forgotten song.
Softly the stealthy night descends,
The black sails fade into the sky:
Is this not, where the sea-line ends,
The shore-line of infinity?
I cannot think or dream: the grey
Unending waste of sea and night,
Dull, impotently infinite,
Blots out the very hope of day.
This really is awful stuff. In the third volume of her novel, Eliot quotes it epigraphically, and describes it, in overwrought prose, as the expression of a sensibility too arduous for the (undefined) significance of life to tolerate the hunger for glances at the European sea-side resort. Well-read, she winks, with a heavy thud, at the “sage of the century’s glowing middle years,” and the “Italian prophet of noia, who himself stared at the Infinite” who stand behind the lines. The verse, she tells us, yearns.
Barnes’ heroine yawns, then titters as the tutor reads it again, this time in a caricature of despair; as if despair were easy. Musty, the tutor mocks a fellow fellow, one who, in her scramble for research requirements and a life of high table dining privileges, devotes a chapter of a monograph to the poet, arguing that “the thudding fall of “dull, impotently infinite,” the repetition of “infinite” so close and clumsily on the heels of “shore-line of infinity” registers the claustrophobia of the open expanse, the unimaginable horizon of futurity that closes tightly on Symons, and also acknowledges–dramatizes even–the exhaustion of the language, incapable even of summoning new phrases for describing its exhaustion.” He chortles. She too; the night before no matter now, and tasting suddenly, the present affirming its hold, in the crumbs of croissant on her lips, something fresh: superiority. “This,” she is told, “is what T.S. Eliot, and Pound at the same time, had to do away with.”
In the novel by that other Eliot, George, two chapters from the end, the hero, now a middle-aged man himself, living in retirement, devoting himself to small but not trivial cares, however they may be dismissed by the voices of history raging against and within a war that–but the narrator only lets us hear its violence from afar and in parenthetical asides–receives in the post a letter from a young American, living now in Paris, expressing gratitude for a book that has done much to shape his sensibility. The older poet turns, sets the letter in a drawer in a cabinet on which dust has gathered; among the books there, the volume of which he was once so proud, unsettled from its place for some time, The French Symbolist Poets.
“That book, as crass as many of its evaluations are, had that salutary effect of second-rate criticism upon T.S. Eliot’s young mind, when his education was self-education, and at a rate that should astonish us.” She turns to the window, the stone lintel scraped away like a block of fresh butter, the poem by Symons shuffled among the course syllabus, paper topics, and photocopies of Eliot’s early drafts.
But then Anthony Hecht, in that disingenuously titled On the Laws of Poetic Art, quotes with approval, another poem by Symons, one that, like many others, wears the airs of French Impressionism and French Symbolism, but that, as Hecht notices, does something in late twentieth-century ears that many other poems by Symons fails to: breathes and sounds.
The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!
One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass’s tone.
Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.
Once more, a poem written “At Dieppe.” Once more, a poem that echoes, along with the French, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”–Hecht notices the interruption of “to you and me,” but does not register its violence to the poem. But something different. Among the differences that matter: “indefinitely desolate” where “infinitely desolate” might have been expected; “outlies” where we might have expected the Arnoldian “lies” (“lies before us like a dream”); and that final line, when the poem turns on its own “indifference”–we might be indifferent to it, it is indifferent to itself. Here, the fictitious Oxford fellow, author of the fictitious chapter in the fictitious monograph on Symons, has a point in her critical statement: exhaustion, fatigue, bleakness is not only expressed, but is in the means of xpression. If this owes something to the French (and it owes as much to Whistler’s stark sonatas of grayed tones; or more likely, and more specifically, to Whistler’s painting, “Symphony in Gray and Green; The Ocean,” hanging in The Frick), it is an irony, an aloofness from its own attitudes, even its own tones, that Eliot would mine from Laforgue more successfully than Symons could. But it is not the double-dealing irony, the hypocritical irony that would own an attitude and distance it at once, hedging its cake-filled mouth with the claim that it is too superior to indulge in such sticky sweets. When Symons writes, “Already autumn in the air, alas!” he is striking a pose and unsatisfied with the pose he strikes; I do not think we need to hear this as an earnest sigh. Nor can we hear the chiming tetrameter couplets as plaintive; it canters along too quickly for that. As jarring as the phrase “you and me” are the commas around the phrase–not “it means no more” but “it means, at least to the two of us, and I can’t speak for others, but I don’t really care about them.” At the end of this poem, we can imagine the speaker turning to that “you,” and saying, “let’s go back to bed”; the mundanity of the hopelessness (a cosmopolitan mundanity, the tourists tired by tourism) precludes a more melodramatic or even dramatic response. This is “Dover Beach” drained of its impetus to self-dramatize its despair; if that Oxford tutor were to read this aloud in a tone of caricature, the poem would be comical, but the comedy would not be detrimental to the poem, since it has already anticipated not only the fatigue of its position but the fatigue of its complaint; ennui palls too, and once ennui palls, we are in the realm of the absurd, where tragicomedy gains its laughter.