Critical Observations Critical Essays

Julian Symons

Critical Observations

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Julian Symons has achieved distinction in a wide variety of literary forms. Best known as a crime novelist, he is also a successful poet, playwright, biographer, historian, editor, writer of short stories, and critic. His novels are not examples of the ubiquitous and commonplace mystery story, but are rather vehicles for an examination of contemporary society as it is affected by social and moral corruption. Several have won important awards. His interest in crime is not limited to fiction: he has also written a number of related historical and critical works. His biographical subjects include A. J. A. Symons, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Horatio Bottomley, and Edgar Allan Poe. He has published histories of the General Strike and of the relief expedition to Egypt in behalf of General Charles George Gordon. He has edited anthologies of fiction and poetry, has written plays for radio and television, and is a respected poet whose work is said to be influenced by W. H. Auden and by the surrealists. Symons is in addition an important critic who contributes regularly to the Times Literary Supplement and other review publications.

Julian Symons is in many ways the ideal critic. His approach to the subject is invariably a balanced one, evaluating strengths and weaknesses and free of obvious prejudice. His style is personal and familiar but never loses the necessary quality of detachment. His insights are shrewd, his analysis is thorough, and his conclusions are sound. He can be devastating and is often entertaining, but he is never superficial.

There is no such thing as an objective opinion or an objective judgment. All judgments are subjective, but the best are those backed by insight, common sense, experience, and circumstantial evidence. Too many critics are merely opinionated and their personal biases are all too evident. Others have a regrettable tendency to use the subject of discussion as a springboard for lengthy and unrelated diatribes or polemics. Symons does not permit himself such distractions, and the writer whose work is being examined is never treated in a cavalier or perfunctory way. Symons is a serious critic in the best sense of the term; his brilliance and personal integrity are very much in evidence, as is his commitment to fair play. His prose style is fluid and articulate. His critical essays can serve as models of their kind.

The present volume is a sampling, chosen by the author, of Symons as critic. It is divided into four sections. The first deals with one man of letters, three poets, four novelists, and one critic. The second contains five essays that examine “little magazines” in some depth. The third section provides a look at the literature of crime, while the fourth and final section contains portraits of two personal friends and the memoir of a personal experience.

Of the first group, the most interesting essay, and unquestionably the most controversial, subjects Dame Edith Sitwell to close scrutiny and concludes that her poetry has been overrated and that her elevated status in Britain is undeserved. Symons notes in his Preface that the essay was not well received when it was originally published, partly because its appearance coincided with the poet’s death. This coincidence was indeed unfortunate, for it has been noted that Symons can be devastating and he is devastating here. His arguments are nevertheless convincing and his points would appear to be well taken. Moreover, they are strongly supported by the evidence, much of which comes from verbal and written statements by the poet herself.

Symons is a critic who insists upon meaning. He is not troubled by the complex, the obscure, the surrealistic or the unconventional, but he does believe that in order to be valid, a literary work must say something. Sitwell’s experiments with words addressed only the musical qualities inherent in them, and much of her poetry has no other meaning unless it be a vaguely suggested emotional sense. It is a kind of poetry that is receptive to moods and meanings supplied by the reader. It thus becomes a kind of participatory creative exercise and, in a sense, a game. As such, it represents a vein that cannot be mined very deeply and it easily degenerates into shallowness or frivolity. Symons acknowledges that Sitwell was a refreshing and innovative new voice in 1923, and he gives due recognition to the sprightly quality of her best work as light verse, but he asserts that the acclaim it received was largely based on novelty and that it was neither novel nor significant enough to justify the adulation she received during and after World War II. It is his conclusion that she was both the beneficiary and the victim of wartime hysteria.

It is clear that Symons has little patience with poetic or other techniques that are irrelevant to meaning. He mentions the typographical tricks played by E. E. Cummings, and by implication includes a host of imitators who have experimented with typeface, page layout, and similar devices. His view would seem to be that if a poem is valid in terms of its meaning—the statement it makes—then it has no need of such things. On the other hand, a printed poem is first of all a visual experience and to many poets its appearance on the page is an important part of the art form involved. Presumably, Symons would have no quarrel with decorative elements if the poem can stand alone without their assistance.

If Symons’ basic premise is granted, his assessment of Edith Sitwell as a poet is difficult to refute. It seems probable...

(The entire section is 2270 words.)