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This review is taken from PN Review 27, Volume 9 Number 1, September - October 1982.

'SEEING CLEARLY' Julian Symons, Critical Observations (Faber) £9.75

Julian Symons's selection of his shorter critical essays and reviews published between 1964 and 1979 makes a surprisingly enjoyable and coherent book. Surprising, only because of the extreme diversity of subject-matter among twenty-two pieces throughout which he keeps up an urbane, informed and sensitive activity of critical discrimination. The book is shaped into four sections, the first and longest of which consists of studies of nine modern writers.

Curiosity about a namesake leads to a sympathetic and generous portrait of one of the leading Decadents, Arthur Symons. Julian Symons reminds us of the debt of modernist literature to The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) and to a man of letters who was able 'to enter into the minds of other writers' while retaining 'a core of coolness at the centre of his sympathy'. Julian Symons himself exhibits a similar cool (and balanced) critical judgement when he puts his finger on Arthur Symons's chief limitation as a critic: 'Art is referred to other art, rather than to life, and it is in Symons rather than in Wilde, Yeats or Beardsley, that art for art's sake becomes a doctrine rather than a phrase'.

The harshest essay in the book is a critical history of Edith Sit-well's literary reputation. This study, first published in London Magazine in 1964, caused Symons (and his editor, Alan Ross) much trouble when it first appeared. Eccentricity-a quality which Symons finds attractive in many of his writer-subjects- could not save Dame Edith. At ...


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