THE RHYMERS’ CLUB
The Rhymers’ Club was a group of young, London-based writers who met informally from time to time to read their poems aloud to each other and to mull over the challenges facing poets and poetry.
The club was founded in 1890 by W.B. Yeats together with T.W. Rolleston and Ernest Rhys who was to become the editor of The Everyman’s library. Women were not invited or allowed.
Its members would often meet in private houses but more usually their meetings took place in the ‘Olde Cheshire Cheese’ in Fleet Street (still there of course) where they would dine together before they headed upstairs to drink wine, smoke their long clay pipes, read and talk. Meetings were held about once a month but no minutes were ever taken or any kind of manifesto published so details of what actually happened or what was read are somewhat hazy; but they did publish two anthologies. The first, called The Book of the Rhymers’ Club was published in 1892. The Second Book of the Rhymers’ Club appeared two years later in 1894, They had print runs of 450 and 650 respectively.
In fact you can look at the first anthology now as it’s available to read online at https://archive.org/details/bookofrhymersclu00rhym
Who belonged to the club?
There was a core of about 14 members, though with occasional droppers-in the total number was probably about 25. Apart from the founders, the names that most often crop up are, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Francis Thompson, Richard Le Gallienne, John Gray ( the inspiration behind Wilde’s ‘A picture of Dorian Gray’). And besides these, there was John Davidson, Aubrey Beardsley, Edwin J. Ellis, Victor Plarr (who found the meetings boring but attended nevertheless), Selwyn Image, Lord Alfred Douglas, Arthur Cecil Hillier, John Todhunter, G.A. Greene, Arthur Symons and Ernest Radford, Oscar Wilde attended some meetings but not in the Cheshire Cheese. It’s been suggested that the venue wasn’t fashionable enough for him.
What was important to the Rhymers as poets?
Perhaps above all was the musicality of their verse. Walter Pater, the lauded critic of their time maintained that ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ suggesting that the arts all attempt to merge form and content in the way that is found in music. This led to an impressionistic style of writing and an emphasis on its sound.
Another aspect of their work was that there should be absolute freedom of choice in subject matter however it might strike the reader. It was said of them that they chose ‘ perfection of the work rather than of life’ and Symons maintained in a preface to one of his works that ‘ a work of art can be judged from only two standpoints: the standpoint from which its art is measured entirely by its morality, and the standpoint from which its morality is measured entirely by its art.’
How was the group regarded at the time ?
Certain labels clung to members of The Rhymersw’ Club. Decadent was a favourite. They were regarded as ‘wistful drunks who met their ends in in gutters and insane asylums. ‘They were also often compared to the French Symbolists of the mid-1800’s. who were not afraid to cock a snook at the bourgeoisie. Arthur Symons in particular, admired the symbolists and went on to write a book about the Symbolist Movement in Literature.
Several of the Rhymers had work published in ‘The Yellow Book’ memorably described as ‘a red rag to John Bull.’ Aubrey Beardsley was its Art Editor and the first edition was greeted with satisfying howls of protest from the establishment.
Yeats referred to his friends and colleagues as ‘the tragic generation’ – poets who were obsessively devoted to their craft in a world that did not appreciate them or their work. Certainly a few members fitted that description and also died young. Ernest Dowson died at 32 , an impoverished alchoholic. You may be interested to know Dowson was looked after until his death by someone called Robert Sherard who had a ‘cottage’ in Catford at 26 Sandhurst Gardens. Lionel Johnson died at 32, Beardsley at 25. Oscar Wilde at 46.
Yeats wrote by way of an epitaph:-
You kept the Muses’ sterner laws
And unrepenting faced your ends,
And therefore earned the right – and yet
Dowson and Johnson most I praise –
To troop with those the world’s forgot
And copy their proud, steady gaze.
It is however not so well known that most core members lived to 60 and beyond.
And today’s verdict?
Maybe in the end the rhymers’ biography proved to be more interesting than their art at the stage they were at then. They were young and promising and full of ideas but most did not attract too much attention as poets either then or now. Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and Arthur Symons have secure reputations but only Yeats triumphed
Recommended book if you can hold of it:-
Poetry Of The Nineties (Penguin) ed. and introduced by R. K. R. Thornton