We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Rhymers' Club (act. 1890–1895) was a gathering of some of the most distinctive poets of the early to mid-1890s who met at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese public house, off Fleet Street, London, to read aloud and criticize each other's work. In their two volumes of verse, and the trajectories of their very different lives, they showed themselves not as a school or a movement but as a representative group of fin de siècle poets. The club had its genesis in the need felt in the early 1890s to discuss the challenges of poetry in a complex new age, when the Victorian greats were either dead, in the case of Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold, or moribund, in that of Alfred Tennyson and Algernon Swinburne, and there was no new giant to take their place but a great many active poets.

The formation of the Rhymers' Club gives a picture of literary connections in London: W. B. Yeats met Ernest Rhys, the great editor (but indifferent poet), at a lecture given by William Morris in May 1887, after which they had both been invited to dinner at Morris's London home, Kelmscott House. Yeats later introduced Rhys to Thomas Rolleston (1857–1920) and the three met George Greene (1853–1921) and John Todhunter, whom Rolleston and Yeats had met previously in Dublin.

Rhys wrote on 21 May 1890 that the ‘Rhymsters' Club’ had been ‘lately formed’. Now such other writers as John Davidson, Arthur Symons, whom Rhys knew from his editorial work, and Ernest Radford (1857–1919), whom Rhys had met at Fabian Society meetings, were invited to join. In 1891 they secured connections with Richard Le Gallienne and with the Oxford aesthetes Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and Victor Plarr. Some meetings of the group, now known as the Rhymers, took place at the ‘Fitzroy Settlement’, 20 Fitzroy Street, London, where Johnson lived and where the Century Guild of Artists was based. Oscar Wilde attended the first meeting here, but when the cenacle began to meet in the Cheshire Cheese he would not attend as he was too fastidious for meetings in a public house.

Eventually a core of fourteen Rhymers was formed, who met regularly and published together (with the exception of Davidson who did not contribute to the collective volumes). In addition to those already named the group included Edwin Ellis (1848–1918) and Arthur Cecil Hillier (b. 1857/8). To this group were added about twenty-five further men who were occasional attenders or were at least invited, including the artist John Trivett Nettleship, the writer and sexologist Havelock Ellis, architect Herbert Horne, the publisher's editor Edward Garnett, and the writers John Barlas, John Henry Gray, Arthur Moore (1866–1952), and Edgar Jepson (1863–1938). The poet Francis Thompson attended once. Visiting foreign writers such as Pierre Louÿs (1870–1925) were occasionally welcomed. Such representatives of literary London were also influential as what has been called a ‘reviewing mafia’ (Foster, 108), exercising decisive influence on The Star, the Pall Mall Gazette, The Speaker, the Daily Chronicle, The Bookman, and other publications.

Yeats defined the Rhymers during the club's lifetime as ‘well nigh all the poets of the new generation who have public enough to get their works printed at the cost of the publisher, and some not less excellent, who cannot yet mount that first step of the ladder famewards’ (Alford, 143). In fact the club did not admit women, so the accuracy of Yeats's statement is questionable. This meant that published poets like Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who together wrote under the pseudonym Michael Field), Katharine Tynan, Alice Meynell, and, notably, Dollie Radford, were excluded from the club. Radford's husband, Ernest, was of course a member despite his being the inferior poet. He mourned the absence of Dollie in verse
Had you increased our number
What sweetness might have been
(Radford, 62)
but there is no record of conversation on the matter. The club kept no minutes or other records, so any further speculation would be fruitless.The meetings had a strongly Celtic tinge, which some members emphasized: apart from the Irish contingent (Yeats, Todhunter, and Rolleston, with Le Gallienne of Irish, Scottish, and Channel Island descent), Rhys was Welsh, Symons of Welsh and Cornish descent, while Davidson was from Renfrewshire and Dowson half-Scottish. The group was not, however, so imbued with the Celtic spirit as to fill the perceived need for an Irish literary society, for Rolleston and Yeats set up such a group in London on 9 April 1892.

The Rhymers would dine at the Cheshire Cheese once a month in coffee house boxes resembling pews. Afterwards they went upstairs to an ill-lit, panelled room to drink beer and smoke long, clay churchwarden pipes while they listened to and discussed new verse. Edgar Jepson described them as ‘all seething with the stern sense of their poetic mission’ (Jepson, 236). Victor Plarr noted that the meetings began at 8.30 p.m. and seldom lasted beyond 10.30 p.m., ‘when we usually dispersed in a state of dire sobriety’ (Plarr, ‘Unpublished lecture’, 392). By contrast the early coterie had read their verse to a ‘Bacchanalian accompaniment of whiskey’ (Gardner, 57), declaring
we drink defiance
To-night to all but Rhyme
(Gardiner, 1)
but the introduction of the Oxford aesthete group considerably sobered the proceedings (despite the alcoholism of Dowson and Johnson). Yeats considered it was the Irish members—‘who said whatever came into their heads’—who ensured the success of the club, for many other participants were cowed by the prevailing stern aesthetic values (Yeats, Trembling, 54). Davidson criticized the Rhymers for lacking ‘blood and guts’ and attempted a coup to introduce some life into the meetings, inviting four Scottish versifiers and proposing them for acceptance (ibid., 193). The Rhymers were too polite to refuse, but secretly resolved never to meet again, and Yeats writes of its taking hours to organize another meeting to vote the newcomers out.

The Rhymers shared a conviction that poetry must be heard aloud by an audience, not merely read silently and alone. Members also expressed disgust at theory, so that anyone voicing ‘generalizations’ about poetry was shouted down; the club also shared a mistrust of science, industrialization, and materialism but an acceptance of cities, in particular of London, about which Symons wrote in London Nights and Davidson in Fleet Street Eclogues.

A desire to see in print the work that they had heard recited led to the publication by Elkin Mathews of The Book of the Rhymers' Club in February 1892 in an edition of 350 copies. It sold out in a month and reviews were spirited, recognizing a new poetic challenge. The Second Book of the Rhymers' Club was published by Mathews and Lane in 1894. It sold less well, and reviews were tepid. The books show how the club felt the urge to preserve poetry from the ‘impurities’ of politics, moral causes, and other such exogenous forces. At this high point of empire no poem took aspects of the imperial adventure for a theme. Poems using Christian imagery sit alongside those with such titles as ‘Hesperides’ or ‘Orpheus in Covent Garden’. Ernest Radford's ‘Song in the Labour Movement’ looks sadly out of place.

While it was obvious to succeeding generations that the presiding genius of the club was W. B. Yeats, he was then a minor poet among others. At the time that Yeats consorted with the Rhymers his only volume of verse was The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889); his great work still lay ahead of him. Yeats's accounts of the group are the best known, but his views changed with time. In his first published comments on the Rhymers, in the Boston Pilot on 23 April 1892, the poets he features are Arthur Symons, John Davidson, Richard Le Gallienne, and John Todhunter, but in his poem ‘The Grey Rock’ (1914) he named only two: ‘Dowson and Johnson most I praise’. In The Trembling of the Veil (1922) Yeats described his contemporaries as ‘The Tragic Generation’, but this appellation could rightly apply to only a small number, as Ernest Rhys complained to him. In the introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936 Yeats again stressed the role of poet as tragic victim, but one uncompromisingly dedicated to his art. Once again he singled out Dowson and Johnson, both of whom were to die young, ravaged by alcohol. John Davidson committed suicide at the age of fifty-two, and Symons suffered a severe nervous breakdown from which he never fully recovered. However, of the core Rhymers whose death dates are known, only two—Dowson and Johnson—failed to reach their fortieth birthday: ten of the club's members reached sixty, while Rhys and Le Gallienne lived to over eighty. Only Yeats was to enjoy spectacular success but all the members were published, and it is reasonable to say even of the four mentioned here as fitting the description ‘tragic’ that their best work was behind them. Many others, like Victor Plarr, who became librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons, lived comfortable, middle-class lives.

The club seems to have stopped meeting officially after the publication of the Second Book, but bonds of friendship and common interest were maintained and core Rhymers continued to meet. A letter from 1895 shows evidence of a Rhymers' dinner though, as Kelsey Thornton has said, 1894 was the last year in which the club ‘had some meaning and importance’ (Thornton, 53). In the new century some members met in Rhys's home, where he also entertained such new poets as D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound.

The Rhymers evade easy definition: some were socialist and some Irish, but the Rhymers were not a socialist or an Irish group; some Anglicized the ideas of the French decadent movement, but the Rhymers were not decadents; some, like Yeats and Davidson, tended towards mystical philosophy, but the Rhymers were not mystics. The key to understanding them is that they discussed Christopher Marlowe and Percy Bysshe Shelley as if they were contemporaries. The Rhymers were striving not to be avant-garde but for an enduring truth of poetry. They were too earnest for the casual visitor and were often found dull even by habitual attenders.

Jad Adams

Sources  

J. Adams, Madder music, stronger wine: the life of Ernest Dowson, poet and decadent (2000) · N. Alford, The Rhymers' Club (1980) · B. Gardiner, The Rhymers' Club: a social and intellectual history (1988) · J. Gardner, Yeats and the Rhymers' Club: a nineties perspective (1989) · E. A. Jepson, Memories of a Victorian (1933) · V. Plarr, Ernest Dowson, 1888–1897: reminiscences, unpublished letters and marginalia (1914) · V. Plarr, ‘Victor Plarr on the Rhymers' Club: an unpublished lecture’, English Literature in Transition, 45 (2002), 379–401 · E. Radford, Old and new (1895) · E. Rhys, Everyman remembers (1931) · R. K. R. Thornton, ‘Dates for the Rhymers' Club’, English Literature in Transition, 14 (1971), 49–53 · W. B. Yeats, The trembling of the veil (1922) · W. B. Yeats, introduction, The Oxford book of modern verse, 1892–1935 (1936) · R. F. Foster, The apprentice mage, 1865–1914 (1997), vol. 1 of W. B. Yeats: a life