The 1890s were apprentice years for Yeats. Though he played with Indian and Irish mythology, his symbolism really developed later. The decade was for him, as a poet, the years of lyric, of the Rhymers’ Club, of those contemporaries whom he dubbed the ‘tragic generation’. ‘I have known twelve men who killed themselves,’ Arthur Symons looked back from his middle-aged madness, reflecting on the decade of which he was the doyen. The writers and artists of the period lived hectically and recklessly. Ernest Dowson (1867–1900) (one of the best lyricists of them all – ‘I cried for madder music and for stronger wine’) died from consumption at thirty-two; Lionel Johnson (1867–1902), a dipsomaniac, died aged thirty-five from a stroke. John Davidson committed suicide at fifty-two; Oscar Wilde, disgraced and broken by prison and exile, died at forty-six; Aubrey Beardsley died at twenty-six. This is not to mention the minor figures of the Nineties literary scene: William Theodore Peters, actor and poet, who starved to death in Paris; Hubert Crankanthorpe, who threw himself in the Thames; Henry Harland, editor of The Yellow Book, who died of consumption aged forty-three, or Francis Thompson, who fled the Hound of Heaven ‘down the nights and down the days’ and who died of the same disease aged forty-eight. Charles Conder (1868–1909), water-colourist and rococo fan-painter, died in an asylum aged forty-one.
A.N. Wilson (The Victorians)