Decadent Poetics
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Decadent Poetics

Literature and Form at the British Fin de Siècle

J. Hall,A. Murray

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eBook - ePub

Decadent Poetics

Literature and Form at the British Fin de Siècle

J. Hall,A. Murray

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About This Book

Decadent Poetics explores the complex and vexed topic of decadent literature's formal characteristics and interrogates previously held assumptions around the nature of decadent form. Writers studied include Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as A.E. Housman, Arthur Machen and Hubert Crackanthorpe.

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1

How Decadent Poems Die

Joseph Bristow
If English literary historians were to look anywhere for a period when poets resigned themselves to death’s inevitability, they would probably turn to fin-de-siècle decadence. This era remains more or less synonymous with the ostensibly dissipated careers of Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Oscar Wilde: three undeniably gifted writers whose premature demises at the turn of the century prompted their most distinguished contemporary, W. B. Yeats, to characterize them, many years later, as leading members of ‘The Tragic Generation’. All of them, including Yeats, had links with the legendary Rhymers’ Club, which produced two anthologies containing several poems that have always exemplified decadence. Yeats, who admitted he could not find a ‘full explanation of that tragedy’, speculated that ‘perhaps our form of lyric, our insistence upon emotion that has no relation to any public interest, gathered together overwrought, unstable men’.1 As several commentators have observed, his somewhat negative retrospective insinuates that these poets’ early encounters with the grave—through alcoholism, consumption, and what might appear to be attendant forms of moral and sexual decline—were already inscribed in their anti-social verses.2 On the face of it, some of their best-known works bear out Yeats’s despondent viewpoint. No sooner, for example, has Dowson’s drunken voice pondered the dregs that smear the glass of his quaffed beverage than he makes the following, finely cadenced observation: ‘health and hope’, he avers, ‘have gone the way of love / Into the drear oblivion of things’.3 Equally fatalistic, it seems, is Johnson, whose most famous poem involves a Job-like struggle with the vengeful ‘Dark Angel’ of tormenting homoerotic desire. Through its echoes of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s contentious Poems and Ballads (1866), this relentless demon of ‘aching lust’ threatens to send his tortured soul to a hellish ‘Second death, that never dies, / That cannot die, when time is dead’.4 Similarly bleak is Wilde, whose finest poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), insists that—in stanzas that mimic only to mock Rudyard Kipling’s bullish prosody—‘all men kill the thing they love’.5
It is perhaps too easy to build on Yeats’s commentary and conclude that the tragedy of these men who lived ‘lives of such disorder’ was that they fulfilled their self-destructive desires by passing away before a robust modernity crushed them.6 During World War Two, John Betjeman did just that. He depicted the now elderly decadent as a pitiful spectacle. In ‘On Seeing an Old Poet in the Café Royal’ (1940), Betjeman’s frail subject cannot withstand the ‘Modernistic . . . lamplight’ that now glares across what had been a fêted 1890s hangout. ‘Very old and very grand’, this sad relic remains bewildered as he strives to relive the distant past.7 ‘Where is Oscar? Where is Bosie?’ he wonders. Betjeman’s poem evokes one of the finest observations in Richard Gilman’s classic study, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (1979): ‘Before any specific associations arise “decadence” gives off a feeling of age, of superseded behavior, something almost quaint and even faintly comical.’8
During the 1890s, however, decadence thrived briefly as a potentially valuable concept. That the adjective ‘decadent’ arose in the 1830s says much about its decidedly modern role in nineteenth-century attempts to describe particular aesthetic features associated with cultural decline. Its progenitor, according to the OED, was etymological innovator Thomas Carlyle, who crafted the term in The French Revolution (1837) to delineate those historical periods ‘in which no Ideal either grows or blossoms’. By 1893, when Arthur Symons applied it to define ‘[t]he latest movement in modern literature’, it sustained a similar historicist inflection.9 Symons immediately acknowledged that decadent writing possesses ‘all the qualities we associate with the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities we find in the Greek, the Latin’. Such characteristics, he claimed, included ‘an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement’. Five years later, Havelock Ellis observed that decadent art defines itself against classicism. As ‘a further development of the classic style’, Ellis asserts, decadence makes ‘heterogeneous’ what had been ‘homogenous’.10 Where in the ‘classic style . . . the parts are subordinated to the whole’, in the ‘decadent’ one the opposite is true. ‘[A]ll art’, he contends, ‘is the rising and falling of a rhythmic curve between these two classic and decadent extremes’, in which both poles have equal value.11 In a sense, Ellis’s definition evokes the idea that decadence takes critically apart the perfected forms that classicism has pieced together. Set side by side, Symons’s and Ellis’s reflections on decadence—a term whose presumed immorality ensured that it could not survive the 1890s unscathed12—draw attention to why some of the most remarkable poets of this era remained preoccupied with ideas about inexorable decay for reasons that have little to do with whatever self-destructive whims appear in their poetry.
Modern critics have done much to uncover the intellectual background to these serious 1890s examinations of decadence. In an influential study, Linda Dowling asserts that decadence is a movement whose fascination with studied artifice and antique forms corresponds with these writers’ troubled perception of ‘the post-philological problem of language’.13 As Dowling sees it, the reception of Romantic philology in England, whose chief intermediaries included Max Müller at Oxford, stirred up in later Victorian generations a heightened awareness that the ‘incidentally bleak implications of the new linguistic science’ included the idea that the destiny of English was inescapably that of Greek and Latin: the dead languages on which much of their well-developed literary knowledge was based.14 Dowling reveals that Dowson and Johnson count among preeminent decadents who ‘bestow[ed] a belated and paradoxical vitality on literary language that linguistic science had declared to be dead’.15 To be sure, Dowling discloses that the strategies these male decadent poets undertook hardly conform to the emasculated lassitude that enlivened the wit of satirists such as Max Beerbohm, who delighted in exaggerating the fin-de-siècle male poets’ funnier cultural excesses. (The laughable title of the volume that Beerbohm’s imaginary decadent poet, Enoch Soames, publishes is Negations.16) Yet it would be mistaken to assume that their poetry mainly strove to pump the last belated breaths into the evident corpse that was the English language.
The work of Dowson, Johnson, and Wilde contributes to a much broader development in fin-de-siècle greater poetry in which mortality fixes poets’ attention on their place within a far-reaching tradition of Greek, Latin, and English literature. Their thoughtful dialogues with the wisdom of Sappho, Propertius, Horace, and Ovid, as well as recent figures such as Swinburne, frequently articulate dissident desires that proved hard to express elsewhere. Once we acknowledge this marked tendency in the greatest poets of this period, it becomes possible to understand that decadence is not the sole preserve of the most prominent members of the Rhymers’ Club. The passionate insubordination that we discover in writers as diverse as A. E. Housman, Dowson, and Michael Field (Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) points to a broadening definition of decadent poetics—one that shows the ways in which some of the finest 1890s lyrics look back to the authority of the poetic past to embrace, sometimes shockingly, the desirability of death. In what follows, I begin with representative examples from the works of each poet. Thereafter, I look in much greater depth at several of their most thoughtful engagements with Classical sources that support what I will call their decadent perspectives on mortality. Decadence, however, is not a term that any of these writers readily espoused, least of all Housman, who is perhaps the fin-de-siècle poet most preoccupied with death. Yet Housman’s poetry, as well his contacts and interests, place him squarely within the 1890s generation that acknowledged the legacy of aestheticism, especially in relation to Swinburne’s sexual and religious unorthodoxy.17
I
In Housman’s quietly rebellious volume A Shropshire Lad (1896), whose hardly outspoken homosexual and atheist sentiments have become critically more audible in recent years, we detect extraordinary density of both Classical and modern allusion. By 1898, when the second edition appeared, this magnificent collection won plaudits for its ‘simplicity without affection’, even if its ‘ever-recurring thought of mortality’ suggested to one reader that Housman’s ‘was a positively funereal muse’.18 This reviewer objected in particular to lyric ‘XLII’, subtitled ‘The Merry Guide’. Even if this adroit poem proved stylistically ‘charming’, it seemed much too fixated on ‘the society and conversation of Charon’.19 In deceptively tripping three-beat lines, Housman’s voice recalls walking through a ‘thymy wold’ where he met the alluring psychopomp Hermes.20 ‘With feathered cap on forehead’, Hermes proved irresistible; memorably, with ‘friendly brows and laughter / He looked’ the speaker ‘in the eyes’ (Poems, p. 42). ‘Oh, whence, I asked, and whither?’ the poetic voice reminisces, in immediate excited response to the fleet-footed god’s captivating gaze (Poems, p. 42). The question, as Burnett shows, echoes an inquiry (‘unde quo veni?’) from Horace’s twenty-seventh poem in the third book of Odes (Poems, p. 350). Yet it is not only Horace who echoes through this spirited recollection of having been led towards one’s death. In his imposing edition of Housman’s poetry, Archie Burnett locates several correspondences with the works of nineteenth-century poets, especially Matthew Arnold (‘Resignation’ [1849]), as well as Tennyson (‘Locksley Hall’ [1842]), William Allingham (‘Autumnal Sonnet’ [1854]), and Algernon Charles Swinburne (‘Thalassius’ [1880]), among others (Poems, pp. 350–1). As these allusions accumulate, the speaker remembers feeling ‘Content at heart’ as he ‘followed’ his ‘delightful guide’ (Poems, p. 43). But, noticeably, the god whose ‘lips . . . brim with laughter’ ominously leads forth with a ‘serpent-circled wand’ (Poems, p. 44). What is more, Hermes’ lips ‘never once respond’ (Poems, p. 44). To follow such a handsome god, no matter how much ‘Content’ such experience evokes in the speaker, results of course in death, without, it seems, any intimacy with this singularly attractive male guide. Wryly, this lyric, like many in A Shropshire Lad, points to the fated nature of unreciprocated desire, which is here, with more than a few gentle hints, homoerotic in kind.
By comparison, in Michael Field’s Long Ago (1889)—the impressive volume of sixty-nine poems that take Sappho’s fragments for their inspiration—the culminating lyric gives voice to the Lesbian poet just before she leaps from the Leucadian rock. Sappho’s legendary act of self-murder comes after the fisherman Phaon betrays her, an episode that Ovid famously records in the Heroides. In Ovid’s dramatization of this scene, Sappho’s impassioned first-person speech declares that the love she once expressed for the women of Lesbos now seems shameful in light of her unfulfilled desire for Phaon, who has abandoned her. In a moment of empowered self-address, Ovid’s Sappho insists: ‘Take up a lyre and a quiver of arrows, / You will seem to us like Apollo: / or let horns burst from your brow and be Bacchus’.21 The moment Ovid’s Sappho has figured herself in the form of these artistically and sexually inspiring gods, she recalls that her rival ‘Alcaeus himself has no richer fame’.22 And yet, as Ovid’s epistle unfolds, Sappho, in her unfailing resolve to write immortal poetry, expresses her fear ‘that grief kills [her] art and woe stops [her] genius’, even if such ardent sentiments avow the opposite is true.23
In Michael Field’s concise lyric on Sappho’s suicide, however, there is little attempt to emulate the impassioned drama that animates ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. List of Illustrations
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Preface
  8. Notes on Contributors
  9. Introduction: Decadent Poetics
  10. 1 How Decadent Poems Die
  11. 2 Did a Decadent Metre Exist at the Fin de Siècle?
  12. 3 Decadent Forms: Parnassus in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
  13. 4 ‘The Harem of Words’: Attenuation and Excess in Decadent Poetry
  14. 5 In Praise of Decadence: The Epideictic Mode from Baudelaire to Wilde
  15. 6 Another Renaissance: The Decadent Poetic Drama of A. C. Swinburne and Michael Field
  16. 7 Salome, Simile, Symboliste
  17. 8 Naturalism and Decadence: The Case of Hubert Crackanthorpe
  18. 9 ‘A Disembodied Voice’: The Posthuman Formlessness of Decadence
  19. 10 Scents and Sensibility: The Fragrance of Decadence
  20. Select Bibliography
  21. Index