Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s -- Points of Departure

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Supplemented by William R. Terpening '98, Summer UTRA Fellow 1997

For active links, please go to Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s,
from Oscar Wilde site of the Victorian Web
Boldface & underline on this page added

1. Assumptions underlying much of the poetry, fiction, and art

Occult and Supernaturalism; An (anti-Romantic) belief in original sin and in fallen man and nature; omnipresence of evil and the grotesque; lack of health, balance, and innocence. Distain for middle class, rejection of its norms.

2. Mood and tone

Ennui, incompleteness, nostalgia, sense of loss, exile, or isolation.

3. Imagery

4. Goal or theme

Incomplete and unsuccessful attempts to escape the human condition by means of posing, artifice, and evil, all of which are conceived of as unnatural and therefore better than nature. Religion of Beauty. Interest in innocence/ corruption and the child.

5. Techniques (a)

An emphasis on brief lyric forms (cp. Romanticism) and a corollary concentration upon intense moments, climaxes of insight, or spots of time and memory.

6. Techniques (b)

These epiphanies and perfect moments often connected with landscapes or scenes, thus preserving an instant of time in an "artificial" form (compare Tennyson's "Mariana").

7. Techniques (c)

Central technique of implicit contrast that often involves both extreme or hyperbolic juxtapositions and a reference to standards or beliefs for intense effect in which the speaker supposedly does not believe. As Richard Le Galliene writes in "The Décadent to His Soul" (1982),
Sin is no sin when virtue is forgot.
It is so good in sin to keep in sight
The white hills whence we fell, to measure by . . .
Ah, that's the thrill! . . .
First drink the stars, then grunt amid the mire.

8. Techniques (d)

A corollary use of allusion almost entirely for emphasis or effect--as opposed to more traditional allusions both for effect and also to locate a work or statement ideologically. Thus, whereas Wordsworth or Tennyson use complex allusions to Christianity as a means of communicating their own more or less orthodox belief, Decadents like Dowson do so more for the impact produced by taking something religious, say, a sacrement, for an aesthetic effect. This technique, which the Decadents often use to make themselves appear self-consciously naughty, become a staple of Modernism.

9. Techniques (e)


10. Techniques (f)

Use of the child as a blank slate, childhood as another world, etc.

Victorian Aesthetes