Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s -- Points of Departure
P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University
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1. Assumptions underlying much of the poetry, fiction, and art
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,
of its norms.
2. Mood and tone
Ennui, incompleteness, nostalgia, sense of loss, exile, or isolation.
trance and dream
life as a drama, dance, or puppet show
jewels and instances of extreme artifice (the anti-natural), such as (a)
(b) Byzantine goldwork, and (c) cosmetics;
particularly ornate, perverse, or "unnatural" examples of natural phenonena,
such as orchids and peacocks.
instances of transience (butterfly,
flower, sunset, autumn).
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
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)
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.