restricted access On or About 1872? Rethinking "Decadent" Verse
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On or About 1872? Rethinking "Decadent" Verse
Decadent Verse: An Anthology of Late-Victorian Poetry, 1872-1900. Caroline Blyth, ed. London: Anthem Press, 2011. xxxix + 894 pp. Paper $175.00

Whenever an author invests a seemingly arbitrary date with significance—in an essay, as Virginia Woolf perhaps most famously does, or in a title, as Caroline Blyth does in Decadent Verse—one feels almost bound to supply it with an event. 1872 is, as Blyth tells us in the opening lines of the lengthy introduction that prefaces her anthology, "the starting point for this book" (1), a book whose sheer heft announces the seriousness with which Blyth sets out to establish (or reestablish) the contours of Decadent poetry in late-Victorian England. Blyth acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of selecting 1872 as her first chronological limit—its substantial exclusion of some poets who seem to be synonymous with British Decadence (Swinburne, for example, most of whose work was published in the 1860s) and its surprising inclusion of others (Arnold and Ruskin, to name just two) whose presence in this anthology presages a near-radical expansion of the Decadent canon. Why, then, 1872? After running through a mental list of literary and cultural events that might possibly have suggested the date to Blyth (Significant publications? Jubilee year? Reformist legislation? Momentous births or deaths? Change in the laureateship?), I had to fall back on the only explanation offered by the editor: 1872, Blyth writes, marks "the middle of the first of four Liberal administrations under Prime Minister William Gladstone" (1).

While undoubtedly true, this strange justification of 1872 as a starting point for an anthology of Decadent verse leaves me less than satisfied. To fix a date to a literary movement—here, Victorian poetry's "'late' phase" (1)—is to make a historical argument, an argument all the more compelling for the slipperiness that Decadence has possessed for literary historians since Arthur Symons's first nineteenth-century attempts to define it. Yet in Decadent Verse, the designation of what Blyth calls "such a special season" (2) is an argument left largely un-argued. 1872 thus becomes an assertion the potential of which fizzles in the absence of an explanation. One feels, moreover, that this fizzling [End Page 113] characterizes the anthology generally. The text's enormous potential is often left flaccid by the lack of any theoretical scaffolding to uphold it.

Consider, for instance, the possibilities raised by Blyth's collection of poetry: George Eliot rubbing shoulders with Ernest Dowson. Coventry Patmore sidling up to Michael Field. John Gray—"Father Silverpoints" himself—casting a backward shadow onto Christina Rossetti. Corralling into one location verse published from 1872 to 1900 means bringing together an astonishing number of poets whose long-livedness we forget and whose chronological positions in the Victorian canon typically discourage synchronous consideration. Turning the pages of Decadent Verse can, at the best of times, be something like the experience of peering into a stereoscope, where separate images, viewed simultaneously, take on a relatedness that makes both their similarities and their differences appear in startling three-dimensionality. The exuberance of seeing this three-dimensionality for the first time is compounded by the weightiness that unfamiliar, noncanonical names lend to the anthology. Fully half of the 150 poets that Blyth includes fall into this category, a fact that attests both to the importance of the resurrectionist efforts Blyth makes here and to the amount of work still waiting to be done in the field of Decadent poetry.

By making bedfellows of these veritable strangers, however, and by lodging them all under the signboard of Decadence, one can't help but wonder, what's at stake in considering Tennyson's verse Decadent? Or Bulwer Lytton's? Or Lizzie Siddal's? Does this change the manner in which we investigate the poems or the types of inquiries we impose upon them? If so, do we—or the poems or the poets—gain or lose something in this process?

These questions become especially perplexing as readers discover that for Blyth, the term "decadent" seems to signify little more than a chronological classification; all British verse published between 1872 and 1900 might therefore qualify...