- Decadent Poetics
DESCRIBING THE DAILY ROUTINE of the modern man of letters, Oscar Wilde once said that he had spent a whole morning taking out a comma from one of his poems and all afternoon putting it back again. This famous anecdote is a satire on the high Victorian ideal of literary labour. In contrast to the great productivity, earnestness, social involvement and ethical engagement that characterised the previous generation, the writer of the fin de siècle is almost flippant in his or her approach to the composition of the text: literary “work,” Wilde’s parable of the birth and death of a comma seems to claim, is evanescent, detached from the world and, at its best, proudly and almost disarmingly useless. Despite Wilde’s claims, as the editors and contributors of Decadent Poetics persuasively show, the Decadents—Wilde among them—actually took the business of literary style very seriously. It is not simply a matter of writers striving after novelty or bon mots, or producing the sort of stylistic ornamentation that gives many fin-de-siècle works their characteristic sense of polish and deliberate artfulness. In their comprehensive introduction (an excellent account of the state of the field in its own right), Jason David Hall and Alex Murray put forward the argument that Decadence is a literature of nuance that demands from the reader a subtle response to form. In their view, this attention to form is what makes the literary Decadence of the 1890s a profoundly generative phenomenon. It follows that Decadence thus understood thrives on formal experimentation and looks forward to modernity and is profoundly unlike, indeed almost the opposite of the regressive and imitative movement that was attacked and caricatured by hostile critics at the time. [End Page 423]
Decadent Poetics is a welcome addition to the growing number of studies of English Decadence that have appeared in recent years. It brings together a very distinguished team of contributors, hardly one of whom is not already a well-known name in the field. Given this cast, it is unsurprising that the book should be of consistently high quality. It is true that the figures treated in more detail are mostly familiar: Charles Baudelaire, A. C. Swinburne, Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde, Michael Field and of course the canonical “minor” Decadents of the English 1890s, Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson. The most notable exception is the lesser-known writer Hubert Crackan-thorpe, Yellow Book contributor and author of fictions of grim social realism, who is the subject of an engaging essay by William Greenslade that examines the overlap between naturalism and aestheticism in his work. However, the original aim of the collection is not to bring to light forgotten authors, but rather to employ form as the prime criterion to help us identify and define Decadent literature and in this way to move the debate away from thematic definitions (typically focused on decay and degeneration) that inevitably implicate critical judgement in the moral question. And as the example of Crackanthorpe shows, Decadent Poetics is notable for extending the study of form beyond verse to encompass prose and drama, both of which are well represented in the book.
Given the fact that so much Decadent experimentation tended toward contamination and hybridity, the formalist approach yields the most rewarding results when different literary genres are studied comparatively alongside each other, particularly when it engages with the historical, cultural and material contexts in which Decadent literature came into being. In an especially fine instance of how the study of form can generate new insights into textual politics, Meredith Martin examines how developments in the science of phonetics influenced late-Victorian prosody. Martin, who is particularly interested in how English writers adopted French poetic forms, shows that metre and rhythm were fertile terrains for building and battling over ideologies of the nation and that Decadent poets such as Dowson and Johnson come up with hybrid forms of prosody that destabilised nationalist assumptions about verse that were crystallising...