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  • Poetry of the Fin de Siècle
  • Matthew Bradley
Joseph Bristow, ed. The Fin-de-Siècle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005. xxxi + 352 pp. $55.00

When can a battle for literary reputation truly be said to have been won? Is there a single crux at which critical opprobrium gives way to approbation? An identifiable moment when any given author or period is officially rescued from scorn or from neglect? If such a theoretical point can ever be said to exist, then for the poetry of the fin de siècle it might certainly seem to have been passed. The strenuous critical efforts made in recent years to rehabilitate the period and its writing (not least those efforts made by contributors to this very volume, [End Page 220] to say nothing of its editor) have surely made it impossible for even the most hostile commentator to venture anymore that the poetics of the period were nothing more than a "somewhat effete transitional era located between two altogether more momentous epochs," to quote Joseph Bristow's opening summation of what he perceives normative attitudes to be. When he says that the book builds on "established, if underrated research" he does a disservice to the many advances that have been made. When he claims in the introduction that the book's aim is to fight for increased recognition of the fin de siècle as a vibrant, diverse and innovative literary culture, one is struck by the fact this is no longer a revolutionary position: increasingly, it is orthodoxy.

It is thus probably best to consider this collection not as a work of innovation but of reconsideration. It is the drawing up of a postliminium, an attempt to win the peace rather than the war. Bristow's three stated aims with this collection are to explain why shop-soiled terms like "Decadence" and "fin de siècle" have hindered critical recognition of this period, to champion its women poets, and to stress the importance of the material signifier, the history-of-the-book aspect, when studying its poetry. Nothing here to startle anyone reasonably familiar with the critical approaches favoured by modern fin-de-siècle studies, but what the best of these essays do (and what the collection in general succeeds in doing) is to alert us to how easily these new approaches can establish new canons of their own, mantras as generalized and as inaccurate as the old creed of an "effete transitional era." The first essay, for example, is a thoughtful piece by Jerusha McCormack on whether it is enough to blame Yeats and rumour for the emergence of the "fatal" poet figure, now the classic opening tactic for the modern fin-de-siècle revisionist. Rather than being a distraction that has subsequently obscured our proper understanding of the period's aesthetics, McCormack asks, does not the whole notion of the "fatal" life itself actually originate from the poetry? We may not have continued to read certain fin-de-siècle poems without the accompanying oxygen of the life-myth, but refreshingly, McCormack sees this as beside the point because the preemptive formation of this myth is actually part of the poetry's task.

This spirit of reconsideration similarly energizes the book's two other main strands. Jerome McGann's essay uses Herbert Horne's 1891 volume Diversi Colores as a starting point to try and formulate a new critical methodology which aims to interpret material signifiers in a nonvehicular way (that is, not to merely consider the material conditions of book publication as carriers of other, nonmaterial, forms of [End Page 221] "higher" meaning). Horne is ideal for McGann's purposes because of his background in book design, a fact that underpins his innovative reading of Horne as an artist-poet looking to draw our attention to this very division, who "wants to show the kind of knowledge we gain when we decide not to know a difference between … the physical design of a book and its (so-called) conceptual content." McGann aims typically high in a challenging piece that finds a new way into the topic of fin...


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pp. 220-224
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Will Be Archived 2021
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