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174 2. The Double Vision of the Decadents Barbara Charlesworth. DARK PASSAGES: THE DECADENT CONSCIOUSNESS IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE. Madison & Milwaukee, Wise: U of Wisconsin P, 1965. Great literature is dependent upon a commingling of the subjective and objective ways of seeing. Order is affirmed by the writer and understood by the reader or spectator both in terms of the individual imagination and Nature. Always we are aware that there are two ways of approaching reality. According to Miss Charlesworth in DARK PASSAGES, this double vision is characteristic of the Decadents, the only difference being that in great literature the subjective and objective modes of perception are held in equilibrium, while in the work of those writers she calls Decadents—Rossetti, Swinburne, Pater, Wi1 de, Lionel Johnson and Arthur Symons—the subjective eventually triumphs over the objective. All six writers, Miss Charlesworth claims, turned away from the external world to a "prison of the imagination," and found themselves trapped in their own isolated personalities. Rossetti is seen as being torn between a desire "for an external ideal and a commitment to introspection"; Swinburne "rejected experience in favor of an impossible return to childhood innocence"; Pater achieved only a "tenuous and melancholy escape from the prison of self"; Wilde "juggled his masks until his real personality became fragmented and fantastic"; Johnson "built a protective wall of books and alcohol between himself and reality"; and Symons went mad because "he could not find a mask to adequately define his intense self-consciousness." Certainly all the writers whom Miss Charlesworth mentions failed to reconcile their desire to indulge in individual, imaginative speculation with objective reality, but it seems odd to refer to them as Decadents on this account. What all these writers aspired to is what all great artists have achieved. That they failed, and retreated to the prison of self, does not seem adequate justification for calling them Decadents. If we must use "Decadent" to characterize a particular kind of literature, we must use it more broadly. Assuming that artistic perception tends either to emphasize the individual perceiver or to lay stress on objective reality, only the greatest artists being capable of achieving a meaningful compromise between the two, it would seem that Decadent literature ought to be that which reveals an exaggerated stress on the imaginative sensitivity of the perceiver or an excessive preoccupation with external reality, both being valued simply for their own sake rather than media through which one may discover order. Therefore we may justifiably call the Spasmodics "Decadent," because in the words of their parodist, Wi11 i am Aytoun, they were addicted simply to "gathering piecemeal all the noble thoughts/ And fierce sensations of the mind." At the other extreme we may call the poetry in Edgar Lee Masters' SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY Decadent, because here the poet has evidently been satisfied with surface realities, making no attempt to transcend the mental horizons of the individual speakers he portrays. Obviously some of the Nineties poets may also be called Decadent, for they too exhibited a tendency to value imaginative sensitivity for its own sake, but Dowson, for example, has much greater claim to be considered Decadent than any of the figures Miss Charlesworth has chosen to represent the phenomenon. The word "Decadent," however, is an awkward term to use in relation to literature. It is so heavily loaded with moral connotations that, try as we may, it is almost impossible to use it in a purely technical sense. Indeed, in literary criticism 175 it is perhaps advisable to avoid using the word altogether, because reference to it only leads to confusion. This is certainly the case in DARK PASSAGES. In her Introduction Miss Charlesworth admits that "perhaps the term Decadence is useful only to mark off boundaries: to delineate a period in English literary history between approximately I89O and I9OO, For if it is used to describe the characteristics of literature or writers during that period, the word obscures thought." In spite of this salutary warning, by the time she reaches the end of her book Miss Charlesworth is using the word to describe those late nineteenthcentury writers who turned away from real experience to a prison of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 174-176
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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