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198 A COMMENDABLE BEGINNING: A REVIEW ESSAY By Ian Fletcher (University of Reading) Linda C. Dowling. Aestheticism and Decadence. A Selective Annotated Bibliography (NY &Lond: Garland, 1977)· $21.00. This is a distinguished addition to the Garland series of bibliographies, a mandatory item indeed in any university or private scholar's library. It constitutes the first listing of books and articles dealing with Aestheticism and Decadence on any grand scale and Ms. Dowling has also furnished a preface where problems in the historiography of the period 1880 to 1900 are subjected to acute and stylish analysis; she has also responsibly annotated the items of her selection. These general comments should be boldly made before any discussion in detail is attempted; for a select bibliography, like an anthology of poems, will not by definition satisfy anybody in all its particulars . The compiler's stated intentions are ι first, to include works that deal helpfully with the period as a whole, or with the topics of aestheticism and decadence. But, defensibly, she has abstained from including material from the rich archives of Yeats and Wilde studies while admitting some work on single figures if such are too little known or have received too little attention from literary historians. Secondly, she has elected to favour recent and analytical studies over purely biographical or evaluative accounts. No effort is made therefore to include the numerous contemporary parodies, reviews or journalistic treatments of aestheticism or decadence, excepting a few specimens "for purposes of historical perspective or general amusement ." Thirdly, in the event of any repetition of remarks either reprinted or revised, she has chosen to list the most accessible or, in the case of dissertations, the most mature version. All this seems empirical enough, though one may regret that nothing journalistic is included since much of the cultural politics of decadence was conducted in newspapers. Study of this important field has been slow in emerging and demands as much encouragement as possible. The hinge of Ms. Dowling's argument is that the period 1880-1900 has been obscured by a series of gestures extended over the past sixty years. Yeats and Pound evolved the myth of "the tragic generation" au fin de siècle (though to some degree this was generated by Yeats's cast): Yeats as part of his own myth of the self; Pound, followed later by Eliot and Virginia Woolf with their "feminine ferocity," as part of Poggioli's recognition : "the palingenesis of the avant garde disavowing its past in order to regenerate itself and gain creative space. By treating aestheticism and decadence as the last exotic pendants of a hopelessly frumpish Viotorianism, modernists made modernism newer, fathering themselves." But it was the students of modernism who began the current revival of interest in the fin de siècle in their search for origins by noting the aesthetes' 199 and decadents' interest in colloquial speech, urban themes and most importantly in "the image." As a consequence the years between I87O and 1914 became spoken of as "an age of transition" to modernism. Superficially this was an attractive version of the period, simultaneously allowing us to view the fin de siècle as both "a genuine divergence from Victorian literary culture and as an authentic participation in the modern movement ." The very multiplicity of "movements" - Parnassianism, Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism, and so forth, down to Imagism and Vorticism - reflects both the wide variety of effort without "imposing a single reductive scheme on them all." It also and perhaps most importantly permitted literary historians to search for unifying themes in a notoriously heterogenous body of literature ranging from Zangwill to Abercrombie. Certainly some such tactic may have been necessary some twenty years ago when any serious discussion might well have faltered under the stern gaze of W. K. Wimsatt or the still sterner squint of Dr. F. R. Leavis. Persisting, however, in treating the period as ur-modern, Ms. Dowling puts it to us, is not merely consticting but teleologically naive and Frye's attack on the notion of a "Pre-Romanticism" is pertinently brought to bear. One might put it in other terms. Who, besides Dryden, and he had his own reasons for suggesting men of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 198-202
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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