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ARTICLES WOMEN POETS AND THE FIN-DE-SIÈCLE: TOWARDS A NEW AESTHETICISM ANGELALEIGHTON The University ofHull To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life' (1986a: 152). Pater's flame, that curious, riddling contradiction in terms, flickers through the literature of the next fifty years, at least until Yeats's 'flames begotten of flame' on the mosaic floors of Byzantium. Pater paid a price for his notorious 'Conclusion' to The Renaissance, retreating into nervous seclusion in Oxford, as aestbeticism, at once a pose, a sexuality, a publicity stunt, rolled in on the 'aesthetic' philosophy of scepticism and relativism he had cautiously elaborated. Yet his writings continued to promote, as he puts it in Marius the Epicurean, 'the claims of that eager, concentrated, impassioned realization of experience, against those of the received morality' (1986b: 86). Even as Marius dies, mistakenly arrested and anointed as a Christian, his vision of life is of a 'blind way' (265), in which little can be known except 'one long unfolding of beauty and energy in things' (263). 'To define beauty . . .' Pater writes at the start of The Renaissance, 'is the aim of the true student of aesthetics' (1986a: xxix). That 'hard, gem-like flame', durable and transient, fixed and elusive, offers a figure which unsettles, even as it tries to consolidate, the aesthetic moment When I originally gave my title for this paper, I intended to talk mainly about fin-de-siècle women poets. But somehow the problem of aestheticism, its relevance to Victorian literature, to women, but also to criticism today, started to loom large. What was this thing that had taken the late nineteenth century by storm? On the one hand it seemed a short-lived extravaganza, ending in despair or the Catholic Church; on the other, it was a whole philosophy of art, of its formality, relativity and uncommitted self-sufficiency, which fed directly into the work of Victorian Review 23.1 (Summer 1997) Victorian Review the great Modernists. Somehow, aestheticism bothered me. It seemed both trivial and momentous, both dated and yet naggingly relevant. What I want to do today is to go in search of something which not only my own work, but a good deal of contemporary criticism has tended to ignore. This is not a conclusion but a very tentative prologue: about aestheticism as a late nineteenth-century artistic development, but also about 'the aesthetic' as a late twentieth-century silence. What has happened to the idea of beauty in contemporary theory? Is the notion of art for art's sake no more than a dated irrelevance, invalidated by new theories of sexuality, production, cultural politics? On the way, I want to consider some poems by two (or rather three) fin-de-siècle women poets: Mary Coleridge and Michael Field. To talk about aestheticism and women is in itself an awkwardness, seeming to go against the whole bent of feminist criticism. A while back, Myra Jehlen (1981) argued for a productive separation of aesthetic and political values in women's writing. But since then, the tendency has been to assert a 'feminist aesthetic' — that is, an amalgam of literary values with political protest or subversion. As for Victorian aestheticism, recent criticism has mainly viewed it as the revenge of the male imagination on the female supremacy of the high Victorians. Bram Dijkstra (1986) has shown how decadent aestheticism 'othered' women into monstrous, degenerate objects of desire. Elaine Showalter has pointed to the widespread 'mysogyny, homophobia, and racism' (1990: 11) of many fin-de-siècle texts. The whole aesthetic tradition, according to Rita Felski, 'has sought transcendence through a denial and repression of the (female) body' (1991: 1104), and Kathy Psomiades concludes similarly that 'feminine icons ... are both the content of Aestheticist art and its necessary support' (1992: 33). In other words, aestheticism was essentially a male idealism, predicated on the unregenerate physicality of the woman. Camille Paglia's sweeping association of all Western art with sexual voyeurism, or, as she calls it, Apollonian objectification (1990: 35), largely consigns the female, with a few exceptions, to the unformed, chthonic 'nightmare of nature' (39) — into a sort of...


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