- The Decadent Image: The Poetry of Wilde, Symons and Dowson by Kostas Boyiopoulos
It has been my experience that English decadent poetry, that oddly sinuous combination of the Romantic privileging of sensation and the signifying potential of French symbolist poetry, can engender a love-hate relationship in a reader. The appreciation of a decadent poem’s gorgeous imagery is sometimes counteracted by impatience about its tendency to slip into purple prose, and the deliberately circular structure of a poem can frustrate the attempts of a reader to discern its meaning. The over-the-top imagery [End Page 208] of Oscar Wilde’s early poems, the impressionism of Arthur Symons’s poems about London entertainments, and Ernest Dowson’s poetic expressions of longings for which there is no resolution often frustrate readers who, finding that conventional analytical approaches do not work well on these poems, will sometimes dismiss these works as shallow or immature.
It is gratifying, then, to read Kostas Boyiopoulos’s book The Decadent Image: The Poetry of Wilde, Symons and Dowson (2015), in which these poems receive a thoughtful analysis of their imagery and poetic style. Boyiopoulos gives a spirited defence of these poems as articulating a “poetics of transgression” located in the body’s negotiation with art and eroticism (4). Scholars have discussed extensively the connection between decadent poetry and the aesthetic axiom that art is both the expression and creation of self-knowledge. What Boyiopoulos adds to the conversation is a meticulous attention to the details of the poems he discusses and readings that highlight the imagery and sound patterns as contributing to a tradition of decadent poetry, one that he extends to other English poets of the fin de siècle such as Michael Field, Theodore Wratislaw, and Richard Le Gallienne.
The highlight of the book is its detailed study of Oscar Wilde’s early poems, many of which have been dismissed by some critics as having too much of the air of the schoolroom about them or, more precisely, the air of a young Oscar Wilde acting as England’s enfant terrible. Boyiopoulos traces some of the imagery in Wilde’s poems—notably, “The Garden of Eros” (1881), “Charmides” (1881), and “The Sphinx”—through the commonplace book Wilde kept while at Oxford and particularly through his notes on William Kingdon Clifford’s philosophy of “mind-stuff.” Clifford’s connection to Wilde’s early poems, sometimes overlooked by scholars, is a refreshing departure from the conventional focus on a Ruskin-Pater dyad influencing Wilde’s thoughts about art. Implicitly, one can trace this particular legacy to Wilde’s passing interest in spiritualism and his invocation of Constance Naden’s Hylo-Idealism in the epitaph to “The Canterville Ghost” (1887).
In his section on Symons, Boyiopoulos considers Symons as a flâneur of London whose peripatetic musings form the subject matter of his two most famous books of poetry, Silhouettes (1892) and London Nights (1895), although I would argue that the speaker in most of the London Nights poems watches much more than he walks. His discussion of the city as a metonymic image for the female body and for the accompanying feminization of the city itself is especially intriguing and gestures toward an objective correlative to his argument about the vexed relationship between body and self that he perceives in decadent poetry. At times, Boyiopoulos’s mimicking of decadent style in his prose can be distracting, but these instances turn out to be interesting examples of the self-contained structures of decadent poetry. He writes about “Morbidezza” (1892), for instance, that “the contracting and expanding rhythms of the ‘bosom’s wavering slope’ make the poem breathe with Verlainesque daintiness” (111). The occasionally precious language [End Page 209] that punctuates these readings points to an inadvertent consequence of analyzing these poems in terms of their style and language. Decadent poetry, as Boyiopoulos argues, resists a totalizing reading or a reading that might suggest, in a utilitarian fashion, analogies to mundane phenomena. Without the external referent, reading the poem seems...