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  • "A Matter of Style":Form, Colour, and Sound in Oscar Wilde's Poetic Impressions
  • Sharon Smulders (bio)

Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and only then, does it come into existence.

—Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying: An Observation" (1889)

The dialogue between Cyril and Vivian in Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," first published in The Nineteenth Century and later collected in Intentions, culminates with a summation of "the doctrines of the new aesthetics" (CW 4: 102). Hypostatizing the centrality of form such that truth emerges as "entirely and absolutely a matter of style" (CW 4: 88), the new aesthetics privileges complexity over simplicity, audacity over austerity, beauty over utility, and contradiction over consistency. Form, understood "as a way of knowing, not as an object of knowledge" (Leighton 27), functions as a guiding principle for Wilde. But while Susan Wolfson, Caroline Levine, and Angela Leighton, among others, have opened the field of nineteenth-century studies to historically charged, politically engaged, and theoretically nuanced evaluations of form and its significance, the work that represents Wilde's first incursion into the new aesthetics, the group of lyric poems referred to as "impressions," continues to suffer from critical neglect. Wilde's understanding of form in these poems repays close attention insofar as it reveals the poet engaged in an attempt to frame aesthetic perception creatively as well as critically. In the early impressions, style subsumes substance and manner supersedes matter. Far from being immune to life and nature, however, the beautifully complex demonstrations of decadent theory embedded in poetic practice that constitute the later impressions, especially "The Harlot's House" (1885) and "Fantaisies Décoratives" (1887), are remarkable not just for their engagement with the stuff of Victorian culture but also for their negotiation of contradictions affecting fin-de-siècle femininity. For even as these lyrics "see" the modern sexually liberated woman "into existence," [End Page 287] their stylistic virtuosity dissembles the conservative gender politics that underwrite Wilde's poetic voyeurism.

Wilde's impressionist lyrics, including (but not limited to) several objective studies of rural or urban scenes, have typically been dismissed as "strangely impersonal" (Roditi 331). Even Jerome Buckley, who champions these poems as among "Wilde's most original" (24), judges that the effort at aesthetic detachment makes them less "moving" (30) than, for instance, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Yet, just as the "strikingly impersonal" lyrics written by women at the end of the century employ "new ways of thinking about intimacy with distance" (Harrington 2), Wilde's erasure of the "I" persona requires a new way of conceptualizing what Wolfson describes as "the dialectical interaction of aesthetic imagination and social information" (231). An antidote to Romantic egotism, objective impressionism acts thus as a medium for the "audaciously performative self" that Marion Thain in her discussion of Parnassianism relates to angst about modernity (80). Wilde's manipulation of arrangement and allusion to concentrate unsentimental, albeit sensuous, atmospheric effects inside brief lyrical impressions anticipates, moreover, the strategies of attenuation that his decadent successors used, as Nick Freeman shows, to "reject the prolixity and afflatus of much earlier Victorian poetry" (96). Frequently identified in French by terms like impressions or fantaisies, these poems not only affect a Continental style but also offer studies of the country, the city, and the body that elaborate the double metaphor of musical and pictorial composition as a metatrope for poetic composition. They are, in essence, exercises in ekphrasis, or efforts at aesthetic description, that look backward to John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and forward to Michael Field's Sight and Song. Resisting narrative in favour of stylized description, they involve three different formal practices: first, they incorporate temporal movements to transcend the moment; second, they elide colour and sound for synaesthetic purposes; third, they rely on objective strategies to represent subjective states. In short, Wilde's poetic impressions represent aesthetic creation as fundamentally "a matter of style." At the...


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