As I was reading the selection of poems for this week’s class, I found myself intrigued by how many darker poems were woven into the collection. With all the talk of beauty and art for art’s sake, it is interesting how many of these poems have more sinister undertones. “The Ballad of a Barber” ends with a murder and the subsequent hanging, “The Masquerade” imagines a world where people are forced to dance, and “Candlelight” contains “delicate flowers of death” (4). But the two poems that struck me the most were “The Dead Poet” and “Nihilism.”
“The Dead Poet” was written by Lord Alfred Douglas about the death of Oscar Wilde. I the thing that stood out to me about this poem is even though the language of the poem itself is describing the beauty of Wilde’s life, there is no part of the poem that doesn’t feel sad. Because of the title, and to some extent because of the last line (“And so I woke and knew that he was dead” (14)), the poems normally cheerful language takes on a somber, more desperate tone.
On the other hand, “Nihilism,” written by Lionel Johnson, does not use the same language strategies. Instead, this poem’s language is very abstract, and comes together in short lines, marked frequently by commas. This makes the lines really powerful, despite their abstractness (“of life I am afraid” or “The pausing from all thought!” (4, 10)).
Thought these two poems use different techniques, they both thematically touch upon the theme of death and our reactions to it. They are interesting to read write after the Happy Prince stories because while those stories have a certain playfulness to them that we read as the closest we had come to pure decadence, these poems do not have that same feeling. Death is a pretty strong opposite to playfulness, but it is also something all human beings, decadent or not, have to face.
Reading these poems, I was very interested in Wilde’s style of poetry writing, because of his belief in “art for the sake of art.” To me, especially in the context of poetry writing, this concept makes me think of poems with rapid fire imagery, creative uses of sound, and a lack of a real narrative thread. It was a surprise to me, then, that Wilde’s poetry was so structured, and often very narrative heavy. Most of the poems we read did contain sonic elements, but they were contained within very strict rhyme schemes. My reaction here is probably an effect of Wilde and me being born in different time periods, however, I thought it interesting because even as Wilde and his contemporaries are arguing for more creative freedom, these forms are imposing a different set of restrictions upon them.
The poems I thought that were the least restrictive were the prose poems. Even though they were heavily narrative based, I think they really challenged both the traditional narrative form and the messages surrounding the subjects they contained. Most of them involved themes of theology, mythology, and the historical figure of Jesus, who is depicted in several poems using only the pronoun “He.” I think the choice not to reveal Jesus’s name was a very cool one, as it made the reader draw the connection for themselves while allowing the prose poems to wander into more “dangerous” subject matter. For example, in “The Doer of Good,” the “He” wanders around the city, encountering people who “He” had saved. However, after being saved, these people did not follow the traditional motif of living a holier life, but instead spent the time relishing their salvation. What’s more, “He” seems powerless to change their minds, not even attempting to. This departure from traditional Biblical themes is a challenge to the time Wilde was writing in, however, because of the form, the challenge is partially disguised.
I was really intrigued by Symon’s comparison of Decadence to an opera glass in his piece “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” The Decadents’ whole ethos is an emphasis of style, cleverness and beauty over substance. The opera glass is “a special, unique way of seeing things” (138), particular to the closer examination of an art form. As a tool of vision and perception, the opera glass is a really helpful analogy, a way of articulating how the Decadents viewed their whole movement. They were creating a particular way of experiencing art and understanding beauty, a special and unique way of seeing things, of seeing art and of rendering “our ideas, our sensations… a personal language, a language bearing our signature.” (139) Even further, the idea of particular perception they are articulating dovetails really nicely with this analogy because perception is so subjective and hinges fundamentally on the way the individual reacts to stimuli in their environment. That the opera glass is a perceptual tool further reinforces the Decedents’ assertion that what the individual sees in a work of art is a reflection of that individual and that individual alone, divorced from the emotional or perceptual effort of the artist.
That it is specifically an opera glass is also really informative. Opera is a performative, often inaccessible art form with a reputation for elitism that typically doesn’t resonate with those who are unfamiliar with or haven’t been exposed to the language and cultural experience tied to opera. Similarly, if you don’t hold with or share the experiences of the Decadents, their work becomes all that much harder to parse and understand — what is jest, what is truth, what do they actually believe. They are interested in “a desperate endeavor to give sensation, to flash the impression of the moment, to preserve the very heart and motion of life” (138). You have to use their opera glasses, their understanding of the world to get a close enough look to understand what they are getting at. It is interesting to note that Symons is using an analogy for viewing visual art to discuss the Decadent movement in Literature specifically, and to think about what that means for how he or other Decadents viewed the distinctions between different art forms. While I don’t buy into the idea of art for art’s sake personally, the analogy of the opera glass is easy to hold onto as a measure of the way the Decadents viewed themselves, their perception of their movement.