[The Cunning Tower by Wilfrid: April 6, 2009]
I was rather pleased with my formulation of late nineteenth century literary "decadence" as a triangular trade between Paris, London and New York. Then I came across this less geometrically precise but largely consistent comment:
"I remembered, as I read, that mood which Edgar Poe found in a wine-cup, and how it passed into France and took possession of Baudelaire, and from Baudelaire passed to England and the pre-Raphaelites, and then again returned to France, and still wanders the world..."
That's Yeats in "Rosa Alchemica," one of the short stories he published in The Savoy. The latter journal was established as a competitor to the better-known Yellow Book after John Lane of the Bodley Head had acquiesced in the pusillanimous sacking of his art editor, Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley's offence lay essentially in his manners, although the eroticism implicit in his illustrations didn't help. No friend of Wilde, he was easy to lampoon as an Oscar-ite because of his flamboyant dress and waspish tongue. When a critic questioned both his personal hygiene and his sex, Beardsley had to be dissuaded from publishing a letter inviting the writer to view him in his morning bath.
With Beardsley available, and Symons assuming the literary editorship, The Savoy attracted a number of disillusioned Yellow Book contributors - Dowson, Johnson, Hubert Crackanthorpe. I mentioned last week that Yeats, a great survivor of the '90s generation, soon distanced himself sharply from the decadent mood. Until I read "Rosa Alchemica" and "The Tablets of Stone" last week, I had forgotten how deeply imbued he had been with its spirit. "Tablets," in particular, could be a short story by Huysmans moved to a London setting. There's the same reverence for mediaeval mystery, Catholic ornamentation, gloom and solitude. There's a catalogue of old pictures and lush descriptions of improbably rich book bindings - Huysmans staples both.
The focus of the story is a unique edition of an old book of moral lore; the central character discards his habitual way of life, his aestheticism and Catholicism, and follows the book's doctrines. The experience destroys his soul. "Rosa Alchemica" features a character who appears in several of Yeats' poems and stories, Michael Robartes. Robartes is a charismatic, dangerous master of magical knowledge. Yeats knew Aleister Crowley, who moved in the same occult circles around the turn of the century, but Crowley would have been a very young man when the Savoy short stories were published; it is almost as if Crowley based himself on Robartes.
Dowson published his archetypical death-wish tale, "The Dying of Francis Donne," in The Savoy. It's an impressionistic account of a thirty-five year old man, living in solitude, gradually fading and finally dying. The physical cause of his decline remains vague - unlike his creator, he is not in the process of drinking himself to death. Dowson also published the poem which bequeathed an entire tone and mood to T.S. Eliot, "Epilogue" (sometimes titled "A Last Word"):
"Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,/ To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust/ Find end of labour, where's rest for the old,/ Freedom to all from love and fear and lust./ Twine our torn hands! O pray the earth enfold/ Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust."
It was a valedictory poem for the journal - it succumbed at the end of 1896 after publishing only eight issues - and for a generation of writers and artists who had tried to re-create for an English audience that combination of late romanticism and symbolism - the decadence - which had so powerfully flourished in France.
Beardsley, succumbing to tuberculosis, could work only sporadically on his novel, Under the Hill, which the magazine was serializing. Crackanthorpe, the promising short story writer, praised by Henry James, killed himself in November of that year. Wilde was in prison. Lionel Johnson was sinking into alcoholism. Dowson was haunted by tragedy - his father's suicide in 1894, his mother's in 1895, and a few months after the Savoy's failure, the engagement of his beloved Adelaide to a Polish tailor.
"Beati mortui . . . and then the great tiredness swept over him once more, and a fainter consciousness, in which he could yet just dimly hear, as in a dream, the sound of Latin prayers, and feel the application of the oils upon all the issues and approaches of his wearied sense; then utter unccnsciousness, while pulse and heart gradually grew fainter until both ceased. And that was all" ("The Dying of Francis Donne").
In the United States, decadence had never gained a foothold with the reading public. Poe had founded no school. Huneker became a grand old man of criticism; Edgar Saltus's audience dwindled and vanished. The early years of the twentieth century belonged to tough-minded realists - Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis. Carl Van Vechten carried the torch briefly in his novels Peter Whiffle and Parties. The task of opening the American mind to the more abstruse reaches of European literature passed to the wise-cracking Mencken.
In France, the transition from the fin-de-siècle aestheticism to the various forms of modernism was less abrupt. Baudelaire and Mallarmé, decadents to their bones, were also major writers and continued to have an influence. The only comparable Anglophone figure was Yeats, who grew and changed with the new century. Although absurd old dandies like Barbey d'Aurevilly (translated into English by Edgar Saltus) lived to become anachronisms - forlorn leftovers of a forgotten Paris, Baudelaire and earlier savants of the macabre - Lautréamont, Sade - directly influenced Surrealism and the movements which followed. Mallarmé and Sade remained touchstone figures in French letters through the nouveau roman and post-structuralist periods.
The English decadence was essentially over, and poetic literature safely in the hands of John Masefield, Rudyard Kipling, A.E. Houseman and Walter de la Mare until the post-war arrival of two Americans whose debt to the 1890s generation was manifest, and even occasionally acknowledged - Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Although much of the material discussed in these three articles is long out of print, it's also readily available in used editions from sites like Abe Books.
The Savoy: Nineties Experiment, edited by
The entire run of the Yellow Book was re-issued in a facsimile edition by AMS: Arno Press in 1967. The original edition can still be found, and it will cost you tens of thousands of dollars.