Jessica Sun : Chapter II § ii

Wilde the Aesthete and Decadent

II.

“A really well made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature.”[1]

Nature and artifice

In An Ideal Husband, the sharp, cultivated and amoral Mrs Cheveley, described in the stage notes as “a work of art, on the whole”, claims that being natural is “such a very difficult pose to keep up.”[2] Mrs Cheveley is an artificial character in every way: she is excessively made-up, under the “influence of too many schools”, and dressed extravagantly in heliotrope, the colour of the un-native flower – a favourite symbol of the aesthetes in their tastes for the unnatural, exotic and rare.[3] In Phrases and Philosophies, Wilde wrote, “A really well made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature”. The praise of artifice over nature is scattered throughout Wilde’s works, but most notably and directly discussed in his dialogue “The Decay of Lying” (1889), when the superiority of art over the natural world is absolute.

In his poetry, Aesthetic nuances are more subtly addressed. The title of the fourth poetic sequence in Poems, “Flowers of Gold” evokes the idea of “gilding the lily”, improving upon nature, which was the ethos of the Aesthetes. The individual poems within the sequence might suggest the particularly Aesthetic nature of the “Flowers of Gold” sequence. The French titles of “Les Silhouettes”, “La Fuite de la Lune”, and “Impression de Voyage” pay tribute to the influence of the French Symbolists and Impressionists upon the Aesthetic movement, and the poetry itself mimics the features – fragmentary, bizarre and surreal – of Baudelaire and his fellow Symbolists. But while these poems pay homage to the influence of Aestheticism, the general corpus of Wilde’s poetry certainly do not assert the “gilding the lily” approach: rather, a genuine love of nature, reflecting his admiration for the Romantic poets, is poignantly felt. “The Decay of Lying” is at odds with the beautiful “Requiescat”, a poem about the death of Wilde’s ten-year-old sister Isola:

Tread lightly, she is nea
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

The only consolation Wilde finds is the idea that the peace of death must be perfect harmony with nature. The genuineness and honesty of the elegy was noted by critics of the time, and the poem was revived during Wilde’s imprisonment, as it was thought to represent “the innocence from which he had fallen.”[4] Isola is portrayed as having such innocence and purity that “she hardly knew / she was a woman, so / sweetly she grew”. Being “lily-like” and “white as snow”, she has found an appropriate place within the peace and simplicity of the natural world. She can no longer “hear lyre or sonnet” – constructs and tools of art – but instead hears “the daisies grow”. “Coffin-board, heavy stone” weighs down the beginning of the fourth stanza, in comparison with the gentle opening lines of the first (“tread lightly, she is near”) or third (“lily-like, white as snow”) stanzas, suggesting that the heavy, solid man-made objects intrude upon the exquisite fragility of nature. All the stanzas, except the last, keep a constant meter and rhyming pattern to mirror the simplicity of Isola’s natural burial site.  The last stanza, which instead ends on a feminine rhyme, completes his painting of nature as delicate and feminine, and is a final tribute to the delicate, flower-like girl.

Despite the sincerity and unaffectedness of “Requiescat”, the poem resonates of other contemporary artistic movements. The line, “Speak softly, she can hear / The daisies grow” is a synthesis of the senses: hearing what is usually seen. When the decadent style was first introduced into English culture from its roots in France and Germany, Swinburne, a chief pioneer, brought Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal to public and critical attention, noting in particular “Baudelaire’s interest in synaesthesia – the condition in which one sensory stimulation results in the experience of another, such as when smelling a lily results in hearing the sound of a trumpet”. [5] The concept came to fruition for Wilde in his “Symphony in Yellow”, but in “Requiescat” we see nuances of this idea: Isola is in such closeness and harmony with nature that all her senses are fused to experience a visual detail (growing of daisies) with aural perception.

The juxtaposition of life and decay also suggests a developing Decadent argument:

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

The stanza addresses the fleetingness of life, but also evokes the decadent sensibility which opposes the “habitualised a view of birth and growth as positive, and decay and death as negative”, promoting the idea that life and death, growth and decay are “all part of one indivisible, non-progressive package.” Wilde’s stanza juxtaposes, line by line, beauty and deterioration, brightness and greyness. In the next stanza, Isola is described as “lily-like” and “white as snow” within the same line, drawing together two unusually linked elements (flowers and snow), just as in the first stanza, she is both “under the snow” and under the daisies. The seasonal phenomena of nature is blurred into one scene at Isola’s grave, suggesting that seemingly “opposing” forces – life and death, spring and winter, seasonal change – are all part of this “indivisible, non-progressive package”.

Wilde’s poetic voice portrays nature with deep pathos, and the abuse of nature by mankind is a motif which appears frequently in his poems and fictions. In Charmides, he compares the dead lovers to roses cut down “with careless scythe”, discarding “the flower’s loosened loveliness” (561-63), and later to “two water-lilies” plucked by “a schoolboy tired of his book” who then “wearies of their sweets, and goes his way, / And lets the hot sun kill them” (571-76). The latter simile would become the “disturbingly unhappy ending” of his fairy-tale “The Nightingale and the Rose”[6], which “makes a deliberate break with […] superannuated romanticism.”[7] In Dorian Gray, when Basil ruefully admits that he flatters Dorian excessively, he describes Dorian’s occasionally cruel responses by portraying him as the vain wearer of a decorative buttonhole: “I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day” (p14). The brutal treatment of nature by mankind is epitomised in this action of discarding flowers once they have served superficial, decorative purposes. The complex nature of flowers which represent – literally and poetically – natural  splendour, human decoration, symbols of vanity and pathetic fragility was also a factor in Wilde’s obsession with Narcissus – pure, vain, beautiful and fragile – a human and flower in one.

“The Garden of Eros”, the first long poem of Poems (1881), is a pastoral elegy for the lost beauty and wonder of the world, now reduced to mere facts and figures in the cold, scientific age. Wilde echoes the Romantic pastoral which demonizes industrialisation:

…the cheating merchants of the mart
With iron roads profane our lovely isle,
And break on whirling wheels the limbs of Art. (194-6)

The poem is unique in how Wilde styles the virtues of art and nature as unified and each inherently within the other. The profaning of nature with “iron roads” is equated with breaking “the limbs of Art” on “whirling wheels”, the two lines cleverly linked with “roads” and “wheels”, conjuring the imagery of carts and mercantile traffic, as well as human cruelty and barbarism (breaking on the wheel), in opposition to the bucolic peace of nature and unviolated beauty of Art.

The first stanza of the poem describes late summer, “the heart of June” in languorous tones which resonates of Keats’ “To Autumn”. Wilde prefigures the coming of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”, establishing a link between his ideal depiction of nature with Keats’ autumn:

…too soon
Rich autumn time, the season’s usurer,
Will lend his hoarded gold to all the trees,
And see his treasure scattered by the wild and
spendthrift breeze.
(3-6)

Wilde’s description of seasonal change with the language of commerce (“usurer”, “lend” “hoarded”, “treasure”, “spendthrift”) is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s similar technique, most famously in sonnet XVIII (“summer’s lease hath all too short a date”), but interwoven throughout many concerned with the preservation of beauty and the ravages of time.

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then beauteous niggard why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
(Sonnet IV)

By intertextual linking of his poem to Keats and Shakespeare, Wilde identifies himself as part of a tradition which glorifies nature as the ultimate source of beauty, as well a potent metaphor and example of ephemeral change, decay and rebirth. The third stanza introduces his favourite classical motif, Narcissus, in another subtle allusion to Keats: “One pale narcissus loiters fearfully / Close to a shadowy nook”, calling to mind Keats’ solitary “knight-at-arms” (“Alone and palely loitering”) from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. By one of his critics, Wilde’s catalogues of intertextual references and classical allusions, especially in his longer poems, was caustically likened to passing through an overly adorned room “in some over-expensive boarding-house with rococo decorations, classical statuary, and objets d’art, mingled in elaborate profusion but with little taste.”[8] But in “The Garden of Eros”, the references to other canonical representations of nature serve Wilde’s purpose of suffusing his own poetic landscape with the glory of art. Wilde’s nature is an art collection, an exhibition of eclectic examples of the “Spirit of Beauty” which resides in nature and has been the inspiration for centuries of poets and artists. Keats’ “knight-at-arms”, as well as Shakespeare’s “fair friend” are all part of the nature he constructs, in opposition to “the cheating merchants” with their “iron roads”. The sumptuous imagery strengthens the idea of art within nature: the spreading harebell, for example, is exquisitely described as an “azure pavilion” (10), the exotic and glittering sounds and imagery of the words evocative of Pater’s “gemlike flame”, its poetic ornateness reflecting the nature’s exquisite detail. Rather than being superior to nature, art in “The Garden of Eros” is inherently within nature, the prototype of beauty for Shakespeare and writers past and since.

Among the poem’s moral concerns is the profaning of beauty by the cold, scientific eye. He describes pioneers of science as brash and overconfident: “Methinks these new Actaeons boast too soon / that they have spied on beauty” (223). Their error is looking so systematically at nature that they fail to see its beauty. The speaker revers nature as a religion, reinforced by frequent references to pagan deities, and expresses his outrage at its disrespectful treatment with a couplet more reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s wry wit than of the great Romantic poets: “Shall I, the last Endymion, lose all hope / Because rude eyes peer at my mistress through a telescope!” (228) However, by identifying himself with Endymion, Wilde intently allies himself with Keats and the Romantic appreciation for natural wonder which he sees as currently under threat.

The main anxiety, however, is the dehumanizing effects of scientific learning. Rather than advancing through knowledge and education, we paradoxically become more vulgar and less human:

What profit if this scientific age
Burst through our gates with all its retinue
Or modern miracles! Can it assuage
One lover’s breaking heart? what can it do
To make one life more beautiful, one day
More godlike it its period? but now the Age of Clay
Returns in horrid cycle, and the earth
Hath borne again a noisy progeny
Of ignorant Titans, whose ungodly birth
Hurls them against the august hierarchy
Which sat upon Olympus…
(229-239)

“Retinue”, “assuage”, “progeny” and “hierarchy” are used to create ugly and inelegant rhymes which heighten the vulgarity of these “modern miracles”. The choice of words make the stanzas themselves noisy (“burst”, “breaking”, “horrid”, “ungodly”, “hurls”), mirroring the “noisy progeny / Of ignorant Titans”. Wilde turns the Aesthetic creed, “art for art’s sake”, back onto its critics, asking what the purpose of science is. Unlike art, which might “assuage / One lover’s breaking heart”, science is denounced as a fruitless pursuit as Wilde poses the rhetorical question: “what can is do / To make one life more beautiful, one day / More godlike it its period?”

Rather than progressing, we have degenerated into an “Age of Clay”, and are once again vulgar Titans, unblessed with the capacity to recognise beauty (“ungodly birth”), and so wage war upon the refined Olympians, “the august hierarchy”, who strive to preserve culture. As Wilde would later write in the Preface to Dorian Gray, art may be “quite useless”, but at least its existence for beauty’s sake is harmless: in “The Garden of Eros”, hoarding knowledge for the sake of knowledge is portrayed as a destructive endeavour, which barbarically “break[s] on whirling wheels the limbs of Art”, and robs nature of its wonder, as it has “robbed the moon / Of her most ancient, chastest mystery” (225-6).

The poem is essentially a social critique, Victorian in its didacticism and concern with cultural attitudes. It shows contempt for the mechanical and industrial, a revulsion Wilde also expresses in “The Harlot’s House” and ultimately in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. While the Romantics sought refuge from the industrial world in nature, Wilde confronts a natural world threatened, physically and conceptually, by scientific examination. Fin de siècle poetry was often imbued with a sense of melancholia and pessimism facing what seemed to be the inevitable decay of civilization.

This doom-laden conception of the period did lasting damage to its critical reception, and hid the extent to which this poetry is concerned with rising to the challenges of modernity. If poets no longer had a moral responsibility, they were now shouldering the burden of finding a new kind of cultural currency.[9]

In his confrontation of modernity, Wilde’s cultural currency in “The Garden of Eros” is his duty towards art and nature. His responsibility is not a moral but an aesthetic one, intent on preserving nature – the spring of art and poetry – for the benefit of humanity. Art and nature are in perfect harmony with one another, against the menace of the industrial and scientific world.  The beauty of nature offers not just aesthetic enjoyment, but emotional sustenance (“assuage one lover’s breaking heart”).

In the course of the traditional pastoral catalogue of flowers, for example, Wilde uses the unusual and obsolete “pleasaunce” (34), a word he would use again in “The Grave of Shelley” (this pleasaunce of the dead”) and the short story “The Young King” (“from the trees of the garden and pleasaunce the birds were singing”[10]). From French, “state of pleasure”, it traditionally referred to a section of a garden designed for aesthetic purposes only, which bears no fruit. It is a seemingly appropriate concept for the “art for art’s sake” movement, devoid of practicality and existing solely for beauty.  But in “The Garden of Eros”, Wilde confuses the meaning of the term, as he bids the breeze be gentle to the holly-hock, “else must the bee, / Its little bellringer, go seek instead / Some other pleasaunce”. While flowers in a garden are traditionally for aesthetic pleasure, the bee relies on the flower for sustenance. It is a small detail, but “The Garden of Eros” is focused on the intricacies of nature, and this instance suggests that Wilde saw its multiple dimensions. Nothing natural exists as purely aesthetic, and the natural world is a cycle of blooming and fading, birth, decay and regeneration. Mankind’s ignorance of nature’s profundity would become the theme of “The Nightingale and the Rose”: the wasted sacrifice of the Nightingale, a symbol of lost Romanticism, “demonstrates how the fairy tale, a genre associated with infantile escapism, can expose the hollowness of Victorian values with brutal honesty”.[11]

To return to the iconic buttonhole in Wilde’s fictions, unlike Dorian’s blasé attitude to the flower of Basil’s affections, the witty, groomed dandies of his comedies show a more nuanced attitude to supposedly “the only link between Art and Nature”. Lord Goring, impeccably dressed and ornamented, is thirty-four, but claims “thirty-one and a half when I have a really good buttonhole”.[12] Algernon Moncrieff, upon being invited to tea, asks: “Might I have a buttonhole first? I never have any appetite unless I have a buttonhole first.”[13] Paradoxically, their decorative ornaments are linked to their very beings – age, impulse and appetite. The buttonhole, both a piece of nature and a piece of craft, links art and nature in a manner which is not at all depreciating to nature: in its natural setting, a flower represents uncorrupted beauty; in the lapel of a dashing dandy, it becomes a symbol of gentlemanly cultivation. Wilde had written, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”,[14] and Lord Goring and Algernon do both: their entire selves are crafted personas, and ornamented with a buttonhole, the work of art by nature and then by craft, the decoration becomes an integral part of their flawless, self-made images – an idea which fuses Wilde’s aesthetic taste for artificiality with his Romantic love of nature.


[1] Phrases and Philosophies, http://www.unz.org/Pub/WildeOscar-1925v10-00211, p.211

[2] Plays, p286. In Dorian Gray, Henry Wotton makes a similar claim: “Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know!” (p8).

[3] Thain, 229.

[4] Anne Varty, A Preface to Oscar Wilde, (New York: Longman Limited, 1998) pp77-78.

[5] Denisoff, p34.

[6] In the short story, the romantic and selfless Nightingale sees a young lovesick student who wishes for a red rose to present to his beloved. Having sung all night to the barren rosebush, the Nightingale pierces her heart on a thorn, sacrificing her own life for the creation of a perfect red rose. The young student, presenting the rose, is still rejected by his cold beloved, and he tosses it into the gutter carelessly where it is crushed beneath a cartwheel.  The Happy Prince and Other Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2010).

[7] Nicholas Ruddick, “The fantastic fiction of the fin de siecle” in The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle, p196.

[8] B. Ifor Evans, quoted in San Juan, p24.

[9] Marion Thain, “Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle, p225.

[10] A House of Pomegranates (1891) from The Happy Prince and Other Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2010) p90.

[11] Nicholas Ruddick, “The fantastic fiction of the fin de siecle” in The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle, p196.

[12] Plays, p330.

[13] Plays, p386.

[14] Phrases and Philosophies, http://www.unz.org/Pub/WildeOscar-1925v10-00211, p.214

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