Jessica Sun : Chapter II § iv

Wilde the Aesthete and Decadent

IV.

LORD GORING: […] In England a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician. There would be nothing left for him as a profession except botany or the church.[1]

 Morality, agnosticism and decay

While part of Wilde’s critique of the modern world is an aesthetic one, his thoughts on morality and its decline are equally prominent. Despite his advocacy for amorality (“there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book”[2]), poems like “To Milton” and “Quantum Mutata” show that Wilde was very concerned with declining morality: in both poems he identifies himself with the Puritanical Milton to express his dissatisfaction with the deteriorating moral stature of England.[3] In “Tædium Vitæ” (“tedious life”), he laments the inevitable corruption of his own soul, being forced “to wear / This paltry age’s gaudy livery”. While Wilde occasionally makes use of Miltonic moralism, his dominant attitude towards the degeneration of his age was disillusionment and melancholy. Like the drowsy melancholic of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”, who “Lethe-wards had sunk”, Wilde in “The Burden of Itys”, with its repeated cry “Sing on!” seeks to drown his sorrows in the ecstasy of song, while pleading with Itys to sing the classical world back into existence:

Cry out aloud on Itys! memory
That foster-brother of remorse and pain
Drops poison in mine ear…
(211-213)

The longing for forgetfulness, and the need to exist temporarily outside oneself (“ex-stasis”) is originally a classical idea (as seen in Euripides’s Bacchae, the Lotus-Eaters of Homer’s Odyssey, and the River Lethe in Hades) is used as an escape from the degenerate world. It is the sentiment Wilde also expresses in “Santa Decca” (“Chewing the bitter fruit of memory”) and the same force which drives Dorian to the opium dens to escape the burden of consciousness: “Memory, like a horrible malady, was eating his soul away” (p179). This same chapter from Dorian Gray vividly describes his journey to the dens for intoxication, the ghastly decay of the surroundings and the depths of degeneracy to which Dorian has sunk.

Most of the windows were dark, but now and then fantastic shadows were silhouetted against some lamp-lit blind. He watched them curiously. They moved like monstrous marionettes, and made gestures like live things. He hated them. A dull rage was in his heart. (p177)

The phrases, setting and atmosphere in this passage Wilde had copied from his earlier poem “The Harlot’s House”, committing his “most characteristic of literary misdemeanours – self-plagiarism”.[4]

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind. …
Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

The style of “The Harlot’s House” was inspired by French Decadence, with its “focus on artifice and on the bizarre”, teetering between the vivid and the abstract. [5] It also reflects the Decadent attitude towards life, death, innocence and corruption as all part of the same cycle and experience[6], which explains the bizarre amalgamation of vivid life and macabre lifelessness in the description of the ghostly revelry. The grandiose rhymes – “grotesques”/ “arabesques”, “marionette” / “cigarette”, “automatons” / “skeletons” – describe the dancers with a mix of awe and revulsion:

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim-silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,
Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

The repeated alliteration – “slim-silhouetted skeletons […] sidling”, “stately saraband” – creates the voluptuousness and lasciviousness expected of a “House of Lust”.  However, this fullness of sound is juxtaposed with the gauntness of the skeletons with their “thin and shrill” laughter, a contrast which heightens the mix of wonder and disgust in the speaker. Wilde would later use this exact same imagery in his most well-known poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, his ultimate expression of the world’s grotesqueness and misery, in which the “House of Lust” becomes the “House of Shame”:

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
They trod a saraband:
And the damn grotesques made arabesques,
Like the wind upon the sand!

 The Harlot’s house and Reading Gaol are both microcosmic representations of human wretchedness: macabre imagery and the fusion of life and death are used by Wilde to convey the ghostliness and emptiness of human existence.

“The Harlot’s House” also borrows from French Parnassianism, in vogue during the fin de siècle, “a style of verse that was impersonal, with the emphasis placed on highly wrought form”[7] Wilde uses the carefully constructed metrical form to express thematic ideas – as we discussed in relation to Ovid – but also chooses words which draw attention to rhythm, structure and meter. As mentioned earlier, the three-line stanzas mirror the rhythm of the waltz: the “stately saraband”, another dance with a strong triple-time rhythm, re-emphasises the crafting of the stanzas, while the “slow quadrille”, a dance performed with formations of four, draws attention to the strong iambic tetrameter, strictly consistent until the final line. The thematic material reflects upon the metrical and rhythmic arrangement of the poem and vice versa: the “highly wrought form” of the poem contrasts with the scenes of degeneration and decay it depicts. While the imagery of “The Harlot’s House”, so similar to the opium-den passage from Dorian Gray, suggests decay and moral decline, the artful construct of the poem fuses the stylistic influence of French Decadence with the thematic concerns of Victorian moralism.

Being caught between these ideologies no doubt influenced Wilde’s immense admiration for Matthew Arnold, a poet also situated between the attitudes of Romanticism and Modernism, and who, like Wilde had an anti-Philistine mission to preserve “the best which has been thought and said in the world.”[8] Wilde had sent Arnold a copy of Poems with an admiring letter, and Arnold’s courteous reply showed that he “could conceive sympathy for a young man wavering between half-rejected Catholicism and half-rejected aestheticism”, as “having himself sung of wandering between two worlds”.[9] Many of Wilde’s poems reflect the age of agnosticism and spiritual anxiety. His “Sonnet on the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria” has obvious resonances of Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”, but while Milton forcefully implores God for justice (“Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints”) Wilde’s poem is full of uncertainty and spiritual doubt as he questions how God could have allowed such a tragedy: “Christ, dost thou live indeed? or are thy bones / Still straightened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?” Milton’s sonnet is full of fierce anger in his insistent address to God:

Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks.

The imagery of Wilde’s second quatrain certainly echoes Milton’s, but the sentiment is of confused despair:

For here the air is horrid with men’s groans,
The priests who call upon thy name are slain,
Dost thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
From those whose children lie upon the stones?

While Milton demands of God that he “forget not” the massacre, Wilde questions whether God even hears “the bitter wail of pain” of human suffering. Milton’s depiction of the slaughter, where “the bloody Piedmontese […] rolled / Mother with infant down the rocks”, is focused upon death and destruction, whereas Wilde’s language of tragedy, the cries “from those whose children lie upon the stones”, is concerned with the loss and grief of the survivors who, like the speaker, are forced to doubt divine justice. The enjambment of Milton’s quatrain, which adds to the frenzied noise of the scene and the fury of the speaker, is absent in Wilde’s which although lacks the energy and aggression of Milton, solemnly and despondently questions the existence of a merciful God. The sonnet ends with a plea for some confirmation of God’s existence, his faith having being sorely tested: “Come down, O Son of Man! and show thy might, / Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!”

Agnosticism and doubt, culminating in a jaded and pessimistic view of the world is most famously expressed in Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867). Its opening line, “The sea is calm tonight”, is echoed in Wilde’s “Impression de Voyage” (“the sea was sapphire coloured”), and “Les Silhouettes” (“The sea is flecked with bars of grey”). The latter poem resonates with Arnold’s sentiments of desolation and disillusionment:

The sea is flecked with bars of grey,
The dull dead wind is out of tune,
And like a withered leaf the moon
Is blown across the stormy bay.

Etched clear upon the pallid sand
Lies the black boat: a sailor boy
Clambers aboard in careless joy
With laughing face and gleaming hand.

And overhead the curlews cry,
Where through the dusky upland grass
The young brown-throated reapers pass,
Like silhouettes against the sky.

Wilde uses the seascape to evoke “Dover Beach”, but his beach is grimmer than Arnold’s, without Arnold’s illusion of beauty (“sweet is the night air!). Rather, the “dull dead wind is out of tune”, reminiscent of the “grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back”, and the tide’s “melancholy, long withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind”. The contrasting middle stanza, in which “the sailor boy / Clambers aboard in careless joy”, represents Arnold’s illusion of beauty and promise: “a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new”. The naïve sailor brings to mind Charmides standing cheerfully at the ship’s prow, oblivious to the cruel fate which awaits him. The final stanza carries an ominous note: the cries of the curlews, like birds of prey, accompany the image of the “reapers”, alluding symbolically to the traditional personification of death in European folklore and mythology.

Wilde’s poetic voice wavers between spiritual optimism, pessimism and uncertainty, as poetic beauty comes to stand in for religion, allegorised as the figures of the pagan gods. In “The Burden of Itys”, the speaker has hope that past glories may be revived in the bleak modern world:

For well I know they are not dead at all,
The ancient Gods of Grecian poesy:
They are asleep, and when they hear thee call
Will wake and think’t is very Thessaly,
This Thames the Daulian waters… (145-49)

Through poetry and song, the beauty of the classical pastoral and its joyful gods may be restored. The vision of the dormant gods in “The Burden of Itys” is a variation on the deserted Arcadia in “The Garden of Eros”, in which the speaker intends to awaken the barren pastoral space and “make […] old Pan / Wonder what young intruder dares to sing / In these still haunts” (74-76). In “Santa Decca”, the speaker laments the death of the pagan gods in the wake of Christianity: “Young Hylas seeks the water-springs no more; / Great Pan is dead, and Mary’s son is King.” The second stanza, however, offers the poem’s setting as a microcosmic allegory for the age of agnosticism, the spiritual doubt and glimmering of hope.

And yet – perchance in this sea-trancèd isle,
Chewing the bitter fruit of memory,
Some God lies hidden in the asphodel.
Ah Love! if such there be, then it were well
For us to fly his anger: nay, but see,
The leaves are stirring: let us watch awhile.

The apostrophe “Ah Love!” alludes again to Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (“Ah, love, let us be true to / One another!”) as the speaker waits in uncertainty and doubt, and in a mix of hope and apprehension speculates that “perchance […] Some God lies hidden in the asphodel”. The poem finishes on a note of passivity: since the spirit is unable to know how to respond, burdened by agnostic doubt, there is nothing to be done but to observe the stirring leaves and wait indefinitely: “let us watch awhile”.

Wilde had engaged in the spiritual debate of his age, but he also concerned himself with the more worldly issues of the fin de siècle. No matter how his other views and sympathies varied, as an Aesthete and Hellenist Wilde was consistently in opposition to philistinism and bourgeois vulgarity. In his poem, “On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters”, he draws the ultimate comparison between the true Romantic artist and the greedy, vulgar bourgeoisie:

These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price, I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

It is not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean rainment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?

Keats is portrayed by Wilde as a divinity, his belongings sacred: he compares the vulgar selling of the poet’s intellectual and emotional property to the soldiers who gambled for Christ’s robes. Keats is referred to as “Endymion”, and then likened to Christ in “the Romantic image of the martyred artist.[10]  Thus, the pagan and Christian worlds are unified, and equally profaned by the commerciality and economy of the “brawlers of the auction mart”. In an ingenious wordplay on “quote”, Wilde contrasts artists and philistines: artists who “quote” Keats’ “pulse of passion” in their own work, breathing life into the poet and assuring his immortality, and those who “for each separate pulse of passion quote / The merchant’s price”. The division between the Christian sensibility and classical pagan beauty featured in the “Rosa Mystica” sequence discussed earlier, is in this poem resolved and unified to draw a new opposition. The virtues of both worlds are unified in the figure of Keats, the ideal artist, and the poem shows two extremes of Wilde’s sensibility: his disgust and contempt for the vulgarity of the commercial classes and, more importantly, his sincerity and humanity in his profound reverence for the artist.

[1] “An Ideal Husband”, Plays, pp309-10.

[2] Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

[3] Beckson and Fong, p61.

[4] Anne Varty, A Preface to Oscar Wilde, (New York: Longman Limited, 1998) p76.

[5] Beckson and Fong, p66.

[6] Dennis Denisoff, “Decadence and Aestheticism”, p32.

[7] Marion Thain, “Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle, p224.

[8] Arnold, Preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869).

[9] Ellmann, p138.

[10] Beckson and Fong, p57.

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