Studium anglistiky na KAA UPOL

(10) Literary and Social Nineties: Decadence and Aestheticism.

(O. Wilde, E. Dowson, and A. Beardsley).


T h e  V i c t o r i a n  P e r i o d  (1830 - 1901)

[See "Background for Topics 6-11..."]


O s c a r  W i l d e  ( 1 8 5 4 – 1 9 0 0 )

L i f e :

- b. in Dublin; studied the classics

- left for Oxford; settled in London

< infl. by the aesthetic theories of J. Ruskin and W. Pater

- aestheticism = the Br. counterpart of Decadence and Symbolism

- a spokesperson for the school of ‘art for art’s sake’ = the aesthetic movement incl. Fr. poets and critics, and a line of E poets going back through D. G. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites to J. Keats (accord. to W.)

- a dazzling conversationalist: mastered the polished and witty wordplay

- a gifted actor: delighted in gaining attention with both his outrageous and incongruous opinions and his flamboyant style of dress

- his colourful costumes x contrasted with the sober black suits of the late mid-Victorian middle classes => a typical dandy

- married and fathered 2 children x but: kept a homosexual relationship with the young poet Lord Alfred Douglas (1870 – 1945)

- sued by D.’s father for sodomy, sentenced to a 2 y. jail, consequentially divorced and bankrupt, died in a Paris exile

=> a close relationship btw his life and work = both reject mid-Victorian values and provoke a response to difference

W o r k :

L i t e r a r y  a n d  S o c i a l  C r i t i c i s m :

= an amusingly provocative critic: enjoys his chosen roles as an aesthete and iconoclast

- questions institutions, moral imperatives, and social clichés, and explores alternative moral perspectives

The Decay of Lying (1889):

= a Platonic dialogue

- ‘the proper aim of Art’ = ‘the telling of beautiful untrue things’

The Critic as Artist (1890):

< develops W. Pater’s aestheticism

- art = superior to life, with no obligation to any standards of mimesis

The Truth of Masks (1891)

The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891): advocates a larger and expanding idea of freedom from drudgery and from the rule of machines

F i c t i o n :

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891):

- the preface: art and morality = totally separate x but: to some degree portrays the evils of self-regarding hedonism in the self-destructive and darkly sinning protagonist

- the eponymous character and protagonist = a handsome young man in a selfish pursuit of sensual pleasures

- himself fresh and healthy in appearance x but: his portrait = the image of his corrupted soul

- internal contradictions: aestheticism damned x upheld, hedonism indulged x disdained, D. as a desperate suicide x martyr

De Profundis (1905, [= from the Lat. transl. of the line of a psalm: ‘Out of the depths, I cried to you, Lord!’]): his confessions written during his imprisonment

D r a m a :

- = a playwright of an aphoristic and paradoxical wit

(a) tragedies:

> unsuccessful

Vera: or, The Nihilists (1880): his 1st tragedy

The Duchess of Padua (1883): a blank verse tragedy

Salome (1894):

= the Bible account of the death of John the Baptist

x but: shocking juxtapositions of repulsion x sexual desire, death x orgasm, etc.

- written in Fr., transl. into E by A. Douglas

> his most influential tragedy

> the Ger. version = the libretto of Richard Strauss’s (1864 – 1949) revolutionary opera (1915)

A Florentine Tragedy (1897)

(b) comedies:

- undercurrents of boredom, disillusion, and alienation

- evocations of flippancy and snobbery

=> captures the mood of ‘irresponsibility’ challenging all pretensions except that of the artifice of the plays themselves

Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play about a Good Woman (1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893):

- conc.: the discovery of a dire secret

(+) witty speeches of a dandified M aristocrat

(−) a feminist bias in stressing the innate strength of the central F characters

An Ideal Husband (1895)

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

P o e t r y :

< admired R. Browning, D. G. Rossetti, and A. C. Swinburne

> his 1st vol. (1881) highly derivative and excessively elaborate

Also wrote following poems of distinction:

“The Harlot’s House” and “Impression du Matin” (1881) [= Fr. for ‘impression of the morning’]:

> his distinctive perspective on city streets anticipates T. S. Eliot

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898):

- sober and emotionally high-pitched

< written during his imprisonment


E r n e s t  D o w s o n  ( 1 8 6 7 – 1 9 0 0 )

L i f e :

- left Oxford without taking a degree

- led an active social life: met uni students, attended music halls, etc.

(a) fell in love with a 12 y. old girl, courted her for 2 y. x but: she married another => crushed

> the girl = a symbol of love and innocence in some of his verse

(b) his parents both committed suicide => himself rapidly declined

(c) => died of TBC (?) / alcoholism

W o r k :

= associated with the Aesthetes

= member of the Rhymers’ Club (1890 – 1904)

- an unpaid reviewer for a critical magazine

- a frequent contrib. to The Yellow Book (1894 – 97)

- publ. 2 coll. of poems, a 1-act verse play, several short stories, and 2 novels in collab.

P o e t r y :

Verses (1896)

Decorations in Verse and Prose (1899)

“Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae” [= Lat. for ‘I am no more the man I was in the reign of the Good Cynara’]:

= an exquisite poem with a Lat. title x but: written in E

< semi-autobiog.: a lover tries to put aside his feelings for a former lover x but: fails

> his most anthologised poem

P r o s e :

Dilemmas: Stories and Studies in Sentiment (1895)


A u b r e y  B e a r d s l e y  ( 1 8 7 2 – 9 8 )

L i f e :

- died of TBC (aged 25+)

W o r k :

= associated with the Aesthetes

I l l u s t r a t i o n s :

= the most controversial visual artist of the ‘Art Nouveau’ era (1890s – beginning of the 20th c., [= Fr. for ‘New Art’, a self-consciously radical and mannered prelude to Modernism, characteristic for its dynamic, undulating, and flowing curves, hyperbolas, and parabolas])

- his drawings present not mere illustr. x but: form an integral part of the Br. Aesthetic Movement => best understood in this context

- style: typically black-and-white drawings in ink, contrasts large dark areas x large blank ones, areas of fine detail x areas with none at all

- themes: dark and perverse images, the grotesque erotica

=> preocc. with the grotesque both in life / art

(a) an art ed. of The Yellow Book (1894 – 97, the quintessential avant-garde lit. quarterly of the 1890s) x but: fired a y. later due to a suspicion of homosexuality because of his friendship with O. Wilde

(b) an illustr. of The Savoy, the rival periodical ed. by Arthur Symons (1865 – 1945, a poet and critic)

(c) a caricaturist: political cartoons mirroring O. Wilde’s irreverent wit in art

(d) author of extensive illustr. for books (incl. Thomas Malory’s [1405 – 71] Le Morte d’Arthur, a compilation of Fr. and E Arthurian romances) and magazines (incl. The Studio)

- his most famous sensuous illustr. on themes of history and mythology: incl. his illustr. for O. Wilde’s Salome

- illustr.: O. Wilde’s Salome, A. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, & oth.

=> his work reflects the decadence of his era

> the Fr. Symbolists

> the later-period Art Nouveau artists: incl. Alfons Mucha

P o e t r y :

“The Ballad of a Barber” (1896):

= a poem, publ. orig. in The Savoy

- conc.: a demon barber

P r o s e :

The Story of Venus and Tannhauser (1907):

= an unfinished erotic novel, pub. orig. as Under the Hill in The Yellow Book

< based loosely on the medieval German legend of Tannhäuser [T. = a knight and poet, finds the home of the goddess Venus and spends here a y. to worship her; after leaving, he asks the pope to be absolved of his sins x but: the pope claims it as impossible as it would be for his papal staff to blossom; the staff does so in 3 days x but: T. has already returned to Venus never to be seen again]


Abrams, Meyer Howard, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Barnard, Robert. Stručné dějiny anglické literatury. Praha: Brána, 1997.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Other Sources

Jelínková, Ema. Semináře: Britská literatura 1. ZS 2004/05.



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