The 1890s was a productive time to be inactive and indolent: poets, artists, and intellectuals delighted in ennui, lethargy, and fears that the world was coming to an end. Indeed, for some, that was the perfect excuse to shake up the status quo. Decadence was the signature ‘movement’ of the time, embodied by some of the classic poems we’ve selected below. Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who famously called for people to ‘get drunk’, faced prosecution for the publication of his 1857 volume of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (‘flowers of evil’). In this volume, Baudelaire pioneered the Symbolist method of poetry, and took poetry into new, darker territory. It was his fellow nineteenth-century French poet Théophile Gautier who first called Baudelaire ‘decadent’, in a preface to Les Fleurs du Mal in 1868.
But it was the 1880s and especially the 1890s that really saw ‘decadence’ flourish as a literary movement. What do you think are the best decadent poems – have we left any classics off the list?
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Garden of Eros’.
It is full summer now, the heart of June;
Not yet the sunburnt reapers are astir
Upon the upland meadow where 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 …
A poem which Wilde himself numbered among his best poems, ‘The Garden of Eros’, like much of Wilde’s poetry, bears the stamp of Swinburne’s influence, along with the more sensual poems of Keats and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. As the poem’s title suggests, ‘The Garden of Eros’ is full of lush eroticism and decadent imagery, depicting a utopian world that recalls the pagan Arcadia more than the Biblical Eden…
Arthur Symons, ‘White Heliotrope’.
And you half dressed and half awake,
Your slant eyes strangely watching me,
And I, who watch you drowsily,
With eyes that, having slept not, ache;
This (need one dread? nay, dare one hope?)
Will rise, a ghost of memory, if
Ever again my handkerchief
Is scented with White Heliotrope …
Symons (1865-1945) was one of the first people to introduce the French Symbolist movement to English readers, and he wrote widely on Decadence. Much of his best poetry is from the 1890s, such as this wonderfully evocative lyric about a man and woman waking in the fug-infused bedroom after a night of indulgence – a scene which, we learn, is being summoned to the speaker’s memory when he smells a whiff of the scent known as white heliotrope.
Ernest Dowson, ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’. ‘I am not as I was as in the reign of good Cynara’, runs the Latin title of this poem by Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), decadent poet, first person to use the word ‘soccer’ (at least according to the OED), and coiner of the phrases ‘gone with the wind’ (in this poem) and ‘the days of wine and roses’.
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion …
Michael Field, ‘La Gioconda’.
Historic, side-long, implicating eyes;
A smile of velvet’s lustre on the cheek;
Calm lips the smile leads upward; hand that lies
Glowing and soft, the patience in its rest
Of cruelty that waits and does not seek
For prey; a dusky forehead and a breast
Where twilight touches ripeness amorously:
Behind her, crystal rocks, a sea and skies
Of evanescent blue on cloud and creek;
Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest
For those vicissitudes by which men die.
Michael Field was not a man; indeed, ‘Michael Field’ wasn’t even a person. Instead, ‘he’ was two people, both of them women: Katharine Bradley (1846-1914) and her niece Edith Cooper (1862-1913). Indeed, Cooper wasn’t just Bradley’s niece: she was her lover. This … unconventional couple wrote a number of poems that have become identified with 1890s decadence, and ‘La Gioconda’, about the Mona Lisa, offers a nice way into their poetry.
Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘Impression de Nuit. London’.
See what a mass of gems the city wears
Upon her broad live bosom! row on row
Rubies and emeralds and amethysts glow.
See! that huge circle like a necklace, stares
With thousands of bold eyes to heaven, and dares
The golden stars to dim the lamps below,
And in the mirror of the mire I know
The moon has left her image unawares.
That’s the great town at night: I see her breasts,
Pricked out with lamps they stand like huge black towers.
I think they move! I hear her panting breath.
And that’s her head where the tiara rests.
And in her brain, through lanes as dark as death,
Men creep like thoughts … The lamps are like pale flowers.
Best-known as the lover of Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas (or ‘Bosie’) was also a young decadent poet, who penned this sonnet about London at night. It’s all hear: the gems, the lamps as flowers, the ‘bosom’ of the female city, the ‘impressionistic’ title.
Lionel Johnson, ‘The Dark Angel’.
Dark Angel, with thine aching lust
To rid the world of penitence:
Malicious Angel, who still dost
My soul such subtile violence!
Because of thee, no thought, no thing,
Abides for me undesecrate:
Dark Angel, ever on the wing,
Who never reachest me too late!
When music sounds, then changest thou
Its silvery to a sultry fire:
Nor will thine envious heart allow
Delight untortured by desire.
Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) is most famous for something he didn’t do: die by falling off a bar stool. At least, most biographers believe he died after a fall in the street, not far from his old haunt the Green Dragon in Fleet Street (now demolished). This poem addresses the darker side of decadence with its focus on desire and temptation…
Richard Le Gallienne, ‘A Ballad of London’. Le Gallienne (1866-1947) was inspired to become a writer after attending a lecture given by Oscar Wilde in 1883. A few years later, he was penning poems to the capital such as this, which uses many of the familiar features of decadent poetry to praise the bustling metropolis at night:
Ah, London! London! our delight,
Great flower that opens but at night,
Great City of the Midnight Sun,
Whose day begins when day is done.
Lamp after lamp against the sky
Opens a sudden beaming eye,
Leaping alight on either hand,
The iron lilies of the Strand …
John Davidson, ‘Nocturne’.
The wind is astir in the town;
It wanders the street like a ghost
In a catacomb’s labyrinth lost;
Seeking a path to the heath.
Broad lightnings stream silently down
On the silent city beneath …
Davidson is perhaps best-known for his long poem in Cockney speech, ‘Thirty Bob a Week’, which T. S. Eliot credited with helping to inspire the pub conversation in his poem The Waste Land. But he also wrote shorter decadent lyrics, such as this night-time poem about the ‘silent city’ of London at night.
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Burden of Itys’.
This English Thames is holier far than Rome,
Those harebells like a sudden flush of sea
Breaking across the woodland, with the foam
Of meadow-sweet and white anemone
To fleck their blue waves,—God is likelier there,
Than hidden in that crystal-hearted star the pale monks bear!
We’ll conclude this list of some of the best decadent poems with another poem from the high priest of decadence, Oscar Wilde. In Greek mythology, Itys was the son of Tereus and Procne. Tereus raped his wife’s sister Philomela, and cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone about what he’d done. However, Philomela ‘told’ her sister by weaving a tapestry depicting the appalling crime, and Procne took revenge on her husband by killing their son Itys and serving him up as a meal for Tereus. Wilde’s poem doesn’t explicitly refer to this myth, but this is the background to a long poem about Oxford (where Wilde studied as an undergraduate) which Wilde continued to think highly of for the rest of his life, thinking it one of his finest poems.
If this selection has whetted your appetite for more decadent poetry, there’s an excellent anthology available: Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu (Penguin Classics).
And no Swinburne???