Aesthetic School: of English poetry in the Nineties

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      It has been justly said that "the Nineties was not a period but a point of view, Much that is associated with the poetry of the nineties existed before 1890 an even after 1900. The most characteristic poetry of the Victorian era, which gave a peculiar flavour and name to the nineties was the work of a group of young poets who are called the Aesthetics of Decadents. Of course, it was the period of Shaw, Wells, of James and Hardy, of Kipling, Henley, and of such writers as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Thompson, the young Yeats, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons. All these figures represent different aspects of a general ferment that was at work in the nineties. But all cannot be said to represent the last phase of the Victorianism.

The most characteristic poetry of the Victorian era, which gave a peculiar flavour and name to the nineties was the work of a group of young poets who are called the Aesthetics of Decadents.
Aesthetic School of Poetry

      It was the group of the poets mentioned last in the above list that represented the most significant phase of the last decade of the century. They formed a group called 'the Rhymers Club' and were the most outrageous innovators. They had their own cult of beauty and philosophy of art. Though the Aesthetics owed something to the Pre Raphaelites Rossetti, Morris and Ruskin, there was a difference. The Pre Raphaelites upheld the strong moral tone of Victorian art, and believed in a mediaeval world, in which culture was serious and satisfying. The nineties had no such belief or interest in such a world or culture. The Aesthetes were the disciples of Walter Pater whose doctrine of 'art for art's sake' became their motto. For the Pre Raphaelites, the creation of beauty was a duty to society; for the Aesthetes it was a duty to oneself. In place of the idealised middle ages of the Pre-Raphaelites, an idealised Renaissance became the source of inspiration of them. They stood for individualism as opposed to conformism, for sensibility as opposed to morality and at least alongside morality. The only good is the beautiful - this is their viewpoint (an echo of Keats). They also followed Pater's ideal of style, in which it is not the thought that counts, even trivial things may be the subject-matter but what is said, must be said finely and perfectly. Thus the thought-content of their poetry became unimportant and more unhealthy and decadent; hence the term 'decadent' is applied to them. To the conservative English, such works of art were positively distasteful.

      In propounding art for art's sake the aesthetes represented a reaction against Ruskin's theory of social value of art and the entire evangelical-utilitarian spirit of Victorianism as well as a flight from their contemporary commercial and mechanical world. They drew their inspiration from the native sources of Pre-Raphaelitism and from the French Parnassians. Theophile Gautier was the vehement continental advocate of art for art's sake rejecting all moral, social and political purposes of art. Charles Baudelaire proclaimed that a poet with a moral purpose had vitiated his poetry. As an artist he wished to taste all sensations, and evil was specially delicious.

      Aesthetic movement in England was the product of native and French influence. The influence of Walter Pater was great. In the conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater urged the sensitive individuals "to burn always with this hard gem-like flame" and to find the most precious moments of his life in the pursuit of his sensations raised to the pitch of "poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art's sake". The periodical The Yellow Book illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley which appeared from 1894 to 1897 was the rallying point of the aesthetes. With its daring subjects and crude realism this publication caused a scandal. The poets who were influenced by Pater were Wilde, Dawson, Lionel Johnson, Symons and the early Yeats.

      The Aesthetes were also known as decadent. They could not create anything substantially valid and universal. Their attitude that art is self-sufficient led to the brilliant and superficial fin-de-siecle aesthetic pose with undue emphasis on the glamour of form. Search for novelty with attendant artificiality, excessive self-analysis, neaonism, exaggerated erotic sensibility, art for art's sake in the evocation of exquisite sensations and emotions are some of its chief characteristics. Scorn or contemporary society, restless curiosity, perversity, over-emphasis on form with resultant loss ot balance between form and content are sedulously practised by the 'decadent' writers. There is disintegration of artistic unity. These qualities are exemplified in the writings of Oscar Wilde.

      Wilde's Dorian Gray is a fictional character representing the tendencies of decadence. Wilde's Salome with its perverted lusts, high pitched emotions and violence is the supreme example of 'fin de siecle' decadence in English. His wit is scintillating and his style is elegant and spicy, but the content is perverse and thin. The decadents did not believe in the totality of men. They did not recognise objective or timeless values that transcend and give form and direction to individual experience and effort. They reduce life to the flux of sensations and moments and confine their values to the ego-centric limits. Here the poet or dramatist is concerned with private sensation rather than the fruit of experience. As a matter of fact, decadence in literature started from the nineteenth century romanticism with its emphasis on emotions and culminated in the stream of consciousness novel with its accent on the flux of moments.

      The younger Yeats, a most self-conscious artist was at first a member of this group. His earlier poems, written under the influence of Blake and Rossetti, were the poetry of escape into a visionary and fairer world, the laws of which are revealed not by science (Yeats condemns Huxley and Tyndall) but by the heart and imagination. But with mature years Yeats cut himself off from the decadents and developed on new lines. Of Yeats's friends and fellow-members of the Rhymers' Club Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Davidson, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde are the most outstanding. Their single-hearted devotion to arts produced few fine lyrics and meditative poems in which the note of self-pity is most prominent. Dowson is probably the best poet of the group and wrote some pure lyrics. But his poems are empty of thought. His poem, Cynara is typical of the Decadent school. It is soaked in erotic imagery and passion, but still it is a great lyric. Its refrain, "I have been faithful to thee Cynara in my fashion" expresses the fervour and faith of the poet. Johnson was pre-eminently a scholar.

      A meditative note is dominant in all his poems, no matter whatever be the subject. His poetry is lucid, melodious and faultless but lifeless too. John Davidson is not strictly an aesthetic, he was a rare visitor to the Rhymers' Club. Yet many of his poems are 'aesthetic' in a sentimental way, both in diction and content. He had a far wider range and a daring independence but these could not make a better poet. He criticised the Rhymers as lacking 'blood and guts'. Yeats comment on him runs - "I think he might have grown to be a successful man had he been enthusiastic about Dowson, or Johnson, or Symons, for they had what I lacked, conscious deliberate craft." It is no doubt very valid. Arthur Symons grew lyrical over lip-stick, rogue, the thick atmosphere of the music-hall and other things which according to the aesthetes have a place in poetry over and above the elemental realities of life. His poems. London Voluntaries, Amoris Victima, display some artistic skill no doubt but the abandon of lyrics is not there. His amatory verses are cold and repelling. His fine literary taste and love of letters are better reveal in his prose critical writings.

      Oscar Wilde (1856-1900) is the type of a rare but perverted and wayward genius. In Oxford he was a very promising student and came out with a First class in Classical Moderations and Litterae Humaniores, his poems Ravenna won the Newdigate prize in 1878. Then in London he became the centre of an artificial, decadent society, famous for wit and brilliant conversation. He was the most impudent of the Aesthetics, a school founded by Pater, based on the theory of 'art for art's sake.' As a critic has noted, 'he swept morality out of view altogether and there is no grimmer comment upon his aesthetic creed than is supplied by his own tragic life (he was sentenced at the Old Baily to two years imprisonment in 1895, for an offence of gross immorality. De Profundis and the Ballad of the Reading Gao are the products of this period).

      In poetry, prose and drama, Wilde embodies the spirit of the 'decadent school of the 'nineties'. His earlier poetry is removed from the realities of life, being extravagantly romantic: it lacks emotional depth and had a richly ornate style. But the awful experience of life brought out the poet in him. The Ballad of the Reading Gaol, in its sincerity, simple emotional power and its stern seriousness touches the heights of poetry. The same quality marks his imaginative prose piece, De Profundis which is as intimate as De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium-Eater. His Intentions is a monument of same and subtle criticism in admirable prose style. His influence on drama is that of wit. His plays are "comedies of manners in the Sheridan tradition, aristocratic in tone and outlook and with all the conscious artistic grace and outlook of his other work". In them he deals with the upper class elegant society of his own day. His wit is acute and brilliant; his characters are wooden; his sentiments are almost insincere. His dialogue is studied, polished and forceful and helped much to clear the contemporary drama of its verbiage and artificiality on style. "Yet he did much to improve the literary standard of the modern drama and his own notoriously brilliant talk echoes in the dialogue". His reputation as a dramatist rests on four beautiful plays - Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and lastly The Importance of Being Earnest, which are remarkable for witty dialogue and epigrams. He restored to the English theatre the sparkling comedy of manners which had been unknown since the time of Sheridan.

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