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FIN DE SIECLE The Age of Oscar Wilde INTRODUCTION

Standing as we do at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the closing years of the nineteenth may seem a long time ago. Yet only now are they passing out of living memory. I grew up surrounded by those who were born into that world. My parents, my uncles & aunts, were all born between 1883 and 1905. My mothers first husband was an Eton volunteer in what her second husband always referred to as the South African War. My father was born in the year of Queen Victorias Diamond Jubilee, on what turned out to be Gladstones last birthday. My nanny was born in 1896 and most of those who occupied the commanding heights in my education up to the age of 13 were of that generation. It was still the generation of the worlds political leaders. In the 1890s, the preceding generation, that of my grandparents, had a very real sense of the fin de siecle and of the appropriateness of the term itself. The older generation was passing away and we pay tribute to some of them this evening: Cardinal Newman in 1890, Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1892, William Morris in 1896 and William Ewart Gladstone in 1898. Tonights programme gives pride of place to two men who died in the final year of the 19th.Century, Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Sullivan, together with his satirical partner, W.S.Gilbert. Three weeks into the new century, on the 22nd of January 1901, the Queen herself died, after more than 63 years on the throne. For most of her 400,000 subjects, she had been the only British monarch they could remember. She had given her name to the Victorian era, which now passed into history. Next year, as a nation and Commonwealth, we will celebrate our own Queens Golden Jubilee. Its only precedent was that of Queen Victoria. A.E.Housman reflected upon this imperial event in the stanzas entitled 1887, from his most famous poem, A Shropshire Lad. Yet our perspective tonight is a very different one from that of our centennial tribute: Victoria Regina et Imperatrix. We begin by opening up the contemporary debate on the Empire and include Rudyard Kiplings iconoclastic poem, The Widow at Windsor. The mores and dictates of High Victorianism were being openly questioned, attacked and ridiculed by a new generation. Everything that appealed to them seemed to be hailed as new. The New Woman was demanding the Emancipation of Women. The plethora of issues that this raised were being openly discussed in influential journals, such as The Nineteenth Century. Thomas Hardys Tess of the DUrbervilles and Oscar Wildes A Woman of No Importance graphically exposed and portrayed the monstrous injustice of the double standard in Victorian society; which turned a blind eye to the

husbands infidelity, while inflicting drastic consequences on his wife, even when she was the overpowered victim of rape. Groundbreaking detailed research exposed the horrific living conditions of the urban poor. Individualism and laissez-faire economics were under attack, not only from the New Liberalism of the Newcastle Programme, but from the more strident New Unionism of the unskilled workforce and from the rising spectre of Socialism. The writings of Marx and Engels became widely available in English. They were given an anglicised pedigree in the writings of William Morris and others, as they founded socialist organisations and journals. Numerous conflicting visions of the future received their impetus from the imminent sense of the fin de siecle. They ranged from the communist utopia of William Morriss News from Nowhere to the pessimistic science fiction of H.G.Wells Time Machine. The term Aestheticism first appeared in Germany in a book published in 1750. It referred to the science of the beautiful or the philosophy of taste. As such it entered the English language in the early 19th. Century. Oscar Wilde defined aestheticism as a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is a science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life (1). As its leading apostle, he toured America in 1882. He gave lectures like The English Renaissance in Art to packed audiences. Dances were named after him, and so were songs like Oscar Dear, one verse of which I have included. By then in England, the Aesthetic Movement was sweeping all before it and in the eighties it embraced every art form from the greeting card to the domestic architecture (2). According to Max Beerbohm: men and women hurled their mahogany into the streets and ransacked the curio-shops for the furniture of Annish days. Dados arose upon every wall, sunflowers and the feathers of peacocks curved in every corner, tea grew quite cold while the guests were praising the Willow Pattern of its cup (3). I owe the inclusion of Private Views. to Beerbohm who introduced it in a footnote: This passage, which I found in a contemporary chronicle, is so quaint and so instinct with the spirit of its time that I am fain to quote it. The essence of the Aesthetic movement was defined as the union of cultivated tastes to define and decide upon what is to be admired (4), thus its opponents were derided as philistines. Yet in reality, the broader its appeal became the more diluted was its essence, so that even so-called philistines became partial aesthetes. This becomes clearly demonstrated in the caricature of Mr. Philistine Jones, which appeared in that short-lived mouthpiece of the movement, The Burlington. The so-called philistines responded with withering satire but none surpassed the success accorded to

Gilbert & Sullivans Patience on both sides of the Atlantic. In London, it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 578 performances. I am sure that most of us are envious of our parents for some of their experiences, which we could not share because we were born too late. I am envious of my mother for her lunches with Conan Doyle and for hearing Paderewski perform. He was the Polish pianist in Beardesleys poem The Three Musicians. I am jealous of my father for witnessing Dame Ellen Terry act. She and Sir Henry Irving were the greatest Shakespearean double act of their, and arguably of any, generation. I must content myself with only acoustically poor recordings. Oscar Wilde was Irvings devoted admirer as is shown in his review of their Hamlet at the Lyceum. As a playwright, Bernard Shaw found Wilde a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull. Of Wildes comedies, Shaw was superlative. Mr Wilde has creative imagination, philosophic humor (sic.), and original wit, besides being a master of language. However he was not enamoured by The Importance of Being Earnest. It amused me of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted an evening. (5) It was difficult for later generations to fathom why The Yellow Book stirred up such a commotion. It ran for thirteen issues and lasted for only three years, from April 1894 until April 1897. Yet no publication has become so identified with the terms fin de siecle and decadence. Hubert Crackenthorpe was one contributor who was unhappy with the way the latter term had become so all embracing. A weird word has been invented to explain the whole business. Decadence, decadence, you are all decadent today. Ah, what a hideous spectacle. All whirling towards a common end(6). By 1899 it seemed pass, at least to Arthur Symons. In 1893, he had published an essay entitled The Decadent Movement in Literature. Six years later, in his most significant work, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, he recalled something which is vaguely called Decadence had come into being. That name, rarely used with any precise meaning, was usually either hurled as a reproach or hurled back as a defiance. Decadence had proved to be no more than the interlude, half a mock interlude; while Symbolism was preparing to crystallise. Lionel Johnson noticed in Symons: A singular power of technique, and a certain imaginativeness of conception, mostly wasted upon insincere obscenities. But is a slave to impressionism, whether the impression is precious or no. Writing in 1915, it was easy for Ezra Pound to find fault with the poets of the nineties.

For Milton and Victorianism and for the softness of the nineties I have different degrees of antipathy and even contempt. The nineties have chiefly gone out because of their muzziness, because of a softness derived, I think, not from books but from impressionist painting. They riot with half decayed fruit. (7) I cannot help wondering whether riot is a misprint for rot. When Derek Stanford compiled his anthology Poets of the Nineties, he introduced them with these generalisations. There are two things to remark in the poets of the nineties: the distinction of their work and the tragedy of their lives (8). W.B.Yeats referred to the poets of the 1890s as the Tragic Generation'. No small part of that tragedy is reflected in the fact that several of them did not survive long into the new century. Aubrey Beardsley died in 1898, Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde in 1900, Lionel Johnson in 1902 and John Davidson in 1909. Arthur Symons had a nervous breakdown in 1908. Discharged from a mental asylum two years later, he lived out the rest of his life quietly in his cottage at Wittersham at Kent. When Beardsley died, Sir Edward Burne-Jones was still bitter that he had spurned his influence and got into all that horrid set of semi-sodomites. This was not what Yeats remembered of his tavern comrades of the Rhymers Club. Poets with whom I learnt my trade, Companions of the Cheshire Cheese You had to face your ends when young Twas wine and women were your curseYou kept the Muses sterner laws, And unrepenting faced your ends, And therefore earned the rightand yet Dowson and Johnson most I praiseTo troop the worlds forgot, And copy their proud steady gaze. (9) Osbert Burdett regarded Ernest Dowson as the most characteristic poet of the period (8). Arthur Symons wrote this in his obituary notice to Dowson: He died obscure, having ceased to care even for the delightful labour of writing. He died young, worn out by what was not really life to him, leaving a little verse which has the pathos of things too young and too frail ever to grow old. (10) My fathers friend, Desmond Flower, edited the definitive Poetical Works of Ernest Christopher Dowson . In his introduction, he drew striking parallels between the Elizabethan poets of the 1590s and those of the 1890s. Of the periods themselves, he observed:

Both periods were an end and not a beginning. on the one hand the Reformation dwindled into the last age of martyrs and Donnes visions of hell, while on the other Tract 90 lived in the wholesale conversion to Rome of all the younger writers. (11) This took place in a society with an anthropocentric viewpoint and dwindling reliance on the metaphors of the Christian faith (12). Johnson embraced Roman Catholicism in 1891; Beardsley in 1897. For Oscar Wilde it was a deathbed conversion. 11 years later, Lord Alfred Douglas was received as he struggled against the inheritance of family traits. Dowson had written in the eighties: O give us faithIn God, Man, anything to rise and break The mists of doubt, we cry, but like a wrath It still eludes our grasp and no rays streak The dark of death. (13) It was a common obsession with the sad experience and transitory nature of life. He was to find consolation in Roman Catholicism, as exemplified in his evocative and impressionistic Benedicto Domini: Dark is the church, save where the altar stands, Dressed like a bride, illustrious with light, Where an old priest exalts with tremulous hands The one true solace of mans fallen plight. (14) We close tonight with the Dream of Gerontius. The words are those of the author of Tract 90, to which Desmond Flower referred John Henry,Cardinal Newman. His secession to the Church of Rome was a sensational event and brought others in its wake. He received Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866. The mystical Dream of Gerontius exerted a powerful effect on the cradle Catholic, Edward Elgar. He gave of his best in the adaptation and composition of the score, which in turn helped to establish his ascendancy in the Edwardian Era. Thus the Dream combines the older generation, which passed on, and a younger which was to bring its talents to bear on the new century. In the meantime, this is perhaps not the place to take literally the advice Sir John Betjeman offered to the readers of Martin Seckers anthology of The Eighteen Nineties. Draw the curtains, kindle a joss-stick in a dark corner, settle down on a sofa by the fire, light an Egyptian cigarette and sip a brandy and soda, as you think yourself back to the world which ended in prison and disgrace for Wilde, suicide for Crackenthorpe and John Davidson, premature death for

Beardsley, Dowson, Lionel Johnson, religion for some, drink and drugs for others, temporary or permanent oblivion for many more. (15)

1. Richard Ellmann: Oscar Wilde (Penguin Books, 1988): pp. 151-2


2. Aslin, Elizabeth: The Aesthetic Movement (Excalibur Books, 1969): p.13 3. Eighteen-Eighty in Secker, Martin (ed.): The Eighteen-Nineties (The Richards Press:,1948) : p. 16 4. Hamilton, Walter: The Aesthetic Movement in England(1882 ; p.vii); cited in Aslin: p.14 5. Reticence in Literature in Denny, Norman (ed.): The Yellow Book- a selection (Spring Books): p.101 6. Preface to Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson (Elkin Matthews, 1915): pp.xi, vi, viii) 7. Poets of the Nineties (John Baker, 1965) : p.17 8. The Grey Rock (1914) in The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats (Macmillan:1955): pp.115-7 9. The Poems of Ernest Dowson ( John Lane,The Bodley Head:1905) : pp.xxviii-xxix 10. The Beardsley Period (John Lane,The Bodley Head:1925) : p.158 11. The Poetical Works of Ernest Christopher Dowson (Cassell & Co., John Lane,The Bodley Head,1934) : p. xiii 12. Reade, Brian: Aubrey Beardsley (Victoria & Albert Museum & H.M.S.O.,1966): p. 11 13. Flower: Dowson (see 11): p.I33 - Song of the XIX Century 14. idem: p.I8 14. Secker: p.xii