Decadence on Sale

Decadence: A Literary Anthology is now on sale through PostScript Books, marked down from £20 to £7.99. It is on offer here.

Wildeans will find much to enjoy in this attractive volume, as Jad Adams explained in his review of the book for The Wildean 52:

This timely anthology is culled from the extensive collection of decadent literature in the British Library, with chapters on major preoccupations of the genre: artifice, intoxication, spirituality and death. Decadence eschews the question of whether ‘decadence’ is a description of a political or national decline or of a personal degradation – whether by genetic degeneration or the ubiquity of vice. In fact, decadence as a cultural phenomenon was all of these.

The collection starts with forerunners such as gothic abbey-builder William Beckford and opium-eater Thomas de Quincey. Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey is gorgeously described by a visitor in 1838: ‘next to the library is a sort of vestibule leading to a staircase, which for its mysterious and crimson light, rich draperies and latticed doors seemed to be the sanctum sanctorum of a heathen temple’. This was the decadent lifestyle to which the writers in this anthology aspired.

What is apparent from a selection such as this, which is not obvious from individual texts, is what the decadents as an entirety were not. They were not interested in finance, trade, politics or the Church of England, which were the mainstays of Victorian life and the source of contemporary wealth and prestige. Neither were they interested in imperialism, except as a source of exotic fantasies. No wonder the earnest patriarchs of the nineteenth century held them in such low regard – and no wonder the young found them such fun.

Decadence was ‘either hurled as a reproach or hurled back as defiance’, said Arthur Symons, who lived through the whole period and helped to define an English decadence. One of his pieces reprinted here is the biographical sketch he wrote in the doomed Savoy magazine in 1896, describing the life of his friend Ernest Dowson in ‘a sort of self-exile’ in France.

Dowson is well represented with nine pieces in this anthology. He indeed lived the decadent life of dissipation, religious devotion to literature, Catholic conversion, hopeless love and early death. All these are represented here with some of his finest verses, including ‘Cynara’, which is pretty much the signature lyric of the 1890s, and one of his many death poems, ‘Dregs’: ‘The golden wine is drunk, the dregs remain, / Bitter as wormwood and as salt as pain.’

There is also some of his religious verse, which is in keeping with the attraction the Roman church had for him, John Gray, Lionel Johnson and other decadents. It is good to see Johnson’s ‘The Cultured Faun’ published here as it has previously been rather hard to obtain. In it he describes the attraction of Catholicism: ‘white tapers upon the high altar, an ascetic and beautiful young priest, the great gilt monstrance, the subtle-scented and mystical incense, the old world accents of the Vulgate, of the Holy Offices; the splendour of the sacred vestments’.

In addition to this prose piece, I would have liked to see a little of Johnson’s verse, such as his poem to Oscar Wilde after the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its line ‘Here are the apples of Sodom’. His work on the struggle between sensuality and religious feeling, ‘The Dark Angel’ (‘Dark Angel, with thine aching lust / To rid the world of penitence’), is regrettably absent too.

The supposedly satanic nature of decadence is more comic, with Aleister Crowley hymning ‘sun-souled Lucifer’. Similarly, Arthur Machen discourses on sorcery and sanctity. W. B. Yeats finds a place in this collection for his esoteric spirituality; his verse sits uncomfortably here with his decadent contemporaries as he indeed sat uncomfortably with them in the 1890s.

Oscar Wilde and his acolyte Richard Le Gallienne inevitably make their contributions here, both of them being thoughtful about the poses they struck: Wilde in an extract from The Picture of Dorian Gray; Le Gallienne in a poem titled ‘The Décadent to His Soul’. It is good to see work by some of the more obscure decadent writers, like M. P. Shiel, who made important contributions to the development of both science fiction and detective stories, and revolutionary poet and lover John Barlas.

There is a lot more posing than doing in the decadent lifestyle, so sex (the ultimate act of doing) plays but a small part in this literature. Exceptions include Aleister Crowley’s ‘it is hard to mention a genius who had a wife or mistress of even tolerable good character. If he had one, he would be sure to neglect her for a Vampire or a Shrew.’ As such remarks suggest, this literary decadence was very much a boy’s game, but nevertheless a few women find their way into this collection: notably Olive Custance, who was a poet, wife of Lord Alfred Douglas and lover of Natalie Barney; and the aunt and niece partnership who wrote of Sapphic love under the pseudonym Michael Field.

There is a gem reprinted here in a story by Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, described by Jon Crabb in the author biographies as ‘one of the strangest figures in this anthology. He produced very little work . . . but lived one of the most eccentric and decadent lives of them all.’ He was preoccupied with exotic religion and eventually evolved one of his own, a mixture of Catholicism, Buddhism and idolatry. He carried about with him a wooden doll that he referred to as his son and expected to have treated with respect. He descended deep into alcoholism and opium addiction and died at the age of thirty-five. The story of his which is reprinted here concerns a viola strung with human flesh.

There are excellent illustrations from Aubrey Beardsley and Felicien Rops, Charles Ricketts and William T. Horton. They fit into a book of superlative design and typography, which would be a welcome present for would-be decadent friends.

Jon Crabb (ed.), Decadence: A Literary Anthology (British Library: London, 2016), hbk UK £20.00, 224pp, ISBN-13: 978-0-71235-663-3.