Poetry News

On the Hellish and Illuminating Victorian Decadent Poet

By Harriet Staff


Colin Fleming at Boston Review discusses the odd and not-oft-talked-of Victorian Poet ("contradiction was the norm, and—were you a poet—the basis of a heady challenge") in a review of a new anthology, Decadent Verse: An Anthology of Late-Victorian Poetry, 1872-1900. From the publisher notes:

...‘Major’ writers such as Tennyson, Browning, Hardy and Hopkins are presented alongside less well-known poets, fifty of whom are female, and other traditional figures such as Stevenson, William Morris and Christina Rossetti are given a fresh look. The book also contains a comparative chronology of prose 1872-1900 and of movements in the visual arts. Accompanied by an acclaimed critical commentary, the volume enables readers to discover poetry in the wider context of the literary, aesthetic and intellectual forces of the late-Victorian world as a whole.

Before looking at a poem by Thomas Ashe, Fleming writes:

To say that late Victorian poetry is bleak would be akin to remarking that Wilkie Collins had a decent knack for plotting a novel. These poems are freighted with Gothic overtones, and it is not uncommon for some supernatural phenomenon to intrude upon what had started out as a seemingly harmless quatrain. We often encounter Death himself—or the Devil—who is something of a literary celebrity for the decadent poets. But what marks the best of these poems is that the outré is in service to something that we can think of as more desperate, and, wouldn’t you know, human.

So what of this decadence? Well:

And therein lies the rub of Victorian decadent poetry—much is phantasmagoric, and in flux, but, remarkably, grounded in the quotidian and quotidian language. Hate trades identities with love, death begets life. The Victorian decadent poets provide a free-for-all of implied meanings and false corridors, and corridors with trap doors in them which the reader unwittingly stumbles upon, gaining ingress to spaces both hellish and illuminating; what you do with that blend—or, rather, what you allow it to do to you—is a question, perhaps, of faith. Sometimes, one must disengage with reality in order to better understand its workings, upon return. To wit: Stephen Phillips’s “The Apparition” (1896), which begins with a flatly expressed statement, as though nothing were amiss. And yet, natural order has been upended:

My dead Love came to me, and said:
“God gives me one hour’s rest,
To spend upon the earth with thee:
How shall we spend it best?”

If you’re able to look past the ghoulish conceit, this is very humdrum; she might as well be asking him what he’d like for tea. And then we get a well-turned joke of domestic discord, further emphasized by an off rhyme:

“Why as of old,” I said, and so
We quarreled as of old.

Thus concludes the hour, and it probably unfolded like many such hours we’ve all experienced—leaving out the dead-lover bit.

A bit about the Decadent's influence:

The Modernists would find much to drink here, and one imagines someone such as Pound—who always seemed steeped in what we might think of as classical archetypes, while in perpetual pursuit of new modes of communication—delighting in poems that appear to buck their own conventions, as though wanting to extend the borders of poetry itself. Nowhere is this evinced more clearly than in the copious helping of Christina Rossetti poems, where we locate what one might think of as Victorian poetry’s departure point for a place beyond the Victorian age. “I have a friend in ghostland,” her “A Coast-Nightmare” begins, and suddenly Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, and all of the factory towns of the era no longer seem to exist; or, if they do, they’ve been turned inward, where the factory is now the mind, untethered by the proto-realism that informs much of the literature of that era—especially the prose—that has gone on to last.

Read the entire piece.

Originally Published: October 10th, 2012