EESE 1/2004

Ideals Versus Realities: Nineteenth-Century Decadent Identity and the Renaissance

Rolf P. Lessenich (Bonn)


It is a well-known fact that the nineteenth century had no art style of its own. Styles were revivals from the past: neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, neo-Tudor, neo-Chinese, neo-Hindu, neo-Saracen, etc., and often enough, odd incongruous mixtures of various historical styles. These styles were constructions of the past in and for the present. The century of the Industrial Revolution, experiencing an unprecedented break-neck gallop into an uncertain future, naturally sought hold and counterbalance in the past.1 In Charles Kingsley's Rabelaisian novel The Water-Babies (1862), the narrator thus portrays the house of Sir John Harthover:

For Harthover had been built at nineteen different times, and in nineteen different styles, and looked as if somebody had built a whole street of houses, of every imaginable shape, and then stirred them together with a spoon.2

It is an equally well-known fact that the Victorians tended to read history not for history's, but for their own time's sake, convinced of what Robert Browning called "earth's returns".3 Thomas Arnold and Charles Kingsley demanded that the past should teach the present, with examples to be followed or to be avoided, confirming the method which Thomas Carlyle had applied in Past and Present (1843).4 Solving the "Condition of England question" by recourse to an idealized reconstruction of the Middle Ages became a favourite programme of High Victorianism, most apparent in Victorian neo-Gothicism. Medieval faith and spirituality, as expressed in Gothic architecture, was expected to bridge the gap between rich and poor, the "two nations" of the nineteenth century, as it had bridged the gap between Normans and Anglo-Saxons, the "two nations" of the Middle Ages.5

If a distinction can be made between High Victorians and Decadents in the Victorian epoch, it is by the difference of their ideals opposed to nineteenth-century realities. Decadent cultural ideals were anti-Victorian as High Victorian cultural ideals had been anti-Romantic. The Decadents pitted an idealized neopagan Renaissance against the reality of Victorian dogmatism and restriction, just as the Victorians had pitted idealized Middle Ages against the reality of egoism, capitalism, and materialism. By consequence, the revolutionary Decadents replaced the ideal of Victorian neo-medievalism by a provocative new idealization of Renaissance and Romantic cultures, - culture in the sense of ethical and aesthetic values. They tended to conceive themselves as neo-Renaissance and neo-Romantic thinkers and artists, rebelling against the prevailing High Victorian movement of their own time as the Renaissance had rebelled against the Middle Ages and the Romantics against the Enlightenment. These parallel constructions of the Renaissance and Romanticism in the writings of Walter Pater and his disciple Oscar Wilde tell us more about Pater and Wilde than about the Renaissance and Romanticism themselves.6 Both authors rebelled against the rational ethical as well as aesthetic strictures of High Victorian culture, its aiming at consensus and common sense, its self-understanding as cultural adulthood, its cult of norm and health, its dogmatic understanding of Christian orthodoxy and heresy, its tendency to reduce reality to scientific calculability, its demand that every individual person altruistically submit to social norms or requirements and every individual artist to a socially didactic mission. And both authors understood 'renaissance' literally in the sense of 'rebirth', a Blakean spirit of vivification opposed to the death implied in norms, restrictions, rationality, and uniformity, not confined to certain periods though prominent in certain periods.7

First of all, against the message of all the novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, the primacy of self-effacing altruism and norm behaviour (in the sense of self-effacement and uniformity) had to be replaced by a new incongruous individualism, much as the Romantics had done in their opposition to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. And that individualism should by far exceed the moderate individualism advocated by such unorthodox Victorians as John Stuart Mill and Samuel Smiles.8 The first Victorians who propagated such a project were the neo-Romantic Pre-Raphaelites, who constituted their PRB in the revolutionary year 1848.9 William Holman Hunt (born 1827), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (born 1828), and John Everett Millais (born 1829) rebelled against the Royal Academy's revived cult of exemplary beautification and standardization as it had been taught by its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the model of its most admired painter, Raphael. The time when, after Reynolds's death in 1790, the Royal Academy had been dominated by Romantic painters, was long over. Henry Fuseli had died in 1825, his friend and collaborator William Blake in 1827, the year when Hunt, the oldest of the Pre-Raphaelites, was born. When Hunt, Rossetti, and Millais were discontented and rebellious students at the Royal Academy, their rage was directed at Raphael and Reynolds, whom they nicknamed 'Sir Sloshua', in contempt of a generalizing painter's lack of individualizing precision in the use of his brush. Against Reynolds and Raphael, the Pre-Raphaelites had recourse to and named themselves after the Italian 'fifteenth-century realists' who flourished shortly before Raphael, such as Fra Lippo Lippi, Masaccio, Masolino, who are featured in Robert Browning's famous dramatic monologue 'Fra Lippo Lippi' (1855), as well as Fra Lippo's disciple Sandro Botticelli (before his late return to the medieval manner of painting).10 Those Italian "Pre-Raphaelites" corresponded to what nineteenth-century historians, from the Romantic William Roscoe, believed to have been the core of Renaissance culture: reinstating the individual, liberating man from the bondage of the Church as compulsory centre, reintroducing ancient paganism to enrich and undogmatize Christianity,11 and in its general recourse to classical antiquity to have allowed the cult of art and beauty for art's and beauty's sake. In the Pre-Raphaelite view, the Victorians and their neo-Gothic art stood in need of a similar liberation, and Renaissance culture might achieve again what it had achieved in the quattrocento. Comparing Raphael with 'realistic' Renaissance painters, they found the latter true to their models, without any generalizations or standardizations of nature, especially in comparisons of Raphael's medievally stylized madonnas with Fra Lippo Lippi's realistic and erotic madonnas. The distinctive painting of every detail, both realistic and symbolistic, was the major postulation of the Pre-Raphaelites, so that they used to spend weeks and months with their sitters in their studios or on location in landscapes for the precision of even minor details. Some Pre-Raphaelite paintings took years to be finished. Renaissance and Romantic subjects were frequent, mixed with modern subjects and modern criticism of religion and society. Millais's Isabella (dated 1849) took its tragic subject both from Boccaccio and Keats, showing the lovers Isabella and Lorenzo at table, with the malevolent brothers who plan to murder Lorenzo for intending to marry against social convention. The same subject is treated by Hunt in Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867), the model being Hunt's first wife, painted with photographic12 precision, as she adoringly bends over the severed head of her Lorenzo planted in a pot of basil on a rose-wood altar. In both cases, every detail serves to move the spectator's sympathy in favour of individual love and against the tyranny of convention. Contemporary subjects such as exploitation, poverty, and immigration were just as frequent, even Victorian taboos such as prostitution, suppressed sexuality, and homosexuality, witness Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853), Charles Allston Collins's Convent Thoughts (1851), or Simeon Solomon's The Burning Fiery Furnace (1863). In poetry, the Pre-Raphaelites were no less revolutionary and critical of medieval and Victorian values. In forms reminiscent of Romantic poetry, especially Blake and Keats, they argued for women's rights as well as the rights of every individual human being, exposed religious hypocrisy, and even advocated pleasure for pleasure's sake as well as art for art's sake. Typical examples are D.G. Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel (poem 1850, painting 1871-79), inverting the pious message of Dante in favour of an open justification of the pleasures of free sexuality, or The House of Life (1870, 1881) with its neopagan denial of a human nature separate from animal nature as well as resurrection and a life to come; William Morris's The Defence of Guenevere (1858) with the heroine's plea in favour of free divorce and free love; and George Meredith's 'Love in the Valley' (MS 1851) and Modern Love (MS 1862) propounding similar neopagan ideas. Thus, the painters and poets of the two Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoods and their numerous associated circles of artists were the first Decadents, with successors painting and writing well into the twentieth century. In consideration of the fact that nineteenth-century scholars understood the Renaissance as having reintroduced the paganism and hedonism of classical antiquity into European culture, to the detriment of dogmatic medieval Christianity, the growing self-fashioning of these Decadents as neo-Renaissance and neo-Romantic rebels reveals both their discontent with the reality of normative Victorian dogmatism and their own cultural ideal.

Robert Browning, though no Decadent, was yet strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and a great admirer of the Italian Renaissance. His 'Fra Lippo Lippi' (1855), the dramatic monologue of a successful artist, provides a good insight into Decadent and Fin-de-Siècle concepts of liberating and scope-widening Renaissance culture. Fra Lippo, though a Carmelite friar, is undogmatic, irreverent, erotic, tabooless, with his proudly and freely admitted human foibles the very contrary of a monastic norm. Opposed to such medieval painters as Fra Angelico, consciously and programmatically breaking up their reductions and standardizations, Fra Lippo (like his contemporaries Masaccio and Masolino) paints realistic madonnas and scenes from the history of salvation, true to life, enriched with a 'Pre-Raphaelite' symbolism which adds spiritual meaning to primarily fleshly detail. He paints according to models found in the streets of Florence, and not in the reputable streets alone. When the guards stop him in the brothel area around the church of San Lorenzo, at night, he preempts their astonished questions by a lecture on human nature. Popes, bishops, priests, monks and friars are but flesh and blood, and their heterosexual as well as homosexual love affairs will take place somewhere, so that there is no true distinction between the convent area and the brothel area:


The Carmine's my cloister: hunt it up,
Do - harry out, if you must show your zeal,
Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
And nip each softling of a wee-white mouse,
Weke, weke, that's crept to keep him company!13

Quite apart from the breaking of Victorian taboos, Browning has his successful friar tell the guards the very earthly history of his own picaresque life while drawing their roguish faces as models for biblical villains, Judas the Traitor and the executioner of John the Baptist. Moreover, it is to those low characters that Fra Lippo explains his theory of art, while repeatedly grasping "the rope that goes all round" his monk's habit. These are Browning's symbols of what Fra Lippo explains as the Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite art programme, holism versus reductionism, counting it a "crime To let a truth slip".14 God made it all, the pious and the impious, the high and the low, the clean and the dirty, the respectable and the non-respectable:


- The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, - and God made it all!15

"All" is a favourite word in Fra Lippo's monologue, and also applies to his theory of symbolism. To alienate and defamiliarize all "things we have passed Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see", in order to view them as signifiers pointing beyond their surface meaning and to "Interpret God" in the wholeness of nature, is the neo-Romantic core of Fra Lippo's theory:


This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.16

George Eliot, author of the historical novel Romola (1863) located in Renaissance Florence, held Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi in high esteem, but replaced him by another fifteenth-century 'realist', Piero di Cosimo. Though less gregarious than Fra Lippo, Eliot's Piero is also both intuitive and prophetic, qualities of the Romantic artist. As a prophet, he sees through Tito Melema's false beauty and opposes Savonarola's dogmatic medieval theology as both old-fashioned and narrow in its "subjugation of sensual desire"17. Eliot was a writer in the transition from Victorianism to the Decadence, as can also be seen in her reduction of Christianity to a myth supporting a universally valid moral truth, in her espousal of Auguste Comte's Positivism, and in her recourse to classical Greek concepts of inescapable destiny. It has been pointed out that Romola's development is that of Comte's philosophy of history, from the neopaganism of her youth via an intensely religious phase dominated by Savonarola to a new Romantic universal religion of humanity.18 In the end, confronted with a plague that strikes Jews and Gentiles alike, Romola stands with 'all' the beings that she loves.19 This courageous step forward into the Comtean future is the very contrary of Victorian self-effacement. Dialectically, Romola's Romantic 'ring of human sympathy' meliorates her early Renaissance neopaganism, overcoming the antithesis of narrow dogmatic Christianity. Moreover, it should be noted that Eliot's characters must follow the inward call of their very individual destinies against the outward call of dominating social values, a bold premise from which Pater and Wilde could draw the most heretical conclusions. Contrary to the Victorian self-effacement of Benjamin Disraeli, Eliot's Christianized Englishman Daniel Deronda must become a Jew and a Zionist, as her Piero di Cosimo and Klesmer must become artists in opposition to any demand for consensus and compliance.

Browning's and Eliot's concept of the nonconformist, intuitive, prophetic, and broad-minded "esemplastic" artist is reminiscent of Blake and Coleridge and anticipatory of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Fra Lippo's Florence was Browning's and Eliot's favourite city in Italy, contrary to John Ruskin, whose favourite city was Venice for its dominating Gothic architecture, and who rejected Florence for the preponderance of its Renaissance style. It is one of the many ironies in history that John Ruskin defended the Pre-Raphaelites in his Modern Painters (1843-60), yet was not able to see what he was paving the way for. Ruskin, the neo-Gothic admirer and author of The Stones of Venice(1851-53), shared the Pre-Raphaelites' disgust for Reynolds and Raphael, followed their terminology by favourably comparing what he called "the modern Pre-Raphaelite school" with the painters of "the old Pre-Raphaelite periods" for their "pictorial power in the details of the work".20 But, in his strict reduction of painting to the beauty of things, he thoroughly misunderstood the modern Pre-Raphaelites' love of detail. Ruskin's Victorian reductionism appears in his counting of Fra Angelico among the "old Pre-Raphaelites", in his total rejection of the realism of Caravaggio and other Renaissance "worshippers of the depraved", in his taking of Hunt's The Light of the World (1853) for the best and most representative "modern Pre-Raphaelite" painting, and in statements such as this: "Great art accepts Nature as she is, but directs the eyes and thoughts to what is most perfect in her".21

It was here that Walter Pater, and in Pater's wake Oscar Wilde, thoroughly disagreed with their academic teacher Ruskin. Pater, an aesthetic, philosophic, and social as well as sexual challenger of Victorianism, was closely aligned to the Pre-Raphaelites both in London and Oxford, where, as fellow of Brasenose College from 1864, he taught the Greek and Roman classics and published on Renaissance art and literature. Himself a rebel and heretic, personally acquainted with Rossetti and Swinburne, he understood the explosive force of the Pre-Raphaelite art programme much better than the "beautifier" Ruskin. Moreover, he radicalized that programme in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), a collection of essays including his earlier studies of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Winckelmann, with a scandalizing preface and an even more scandalizing conclusion. In his preface, Pater formulated a radically sceptical philosophy in opposition to another of his Victorian academic teachers, Matthew Arnold. Whereas Arnold had with Victorian earnestness and "disinterestedness"22 tried to define beauty in general, Pater held with Pyrrho that such objective definitions are impossible. To Pater (as opposed to Arnold and Ruskin), beauty is a property negotiated between the beholder and the object in both nature and art, a quality to be intensely enjoyed rather than rationalized, and enjoyed for its own sake rather than functionalized for any general didactic or reformatory purposes. "Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness".23 The good artist, critic, reader, and spectator has "the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects" and asks perfectly egoistical questions:

What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure?24

To revel in beauty, with Keatsian Romantic intensity, is here understood as a faculty lost in the Middle Ages, recovered by the Renaissance, again lost in High Victorianism, and recovered in a modern neo-Renaissance of which the Pre-Raphaelites were the harbingers. Pater's construction of the Italian Renaissance follows Jacob Burckhardt25 and precedes John Addington Symonds26 in stressing its neopagan syncretism against medieval (and by implication Victorian) dogmatism. As again in the Victorian nineteenth century, "that revival of classical antiquity" was an "outbreak of the human spirit" from its cultural restrictions:

This outbreak of the human spirit may be traced far into the middle age itself, with its qualities already clearly pronounced, the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and the imagination.27

Ruskinian selection or extraction of the beautiful as well as archetypal standardization, Pater suggests, are results of cultural restriction and religious system, in the Victorian age as well as the Middle Ages. Pater's famous interpretation of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, 'La Gioconda', reveals his meaning. Mona Lisa with her "unfathomable smile", both femme religieuse and femme fatale, incongruously mixes the pious medieval madonna with the sinister Renaissance murderess, eluding a one-sided view as do all the painting's mysteries. Sphinx-like incongruity and mystery, so suspicious to the Victorians, represent the wholeness of life.28 Like Browning's, Pater's insistence is on the holistic "all", breaking away from normative exemplarity:

All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there [...], the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.29

Beyond the praise of undogmatic liberality of view and fortunate lack of restrictive homogeneity in this disjunct catalogue, Pater's conclusion then suggests another reason for the superiority of classical paganism over Christian dogmatism. Paganism promised neither compensation for self-denial nor punishment for self-indulgence in a world to come. Pagan man could fully accept his carnal impulses and enjoy beauty for its own sake, fearless of a retributive God demanding self-restriction and self-effacement of the individual. And this encouraged him to exhaust all the pleasures of the moment, to seek satisfaction now:

Every moment [...] some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us - for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? [...] To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.30

The scandalized Victorian readers' reproach that Pater's book spoiled the youth of England also included the book's implicit neopagan defence of homosexuality, much less veiled than in the casual reference in Browning's dramatic monologue. Homoeroticism is a variant of l'art pour l'art, pleasure for pleasure's sake, diametrically opposed to the Victorian norm of marital sexuality sanctified by the higher social purpose of procreation. Pater's pre-published essays on two Renaissance painters, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and on the founder of the art history of the Renaissance, Winckelmann, were programmatical as they exalted three homosexuals.31 These men had triumphantly broken up the narrow boundaries both of dogmatic prejudice and bourgeois morality.32

Another important aspect of Pater's self-understanding as neo-Renaissance and neo-Romantic appears from his insistence on symbolism. To see things afresh, Browning's Fra Lippo had argued, is to find the world's meaning by reading its symbols. The Romantics, Blake and Wordsworth and Emerson, had similar ideas. But both Romantic and Renaissance artists believed in a Platonic metaphysics of signs and symbols, a text with fixed meanings reintegrating this world and the world beyond. Pater, by contrast, was a Pyrrhonist, and so he could no more believe in a metaphysics of signs in the late nineteenth than the sceptic Jacques Derrida could in the late twentieth century. If a world beyond was no longer creditable, no fixed code of symbols could possibly point to it. If men were conceived as closed entities, individuals incapable of rational generalization and rational communication, their readings of symbols must necessarily be personal. Pater demonstrated that neo-Romantic concept of symbolism in his semi-autobiography, The Child in the House (1878), the model for James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-15). To the impressionable child Florian Deleal, Pater's thinly veiled persona, all the sensuous details of his old house with its garden and views, staircase, wainscoting, china, poplars, pear-trees, neighbouring steeples, etc, contributed to the process of his "brain-building, as the house of thought in which we live".33 This house, the totality of our earliest impressions, beautiful as well as awful, is inescapable, so that every individual has his own associations, and hence his own symbols. The kinship between Pater's perspective literary symbols and Freud's perspective psychoanalytical symbols, both explored at the same time, is apparent:

[...] the early habitation thus gradually becomes a sort of material shrine or sanctuary of sentiment; a system of visible symbolism interweaves itself through all our thoughts and passions; and irresistibly, little shapes, voices, accidents - the angle at which the sun in the morning fell on the pillow - become parts of the great chain wherewith we are bound.34

Where the artist's individual imagination replaces the philosopher's objective search for the world's pre-established order, inter-subjective truth is called into question. This is a radical consequence from Pater's Pyrrhonism, which his disciple Oscar Wilde drew in his essay-novel The Portrait of Mr W. H. (1889). Wilde's first-person narrator as well as Cyril Graham, the friend of his interlocutor Erskine, are homosexually inclined Decadent dandies, who live a life of art rather than nature. The narrator's construction of the Renaissance with its "essentially male culture" is obviously Wilde's. The Renaissance appears as a neopagan epoch of undogmatic freedom, the time of great heretical loves: Michelangelo's love for young Tommaso Cavalieri, Montaigne's love for young Étienne de la Boétie, Hubert Languet's love for young Philip Sidney, Ficino's love for young Pico della Mirandola, Shakespeare's and Marlowe's love for young Willie Hughes, and, later, Winckelmann's love for his young Roman, in the classical tradition of Virgil's second eclogue with its treatment of the loves of the shepherd Corydon for young Alexis.35 Cyril Graham's, and subsequently Erskine's and the narrator's, fascination with Shakespeare's beautiful sonnet boy, Willie Hughes, however, lacks objective historical evidence. But the artist's individual imagination ranks above elusive historical facts.36 It is Cyril Graham's treason to art that he tries to objectify his fervent belief by forging the portrait of Willie Hughes, and committing suicide after the detection of the fraud. Thus, he also relapses into the Victorian bourgeois confusion of aesthetics with ethics, for he had painted a lasting work of art. And thus, he betrays his Decadent ideal to Victorian reality. It is Erskine's treason to art that, converted from the source- and fact-oriented philology of his time and convinced of Graham's imaginative re-construction, he tries to convince others of its historical truth. He, too, wants to become a martyr to his belief and spreads the rumour of his suicide. Both the actual and the pretended suicide appear as ridiculous in terms of aestheticism, and also in terms of sceptical epistemology. As there is no inter-subjective truth, the only valid truth is that of the individual imagination. Besides fashioning the ideal of a holistic Renaissance as a model for a desired holistic Decadence, Wilde's fiction goes back to Romanticism. It radicalizes Keats's view of art for art's sake and his view of the autonomy of the artistic imagination, realizing "one's own personality on some imaginative plane out of the reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life",37 and discrediting the rational scientific spirit of the Victorian age. Wilde's narrator comments:

A romantic friendship with a young Roman of his day initiated Winckelmann into the secret of Greek art, taught him the mystery of its beauty and the meaning of its form. In Willie Hughes, Shakespeare found not only a most delicate instrument for the presentation of his art, but the visible incarnation of his idea of beauty, and it is not too much to say that to this young actor [...] the Romantic Movement of English Literature is largely indebted.38

In an essay originally entitled 'Romanticism' (1878),39 Wilde's teacher Pater had already investigated the old opposition of the terms 'classical' and 'romantic', reducing them to qualities rather than periods (in terms of natural evolution),40 with 'romanticism' as the superior because ever progressive force. To Pater, the classical spirit is one of mere imitation, the romantic spirit one of originality and innovation. The great works of antiquity were romantic in their time, or they would not have been great. Every good artist in every age seeks novelty both of form and matter, works his new matter into perfect form, and in the course of time his work becomes classical.41 This natural outbreak of the spirit from conventional encrustations, this permanent recherche du nouveau and nostalgie de l'étranger combining "curiosity" and "strangeness" with "the love of beauty",42 were most vital in certain periods, in the Renaissance and in Romanticism, and most neglected in other periods such as the Neoclassical Enlightenment, which favoured "worn-out or conventional types".43 Pater thus confirms the art theory of Browning's Pre-Raphaelite painter Fra Lippo Lippi, who had early defended the "progressive element" in his art, against the injunctions of his traditionalist Gothic masters.44

In 1882, touring the United States, Pater's disciple Oscar Wilde lectured on 'The English Renaissance of Art', radicalizing Pater's self-fashioning of the Decadence as neo-Renaissance and neo-Romantic just as he radicalized Keats:

I call it our English Renaissance because it is indeed a sort of new birth of the spirit of man, like the great Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century, in its desire for a more gracious and comely way of life, its passion for physical beauty, its exclusive attention to form, its seeking for new subjects for poetry, new forms of art, new intellectual and imaginative enjoyments: and I call it our romantic movement because it is our most recent expression of beauty.45

This union of Hellenism and "intensified individualism",46 opposed to the "facile abstractions of Raphael", emerged with the Romantics, when Keats became "the forerunner of the pre-Raphaelite school", shocking and rousing the "English Philistine public" out of its "ordinary apathy".47 Contempt of the blunt masses, épater le bourgeois, is here formulated as an anti-Ruskinian-Gothic and anti-Victorian programme. Not to cast one's pearls before swine, not to be lax and popular, but to seek an elitist precision and perfection, appears as the hallmark of what Wilde alternately calls "our English Renaissance" and "this romantic movement of ours":

And so it has been with this romantic movement of ours: it is a reaction against the empty conventional workmanship, the lax execution of previous poetry and painting, showing itself in the work of such men as Rossetti and Burne-Jones by a far greater splendour of colour, a far more intricate wonder of design than English imaginative art has shown before. In Rossetti's poetry and the poetry of Morris, Swinburne and [the later] Tennyson a perfect precision and choice of language, a style flawless and fearless, a seeking for all sweet and precious melodies and a sustaining consciousness of the musical value of each word are opposed to that value which is merely intellectual. In this respect they are one with the romantic movement of France of which not the least characteristic note was struck by Théophile Gautier [...]48

Two years later, in his pseudo-Platonic dialogue 'The Critic as Artist' (1890), Wilde's interlocutor Gilbert summarized this view: "Whatever, in fact, is modern in our life we owe to the Greeks. Whatever is an anachronism is due to mediaevalism."49

Pater's other famous disciple, Gerard Manley Hopkins, deserves mention in this context for his attempts at reconciling Renaissance neopaganism and Christianity, at re-eroticizing his Roman Catholicism in the wake of Coventry Patmore's Metaphysical revival, and at building a Christian framework around Pater's Godless universe of constant flux and change.50 Hopkins's Heraclitean and Paterian παντα ρει is re-Christianized with recourse to the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. This might seem a Jesuit convert's relapse into medievalism, traditionalism, and dogmatism. But Hopkins's concept of the poet's task was fundamentally Romantic: the poet fashioned himself as a prophet who sees and makes his readers see nature afresh in a world blunted by trade and materialism, recapturing every creature's and every detail's individuality and symbolism and thus recalling all creation's celestial origin. The poet's "instress" pursues and rescues nature from "inscape" caused by habit51. Moreover, his bold experiments with form, breaking all traditions, show Hopkins's Renaissance and Romantic sympathies. With them, he shifted Decadent revolt against tradition from content into form, as in the "sprung rhythm", the "outrides", and the neologisms of his highly artificial poetry:52


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
      It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Générations have trod, have trod, have trod;
      And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
      And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.53

Finally, ex negativo, it should be noticed how Decadent literature tended to derogate the Middle Ages by casting doubt upon their Victorian idealization. D.G. Rossetti, William Morris, and Thomas Hardy may serve as examples. Rossetti's two parodies of the spiritual love of Dante and Beatrice, in his Blessed Damozel, have already been commented on. In his watercolour 'Arthur's Tomb' (1855), to which Morris wrote a congenial companion poem, Rossetti showed Lancelot and Guenevere continuing their adulterous love over the shrine of the betrayed King. The erotic scene, with the phallic symbolism of Lancelot's sword, belies both Guenevere's penitence as a nun and the pious scenes of faith on the shrine's inlaid work.54 If Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1859-91) was initially meant as a warning to his age not to allow Queen Victoria's Empire to degenerate and collapse through immorality as did King Arthur's Empire, it ended in a dark vision of unavoidable decadence. In the course of the work's composition, spanning thirty years, the poet's doubts of the Middle Ages as a successful model for the times increased, a doubt confirmed by a comparison of his Locksley Hall (1842) with Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (1886). Though Tennyson never approved of the Decadence, Wilde correctly observed that he came to adopt its style. Morris's poem 'The Defence of Guenevere' (1858) is the dramatic monologue of an adulterous queen who, like Rossetti's Guenevere, feels no shame at her adultery, but defends her woman's rights and charges her age with a false, dogmatic, restrictive sexual and marital morality. With a lawyer's efficiency, she argues woman's right to free divorce, as there can be no theological justification to maintain an inexperienced choice of hell instead of heaven.55 Her plea conforms with the Decadent representation of Christian marriage as hell. A later poem in Morris's collection, 'Riding Together', begins with a medieval Christian speaker's description of a lusty, faith-supported, confident military expedition against the pagans in the crusades, melting into scenes of cruelty and war, and ending in the despairing reality of imprisonment:

We ride no more, no more together;
      My prison bars are thick and strong,
I take no heed of any weather,
      The sweet Saints grant I live not long.56

Much has been written on the architect Hardy's loss of the faith which had once made him plan to study theology and take Holy Orders, and his concomitant rejection of the neo-Gothic style as well as his intense studies of Renaissance literature and art.57 Hardy's disparagement of the Middle Ages is most clearly expressed in his last novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Inverting Carlyle's and Disraeli's idealization of the saving Middle Ages, Tess's tragedy begins with her search for the medieval origins of her family, and ends in her falling innocent victim to unjust, rigid sexual morality. Jude's tragedy begins with his work as a neo-Gothic stonemason in dark, superstitious, intolerant medieval Oxford, and ends in blank disappointment at and hatred of dogmatic Christianity. When he first approaches the Gothic piles of Oxford, his initial idealization of the Middle Ages, learned at school and from books, begins to disappear in confrontation with bleak reality. Dark colleges, obscure alleys, decayed stones, barbaric masonries destroy his phantasmal illusions. The omniscient narrator comments: "It seemed impossible that modern thought could house itself in such decrepit and superseded chambers",58 and later continues:

He did not at that time see that medievalism was dead as a fern-leaf in a lump of coal; that other developments were shaping in the world around him in which Gothic architecture and its associations had no place.59

By contrast, reminiscent of Swinburne' s Poems and Ballads (1866), Jude's later wife Sue's Renaissance-oriented neopaganism seems clear, hilarious, free, and modern. But her statuettes of a naked Venus and naked Apollo are classical antiquity degenerated into flea-market trash, subverting the Decadent ideal. And even this residual and concealed paganism is stifled by outdated, yet internalized medieval Christianity. The Decadent ideal has been doubly thwarted by a Victorian reality which it strove to overcome. Hardy's conversion from dogmatic Christianity to neopaganism followed Morris, Burne-Jones, and Pater, who had originally gone to Oxford to study for the ministry, where they lost their faith and, after Newman's first Oxford Movement (1833-45), initiated the second, Decadent phase of the Oxford Movement, neopagan rather than Christian, Renaissance rather than medieval. Hardy's constructions of classical antiquity and the neopagan Renaissance, however, were already brutally realistic, sceptical of the beauty of life in general, anticipating his later pessimistic poems on man's animal instincts, nature's indifference, life's cruelty, and a god-forgotten earth.

Idealization of classical antiquity and the Renaissance had not succeeded in totally erasing the cultural memory of their dark sides in myth and history. And their sinister crimes could not all be aestheticized in the sense of 'murder considered as one of the fine arts.' In Swinburne, for instance, the splendid and hilarious classical antiquity of 'Hymn to Proserpine' (1866) finds an ugly and dark complement in the brutal and primitive instincts of manslaughter shown in his poetic drama Atalanta in Calydon (1865). Thus, Hardy's predominantly sombre, dismal, pessimistic representation of both classical antiquity and the Renaissance had its sources and predecessors where the Decadent convention was inverted and where realities were pitted against ideals.

Nevertheless, the ideals, aesthetic and ethical aims, and artistic techniques of the Decadence and Fin de Siècle survived into the early twentieth century, like Pre-Raphaelite painting, and then expired with the sobering shock of the First World War. The trench experience made beauty seem an evanescent illusion and ugliness the only lasting reality of life. Hardy's view, concentrated on the dark sides of both classical antiquity and the Renaissance, thus pointed the way from the Decadence and Fin de Siècle to Modernism.


1 Witness Matthew Arnold, 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse', 1855, especially lines 175-210, in Poems, ed. Kenneth Allott, Longman Annotated English Poets, London, 1965, pp. 292-4.

2 Kingsley, The Water-Babies, ed. Brian Alderson, The World's Classics, Oxford, 1995, p. 14.

3 Browning, Men and Women, 'Love among the Ruins', 1855, line 80, in Poetical Works1833-64, ed. Ian Jack, Oxford Standard Authors, London, 1970, p. 557.

4 Raymond Chapman, The Sense of the Past in Victorian Literature, New York, 1986, pp. 19-20.

5 Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or, The Two Nations, London, 1845.

6 For an excellent and exhaustive account of Decadent constructions of the Renaissance v. J.B. Bullen, The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing, Oxford, 1994.

7 Gerald Monsman, Water Pater, London, 1977, p. 54. Also v. Russell M. Goldfarb, Sexual Repression and Victorian Literature, Lewisburg, PA, 1970.

8 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter III 'Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-being' (1859), and, published in the same year, S. Smiles, Self-help (1859).

9 For the Romantic tradition v. Graham Hough, 'The Aesthetic of Pre-Raphaelitism', in James Sambrook (ed.), Pre-Raphaelitism, Chicago and London, 1974, p. 134.

10 Botticelli remained the most lasting influence in Pre-Raphaelite painting; v. Vanessa Müller, Studien zur Botticelli-Rezeption im englischen Ästhetizismus, Münster, 2000. For this orientation of Pre-Raphaelitism in general v. Hilary Fraser, The Victorians and Renaissance Italy, Oxford, 1992, pp. 91-113. In 1848, however, rebellion against Reynolds and academic Neoclassicism was a much stronger motivation than any profound knowledge of the 'fifteenth-century realists'; v. Keith Andrews, 'Die zornigen Viktorianer', Präraffaeliten, ed. G. Metken, Baden Baden: Staatliche Kunsthalle, 1974, pp. 9-11.

11 For Decadent neopaganism and syncretism v. Karin Hagenguth, Neopaganismus und Christentum in der viktorianischen Literatur, Frankfurt and New York, 1996, passim.

12 The invention to photography in 1839 (William Talbot on paper, Jacques Daguerre on metal), nicknamed 'foe-to-graphic' by its critics, nevertheless advanced Pre-Raphaelitism.

13 Browning, Men and Women, 'Fra Lippo Lippi', 1855, lines 7-11, ed. cit. pp. 568-9.

14 Ibid. lines 295-6, p. 576.

15 Ibid. lines 283-5, p. 575.

16 Ibid. lines 313-5, p. 576.

17 Eliot, Romola, ed. A. Sanders, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, 1980, p. 501-2. Also v. Bullen, The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing, pp. 231-3.

18 Bullen, 'George Eliot's Romola as a Positivist Allegory', RES, 26 (1975), 425-35.

19 Ibid. p. 432.

20 Ruskin, Modern Painters, III (1856), in Works, ed. E.T. Cook / A.D.O. Wedderburn, London, 1902-12, V. 52.

21 Ibid. V. 57.

22 For Arnold's concept of disinterestedness v. René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, London, 1955-  , IV. 156-7.

23 Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 'Preface', in Works, London, 1900-1901, I. VII.

24 Ibid. I. VIII.

25 Burckhardt, Die Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien, Basel, 1860.

26 Symonds, The Renaissance in Italy, London, 1875-84.

27 Ibid. I. XII.

28 See Oscar Wilde's provocative 'The Sphinx', in Poems (1881), and the numerous Decadent poems on the hermaphrodite.

29 Ibid. I. 125. Note Pater's pervasive argument against the High Victorian ideal of rationality and uniformity.

30 Ibid. I. 236.

31 Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford, Ithaca and London, 1994, pp. 95-99.

32 For this revolt against norms of respectability v. Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece, Oxford, 1980, pp. 280-293.

33 Pater, The Child in the House, ed. cit. VIII. 184. Note the symbolic meaning of the old house.

34 Ibid. VIII. 178. Also v. Lothar Hönnighausen, Präraphaeliten und Fin de Siècle, 'Die Ansätze des neuen Symbolismus', Munich, 1971, pp. 29-40.

35 Wilde, The Portrait of Mr. W. H., in Works, ed. Vyvyan Holland, London and Glasgow, 1966, pp.1174-7.

36 For the Romantic implications of Wilde's "aesthetic criticism" v. Norbert Kohl, Oscar Wilde. Das literarische Werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung, Heidelberg, 1980, pp. 186-8.

37 Ibid. p. 1150.

38 Ibid. p. 1177.

39 Macmillan's Magazine, November 1876. Later published as 'Postscript' to Pater's Appreciations (1889), explaining the critical principles of his preceding essays on Wordsworth, Coleridge, D.G. Rossetti, etc.

40 Pater, 'Romanticism', ed. cit. V. 256-8. For Symonds's very similar Darwinian concept of an everlasting Renaissance, evolutionary volcanic outbreaks of energy overcoming cultural stagnation, v. Wolfgang Weiss, 'Italienische Renaissance und englische Dekadenz', in Die 'Nineties, ed. M. Pfister / B. Schulte-Middelich, Munich, 1983, pp. 87-90.

41 Pater, ibid. V. 258.

42 Ibid. V. 246.

43 Ibid. Also v. Richard Le Gallienne's retrospective portrait of his youth in The Romantic Nineties (1926).

44 Pater, ibid. V. 257, quoting from Browning, Fra Lippo Lippi, lines 231-7, ed. cit. p. 574.

45 Wilde, 'The English Renaissance of Art', in Miscellanies, London, 1908, pp. 243-4.

46 Ibid. p. 244.

47 Ibid. pp. 249-50.

48 Ibid. pp. 253-4. Gautier's seminal collection of poetry, émaux et camées (1852), formulated the Parnassian ideals of precise workmanship for art's sake in its very title. Gems and cameos are extremely difficult to carve and serve merely ornamental purposes.

49 Wilde, Intentions, 'The Critic as Artist', 1891, in Works, ed. cit. p. 1019.

50 In this context it is important to bear in mind that, during the five last years of his life (1884-89), Hopkins was Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, with a profound love of classical antiquity inherited from Pater.

51 For Hopkins's "post-Romantic" literary theory and epistemology v. Hilary Fraser, Beauty and Belief. Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 67-106, and Murray Roston, Victorian Contexts, London, 1996, pp. 130-159.

52 Hildegard Feinendegen, Dekadenz und Katholizismus, Chapter 10 'Form und Konversion', Paderborn, 2002, pp. 165-209.

53 Hopkins, 'God's Grandeur', MS 1877, lines 1-8, in Poetical Works, ed. N.H. Mackenzie, Oxford, 1990, p. 139.

54 Morris acquired Rossetti's watercolour. His companion poem 'King Arthur's Tomb' was published in his first collection of poems, The Defence of Guenevere (1858). With its insistence on the impotence of faith and the invincibility of fatal erotic desire, the poem underscores the picture's doubt of the ideal Middle Ages. The tryst of Lancelot and Guenevere after Guenevere's retirement to a convent and Arthur's death is not in the pious source, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'arthur (1470).

55 Morris, The Defence of Guenevere, 'The Defence of Guenevere', especially lines 16-41, in Collected Works, London, 1910-15, I. 1-2.

56 Ibid., 'Riding Together', lines 49-52, p. 136. Also v. Joanna Banham /Jennifer Harris (ed.), William Morris and the Middle Ages, Manchester, 1984, pp. 1-7.

57 For Hardy as a reader of Renaissance history and art history (Pater, Symonds, Quatremère de Quincy, Richard Duppa) and a lover of Renaissance painting, especially on his many Continental journeys including Italy, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, v. J.B. Bullen, The Expressive Eye. Fiction and Perception in the Work of Thomas Hardy, Oxford, 1986, pp. 25-27.

58 Hardy, Jude the Obscure, part 2, chapters 1-2, ed. P. Ingham, The World's Classics, Oxford, 1985, p. 79.

59 Ibid. p. 85. Also v. David Morse, High Victorian Culture, London, 1993, pp. 526-527.