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Saturday, November 1. 2008
Love and Sleep
Lying asleep between the strokes of night
Algernon Charles Swinburne, the son of an admiral, is considered a decadent Victorian poet and probably not one of the greats. But lots of interesting stuff isn't "great." (Illo by Theo.)
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The poem would seem to describe, in typically florid decadent wise, a bout of erotically charged nocturnal paralysis, or an encounter with what was known in the Middle Ages as a succubus (nowadays, the imagery would be of small grey beings with large heads, rather than an anaemic but impassioned femme fatale). In literary terms, this particular poem by Swinburne, like much of his oeuvre, can be traced back to what the more manly Byron famously described as "Johnny Keat's piss-a-bed poetry". Swinburne was not one of the greats (although he towers over his 1890s epigones - Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Theodore Wratislaw et al., who represent a decadence of the decadence), but his work certainly is very interesting stuff.
Duh, not a lit critic myself, but how is this decadent? Is the Song of Songs decadent, then? Is it decadent to write "And all her face was honey to my mouth, and all her body pasture to mine eye"? Sounds okay to me.
Or will some more learned type now contemptuously tell me it isn't actually a girl or there are hidden allusions to opium or perversities that I missed??? Since when was it decadent to delight in a lover?
Back to my decadent cleaning up the yard from the dog, and fall cleanup.
Randolph - It's decadent when the lover in question may well be a demonic visitation that preys on you while you are in a state of confused arousal during a bout of half-waking nocturnal paralysis. La belle dame sans merci and other such decadent fairies that steal men's wits are a far cry from the Song of Songs. The lover of the Song of Songs was not a phthisical psychic vampire who delighted in perverse torments, and would therefore be far too wholesome an object of desire for enervated decadent poets like Swinburne.
BD - Although I unreservedly approve of the delightful lady in the photograph accompanying this post, she doesn't seem quite consumptive enough to suit truly decadent tastes.
Thx. Enlightening. Memorized and loved La. Belle Dame as a kid. Interesting the association in the male mind of attraction to beautiful woman and potential doom, succubus, whatever. One of my kids writing awesome story right now about knight possessed by female demon. Weird but great stuff.
Robert Browning - 'Porphyria's Lover'. The Decadent poets were outliers of the Romantics. Not so sure about the adjectival use of 'decadent' to describe the objects of their poetry.
Decadence is literally a falling off, (moral, cultural, spiritual etc.) decline or decay. Thus, to say someone is "decadent" is another way of saying corrupted, dissolute, degenerate, immoral. In much decadent poetry, the poet or his personae find themselves irresistibly corrupted by the degenerate object of their erotic fascination. This is certainly the case with Swinburne.
"In much decadent poetry, ..." 'decadent' is capitalized. It is a movement. The poetry itself is not decadent. As well, the movement was more of an attitude that was played upon by the poets' fascination with the seamier side of life - in contrast to the Romantics' idealized view of life. The poets were not themselves decadent, just as their poetry was not: The subject matter portrayed the decadent side of life. It is a bit much to project onto the poets and their swooning, consumptive tarts decadence when it was the sleazy side of reality that these young turks were playing with using the rhythms and rhymes of poetry as their avant-garde medium to wash away their own ennui of unrequited love and lust.
Good. Like what you wrote about it, Meta. I remember the ponderous BS my teachers in a Brit school intoned about Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc opium, consumption and absinthe. And "ladies of the night". Those Pre-Raphaelite beauties were ornamental but looked like druggie floozies. Later in so much that we studied in 19th century literature, the ridiculous romanticizing of that most disgusting of diseases, tuberculosis (Yay ,Sonntag in college on Illness as Metaphor)
I think the appeal of those artists, writers called decadent is that for those of us boring, dutiful, healthy girl next door types like me, they were exciting. One was curious to read about those wild artists' models.
As far as people I was raised to view as decadent, my absolute favorite was Oscar Wilde. ALways loved the story about him being given his oral exam for his degree, and being given the Greek New Testament passage chosen at random for him to translate then and there. He read effortlessly into English, and the examiners said "That will do, Mr. Wilde" He continued. Again they told him he could stop. "But I want to see how it turns out." (excuse butchered quotes--too busy watching Will Smith shoot up aliens in Independence Day to look it up. My kind of guy. Don't like those decadent types in real life. Bravery and muscles, crew cut, uniform and a weapon....far more appealing).
"...ponderous BS..." I love it. I was in a senior poetry class in college with six other girls and the head of the department to teach us. I've never suffered so in my iconoclastic academic life as I did in that class. During the third week of picking apart every word in "Wild Swans at Coole", I asked the professor the most blasphemous question: "Do you think Yeats might have just meant what he wrote?" Mary Jane Williams, old bat, already disliked me, but dislike turned to hatred in the raised eyebrows of her visage as she turned to me and shuddered with the resistance required of her very being not to stick a pencil into my eye. Sad stuff as I love the poets. I just can't stand those who wish to ascribe BS to the motives of the poet and always laugh thinking what if the poet was a fly on the wall listening to this swill. He'd be like.."Hunh? Did I say that?"
I sound like a philistine. Ah well........ Just call me decadent. :)
Agree about Oscar Wilde. What a riot he was.
"The Decadent Movement in Literature" (this was the original title of Arthur Symons's "The Symbolist Movement in Literature", published in 1899) was never a label used by poets or artists themselves to describe their own work or to situate themselves within a group, but rather a term of opprobrium employed by those who saw decadence as precisely that - as a moral falling off. In the late nineteenth century, Punch magazine used to publish a series of cartoons about "Our Decadents", the butts of whose satire did not, of course, describe themselves as "Decadents". To call something "decadent" always implies a moral judgment, a judgment rejected by the "Decadents" themselves: for example archetypal "Decadent" Oscar Wilde (in court precisely on charges of indecency) contended that there was no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, only books that are either well or badly written. In other words, according to the Decadents, Decadence does not exist, because they reject the moral value judgments upon which the idea of decadence rests. The other point of view is best summed up in the National Observer's reaction to the trial of Oscar Wilde:
"There is not a man or woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry for destroying the High Priest of the Decadents. The obscene impostor, whose prominence has been a social outrage ever since he transferred from Trinity Dublin to Oxford his vices, his follies, his vanities, has been exposed, and that thoroughly at last. But to the exposure there must be legal and social sequels. There must be another trial at the Old Bailey, or a coroner's inquest - the latter for choice; and of the Decadents, of their hideous conceptions of the meaning of Art, of their worse than Eleusinian mysteries, there must be an absolute end."
In conclusion, both the poets and their poetry were decadent, according to a certain set of moral values, values to which they themselves did not, of course, adhere.
Used to say to my Mom, when I was in my thirties, "Mom, when I'm leaping from hot rock to hot rock, the "sins" I'll regret the least will be those involved with making love." Always, of course, with the love object being legally unaffiliated to Some Other Woman. Still believe that.
I might add that the "decadent" values espoused by Oscar Wilde (extreme moral relativism, in other words) are precisely the values that are seen today as most "progressive".
One can find him way funny without sharing his values. Just as CHristian kids can enjoy Harry Potter at a young age, and eventually grow out of it after enjoying the stories, without their worried Christian pastor fearing it will contaminate their souls.
"...according to a certain set of moral values..."
I see. I wonder if the Marquess of Queensberry would condemn the High Priest of the Decadents, FityCent, hip-hop obscenity writ large? Eminem soundly spanked for his Eleusinian mysteries and foul lyrics. End it all, damnation! Fair is foul and foul is fair, and damn thee who cries, "But I want to see how it turns out."
Oh. I can answer that. It turns out like anything we feel we must label because it threatens our most firm and righteous values. Bring me a wench! No! That one, the one with the herpetic mis'ry upon her ruby lips!
If the Marquess of Queensberry were around today to see rap music videos of hip-hop ho's getting jiggy with it, he would probably be laid low by an apoplectic fit of horrified outrage before he could even reach the Old Bailey. In terms of obscenity and social outrage, Oscar Wilde was positively innocuous compared to, say, Robert Maplethorpe only a century later. Which goes to show that decadence is continuous, even exponential.
Alexander Pope, at the end of The Dunciad, could not have been more prophetic:
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares morality expires.
For public flame, nor private, dares to shine,
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all.
That's pretty gloomy, Epistemon, but it did make me wonder about the brilliance of poetry 'back then'. Has poetry itself died before they uncreating world?
Here is a stunning poem:
THE FALCON TO THE FALCONER
Unleash me from your hand
And I will lance the light for you
Iíll cut a swordblade on the wind
And pennant it with flight for you
To signal I am yours
If you will free me to be true to you
Unleash me from your hand
And I will mock the sky for you
Iíll pull the anger from the air
And make the breezes sigh for you
To show that I am yours
If you will free me to be true to you
Unleash me from your hand
And I will jewel it bright for you
Iíll hunt the treasures of the wind
And pluck them into sight for you
To show that I am yours
If you will free me to be true to you
O, cast me from your hand
That I may show my love for you
And throw me to the wind
That I may know my love for you
All darkness on your hand
Iím hooded, pinned and held by you
O, give me back my wings
That they may bring me back to you.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not Knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare The soul's dominion?
Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the restless day,
And count it fair.
-- Amelia Earhart
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Conscientious Objector (1931)
I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.
"Who has known heights and depths shall not again Know peace - not as the calm heart knows Low, ivied walls; a garden close' The old enchantment of a rose, and though he tread the humble ways of men He shall not speak the common tongue again.
Who has known heights shall bear forevermore An incommunicable thing That hurts his heart, as if a wing Beat at the portal, challenging; And yet - lured by the gleam his vision wore - Who once has trodden the stars seeks peace no more."
-- Wilfrid Noyce, "Springs of Adventure"