‘I don’t like disparagement of the Nineties,’ W.B. Yeats told the Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra towards the end of his life. ‘People have built up an impression of a decadent period by remembering only, when they speak of the Nineties, a few writers who had tragic careers. They do this because those writers were confined within the period.’ But, as Yeats explained, those who survived the decade and ‘lived to maturity’ were the principal authors today. ‘The Nineties was in reality a period of very great vigour,’ he concluded, ‘thought and passion were breaking free from tradition.’
Among the ‘principal writers’ of whom he speaks, Yeats himself was probably the single most remarkable talent to have emerged from that creative interregnum when, as the suffragist Evelyn Sharp later remarked, every individual artist—male and female—was seeking to ride the crest of a great wave sweeping away the idols of a departing century. But for all his vindication of that formative decade, this statement was also yet another way for Yeats to subtly distance himself from the ‘lesser’ poets of his youth, the poets who wouldn’t get down from their stilts and walk open-eyed into the twentieth century—or who fell abruptly from those stilts, never to rise again. Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, John Davidson, the Rhymers’ Club. And not just these celebrated figures, but many more—journalists, activists, occultists, politicians—who briefly swam into Yeats’s constellation, or with whom he forged temporary alliances, before the two drifted, or broke, away. Though the 1890s has often been understood in terms of reaction, it is more useful I think to see it a period of fluid relations, a moment of pause and continuity: the turn of the century, upon which careers pivot and trends converge and ramify. There is much that might, with slight variation in circumstance, have turned out differently.
It’s this provisional and experimental nature of relations that I find particularly attractive. Politically the fin de siècle was a time of stagnant ferment, when strikes raged in the absence of a credible party of labour, when Irish Home Rule was held back by changes of government and energetic factionalism, and when two Indian MPs sat at Westminster (Dadabhai Naorojee and M.M. Bhownagree), but on opposite sides of the House. In the literary world, the horizon was filled by assorted cliques, communes, brotherhoods, and reviewing-mafias. No acknowledged laureate reigned, but many upcoming writers vied for the mantles of the recently-deceased Arnold, Browning, and Tennyson.
And contrary to many accounts, factional boundaries were porous, with the more consummate networkers moving comfortably between the Rhymers’ Club, the Yellow Book group, and W.E. Henley’s “Regatta.” Reading habits too were notably catholic. A mixture of unfinished taste and craving for novelty gave rise to, among other phenomena that have interested me, the translations of Hafiz put out by the Irish MP Justin Huntly McCarthy, the fantasy stories of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, and the comparative study of global religions and mythologies carried on in such different quarters as James Frazer’s study and the Folklore Society. Moreover, in defiance of rather too binary readings of how gender and masculinity operated during ‘the Decadence’, there is a strong measure of overlap between aestheticist, and imperialist, postures. “Have you read Wee Willie Winkie?”, the quintessential Decadent Ernest Dowson wrote to a friend in 1890, the morning after a punishing absinthe binge, “I am going through a course of Kipling directly.” A “course of Kipling”: as though the Indian writer—cynical, amoral, insolent, and above all a strong voice against “the mob”, were strong medicine for some fin-de-siècle malaise.
2015 marked a number of 150th anniversaries. Such different writers as Arthur Symons and Sven Hedin were born in 1865, Kipling, Bernard Berenson, and above all Yeats, with H.G. Wells, Romain Rolland, Richard Le Gallienne, and Beatrix Potter following in 1866. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault lends a conceptual clarity to such diverse groupings as these, proposing how our understandings might profit from the confusion and heterodoxy of a period, rather than prompting us to organize it into strands and subdivisions.
…so many authors who know or do not know one another, criticize one another, invalidate one another, pillage one another, meet without knowing it, and obstinately intersect their unique discourses in a web of which they are not the masters, of which they cannot see the whole.
This generation of writers seems to me particularly fitted to that sometimes overused Foucauldian term ‘constellation’: floating momentarily into creative alignment, before drifting apart again; inexplicably never meeting at all; some occasionally colliding with spectacular results—but more often impinging on one another obliquely, exercising the force of literary influence as one astral body agitates another through the distant tug of gravity. The fin de siècle continues to suggest new approaches, in various branches of cultural or historical study—wherever scholars feel a persistent, but creative, awkwardness as to what label or map to draw for a period that obsessively felt itself the fin of something, but knew not what, among many possible sequels, was then gathering its power to be born.
Featured image credit: Victorian Blackheath village London SE3 by Lloyd Rich. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.