Not many periods in history are as at odds with themselves as England’s Victorian era, when contradiction was the norm, and—were you a poet—the basis of a heady challenge. In a time of prosperity and advancement dogged by poverty and vice, one could amble from scenes of domestic tranquility, complete with all modern conveniences, to slums choked with preteen workers, disease, and prostitutes, in the space of a city street.
These juxtapositions were a boon for fiction writers such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom extolled a kind of literary fellowship with their readers by rendering each extreme with an unflinching eye, and saying something about the tenacity of the human spirit, and the human imagination, in the process. Melodrama and realism made for stalwart companions, and the paradoxes of the age created a natural dramatic tension. And then there was a public ready to gobble up potboilers and gargantuan novels alike, happy to be transported onto the streets of London for an adventure backlit by gaslight, or whisked away from the city on a train journey to some moor-dotted village or seaside town, where urban cacophonies gave way to fogbound intrigues.
Fun, no? Unfortunately, the Victorian poet—especially the late Victorian poet—faced rather a more complicated situation. The Romantic era, with its metaphysical musings and odes to nature, psyche, and one’s state of being, had petered out as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, and if the poet could no longer apostrophize the likes of mere and weald, the influence of the poems that did was still felt. And then there was the era’s vogue for archaic forms—valorous tales of knights and distressed damsels, and works that were epic in scope. The poet’s burden was thus a heavy one: dislocate meaning from the past so as to foster new truths, but couch that meaning in language and forms that brought the past to bear on the present, sans fustiness.
That the poetry of late Victorian England succeeded in being both of its era and, weirdly, detached from it, has a lot to do with the notion of decadence, as it’s examined throughout the 600-odd poems that comprise the new volume Decadent Verse: An Anthology of Late-Victorian Poetry, 1872–1900. The heavy-hitters are here—Tennyson, Browning, Hopkins—but they are among the least representative of Victorian poetic decadence, a manner of verse best purveyed by writers with few claims for the canon, but who, when read in connection with each other, make us think that some redressing is in order.
The Victorian era was buttoned-down in myriad ways, and one was supposed to be prim, proper, and chaste, even though the opium dens did big business, and men were hardly chastised when they ducked into an alley with a sixteen-year-old girl—or when they later gave syphilis to their wives. Again: an age at odds with itself. Decadent poetry presents us with what could well be the age’s matchless literary paradox. The reader who is expecting accounts of full-on salacity—with the legs of women making right angles with their headboards, and one remarkable debauch after another—is going to discover a different brand of decadence on these pages. One that, when fully flowing, shocks us more than a mere sex-laden account of this shadowy Sodom possibly could.
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. In “Pall-Bearing,” from 1886, Thomas Ashe writes of a man tasked with a job that many of us have been called on to perform at some time or other.
I remember, they sent
Some one to me, who said,
‘You were his friend while he lived:
Be so now he is dead.’
So I went next day to the house;
And a woman nodded to me,
As I sat alone in thought:—
Said, ‘Sir, would you like to see
The poor dead body upstairs,
Before we rivet the lid?’
But I said, ‘I would rather not:
For the look would never be hid
Reservation and cowardice are coupled in what the narrator is attempting to view as a gesture of self-preservation. He does not fully countenance that he’s done anything untoward, but note how tremulous his voice is, compared to the first speaker, who provides a matter-of-fact directive, and the woman, who is also resolute. The poem fairly sings—or keens, if one prefers—and the rhyme scheme suggests a natural, rustic musicality. Late Victorian poetry is a veritable orgy of rhyme, but antiquated techniques are lashed to the modern human condition, and what emerges suggests a poetic collage art, where tropes acquire new life, because of different settings and responsibilities. The loping rhyme is like a persistent conscience, and you know that this is not going to end well. Our hesitant friend makes a go of it, and takes up his post at the bier.
But, what a weight, O God!
Was that one coffin to bear!
Like a coffin of lead!
And I carry it everywhere
About, wherever I go!
If I lift the slightest thing,
That requires an effort to lift,
The effort at once will bring
The whole weight into my hands,
And I carry the corpse at the feet;
And feel as if it would drop,
And slip out of its winding-sheet.
Hard luck. We also see an element of the Dantean contrapasso, where one’s punishment takes its cues from one’s crime. Of course, no crime was committed here, but this is the Victorian world, where sociological norms have been scrambled, and the poet has scrambled his art to reflect that dishevelment. Allusions to Dante’s Inferno appear with regularity, as the modern city is cast as an aboveground manifestation of the Hell where the Italian poet trod, only here there is no Beatrice to serve as guide. In “Manchester by Night” (1893), Mathilde Blind describes a “huge town, rife with intestine wars,” where “Pillars of smoke climb heavenward.” Man is impinging on heaven—with pollutants, no less. Van Gogh suggests a similar visual in The Starry Night, but his cypress tree—which prick’s heaven’s underbelly—is, at least, a natural creation. Meanwhile, Victorian England is a haven for unnatural order, and the poet is not so much interested in instigating a reversal, as in seeing what the muck can offer “as life exchanges semblances with death.” No one can tell what anything is; forms and identities are fluid, as is the past, given that the modes of expression are sourced from it, and have been turned loose on the present.
The Victorian decadent poets provide a free-for-all of implied meanings and false corridors.
The ballad was one such form making a comeback, but there is nothing of the gay troubadour in a representative work such as John Davidson’s less-than-happily titled “A Ballad of Euthanasia” from 1894. Presumably, this was not a poem to be listened to while gnawing on a shank of mutton. A princess who has no truck with conventional romance has hit upon an alternative solution: “I / Shall be the bride of Death,” she resolves, and what follows is a most irregular consummation, with Death—clad in raiment of fire—making off with our anti-heroine’s maidenhead and bringing her around to domestic bliss in the process.
Upon their golden wedding day,
He said, “How now, dear wife?”
The she: “I find the sweetest kind
Of Death is Love and Life.”
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. But then we have a kind of reverse aubade, when the object of the narrator’s affections returns another time, at noon. Not the most ghostly of hours, which renders the scene more unnerving. The pair get on better this time though, even if the female apparition is ill at ease, brooding over some distant matter. And, as is often the case in life, a third party wins out. A penultimate visit suggests finality:
She touched me not, but smiling spoke,
And softly as before.
“They gave me drink from some slow
stream; I love thee now no more.”
An utterance of departed feelings, from a person who has departed the earthly plain. The supernatural almost softens the blow, and that makes us cringe all the more, as it is doubtful that we can count on as much in our own lives. The spirit returns one last time, as the poem closes:
The other night she hurried in,
Her face was wild with fear:
“Old friend,” she said, “I am pursued,
May I take refuge here?”
Round and round—isn’t that always the way? That we can expect as much from the supernatural as from the quotidian—or at least in decadent Victorian poetry—is like a dual-attack: one that doesn’t debauch soul, or body, so much as our happier emotions. And then begins the climb back to day—which could well be night, in this particular literary outpost.
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.
Yeats would well understand what the narrator of “A Coast-Nightmare” terms “the wordless secrets of death’s deep” and that Modernistic pull to create language and meaning out of chaos and silence, an enterprise that requires the poet to fashion truths from settings and situations that the eye never beholds, in the outward, visual world, where we can all point to a wall, and say, “Look, someone has scribbled some words in chalk there.” Here, in the best poems of this era, we have something more chimerical, the vestiges of those former chalk words limned, at their edges, in flickering colors that give us cause to take a step closer for further examination, and then another, until what we are examining, really, is something inside ourselves. Anything especially—or limitedly—Victorian, in the experience of reading these poems, would likely be more a result of you doing so while clad in your Ulster and waistcoat, an image, at this remove, worthy of its own stanza in a Christina Rossetti work.