[The following passage comes from the author's John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography: Poetry, Anarchism, and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain (2012) — George P. Landow.]

With alienation as the point of departure, the Aesthetic and Decadent approaches to life and art branch off, or at least settle at different places along a continuum of attitudes toward the society left behind and the prison of consciousness. At least on a theoretical level, the Aesthete may be blissfully indifferent to the forsaken social world. Through astute and highly selective observation, he can draw pleasing sensations and impressions from it, though for him it has a lower potential yield than art. He need not hate the world. He has retreated to art and inaction in pursuit of beauty. Morality is simply irrelevant.

Aestheticism places greater emphasis on the creation of art and stresses form over subject matter. Poetry in this vein often relies on intricate verse forms, mostly French, which present demanding technical requirements and feature verbal music, including insistent rhyme and repetition. Aesthetic verse also empnasizes visual description and color. The Aesthetic alientaion and retreat from life are recapitulated in the verse itself, often through exotic setting or subject matter from the long-distant past that, in turn, originates more in literature, legend, and myth than in history. As the medium is to certain extent the message, the French verse forms, almost all of which derive from the troubadours, suggestively heighten the separation from the present. The purest Aesthetic poems are not really "about" anything. form, sound, image, and mood dominate to the extent that little or no room remains for ideas. In England, the Aesthetic impulse found a voice, even before it had been labeled, in a handful of brilliant seminal poems by Tennyson, including the archetypal "The Lotos-Eaters" It also produced the accomplished parlor verse of Austin Dobson, Andrew Lang, and their ilk. Such poems are given over entirely to the evocation of beauty and aesthetic satisfaction, within the constricted, detached, amoral realm of art. The dominant notes of Aestheticism are escape, fantasy, detachment, passivity, reverie, and harmony,

The Decadent, in contrast, wages a guerilla war against the dominant culture. He defines himself through conflict and contrast. Having erected, or accepted, the same barriers against life as the Aesthete, he then attacks. Through his efforts epater le bourgeoisie, he expresses his contempt for prevailing values and sensibilities and asserts his sense of superiority and the amorality of art. This aggressive stance toward society conveys the artist's alienation. At the same time, however, the attack, often in the form of intimate self-revelation, suggests both engagement in one of its most direct forms, and powerful communication, rather than the silence of separation. If society considers sexual relations, even between husband and wife, a private matter bordering on taboo, the Decadent may devote a poem to a graphic, intimate description of a night with a prostitute. But of course the attack itself serves at very least to underscore the force and dominance of mainstream morality, if not to concede its validity. The paradox, or self-contradiction, plays throughout perhaps the greatest English expression of Decadent thought and art. The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the "Preface," added after initial publication, Wilde boldly asserted; "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either well written, or badly written. That is all." In this statement of art for art's sake, he defended his book against moral criticism of its subject matter, arguing that morality is irrelevant to art. Yet the book he sought to rescue from moral judgment is itself a moral condemnation of all aspects of the very tempting, attractive Decadence, including the effort to view and live life as if it were art and therefore beyond good and evil. [214-15]


Cohen, Philip. John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography: Poetry, Anarchism, and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain. Rivendale Press, 2012. [review]

Last modified 5 December 2012