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This article considers the Victorian and Edwardian vogue for setting late-Victorian decadent poetry to music. It examines the particular appeal of Ernest Dowson's and Arthur Symons's verse to the composers Cyril Scott and Frederick Delius, whose Songs of Sunset (1911) was regarded as the “quintessential expression of the fin-de-siècle spirit,” and discusses the contribution of women composers and musicians—particularly that of the Irish composer and translator Adela Maddison (1866–1929)—to the cross-continental tradition of decadent song literature and the musical legacy of decadence in the late-Victorian period and beyond.
Decadent artists and writers in the second half of the nineteenth century were fascinated by the chaos and thrill of modern life, but they were to a much greater extent disgusted by the impact of so much social and cultural change. Baron Haussmann transformed Paris in the 1850s and 1860s into a booming metropolitan marvel, but in Les fleurs du mal (1857) Charles Baudelaire evokes the city as both spectacle and spectre. 350,000 people were displaced to the outskirts of the city during this period as new commercial sites replaced the medieval streets and alleyways. In this chapter, the development of the concept of decadence as a critique of urban progress is traced via Baudelaire’s foundational collection of poems and its influence on other writers, like Théophile Gautier, Émile Zola, and Joris-Karl Huysmans whose novel À rebours (1884) evokes the spiritual wasteland and psychological alienation that are the advance of modernity.
Notions of decadence, decline, and decay are intrinsically linked to the history of art. The discipline’s three recognized forefathers ? Giorgio Vasari, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Heinrich Wölfflin ? all relied on the concept of decadence (and its antonym, progress) to make sense of the history of the visual arts and to evaluate the art of their times. A developmental model of art was central to the interpretative schemes of these art historians. In this organicist model, earlier developments prepare the stage for what comes later; and after a particular style flourishes for a time, its decline is inevitable as newer styles overtake it. Decadent artists such as Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley mock aesthetic standards and moral rules, precluding universal appreciation, and proudly so. Decadent artists and decadent audiences are estranged from their society and feel disdain for those who are scandalized by decadent art’s innovative form and immoral subject matter.
The Romans had a difficult relationship with the kind of luxury and excess that we think of as indicators of moral and social decadence. But in many ways they revelled in such luxury. Readily accepting the financial rewards of empire, they spent huge sums on their own benefits. Whether in the colossal public games in the amphitheatre and the circus, in the opulent imperial bath complexes, or in extravagant private villas, Romans of all social levels delighted in the very best that life was thought to offer. Chapter 1 examines how far the evidence supports this somewhat melodramatic view of Rome by looking at the ways in which luxury spread in the Roman world. It also looks at the ways this growth in luxury compelled the Romans to create new concepts to understand the phenomenon. Luxury was almost never seen as a simple index of increased wealth. Rather, it raised all manner of moral issues among Rome’s ruling classes, many of which long outlived the end of the Roman empire itself.
From its emergence in the mid-nineteenth century, decadence has been, fundamentally, a socio-cultural response to urban modernity. Indeed, decadence is all but unthinkable outside the borders of the modern metropolis. Hence this chapter treats literature less as a literary critic would and more as an urbanist thinker might. An urbanist reading of a decadent text must perforce pay attention not only to urban geography, including the plan of the city in which the work is set, its dominant architectural styles, socio-economic differences in neighborhoods, and so on, but also to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that the urban setting produces in a particular decadent text. In this essay, the urbanist approach is brought to bear on three novels whose urban geography is especially significant to their respective narratives: Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere [Pleasure] (1889), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (1912). These three works illustrate, respectively, the special relationship of the urban scene to cultural, social, and psychological issues germane to the decadent narrative of each novel.
In keeping with the nature of the Cambridge Critical Concepts series, the introduction establishes decadence as a concept. We show how the concept emerges from a combination of etymology and history, and how decadence cuts across and calls into question traditional literary categories, such as genre and periodization. We articulate the relevance of decadence to recent literary interests, such as gender politics and queer theory. Finally, we explain the rationale for the organization of the volume as an effort to ‘scale up’ and reset the parameters of decadence as a concept; preview the individual contributions to the collection; and clarify the structure of the volume: the origins of the concept of decadence, its development through nineteenth-century fields, and its application to various twentieth-century disciplines and literary modalities. The introduction concludes with commentary on the contemporary resonance of decadence today.
Decadence and Literature explains how the concept of decadence developed since Roman times into a major cultural trope with broad explanatory power. No longer just a term of opprobrium for mannered art or immoral behaviour, decadence today describes complex cultural and social responses to modernity in all its forms. From the Roman emperor's indulgence in luxurious excess as both personal vice and political control, to the Enlightenment libertine's rational pursuit of hedonism, to the nineteenth-century dandy's simultaneous delight and distaste with modern urban life, decadence has emerged as a way of taking cultural stock of major social changes. These changes include the role of women in forms of artistic expression and social participation formerly reserved for men, as well as the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ+ relationships, a development with a direct relationship to decadence. Today, decadence seems more important than ever to an informed understanding of contemporary anxieties and uncertainties.
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