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Chapter 3 - ‘Rather a Delicate Subject’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Alex Murray
Affiliation:
Queen's University Belfast
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Summary

This chapter examines the reception of Decadence in Britain by focusing on responses to the poet Paul Verlaine. For many Anglophone readers Verlaine epitomized Decadence, but comment upon his work is hedged by euphemism and ambiguity. I argue that this reflects the ‘queer’ resonance of Decadence for British readers, encompassing Verlaine’s status as a homosexual poet and, more generally, the power of Decadent writing to question and unsettle received knowledge (including sexual norms). The chapter traces the origins of the term ‘Decadence’ through classical historiography to the work of Charles Baudelaire and its transition across the Channel in the 1890s, as writers including Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde, John Gray and Michael Field absorbed the influence of Baudelaire’s literary successors, J. K. Huysmans and Verlaine, into their own work. Symons’ description of Decadence as a ‘new and beautiful and interesting disease’ helpfully draws together what British readers found so appealing and so disturbing about Decadence – its continental origins, its association with various kinds of transgression and its capacity to revitalize clichéd ways of thinking.

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Decadence
A Literary History
, pp. 65 - 86
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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