Oscar Wilde wrote two books of what are commonly described as fairy tales in his career. The Happy Prince and Other Tales is the best known of the two, being closer to what we think of as the traditional children’s storybook, despite the tragic denouement of many of its tales. I’m going to discuss the second volume, A House of Pomegranates, which is somehow much darker, more adult, bearing much more of the ‘note of doom’, which Wilde would later write, in De Profundis, ran throughout all his fairy tales.
Significantly, the tales were published not long after Wilde met the man who was to spell his eventual downfall, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, in 1891. These fairy tales indicate a marked step away from the child-like tone of Wilde’s earlier volume, and explore in much greater depth the joys and perils of erotic desire, the love of beauty, and indulgences in sensuality. Norbert Kohl observes that A House of Pomegranates is ‘a symbolic expression of [Wilde’s] sexual ambivalence,’ indicating that Wilde had found a certain acceptance of his homosexuality, though the narratives clearly indicate that he was still aware of the dangers it posed. Anne Varty also points out the dual symbolism of the pomegranate, ‘which antiquity saw as the fruit of Hades and dark captivity, but which Christian iconography revisioned as the fruit of resurrection and rebirth.’ Whether Wilde himself was aware of these contradictory interpretations is unclear, although judging from his excellent knowledge of both Classical literature and theology, it is certainly possible. Thus the volume represents the duality of Wilde’s own persona: he is at once the decadent lover of other men, and the Anglican socialist who longs for redemption.
‘The Young King’ clearly represents this clash of interests in Wilde’s philosophies. The story concerns a boy king whose love of luxury and artistic beauty lead him to great extravagancies. However, a dream on the night before he is due to be crowned which shows him the sufferings of the poor who enable him to live in such affluence causes him to renounce his riches, and he is blessed by God in return. Although the most hopeful story within the collection, ‘The Young King’ still displays the agonising conflict between the love of art and the sympathy to the plight of the poor which Wilde himself experienced. The tale is also replete with homoerotic imagery. The Young King’s beauty is emphasised in the tale: he is ‘wild-eyed… like a brown woodland faun,’ prompting Jack Zipes to see him as ‘a homoerotic portrayal of an idealised lover.’ Note also that the art so loved by the King portrays exclusively male beauty – he adores ‘a Greek gem, carved with the figure of Adonis’ as well as a silver representation of Endymion, and is discovered ‘pressing his warm lips to the marble brow of an antique statue… inscribed with the name of the Bithynian slave of Hadrian.’ There is an indulgence of pure sensuality in this passage, an unadulterated joy in the worship of exquisite male beauty. There is a sense that homosexual desire – much more so that heterosexual – is bound up solely with beauty and love, liberated from concerns of procreation. It is a love which exists purely for the joy of loving, much the same as the love of art, which holds no utilitarian function but is rewarding nonetheless. It is also significant that among the King’s art collection is the figure of ‘a laughing Narcissus in green bronze [holding] a polished mirror above its head.’ Narcissus has often been associated with homosexual love – consider the Lacanian theory of the mirror image. Narcissus, like the homosexual, cannot feel anything for the allure of the Other, focussing instead on his own image, represented in another man. The statue therefore both represents the single-mindedness of the Young King, who cannot see beyond his own aesthetic pleasures, and acts as a motif for same-sex desire. While the tale has a happy ending of sorts – the King repents his thoughtlessness and is redeemed – it is telling that Wilde can only atone for the boy’s human follies by taking him outside the human and making him almost a divine being. It demonstrates that for Wilde, there was no easy, human solution to the predicament of his aesthetic and homosexual desires and the desire to care for his children and improve social conditions. His personal agony has no easy solution, and he indulges in the fantasy of divine benediction as a means of vicarious comfort.
The image of mirrors and self-confrontation reappear in two other stories in the volume, ‘The Star Child’ and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta.’ ‘The Star Child’ concerns the story of a beautiful youth who is so enamoured with himself that he becomes cruel, and it is only through losing his beauty and enduring much suffering that he can redeem himself. Here, the reference to Narcissus takes form in the boy’s extreme vanity, and once again Wilde takes the opportunity to dwell on the pleasures of male beauty. The child is represented as a strange amalgamation of nature and artifice, with his white skin, ‘delicate as sawn ivory,’ his hair ‘like the rings of the daffodil,’ his lips like ‘petals’ and eyes like ‘violets by a river of pure water.’ Wilde also declares that ‘his body [was] like the narcissus of a field where the mower comes not’ – another reference to the Greek hero. He is the perfect blend of art and what is most pleasing about nature, and once more the beauty of men is glorified. Significantly, it is when the Star Child cruelly rejects a woman – in this case, his mother – that his beauty is taken from him. His horrified gaze into the mirror reveals ‘the face of a toad’ and a ‘body scaled like an adder.’ This moment of revelation could easily be a reference to Wilde’s realisation of his homosexuality – many critics such as Norbert Kohl have seen the rejection of the mother as Wilde’s rejection of his wife, to whom the volume was dedicated. Notably, the tale ends on a bitter note. Despite regaining his beauty and earning the right to a kingdom, Wilde informs the reader that the Star Child will die after three years because his suffering had been too great, and that the next king would rule badly. This is yet another blow to the ‘Happily Ever After’ of fairy tales, and provides further evidence of Wilde’s ‘note of doom’, which realises that the homosexual lover will never achieve true acceptance or happiness in this world.
‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ has a similarly gloomy outlook. A young dwarf, who is captured to entertain the young Infanta on her birthday and consequently falls in love with her, is brought to recognise his own ugliness and dies of grief. Significantly, the story portrays the Infanta as cruel and thoughtless: upon learning that the dwarf has died of a broken heart, she commands that ‘for the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ and goes in search of other entertainment. Jerusha McCormack observes that ‘the love of women, as [Wilde’s] fairy tales explicitly show, is shallow and cruel.’ The implication is that true understanding and companionship can only be found with other men. The fateful mirror makes another appearance here, when the dwarf is struck with the horrible realisation that he is ‘misshapen and hunchbacked, foul to look at and grotesque,’ something he had never realised when he lived outside of society. McCormack suggests that this realisation could be ‘a reflection of Wilde’s own confrontation with himself in the mirror of homosexual love.’ It is a sudden awareness of shame, a representation of the disgrace of the invert, and it is a realisation terrible enough to strike death into the unfortunate dwarf’s heart. It is important to note that this shame was only brought about because the dwarf was taken into society and made to confront it by his treatment at the hands of others. This suggests that the invert is not naturally at fault, and that it is only through the condemnation of society that he is punished. However, this defence of the social outcast is embittered by death, indicating that Wilde was aware that for him at least, there would be no escape from the recriminations which society would level at his own lifestyle.
The final tale in Wilde’s volume, ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’, deserves special mention for the ways in which Wilde both imitated and developed two of Hans Andersen’s tales, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Shadow.’ Obviously, it is a tale of love between a mermaid and a human, and also deals with themes of split identity and self-annihilation which are addressed in ‘The Shadow.’ However, Wilde inverts Andersen’s tales. Jack Zipes observes that ‘instead of the usual sea-nymph seeking a human soul, Wilde has the fisherman give up his soul to join the mermaid and to enjoy the sensual pleasures of her natural love.’ No squeamishness about physical pleasure or sexual initiation here. Instead of representing it as a defect, the tale glorifies in the mermaid’s Otherness, in her hair like ‘fine gold in a cup of glass’, her ivory skin, her tail of ‘silver and pearl’ and her lips like ‘sea-coral.’ She is an object of perfect artifice, of beauty absolute. Norbert Kohl sees the fisherman’s adoration of her as ‘a mixture of aesthetic sensuality and the thrill of the abnormal,’ and believes it represents a ‘renunciation of “normal” sexual behaviour.’ The love between man and mermaid is symbolic of homosexual love, which transcends the laws of nature for the sake of beauty. It is impossible to read of the condemnations levelled at the couple by the priest without thinking of the attitude of society towards the homosexual. Upon discovering the dead lovers, he pronounces them and their kind ‘accursed’, and proclaims that they were ‘slain by God’s judgement,’ having pronounced earlier that ‘the love of the body is vile… and vile and evil are the Pagan things God suffers to wander through His world.’ The reference is blatantly made to the attitude concerning same-sex love which Wilde would eventually suffer from. The reader is drawn to sympathise with the Fisherman, who proclaims that love is better than anything on earth, and therefore cannot be a sin in the eyes of God. The priest’s ultimate change of heart signifies hope for a future without tyranny or judgement, yet once again Wilde’s solution is bittersweet, as it is earned through the sacrifice of the Fisherman and his lover.
Fundamentally, Wilde’s strange fairy tales are narratives of the beauty and pain of homosexual desire. They portray the agonizing conflicts between the desire for a forbidden love and the desire for a family, between the love of beauty and the guilt inspired by the suffering of others, and indicate that the fairy tale has moved beyond simple wish-fulfilment and suppression, and has come to consciously include all the agonies and forbidden desires of illicit sexuality.
My first introduction to William Blake was through his poetry, but I’m going to talk about his paintings today. Blake started his career as an engraver, and was influenced by the art of Fuseli, whose interest in the darker side of the supernatural can be seen in Blake’s own work. He was deeply influenced by the mysticism of Swedenborg, and was a supporter of the free love movement, and was strongly opposed to the conventional Christianity of his day. He did not believe that love of Christ entailed self-denial, and spoke out against religious repression. He experienced regular religious visions, and his works of art regularly portrayed the things he witnessed in these states of delirium.
Blake did not attain a great deal of acclaim during his lifetime. His views were too controversial for popular taste, and many believed him to be insane, including William Wordsworth who observed that “there was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron or Walter Scott.” Blake’s art and poetry would later influence the works of Swinburne and Rossetti, and while he is before the time of Symbolism, his philosophies, and the profound mysticism of his art, place him as a significant forerunner of the movement.
Many apologies for the long hiatus. I’ve been writing my MA dissertation, and that had to take priority for a bit. I’m back now though, and I thought I’d get back into things with another of my favourite poems by Swinburne.
Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough.
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.
Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
With love like gold bound round about the head,
Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
Yet from them something like as fire is shed
That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this,
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
And on the other a woman sat like sin,
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
Love turned himself and would not enter in.
Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night’s dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
Yet by no sunset and no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
To thee that art a thing of barren hours?
Yea, love, I see: it is not love but fear.
Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
Or wherefore should thy body’s blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never make a tear –
Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what sweet wise
Beyond the woman’s and the water’s kiss
Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy’s breath softened into sighs;
But love being blind, how should he know of this?
Klimt (1862 – 1918) is probably the best known of the Symbolist artists, and that’s partly why I’ve taken this long to mention him here as I’ve wanted to focus on the less famous contributors to the movement. As it is, I’ve attempted to put together a collection of Klimt’s work that perhaps isn’t so widely recognised.
Klimt became successful in his native Vienna, and was among the founding members of the ‘Vienna Succession’, a group of unconventional artists who mostly adhered to the school of Symbolism. Klimt’s most famous works are his highly stylised paintings from his ‘Golden Phase’, and the majority of his paintings depict erotic sensuality.
There’s a good resource for more Klimt images here.
Special thanks go out to billyjane for introducing me to this wonderful artist!
Boever (1872 – 1949) was a Flemish Symbolist who produced some lovely illustrations to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. He specialised in erotic portraits of women, almost always in macabre or bizarre settings. He was very successful until around 1935, when he went dramatically out of fashion, and was never able to achieve his former popularity. I’ve found a good website on him here offering a more extensive bibliography and gallery.
Well, I just submitted the last of my coursework yesterday, and I’ve only got my dissertation to do over the summer, so I am now able to return my energies to more important things, like running this blog. Again, I’m sorry for the lack of updates.
I thought I’d start things back up again by reviewing a book which was written before the Decadent movement came about, but which nonetheless embodies many classic Decadent traits, and influenced more than one later author. William Beckford’s Vathek.
Like any self-respecting Decadent, Beckford (1760 – 1844) had a strange and eventful life. Apart from being one of the richest men in England, Beckford was also something of a Jack-of-all-trades: a writer, art collector, politician, patron and critic. He also designed his home, the wonderfully over the top Fonthill Abbey, sadly no longer in existence. He also appears to have been a controversial figure, called by some the ‘Fool of Fonthill’, and causing scandal by his affairs with his cousin Louisa, and with a young man called William Courtenay. One cannot help but be reminded of a certain Lord Byron.
Vathek (1786) is a novella that often borders on the ridiculous. It is written in high Gothic style, and bears all the traits of fashionable Orientalism so prevalent in Europe during the late 18th century. Set in Arabia, it tells the tale of the corrupt Caliph Vathek who, aided and abetted by his mother, Carathis, turns to murder and black magic in his pursuit of power and decadence. Along the way he encounters Nouronihar, a beautiful princess who is slowly seduced by Vathek. Overall, it is a very enjoyable read, as long as you are prepared to not take it too seriously. The descriptions of magical rites are compelling, and Beckford portrays a lush and sensual – albeit very clichéd – image of Eastern luxury and Decadence.
Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) was technically a Pre-Raphealite artist, but the strong parallels between the Pre-Raphealites and the Symbolists merits her inclusion here. She is one of the few women who managed to make a name for herself in the movement, and there has recently been an increase of interest in her work. She is remarkable for the sheer number of paintings she produced, which can be attributed to her fairly formidable work ethic. On the morning of her seventeenth birthday she wrote in her diary, “Art is eternal, but life is short…” “I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.”
As a side note, I’m sorry I’m not posting as often as I used to. I’m currently studying for a Masters Degree, and I have a stupid amount of work on at the moment! I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do more here once May is over!
Another of my favourite Wilde poems.
The Harlot’s House
We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.
Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The ‘Treues Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.
Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.
We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.
Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sliding through the slow quadrille.
They took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.
Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.
Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a living thing.
The turning to my love, I sad,
‘The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.’
But she – she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.
The suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.
And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.
Jan Toorop (1858 – 1928) is probably one of the most distinctive of the Symbolist artists; his unusual, and slightly unsettling style is instantly recognisable. This could be explained by his childhood spent in Java – many of his figures are highly reminiscent of Javanese shadow theatre puppets. Based in the Netherlands, Toorop was introduced to Symbolism during a visit to Belgium, where he was inspired by the works of Jean Delville and Fernand Khnopff. Further information on the artist’s life can be found here.
This painting takes the unusual form of a testament of love to the artists infant daughter. Michael Gibson writes that ‘the child in the highchair is the daughter of the artist. She turns her back on the past (her mother, who carries withered flowers) and lifts her arms towards the luminous and mysterious world. Modernity is signified by the telegraph post and the rail.’
This painting reminds me of the story of Christ’s last night in the garden with his disciples before his arrest.
Toorop stated that ‘the central fiancee evokes an inward, superior and beautiful desire… an ideal suffering… The fiancee on the left symbolises spiritual suffering. She is the mystic fiancee, her eyes wide with fear…” and the bride on the right with her ‘materialistic and profane expression… stands for the sensual world.’
I’ve already mentioned that 19th Century Russia was a fertile breeding ground for Decadence, and this wonderfully strange book proves my point. What adds to the strangeness is that The Fiery Angel is partly autobiographical, but more on that in a minute.
Set in Medieval Germany, an age of religious fanaticism and the Inquisittion, The Fiery Angel tells the story of a young knight, Rupprecht, who when returning home meets a young woman called Renata who is prone to visions and claims to be searching for her angelic beloved, Madael. The pair travel together, and enter into a sado-masochistic relationship, delving deeper and deeper into occult practices. The description of the Black Mass Rupprecht attends is an excellent demonstration of the author’s profound knowledge of the supernatural. Rupprecht is obsessed with Renata, who treats him in turns with cruelty and affection. Cameo appearances are made by Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles, and Doctor Agrippa. What is truly remarkable about the novel is that Bruisov never gives any clear solutions to the things that happen. Is Madael an angel or a demon? Is Renata really in contact with the spiritual world, or is it hysteria? Can the paranormal events be explained away by science? It is a powerful and compelling novel, dealing with key Decadent issues such as Satanism, femme fatales and sexual hysteria.
Bruisov himself was a somewhat contradictory character. While he had undoubted genius, many of his Russian contemporaries doubted if his heart was in the movement – he was naturally repulsed by the concept of ennui, and it was often said that his ambition drove him towards Decadence because he saw that it was the Next Big Thing. Nevertheless, his knowledge of the occult was profound, and he influenced more that one of his acquaintances to commit suicide. I mentioned before that The Fiery Angel was partly based on events in the author’s own life. Andrei Bely, a fellow Decadent posessing almost angelic beauty, became a close friend of Bruisov’s. Friendship turned to rivalry – both literary and, some said, magical. The relationship also led Bruisov to meet Bely’s spurned mistress, the nineteen-year-old Nina Petrovskaya. Together they attempted to win back Bely’s love for Nina through magic, before dropping the pretence and embarking on an intense seven year affair. After their passion died, Nina fled to Paris where, in the manner of so many of Bruisov’s companions, she would later commit suicide. All the evidence would indicate that Rupprecht was a representation of Bruisov himself, Madael the angel was inspired by Bely, and Renata was a representation of the tragic Nina.