Modernist homage to the fin de siecle.
Whether critics believe the myth of discontinuity or whether they offer an opposing narrative of continuity and progressive development from the fin de siecle into modernism, both models tend to be based on an assumption of the supremacy of the modernist aesthetic. To understand more fully the turn-of-the-century period we need to find new, more nuanced and complex models that allow us to think outside of this entrenched and limiting construct. One such is offered in this article in the form of homage: a recognition that within high modernism there are gestures of tribute to the fin de siecle that acknowledge an aspect of aesthetic regression within modernism.
And yet he felt that, however he might revile and mock her image, his anger was also a form of homage.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
We are only too familiar with many modernists' rejection of fin de siecle literature (or was it of the writers and the lifestyle they were deemed to embody?)--and the often extreme language in which it was couched. (1) The cause of such reactions was sometimes homophobic panic, but frequently it is not clear why the fin de siecle proved so unnerving for the next generation. Such anger is in itself something of a tribute to the potency of the literature of the previous generation, and a sign of more than the usual intergenerational strife. I suggest that however much modernist writers may 'revile and mock' the image of the fin de siecle, for many this anger 'was also a form of homage'. This is the unthinkable truth that lies behind the myth of discontinuity; this is frequently what necessitated such heated denial.
By tracing a model of homage to the fin de siecle within modernism, it is possible to recognize a sense of regression at the heart of modernism, and an element of respect for an aesthetic moment in late nineteenth-century poetry that many key modernist writers felt was lost to them and they were unable to follow. What is made visible through this analysis is a loss of confidence within modernism that is felt in direct comparison with the 'audacity' of the poetry of the fin de siecle. I use the French 'homage', rather than the English 'homage' used by Joyce in my epigraph, (2) to signal an appeal to a concept from a critical discourse rather than a natural one. In film theory it is often used to invoke recent past masters, and it acknowledges their greatness while coming to terms with the threat of the debt to them through an element of pastiche. Homage, then, is not simply 'homage' or 'tribute', which lack the self-reflexivity necessary to provide the complicated mix of irony and reverence captured within the French term. Neither is homage the general 'nostalgia' that underpins modernism, which relates to a world already gone by the 1890s. Nor is homage about an engagement with history as such, because the objects of homage are located in a past much more recent than 'history' would seem to denote. However, it does have a close relationship with memory, as will be demonstrated later.
Two qualifications need to be introduced immediately into this narrative of homage. First of all, this is not an argument for a blanket characterization of modernism as a whole: this paper offers one model to trace one particular trajectory through modernism to suggest that current thinking is still too conditioned by the modernist's own mythology. Indeed, the concept of homage is worked out in rather different ways by each of the canonical writers examined in this paper, and I identify a very specific set of acts of homage to the turn of the century. The second qualification is that the homage traced in this paper is limited to poetry of the fin de siecle, and not to prose. This model works specifically in relation to poetry for a variety of reasons, such as the different relationship between fin de siecle poetry and prose and the marketplace, and modernism's own quest for a poetic novel, firmly differentiated from Victorian realist fiction. There is great potential for other similar narratives over the turn of the century concerning other genres, but they would differ in crucial respects and so must be taken up on other occasions.
But first it is necessary to dwell more on why we need new models to recognize more fully the complexity of the relationship between modernism and the poetry of the fin de siecle. Current critical characterizations of the relationship between the early decades of the twentieth century and Victorianism often ignore the fin de siecle completely, and when they do not they are stuck in two well-worn ruts: one of rupture, and one of continuation. It is surprising how frequently the relationship between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century epistemologies is still pathologized by a critical outlook uncritically accepting of the modernist myth of discontinuity. More recently a few notable studies have sought to challenge this myth with a truer picture of continued themes, images, and concerns traced across the turn of the century. Carol T. Christ's Victorian and Modern Poetics is key in this respect, and here the author identifies three core strands of continuity between Victorian and modernist poetry (those dramatic aspects of masks, persona, and dramatic monologue; theories of the image; and the use of myth and history). (3) David Weir, in Decadence and the Making of Modernism, presents decadence as not only an age of transition in which the origins of modernism must be located, but itself inherently a 'dynamics of transition'. (4) Jessica Feldman attempts a similar project of reconciliation in her Victorian Modernism, albeit in a very different way. (5) Here, Feldman uses pragmatism to challenge the myth of discontinuity, and takes as her focus cultural sites of aesthetic endeavour (such as workrooms and relationships) as well as printed texts and paintings to argue for continuities as well as breaks. She sees the need in modernism to preserve the past through change, just as she sees in Victorianism the 'testing ground for modern culture, that it might have provided both the space of reaction and the space of rebellion'. (6)
All of these analyses convincingly bring 'Victorian' and 'modernist' into much closer proximity than had previously been allowed, and prove the myth of discontinuity to be much less potent than had formerly been credited. However, such approaches can be constrained by one of two problems. First, they frequently still advocate a developmental narrative, where modernist poetics are an improvement on, or elaboration of, existing or nascent fin de siecle models. For example, Weir's notion of 'transition' risks suggesting that decadence was important for enabling modernism. (Another version of this is when fin de siecle writers are praised and considered interesting to the extent that they exhibit modernist tendencies.) Secondly, if analyses avoid this pitfall of overstating progressive aesthetic amelioration, they sometimes risk simply stating the obvious: that there are, of course, similarities between the two aesthetics.
Much more recent papers by Ronald Bush and Cassandra Laity, tracing the links between Eliot and Wilde, and Eliot and Swinburne, respectively, attend to a level of specificity that entirely avoids the second of these problems, but they are still concerned with tracing intertextuality and continuity. (7) In other words, there is still a tendency to look for evidence of a particular kind of relationship between the two aesthetics, and that is one still defined by the myth of discontinuity and the opposing arguments for continuity it elicits.
I suggest there is much that characterizes the period that cannot be contained within either the narrative of rupture or the narrative of progressive continuation. It is essential that we find other, more nuanced models that can characterize the relationship in all its complexity. The model explored in this paper in some ways goes much further in dismissing the myth of discontinuity, but in doing so better explains the need for it and the force of it. The narrative of homage and, to an extent, 'regression' is a different dynamic of influence altogether.
Some evidence from Pound initially will allow us to see how fin de siecle poetry held a different place from fin de siecle prose in the minds of many modernist writers. Ezra Pound's scholarly engagement with the 1890s establishes an intricate web of poetic engagement that is as often overlooked in critics' mapping of the fin de siecle as it is in our understanding of modernism. This lineage is demonstrated particularly clearly in Pound's essay on Lionel Johnson that appears in Eliot's selected essays of Ezra Pound. Pound's essay begins by praising Johnson for 'poems as beautiful as any in English', and singling him out from the 'muzziness' of the nineties. (8) Pound then reproduces Johnson's notes on his 1890s contemporaries as evidence of Johnson's good judgement. In these notes the poets picked out for praise and commentary are William Watson, John Davidson, Richard Le Gallienne, Arthur Symons, Francis Thompson, and Michael Field.
Yet the means by which Pound engages with the fin de siecle in this essay has much to reveal about the tensions that constitute 'homage' (rather than any simple tribute). Pound's essay is based around a strange layering of various voices. The notes reproduced by Pound were sent by Lionel Johnson to Katherine Tynan, and she published them after his death. The very dynamic of Pound's essay, which layers Johnson's commentary on the 1890s (written in 1895), Tynan's later reproduction of these notes (of 1907), and Pound's even later essay (of 1915), which was then reprinted through Eliot's editorial control (in 1954), charts that continuous trajectory that has recently been recognized to oppose rigid period boundaries and the modernist myth of discontinuity. But it also, and more importantly for my purposes, allows Pound to engage in a delicate dance between distance and proximity that is so definitive of the sense of tribute and threat that constitutes homage. By layering his access to Johnson in this way, he can acknowledge Johnson's contribution while complicating his own relationship with it. After reproducing the notes, Pound writes of his own first experiences of Johnson's poetry when he was a postgraduate, prefacing his account with the disclaimer 'Perhaps that is only a confusion of my personal memory' (p. 367). This 'confusion of personal memory' is another useful mechanism in modernism's negotiation with the fin de siecle poets to manage the threat of the achievements of a period too close to be venerated in a historical sense, but too distant to be owned comfortably.
Notice that 'homage' is in many ways the inverse of the anxiety of influence, as well as a counterpoint to the myth of discontinuity. While Harold Bloom traces six ways in which writers seek to deny the influence of an earlier generation (to which they secretly owe so much), (9) I am here interested in how modernist writers distinctively and explicitly acknowledge the achievements of the past generation (but in a way that is tinged with irony or some other indication of the threat these writers pose). Indeed, T. S. Eliot, in his essay 'Tradition and the Practice of Poetry', tells us exactly what is at stake:
I cannot help wondering how my own verse would have developed, or whether it would have been written at all, supposing that the poets of the generation of the 'nineties had survived to my own time and had gone on developing and increasing in power. [...] Had they survived, they might have spoken in an idiom sufficiently like my own to have made anything I had to say superfluous. (10)
This is not a part of the modernist canon that is often quoted, and it is easy to see why. No matter how much critics have proved modernist discontinuity to be an elaborate myth-making exercise, it is still difficult to contemplate a debt of this scale from modernism to the fin de siecle. This essay has, however, been treated in some detail by one pioneering critic, Ronald Bush, who finds this fear of the potency of the 1890s very odd indeed. He explains it with reference to an expression of 'genuine longing to have been part of an "emancipated" culture that never existed'; the erotics of the nineties; and an overdetermined vacillation of desire and guilt for the Wilde period. (11)
Yet what if this is not erotic envy?; what if it is what it says it is--a very real worry about regression, about being unable to live up to the ideal seen in the previous generation? This is the possibility I want to contemplate. The bizarrely contorted nature of Eliot's tribute sits well with this reading. The claim that the fin de siecle poets might have overshadowed the modernist writers had they lived longer and gone on 'developing and increasing in power' is a strange vision, only to be explained, perhaps, with reference to a worry about the supremacy of these writers, combined with a desire, nonetheless, to not face one's own feared redundancy quite so directly. Crucial to Eliot's talk of the fin de siecle poets elsewhere is the word 'audacity'. Eliot writes of Wilde and his contemporaries that they 'had a curiosity, an audacity, a recklessness which are in violent contrast with that part of the present which I denominate as the already dead'. (12) The fin de siecle poets often referred to themselves as 'audacious' (13) and modernist homage frequently echoes the term. This, I believe, is central to what has been lost in modernism, where, Eliot fears, the 'already dead' flourish.
This kind of homage to late Victorian poetry is not just performed in modernist critical writing, however, and I turn now to one of the clearest fictional examples: Virginia Woolf 's Mr Carmichael, who provides the aesthetic solution in To the Lighthouse. A brief description of his trajectory through the novel will reveal him as a representation of an 1890s poet. This man who shuffles, sniffles, and snuffles his way through Part I of the book is clearly not a vision of manly vigour, yet ultimately--as I shall show--he commands more respect than any other character. Everything we are told about him suggests he is a reluctant, and somewhat parodic, homage to the fin de siecle poet.
While Pound was certainly interested in the fin de siecle poets, and Eliot too engaged with this material, Woolf was rather more ambivalent. Her scathing attack on Galsworthy and Bennett is well known, and Perry Meisel has traced in some detail Woolf 's indebtedness to Pater--an argument made particularly through her essay writing (14)--but her nuanced reaction to the poets of the period has not received much attention. Woolf describes Arthur Symons as 'a very distinguished poet', and admires many other individual poets of the time, even if she was capable of recoiling from some of the more outrageous caricatures of the age. (15) Yet for a fuller reaction to the poetic spirit of the fin de siecle we must turn to the commentary that found voice in Woolf 's remarkable novel, and its unsung hero.
While it is impossible, and nonsensical, to pin a work of fiction precisely on to a real historical framework, the orientation of To the Lighthouse around the First World War does offer us some loose sense of the representation of a turn-of-the-century context in the first part, and what we might now identify as the high modernist context of the 1920s in the third. In Part I we hear that Augustus Carmichael is a poet who also translates foreign verse (an activity that held a particularly important aesthetic role at the fin de siecle). In addition we hear that he takes opium, and that his relationship with his wife has broken down. Indeed, his liking for young Andrew, together with his failed marriage, hints at the possibility of a homosexual or homosocial orientation. This cocktail of drugs, poetry, translation, unmanly demeanour, and same-sex communion draws what had already become, by the time Woolf was writing, the unmistakable caricature of the 1890s poet. Crucially, Carmichael is also the only character in the novel to refuse Mrs Ramsay's seductive charm, and his presentation in Part I is structured by Mrs Ramsay's concern that he sees right through her:
the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question, with a book beneath his arm, in his yellow slippers, that she was suspected; and that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction was it that she wished so instinctively to help, to give, that people might say of her, 'O Mrs Ramsay! dear Mrs Ramsay ... Mrs Ramsay, of course!' and need her and send for her and admire her? Was it not secretly this that she wanted, and therefore when Mr Carmichael shrank away from her, as he did at this moment, making off to some corner where he did acrostics endlessly, she did not feel merely snubbed back in her instinct, but made aware of the pettiness of some part of her, and of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self-seeking, at their best. (16)
Crucially, Mr Carmichael offers an alternative aesthetic centre to the novel to Mrs Ramsay. While everything else in the novel revolves around Mrs Ramsay, Woolf seems to enjoy the idea that there might be another subversive possibility under her roof. Carmichael offers everything Mrs Ramsay lacks, and even she, while she is scared of him and his power, admires him for it:
She could not help respecting the composure with which he sat there, drinking his soup. If he wanted soup, he asked for soup. Whether people laughed at him or were angry with him he was the same. He did not like her, she knew that; but partly for that very reason she respected him, and looking at him, drinking soup, very large and calm in the failing light, and monumental, and contemplative, she wondered what he did feel then, and why he was always content and dignified; and she thought how devoted he was to Andrew [...] and her husband said, 'Poor old Augustus--he's a true poet', which was high praise from her husband. (pp. 104-05)
He is immune to the need for the social affirmation that structures Mrs Ramsay's existence. His dignity and composure and integrity are qualities that few others in the novel posess. Significantly, he is also to gain intellectual success and fame in a way that none of the others do.
Already, even in Part I, Carmichael begins to play the part of the presiding priest at a ceremony, holding a role no one else in the novel, save Mrs Ramsay, could fulfil. After the dinner he rises, 'holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe', and chants from Charles Isaac Elton's 'Luriana, Lurilee' (pp. 120-21). It is only at this point, towards the very end of Part I that Mr Carmichael and Mrs Ramsay reach some kind of understanding. As Carmichael finishes his incantation, he
bowed to her as if he did her homage. Without knowing why, she felt that he liked her better than he had ever done before; and with a feeling of relief and gratitude she returned his bow and passed through the door which he held open for her. (p. 121)
Usually, either Mrs Ramsay or Lily are seen as holding the central position in this novel, yet both are under Carmichael's spell. Even in this quotation, in which Carmichael seems, finally, to give Mrs Ramsay the acknowledgment she wants, Woolf still presents it as his triumph in the light of her 'relief and gratitude'.
In the middle, 'Time Passes', section of the novel (based loosely around a ten-year period covering the First World War), Mr Carmichael's importance to the novel is confirmed as he appears reading Virgil late into the night, by the light of a candle which he kept 'burning rather longer than the rest' (p. 137). Virgil by candlelight seems designed in this context to be read rather as a candlelit vigil, as Carmichael fights the war with ancient poetry. Indeed, Mr Carmichael publishes his own volume of poetry to unexpected success: 'The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry' (p. 146). In a foreshadowing of the alliance at the core of Part III, Lily and Carmichael arrive back at the house on the same train, and Carmichael already seems to be linked to her as an aesthetic guardian, again keeping that vigil that is his role throughout 'Time Passes': 'Lily was tired out with travelling and slept almost at once; but Mr Carmichael read a book by candlelight' (p. 155).
The third part ('The Lighthouse') sees Carmichael reading a French novel, and enjoying fame, owing to the republication of poetry he wrote 'forty years ago' (p. 210)--poetry that Lily imagines is 'seasoned and mellow', is extremely impersonal, and is about death, and only a little about love (p. 211). Both the French paperback and the decadent poetry (possibly symbolist in its impersonality), written in the 1880s or 1890s, clearly associate him with the fin de siecle, as do Lily's thoughts about his age, and the likelihood she will not see him again before he dies. Yet however much Woolf is at pains to make it clear that Carmichael is from a different age to this post-war setting, she is equally keen to show how relevant he is to this new world. His 'beautiful' poetry (p. 210) about death may sound much more aestheticist than modernist--and clearly Woolf 's point is not to suggest his work is simply proto-modernist--but it had an impact on the post-war world that left modernist writers struggling to know how to follow it.
Indeed, the core of 'The Lighthouse' section of the novel is the relationship between Lily, the modernist artist (representing Woolf, the novelist), and Carmichael. His silent communion with her while they are both out on the lawn (she painting, he reading his French novel in a deckchair and dosing on and off) places him as her inspiration and ally. (17) She repeatedly feels compelled to ask him what it all means, 'But one only woke people if one knew what one wanted to say to them. And she wanted to say not one thing, but everything' (p. 193). '"What does it mean? How do you explain it all?" she wanted to say, turning to Mr Carmichael again', and she imagines that had he answered, 'a little tear would have rent the surface pool. And then? Something would emerge. A hand would be shoved up, a blade would be flashed. It was nonsense of course' (p. 194). This image of Mr Carmichael as the hand offering Excalibur to the swordless Lily contains, in an incredibly compressed format, an expression of some of the more profound feelings towards the nineteenth century that motivate modernism. It is as if this reference to Tennyson's iconic 'Morte D'Arthur' imagines something of the nineteenth century surviving on into the twentieth century that itself could rend the surface of life and offer mystical and actual powers to the modernist writer. Crucially, Mr Carmichael is the figure able to transmit something of the Victorian into the new century, and the ability of the fin de siecle poet to combine the aesthetic confidence of the nineteenth century with an understanding of modernity is vividly imagined here. This is a perfect example of 'homage', particularly because this act of incredible, and apparently deeply felt, tribute is immediately followed by that typically anxious disclaimer--'it was nonsense of course'--through which the modernists belittled their own anxieties and sense of indebtedness to the previous generation of poets. Yet, in spite of this embarrassment, Lily's silent questions to Mr Carmichael are finally answered as he grants her vision at the very end of the novel.
While Lily's calling on Mrs Ramsay with her debt of gratitude in Part III is well documented, Carmichael's role in enabling the artistic vision that constitutes the novel itself is hardly recognized. Yet while Mrs Ramsay is the subject matter Lily tries to come to terms with in her picture, it is to Mr Carmichael that she turns for answers, for help with making sense of it all. Indeed, the following passage shows clearly Lily's relationship with these two people:
Was she crying then for Mrs. Ramsay, without being aware of any unhappiness? She addressed old Mr. Carmichael again. What was it then? What did it mean? Could things thrust their hands up and grip one; could the blade cut; the fist grasp? Was there no safety? No learning by heart of the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?--startling, unexpected, unknown? For one moment she felt that if they both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. 'Mrs. Ramsay!' she said aloud, 'Mrs. Ramsay!' The tears ran down her face. (pp. 195-96)
Mrs Ramsay may be the loss that Lily has to cope with--both artistically and personally--but it is Mr Carmichael who can help her understand the meaning of that loss.
More specifically, the final section of the novel is devoted just to Lily and Carmichael, as he appears, in the form of an old pagan god, to grant Lily's vision:
'He has landed,' she said aloud. 'It is finished.' Then, surging up, puffing slightly, old Mr. Carmichael stood beside her, looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident (it was only a French novel) in his hand. He stood by her on the edge of the lawn, swaying a little in his bulk and said, shading his eyes with his hand: 'They will have landed,' and she felt that she had been right. They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything. He stood there spreading his hands over all the weakness and suffering of mankind; she thought he was surveying, tolerantly, compassionately, their final destiny. Now he has crowned the occasion, she thought, when his hand slowly fell, as if she had seen him let fall from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels which, fluttering slowly, lay at length upon the earth. (p. 225)
In this last section of the novel Mrs Ramsay is not mentioned at all: the finale belongs to Lily and Mr Carmichael and his silent answer to her unspoken question that allows her, in the subsequent paragraph, to have her vision. It is true, again, that every element in this paragraph that reifies or deifies Mr Carmichael is undercut (his 'surging up' out of his deckchair leaves him puffing slightly; his trident is only a novel; and he is godlike, but shaggy). But his gesture of benediction to mankind is ultimately a poignant and dignified moment of great potency. He represents something from the fin de siecle that is vital to enabling the modernist vision.
I propose, then, that Woolf enacts in the figure of Mr Carmichael Eliot's fears about the Nineties poets living long enough to tower over modernist writers, and be seen to have already resolved the aesthetic problems that concerned literary modernism. Here Mr Carmichael, near the end of his life, is feted after the war, let us remember, for work he wrote 'forty years ago'. It is striking that Mr Carmichael lacks all inhibition in a novel whose world is racked by self-consciousness: he is of a different age, one not constantly brought to a grinding halt by the kind of disabling awareness of the self we see in all the other central characters. He alone is indifferent to Mrs Ramsay's approval. When, in the shape of a shaggy pagan god, he confers a blessing on Lily's artistic endeavour, we see no anxiety about his appearance and his position in the world, even if this image is ironized affectionately by Woolf herself. For Woolf, unlike Eliot, the invocation of a survival of the poet from the 1890s is not something she fears as a threat to her own status. Lily, as a conduit for some of Woolf 's aesthetics, clearly feels she has much to learn from that generation. Nonetheless, even while Lily herself silently pays homage to Mr Carmichael in Part III, he is still depicted as just a fat old man, waking with a start in his deckchair. The 1890s is too close in recent history to be idealized, and what we see here is certainly homage rather than simple homage.
Joyce's homage to the fin de siecle is complicated in ways different from Woolf 's. He is a writer whose very Irishness connects him with the backward glance--as one critic puts it, the Irish are frequently seen as 'unable to look back without staring' (18)--yet he is also a writer associated with some of the most thoroughgoing anti-historicism of modernism. In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus made that often quoted statement, 'History [...] is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake'. (19) Joyce, it seems, was done with the past. In particular he seems to disavow the Celtic revivalism that was such a distinctive characteristic of fin de siecle poetry (whether in the work of Yeats, Katharine Tynan, or members of the Rhymer's club). Joyce, therefore, seems an unlikely candidate for homage to the fin de siecle.
Recently, critics such as Gregory Castle have unsettled this picture by refusing to polarize Yeats and Joyce around the Celtic Revival, (20) and pointing to rather more ambivalence in Stephen Dedalus's responses to revivalism. Castle finds in Stephen Hero praise of Yeats's mystical stories of the late 1890s, but also an attack on the Celtic note so characteristic of that age (p. 191): 'what is clear is that Joyce wished his hero to exhibit an ambivalent, perhaps even contradictory, attitude toward Yeats and Revivalism generally' (p. 192). Castle goes on to say that, with the exception of the brief reference to Michael Robartes at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in this later text 'there is little evidence to suggest that Stephen retains his ambivalent interest in Yeats or the Revival' (p. 192). All reference to the fin de siecle has, he implies, been stripped out. Yet, in Portrait of the Artist, what tends to get overlooked is that--regardless of whether or not the political dialogue about the Celtic Revival is present in the book--the aesthetic tang of the poetic 1890s seems stronger than ever.
Indeed, one of its formative images combines direct reference to the aestheticism of Wilde and early Yeats: the young Stephen--portrait of the man as a young aesthete--meditates on the beautiful colours of roses, and the beautiful colours of the card the school boys receive for doing well in class ('pink and cream and lavender'):
Perhaps a wild rose might be like those colours and he remembered the song about the wild rose blossoms on the little green place. But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.
The bell rang and then the classes began to file out [...]. (21)
This stream of consciousness halts momentarily to offer that enigmatic possibility--the green rose--but, as soon as it has been posed, it is snatched away as the bell rings, halting all dreaming, and the story moves on. Yet this is Joyce's teasing homage to the foundation stones of his own aesthetic education. In his image Wilde's green carnation is combined with the rose that throughout Yeats's career symbolized an eroticized and divine poetics. In this gesturing towards an Irish aesthetic history in the 1890s that is quite separate from his rejection of an Irish nationalistic politics of the period, Joyce knows, and we know, that the place where you could indeed have a green rose was not very temporally or geographically distant from Stephen at that point. This gesture is ironic, but none the less reverential.
One of the strange aspects of critics' engagement with Joyce and the fin de siecle is that the focus on an Irish lineage (and his rejection of Yeatsian politics) obscures Joyce's very real debt to non-Irish poets of the fin de siecle. Through Yeats, Joyce met Arthur Symons in 1902. This meeting 'elated him'. (22) Letters reveal the extent to which Symons had been involved in promoting Joyce in the early decades of the twentieth century: Symons intervened with publishers for him; Joyce asks Symons for advice on publishing Portrait of the Artist; and Symons arranged for publication of some of his poems in journals. (23) More than this, in a 1925 letter to Robert McAlmon about McAlmon's Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers (which contained the first version of the 'Earwicker episode' in Finnegan's Wake) Joyce suggested Arthur Symons might write the preface:
A rather silly idea came to me about your book which I send on for what it is worth. Is there to be any preface or introduction? It seems to me there is a certain resemblance between the group of writers who collected around Pound, I mean W.L. [Wyndham Lewis], T.S.E. [Eliot], H.D. etc., and the writers of the Yellow Book Row of half a century ago who collected around Arthur Symons; if he is still writing do you think it will be amusing to have a few pages of preface by him? (24)
This comparison between the modernist circle and the Yellow Book contributors is striking. It at once seeks to make a connection--and quite a strong one at that--while simultaneously betraying some signs of anxiety about that connection. The 'Yellow Book Row' was not in fact fifty years ago, but more like thirty: it may have been easier to push it further back into the past in order to be freer to praise it while distancing it. Another letter (this time of 27 September 1930, to Harriet Shaw Weaver) refers to another act of homage from Joyce to Symons: his asking Symons to write something to go in 'The Joyce Book'--which was Pomes Penyeach set to music by thirteen different composers (edited by Herbert Hughes, 1933). Symons wrote the epilogue for this in the end. (25)
This debt to Symons and his contemporaries can be seen to inform the whole of Portrait in spite of the lack of specific textual or intertextual references. (26) This is true both at the general level, in which Pater's work informs Stephen's questions about art and solipsism, and also within the texture and narrative of the life depicted. The cycle of sin and passionate Catholic devotion that structures Stephen's youth is exactly the narrative (in caricature--it is all done by the time he is sixteen) of many decadent poets who converted to Catholicism around 1900. Moreover, the fact that Stephen's frequenting of the Dublin brothels is so precocious enables the personal narrative to become Joyce's commentary on that broader late nineteenth-century period.
Stephen walks the streets,
waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sin-loving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. Yet as he prowled in quest of that call, his senses, stultified only by his desire, would note keenly all that wounded or shamed them; his eyes, a ring of porter froth on a clothless table or a photograph of two soldiers standing to attention or a gaudy playbill; his ears, the drawling jargon of greeting:
--Hello, Bertie, any good in your mind? (p. 102)
The initial abandonment to the call of the senses is thoroughly decadent (whether one thinks of Symons or Baudelaire). Yet the intensity of this decadent scenario is then teasingly undercut by a rather different kind of domination of the senses: that painful awareness of the squalor of the surroundings. The ring left by a tankard on the table and the gaudiness of the playbill would no doubt have been eagerly absorbed into the riot of the senses that the decadent poets were seeking. Not so for the young Stephen. But then no prostitute of Symons or Baudelaire was ever noted to have called out with such a shrill and direct greeting either. This is the decadence of the 1890s with an ironic and humorous twist, and a strange sense of being unable to live up to the intensity of that vision in the new age. There is a Prufrockian self-consciousness and failure of abandonment here that haunts modernist contemplations of the earlier generation of poets.
The reason that Joyce's homage to the 1890s has not been more discussed by critics is because it is deeply internalized in this book. Of course, Joyce--born in 1882--lived through the fin de siecle: it is his story. Yet there is no doubt that within his personal story he interweaves the narrative of fin de siecle poetry; and his homage to his own childhood is also homage to the fin de siecle aesthetic. As Stephen himself says in Portrait: 'The past is consumed in the present and the present is living only because it brings forth the future' (p. 251). Awaking from the nightmare of history does not mean that the past is forgotten, but Joyce chooses to remember the fin de siecle by consuming it into his present; by integrating it, that is, into his own personal past.
Indeed, looking back on his childhood from the midpoint in the narrative, Stephen shows himself quite incapable of keeping clear the boundaries between his own past experience and that which defined the age on a wider stage. At this point he finds that his own dreams of death, Parnell's death in 1891 (the key structuring narrative from the outside world in this personal tale), and the death of his own childhood incarnation merge together. This happens when Stephen is in Cork with his father, reminiscing about his father's past as well as his own:
The memory of his childhood suddenly grew dim. He tried to call forth some of its vivid moments but could not. He recalled only names. Dante, Parnell, Clane, Clongowes. A little boy had been taught geography by an old woman who kept two brushes in her wardrobe. Then he had been sent away from home to a college, he had made his first communion and eaten slim Jim out of his cricket cap and watched the firelight leaping and dancing on the wall of a little bedroom in the infirmary and dreamed of being dead, of mass being said for him by the rector in a black and gold cope, of being buried then in the little graveyard of the community off the main avenue of limes. But he had not died then. Parnell had died. There had been no mass for the dead in the chapel and no procession. He had not died but he had faded out like a film in the sun. He had been lost or had wandered out of existence for he no longer existed. How strange to think of him passing out of existence in such a way, not by death but by fading out in the sun or by being lost and forgotten somewhere in the universe! (p. 93)
The workings of memory within the modernist novel has been a topic of much discussion in recent years, but its centrality in tracing modernism's responses to the fin de siecle has not been fully recognized. Yet it is here, rather than in direct intertext or in an engagement with 'history', that those responses can often be found in their fullest articulation; this is certainly true in the localized, personal memory of Woolf and Joyce. This internalizing of the period of history that belonged to the previous generation allows homage to go undetected (but also 'allowed') because it can be mixed with the writer's response to their own childhood.
So what is it about fin de siecle poetry that elicits this awkward and embarrassed tribute?; what is it that modernist writers were worried would surpass their own achievements? I finish by offering, very briefly, just two examples through which to explore this question; each will elicit a quite specific argument, but as case studies they may hold general lessons about a certain aspect of modernism's relationship to the 1890s.
A comparison between a poem by Michael Field ('Oh, not the honey, nor the bee!', of 1889) and one by H.D. ('Not honey/not the plunder of the bee', of 1921) will demonstrate something of what has changed, and, indeed, what might have been lost in the transition from fin de siecle to modernist literature. (27) Both poems are based around the same Sapphic fragment, which H. T. Wharton translated as 'Neither honey nor bee for me'. (28) The ancient proverb refers to those who do not want pleasure if it has to come with pain, but Sappho uses it to lament the fact that, sleeping alone, she is not getting either the pain or pleasure she craves.
H.D.'s and Michael Field's poems are strikingly similar in shape, narrative, and imagery, yet the reader is immediately struck by the fact that H.D.'s poem just looks and sounds so much more modern, with its free verse and avoidance of poetic rhetoric. The exclamation marks in the Field poem look very Victorian, as do the rhetorical exclamations, the rhythmical iambic feet, and the end rhymes. Yet on closer inspection it is apparent that the main change between 1889 and 1921 is not in fact the stripping away of rhetoric, but that the modernist poem has stripped out the descriptions of the subject within the world and just recorded her impressions alone, without the framework: 'I' is taken out, as are places and names; the world fades away, and the subject becomes just a passive receiver rather than an active participant in the world.
What we see in H.D.'s poem is a worry about the subject's ability to access and participate in an objective world, leading to almost complete interiority. She seems to be trying simply to record impressions, reflected in an unmediated form in the text. This complete lack of a sense of the subject is related to an extreme self-consciousness of the self as solipsistic subject. Michael Field's poem seems at first not to pose these worries at all: the subject is included within the poem as a straightforward 'I' who interacts with the outside world in an unproblematic way, and who assumes a shared experience of that world. Yet this too is complicated if we look at the framing of the poem. Field's poem is written by two women (Bradley and Cooper), writing as a man (Michael Field), writing as a woman (Sappho). (29) Perhaps this trail of multiple personas itself poses the questions of mediating subjectivity more directly than H.D.'s modernist stripping away of everything but raw impressions. In other words, Michael Field do not, contrary to initial appearances, suppose unproblematic access to an objective world in their poem. This poem is as much concerned with the difficult relationship between subject and world as is H.D.'s poem, but in different ways. One might even say that Michael Field's trail of personae address the issue of a filtering consciousness more head-on, while H.D.'s solipsistic narrator sidesteps the problem, choosing instead to aestheticize it and turn it into a mode of poetic of perception.
Anther pair of poems that sit naturally together for comparative purposes are John Davidson's 'Thirty Bob a Week' (1894) and T. S. Eliot's 'Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' (1917). (30) Eliot said of Davidson's poem that it provided him with his urban poetic idiom, and that 'The personage that Davidson created in this poem has haunted me all my life, and the poem is to me a great poem for ever'. (31) Virginia Woolf, too, had praised his poetry; expressed surprise that such a talented poet should be 'so little famous'; and (in characteristically nuanced terms) asserted that while she had to invoke Milton and Dante to take issue with his work, most 'modern poets' could be 'reduced to their proper stature' much more easily. (32) This is another debt acknowledged by the modernist writers that it is difficult to explore within current critical paradigms; but, more importantly for my present purposes, what is the cause and substance of this debt?
Eliot's poem has an obvious link with Davidson's in terms of general narrative and imagery. Both poems concern the inner life of the ordinary man and his thoughts about his place in the world. Eliot's refrain about the 'women who come and go', 'talking of Michelangelo', seems taken from Davidson's 'With thirty bob a week on which to come and go', both stressing the everyday and the commonplace (although Davidson's clerk is, crucially, the agent, while Prufrock watches others 'come and go'). Davidson's evocation of evolutionary discourse to describe the clerk's place in the world ('And in whatever shape of mollusc or of ape | I always went according to the laws') is echoed by Eliot in his narrator's sense that he 'should have been a pair of ragged claws | scuttling across the floor of silent seas'. Yet even within this echo there is inscribed a very different sense of the self within the world--and it is in a comparison of the different treatments of subjectivity that the cause of modernist homage becomes most apparent in this example. The image Davidson's clerk uses comes at the end of his description of his own responsibility for himself throughout the evolutionary process:
No fathers, mothers, countries, climates--none; Not Adam was responsible for me, Nor society, nor systems, nary one: A little sleeping seed, I woke--I did, indeed-- A million years before the blooming sun. I woke because I thought the time had come; Beyond my will there was no other cause; And everywhere I found myself at home, Because I chose to be the thing I was; And in whatever shape of mollusc or of ape I always went according to the laws.
This assertion of self-determination is in sharp contrast to Prufrock's complete inability to assert himself in the world for fear of the consequences ('Do I dare | Disturb the universe?'; 'Should I [...] Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?'). For Prufrock the possibility of being a 'ragged pair of claws' is the possibility of not having to deal with human self-consciousness; it is about being able to simply act (seize, or grasp) without worry about how those actions exist within the social world. For Davidson, on the other hand, it is about being supremely accountable for oneself in the world, no matter what form that might take, or may have taken in the past.
While Davidson's narrator 'face[s] the music', Eliot's wonders '"do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"'. While Prufrock complains 'It is impossible to say just what I mean!', Davidson's clerk 'dislocate[s]' images, when necessary, in order to wrench out expression. The problems of meaning are there, fully apparent for both, but while Prufrock gives up, Davidson's narrator persists towards approximation at least: 'That's rough a bit and needs its meaning curled'. Davidson's clerk displays a metaphysical insistence to force out meaning that is lost in Prufrock's fear of exposing himself through articulation. Indeed, Davidson's poem ends with an image of facing the hardships and battling on--'And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck'--while Prufrock takes similarly nautical imagery but ends with drowning rather than fighting.
This paralysing self-consciousness is the key determinant of subjectivity in Eliot's 'Prufrock'. Davidson's clerk can 'step into my heart' and 'meet' both the 'god-almighty devil and the fool' as he characterizes his 'good and evil angels' that 'Ride me like a double-seated bike'; but Eliot's character can only look at himself from outside, wondering what 'they will say'. While Davidson's narrator dissects himself, Prufrock fears others' gaze when they have him 'pinned and wriggling on the wall'. While Davidson's clerk is striving for expression, Prufrock simply debates whether to risk speaking.
In both poems the speakers address another. In the case of Prufrock that 'you' could be the reader or the poet: it is not clear which. In the case of Davidson's narrator it is clear that 'Mr Silver-tongue' is the poet, and the clerk declares his ability to 'say [...] things a bit beyond your art'. Asking whether the poet 'ever hear[d] of looking in your heart?', the clerk echoes Sir Philip Sidney's direct aesthetic strategy. This, combined with metaphysical conceits of image and expression, creates a powerful voice, in spite of the difficulties of meaning, that puts Prufrock's 'hundred indecisions' into stark contrast.
In these particular examples what seems to have been lost over the turn of the century is the ability to try to address the challenges that the fin de siecle poets already keenly felt in their relationship with the world. Even though H.D.'s poem is stylistically defined by its concern with the difficulty of the individual mind's relationship with the outside world and with history, Michael Field's poem seems more interested in exploring this relationship. Similarly with Davidson's poem: the difficulties of expression and the struggle for meaning were fully acknowledged, but the determination to engage with that struggle is equally in evidence. Yet, just as H.D. retreats into an aestheticization of the problems of subjectivity and history, so Prufrock, by aestheticizing self-consciousness itself, avoids facing the issues raised through interaction with the world.
By the end of the 1880s most of the central tenets of modernism can already be detected within literature and culture. The 'Victorian' was--as it had been created to be--a label for an outmoded aesthetic; (33) the metaphysical revival had already opposed sentiment and rhetoric with precise, concise imagery; (34) the split between high and low culture (and therefore between the aesthetic and the economic) was, in the Marxist narrative, already occurring; (35) and Pater had raised key questions of subjectivity. But art had not yet lost its ability to question; and modernism's inability to ask certain questions is a substantive feature of the recognized--or feared--regression that motivates its homage to the fin de siecle. The achievements of the fin de siecle were based on the acknowledgement of the disintegration of modern life, yet simultaneously on a belief that art could command elaborate conceits to appear to mend those rifts. The legacy of a Victorian optimism allowed art to recognize these problems but not yet be paralyed by them. It was this ability to be able to inhabit the difficulties poetically and audaciously that inspired modernist tribute.
Fin de siecle poetry is a confident art that in some ways shares more with postmodernism than modernism in its response to the horrors of the post-industrialized world. The campiness and elaborateness of these conceits should not be mistaken as evidence of naively held grand narratives that have yet to be challenged by modernity; in fact, they are precisely a response to a recognized incoherence and fragmentation. This is what lies at the heart of that fin de siecle 'audacity'. Homage, then, is in key part a tribute to this incredible moment at the turn of the century when the condition of modernity was recognized, but its consequences had not yet restricted art's ability to function in the world. (36) Recognizing this helps to achieve several things: primarily, perhaps, a very different and long-overdue understanding of the place and achievements of fin de siecle poetry, but also a better appreciation of the dynamics around modernism. Not only does the model I have offered go further in explaining the need for the defensive myth of discontinuity within modernism, but it also displays a tension between a recognized regression and protestations of newness that is intrinsic to our fascination with the early decades of the twentieth century. This disarmingly honest, if awkward, tribute to the previous generation is as important as the myth of discontinuity to modernism's historiography, and demonstrates a complexity in its relations with the fin de siecle that deserves more attention.
This paper has benefited from comments by John Batchelor, Steve Ellis, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, and Ana Parejo Vadillo.
(1) Wyndham Lewis provides a particularly interesting case, but there is not the space here to pursue it.
(2) From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 220.
(3) Carol T. Christ, Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press, 1984).
(4) David Weir, Decadence and the Makings of Modernism (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995).
(5) Jessica R. Feldman, Victorian Modernism: Pragmatism and the Varieties of Aesthetic Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
(6) Jessica R. Feldman, 'Modernism's Victorian Bric-a-brac', Modernism/Modernity, 8 (2001), 453-70.
(7) Ronald Bush, 'In Pursuit of Wilde Possum: Reflections on Eliot, Modernism, and the Nineties', Modernism/Modernity, 11 (2004), 469-86; Cassandra Laity, 'T. S. Eliot and A. C. Swinburne: Decadent Bodies, Modern Visualities, and Changing Modes of Perception', Modernism/Modernity, 11 (2004), 425-49.
(8) Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. with an introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968 [first pub. 1954]), pp. 361, 363.
(9) The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).
(10) In T. S. Eliot: Essays from the Southern Review, ed. by James Olney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 13-14. (This essay was written in the 1930s.)
(11) Bush, p. 481, and passim.
(12) 'A Preface to Modern Literature', Vanity Fair (November 1923), 44.
(13) For example, the two women who published as 'Michael Field' write of their 'audacious' completion of the Sapphic fragments; see the preface to their volume Long Ago (London: Bell, 1889).
(14) Perry Meisel, The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
(15) See her review of Arthur Symons, Figures of Several Centuries (London: Constable, 1916), in Times Literary Supplement, 21 December 1916; repr. in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ii: 1912.1918, ed. by Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1987), pp. 67-71 (p. 67). See also her review of Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Nights, Rome, Venice in the Aesthetic Eighties; London, Paris in the Fighting Nineties (Philadelphia and London: Lippincott, 1916), in TLS, 12 October 1916; repr. in Essays of Virginia Woolf, ii, 44-47.
(16) Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; London: Penguin, 1992), pp. 47-48. All subsequent page references will be to this edition and will be given in the text.
(17) 'The lawn was the world; they were up here together, on this exalted station, she thought, looking at old Mr. Carmichael, who seemed (though they had not said a word all this time) to share her thoughts' (p. 210).
(18) Nicholas Andrew Miller, Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 11.
(19) James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: Penguin, 1986), p. 28.
(20) Modernism and the Celtic Revival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 176-77.
(21) Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, p. 12. All future references will be given in the text.
(22) See Peter Costello, James Joyce (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1980), p. 26.
(23) Letters of James Joyce, 1, ed. by Stuart Gilbert (London: Faber and Faber, 1957): p. 56 (1904: Symons helping Chamber Music into publication); p. 86 (1915: waiting for Mr Symons's advice before proceeding any further with negotiations for publication of Portrait); p. 98 (1916: Symons arranged for poems from Chamber Music to be published in journals).
(24) Letter to Robert McAlmon, 4 April 1925, in Letters of James Joyce, p. 226.
(25) See Letters of James Joyce, p. 294.
(26) It must be noted that Stephen's literary hero is not Symons, of course, but Byron. Yet Byron (along with Shelley and Coleridge) was frequently included in the list of great writers cited by fin de siecle poets. Stephen's rejection of Tennyson (who is esteemed by his peers) in favour of the Romantics (p. 81) is very much in keeping with fin de siecle ideals (see, particularly, Symons's preface to his edition of Coleridge's poems).
(27) Michael Field, Long Ago, poem III; H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Hymen (London: Egoist, 1921), pp. 33-34.
(28) H. T. Wharton, Sappho (London: John Lane, 1895), fragment 113.
(29) For a much fuller discussion of the play of gender in Long Ago see Yopie Prins, 'Sappho Doubled: Michael Field', Yale Journal of Criticism, 8 (1995), 165-86 (p. 183 and passim).
(30) John Davidson, Ballads and Songs (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1894), pp. 91-97; T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations (London: Egoist, 1917).
(31) T. S. Eliot, preface to John Davidson: A Selection of his Poems, ed. by Maurice Lindsay (London: Hutchinson, 1961), no p.
(32) A review of Hayim Fineman, 'John Davidson: A Study of the Relation of his Ideas to his Poetry' (doctoral thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1916), in TLS, 16 August 1917; repr. in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ii, 143-48 (pp. 144, 145).
(33) See E. C. Stedman, Victorian Poets (Boston: Osgood, 1876). Of course, this is something of a polemical simplification, and others characterized the term in different ways over the last quarter of the century; for a full analysis see Joseph Bristow, 'Why "Victorian"? A Period and its Problems', Literature Compass, 1.1 (2004), 1-16.
(34) See Tracy Seeley, '"The Sun Shines on a World Re-arisen to Pleasure": The Fin-de-siecle Metaphysical Revival', Literature Compass, 3.2 (2006), 195-217 (passim).
(35) See Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. by C. Lenhardt, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 339.
(36) Such statements are always indebted to Isobel Armstrong's pioneering work on Victorian poetry; see, for example, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 7.
University of Birmingham
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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