Decadence was a period in literature that had its origin in the France of the 1890s. It was influenced by and was a development of Romanticism and Naturalism. It evolved in to Symbolism and from there to Surrealism.

Major themes of Decadent literature are death, decay, perversion and artificiality.

Some of the great Decadent writers are J.K. Huysmans who wrote A rebours (translated as Against Nature) and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam who wrote Axel.

Decadence describes an attitude of poets as opposed to a type of poetry. As the word suggests, there is a 'going down', however the decline is from the attitudes of a preceding generation of poets. A decadent poet thinks of things in particulars of what they mean to him or her and not what they might mean in a general sense. This characterizing word was initially used in the 1880s to describe a group of flamboyant and self-conscious poets, publishers of the journal Le Décadent in 1886 . The decadents venerated the French symbolists and Baudelaire , the group with whom they are commonly and mistakenly identified. Oscar Wildes's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) presents a vivid fictionalized portrait of the 19th-century decadent, a synopsis of his moral inversion, restlessness, and spiritual confusion. The decadent movement during the latter part of the 1800s in England was embodied by the works of the likes of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Ernest Dowson, and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as, the writers of the Yellow Book and J. K. Huysmans's À rebours (1884) .

It's not really a very definitive word because poets as different as Walt Whitman, Yeats and T.S. Eliot could be called 'decadent' Frequently applied to Greek literature and works from the Alexandrian period (c. 300- 30 B.C.) and in Latin literature to the period after the death of Augustus (14 A.D.). In the arena of modern literature it's frequently associated with the French literature of the late nineteenth century that unfolded along lines of symbolism and demonstrated anti-social, hermetic, egotistical, and eccentric behavior that brandished loftily the label "decadent".

The authors centered their experiences as one of a private and personal one, confined within narrowly egocentric limits. Outcomes of the work displayed usually but not always unsatisfied desires concerned with the 'experience itself' and with private sensations rather than the 'fruit of the experience'

Alfred G. Engstrom lists several distinguishing traits he found common in the poems of French Decadents.

  • The search for novelty with attendant artificiality and interest in the unnatural;
  • Excessive self-analysis;
  • Feverish hedonism, with poetic interest in corruption and morbidity;
  • Abulia (inability to make decisions), neurosis, and exaggerated erotic sensibility; (the "erotic" sensibility did not always involve a quest for carnal knowledge; sometimes it involved the opposite -- an eroticism made keener and intellectually / spiritually more productive by chastity)
  • Aestheticism, with stress on "Art for Art's Sake" with the evocation of exquisite sensations and emotions this was at its source a reaction to the naturalism of the European realists, the decadents espoused that art should exist for its own sake, independent of moral and social concerns;
  • Scorn of contemporary society and mores; (scorn is most frequently directed at the bourgeoisie and values connected with positivism and industrialization)
  • Restless curiosity, perversity, or eccentricity in subject matter;
  • Overemphasis on form, with resultant loss of balance between form and content -- or interest in jewel-like ornamentation, resulting at times in disintegration of artistic unity (the Nazis destroyed a number of Gustav Klimpt's masterpieces for this alleged "problem");
  • Bookishness;
  • Erudite or exotic vocabulary;
  • Frequent employment of synaesthesia (describing one sense in terms of another: "it tasted yellow");
  • Complex and difficult syntax;
  • Attempt to make poetry primarily a means of enchantment, with emphasis on its musical and irrational elements;
  • Experiments in the use of new rhythms, rich in evocative and sensuous effects, alien to those of tradition and often departing from the mathematical principles of control in established prosody;
  • Anti-intellectualism and stress of the subconscious;
  • Abandonment of punctuation, and use of typography for visual and psychological effects;
  • Substitution of coherence in mood for coherence and synthesis in thought;
  • 'Postromantic' irony in the manner of Corbiere, Laforgue, and the early Eliot;
  • Obscurity, arising from remote, private or complicated imagery or from a predominantly connotative and evocative use of language, with obvious reluctance to name an object ('Le suggerer, voila le reve' -- "To suggest it -- there's the dream." says one scholar);
  • An over-all aura of something lost -- a nostalgic, semi-mysticism without clear direction of spiritual commitment, but with frequent reference to exotic religions and rituals, or to such mysterious substitutes as Tarot cards, magic, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, The Kabbala, Satanism, and the like.

R. L. Patterson writes....In my view the mysticism was quite serious, though often only half-consciously "absorbed" from the spirit (or, more exactly, the spirits) of the age and it reflects the eclecticism of the Decadents. I think that Theosophy and Gnosticism were most congenial to the Decadents, the former because it is an eclectic system that attempts to bring together into one more or less harmonious, though necessarily incomplete, mosaic all religions and the latter because of its similar blending of religious thought and its emphasis on the heretical and individualistic religious quest....adding

Let us add another characteristic of Decadence: Spleen: The neo-Romantic Decadents, like their Romantic forebears, tended to be "splenetic" (at least in the first phase of Decadence).

Patterson applies decadence to Baudelaire's work Spleen in the sense that Spleen is a 'precondition to abulia' among other attitudes with it's setting of sadness and 'protracted annoyance, boredom over the actuality that nothing seems justified or, perhaps, justifiable.'

The nature of Decadence has been divided into three phases by some:

Youthful Decadence where pose and efforts are to shock the bourgeoisie are in the forefront; exploring of language and stylistic resources; experimenting artistically; energies directed at going beyond human limitations by way of drugs, sex, spiritism, automatic writing, "unconscious" symbolism
Mature Decadence the appearance of greater emphasis on cognition, method, philosophy, religion, significance and intelligibility
Theosophy or Gnosticism where sometimes one of the orthodox religions, (for example Huysmans ultimately returned to Catholicism) accepted as a religious frame, with maximal retreat into Art and the Self.
Sources: DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF DECADENCE:
http://www.albany.edu/

infoplease.com:
http://lycos.infoplease.com/

De*ca"dence (?), De*ca"den*cy (?), n. [LL. decadentia; L. de- + cadere to fall: cf. F. d'ecadence. See Decay.]

A falling away; decay; deterioration; declension. "The old castle, where the family lived in their decadence.'

Sir W. Scott.

 

© Webster 1913.

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