The Decline and Fall of British Literature

By: Christian M. Chensvold

Vile Emperors and Elegant Degenerates: The Dedalus Book of English Decadence
James Willsher, Ed.
Dedalus Books

One semester into a master’s degree in comparative literature, I realized that academic obligations were interfering with my sense of taste. Pouring over “The Decameron” brought nothing but resentment when what I wanted to be doing was solving some enigma of Mallarmé.

I immediately left the program.

I went on to cultivate my fin-de-siècle garden, always suspecting that I might one day reach the age when I could no longer stomach literature too precious, and resign myself to finally reading “Moby Dick,” or some other time-tested tome that is all meat and potatoes, not absinthe and anise.

Sure enough, save for a few lyrical cameos, my patience for Mallarmé’s deliberate obfuscations is roughly the same as that for lectures on binomial theorem.

Dedalus Books has done much to foster appreciation for fin-de-siècle literature, and after volumes on French, German and Latin Decadence, offers “Vile Emperors and Elegant Degenerates: The Dedalus Book of English Decadence.”

Love is blind, and unfortunately this well-intentioned anthology will appeal only to those in full fin-de-siecle infatuation. Forgettable verse by minor poets such as Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons share pages with gothic works by Byron and Keats which, though better in quality, are also overly familiar.

Editor James Willsher, like Mario Praz in his seminal study “The Romantic Agony,” traces the origins of English Decadence in the late 18th century, with excerpts by William Beckford and Edward Gibbon, and ends in the Yellow Nineties with Oscar Wilde and his circle. In between, the reams of mediocre poetry, including Swinburne’s tongue-twisting tetrameters, have the reader longing for one of the ether-sniffing lesbian vampires who populate the stories of Jean Lorrain.

No publisher has done more to resuscitate interest in this literary period than Dedalus Books. But after more than a decade at it, you’d think the publisher would have found more expert pen-for-hires to write its introductions. Too often the editors sound as if they’re writing on their topic for the first time.

Tolerance is one of the benefits of aging. So is a keen palate quick to reject artificial flavors. Oscar Wilde’s “Taedium Vitae” opens this collection, and certainly sets the tone.

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