Some Elements of Decadence

The New Statesman 18 (24 Dec. 1921): 344-345

There is a suave catholicity about modern criticism which becomes rather wearisome. It is motherly and has room for us all within its ample bosom; or it is fatherly – old and experienced and sympathetic. It does not abuse, it merely labels. As for the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, they are past excesses over which it loves to become reminiscent – the Edinburgh, with its merciless motto: “Judex damnatur, cum nocens absolvitur”! And yet, strange to say, it was while the critics were spitting blood and thunder at the Romantics that the Romantics throve most vigorously and most mightily. The age which allowed Gifford’s preposterous onslaught on Endymion was the age which evoked Shelley’s magnificent outburst in its author’s defence. Is there any underground connection between the two?

Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly, violent as he was and grotesque in his vituperation, was at least violently sincere; so were they all. Southey, in the preface to his Vision of Judgment, paid Byron the compliment of taking him more seriously than the most ardent of his modern admirers. Don Juan, he said, was “a monstrous combination of horror and mockery, lewdness and impiety,” and the Satanic School (of which Byron was the founder) possessed “the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent.” Now, it is not so much that Byron actually needed the inspiration of such comment to lift him to the greater height which he afterwards scaled – though he did write his own Vision of Judgment by way of reply – not so much that Gifford’s famous review wrung Adonais from Shelley’s pen, as that the narrow criticism of the age sprang in some way from the same serious, compact soil as its greatest literature. It was symptomatic.

Of what, then, if of anything, is our so gentle modern criticism a symptom? I would rather ask another question: what is decadence? And I would rather not answer it. To attempt to define such a word is only to kill its soul and make it harder for the imagination to grasp it. That is why I now propose to approach the word – to stalk it, as it were – from the other end.

Take the soul, mind, heart, imagination, or what you will, of some potential artist, and call it – waiving dignity in favour of convenience – John. John in his early days is full of a primitive enthusiasm, but he is also, by nature, somewhat precocious; he studies widely – widely and intensely – and always his own youthful experience is being unnaturally expanded by imaginative fusion with the full-grown experience and matured reflection of profound ancestors. And so, when at last some important thing happens to John himself, it seems to him that everything has happened. He feels he has sounded the whole gamut of experience; he looks round and finds with mild surprise that everything has been thought and said for him; he sees it all now, and ceases to ask those eternal questions the absence of any answer to which must have driven him to intense and sincere self-expression; his natural development has been short-circuited, he becomes placid; it is as though he emerged from his first childhood only to lose his footing and slip clean through into his second.

Behold, then, John with a lifetime of dotage before him! What is he to do to while away the time? We will examine some of his probable activities. Obsessed, as he now is, with the half-truth that there is nothing new under the sun, he is likely to look out for novelty of subject-matter. He will fly to the bizarre or to the boundaries of indecency: he will fill his poetry with banjos and yellow peacocks instead of men and women, or, like John Ford in the seventeenth century, he will sing with great sweetness of the illicit passion of a brother and sister; perhaps he will be content to net his own delicate sensibilities and sensualities in little butterfly-net lyrics or long webs of calm and beauteous prose. Or he will import a jig-saw puzzle into his nursery and become preoccupied with forms. You will hear him asking you earnestly if you think “all the established verse-forms are exhausted,” or evolving elaborately mechanical theories on the correct shape of the novel. Then, perhaps, he will set to work himself, with his carefully fretted fragments, only to discover when it is too late that jig-saw puzzles are made of wood. If he is a musician, he will discover that pure music has nothing at all in it but form, and he will insist over and over again that it is the outcome, not of emotion, but of a passion for jig-saw puzzles. Emotion, in this case, above all things he will condemn, because, like the Wise Youth in Richard Feverel or one of Mr. Shaw’s Ancients, he thinks he has been through it all at an early age and to have come out on the other side. Therefore, when he meets with the products of sentimentalism, he will call them the products of emotion and abuse them and, when he meets with the products of emotion, he will call them the products of nothing and praise them. He may point, for instance to a lyric from The Tempest and cry triumphantly, What does it mean? The question is, of course, unanswerable, and would not even matter, if John would not insist on trying to emulate it himself – not understanding that it is unsafe to say “Ding dong bell” until you have lived and written Hamlet, and that the lyrics in The Tempest are saturated with remembered emotion and forgotten pain – dew-drop crystallizations of the best moments of a personality wrought slowly and hardly by the emotions of maturity, intense imaginative experiences, innumerable failures. Now, the unconscious attitude of all great artists towards form has been exactly this: that they could not love it so much, loved they not matter more.

That is why they have lavished such care and such devotion upon the technique of their art. They have not usually spoken much about Beauty with a capital B, but they have known instinctively that beauty, no more than the Kingdom of Heaven, can be attained by aiming at it. It is incidental and wreathes itself almost by accident about activities which are not too consciously concerned with it. Once John sets out with Mr. Masefield in a little boat in search of Beauty, he has lost whatever hope he may have once had of finding her. Let him set out in search of a whale, or of the moon, if he is fortunate enough to believe with his whole being that he can get it. I think Mr. Masefield really knows this himself and, when he talks about seeking Beauty, he is being wise after the event. For the quest is as unconscious as it is inevitable. There is another way in which John may amuse himself: he may become deliberately absorbed in himself and in the metaphysical philosophy of his art. He may lay out himself, and his remembered selves and his anti-self on paper with a view to disinterested inspection, comparing himself with his fellows, and their work with his, with all the assurance of detached approbation. He may call in the aid of doctors and scientists. He may try to dissect himself twenty different ways and, living in a dream-world of art for art’s sake, come gradually, inevitably to talk about it instead of talking it. Lastly, he may be too wise to attempt to create at all – take no risks – live happily ever after on the smooth surface of other men’s troubled dreams – be, in fact, a dilettante.

It may be asked what has John to do with Gifford and the Quarterly and the state of criticism. Nothing, unless the time at which a community is most likely to produce Johns instead of Shakespeares is that which immediately succeeds a period of exceptional virility; unless it is when his own experience is coloured by the experience not of remote but of immediate ancestors that John is most likely to despair, finding the prime questions already dealt with for him, not merely with strength and beauty, but in the modern spirit. It is then that he will be most tempted to that cowardice of a premature spiritual old age, which reveals itself in the eagerness to detach literature from life, form from matter – then that he will answer foolish critics who are afraid of Shelley’s ethics and Shelley’s politics with the still more foolish reply that Shelley’s ethics and politics do not matter. The generation which attempts to criticise its predecessors on “purely literary” grounds will attempt to write with a “purely literary” intention, and, of course, it will fail. For the state of such an age will be in some sense comparable to the last state of John.

Perhaps this not wholly symbolic connection between John and his environment is the key for which we are searching. The Western world had only just emerged from the two intensest universal experiences it had ever known, experiences which had quickly and roughly changed all its body and its soul. In less than a hundred years it had had to assimilate industrialism and the Darwinian Theory. Then came the war. No wonder then, if, like John himself, it is a little tired, if, for the time being at least, it seems to have reached the same stage of premature maturity and hollow wisdom; for it was not spiritually old enough for any of these things. Hence the lazy attempts it is making to divorce its literature from life, false because life is the matter of literature, and to divorce its ethics from its arts, false because ethics – felt, not taught or contemplated – are the matter of art. Indeed the religions of the world more than anything else have been both its matter and its inspiration. In England it is so no longer. The fine enthusiasm and not less fine antagonism which the Church inspired sleep side by side, and the common intellectual attitude today is sceptical with Hume and Voltaire, impersonal with Mr. Bernard Shaw, or dilettante with the Platonists and George Santayana. Thomas Hardy has apparently monopolised the only personal dogma which a powerful intellect can hold, without needing to be ever up in arms to defend it with fierce, brilliant paradoxes and overwrought mysticisms. The Western world is like Pope’s Essay on Man: it knows much, but it has not felt what it knows.

It is a pretentious and thankless task to attempt to analyse even a small part of the spirit of the age which we ourselves have condescended to adorn, and wise men never do it aloud. But perhaps one element of decadence is an exaggerated fear of looking foolish.

Owen Barfield