Aestheticism centered on the aesthetic value of art, music, writing, and other creative pursuits, over their practical value. Beauty was the most important feature of these works. For the artists, beauty had a value all its own that was worth pursuing. The phrase “art for art’s sake” is at the heart of the aesthetics movement. (This slogan was also used by the Decadent movement in the late-19th century.)
There is no purpose to the art’s existence other than to exist as art. The groundwork for aestheticism was laid by Immanuel Kant, a well-known philosopher. In the 1880s, Walter Hamilton named the movement with his The Aesthetic Movement in England.
Definition of Aestheticism
The artists and writers of the aesthetic movement rejected the practical purposes of their work. For example, creating art or writing that had a social agenda or was tried to convey didactic information. This was antithetical to aestheticism. These artists didn’t believe that art and writing should convey a moral or allegorical message or promote any single point of view, a distinct reaction to the Victorian period in which these things were important in writing.
Instead, they believed in the beauty of art and writing over everything else. It should provide the viewer with a pleasurable experience. The art and writing included many symbols, sensory imagery, sensuality, and more. They, unlike many other artistic movements, rejected nature as a source of inspiration.
The tenants of aestheticism inspired others, like the Pre-Raphaelites, led by artists and writers like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Millais. Some predecessors of the aesthetics movement were the later Romantics, like Shelley, Byron, and Keats.
Examples of Aesthetic Writing
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the best-known literary example of aestheticism. It is also Wilde’s only novel. The book follows Dorian Gray, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward. The former, Dorian, stops aging or showing signs of stress, despite the darker aspects of his personality. Instead, the years of his life play out in a portrait he keeps hidden away in his home, painted by Basil Hallward.
Throughout the novel, the characters muse on the value of beauty in comparison to everything else. Dorian wishes that his portrait would age instead of him so that he might remain beautiful for as long as possible. Here is a quote from the book:
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The book was first published in July 1890 and was censored, criticized, and banned due to its possible homosexual nature. In addition, it offended much of the British public in the fact that it did not conform, morally, to what they thought appropriate in literature. When the novel was republished in 1891, Wilde included a preface that defended the novel and his rights to create it. Today, that preface is considered an important literary work in its own right.
Explore Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae by Ernest Dowson
‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ is Ernest Dowson’s best-known poem and a good example of aesthetic writing. While Dowson is generally considered to be part of the Decadent movement, this piece of writing was directly influenced by the principles of aestheticism. The poem tells of a speaker’s unending passion for a woman he can’t have. He spent a night with a lover but couldn’t keep his mind off of Cynara, a woman he previously loved. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
The narrator fell into depression and lost his life and light. Many dark images in this poem help convey the speaker’s mental and emotional darkness. But, there are also striking moments in which Dowson depicts the woman’s red lips and heartbeat. These stand out among the darker images, conveying, through symbols, the fact that she is the only thing in his life that’s remained.
Read more Ernest Dowson poems.
A Leave-Taking by Algernon Charles Swinburne
In this poem, the speaker talks about a lady’s passivity towards a speaker. The latter tried to please the lady the best he could be. However, she remains cold and continues to reject his love. The poet uses repetition and imagery, as well as personification, throughout this poem. Here is the first stanza:
Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
Let us go hence together without fear;
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
And over all old things and all things dear.
She loves not you nor me as all we love her.
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
She would not hear.
This poem deals with love, lust, and pure human emotions like sorrow. These are all features that readers can find in other poems of the aestheticism movement.
Explore more of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetry.
It is a literary movement that valued beauty over all other artistic elements. It was a reaction to the Victorian period.
The doctrine stated that art exists in order to convey beauty and experience alone rather than promote an allegorical message or further a cause.
The movement is thought to have begun with William Morris during the 1860s.
Aestheticism sought to counter the Victorian’s preoccupation with moral and allegorical literature.
Related Literary Terms
- Academic Drama: a theatrical movement that was popular during the Renaissance, in the 16th-century. It was performed in universities.
- Acmeism: a literary movement that emerged in the early 1910s in Russia. The movement is also referred to as the Guild of Poets.
- Beat Generation: a literary movement that began after the Second World War and is known for its liberal attitudes towards life.
- Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- Synesthesia: refers to a technique authors use to blur human senses in their imagery.
- Read: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- Listen: Summary of The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Watch: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900