The Decadent movement was most popular in France, but there are examples of authors exhibiting the traits of the “decadents” worldwide. This includes Oscar Wilde in Britain, Robert W. Chambers in America, and Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov in Russia.
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Decadent Movement Definition
The Decadent movement is a 19th-century literary and artistic movement that occurred in Europe.
It was a reaction to a perceived loss of cultural standards. It was heavily inspired by Montesquieu’s Enlightenment-era writings in which he described the end of the Roman Empire. The movement grew out of later writings by scholars like Désiré Nisard, who identified the loss of interest in the rules of art and literature and more.
History of the Decadent Movement
Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire first used the word.The latter used the word “decadent” to describe himself in Les Fleurs du mal. The term was later used when he spoke about the destruction of categories of art and literature, according to Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism.
It was in 1884 that a specific group of writers was referred to as Decadents. These were those who were heavily influenced by the work of Baudelaire and Gothic literature. In a well-known quote by Arthur Symons, the scholars write that these authors were attempting to: “give sensation, to flash the impression of the moment, to preserve the very heat and motion of life.”
The French decadents who are most commonly connected to the movement include Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Tristan Corbière. These authors are also associated with the Symbolist and Aestheticism movements.
Elements of the Decadent Movement
- Creativity over logic
- Interest in perversion
- The use of crude humor
- Self-disgust and skepticism
- Art is opposed to nature
Symbolism or Decadence?
These two movements are often conflated. Decadence has in the past also been considered a parent category of symbolism (and Impressionism). Both groups share a common interest in the work of Baudelaire, such as Les Fleurs du mal. Both groups held similar beliefs, such as a rejection of nature as a source of inspiration for art, but this means different things. Nature is banal in the eyes of symbolism, and they use natural imagery to elevate the reader above everyday life. In the decadence movement, nature is belittled.
The decadent movement is more interested in the use of language than symbolism is, and both groups express disillusioned points of view in regard to the “truth” that can be found in the natural world. These, among other differences and similarities, define the movements.
Examples of Decadent Movement Literature
This originally French poem is a great example of the decadent movement. It is four stanzas long and uses a rhyme scheme of abaa cdcc efee ghgg. The poem describes the emotional condition of a speaker who does not understand why he is feeling unhappy. Here are a few lines:
Tears fall in my heart
Rain falls on the town;
what is this numb hurt
that enters my heart?
The poem’s speaker states that there is rain falling outside and tears falling in his heart. These two features of his world are interchangeable. This is an example of how the movement did not find truth in nature but used it to elevate the reader’s understanding while sometimes belittling it. As the rain lightens up and begins to touch the ground softly, so does his pain.
Read more Paul Verlaine poems.
Oscar Wilde is one of the authors who is often cited as a writer of both the aestheticism movement and the decadence movement. In this piece, the poet describes a metaphorical garden of England that plays host to varied flowers and the memories of some of the greatest English poets.
Here are a few lines:
It is full summer now, the heart of June,
Not yet the sun-burnt reapers are a-stir
Upon the upland meadow where too soon
Rich autumn time, the season’s usurer,
Will lend his hoarded gold to all the trees,
And see his treasure scattered by the wild and spendthrift breeze.
Wilde begins this piece by having his narrator, perhaps Wilde himself, describing the setting of the garden that is to be the main character in the poem. It is a hot day, but summer is not so far progressed that there are men working in the fields.
The poet ends the piece by acknowledging that the “woodmen” or caretakers of the land will be arriving soon and they must leave. The final line celebrates the time they have spent in this remarkable place.
Explore more Oscar Wilde poems.
It was a period in literature that sought to end the cultural decline the artists and scholars sensed in their contemporary world. They believed that much of the purpose of art and literature had been lost. They were generally skeptical, self-critical, and interested in creativity over logic.
The movement is important because of the way it challenged traditional values of logic and artists’ interest in the natural world. It valued crude humor, perversion, and the belief that creativity was more important than logic.
The theme of decadence can be found in a variety of literary works, not just those created by authors of the decadence movement. But, one good related example is The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Wilde utilizes the theme along with that of moral decline.
Related Literary Terms
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- 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: Modernism in Art and Literature
- Watch: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900