Decadent Poetry

Lisa Rodensky - Editor

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ISBN 9780140424133 | 208 pages | 27 Mar 2007 | Penguin Classics | 5.07 x 7.79in | 18 - AND UP
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A definitive collection of poems that express the languid eroticism and aesthetic rebellion of the late Victorian age

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, formerly straight-laced English verse began loosening its stays. The English decadents submerged themselves in the pleasures of artifice and turned a fascinated eye on the intertwining of decay and desire. Among the poets in this intoxicating collection are Oscar Wilde on tainted love and the torments of the human spirit, Arthur Symons on the stupor of absinthe, Rosamond Marriott Watson on disenchantment and memory, W. B. Yeats on waning passion and faded beauty, and Lord Alfred Douglas on shame and secret love. Decadent Poetry opens a window onto an exhilarating moment in English literature.

The Harlot's House

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The 'Treues Liebes Herz' of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantasies arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille.

They took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
'The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.'

But she —she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

The Art of Love
Book 1

Should anyone here in Rome lack finesse at love-making,
let him
Try me—read my book; and results are guaranteed!
Technique is the secret. Charioteer, sailor, oarsman,
All need it. Technique can control
Love himself. As Automedon was charioteer to Achilles,
And Tiphys Jason's steersman, so I,
By Venus' appointment, am made Love's artificer, shall be
Known as
The Tiphys, the very Automedon of Love.
He's a wild handful, will often rebel against me,
But still just a child—
Malleable, easily disciplined. Chiron made young Achilles
A fine musician, hammered that fierce heart
On the anvil of peaceful artistry. So this future terror
To friend and foe alike went in awe, it's said,
Of his elderly teacher, at whose bidding the hand that in after-
Time bore down Hector was held out for the tawse.
As Chiron taught Achilles, so I am Love's preceptor:
Wild boys both, both goddess-born—and yet
Even bulls can be broken to plough, or spirited horses
Subdued with bridle and bit.
So love shall likewise own my mastery, though his bowshots
Skewer my breast, though his torch
Flicker and sear me. The worse the wounds, the deeper the branding,
That much keener I to avenge
Such outrage. Nor shall I falsely ascribe my arts to Apollo:
No airy bird comes twittering advice
Into my eat, I never had a vision of the Muses
Herding sheep in Ascra's valleys. This work is based
On experience: what I write, believe me, I have practiced.
My poem will deal in truth.

Aid my enterprise, Venus! Respectable ladies, the kind who
Wear hairbands and ankle-length skirts,
Are hereby warned off. Safe love, legitimate liaisons
Will be my theme. This poem breaks no taboos.
First, then, you fledging troopers in passion's service,
Comes the task of finding an object for your love.
Next, you must labour to woo and win your lady;
Thirdly, ensure that the affair will last.
Such are my limitations, such the ground I will cover,
The race I propose to run.

While you are fancy-free still, and can drive at leisure,
Pick a girl, tell her, "you're the one I love.
And only you.' But this search means using your eyes: a
Won't drop out of the sky at your fee.
A hunter's skilled where to spread his nets for the stag, senses
In which glen the wild boar lurks.
A fowler's familiar with copses, an expert angler
Knows the richest shoaling-grounds for fish.
You too, so keen to establish some long term relationship,
Must learn, first, where girl is to be found.
Your search need not take you—belueve me—on an overseas
A short enough trek will bring you to your goal.
True, Perseus fetched home Andromeda from the coloured
While Phrygian Paris abducted Helen in Greece,
But Rome can boast of so many and such dazzling beauties
You'd swear the whole world's talent was gathered here.
The girls of your city outnumber Gargara's wheatsheaves,
Methymna's grape-clusters,
Birds on the bough, stars in the sky, fish in the ocean:
Venus indeed still haunts
Her son Aeneas' foundation. If you like budding adolescents
Any number of (guaranteed) maidens are here to delight
Your roving eye. Your prefer young women? They'll charm you
By the thousand, you won't know which to choose.
And if you happen to fancy a more mature, experienced
Age-group, believe me, they show up in droves.

Here's what to do. When the sun's on the back of Hercules'
Lion, stroll down some shady colonnade,
Pompey's, say, or Octavia's (for her dead son Marcellus:
Extravagant marble facings, R.I.P.),
Or Livia's, with its gallery of genuine Old Masters,
Or the Danaids' Portico (note
The artwork: Danaus' daughters plotting mischief for their cousins,
Father attitudinizing with drawn sword).
Don't miss the shrine of Adonis, mourned by Venus,
Or the synagogue—Syrian Jews
Worship there each Sabbath—or the linen-clad heifer-goddess's
Memphian temple: Io makes many a maid what she
Was to Jove. The very courts are hunting-grounds for passion;
Amid lawyers' rebuttals love will often be found.
Here, where under Venus' marble temple the Appian
Fountain pulses its jets high in the air,
Your jurisconsult's entrapped by love's beguilements—
Counsel to others, he cannot advise himself.
Here, all too often, words fail the most eloquent pleader,
And a new sort of case comes on—his own. He must
Defend himself for a change, while Venus in her nearby
Temple snickers at this reversal of roles.




Further Reading

A Note on the Text


Oscar Wilde


Impression du Matin


I. Les Silhouettes

II. La Fuite de la Lune

Impression. Le Reveillon

In the Gold Room. A Harmony


I. Le Jardin

II. La Mer

The Harlot's House

The New Remorse

Fantaisies Décoratives

I. Le Panneau

II. Les Ballons

Symphony in Yellow

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Arthur Symons

Episode of a Night of May

For a Picture of Watteau

Javanese Dancers

The Absinthe Drinker

In an Omnibus





Stella Maris


La Mélinite: Moulin Rouge


To a Dancer



Art Poéique

Colloque Sentimental

La Faune


''Tis the ecstasy of repose'

Nini Patte-en-l'Air

Le Chat

Les Hiboux

Parfum Exotique

Le Serpent Qui Danse



The Flowers

Weary of Love

Rosamund Marriott Watson ('Graham R. Tomson')






In a London Garden

Of the Earth, Earthy

A Summer Night


After Sunset


Ex mbra


Gloria Mundi

The Golden Hour

In Blue and Gold

London in October



The Golden Touch

William Butler Yeats

Ephemera [1889]

Ephemera [1895]

O'Sullivan the Red to Mary Lavell

Aedh Tells of the Perfect Beauty

Into the Twilight

The Moods

Michael Robartes Bids His Beloved be at Peace

The Travail of Passion

A Cradle Song

Michael Robartes Remembers Forgotten Beauty

The Secret Rose

The Blessed

Ernest Dowson

My Lady April

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration

Amor Umbratilis

To One in Bedlam

Villanelle of His Lady's Treasurs

Extreme Unction

The Garden of Shadow


Terre Promise

'You would have understood me, had you waited'

Ad Manus Puellae

Chanson sans Paroles

A Coronal


In Tempore Senectutis

Quid Non Speremus, Amantes?

A Requiem


Vain Hope

Vain Resolves


Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam

After Paul Verlaine I

After Paul Verlaine II

Colloque Sentimental

After Paul Verlaine III


After Paul Verlaine IV




Villanelle of the Poet's Road

Lionel Johnson (See also Parodies and Burlesques (below))

In Praise of Youth

A Dream of Youth

To a Passionist

The Dark Angel

Mystic and Cavalier

A Proselyte

The Roman Stage

A Dream

An Ideal



Quisque Suos Manes

To Passions



Vinum Daemonum

In Honorem Doriani Creatorisque Eius

John Davidson


Selene Eden


Proem to 'The Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavendar'

The Last Rose


Holiday at Hampton Court

'Michael Field' (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper)

La Gioconda

L'Embarquement Pour Cythère

A Pen-Drawing of Leda

Saint Sebastian

'Ah, Eros doth not always smite'


'A Girl'


'When I grow old'

After Soufrière


A Flaw

From Baudelaire

A Kiss

The Mummy Invokes His Soul

Old Ivories


A Dance of Death

John Gray

Les Demoiselles de Suave

Parsifal. Imitated from the French of Paul Verlaine

À Une Madone. Imitated from the French of Charles Baudelaire

The Barber

Charleville. Imitated from the French of Arthur Rimbaud

A Crucifix


'Did we not, Darling, You and I'

Fleurs. Imitated from the French of Stéphane Mallarmé

Le Voyage à Cythère


On a Picture



Summer Past

The Vines

Saint John of the Cross. The Obscure Night of the Soul

Saint Sebastian. On a Picture

William Ernest Henley

Andante con moto


'Under a stagnant sky'

Lord de Tabley (John Byrne Leicester Warren)


The Study of a Spider

Lord Alfred Douglas

In Praise of Shame

Two Loves

Apologia Pro Classe Sua

De Profundis

Hymn to Physical Beauty

Impression de Nuit. London

In an Aegean Port

Ode to My Soul

Plainte Eternelle

Sicilian Love-Song

St. Martin's Summer

Le Balcon


Harmonie du Soir

La Beauté

Sois Sage O Ma Douleur

Aubrey Beardsley

The Three Musicians [illustrated by the poet]

The Ballad of a Barber [illustrated by the poet]

Sarojini Naidu

Indian Dancers


Nightfall in the City of Hyderabad

The Snake-Charmer

The Song of Princess Zeb-Un-Nissa in Praise of Her Own Beauty

Street Cries

To the God of Pain





Max Beerbohm

Ballade de la Vie Joyeuse


To a Young Woman

Lionel Johnson

'Ah, day by swift malignant day'

'Along each melancholy London street'

'I shall not hear what any morrow saith'

'Sometimes, in very joy of shame'

Owen Seaman

Lilith Libifera

An Ode to Spring in the Metropolis. (After R. Le G.)

Anonymous Parodies from Punch

A Maudle-In Ballad

More Impressions




Ernest Radford

The Wail of the Decadent

Brief Lives and Textual Notes

Index of Titles

Index of First Lines

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