'Il faut epater le bourgeois':
Decadence in Fin de Siecle Literature

Pornokrates. Drawing by Felicien Rops, 1896.

Introduction and Scope | Subject Headings and Browsing Areas | Literary Gazetteers
General Reference, French | Individual Bibliographies, French | General Reference, British
Individual Bibliographies, British | Databases | Historical Periodicals | Internet Resources


Introduction and Scope

Most literally, decadence can be defined as moral decay and cultural decline. L'esprit decadent is characterized by malaise, pessimism, lack of interest in progressive ideals, heightened aestheticism ("art for art's sake"), and an obsession with hedonism and abnormality. Although decadence can be used to describe certain strains of culture from the times of Nero to the present day, it most commonly refers to the ideology of a group of poets, writers, philosophers, and artists in late nineteenth century Europe. The Decadent movement is often explained as a result of the rise of consumerism and industrialization that was occurring at that time. Consequently, the central symbol of the Decadents was the megalopolis--the quintessence of detestable yet seductively irresistible bourgeoisie excess. Living in this environment, the decadents experienced profound ennui which gave rise to desperation for novelty, artifice, and perversion.

Charles Baudelaire is most often considered to be the central figure of this movement in France. His collection of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), deemed obscene by the French government and consequently banned, juxtaposes the world of "spleen" (death, decay, and disease) with that of "ideal" (happiness, pleasure, and escapism). Other French poets and writers of this era include Barbey d'Aurevilly (Les Diaboliques, 1874), the Goncourts (Soeur Philomène, 1890), Joris-Karl Huysmans (A Rebours, 1884), and the Symbolists Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarme. In England, a tamer (although no less scandalous) form of Decadence, known as Aestheticism, found expression in the work of Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and even a young W. B. Yeats.

Any attempt to distill the complexity of an era into one overarching theme can prove problematic, since many less famous figures as well as slippage between terms and temporality will inevitably be overlooked. Nonetheless, this guide attempts this reduction as a means to provide an introduction to the topic and a basis for further research for college students and other researchers. For the sake of clarity, no attempt at comprehensiveness is made, but rather, only the most well known poets and writers are included. Those who wish to pursue advanced scholarship in this era may eventually want to examine non-canonical vestiges of the fin de siecle.

Most of the materials in this guide are either bilingual or exclusively written in English, but where no sufficient English language resource is available, a French resource is provided. Most of the work of these major French poets and writers can be read in English translation, which is sufficient for introductory purposes. However, since linguistic subtleties are often perverted through translation, more advanced researchers will eventually want to analyze the texts in their original language.


Subject Headings and Browsing Areas

All the sources in this guide are located in the Herman B. Wells Library unless otherwise noted. The following subject headings can be used to find materials via IUCAT. The corresponding browsing areas can be visited for serendipitous discoveries.

Decadence (literary movement)--France PQ283-PQ289
Decadence (literary movement)--Great Britain PR468
Decadence in Literature PN56
Degeneration in Literature PR878
Aestheticism (literature) PN771/PR468
French Literature--19th century PQ283-PQ295
English Literature--19th century PR478
English Literature--French Influences PR468

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Literary Gazetteers

Literary gazetteers provide the names and locations of places of particular literary interest. Since the city was a central motif of much of the Decadents' work, which most often contained sketches of urban life, a working knowledge of Paris and London and the specific places that these writers inhabited is beneficial.

HarryClarke Bonnefous, R. Guide littéraire de la France. Paris: Hachette, 1964. [DC16 .G945]
"A guide to localities with literary connections, arranged in 6 sections for the major regions with 128 itineraries. Masses of detailed information as expected from a work in the Guides Bleu series. Indexes of Paris streets, towns, and writers." [Walford's Guide to Reference Materials]

Eagle, Dorothy and Meic Stephens (eds.). Oxford Literary Guide to Great Britain and Ireland, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. [PR109 .E18 1993 REF]

Littlewood, Ian. Paris: a literary companion. New York: F. Watts, 1988. [PQ148 .L58 1988]

Vansittart, Peter. London: a literary companion. London: Murray, 1992. [PR110.L6 V36 1992]


General Reference, French

The following reference guides contain general information that acts as both an introduction to the topic and a spring-board to more narrowly focused research. Those with no prior knowledge of these writers or this era in literary history will want to consult one of these sources first.

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Individual Bibliographies, French

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

Baudelaire Cargo, Robert T. Baudelaire Criticism, 1950-1967: A Bibliography with Critical Commentary. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1968. [ PQ2191.Z397 C27]

This source indexes criticism for 1950-1967 updating Baudelaire Judged by His Contemporaries. Consequently, it only covers the era in which New Criticism dominated literary studies, but this gives it historical value in its own right. Plus, it provides a great listing of sources containing translations of Baudelaire's writings into English.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907)

JKHuysmans Cevasco, G. A. J.-K. Huysmans: A Reference Guide. Reference Publication in Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. [ PQ2309.H4 Z4 1980]

Part I of this guide lists Huysmans' works and their English translations in two separate columns. Part II covers writings in English about Huysmans arranged chronologically from 1880-1978. There is also a handy index arranged by author, editor, translator, and subject.

Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898)

Mallarme Morris, D. Hampton. Stéphane Mallarmé: Twentieth-Century Criticism (1972-1979). University, MS: Romance Monographs, 1989. [ PQ2344.Z5 M85 1989]

The introduction to this retrospective, critical bibliography describes the history of Mallarme criticism. The entries, which cover the years 1901-1979, are arranged chronologically and contain some abstracts. There is an author and subject index and a list of the leading non-native critics of French literature at the time of the bibliography's publication.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

Rimbaud Bivort, O. and A. Guyaux. Bibliographie des Illuminations, 1878-1990. Geneva: Slatkine, 1991. [ PQ2387.R75 I432 1991]

With the exception of A Season in Hell, The Illuminations collection of prose poems is Rimbaud's most lauded work. This extensive bibliography in French indexes the entire collection poem by poem, word by word. Citations reference works written in French primarily but also lists those written in English, Italian, and German.

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

verlaine Robichez, Jacques. Verlaine Oeuvres Poetiques. Paris: Garnier, 1986.[PQ2463 .A5]

Although mostly a collection of Verlaine's verse, this book also contains an extensive bibliography which lists older bibliographies, collections of iconography, anthologies of poetry, and critical journal articles from 1913-1965. The front matter includes a chronology of Verlaine's life as well as drawings and photographs.

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General Reference, British

The following reference guides contain general information that acts as both an introduction to the topic and a spring-board to more narrowly focused research. Those with no prior knowledge of these writers or this era in literary history will want to consult one of these sources first.

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Individual Bibliographies, British

Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)

Dowson Cevasco, G. A. Three Decadent Poets: Ernest Dowson, John Gray, and Lionel Johnson : An Annotated Bibliography. Vol. 968. New York: Garland, 1990. [Z2014.P7 C48 1990]

Three sections, one for each poet, divide this critical bibliography. Listings are selective rather than comprehensive and the annotations are very knowledgeable. Each section begins with a brief introduction followed by a list of the poet's major works. The subject index, like the rest of the book, is conveniently divided by each individual poet.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945)

Symons Beckson, Karl E. Arthur Symons: A Bibliography: 1880-1920 British Authors Series Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 1990. [PR5528 .A75 1990]

"Beckson and his colleagues meet the challenge of verifying and expanding the canon of Symon's work with great success, and they take on two other challenges. The first--remarkable in a bibliography--is to be "readable" and in this they are also successful. The final challenge is to untangle what Beckson and company describe as the "tangled web" produced by Symon's inveterate practices of republishing essays in toto and more or less verbatim, cutting up old essays and splicing the parts into new wholes and borrowing old bits in new essays." [Alan Johnson, Arizona State University]

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Wilde Mikolyzk, Thomas A. Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Bibliography: Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature No. 38. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993. [PR5823 .M523 1993]

"List of Wilde's works (43 p.), followed by annotated bibliography of books, chapters, articles, and dissertations. Over 3,300 secondary items cited in all. Indexes of authors, subjects, and Wilde's works. Chronology of Wilde's life." [Walford's Guide to Reference Materials]

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Yeats Jochum, K. P. S. W. B. Yeats: A Classified Bibliography of Criticism. 2nd ed. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990. [PR5906 .J63 1990]

With 10,152 entries covering over one hundred years worth of Yeats culture (1886-1988), this bibliography is the definitive source for all things published by, about, to, or for Yeats. The volume contains references to catalogs, other bibliographies, concordances, letters, interviews, criticism, summaries of Yeats' speeches and lectures, doctoral theses, and even films, poetry, songs, and plays that have been inspired by Yeats' work.

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These electronic databases can be accessed with a subscription (username and password) via IU Libraries website. All are multi-lingual, but ARTFL and FRANCIS are best utilized in French. With the exception of ARTFL which also contains full primary texts, all of these databases primarily cite secondary source materials.

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Historical Periodicals

Most of the work of the Decadent writers was first published in one of the numerous literary magazines that, alongside books, had begun flooding the market in the early part of the nineteenth century. The following literary journals' editorial mission was to publish stories, poetry, essays, and illustrations that contained decadent themes. All of these magazines have been preserved in their original form and are, consequently, fantastic resources for experiencing the work of these writers in their original context.

yellowbook Baju, Anatole (ed.). Le Décadent. Paris: Anatole Baju, 1887-1889. [AP20 .D292 B-LILLY]

Socialist journalist Anatole Baju created this bi-monthly journal to exalt the epithet "decadent," explaining in the December 1887 issue that "if décadisme is not the final word, at least it is a high and elevated conception...we shall pursue the fight against naturalism for the sake of art."

Harland, Henry (ed.). Yellow Book. London : E. Mathews & J. Lane, 1894-1897. [AP4 .Y4]

The Yellow Book is the most well-known British journal of the 1890s. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, the quarterly journal was notorious for its yellow covers, similar to racy French novels that were being published at the time. It contained essays, literature, and art by such notables as Henry James, H. G. Wells, George Gissing, Max Beerbohm, John Singer Sargent and W. B. Yeats.

Samuels Lasner, Mark. The Yellow Book: A Checklist and Index. London: The Eighteen Nineties Society, 1998. [PN5130.Y44 S35 1998]

"In The Yellow Book: A Checklist and Index, Mark Samuels Lasner provides the unique, scholarly, and necessary research aid to make it possible to access the entire magazine for the first time. The checklist section gives full details, in order, of the literary and artistic contents of each volume, including binding and title-page designs. Every author and illustrator is identified (even those who used pseudonyms) and references are given to standard sources and bibliographies." [USC website]

Symons, Arthur (ed.) The Savoy. London: L. Smithers, 1896. [AP4 .S2]

Arthur Symons and Aubrey Beardsley established this monthly literary review in 1896 with the intention of rivaling The Yellow Book, which had begun to censor its illustrations after scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde broke out. Much like its rival, it contained literary criticism, short stories, poetry, and illustrations by Beardsley, but it was not a commercial success and folded within the year.

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Internet Resources

The following websites have been chosen for the quality of their content, usability, and (to some extent) aesthetics. They are either in French, English, or both and all provide links to additional related pages.

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Created by Kathleen Burlingame
School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University
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Last Updated: December 9, 2005