Theodore Child



Literary Paris. First Paper.

VI. The New Poetry


Literatur: Child
Literatur: Harper's New Monthly Magazine

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Texte zur Verlaine-Rezeption
Texte zur Theorie und Rezeption des Symbolismus


The title of Decadent is due to the hazards of newspaper polemics. The epithet, which a journalist applied as a taunt, was accepted out of bravado by a band of youthful revolutionists, who hoisted the flag of revolt in 1885, to protest against the materiality and grossness of the Naturalists, who had then reached the apogee of their glory. Since then the Decadent, or Symbolist, group has had time to grow, to prosper, to have a chief and a pleiad of adepts, and even to have been already proclaimed exhausted and dead as a nucleus of poetic and literary activity. This, however, is the inevitable fate of groups and artificial classifications, made generally with a view to advertising and attracting attention. They are talked of for a while; young men of talent accept the banner of the new school so long as it serves their purpose; and so, with the accompaniment of a large amount of insincerity, affectation, and fantastic airs, Romanticism, Parnassianism, and Symbolism, or whatever else may be the name of the movement, flourish and fade in due course, leaving a residuum of achievement and a certain lingering perfume of expression and of thought, as it were a strange and withered blossom, which eventually takes its place in the herbarium of literary history.

The moral characteristics of the Decadents seem to be a tendency to seek the rare, the precious, the exquisite, and even the perverse; they are morbid and aristocratic, and full of disdain of the irredeemable multitude. They are horrified by the turpitude of democratic and materialist reality, and they exhale their disgust in grave or ironic writings, finding the germ of their aesthetics in Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. So far as concerns form, the imitators of the new doctrine are M. Paul Verlaine, who made his début in the Parnassian group in 1867, and M. Stéphane Mallarmé, who belonged to the same group. M. Mallarmé, besides being a cryptic poet, generally unintelligible but vaguely harmonious, is a grave Professor of English in one of the municipal colleges, and withal a gentleman of fifty summers.

The Decadent movement has given rise to much controversy, and to several subgroups of instrumento-symbolistes, intimistes, etc., to which not unfrequently a certain amount of insincerity, jealousy, [340] and self-seeking have been attached. There are ill-balanced minds in the group, and vague theorists who seek to formulate the relations, correspondences, and affinities between certain sounds, forms, and colors, and certain states of soul. M. René Ghil, for instance, has noted the colors of the vowels and diphthongs, and specified the musical instruments to which their sounds correspond. But with these minutiæ we cannot concern ourselves, either to discuss or to dismiss with the ridicule that many of them deserve. Let us endeavor rather to see what good may come out of this movement, the seriousness of which is proved by its persistency, if not by its works. And, first of all, let us note that the tendency of the Decadents is towards Mandarinism. They aim at creating esoteric literature; they are the continuators of the theories of the Romantic school of 1830, which make out art to be an affair of dilettanteism. Like Théophile Gautier, the contemporary Decadent hates the bourgeois, and aspires only to the approbation of the intellectual élite. The chain of tradition thus runs from Gautier to Baudelaire, from Baudelaire to Leconte de Lisle and the Parnassians, and from the Parnassians to the Decadents.

In his Petit Traité de Poésie Française, which is, as it were, the code of all the metric conquests of the Romantic and Parnassian movements, Théodore de Banville expressed some years ago his regret that Victor Hugo had not had the courage to restore to poetry the liberty that it enjoyed in the golden age of the sixteenth century. Why prohibit the hiatus? Why forbid the diphthong forming a syllable in the verse? Why exact the alternative employment of masculine and feminine rhymes? Why even exact the cæsura at the end of the hemistich? Why not cast off all these chains, invented by Malherbe and Boileau, those versifiers who killed poetry for two centuries? "Victor Hugo with his mighty hand could have broken these bonds and made verse absolutely free, champing in its foaming mouth the golden bit of rhyme alone. That which the giant did not do, no other can do, and so we shall have had but an incomplete revolution."

Banville, when he wrote these lines, did not foresee the coming of the Decadents, who are bold innovators in prosody as well as in language. Paul Verlaine, Jules Laforgue, Henri de Regnier – to mention the most accessible and at the same time most talented of the group – have developed a new instrumentation, and applied it in works. Their ideal would seem to be music first of all. This being determined, we may deduce that the nearer verse gets to real music the less will the sense need to be rigorously precise. The doctrine of the Decadents would appear to be that the aim of verse is not to enounce truths or to paint pictures, but to evoke sensations and ideas which may remain indeterminate, like those evoked by the hearing of a musical composition. Many Decadents have taken advantage of this principle to write pages and even volumes that normal minds cannot comprehend at all.

The vagueness recommended in the choice of terms is to be introduced also into the thought of the Decadents; they will seek the least concrete and the least absolute ideas, as Verlaine says in four typical and exquisite verses:

Car nous voulons la nuance encor,
    Pas la couleur, rien que la nuance.
    Oh! la nuance seule fiance
La rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor. . . ."

Finally, some of the Decadents are ready to throw rhyme overboard also, together with the cæsura, and to leave the quantity of the verse to the choice of the poet, so that poetry would remain an absolutely free art, all the more difficult because, being without conventions and rules, it would depend the more exclusively on the talent of the poet.

All this may doubtless appear wildly revolutionary. But, after all, the prosody of Boileau is obsolete, and seeing that prosody is founded upon usage, and not upon nature, why should the prosody of Hugo be eternal? Certainly there is a good deal of charlatanism connected with the Decadent movement, and perhaps more noise has been made about it than calm reason would justify, the more so as the new metric conceptions have scarcely yet been materialized in great works, which, after all, are what humanity demands.

Nevertheless, there are verses in the works of Verlaine, Laforgue, Moréas, and others of the group, and of the Americans Francis Vielé-Griffin and Stuart Merrill, that are exquisitely musical and singularly expressive in the order of delicate sensations and ultra-sensitive psychic perceptions.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 85, 1892, Nr. 507, August, S. 327-340.


Unser Auszug: Teil VI, S. 339-340.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien);
keine Korrektur der französischen Zitate und Namensschreibungen.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1850-1900) / Harper's Monthly Magazine (1900-1925)   online








Child, Theodore: The Literary Career in France.
In: The Atlantic Monthly.
Bd. 61, 1888, Nr. 368, June, S. 771-782.

Child, Theodore: Characteristic Parisian Cafés.
In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 78, 1889, Nr. 467, April, S. 687-703.

Child, Theodore: Literary Paris. First Paper.
In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 85, 1892, Nr. 507, August, S. 327-340.

Child, Theodore: Literary Paris. Second Paper.
In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 85, 1892, Nr. 508, September, S. 489-507.

Child, Theodore: Art and Criticism. Monographs and studies.
New York: Harper & Brothers 1892.

Child, Theodore: The Desire of Beauty. Being Indications for Æsthetic Culture.
London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co 1892.

Child, Theodore: The Praise of Paris.
New York: Harper & Brothers 1893.




Literatur: Child

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Newcomb, John T.: Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity. Columbus, Ohio 2004.

Newcomb, John T.: The Twentieth Century Begins. In: The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Hrsg. von Alfred Bendixen u.a. Cambridge 2015, S. 497-518.

Palacio, Jean de: La Décadence. Le mot et la chose. Paris 2011 (= Collection "Les Belles Lettres/essais").

Stephan, Philip: Paul Verlaine and the decadence 1882-90. Manchester u.a. 1974.

Taupin, René: The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry. New York, NY u.a. 1985.



Literatur: Harper's New Monthly Magazine

Lanzendörfer, Tim (Hrsg.): The Routledge Companion to the British and North American Literary Magazine. London u. New York 2022.

Lapham, Lewis H. (Hrsg.): An American Album. One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper's Magazine. New York 2000.

Lilly, Thomas: The National Archive. Harper's New Monthly Magazine and the Civic Responsibilities of a Commercial Literary Periodical, 1850-1853. In: American Periodicals. A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.2 (2005), S. 142-162.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer