The Poets and Poetry of the 1890s - a Millennial View

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Poets and Poetry of the 1890s - a Millennial View


Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review


Sitting beside the fast-flowing stream of time, faint crackling of the Tennysonian thunder fading in the distance, swamped by the roaring torrent of the new millennium waterfall, let us permit the waters to recede, the calendar's shed leaves to flutter back a hundred years, unthinkable aeons in childhood's clockless faery days, but no great span as one's decades mount!

It is the winter of 1891, and in an upper room or cenacle at the Cheshire Cheese, a Fleet Street tavern, beloved once, tradition murmurs, of Dr. Johnson, a reverentish chime of tyro poets are met. They are the members of the Rhymers' Club: they are the new voices of the old century. About them the myth-makers wove a web which has endured until now; gossamer time-hardened to a kind of steel. Yeats, mythologiser-in-chief, labelled them the Tragic Generation. Their fugleman, Holbrook Jackson, enshrined them and their heroic fates in 1913 in his classic The Eighteen-Nineties. Bernard Muddiman's The Men of the Nineties nodded, in 1920, a vigorous agreement. Five years later, Osbert Burdett's The Beardsley Period reaffirmed, and, in 1945, William Gaunt's The Aesthetic Adventure disseminated and set the seal upon the legend, made irresistible and irresisted the temptation to benchmark the Nineties decadent, to illumine the entire epoch with a yellow (book) glow, which, in truth, was the nimbus of but one small sector of the active poets of the decade.

The fin-de-siecle Decadents were assuredly a part of the scene - some of them members of the Rhymers' Club, some of them not. But there, too, were the 'Muscular Christians', the counter-Decadents, grouped about their charismatic, wounded leader, the crippled Henley. Present also, within the poetic landscape of that time's moment, were many individual - ungrouped, ungroupable - poets, such as Housman, Hardy, Phillips, Binyon, Thompson and time-transcending Yeats.

Neither should one forget, or dismiss, the regiment of women. As clearly reflected by the augmented content of the newly-issued second edition of the Penguin Poetry of the 1890s,(*) first published twenty-seven years ago, the finde-vingtieme-siecle concern seems to be the recognition of the part played by women's writing in the poetry of the last century's final years. Olive Custance, Alice Meynell, Dollie Radford, and the twain - Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, her niece and Sapphic lover - sheltering behind the joint nom de guerre, Michael Field, have long been accorded their due mead, but now, consequent to 'the substantial development of information and interest in women's writing in the last quarter of this century', are being confronted those denials incivilly served out to what were whilom regarded as less worthy female talents.

Two themes which were of crucial import to fin-de-siecle women poets were that of the New Woman, anxious about her place within the social arena, and that of the Woman as Artist, defining her place within the literary tradition. The point is urged that, whereas the masculine-oriented poetry of the Nineties had been portrayed as 'coloured by decline and a sense of foreboding' at the nineteenth century's end, the feminine contribution was bolstered by confidence in science and the new theories of evolution, looking to the about-to-be-born new century with a lively measure of hope. An end and a beginning. Poetry of the 1890s now exhibits an additional octet of female poets - Mathilde Blind, May Kendall, Amy Levy, Caroline Lindsay, Constance Naden, May Probyn and A. Mary F. Robinson.

That the Decadents should have attracted the lion's share of popular attention is readily to be accounted for by the compelling horror of so many of their lives and fates: their romantic agonies.

They were indeed a motley crew . . . Richard Le Gallienne, who had flown the clerk's high stool, fled the Liverpool penitentiary of the mathematics, for London and a coruscant beginning as poet, John Lane's reader, powerful logroller critic of the Star, and who, defying his generation's curse, was to survive to the age of eighty-one, albeit his last forty-seven years evaporating ingloriously in a haze of hack-work in America and France. …

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