[In Our Time] The Decadent Movement

The Decadent Movement 18/11/21 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podcastaddict.com/episode/131445269

Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p0b4jvzb.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the British phase of a movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by Charles Baudelaire and by Walter Pater, these Decadents rejected the mainstream Victorian view that art needed a moral purpose, and valued instead the intense sensations art provoked, celebrating art for art’s sake. Oscar Wilde was at its heart, Aubrey Beardsley adorned it with his illustrations and they, with others, provoked moral panic with their supposed degeneracy. After burning brightly, the movement was soon lost its energy in Britain yet it has proved influential.

The illustration above, by Beardsley, is from the cover of the first edition of The Yellow Book in April 1894


Neil Sammells Professor of English and Irish Literature and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Bath Spa University

Kate Hext Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter


Alex Murray Senior Lecturer in English at Queen’s University, Belfast

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 3 January 2021


  • So I recently read The Divine Fire, which I think I added to my TBR list after hearing it recommended in the In Our Time episode about Henri Bergson. After reading the book, I’m mystified about how it connects to Henri Bergson at all, and whether I got it from that episode or something else. Anyway, there’s a point to this. The point being that The Divine Fire touches upon similar themes mentioned in this episode. Savage Keith Rickman is the heroic artist standing alone, and Horace Jewdwine has a similar contempt for democracy and how it annihilates the artist. The difference being that Jewdwine wanted classical art, and the decadent movement was reacting against it. But so it goes.
  • There’s a point in the conversation where one of the panelist talks about dandyism being “How to always astonish and never be astonished” and how that is the most succint definition of cool. I was repelled by it – what a horrible thing to never be astonished. I too would hold the decadent movement in contempt because of that.
  • Later on, there was an interesting bit about how the Decadent movement petered out both because there were so few people and they all died; but also because the Boer War changed everybody’s priorities. One of the panelists said “Things changed from art for art’s sake to fighting for fighting’s sake.” The old Decadents switched to war poetry, it seems. “The blood, the noise, the endless poetry.”
  • The panelists mentioned that in Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, there’s a character who is accepted into aristocratic circles on the strength of being a really accomplished dandy, so there’s social mobility. And I first rolled my eyes at taking that route to social mobility instead of doing something useful; but then wondered if the problem was that doing something useful wouldn’t get you accepted into the aristocracy. But now, writing it out – at least it would get you accepted into the bourgeois gentry, surely? Now, if you didn’t want to be part of that…
  • Which ties up with a later discussion (podcast only) about how the Decadent movement was kind of social conservative – especially Evelyn Waugh – and it had this disdain for catering to public tastes. Paging Deirdre McCloskey, paging Deirdre McCloskey.
  • That brings us back around to The Divine Fire – where Savage Keith Rickman, that glorioius Sigma Male ™ isn’t accepted on his literary accomplishments – but he isn’t even seeking acceptance from the aristocracy. Look at his face, is he bovvered?
  • Looking at The Divine Fire, and how it makes much of SKR dropping his aitches – this links up to my light reading, the Just William books, where the Botts drop theirs. I wonder if that’s a big deal in the UK any more, or if it’s just treated like any other regional accent.
  • Apparently William Morris, who also had an In Our Time episode, was part of this. Huh.

One comment

  1. […] Hell, I remember absolutely nothing from this episode. Except that Plato may have travelled from Greece to Southern Italy to study, and seen tyranny first hand over there. And moreover that he became antidemocratic seeing what the mob had done to Socrates, which feeds into why The Republic wants philosopher kings. Which ties in again with the previous episode on The Decadent Movement. […]


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