What’s one to do when certain that an author one loves would hate one? Waugh’s lampooning of Americans who speak and write sentences like that one is consistent and lethal. I’d fail Wilde’s tests, and Scott Fitzgerald would give me a cutting name — Rosefell, maybe, or Blandberg. Worst of all, I think, as a potential friend to the deceased authors I love is my unshakeable feeling that some books — pieces of music, plays, paintings — are seasonal. Rameau is the composer of autumn to me, and I always crank up the Schubert around this time of year. In the same gust comes Beardsley, who was such a finely tuned instrument of taste and manners that I’d surely snap the needle.
Dowson, Ernest. The Pierrot of the Minute. A dramatic phantasy in one act. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Leonard Smithers, 1897.
Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. An heroi-comical poem in five cantos. “Embroidered with nine drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.” London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.
Symons, Arthur (ed.). The Savoy. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley (et al.). Three volumes comprising all issues (eight). London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.
These three publications of the English belle époque speak lustily of the mood of the time. Everywhere the word “decadence” — falling down from — rose from lips but it is hard to see whence. From the bloat of Victorian corsets? From the mutton chops overdone? No, this era of cool, far outpacing the 1950’s hips, is bolstered by erudition rather than by disregard. Elvis wasn’t covering the songs Purcell or of Tallis.
Let’s take the items in their turn. Pierrot is a stock character of commedia dell’arte, a sad naïf sick in love, a clown in makeup only.
Beardsley mostly declowns him, leaving him only in a comic sack, its creases stippled, giving way to Picassoey reductions of the figure.
He has been rescued by Beardsley from the sappy sad-sack and launched into his modern form, the melancholy-clown-as-artist. Pierrot becomes the Everydecadent, so scarcely distinguishable is he from the other members of Beardsley’s menagerie.
The infinite erudition of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy seems to have resurfaced.
The Rape of the Lock must have seemed like an Aesthetic manifesto from the past; indeed, had it not been printed at Smithers’s press one would seriously inquire why.
Symons and Beardsley, Shaw, Verlaine, Gosse — all were the heirs of Pope’s burlesque. Tongues occasionally emerge from cheeks — as in Beardsley’s Lysistrata drawings — but broadly, these illustrations are aimed at the connoisseur.
It is typical of the movement to label Beardsley an embroiderer; we think immediately of William Morris and Wilde’s gay costumery.
Turning finally to The Savoy, a vast edifice of the era — though Symons is at pains to claim “we are not Realists, or Romanticists, or Decadents. For us, all art is good which is good art” (vol. I, p. ) — the full whack of the movement hits us.
The balance of erudition and frippery is easy to mock from our so-post-caring roosts, but it so much informs the titans of the early twentieth century (This Means Waugh!) that it demands our attention. Even Beardsley turns out to have something of the Pope in him, as made clear in his illustrated poem on a virtuosic barber:
How came it then one summer day
Coiffing the daughter of the King,
He lengthened out the least delay
And loitered in his hairdressing?
The Princess was a pretty child,
Thirteen years old, or thereabout.
She was as joyous and as wild
As spring flowers when the sun is out.
He gold hair fell down to her feet
And hung about her pretty eyes ;
She was as lyrical and as sweet
As one of Schubert’s melodies.
Three times the barber curled a lock,
And thrice he straightened it again ;
And twice the irons scorched her frock,
And twice he stumbled in her train.
(Vol. II (no. 3), p. 92, “The Ballad of a Barber”)
Yes, it is pretty, but prettiness is no crime. Perhaps it is flip but no more so that Pope’s Lock, just of a different cast. It sings with genuine melody. With Beardsley’s frontispiece illustration and his macabre little tail-piece, it winks, too.
Surely Springtime is the time of frip and of play, the maypole and the carnival. Shaking off the winter of Victoria, dour and gray, Beardsley humanizes our (great-)great-grandfathers, shows us their pretensions and their foibles. For that he will always be welcome to me as the days come finally to equinox.