A scare-crow for lovers

I walked into my bodega some weeks ago — I didn’t say I wasn’t warned — and it was papered with red paper hearts with lacy edges. It’s the time appointed for love to seethe and burn at the edges. By the fifteenth the steam and grease rising from the griddle will’ve warped and spotted the red paper hearts with the lacy edges. The candy’ll cede its prominence to shamrocks and we’ll forget that we forgot to get flowers.

            Valentine’s Day has it right; professions of love should be acute; who could stand more? Propertius is as good a poet as any to take as our first warning: his love for his Cynthia is from the start confounded and oppressive:

tum mihi constantis deiecit lumina fastus
et caput impositis pressit Amor pedibus
donec me docuit castas odisse puellas (I.1.3-5)

then he cast my steady arrogant gaze down
and Love squashed my head with his feet
till he taught me to spurn chaste girls

Pound saw and seized this in his Homage to Sextus Propertius (London: Faber & Faber, 1934):

The harsh acts of your levity! Many and many.
I am hung here, a scare-crow for lovers. (XI.1.1-2)

Love-poems, love stories — the real fictitious ones, not these mythic letters from lovers — are catalogues of misery. My bitterness aside, this is a reality: the great majority of writing on love proffers failures of love, failures to love. Why, take our current president, who fell in line with his fascist forebear to boast of amorous failure: “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it… I did try and fuck her… I moved on her very heavily… I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there.”

            Even when we get there — when Salome’s seven veils rise and fall in front of us — there is misery. Wilde makes his Herod choke with gory lust (Salome. London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane; Boston: Copeland & Day, 1894):

Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet!  ’Tis well! ’Tis well! Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees…. No, no, she is going to dance on blood! There is blood spilt on the ground. She must not dance on blood. It were an evil omen… What is it to me? Ah! look at the moon! She had become red. She has become red as blood… (53)

The murderous king overlooks the monstrous menstruation before he is brought low to pay for his want.

            Blood seems to bubble up in the face of love. Take the tragic love of Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” (Annie Proulx. Close Range. London: Fourth Estate, 1999).

Proulx. Close Range. Title.jpg

No need to recount the spit and grunting in the tent, rather the reunion in

“the fourth summer since Brokeback Mountain came on”: “they seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again…” (294-5).

Jack dies changing a tire (no need to look for metaphor) and “by the time someone came along he had drowned in his own blood” (311).

            From blood we come, naturally, to the end, to death. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (New York: Ecco, 2010) opens with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death: “I was asleep when he died” (xi). Smith promised Mapplethorpe on his death-bead she’d write the collection of memoirs. The whole thing is tinted grey. We learn about Mapplethorpe’s infected nipple. In the final chapter, “Holding Hands with God,” Smith tells us that when she heard on the telephone that Mapplethorpe had been hospitalized with AIDS-related pneumonia, “I drew my hand instinctively to my belly and began to cry” (265). She was pregnant. Later she recalls a story told her by Mapplethorpe’s patron Sam Wagstaff, who also died with AIDS:

“‘Peggy Guggenheim once told me that when you made love with Brancusi, you absolutely were not allowed to touch his beard.’” (269)

These moments of levity in the face of hideous decline are all printed in violet ink. The book is studded with Mapplethorpe’s photos. Smith calls them “the corporeal body of the artist”(ix). His self-portraits are little moments of love that is, at last at least, requited.

Springtime's for Aubrey

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. [5]) — 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.