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The English Identification of Decadence with Symbolism

During its peak in England, Decadence had become almost synonymous with Symbolist writing. Symons's book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) had originally been advertised as The Decadent Movement in Literature. He had also published an essay entitled "The Decadent Movement in Literature" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1893.

Symbolism, while echoing Decadence both in style and in its association of art with the realm of the mind and the imagination, minimized the seemingly perverse and immoral characteristics of the earlier movement.

Other English Decadents

Other notable examples of English Decadent literature include John Gray's (1866-1934) collection of poems Silverpoints (1893), Stenbock's Studies of Death (1893), Ernest Dowson's (1867-1900) collections Verses (1896) and Decorations (1899), and Wilde's play Salomé (1893). The supernatural fiction of Vernon Lee (Violet Paget, 1856-1935) also uses Decadent motifs.

The English Decadents were often ridiculed, most notably in Punch and in Gilbert and Sullivan's play Patience (1881). By the last decade of the century, many of the Decadent authors became self-satirizing, or at least claimed to be.

Decadence in Russia

Decadence also had an influence in Russia in the early twentieth century, rising within the Russian Symbolist Movement and being influenced primarily by French writing and the works of Poe. Fedor Sologub (1863-1927), whom Nikolai S. Gumilev (1886-1921) refers to as the only "absolutely consistent decadent" in Russian literature, had a strong interest in the macabre and in mental derangement, as well as in the character of the aesthete.

Neither homosexuality nor lesbianism were central themes for any Russian decadent writer, though Mikhail Kuzmin's(187?-1936) homosexual texts have characters modeled on aesthetes.

Other European Decadents

Other European works that show the influence of Decadence include the writing of the Italian Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) and various plays, such as Lulu, by the German author Frank Wedekind (1864-1918). The Decadent and work, The House of the Vampire (1907), was written in English by a German émigré to the United States, George Sylvester Viereck (1884-1962).

The Influence of Decadence on Subsequent Literature

The most direct line of influence from Decadent literature is into Symbolism, with the movement also influencing, for example, Imagism and Surrealism, most notably in the work of Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). Authors influenced by the movement include Jean Cocteau (1891-1963), André Gide (1869-1951), Jean Genet (1910-1986), H. G. Wells (1866-1946), and various members of the Rhymers' Club (1890-1895), such as Yeats and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).

Dennis Denisoff

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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Nineteenth Century

From its beginning, the nineteenth century in England had a purposeful homosexual literature of considerable bulk, both male and female, though it was fettered by oppression.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Nineteenth Century

Several artists and art critics of the nineteenth century achieved a self-aware homosexual identity that is expressed in both their lives and their works, but lesbianism is only rarely depicted in terms of identity during this period.

literature >> Overview:  French Literature: Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century gay and lesbian sexuality becomes a significant subject in French literature.

literature >> Overview:  Gothicism

The Gothic has always offered writers and readers the chance to experience the excitement of transgressive sexuality of various kinds, including male and female homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Surrealism

An artistic movement that grew out of Dadaism and flourished in Europe shortly after World War I, Surrealism embraced the idea that art was an expression of the subconscious.

arts >> Overview:  Symbolists

The symbolist movement in painting and literature, which flourished in Europe from 1886 to 1905, was the first self-consciously queer movement in Western art history.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

arts >> Adrian-Nilsson, Gösta (GAN)

Regarding his sexuality as a fundamental component of his creativity, Swedish painter Gosta Adrian-Nilsson, known as GAN, fostered the development of modernist art in his native country.

literature >> Baudelaire, Charles

Baudelaire was among the first French poets to include lesbians as subjects.

arts >> Beardsley, Aubrey

English decadent and Symbolist artist Aubrey Beardsley made a lasting contribution to the art of illustration; a satirist with a gift for caricature and grotesquerie, Beardsley attacked Victorian sexual values.

literature >> Cocteau, Jean

An outspoken homosexual, Jean Cocteau was a prolific poet, novelist, critic, essayist, artist, and filmmaker.

literature >> Douglas, Alfred Bruce

Lord Alfred Douglas is remembered today for his tumultuous association with Oscar Wilde and as a minor poet.

literature >> Eliot, T[homas] S[tearns]

Although Eliot tried to suppress the fact, The Waste Land is an elegy for a young Frenchman whom he met and loved in Paris and who died in the Great War in 1915.

literature >> Genet, Jean

Jean Genet's work has left a powerful legacy to post-modernity and remains a provocation to questions of gay identity.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

literature >> Huysmans, Joris-Karl

J. K. Huysmans, an important figure in the Aesthetic and Decadent movements, exemplified a style of homosexuality at a pivotal moment in the emergence of a gay identity.

arts >> Overview:  Interior Design

The career of interior design has been stereotyped as gay; although this stereotype often invites ridicule, it stems from a cultural perception that gay men may have special skills in the area of artistic design and fashion trends.

literature >> Jarry, Alfred

A precursor of surrealism and credited with having invented the Theater of the Absurd, Alfred Jarry included homosexual characters and themes in most of his works.

literature >> Kuzmin, Mikhail Alekseyevich

The Russian writer and translator Mikhail Kuzmin wrote poems and novels that present sympathetic, often idealistic, portrayals of gay love and desire.

literature >> Lee, Vernon

Although Vernon Lee does not explore lesbian themes directly in her literary or aesthetic works, she was committed both intellectually and emotionally to other women, and her creative writings reveal a fertile lesbian imagination.

literature >> Lorrain, Jean (Paul Duval)

Almost as renowned for his homosexuality and depravity as for his literary achievements, Jean Lorrain was a French poet, novelist, and journalist of the "decadent movement" during the Belle Époque.

social sciences >> Nietzsche, Friedrich

One of the most influential and most misunderstood of modern philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche in his work searched for a primal joie de vivre that he felt had been distorted by religion and that he was unable to realize in his own life.

literature >> Pater, Walter

The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

literature >> Petronius

Petronius' Satyricon is both the best evidence for homosexual behavior at the height of the Roman Empire and one of the most bumptious homoerotic picaresque narratives ever written.

literature >> Rimbaud, Arthur

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

literature >> Sade, Marquis de

Whether or not the Marquis de Sade was himself bisexual, homosexual activity is an important item in his program of revolutionary sexual libertinism.

social sciences >> Santos-Dumont, Alberto

The achievement of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian dandy who is regarded by many as the father of modern aviation, may have been minimized in some circles because he was likely homosexual.

literature >> Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Algernon Charles Swinburne was interested in flagellation, sadomasochism, bisexuality, and lesbianism, not only for their erotics but also as gestures of social and cultural rebellion.

literature >> Verlaine, Paul

The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du mal. Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1857.

Beckson, Karl, ed. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890's: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose. New York: Random House, 1966.

Calinescu, Matei. Faces of Modernity: Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Carter, A. E. The Idea of Decadence in French Literature, 1830-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958.

Charlesworth, Barbara. Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Constable, Liz, Dennis Denisoff and Matt Potolsky, eds. Perennial Decay: on the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Croft-Cooke, Rupert. Feasting with Panthers: A Consideration of Some Late Victorian Writers. London: W. H. Allen, 1967.

d'Arch-Smith, Timothy. Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English 'Uranian' Poets from 1889 to 1930. London: Routledge, 1970.

Dowling, Linda. Aestheticism and Decadence: A Selective Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1977.

Fletcher, Ian, ed. Decadence and the 1890s. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980.

Gautier, Théophile. Mademoiselle de Maupin. 1835. Paris: Garnier frères, 1966.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. À rebours. 1884. Paris: Fasquelle, 1968.

Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: MacMillan, 1873.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Read, Brian, ed. Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900: An Anthology. London: Routledge, 1970.

Showalter, Elaine. Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle. New York: Viking, 1990.

Stableford, Brian, ed. The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins). Cambridge: Dedalus, 1990.

Symons, Arthur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. 1899. New York: Dutton, 1919.

Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: Perennial Library, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Denisoff, Dennis  
    Entry Title: Decadence  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 6, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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