Aubrey Beardsley, "The Climax", 1894. In Salome: a tragedy in one act by Oscar Wilde, London: E. Mathews & J. Lane, 1894.
The Literary Landscape
Yeats first began writing in the fin de siècle, a period of cultural transition and artistic innovation in Europe, and one in which literature registered contemporary debates over aesthetics, politics, gender, science and philosophy. Far from marking an endpoint, the period witnessed a burst of creative energy and radical thinking that challenged Victorian certainties and paved the way for Modernism. In his Autobiographies, Yeats described "The Tragic Generation" of writers who died young in these years, providing a sense of the degeneration and despair he and others associated with the period. But as Gail Marshall indicates, Yeats's retrospective account overlooks the "journalists, dramatists, novelists of realism and fantasy, short story writers, women writers of the 'new' and 'old' varieties, and polemicists of the 1890s, to say nothing of the period's artists and musicians," all of whose work helped to define the period. 1 The expansion of a literate reading public in the period also led to a number of new periodicals, like The Yellow Book (1894-1897) and The Savoy (1896), and popular newspapers such as Tit-Bits and the Daily Mail, creating new forms of journalism to capitalize on advances in printing technology, marketing, distribution and transportation.
Aubrey Beardsley, Cover of The Savoy, 1896. London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.
Many of these publications provided a forum for both emerging writers and for literary critics, who often as not condemned the period's literature as 'decadent' or 'aestheticist.' The Decadent movement had its roots in French symbolism, and the writers associated with it were said to value artifice and beauty over socio-political themes in literature. Decadent writers in England were influenced by the work of Walter Pater, an essayist and philosopher-critic who advocated the pursuit of beauty and "art for art's sake." Pater's best-known literary associate, Oscar Wilde, became a kind of representative of the Decadent movement, embracing the role of iconoclast and flouting moral values. Yeats in fact attended a lecture given by Wilde to arts students at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre in November 1883, in which Wilde examined the role of beauty in modern life. Wilde began, "I do not desire to give you any abstract definition of beauty at all. For we are working in art cannot accept any theory of beauty in exchange for beauty itself, and so far from desiring to isolate it in a formula appealing to the intellect, we, on the contrary, seek to materialize it in a form that gives joy to the soul through the senses. We want to create it, not to define it. The definition should follow the work: the work should not adapt itself to the definition." 2
Aubrey Beardsley, Cover of Yellow Book, 1894. London: E. Mathews & J. Lane, 1894.
Wilde's aestheticism might have appealed to the young Yeats, whose interests in this period tended towards the English Romantic poets, particularly Percy Bysshe Shelley's rejection of materialism and his idealistic pursuit of Intellectual Beauty. These ideas informed Yeats's concept of the poet and his social role. His sense that the primary social value of poetry was private was also in keeping with claims made by Pater, Wilde and others that art should be freed from the imperative to satisfy a public audience. Yet playwrights like Ibsen and G.B. Shaw inaugurated a new type of drama - one that was "politically engaged, and demanded a politicized, as well as an aesthetic, response from its audiences" – sparking a debate over the role and value of art in the very period Yeats began writing. 3 This new drama was often censored for its subjects and themes and for challenging the conventions of the commercial Victorian theatre. Some of the period's plays staged femininity in objectionable or controversial ways, contributing to the phenomenon of the New Woman. The New Woman challenged Victorian norms of gender and domesticity, and she became a recurring feature in the period's drama, prose and journalism.
The fin de siècle then marks a period of "new beginnings, but also one whose movements are defined by the extent to which they developed away from their Victorian roots, and transformed them in the light of the cultural and political possibilities of the period." 4 That Yeats made his first tentative efforts as a dramatist and poet at a moment when the social role of art was contested, and when literature itself reflected and catalyzed the period's controversies, is significant for our interpretation of this early work. His own evolving ideas about the value of art, the pursuit of beauty in his work, and the role of the artist have roots in the period's debates, and his juvenilia reflects these concerns.