Osar Wilde Portrait by Napoleon Sarony Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aestheticism is founded on the principle of art for art’s sake. Aesthetes believed that art should be made as a means to achieve beauty and not to meet a political, religious, or moral agenda. Thus, any form of art that serves a purpose is deemed unattractive. Function versus beauty is one of the main struggles of the Aesthetic movement. The movement was extremely elitist; those who identified as an Aesthete had a supposed heightened sense of beauty often expressed through fashion, décor, poetry, and literature consumption. The upper class dominated the Aesthetic movement for the lower and middle classes were inherently encompassed in too much struggle themselves to fully immerse themselves in art for art’s sake. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Aesthetes also took particular glee in shocking the middle class with their lavish and outlandish lifestyles:

“The early version of aestheticism has similarly been connected to Romanticism's disregard for the mores and dictates of the bourgeoisie in favor of a celebration of the individual imagination, the sublime experience, and the emotional ecstasy derived from an encompassing experience of beauty… this trait is more explicitly recognizable as a rebellious streak, a desire to épater le bourgeois—shock or irritate the middle classes in order to jolt them out of their complacency.” (Denisoff)

Despite the common theme of ornate decadence and lavish lifestyle the Aesthetes should not be confused with the Decadents, whom Philip K. Cohen describes as waging “a guerilla war against the dominant culture” (Cohen). The Decadents went out of their way to blast through societal norms: pushing the boundaries of art while the Aesthetes were neutral to such societal opinions, instead choosing to fully immerse themselves in art. Aestheticism was a form of escapism; a way to leave the societal and moral pressures of everyday life behind in order to pursue a life made purely of beauty. Even if they were against art representing any sort of opinion they were not about attacking the opinions of society, instead transcending such opinions and mores.

Aestheticism in Poetry

Poetry was no different from any other form of art to the Aesthetic movement. When it came to poetry the Aesthetes believed that the less influential the content the better. The Aesthetes thought that poetry should inspire beautiful imagery and when spoken aloud should be pleasing to the ear. Lyrics can often be described as capturing a brief moment to which the spilling of emotion is correlated. Thus, the lyric was considered the highest form of Aesthetic poetry. There is nothing political or moral about it, it simply inspires one to feel emotions brought on by the intake of art. Lyric is also an ideal vessel for three of the main poetic Aesthetic techniques as described by Professor George. P. Landow of Brown University: hyperbolic juxtapositions, lyrical epiphany, and allusion (usually used in a corollary context) (Landow). These techniques are often used to describe either a particularly striking moment in time, as is typical to the lyric, or a sweeping landscape. A popular subject in Aesthetic poetry is that of myth, often Arthurian or Greek in nature. These depictions are idealized versions of the past, and as Cohen points out “originates more in literature, legend, and myth than in history” (Cohen). This focus on the past creates a false nostalgia that is indicant to Aesthetic poet. All techniques and subject matter in Aesthetic poetry are meant to give the reader a sense of sublime beauty unattached from any moral influence.

Aestheticism and Oscar Wilde

A figure often spoken of in correlation with Aestheticism is Oscar Wilde. Wilde was at the forefront of the Aesthetic movement. In his mock dialogue “The Decay of Lying” the character Vivian, whom represents Wilde’s thoughts and ideas, states: “Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principles to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice. Not I. Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word "Whim."” (Wilde 5). This quote embodies the heart of aestheticism: to be dynamic and fresh, to make art not to make a statement but because the notion of said art came to the artist on a whim. Wilde was prevalent in the Aesthetic movement at the very end of its popularity and influence. A larger than life figure, he was at the forefront of lavish lifestyle. Wilde was famous for his many works of art- including poems, essays, and plays. Even more so he was infamous for a court case in 1896 in which he was found guilty of gross indecency in relation to homosexual practices. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature marks this as the end of the Aesthetic movement (Denisdoff).

Works Cited

Cohen, Philip K. "How the Decadents Differ from the Aesthetes and the Aesthetic Movement." The Victorian Web. 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://www.victorianweb.org/decadence/cohen.html>.
Denisoff, Dennis. "Aestheticism." The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. : Oxford University Press, 2006. Oxford Reference. 2006. Date Accessed 5 Feb. 2015 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/view/10.1093/acref/9780195169218.001.0001/acref-9780195169218-e-0004>.
Landow, George P. "Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s -- Points of Departure." The Victorian Web. 17 Sept. 2002. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://www.victorianweb.org/decadence/decadence.html>.
Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying [in, Intentions]. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1999. Print.