Decadent Poetry

Decadent Poetry

by Lisa Rodensky

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The poems collected in this volume are exquisite and languorous expressions of a spirit of self-indulgence, eroticism and moral rebelliousness that emerged in the late Victorian age. They deal with eternal themes of transition, artifice and, above all, the cruel ravages of time - often depicting flowers, with their heady, perfumed beauty, as the embodiment of decay


The poems collected in this volume are exquisite and languorous expressions of a spirit of self-indulgence, eroticism and moral rebelliousness that emerged in the late Victorian age. They deal with eternal themes of transition, artifice and, above all, the cruel ravages of time - often depicting flowers, with their heady, perfumed beauty, as the embodiment of decay and desire. Decadent Poetry brings together the works of many fascinating writers - Oscar Wilde on tainted love and the torments of the human spirit, Arthur Symons on an absinthe-induced stupor and the mysteries of the night, Rosamund Marriott Watson on disenchantment and memory, W. B. Yeats on waning passion and faded beauty, Ernest Dowson on lust and despair and Lord Alfred Douglas on shame and secret love, among many others of this exhilarating poetic movement.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Penguin Classics Series
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5.07(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.85(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Harlot's House

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The 'Treues Liebes Herz' of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantasies arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille.

They took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
'The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.'

But she —she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

The Art of Love
Book 1

Should anyone here in Rome lack finesse at love-making,
let him
Try me—read my book; and results are guaranteed!
Technique is the secret. Charioteer, sailor, oarsman,
All need it. Technique can control
Love himself. As Automedon was charioteer to Achilles,
And Tiphys Jason's steersman, so I,
By Venus' appointment, am made Love's artificer, shall be
Known as
The Tiphys, the very Automedon of Love.
He's a wild handful, will often rebel against me,
But still just a child—
Malleable, easily disciplined. Chiron made young Achilles
A fine musician, hammered that fierce heart
On the anvil of peaceful artistry. So this future terror
To friend and foe alike went in awe, it's said,
Of his elderly teacher, at whose bidding the hand that in after-
Time bore down Hector was held out for the tawse.
As Chiron taught Achilles, so I am Love's preceptor:
Wild boys both, both goddess-born—and yet
Even bulls can be broken to plough, or spirited horses
Subdued with bridle and bit.
So love shall likewise own my mastery, though his bowshots
Skewer my breast, though his torch
Flicker and sear me. The worse the wounds, the deeper the branding,
That much keener I to avenge
Such outrage. Nor shall I falsely ascribe my arts to Apollo:
No airy bird comes twittering advice
Into my eat, I never had a vision of the Muses
Herding sheep in Ascra's valleys. This work is based
On experience: what I write, believe me, I have practiced.
My poem will deal in truth.

Aid my enterprise, Venus! Respectable ladies, the kind who
Wear hairbands and ankle-length skirts,
Are hereby warned off. Safe love, legitimate liaisons
Will be my theme. This poem breaks no taboos.
First, then, you fledging troopers in passion's service,
Comes the task of finding an object for your love.
Next, you must labour to woo and win your lady;
Thirdly, ensure that the affair will last.
Such are my limitations, such the ground I will cover,
The race I propose to run.

While you are fancy-free still, and can drive at leisure,
Pick a girl, tell her, "you're the one I love.
And only you.' But this search means using your eyes: a mistress
Won't drop out of the sky at your fee.
A hunter's skilled where to spread his nets for the stag, senses
In which glen the wild boar lurks.
A fowler's familiar with copses, an expert angler
Knows the richest shoaling-grounds for fish.
You too, so keen to establish some long term relationship,
Must learn, first, where girl is to be found.
Your search need not take you—belueve me—on an overseas voyage:
A short enough trek will bring you to your goal.
True, Perseus fetched home Andromeda from the coloured
While Phrygian Paris abducted Helen in Greece,
But Rome can boast of so many and such dazzling beauties
You'd swear the whole world's talent was gathered here.
The girls of your city outnumber Gargara's wheatsheaves,
Methymna's grape-clusters,
Birds on the bough, stars in the sky, fish in the ocean:
Venus indeed still haunts
Her son Aeneas' foundation. If you like budding adolescents
Any number of (guaranteed) maidens are here to delight
Your roving eye. Your prefer young women? They'll charm you
By the thousand, you won't know which to choose.
And if you happen to fancy a more mature, experienced
Age-group, believe me, they show up in droves.

Here's what to do. When the sun's on the back of Hercules'
Lion, stroll down some shady colonnade,
Pompey's, say, or Octavia's (for her dead son Marcellus:
Extravagant marble facings, R.I.P.),
Or Livia's, with its gallery of genuine Old Masters,
Or the Danaids' Portico (note
The artwork: Danaus' daughters plotting mischief for their cousins,
Father attitudinizing with drawn sword).
Don't miss the shrine of Adonis, mourned by Venus,
Or the synagogue—Syrian Jews
Worship there each Sabbath—or the linen-clad heifer-goddess's
Memphian temple: Io makes many a maid what she
Was to Jove. The very courts are hunting-grounds for passion;
Amid lawyers' rebuttals love will often be found.
Here, where under Venus' marble temple the Appian
Fountain pulses its jets high in the air,
Your jurisconsult's entrapped by love's beguilements—
Counsel to others, he cannot advise himself.
Here, all too often, words fail the most eloquent pleader,
And a new sort of case comes on—his own. He must
Defend himself for a change, while Venus in her nearby
Temple snickers at this reversal of roles.

Meet the Author

Lisa Rodensky is Assistant Professor of English at Wellesley College, and author of The Crime in Mind (OUP, 2003). .

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