For me, at least, the yearning of the Nineties poets is yearning at its best. Resigned, yes; melancholy, yes; but, for the most part, not querulous. This is in contrast to our modern world, in which the yearning is whiny, and all about things. The Decadent poets were not materialists. Their yearning was romantic and spiritual and aesthetic. I cannot fault them for this. Did they sometimes take their yearning too far? Perhaps. But better that than, say, placing one's faith in Science and Progress and Politics. We can all see where that has gotten us.
Harald Sohlberg, "Midsummer Night" (c. 1910)
Beyond the need of weeping,
Beyond the reach of hands,
May she be quietly sleeping,
In what dim nebulous lands?
Ah, she who understands!
The long, long winter weather,
These many years and days,
Since she, and Death, together,
Left me the wearier ways:
And now, these tardy bays!
The crown and victor's token:
How are they worth to-day?
The one word left unspoken,
It were late now to say:
But cast the palm away!
For once, ah once, to meet her,
Drop laurel from tired hands:
Her cypress were the sweeter,
In her oblivious lands:
Haply she understands!
Yet, crossed that weary river,
In some ulterior land,
Or anywhere, or ever,
Will she stretch out a hand?
And will she understand?
Ernest Dowson, Verses (1896).
Yes, it all seems -- to use Dowson's own words -- "dim" and "nebulous," doesn't it? Who is "she"? I haven't a clue. The practical-minded among us will say "bosh!" or "humbug!" Not I.
Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)
On the other hand, we mustn't think that the late-19th century was all of a piece. Consider, for instance, this:
I have trod the upward and the downward slope;
I have endured and done in days before;
I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope;
And I have lived and loved, and closed the door.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896).
One is not likely to think of Stevenson as a dreamy Nineties aesthete. There is a note of fortitude sounded here which one seldom finds in the Decadent poets. Bear in mind that Stevenson, given his poor health, was always staring Death in the face. He is certainly entitled to invoke some Decadent fatalism and melancholy. And perhaps he does, just a bit: "I have longed for all, and bid farewell to hope." But overall the tone is resolute -- similar to that of his "Requiem" (which has appeared here previously): "Glad did I live and gladly die,/And I laid me down with a will."
Moreover, Stevenson was willing to allow for the attainment, however brief, of Paradise on Earth.
Fair Isle at Sea -- thy lovely name
Soft in my ear like music came.
That sea I loved, and once or twice
I touched at isles of Paradise.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Poems (1916). The "fair Isle at Sea" is Samoa.
A small poem, a slight poem some might say, but I can never get over its loveliness.
Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)