"The Ballad of a Barber" (text) tells of a master cosmetic artist overcome by the natural perfection of a young girl. The poem begins with a description of the barber as a creative artist, enhancing or replacing nature with artifice:

Such was his art he could with ease
Curl wit into the dullest face;
Or to a goddess of old Greece
Add a new wonder and a grace.

His talents are based upon his use of "powders, paints, and subtle dyes" and his in his hand "The razor was a magic wand." His work is contrasted with the natural beauty of the King's daughter, who "was joyous and as wild / as spring flowers when the sun is out." However, the narrator's question, "How came it then" that the artist failed, hinders the reading of the poem as a critique of the power of art. Aubrey Beardsley was an Aesthete with similar views to Oscar Wilde, who argued in "The Decay of Lying":

Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment."

Rather than despairing that his arts cannot enhance the beauty of the creature before him, the barber decides to symbolically reject the importance of nature to art by killing the girl, thereby creating an unnatural masterpiece. Thus, whereas Wilde claims that nature has unfortunately come to play a greater role in art, and "drives Art out into the wilderness," Beardsley looks forward to an art that will not restrict itself to the mere improvement of the raw material of nature.

Questions

1. "The Ballad of a Barber" was written in 1896, a year after the conviction of Oscar Wilde. How significant is this fact to the interpretation of the poem?

2. How does Beardsley's portrayal of the barber relate to his depictions of toilet scenes in his illustrations for "The Rape of the Lock" and Salome?

3. The barber is initially described as "modest", yet when he kills the girl "He felt as if he was alone / and mighty as a King's commands." What do you make of this change? What does it say about the status of the artist?

4. How is the reader expected to respond to this poem? What is the answer to the narrator's question?

References

Aesthetes and decadents of the 1890's: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose. Ed. Karl Beckson. Rev. Ed. Chicago: Academy, 1981.


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Aubrey Beardsley

Last modified 27 November 2006