The narrative voice of Diminuendo" reveals how Max Beerbohm treats his recent collegiate years as ancient history. Despite being published in 1896, a mere six years after "the year of grace 1890" when Beerbohm "was a freshman at Oxford," the tone of a mature aesthete envelopes the essay and best reflects the characteristic blending of self-devaluation and self-praise. After criticizing the well-known author, Walter Pater, Beerbohm esteems, and thus distinguishes himself from fellow Oxford colleagues.
Bitter were the comparisons I drew between my Coming to Oxford and the coming of Marius to Rome. Could it be that there was at length no beautiful environment wherein a man might sound the harmonies of his soul? Had civilisation made beauty, besides adventure, so rare? I wondered what counsel Pater, insistent always upon contact with comely things, would offer to one who could nowhere find them.
Beerbohm continues describing how he must "unswitch [himself] from [his] surroundings, to guard [his] soul from contact with the unlovely things that compassed it about" and "shield [his] body from the world" with the intention "that [his] mind might range over it, not hurt nor fettered." As Beerbohm reasons a life plan, he criticizes acclaimed figures, including the Prince of Wales, and boyish students at Oxford, for lacking or not creating time to "contemplate the world," much unlike himself.
Self-praise aside, Beerbohm begins devaluating the reclusive life he argues for throughout the essay within the last paragraph. Surprisingly Beerbohm admits, "I shall write no more" as he feels "to be a trifle outmoded" by "younger men" "with fresher schemes and notions." It appears Beerbohm acknowledges the "wings to the mind" and remains within the realm of contemplation and thought — a realm he praises and simultaneously degrades on account of being a scribe with a diminuendo affect on the world.
When reading "Diminuendo" the audience should keep in mind the parody, which is Max Beerbohm's age. He was actually 24 when the work was published.
1. Beerbohm said, "My gifts are small. I've used them very well and discretely, never straining them; and the result is that I've made a charming little reputation." Within this quote and "Diminuendo" the combination of self-praise and self-devaluation elements adorn Beerbohm's words. How can the combination of the two be conceived as an effective writing style? Does the blending of the two elements distract readers from Beerbohm's focus in his essay or is the blending more or less the main focus?
2. This essay and others of Beerbohm were published in the Yellow Book. In the later years of the Victorian Era, the Yellow Book was a leading British journal associated with Aestheticism and Decadence. The Book contained a wide range of genres including poetry, short stories, essays, book illustrations, portraits, and reproductions of paintings. Perhaps more interesting, the periodical was clothbound, contained no serial fiction, and no advertisements. Were books like this common in the Victorian Era? If so, were they all clothbound with no serial fiction and no advertisements?
3. Within the essay, Beerbohm compares his coming to Oxford to the coming of Marius to Rome. Does Beerbohm truly believe he is the "Marius" of his time? Why else would he draw this comparison?
In Gavin Shulman's question set for English 171, Sages and Satirists, he asks, "Does Beerbohm truly believe that his time has come to give way to a younger and fresher generation of writers? If not, then what does the irony of his statements suggest?" In addition to Galvin's first question, consider if Beerbohm's actual age was unknown to the audience.
4. Why would Beerbohm insert phrases and individual words of different languages within his essay? Is such usage intended for mocking purposes?
Chevalier, Tracy. "Max Beerbohm." Encyclopedia of the Essay 1997. Taylor & Francis. 23 Apr 2009.
Last modified 23 April 2009