The aesthetic movement came about in the later Victorian period, fading out between 1895 and 1901. The movement itself was devoted to the idea that art held no didactic or moral purpose and rather, should be created to capture beauty, and only once it had been divorced from functionality could it be "true". The aesthetes — as they called themselves in England — were known by those they opposed as the 'decadents,' and one of their leaders was the Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde. He wrote many important pieces, arguably the most famous of which is The Importance of Being Earnest, but I intend to focus this on two of his poems "Les Balloons" and "Symphony in Yellow", in particular on the presence of the butterfly in each.
The first of these two poems opens with a picture of balloons:
Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies;
A common theme amongst the aesthetes was the use of colors and the visual or written representation of movement. Wilde describes the balloons as dipping, drifting and fluttering along, clearly at the mercy of the wind. The presence of the wind appears in the pattern with which these balloons dance about and, as are all things that can be moved by the wind, these balloons are in the end fragile man-made creations — something he emphasizes in the words "silken butterflies"; neither the idea of silk or the thought of a butterfly conjures up strong images, but rather of something fleeting, something which is gentle and soft and delicate, something which will be gone before it loses its beauty.
The short-lived nature of butterflies was, I suppose, an appealing one to an aesthete: they transform from unremarkable caterpillars into these beautiful winged dancers which seem capable of drawing joy out of nearly anyone. The butterfly is nature's very own Ugly Duckling story and so the growth of something handsome and slight shows both the simultaneous level of visual pleasure that can be achieved and also the terribly brief nature of life. This idea as it applies to humans is implied in Wilde's other poem, "Symphony in Yellow".
An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.
Once again, an artificially created object is described as a butterfly (this time the omnibus) and Man himself is demoted to a small bug.
What does Wilde get at by drawing up images of fragile, beautiful creatures that live fragile, beautiful fleeting-lives in relation to the constructions of humanity? Is he alluding to the short life of a given person or the very minimal presence of mankind over the course of Earth's history?
Is he commenting on humans so much, or rather the buildings we erect or the monuments to our own existence we create? For no matter how stunning the architecture, no matter how exquisite the craftsmanship, everything we as a species has ever built (as Ruskin says in "Traffic") has fallen apart bit-by-bit, nothing yet able to stand the test of time.
Is Wilde showing how frail our existence is in comparison to the eternal Nature? Or is he showing how both humanity and everything in nature are equally fragile, beautiful creations that live equally fragile, beautiful fleeting-lives?
Last modified 28 April 2010