There's a murmur on the hillside
And there's laughter on the sea,
But the day that brings forth gladness
Brings my sorrow unto me.
All along the sunny beaches
Laughs the world beside the sea,
But the laughter is with others
And the sorrow rests with me.
]"Nothing" from Caprices, 1893, p. 38.)
Because there is a certain surface resemblance between the lyrics of these two writers, and because Arthur Symons is, incontestably, the greater talent of the two, there is a tendency to view Wratislaw as little more than a clever copyist. However this conclusion is not altogether true and demeans the memory of a writer who was, au fond, his own man. I intend to look at several poems drawn from Wratislaw's major collections, Caprices (1893) and Orchids (1896) both of which have been conveniently reprinted in a single volume format. Page numbers given in this article refer to the first editions of both volumes, published by Gay & Bird and Leonard Smithers respectively.
Caprices is a slim volume of slight but entertaining lyrics. The various dedications attached to the poems show Wratislaw to have been connected--in fact or by wishful thinking--to many of the leading representatives of the artistic avant-garde of his day. One might therefore expect the poems to be a bit more adventuresome than they in fact are. These are, for the most part, backward looking poems. There is more than a whiff of "L' Ancien Regime" in this volume, its lyrics in praise of frangipani and opoponax notwithstanding.
Most of the poems in Caprices are love songs. As a love poet Wratislaw's temperament is quite different than that of Arthur Symons. For Symons love is always a strain upon his nerves, and therefore the tone of Symons's basic love lyric is always anxiety. When Symons tries to be lighthearted about his amours, he is never really able to bring it off. In poems such as "Trance" (p. 2) and "Satiety" (p. 3) Wratislaw is able to capture just the right note of lightness. Truthfully, Wratislaw resembles Dowson more than he does Symons in that he is always more likely to eschew tortured nerves preferring instead to introduce a note of delicate melancholy to the proceedings. This side of the poet's personality is best seen in a poem like "The Relic" (p. 28). Wratislaw the "fiddler of his amours" is seen at his best in "Envy" (p. 14). Here we have almost a throwback to the Cavalier lyrics of the Seventeenth Century, as the poet dreams of being a violin nestled snuggly at his beloved's breast.
Wratislaw gives the standard "carpe diem" theme a Grecian cast in "Inscription" (p. 29). He addresses his living readers from beyond the grave, which may have seemed affected in 1893, when the poet was alive and well, but certainly works more affectively now. Wratislaw can, when he so chooses, play the social observer in verse, but I don't believe that the literary credo of Impressionism ever meant as much to him as it did to Symons. For Symons the details added up to the image, and the image was of major importance. Wratislaw is more interested in the message, the moral if you will. He can write a lyric like "Going Upstairs''(p. 5) which presents the reader with a series of sharply drawn impressions of the comings and goings of tenants in a rooming house, but what he really wants to do is get to the poet scribbling away in his little room. Because the poem is less about the fellow roomers than it is about the poet's isolation and sadness. "In the Season" (p. 23) offers Wratislaw's take on what we have come to recognize as a "femme fatale" He depicts her in all her glory proudly riding in her carriage down Rotten Row. Once again "In the Country" (p. 29) reveals Wratislaw to be a more old-fashioned poet than Symons. Wratislaw may introduce an impressionist passage for effect, but it will never be the be-all-and-end-all of the poem for him. For Symons it is enough to present the image--to paint the picture as it were--then leave the reader to read his or her own meanings into it. But Wratislaw follows his own instincts and manages to turn the impressionist abstractions of the first stanzas into a conventional opening for what ends as a melancholy love lyric.
I'm not at all certain that there would have been much of a future for Wratislaw in merely echoing Symons. And I suspect that Wratislaw recognized that fact. "The Edorado" (p. 30), for example, certainly seems a "night-life" poem à la Symons until you come to the last two lines, which reveal it to be a piece of irony. (A thing rarely encountered anywhere in Symons' hyper-serious lines.) "Illusions" (p. 33) again reveals Wratislaw the ironist at work, but without the mass of Symons-inspired imagery. Along with "The Eldorado," poems like "Frangipani" (p. 35) and Opoponax" (p. 36) most quickly lead the casual reader to assume that Theodore Wratislaw is an Arthur Symons-manqu&eacure; and nothing more. But in truth naming poems after things--perfumes, jewels, fabrics, nightclubs--was in the late-nineteenth-century air. (American poets like George Fawcett and Francis Saltus Saltus were doing it even before Symons and the British Decadents.) The idea of course was to "describe" the titular object in a poetically apt way. Wratislaw, if not the best at this game, isn't the worst either. Of the two perfume-poems contained in Caprices, I prefer the second in which Wratislaw dubs opoponax "blonde perfume of the painted girl."
One of the final poems in the collection, "A Rendezvous" (p. 39) is a cunningly put-together lyric. The poet awaits his beloved. A thunderstorm gathers. The poet realizes that he's been stood up. The storm breaks. The poem concludes "she has not come / And the weary day wears on." Not The Waste Land perhaps, but a nicely done, professional job. "A Ballet Dancer" (p. 41) takes a favorite theme of Symons' and uses one of his own lines as an epigraph. The poem is the closest of any in Caprices to being "a Symons poem." Yet another Symons-esque lyric, "A Mood" (p. 47) is actually dedicated to Symons. The first half sounds uncannily like a Symons poem, while the second, in which sorrow finds repose is more in Wratislaw's own voice.
In 1896 Leonard Smithers, who took up the cause of literary Decadence following its abandonment by John Lane in the aftermath of the Wilde debacle, published Wratislaw's second slender volume of verse. Orchids is Decadence par excellance. Gone are the name-dropping dedications to individual poems. Gone too is the tone of wistful melancholy. The poems in Orchids are clearly meant to shock the bourgeoisie out of a year's growth. The great problem with this type of poetry--as is clearly illustrated by the fate of American decadent poet Park Barnitz--is that this type of verse makes many readers uncomfortable. The readers respond by refusing to read the verse. Even the more stouthearted waste a good deal of time trying to decide whether the poet is dead serious or simply having a joke at their expense. Then if they decide that he is serious, the question becomes one of the poet's sanity. The author is either madman or fool--anything in fact but a poet.
Wratislaw's forte remains the love poem, so a good deal of his decadence naturally revolves around the peripatetic quality of his love life. Early on in the volume we encounter the poem "Her Photograph" which contains this interesting portrait of the poet as masochist:
". . . In the hall you dance and sing
I pursue a stupid rhyme,
Just to make my heart-strings ache
And to kill the length of time" ["Her Photograph," Orchids, p. 5)]
In "Sonnet Macabre" (p. 11) the decadent praises his lady--her naughtiness draws him to her. One wonders does she know this? Or does she assume that she's not quite good enough for this poet-dandy--if only she could live a more upright, respectable life, etc., etc. "To Salome at St. James's" (p. 12) is one of those poems that makes one wonder whether the poet isn't pouring it on a little bit thick in describing what is clearly a garden-variety "good-time girl." This is another danger inherent in writing verse in a consciously decadent manner. It's so easy to overdo things and an element of risibility immediately shows itself.
This is not to imply that all of the poems in Orchids suffer from this drawback. "Impression" (p. 16), despite its nondescript title, is a fairly ingenious work. The poet, while seated in a crowded train compartment, daydreams about fondling his latest beloved. "Etchings IV: Une Passade" (p. 21) contains this atypical mention of God: "Only in God's book lingers yet / The record of our sins." It's not usual for a Decadent to give God much thought. Satan is a more interesting subject. Interestingly, there was only one poem, "Palm Sunday" in the Caprices collection that dealt with religion, and in it Wratislaw took a decidedly casual view of religious observations. "Hothouse Flowers" (p. 23) offers Wratislaw's own definition of Decadence. Perhaps the most telling difference between Wratislaw and Symons is that Symons passed through his Impressionist/Decadent phase fairly quickly to arrive at Symbolism, which became his literary credo of choice. Wratislaw never moved beyond being a Decadent who occasionally utilizes an Impressionist technique. Some of his more heated (and therefore less successful) Decadent productions do seem strangely like the poems of Symons' later (post-breakdown) period. A Wratislaw lyric such as "Tannhauser" (p. 31) would scarcely seem out of place in Symon's collection Love's Cruelty. (I might add that "Tannhauser," as well as "Bryrhildr" and "Siegfried" all attest to Wratislaw's good standing as a Wagnerian.)
Although "Palm Sunday" suggested that Wratislaw's religion was largely a social convention, Orchids has one last shock in store for the readers bold enough to reach its latter pages. The four "Songs to Elizabeth" (pp. 32-36) offer an interesting use of religious imagery in the service of conventional amatory verse. Initially this would appear to be one more example of the Decadent being 'shocking" in his attitudes. After all, "Modern Friends" (p. 36), the next poem in the volume concludes with a cynical apostrophe to "the saint of our times," St. Judas. But there is a bit of a sea-change under way. Three of the final four poems in the collection, "A Litany" (p. 52), "Ave Maria Stella" (p. 53) and "Spes et Fides" (p. 54) are straight religious poetry with no irony or blasphemy intended. "Spes et Fides" is especially well-suited to act as "the closer" in that it serves as The Decadent's Confiteor. Decadence and Religiosity often find themselves walking hand-in-hand. (The French Symbolist poet Adolphe Rette serving as perhaps the most remarkable example of the trend.)
But for his Orchids farewell, "A Rondel of Adieu" (p. 55), Wratislaw reverts to his Caprices persona of melancholy cavalier. He should have quit while he was ahead, but perhaps one of the distinguishing features of minor poets is their not knowing when to call it quits.
Last modified: 16 October 2003