By the time Edward Plunkett began his writing career as Lord Dunsany with the 1905 publication of The Gods of Pegana with illustrations by Sidney Sime, most of the great Decadents were dead or dying: Huysmans (d. 1907) outlived Wilde (d. 1900) and Beardsley (d. 1898). Symbolism held sway and Art Nouveau had peaked, and both exerted no little influence on the dream-like fairy tales and curving compositions of the Irish collaborators. Dunsany's invented mythologies are Symbolist from the first line: "In the mists before THE BEGINNING, Fate and Chance cast lots to decide whose the Game should be"; Sime's accompanying illustration of Mana-Yood-Sushai, whose dreams are all the worlds, detaches itself just as firmly from any reality. But while rooted in dreams and imagination, theses fairy tales have in them a dark streak different from that in much of Symbolism, and while gazing at the heights of fancy they come back around to a pessimistic view of humanity, nature, and progress unmistakably Decadent.
Two works by Sidney Sime: Good-bye! and Inzana. [Click on thumbnails for larer images.]
There can be little doubt of the influence of the Symbolists on Dunsany. From the beginning of The Gods of Pegana, the world exists only so long as the first god continues dreaming while a drummer drums interminably on to his story of Time's love for the Sphinx in his Fifty-One Tales, he keeps with the Symbolist Manifesto; he certainly does not describe real-world phenomena for their own sake. For what sake, then, does he write about these fantasy worlds? At their core Dunsany's writings, specifically those illustrated by Sime, have a preoccupation with wonder and imagination, yes, but also with the petty and insignificant nature of mankind in the face of the vast expanses of Time and Space. He drives at "primodial ideas", again in line with the dictates of the Symbolist Manifesto. What Dunsany accomplishes with words Sime more than adequately accomplishes with pictures; subjects Symbolist as provided, his style bears the unmistakable curves of Art Nouveau, and the dream-bubbles over the head of Mana-Yood-Sushai, the sweep of his robes, and the small drummer with his curious hair on the bed of fog all create an aura of unreality, as full of shadows as Dunsany's writing is of unpleasant implications.
Decadents are defined by the progress by which they are surrounded and simultaneously disgusted; Dunsany catches this as succintly as possible in "What We Have Come To", one of his Fifty-One Tales:
When the advertiser saw the cathedral spires over the downs in the distance, he looked at them and wept.
"If only," he said, "this were an advertisement of Beefo, so nice, so nutritious, try it in your soup, ladies like it."
The rest of his Fifty-One Tales all go to reject or diminish progress; from "The Three Tall Sons", where Nature's children — War, Famine, and Plague — sneak up on Man in his Metropolis, to "The Food of Death", where Death goes around eating the various poisonous foodstuffs of the day ("the tinned meats of Chicago", "milk and borax"), to prepare for an outing to the cities of the world. Nature bears no particular goodwill towards Man either; "Nature and Time" ends with Time reminding Nature of the cities he destroyed for her — Babylon, Nineveh, Perspolis, and others — and Nature asking menacingly, "When will the fields come back and the grass for my children?". Seeing the modern age as corrupt and Nature as no refuge counts for more than a little credit as a Decadent, but the real marker lies in Dunsany's depictions of the futility of humanity. In writing of the god of little dreams and fancies, Dunsany mentions, without explanation, that those he does not visit "must endure all night the laughter of the gods, with highest mockery, in Pegana." The gods of Pegana do quite a lot of laughing, generally unexplained; nobody needs an explanation, as the tone of the stories carries though the cause: the shortness and insigificance of a man's life in comparison to the affairs of the gods. This ultimate point down, mediations on the weaknesses of human nature are unnecessary, though they're included for good measure: the camel drivers tell the tale of the statue in the desert no man has ever reached, a statue of a god who learned why the universe was created and ceased to be jolly; they conclude, "If Hoodrazai [the god] is so very wise and yet is sad, let us drink wine, and banish wisdom to the wastes". Though writing years after the bulk of the Decadents, the same distrust of Nature and Progress, the belief in the insignificance of man unredeemed by his petty nature, comes out in Dunsany's writing, even if in a manner different from that of the iconic Decadents.
The only thing surprising about Dunsany's resonance with the views of the Decadents is his timing — overlap between later Decadents and Symbolists was high because the schools of though are by no means incompatible. Symbolism offers a way of looking at the world, and Decadence supplies a specific range of conclusions. Dunsany and Sime stand out because their collaborations started late and grew not less but more decadent as time passed; the previous examples of distrust of Nature and Progress are drawn from Fifty-One Tales, written in 1915, when, following the war, even Art Nouveau was well on its way out. Despite his later dates and uniquely fantastic approach, he serves as an exemplary model of a Decadent.
Dunsany, Lord. Fifty-One Tales. Project Gutenberg.
Dunsany, Lord. The Gods of Pegana. Project Gutenberg.
Heneage, Simon and Henry Ford. Sidney Sime: Master of the Mysterious. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.
Last modified 15 May 2008