Aestheticism and Decadence in “Tirala-tirala…” by Henry Harland

© Copyright 2017 Brileigh McCrank, Ryerson University

The Short Story “Tirala-tirala”

I will examine Henry Harland’s “Tirala-tirala…” in Volume 6 of The Yellow Book. The story provides a sensory experience that may seem like extravagant details, however, by further analysis, it is evident that through its style of the writing, the text is an object of beauty and artistic expression. In the story, the narrator depicts his childhood by describing a decadent music box that provokes nostalgic memories of his family’s home in the countryside of Saint-Graal. Through the story’s celebration of “art for art’s sake,” it participates in an aesthetic and decadent discourse that was established in the Victorian 1890s.

Understanding Aesthetic and Decadent Elements

Unknown. “The Oxford Music Hall.” Pen and ink drawing, 1875. Wikimedia Commons, 2017. Public Domain.

While both aestheticism and decadence share familiar traits, it is critical to analyze what sets them apart in order to understand their significance within literature. Decadence and aestheticism both originated in France, to describe mid-19th century writers, though aestheticism was specifically recognized within poetry. The main difference between the two terms is what they are used to describe. Aestheticism typically describes the beauty that the literature reflects, whereas, decadence, the word itself means “a process of ‘falling away’ or decline” and is used to describe the sensual experiences, usually derived from exotic and ancient objects (Burdett). Even though they are two different concepts, they tend to overlap within literature, specifically within The Yellow Book.

Aestheticism is traditionally described as “elitist and exclusionary” but throughout the 1890s, as more writers contributed to the movement this concept became adaptable (Townley 523). The Yellow Book provides evidence to this argument because it redefines the notion of aestheticism by including both men and women. This inclusivity allows for more accurate representations of aesthetic and decadent elements because it provides the individual perspectives of writers with talent, rather than writers with status.

Harland’s Contributions in Redefining Aestheticism

By analyzing “Tirala-tirala…” it is possible to see how aestheticism and decadence complement each other and how their differences create individual modes of engagement. Since Harland was the only author who contributed at least one story to every volume of the Yellow Book, it is evident that he not only participated in creating content to support the aesthetic movement, but he also was able to reshape and redefine The Yellow Book as an aesthetic magazine because of his status as an editor.

The Yellow Book and Harland redefine the traditional notion of aestheticism by being inclusive rather than elitist. Even if we consider Harland a prestige writer, in which one writes for other scholars, and therefore is considered elitist because of his status as both and editor and a writer. It is possible to argue that being an editor, he had to include a broad selection of aesthetic texts and authors in order to popularize the magazine and include 1890s culture (Townley 531). From this, it is evident that even though the definition of aestheticism prioritizes “art for art’s sake” the economical politics would nevertheless have an influential impact on Harland’s decisions in order to build the magazine into a success. Therefore, after the circulation of The Yellow Book in the 1890s, it is evident that the aesthetic movement can be redefined as an inclusive and individual in which feminine and masculine ideals of beauty and appreciations of art were portrayed.

Influential Decadent Authors in the 1890s

A central figure within the decadent movement in England was Oscar Wilde. While writing “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde set the foundation for decadent writing by including “sensual experiments” (Burdett). He did so by surrounding the protagonist, Dorian Gray, with exotic objects, such as perfumes and collectable jewels that demonstrated artistic objects in the sense of their material age. Likewise, Harland uses the same method of describing antique objects, particularly a music box “made of polished mahogany…lined with pink velvet and white brocaded silk” (Harland 71). In order to evoke a sensuous experience, Harland uses a variety of materials in which the reader can imagine their different textures and he ultimately proves their beauty in which the reader can reflect and see the story as a beautiful object. Therefore, in using these exotic objects to provoke emotion, both authors are able to portray decadence. From this, one will see how The Yellow Book not only participates in the decadent movement, but how it also became a defining document of the 1890s.

Harland’s Writing as Aesthetic and Decadent

Beginning the text, Harland describes how a “musical phase” had an “irresistible power to move [him]” (Harland 65). From this opening line, the reader expects an explanation, in which Harland elaborates on the description of the “tune,” without even giving a specific song (Harland 65). But more so, explains how the music affects him, both physically and mentally. His relationship with the music is provocative because Harland is able to jump from a talisman, into the historical story behind the catalyst of these nostalgic emotions (Harland 65). This is significant because it reflects the stream of consciousness writing that Harland develops using vivid language in order to bring the reader on a journey with him, rather than other political or social insight; his writing is instead focused on the experience of the individual.

As critic Sarah Townley suggests, this style of writing takes into account “the complex three-way relationship between the writer, reader, and art object” which is shown as the story progresses (Townley 525). The narrator speaks to the reader when he comes across a Map of the World, “until you had experienced it closely, you would have thought it a carefully finished steel-engraving” (Harland 68). By using “you,” instead of “I,” Harland incorporates the reader into his story by evoking their imagination, as if they were there. This evidence demonstrates how the focus of an art object allows the writer to create an aesthetic dialogue that follows the three-way relationship. By creating a dialogue between the Map of the World and the reader, Harland transforms the narrator’s individual experience into a joint and inclusive experience. Critiques claim that aesthetic writers either use “artistic individuality” or “redirected toward the audience” Even though both are considered aesthetic, by involving the audience, the author is more successful because they are able to amplify the sensuous experience by creating a connection between the individual story and the individual experience.

“Tirala-tirala…” can also be considered a part of the decadent movement, because it evokes “modernity by means of antiquity” (Weir). Harland uses this concept from beginning to end, through the use of time. By beginning the story in the present, he sets up a period of modernity, that the reader can contrast with the middle of the story when the narrator jumps twenty-five years into the past. While the narrator describes his old life, it is evident that it is a period of antiquity because it illustrates the antiques that belonged to his grandparents as relics that carried history with them. These antiques further portray the idea of decadence because they reveal decay. Harland describes items, “old spurs, old swords, old guns and pistols” as having “an ancient smell” (Harland 67). Through the use of aging language, as well as the use of evoking the senses, such as “smell,” Harland portrays the decline of these objects while using aesthetic techniques, thus demonstrating how his writing follows the cohesive concept of “Aesthetic-Decadent aesthetics” (Claes and Demour 134). It is clear that decadence plays a crucial role in developing the story’s status as an object of beauty, because the use of decaying objects reminds the reader of the subjective perimeters of beauty through the use of age. By combining Aesthetics and Decadence into one overlapping idea, Harland proves to be influential as he used his own writing as well as his editing skills in order to assemble an avant-garde magazine that both contributes and defines the aesthetic and decadent culture of the 1890s Britain (Barbara Schmidt).

Other Aesthetic and Decadent Texts Within Volume 6

By comparing Harland’s work to other authors within The Yellow Book, volume 6, it will be possible to understand how their stories cohesively participated in making The Yellow Book a contributor to both the aesthetic and decadent movements. The poem, “A Madrigal” by Olive Custance, also participates in aesthetic content in volume 6 of The Yellow Book. Throughout the poem vivid colors are mentioned, “sunlike hair,” “blue bright eyes,” “red tint thy lips,” contrasted with the very fact that Custance is speaking about the soul demonstrates how life can imitate art. While portraying the soul as beautiful, the writer follows the characteristics of the aesthetic movement. Furthermore, she writes about “songs,” and ends her poem with “dream with me,” which points to music and time which are defiant elements to decadence (Custance 215-216). Like Harland, Custance draws on sensory experiences in order to establish its ability to reflect beauty and create a connection with the reader, rather than serve a moral purpose. Custance’s contributions were critical in making The Yellow Book an avant-garde magazine because she was a female writer. A question still examined by critics is “whether or not the periodical challenged or reinforced the Victorian social norms regarding women” but through the writing of female writers in The Yellow Book, it is possible to see how their contributions frame the book into becoming an inclusive and accessible text (Marcovitch 86).

The following story in volume 6, after Custance’s poem, is “The Dead Wall” by H. B. Marriott Watson. From the title of this story it is possible to see its decadent theme, as the wall is obviously decaying. Reading into the story further, the narrator describes the house as “the inferior parts of the window formed a blind of stained glass, but the grey light flowed through the upper panes into a magnificent wilderness” (Watson 223). This imagery demonstrates how the use of color and movement within the description of an object, provokes the senses and creates a connection between the reader and the text. The reader is able to not only see, but feel the beauty that the object reflects. Furthermore, the fact that Watson turns “inferior parts” into something beautiful, shows the significance of decadence. The decaying element of the object adds to its meaning because of its ability to be contrasted with the natural beauty of the wilderness. Thus, similar to Harland’s writing, Watson uses decadent details in order to portray the aesthetic beauty of his literature.

Pen and ink drawing of the audience of a Wagner opera.
Aubrey Beardsley. “The Wagnerites.” Pen and ink drawing from The Yellow Book, vol. 3, 1895. The Yellow Nineties Online, 2010, www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YB3_beardsley_wagnerites.html. Public Domain.

The Yellow Book’s Participation in Aestheticism

Another feature all three stories within the volume portray is the mention of the color yellow. This color is significant because of its association “with all that was bizarre and queer in art and life, with all that was outrageously modern” which explains why The Yellow Book was considered an avant-garde text (Kooistra and Denisoff). Therefore, it is also important to consider the way the design of the book itself as well as the cover illustrations aided in marking The Yellow Book avant-garde. The illustrator of The Yellow Book’s covers, Aubrey Beardsley used “innovative shapes and lines and bold use of black and white shape” in order to create the distinctive and impressionable images that represented the content of the volumes (Burdett). As you can see in the pen and ink drawing, “The Wagnerites” the image in almost entirely black, however, the addiction of the of the white shapes creates a distinct image of women in a theatre.

As proven before, the magazine reflected aesthetic values through the writing of authors such as Harland, Custance and Watson, however, by also creating an aesthetic image for the magazine, it furthered The Yellow Book’s participation in the aesthetic movement because of its multiple levels of content. This content transported the magazine from a text, into an artistic monument that embodies the values of Victorian culture.


Works Cited

  • Burdett, Carolyn. “Aestheticism and decadence.” British Library. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/aestheticism-and-decadence
  • Claes, Koenraad, and Marysa Demoor. “The Little Magazine in the 1890s: Towards a ‘Total Work of Art’.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, vol. 91, no. 2, 2010, pp. 133-149.
  • Custance, Olive. “A Madrigal.” The Yellow Book, vol 6, 1895, pp. 215-16. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisof and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson Universty, 2011. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV6_custance_madrigal.html
  • Weir, David. “Decadence.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press, 2014. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Reference. 2014. Date Accessed 20 Nov. 2017 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199747108.001.0001/acref-9780199747108-e-210>.
  • Harland, Henry. “Tirala-tirala…” The Yellow Book, vol. 6, 1895, pp. 65-76. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV6_harland_tira.html
  • Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen and Dennis Denisoff. “Introduction to the Yellow Nineties.” The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=Intro_Y90s.html
  • Marcovitch, Heather. “The Yellow Book: Reshaping the Fin De Siècle.” Literature Compass, vol. 13, no. 2, 2016, pp. 79-87.
  • Schmidt, Barbara. “Henry Harland (1861-1905).” The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=harland_bio.html
  • Watson, H. B. Marriott. “The Dead Wall.” The Yellow Book 6 (July 1895): 221-248. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV6_watson_dead.html

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

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