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SHERRY Vincent, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015 (333 p.). ISBN 978-1107079328
Catherine Delyfer
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Sherry Vincent, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015 (333 p.). ISBN 978-1107079328

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  • 1 Some of his earlier publications on the subject include ‘From the Twenties to the Nineties: Pound, (...)

1Recent editor of The Cambridge History of Modernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), Vincent Sherry is a preeminent specialist of British and Irish modernism, the literature of the First World War, and authors such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound. But he has also had a long-standing interest in the notions of literary lateness vs. modernity, in fin de siècle decadence, and in the art of reading modernism backward—from the 1920s to the 1890s.1 His latest monograph, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence, offers the reader a distillation of Sherry’s long engagement with, and vast scholarship on, the literature and legacy of decadence, the poetics of modernism, and the politics of historiography and literary theory. As such it is an exacting, but highly rewarding, volume which persuasively and relentlessly demonstrates the need ‘to reclaim the idea of “decadence” in the formation of modernist literature’ (Sherry ix).

2The introduction offers rich and illuminating analyses of key texts and pronouncements of the turn of the century, in particular by Ezra Pound and Arthur Symons. Going back to the first number of The Egoist of 1 January 1914, in which Pound presented the modernists of the 1910s and their ‘poetics of vital voice’ as radically opposed to the writerly style of the nineties, Sherry shows that Pound’s own style in this text borrows heavily from the vocabulary and cadences of the fin de siècle writers he is ostensibly rejecting. Sherry’s incisive overview of the scholarship of modernism in the twentieth century further demonstrates that Pound is only one of the first in a long series of critics—from Glenn Hughes to Frank Kermode, Lionel Trilling, and Alfred Kazin, and from Edmund Wilson to Hugh Kenner, Irving Howe, and Harry Levin—who have constructed our understanding of modernism as ‘novelty’ and occluded the importance of decadence as a primary poetic material for the early modernists, thus suppressing the legacy of the nineties in the critical history of modernism. Like Michael North before him, Sherry reminds us that ‘[n]ot concocted until 1934, […] “make it new” was not the ordaining precept it has become, now, in the regular refrains of critical appreciation for the major instigations of literary modernism’ (14).

3Interestingly, Sherry shows how such ‘labor of displacement’ (15) in the criticism of modernism begins in fact with Arthur Symons’s 1899 The Symbolist Movement in Literature, a book which ‘was hailed for more than a century as the hallmark volume for the inception as well as the understanding of modernist poetics’ (4). But, as the author points out, this volume was in reality an expansion and a retitling of Symons’s earlier pronouncements in ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ (1893). Through a comparative textual and contextual analysis of these two publications, Sherry convincingly argues that the replacement of ‘decadent’ with ‘symbolist’ was a strategic step with political (rather than literary) implications. By downplaying the most creative and subversive aspects of the literature of the nineties, Symons’s volume contributed to muting decadence—turning it into a mere mood, associated with deliquescence, endings and corruption—while ‘symbolism’, on the other hand, was granted the status of theory and equated with progressive innovation and new beginnings. On this point, Sherry finds Walter Benjamin’s critical work on Baudelaire and the origins of decadence of fundamental importance for a better understanding of the connections between some of the major works of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century literatures. According to the author, Benjamin’s extensive critique of ‘symbol’ vs. Baudelairian ‘allegory’, especially, delineates how the poetics of decadence developed into a poetics of modernism. For Sherry as for Benjamin, then, ‘“Decadence” was—and is—a word for some of the most disturbing and tradition-shaking qualities in modernism’ (20-21).

4Though the period under scrutiny may, at first, be expected to cover only a couple of decades at the turn of the twentieth century, Sherry’s meticulous literary analyses and ambitious theoretical claims in fact take the reader on a long journey to reassess literary culture from the late eighteenth century to the 1950s, from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805) to Samuel Beckett’s postwar trilogy The Unnamable (1951-1953). Indeed, Sherry’s overarching argument consists in connecting literary and political history, by tracing the sensibility of decadence back to romanticism—decadence is indeed sometimes represented as ‘late’ or ‘decayed’ romanticism—and, more precisely, back to the later Romantics’ increasing sense of loss in response to the repeated failure of European revolution. Bridging late romanticism and early modernism through the Decadents, Sherry invites us to attend to the ongoing ‘conversation of loss’ (40) which was first experienced by the Romantics, accepted and stylized by the writers of the eighteen nineties, and finally magnified and sustained in the Modernists’ response to the catastrophic debacle of the first, and then the second, World War.

5In his first chapter, Sherry follows the turns the sensibility of decadence takes as the late Romantics’ vision of historical loss gradually informs a sense of temporal dispossession. He shows that the impossibility of renewal ultimately leads to the failure of the value of futurity, but at the same time produces technical inventions in the works of W. Wordsworth, P. B. Shelley, Lord Byron, S. T. Coleridge, De Quincey, as well as E. A. Poe, C. Baudelaire, K. Marx, C. A. Swinburne, D. G. Rossetti, Max Beerbohm, O. Wilde, A. Symons and W. B. Yeats. Chapter 2 focuses on historical fiction and modernist novelists such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, C. K. Chesterton, D. H. Lawrence, Frederic Manning and Rebecca West, in order to show how these writers extended and adapted a poetics of decadence. Chapters 3 and 4 offer detailed readings of the backward orientations and decadent negativity of two of the primary poets of Anglo-American modernism, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, while in his afterword Sherry extends his interpretations to later authors, such as Djuna Barnes or Samuel Beckett.

6Though one might regret the fact that Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence does not include studies of less canonical Modernists in its reconsideration of literary history, Sherry himself justifies his choice by asserting that his intention was ‘to magnify and clarify the presence of decadence within the hallmark work of literary modernism’ (36). And that, he does brilliantly.

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1 Some of his earlier publications on the subject include ‘From the Twenties to the Nineties: Pound, Beerbohm, and the Making of Mauberley’, Poetry Nation Review, 20 (May-June 1994), 40-42; ‘T. S. Eliot, Late Empire, and Decadence’, Modernism and Colonialism, ed. Michael Valdez Moses and Richard Begam (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 111-35; ‘Beginning in a Late Day: Decadence and Modernism in Pound’s Early Literary Criticism’, in Ezra Pound in Context, ed. Ira Nadel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 13-23; ‘War and Empire, Modernism and Decadence’, in The Blackwell Companion to Modernist Poetry, ed. David Chinitz and Gail McDonald (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), 119-31; ‘Decadence and Poetic Modernism’, in A History of Modernist Poetry, ed. Alex Davis and Lee Jenkins (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015), 139-156.

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Catherine Delyfer, « SHERRY Vincent, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 15 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Delyfer

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès

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