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Group 5 Research: A Background of the Aesthetic Movement and an Examination of the Roles Within It

The Aesthetic Movement began toward the end of the 19th century. It was made up of many different kinds of art, including fine art, poetry, literature, and music. The movement was defined by the notion that “beauty was the most important element in life” (Easby 2016).

Artists were creating pieces of work that embodied this ideal. This ideal was also codified in terms of pure viscerality and emotions. The emotive portion of aestheticism is by far the most important part of the movement, with Aesthetes forgoing stringent codes of morality in art so as to achieve freedom. And as the aesthetic movement forwent morality, its texts were largely devoid of prescriptive moral messages, rather giving the maxim to live life as art, which is to live life free. There is a lot of confusion around who the person was who began this movement; however, some research shows that aestheticism was coined by Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne in literature specifically. This movement was known to be an important stepping stone to what is known as “modern art.” Poetry was a quintessential part of this movement, as a lot of the most influential works come from poets such as Morris, Swinburne, and Levy. Other influential writers such as Oscar Wilde were known to be “overly elaborate and ornate”, and utilized a more playful writing style.

  Morris, who was another very important writer during this time, instead “saw art as inseparable from political ideals” (Burdett 2014). In addition to this, Morris’ views can be interpreted as saying that separating art from politics carries a danger, for this monomaniac cult of Aestheticism will naturally reinforce bourgeois politics. The reinforcement comes via way of not using art as a political challenge and confronter, and the fact that artists of the Aesthetic movement were generally of the higher class (so, naturally they would see no issue with de-politicizing one of the most powerful tools for transformative change).These kinds of works and styles of writing were known as “creative as well as productive” (Burdett 2014). At the time, this style of writing and these writers were often seen as “alarming to the more conventional Victorians” (Burdett 2014). Aestheticism was often heavily criticized in the context of the time in which it was written in the form of satire in the news, especially when artists and writers would release these works.

Many aesthetic art pieces focused on beautiful women with long hair in stunning interiors decorated with peacock feathers and other luxuries. William Morris created stunning household textiles, wallpaper, and furniture. The most famous aesthetic artist, however, was acclaimed American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who is best known for his self portrait of his mother sitting in a chair in a gray interior with a stern look on her face. His simplistic representations were constantly looking for a story with which to connect his pieces, and Whistler himself asserted that “the vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story from which it may be supposed to tell” (Easby 2016).

Wilde and Bronte

After reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of the Reading Gaol” I couldn’t help but make connections between the narrator and to Cathy Linton. Both the narrator and Cathy are realists when it comes to love–the narrator saying that when you love something to let it go, and Cathy is also a realist when it comes to love, as she is with Hareton. There are many terms in this poem that remind me of “Wuthering Heights” just in general. For instance, there are several lines that talk about a wife in a coffin and this reminds me of Catherine Earnshaw. Yet, Wilde repeats the stanza, “I never saw a man who looked/With such a wistful eye/Upon that little tend of blue/Which prisoners call the sky,/“ and I think this stanza is referring to those such as Catherine and Heathcliff who do not ask any questions and simply believe what they are told.

Oscar Wilde’s Suffering & Wuthering Heights

In reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, I noticed the highly emotive language that is used throughout to describe Wilde’s experiences. Words like “suffering”, “sorrow”, “grey”, and “forgotten” pop out to the reader within the first few paragraphs. This transparency of feeling is juxtaposed by the reluctance in Wuthering Heights. Many times, the reader is left to piece together the pain of many of the main characters–particularly Heathcliff and Catherine–as the characters themselves have a difficult time coming to terms with their suffering.

Wilde and Tennyson on Sorrow

One connection I found particularly interesting this week is between Wilde’s thoughts on sorrow and Tennyson’s thoughts on grief. Wilde’s thoughts on sorrow as “one very long moment” in which “we can only record its moods” sounds strikingly similar to what Tennyson seems to do in “In Memoriam”. Recording his own moods in sorrow. I find this quite interesting, and wonder what prompted Wilde to write his thoughts on Sorrow.

Killing the ones you love

In Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” he writes from the perspective of a man in jail, witnessing another prisoner who’s being put to death for killing his love. He then takes this physical action of the man killing his love and turns it into an abstract idea that I believe suggests all men kill the things they love through toxic masculinity. Wilde writes, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves, By each let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!”, and goes on to outline other which ways men can go about killing their loves. I believe this is similar to Heathcliff and Catherine in how the issues between Edgar and Heathcliff drove Cathy to breaking. Their hypermasculinity drove the two men to fight over Cathy in a reductionistic sense that negated her validity as a person with autonomy, consequently killing the thing they loved.

Oscar Wilde’s Themes of Death Between Love Interests and How this Intersects with Wuthering Heights

Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaols an epic poem that shared many similarities in themes to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The first similarity is the descriptions of death between lovers in both texts. This can be seen in the quote, “He did not wear his scarlet coat/For blood and wine are red/And blood and wine were on his hands/When they found him with the dead/The poor dead woman whom he loved/ And murdered in her bed.” This description seemed almost identical to the circumstances of the death of Catherine Earnshaw, who also died in her bed. In addition, Heathcliff asked to be buried next to her, hence the line of being found with the dead.

Further similarities can be found when Wilde discusses how relationships can bring about death in partners during their youth or during old age. He says, “Some kill their love when they are young, / And some when they are old; / Some strangle with the hands of Lust, / Some with the hands of Gold: / The kindest use a knife, because / The dead so soon grow cold.” Catherine was ‘killed’ by Heathcliff when she was young, while Heathcliff died of sadness when he was much older. In addition, when Catherine died, it was snowing, windy, and cold.

Death by love

A connection I made was between “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, by Oscar Wilde and Wuthering Heights. The lines “Some kill their love when they are young,

And some when they are old;

Some strangle with the hands of Lust,

Some with the hands of Gold:

The kindest use a knife, because

The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,

Some sell, and others buy;

Some do the deed with many tears,

And some without a sigh:

For each man kills the thing he loves,

Yet each man does not die.”

remind me of the love battle between Catherine, Heathcliff and Linton. In the end, everybody kills the things they love in different ways. The poem could be used as a representation of how Catherine killed her love for all of the men in her life and in turn ended up killing herself and Heathcliff too. There is a repetition of love killing the people involved.

Prison Life Comparrison

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, the horrible prison conditions described really reminded me of how Newgate Prison was depicted in Great Expectations. In chapter 32 of the novel the prison is described as being disorganized and suffers from serious neglect both to the building and the prisoners who are held inside. The prison has no formal regulations and left prisoners to do as they pleased. When Pip visits Newgate Prison he describes it as being very depressing. This is the same in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde wonders how a person could be put in such a horrible, depressing place such as the one described in the text. Prisons were quiet horrible during these times and often had multiple prisoners placed together in one cell so that they would barely walk around freely. Both of these depictions of prison life paint a very dreary picture in the readers mind. However, over the course of many years, thankfully there have been numerous improvements of prison facilities and also with the treatment of the inmates.

Wilde and Tennyson

In reading Oscar Wilde’s letter “De Profundis,” I noticed some striking similarities to the poem “In Memoriam” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Both works talk of suffering, and Wilde mentions the death of his mother, paralleling Tennyson’s entire poem being about the death of a friend. Wilde states in his letter that “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.” I understand this to mean that sorrow is in some ways a pact with God, something to be experienced in holy repose, but also has the potential to bring good. After all, we would not have “De Profundis” if Wilde had not befallen upon poor circumstances and if life had not played out in such a way to make him experience so much sorrow. The same could be said of Tennyson, who often meditates on faith and the afterlife in his poem.

Defining Prison

While reading Wilde’s account of prison I could not help but think of Catherine in Withering Heights. I made the connection based on each persons head-space and how they felt about their surroundings. Catherine was a free women technically in the eyes of the law, but once she married Linton she was doomed to live forever in a marriage that reminds me of the prison Wilde describes. For women of that time marriage was a type of prison. They often did not get a large selection of suitable men to marry and one they were legally married the rights of the women were hard to come by. Even if she got out of a bad or unhappy marriage inevitable social and finical consequences existed that lasted a lifetime. the reader sees this in Withering heights where this prison of marriage eventually kills Catherine. Each account is filled with despair and a calling for a different life and circumstance, for example, in Wilde’s account in “De Profundis” he says, “Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering.” when reading those lines i can picture Catherine looking out the widow of her home wishing for her beloved and the life she could have outside the prison she inhabits.