India and the English Aesthetes

by Reginald Massey

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Gutala Krishnamurti who died recently was a Telugu and English scholar who believed that the Aesthetic Movement which flourished during the 1890s (the fin de siecle period) was among the most productive in English literature. The Aesthetes viewed life as an art. Taking their cue from the likes of the flamboyant Wilde they raised the slogan of “Art for Art’s Sake”. The Aesthetes ignored staid Victorian moral values which they considered to be bogus and hypocritical. Here they certainly had a point. Tennyson’s thundering and jingoistic work The Charge of the Light Brigade celebrated a massive blunder by aged and incompetent British generals who sent their working class soldiers to certain death.

The generals should have been court-martialled and shot. But that did not happen. The upper echelons of the officer class were above the law. And yet Victoria loved the poem especially when Lord Tennyson, her Poet Laureate, recited the poem to her at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

This situation did not change in the First World War. In the bloody battles of Flanders the freezing Tommies were ordered to climb out of their trenches and ‘go over the top’ where the Kaiser’s machine-gunners mowed them down. When I was at Lille University, I toured ‘Flander’s Fields where the poppies blow between the crosses row on row’ and I saw the names of my Dear Countrymen inscribed on the many Memorials. I wept. There I read the names of Sikhs (Jats and Mazhabis), Punjabi Mussalmans (Sunnis and Shias), Pathans, Hindu Jats and Mahrattas. Even a few called ‘Madrasis’. These poor men had been killed in freezing Europe in the service of their King Emperor George V (whom they called ‘Jarge Panjim’). It is no wonder that Wilfred Owen penned his powerful poems such as Anthem for Doomed Youthand Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori. Owen ends the latter poem with a stinging line about the old lie that it was sweet and dignified to die for one’s country. Owen was killed by a sniper at the very end of the war and when his belongings were sent to his mother she discovered
a Tagore poem among them.

George V was incidentally ‘Defender of the Faith’. The Christian Faith. Even today the Head of the Commonwealth is Elizabeth II who is the Defender of the Faith since she is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Hence Shri Modi and Janab Nawaz Sharif should take note that they are members of a Commonwealth headed by a Christian monarch.

But back to the Aesthetes. Brijraj Singh’s The Development of a Critical Tradition; from Pater to Yeats (Macmillan, India) is a brilliant analysis of Aestheticism. He examines the seminal work of Walter Pater, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, Henry James and W.B. Yeats. Singh’s scholarship, research and critical writing is of the highest class.

The creations of the Aesthetes were not about useful or edifying ideas. They were not Christian missionaries but rather creators of works of beauty through the medium of mood, images and the music of words. In the Preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either well written, or badly written. That is all.” In other words considerations of morality are irrelevant to art for art is beyond the ambit of good and evil.

I must confess that many years ago I agreed with Wilde’s uncompromising credo. But over the years I have accepted the fact that a work of art cannot ignore a moral dimension. Else we as writers will be undermining decent human values that somehow make this vastly corrupt world tick on.

I wish to add a significant fact to Brijraj Singh’s important book. Manmohan Ghose (1869 – 1924) who was the elder brother of Aravinda Ackroyd Ghose (who later became Sri Aurobindo) had won a scholarship to Oxford and became an accomplished poet. Their father, a Bengali surgeon, was so thoroughly Anglicised that he wanted his children to speak only English and to ignore their mother tongue. Manmohan joined the Rhymers’ Club in London and was friendly with Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Four poets (Laurence Binyon, Arthur Cripps, Stephen Phillips and Ghose) contributed poems to a collection titled Primavera and Wilde reviewed the book in The Pall Mall Gazette. Wilde was particularly impressed by Ghose. Later, Laurence Binyon provided an introductory memoir to Ghose’s Songs of Love and Death.

For the record my readers would be interested to know that before he died Wilde became a Roman Catholic. In 1911 his lover Lord Alfred Douglas also converted to Rome. It seems that the Roman Church is a haven for saints and sinners.

RReggie Masseyeginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published.  Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.