The Structure Fails Us

The Picture of Dorian Gray and A.C. Swinburne’s “Before the Mirror” both obsess over objects, exposing fin de siècle anxieties and coping mechanisms. Both works stuff an incredible amount of physical, beautiful things into a small space. Dorian’s house is filled with books and trinkets and paintings, all either a distraction from unhappiness and anxiety over a fleeting utopian moment in society, or an outlet for those anxieties, a way to project something onto the art that we ourselves cannot process. As Dorian’s painting grows more grotesque, perhaps this signals that he stores his anxieties in the painting; it acts as Pandora’s box.

Swinburne’s “Before the Mirror” similarly provides a structured form onto which we can project fin de siècle anxieties. Or, perhaps it acts as a way to preserve a way of thinking that a new century may destroy. The poem is aurally pleasing, describes visually beautiful images, etc.; maybe readers fear that those images will be sullied as the new century dawns?

Swinburne’s poem employs a rhyme scheme that repeats ABABCCB, or a variation on that form, throughout each stanza, but the scheme becomes more unexpected with each stanza. By the end of the poem, the last stanza is MNMNO, and O has nothing to rhyme with, nothing to appease the uneasiness the reader feels at ending the line abruptly. In this way, Swinburne structures his poem to provide peace and comfort to his readers, yet he makes them uneasy just in undoing that structure without explicitly telling them. The rhyme scheme becomes a hidden source of anxiety.

“Before the Mirror” is about surreptitious emotions, ones that people can hide, making them that much more anxiety producing. The first stanza shows, for want of a less cliché phrase, that things are not what they seem. “White rose in red rose-garden/Is not so white” (lines 1-2). The most innocent image known to society – a white (meaning virginal) rose (meaning love) flower (meaning woman) – “is not so white,” is not as virginal as it appears. It cannot be trusted. Swinburne undoes idyllic images, shattering the safe cage society has locked itself into, showing that we cannot escape inevitable changes. That, I think, is the ultimate fin de siècle anxiety.

The Picture of Dorian Gray can help us understand this phenomenon. Dorian’s chief anxiety is that someone will see his portrait and discover his sinful nature. But maybe the larger cultural anxiety there is that beautiful things can change, that we cannot place faith in their permanence because even objects can prove fallible. Perhaps we cannot rely on anything, and we cannot even trust ourselves to obey the law or remain model citizens. If Dorian starts out as an example of the best in Victorian England’s society (white, male, rich, young, beautiful), and even he becomes severely flawed, how can the rest of society hope to save themselves?

The Picture of Dorian Gray can be interpreted in many ways, but when compared with Swinburne’s “Before the Mirror,” both works seems to feed on the same societal worry that even the structure we rely on can fail us. Swinburne’s poetry is very structured, but even that sometimes changes. Dorian believes objects will prove perfect while humans prove fallible, but his portrait turns against him. Both works expose the fin de siècle anxiety that perhaps the very structure of society, which we rely on for stability as we negotiate other issues, undermines our attempts to salvage the remains of a fleeting moment.