Skip to main content

In a footnote in a recent essay, Michael Roberts (2014: 128 n39) reveals that, when he
published his seminal study of late Latin poetry in 1989, he did not know that the phrase
‘jeweled style’ had already been coined almost a century before by Oscar Wilde. In
Chapter 10 of The picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Lord Henry Wotton gives Gray an
unidentified ‘yellow book’, written in a ‘curious jewelled style … that characterises the
work of some of the finest artists of the French school of symbolistes’ (2006: 115). Wilde
admitted during his first trial in 1895 that this ‘yellow book’ was modelled on Joris-Karl
Huysmans’ À rebours (1884), a masterpiece of the fin de siècle. Random though it may
seem, the intertextual connection between the jeweled styles of Roberts and Huysmans is
not without significance: in fact, À rebours represents a defining moment in the
nineteenth-century reception of late antique literature (McGill 2018). The novel’s
protagonist, the reclusive aesthete Jean des Esseintes, owns an impressive library of Latin
texts, and gives pride of place to the authors of late antiquity over classics like Virgil and
Horace. Poets he singles out for praise include Ausonius, Rutilius Namatianus, Claudian,
Prudentius, and Venantius Fortunatus – all exemplary figures of Roberts’ jeweled style.

According to the theory of reception set out most strongly by Charles Martindale
(1993: 7), ‘our current interpretations of ancient texts, whether or not we are aware of it,
are, in complex ways, constructed by the chain of receptions through which their
continued readability has been effected’. This paper will explore further the ‘chain of
receptions’ that links Roberts’ vision of late Latin poetics to the decadent aesthetics of
Huysmans and Wilde. In particular, it will reassess the imagery of jewels and flowers,
which Roberts observed were closely associated metaphors in the stylistic vocabulary of
late antiquity, in view of the way these objects are fetishized by des Esseintes and Gray
as symbols of their exotic and effeminate taste. The same taste is reflected in des
Esseintes’ reading of Latin texts, and his preference for linguistic and cultural hybridity
stands as a rejection of the ideals of homogeneity that were instituted in nineteenthcentury
canons of the classics. Only by reckoning with those ideals, I argue, and
addressing the ideological foundations of classical aesthetics, will the broad reevaluation
of late antique literature that Roberts initiated with The Jeweled Style be brought to pass.