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3:AM Cult Hero: Ernest Dowson

“I cannot imagine the world
in which he would have succeeded.”

– W.B. Yeats

Friend to Wilde and Yeats (also member of Yeats’ Rhymers’ Club) and disciple of Verlaine, Ernest Dowson, as Jad Adams tells it in Madder Music, Stronger Wine, was the ‘ultimate poet’, the model of the bohemian artist, a bright light in the big cities:

“He was the archetypal decadent poet, combining all the characteristics which made up the decadent temperament: strange delights, sexual promiscuity and wild entertainments co-existing with classical scholarship and devotion to the Catholic Church… In his short, unhappy life Dowson transformed the sinews of tragic experience into art.”

The subject of his most famous verse, ‘Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae,’ was eleven-year-old Adelaide Foltinowicz and his attachments to little girls, as well as his taste for the lowlife and absinthe, were to be his undoing. In his short life (he died aged 32), he managed to sink as low as a poet can sink.

But what of his work? Despite being in an increasingly state of consumption from the mid-1890s, Dowson produced two volumes of poetry, one play, a collection of short stories, three collaborative novels, one novella and various works of translation. His talent for ‘deathless verse’ was recognised by his contemporaries, but his reach stretched to Eliot (“the most gifted and technically perfect of his age”), Pound (“Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels”) and beyond. Inspiration for Somerset Maugham‘s Of Human Bondage and Michael Moorcock‘s Dancers at the End of Time trilogy, it’s perhaps fitting that Dowson gave us the memorable phrase “days of wine and roses” (from ‘Vitae Summa Brevis’).

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Further: Richard Burton reads Dowson’s ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ / ‘Dowson, Schoenberg and the birth of Modernism’ by Katy Evans-Bush (Horizon Review, 2009) / The Poems & Prose of Ernest Dowson (Project Gutenberg) / Dowson at Victorian Web / Decadentshandbook on the poetry of Dowson.

First posted: Friday, April 29th, 2011.

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