Thursday, May 7, 2015

Our viols cease, our wine is death - some bits of Ernest Dowson

I have another minor poet of the 1890s to write up, Ernest Dowson.  I have to write about these poets if I want to keep them straight.  Aesthete, Francophile, small and pale, Catholic convert, drank himself to death (age 32) – the usual stuff, little poems of exquisite beauty drawn from a life that was much otherwise.

His first book of poems, published in 1896, consists mostly of yearning, passionate love poems, Gautier-like enamels and cameos, directed at an eleven year-old Polish waitress.  Now that is different.  She had the good sense to keep Dowson at arm’s length and, six years later, to marry a waiter.  I thought the poems in this book were lovely and musical but numbingly repetitive:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
        Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
               We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
       Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
               Within a dream.

Perfect!  Now repeat forty times, but with more “v” sounds – “the letter ‘v’ was the most beautiful of the letters, and could never be brought into verse too often” (so reports Arthur Symons in the introduction to The Poems of Ernest Dowson, a pleasing book with Aubrey Beardsley illustrations).

Dowson may be best known now for supplying titles to later works – “the days of wine and roses,” “gone with the wind” (can he possibly have been the first poet in English to use that phrase – but he is the source), and many more, including two of the three titles to Michael Moorcock’s bizarro parody-Victorian Dancers at the End of Time books, both from later poems.

In his 1899 Decorations in Verse and Prose, published not long before his death, Dowson had shaken off that fool romance, and it was good for his poetry.  The variety of subject matter expands with no loss in the quality of the verse.  “Carthusians,” for example, a great Catholic poem, in which a sinning aesthete asks monks for help:

Move on, white company, whom that has not sufficed!
    Our viols cease, our wine is death, our roses fail:
Pray for our heedlessness, O dwellers with the Christ!
    Though the world fall apart, surely ye shall prevail.

There are some adorable Paul Verlaine imitations:

O sweet fall of the rain
Upon the earth and roofs!
Unto an heart in pain,
O music of the rain!

There are witches with “lichened arms” who meet “where the wan  grass droops and dies” (“The Three Witches”).  There is a cemetery in Brittany where “dear dead people with pale hand / Beckon me to their lands” (“In a Breton Cemetery”).

And then there are more poems about death, drinking, the vanity of all things, and an aesthete’s despair – maybe there is less variety in the book than I first thought – as in the last poem in the book, “A Last Word,” a sonnet:

Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
    To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
    Find end of labour, where rest’s for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands!  O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.

A great shame that these poems were so closely drawn from life.


  1. "yearning, passionate love poems directed at an eleven year-old Polish waitress." Your man is a Kafka character; the poetic elevation of the letter V only confirms that. What is with 19th-century poets and alcoholism? None of the still-drinking alcoholics I know could scrabble together a readable poem.

  2. It is as if once they called themselves Decadent, these poets had to enact their Decadence. The casualty rate was terrible. Dowson and Johnson in their 30s, Thompson and Wilde in their 40s, Davidson in his 50s (likely a suicide). Stephen Crane and Aubrey Beardsley in their 20s!

    Not all of the above were alcoholics, but many were. And who cares, it is shocking regardless. Poets, be Yeats, be Hardy!

    Dowson clearly was a better poet as his alcoholism worsened, which is baffling. Lionel Johnson became worse; Swinburne, to move back a bit became worse. I am just getting to the part of Swinburne's letters where his friends and family are conspiring to intervene somehow, since it is clear to everyone but Swinburne that he is on the verge of death.

    1. Was Stephen Crane a Decadent - or a decadent - though? American, a war correspondent, realist. His poetry is violent, innovative and revolutionary.
      There could be said to be two schools of tubercular writers : the fighters and deniers - Crane, Henley, Lawrence, Orwelll...and the ones who were "half in love with easeful Death", though Keats himself was a fighter.

    2. Chekhov certainly was a fighter and denier. He knew full well that he was dying but acted--as well as he could--like a healthy man. Consumption was an irritating inconvenience, not death. Until it was, that is.

  3. Crane, a Decadent, no. My own decadent, morbid catalog of early deaths got away from me. Your two categories are useful. Keats certainly looked at death clearly enough. Crane's sheer activity is hard to believe.