Dowson and the Eighteen Nineties

Dowson and the Eighteen Nineties

Ernest Dowson, (1) the slight, consumptive figure that seems to embody the end of the century weariness, with its connotations of drink, sex and hedonistic excesses, is not the closest we have in English to a Symbolist poet – Wallace Stevens fits the image better (2) – but he was sympathetic to the French Symbolists. Naturally he translated Verlaine, (3) if not especially well, here adding a unwanted flourish to the fourth line:

Tears fall within mine heart,
As rain upon the town:
Whence does this languor start,
Possessing all mine heart? (4)

There are many other translations, which show the differences:

Like city’s rain, my heart
Rains teardrops too. What now,
This languorous ache, this smart
That pierces, wounds my heart? (5)

It rains in my heart
as on town and on mart,
pours down longings that start
to reign in my heart! (6)

It weeps in my heart
As it rains on the town.
What is this dull smart
Possessing my heart? (7)

I add my own, which, naturally again, is not particularly close:

The rain falls in the heart
as the rain on the town.
What are the languors that start
far-echoing the heart?


The rain falls in the heart
as the rain on the town.
What are the feelings that start
then to hurt the heart?

And so on: Verlaine is an author that tempts the translator into constant revision. Returning to Dowson, there are two Symbolist tendencies to look at: the chosen symbols, and the fastidious verse skills. Dowson’s symbols were more appropriated than found or made afresh. Aldous Huxley (8) puts the matter well:

With no great desire to achieve originality, he made unashamed use of all the time-honoured poetical paraphernalia – lute and viol, poppy and rose and lily, with all those rare, remote precious things which the poets throughout the ages have appropriated to their peculiar use. He did not trouble himself to seek out a new diction, to invent new moulds of expression in which to cast his thought. The old conventional language of poetry, a language consciously archaic and aloof from the living speech of men, satisfied him completely. In his language he never passes the traditional bounds of nineteenth-century Elizabethanism.

And adds, quite correctly:

Weariness and resignation-these are his themes; weariness of life and a great desire for the “quiet consummation” of death, the annihilator; resignation, helpless and hopeless, to the fate that persecutes him. This constitutes his stock of poetical material.

But the verse was another matter. Dowson was a fluent verse writer but added an extraordinary refinement, so that his best poems do indeed approach music: Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration, O Mors! Quam Amara Est Memoria Tua Homini Pacem Habenti In Substantiis Suis, Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam. Most splendid of all is Cynara:

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae

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.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee Cynara! in my fashion.

The poem is very different from the Horace original (Odes 4.1) and indeed anything else in Dowson’s output, or perhaps English literature altogether. The structure is simple: four hexameters and two pentameters, rhymed 6a 5b 6a 6c 5b 6c. The 6c lines are repeated: And I was desolate and sick of an old passion . . .I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. The magic is in the hexameters, the way this most difficult of lines is broken into segments of continually varying lengths, a technique that came from study of Baudelaire, Verlaine and the Roman poets:

Last night,| ah, yesternight, || betwixt her lips and mine | 1 2 3
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! || thy breath was shed | 3 2
Upon my soul | between the kisses and the wine; || 2 4
And I was desolate | and sick | of an old passion,|| 3 1 2
Yea, I | was desolate and bowed my head || 1 4
I have been faithful to thee, | Cynara! | in my fashion. 3 1 2

Also worth noting are the falling rhythms, the muffled consonants, and the repetitions of tone-setting words. Just listing them gives half the meaning: yesternight, fell, shadow, shed, desolate, bowed, faithful.

Dowson’s direct influence on the early Moderns – Eliot, Pound, D.H. Lawrence – was slight: they admired his craftsmanship and absorbed some of his technical innovations, but largely rejected his distillation of age-old themes in preference for a more contemporary reality. (9) (Or in some ways they did – I will look at this more in a later post on Georgian poetry.) But the matter is not quite as usually presented, and that enigmatic paragraph on the Symbolist page needs amplifying. I said:

‘But Symbolist poetry was not empty of content, indeed expressed matters of great interest to continental philosophers, then and now. The contents of consciousness were the concern of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and he developed a terminology later employed by Heidegger (1889-1976), the Existentialists and hermeneutics. Current theories on metaphor and brain functioning extend these concepts, and offer a rapprochement between impersonal science and irrational literary theory.’

The question at issue is what the constituent words of poems refer to, and how we respond to them. As I hope the theory section demonstrates, representation is contested and complicated, and words certainly do not stand in a one to one relationship to ‘things out there’, even in everyday conversation. In poetry, the words are interpreted through various social and cultural expectations, through ‘horizons’ of usage, as Husserl might say. As T.S. Eliot remarked: (10)

Whaever words a writer employs, he benefits by knowing as much as possible of the history of these words, of the uses to which they have already been applied. Such knowledge facilitates his task of giving to the word a new life and to the language a new idiom. The essential of the tradition is in this; in getting as much as possible of the whole weight of the history of the language behind his word.

Literature commonly lays down various rules: a severely restricted range of subject matter in Sanskrit poetry, allusive echoes of earlier poems in Chinese, the great commonplaces in pre-Modernist western poetry, etc. In a similar way, art critics get more from paintings than novices by seeing them through the lens of painting history and theories, and something similar happens with music. It’s because words commonly serve utilitarian purposes that we tend to overlook these obvious matters and suppose poems can be ‘slices of life’ if they evoke suitable emotions. Some contemporary poetry no doubt does make that assumption, but even prose has its conventions, and unmediated expression will seem for many readers ‘to have something missing’.

The point is this. Being a very compressed form, where every indication must pull its weight, poetry looks to remove words from their everyday connotations – necessarily because words call up different memories and associations in different minds. Over this the poet has little control. Indeed he cannot know what ‘It was Monday morning’ and any other everyday phrase will awake in his individual readers. So he will use or add words that have more universal meanings: ‘It was blue Monday’, where ‘blue’ may denote the happiness of blue skies, or the colloquial opposite, or possibly sexual explicitness. The reader will keep all possibilities latent in his mind until matters are resolved – or, possibly, in contemporary work, are not resolved but remain in suspension as intriguing alternatives. But because some universal qualifiers are necessary, there arise ‘the lute and viol, poppy and rose and lily, with all those rare, remote precious things which the poets throughout the ages have appropriated to their peculiar use.’

Such vocabularies become restricting and stale in time, of course, gaining in richness from past use but becoming remote from the current prose usages they purport to record, extend and refine. Poems ossify into mechanical and sterile exercises of skill, as did Sanskrit poetry, or late Victorian poetry, the Modernists claimed. But the ‘make it new’ movements can only proceed cautiously, establishing new signifiers as novel words and themes are gradually sanctified by use in successful poems. Words have histories of employment, as Bakhtin suggested, and part of the poet’s skill is to employ those histories appropriately. The magic of Tennyson’s:

And after many a summer dies the swan

disappears if we substitute ‘duck’ for ‘swan’. In place of the luminous grace of the bird celebrated in five centuries of English verse we have the raucous quack of Donald Duck, and the other ways duck is employed: out for a duck, she waddled like a duck, etc.

Even today, most poetry readers prefer Victorian and earlier work, which suggests such histories are not being heeded. And for contemporary poetry, the readership is almost restricted to the practitioners themselves. No one, I think, wants to go back to such restricted themes and vocabularies, but Dowson’s ‘poetry for music’s sake’ was one way of escaping the crass materialism of the contemporary world, which is even more with us today.


1. Ernest Dowson Collected Poems. edited by Ernest Christopher Dowson, R. K. R. Thornton, Robert Kelsey Rought Thornton, Caroline Dowson Google Books.– 27cC&pg=PR11&lpg=PR11&dq=Ernest+Dowson+and+nineties+poetry&source=bl&o ts=D8BEu6AR1y&sig=qoLzPr0rmcVLOroHrcmD1F4HT9U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=q- dZUr6oFIagkAea9IGAAQ&ved=0CEsQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=Ernest%20Dowson%2 0and%20nineties%20poetry&f=false

2. Symbolist Poets. http:/

3. Paul Verlaine.

4. Poems of Ernest Christopher Dowson. PoemHunter. 5. One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine. A Bilingual Edition Translated by Norman R. Shapiro.

6. It Rains In My Heart – Translation Paul Verlaine – Il Pleure Dans Mon Coeur. PoemHunter.– paul-verlaine-il-pleure-dans-mon-coeur/   7. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Poems of Paul Verlaine, by Paul Verlaine. Trnslated by Gertrude Bell.– h.htm

8. Ernest Dowson (1876-1900). Critical Introduction by Aldous Huxley. Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880-1918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke.

9. Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent  By Jad Adams. I. B. Tauris, 2000 owson+and+the+music+of+verse&source=bl&ots=8srIh9-BSq&sig=R- QeDzJQyA1oDhNNflD9zRr1AIA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=7_JZUoKYKpTC9QTChIDoBQ&ved= 0CF4Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=Dowson%20and%20the%20music%20of%20verse&f =false

10. T.S. Eliot. Essays in Criticism I,i, 1951, pp 38-41.

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