The poetry of Ernest Dowson

November 21, 2009 at 6:08 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

Poor Ernest Dowson. Of all the Decadents, I think he is the one I feel for the most. Okay, so his death from consumption at the tender age of 32 was mostly brought on by his inability to stay away from the absinthe. And yes, falling in love with an eleven-year-old girl is more than a little controversial by today’s standards, but it’s not as if his relationship with her was ever physical. He had his prostitutes for that. Born in London, Dowson’s father was in the dry-docking business, but young Ernest was more interested in poetry than trade. He led an active and varied social life, and was a member of the Rymers’ Club, frequently contributing to the popular magazines of the day. But his lifestyle could not be supported on the income this offered. After the suicides of both his parents – who were also consumptives – Dowson went into a decline. The writer Robert Sherard (biographer of Oscar Wilde) found Dowson destitute and sick in a London bar, and took him back to his cottage. Within a few weeks Ernest had died.


Ernest Dowson



Sadly, Dowson isn’t that widely known these days, despite his poem Vitae Summa Brevis giving us the phrase ‘days of wine and roses’. This is great shame, because he really did write some of the most evocative, sensuous verse of the period, and doubtlessly would have given us much more if it hadn’t been for the his determination to self-destruct. His most famous poem is probably Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae, supposedly inspired by his unrequited and chaste love for the child waitress, Adelaide Foltinowicz. My favourite, however, is a poem called Absinthia Taetra, a poignant ode to Dowson’s choice poison.

Absinthia Taetra

Green changed to white, emerald to an opal: nothing was changed

The man let the water trickle gently into his glass, and as the green clouded, a mist fell from his mind.

Then he drank opaline.

Memories and terrors beset him. The past tore after him like a panther and through the blackness of the present he saw the luminous tiger eyes of the things to be

But he drank opaline.

And that obscure night of the soul, and the valley of humiliation, through which he stumbled were forgotten. He saw blue vistas of undiscovered countries, high prospects and a quiet, caressing sea. The past shed its perfume over him, to-day held his hand as it were a little child, and to-morrow shone like a white star: nothing was changed.

He drank opaline.

The man had known the obscure night of the soul, and lay even now in the valley of humiliation; and the tiger menace of things to be was red in the skies. But for a little while he had forgotten.

Green changed to white, emerald to an opal: nothing was changed.



  1. melmoth said,

    A superb poem. Poor old Ernest- was there ever such a terrible gulf between imagination and reality. When he was good he was very, very good…

    Credit to Dowson- he stood by Wilde. And his poem ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ is, as you say, a decadent masterpiece…

    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.

    • Decadent Handbook said,

      I love that poem so much! I’m glad you wrote it up – I’d wanted to but I was worried that it would make my post ridiculously long. Dowson earns major brownie points in my book for being loyal to Wilde. There’s a really moving letter that Oscar wrote upon hearing of Dowson’s death (when he was pretty sick himself), about how much he regretted not being able to attend the funeral, and how he would always think fondly of the days he spent with Dowson in France, drinking in the garden.

  2. Philip Walker said,

    There is somewhat of a Dowson revival happening at the moment.

    Dowson’s grave which has been derelict for many years and suffered vandalism has been restored, an. Unveiling and memorial service took place on 2nd August, Dowson’s birthday, about 80 people attended. There is also an active Facebook group and dedicated website and following on from the event on 2nd August there will be an annual get together of the Dowsonian faithful at The Cheshire Cheese pub, a favourite haunt of Dowson and his decadent rhymer friends.

    You are right that Dowson is not very well known now, which is a shame considering he was considered a hugely important poet.

    As he did in the 1890’s, Dowson today has friends who appreciate his work and are committed to keeping his words alive.

    The biography by Jad Adams, Madder Music Stronger Wine: The life of Ernest Dowson is a great introduction to the life of Dowson.

    In a postcard to Dowson, Oscar Wilde wrote in 1897:

    “I write a little line to tell you how charming you are. Tonight I am going to read your poems – your lovely lyrics – words with wings you write always. It is an exquisite gift, and fortunately rare in an age whose prose is more poetic than its poetry”

    Words with wings indeed..

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