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.
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.
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.