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.


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Sarojini Naidu

October 27, 2009 at 11:03 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

It’s a sad fact that the women of the Decadent movement are often overlooked. And there were women in the Decadent movement. Not as many as there were men, it’s true, but that was a sign of the times. Well, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I am going introduce my first female Decadent early on. I suppose it should be the wonderful Rachilde, as she was the most prolific, but instead I’m going to start with the sadly little-known Indian poet, Sarojini Naidu. I love this woman’s poetry. She was packed off to England at an early age in an attempt to separate her from a man of a lower caste whom she had become attached to. Like any good Decadent, she married him anyway. She attended classes in London and Cambridge universities, and attracted the attention of Arthur Symons, who helped her get published. She didn’t have a classic decadent ending, but I’m definitely not holding that against her. She supported Gandhi in the fight for India’s independence, and became one of the first feminists of the country. In short, she rocks. And her poetry is amazing.

Sarojini Naidu

Indian Dancers

Eyes ravished with rapture, celestially painting, what

passionate bosoms aflaming with fire

Drink deep of the hush of the hyacinth heavens that

glimmer around them in fountains of light;

O wild and entrancing the strain of keen music that

cleaveth the stars like a wail of desire,

And beautiful dancers with houri-like faces bewitch the

voluptuous watches of night.

The scents of red roses and sandalwood flutter and die in

the maze of their gem-tangledĀ  hair,

And smiles are entwining like magical serpents the

poppies of lips that are opiate-sweet;

Their glittering garments of purple are burning like

tremulous dawns in the quivering air,

And exquisite, subtle and slow are the tinkle and tread of

their rhythmical, slumber-soft feet.

Now silent, now singing and swaying and swinging, like

blossoms that bend to the breezes of showers,

Now wantonly winding, they flash, now they falter, and,

lingering, languish in radiant choir;

Their jewel-girt arms and warm, wavering, lily-long

fingers enchant through melodious hours,

Eyes ravished with rapture, celestially painting, what

passionate bosoms aflaming with fire!

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Charles Baudelaire

October 13, 2009 at 8:15 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

Charles Baudelaire is largely considered to be the definitive writer of Decadence. Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1921. His father died soon after. The young Charles was very close to his mother, but had a difficult relationship with his step-father, who disapproved of his artistic leanings, and would later withdraw Baudelaire’s inheritance and plunging him into poverty when he thought his life had become too dissipated. As a young man in Paris, he quickly made a name for himself as a Dandy, developed an interest in the occult, and had a number of torrid love affairs. Yet he still found the time to write some of the most exquisite poetry of all time. He conjured up passages of agonised, haunting beauty, of demented despair, which pulse through the reader’s brain long after they have finished reading. As with so many Decadent artists, his misery and self-destructiveness fed his genius.

Portrait by Felix Nadar

Portrait by Felix Nadar

His most famous work, Les Fleurs du Mal, inspired a court case resulting in some of the poems in the collection being banned as obscene. He also wrote a collection of prose poems, entitled Paris Spleen, as well as several essays of art criticism, and a study of opium. There is neither time nor space to discuss Baudelaire’s oeuvre in one post, so I’ll be dedicating several future updates to discussions of different aspects of his work.

Original edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, complete with author's notes

Original edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, complete with author's notes

A combination of substance abuse, poverty and venereal disease finally shattered Baudelaire’s health, and in 1866 he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him paralysed. He died two years later, aged 46.

I guess it’s fairly obvious that I’m more than a little bit in love with Charles Baudelaire. I really must stop falling for men who have severe personal issues, especially ones who have been dead for well over a century. It’s really putting a cramp on my social life…

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