Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ernest Dowson

Arthur Symons described Ernest Dowson as resembling a "demoralized Keats", a representation which has always occurred to me as being apt. The similarities are several, and obvious—a fixation upon beauty so pure (in its way) that it verged on naive, an effortless-seeming musical facility, deep strains of both passion and melancholy infusing their work—and, of course, tuberculosis. Just as it ravaged Keats and his family, it obliterated Dowson's, who lost both parents to the disease just a few years before his own tubercular death, at the ripe old age of 32.

Of course, there were as many ways in which they were extremely different; Keats was by all accounts a far better adjusted person than was Dowson (but really, who wasn't?), and was also far more driven. Similarly, Keats was not a drunk or a drug-addict (nor was he a prospective pedophile), and though he certainly confronted despair on a regular basis, he did not succomb to it, as Dowson so often did (and with such apparent relish).

Dowson was, of course, a member of the Rhymer's Club, a storied group that included Symons and Yeats among its members; it is likely, in fact, that he would've been counted as its most promising member, in 1892 or 3, a state of affairs which obviously did not reflect reality. Symons would write his book about symbolism which had a profound influence on the poetry of the next century, Yeats would, of course, become Yeats.

And Ernest Dowson fell in love with an eleven year-old girl, made a goddamn fool of himself, become an even bigger goddamn souse, began reveling in the idea of living in the shadow of his former promise, all the while creating verses in his little notebook of varying quality, from the trite and the self-indulgent to the sublime. It is both legend and fact that nearly all of his poems were written to the girl, who was the daughter of his landlord, and a barmaid in their tavern. According to Symons' account, when the girl became 17, Dowson courted her, with the permission of her parents. There was a day when, at her mother's behest, she sat in a chair and distractedly listened as he read his tortured, love-stricken verses aloud to her—I have been faithful to thee, Cynarae, in my fashion—and promptly eloped with the waiter who lived upstairs.

This is among my favorite of his poems, written obviously about her, with a little more self-awareness that he is typically noted for. It is called Flos Lunae (the last verse is probably my favorite of anything he wrote—it is so honest, and so brutal, it nearly breaks my heart):

I WOULD not alter thy cold eyes,
Nor trouble the calm fount of speech
With aught of passion or surprise.
The heart of thee I cannot reach:
I would not alter thy cold eyes.

I would not alter thy cold eyes;
Nor have thee smile, nor make thee weep:
Though all my life droops down and dies,
Desiring thee, desiring sleep,
I would not alter thy cold eyes.

I would not alter thy cold eyes;
I would not change thee if I might,
To whom my prayers for incense rise,
Daughter of dreams! my moon of night!
I would not alter thy cold eyes.

I would not alter thy cold eyes,
With trouble of the human heart:
Within their glance my spirit lies,
A frozen thing, alone, apart;
I would not alter thy cold eyes.

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