The Poetry Of Ernest Dowson


Nowadays it is the fashion with our young poets to express personal experiences. This perpetual harping upon intimate subjects betrays the inherent littleness of the whole school. That is to say, it is unable to project its personality into themes actually worth while. The recipe for most of its “little sonnet men,” as they invite it, is this: that the true minor poet announce his passions, especially that particular one for his shop-girl, whom he worships utterly ; write flaming verses to her, mostly in rebellious metres or in borrowed forms; cry upon the world of the great, while espousing and typifying that of the little ; and, in fine, idealize the sordid, the mean, the commonplace. With most of these so-called poets, affectation wears the toga. This is the sentimentality which marks their decadence. They are factitious lovers of the ordinary, romanticists by the grace of realism, and melancholy-given through mutual environment. Ernest Dowson, born among them and bred among them too, although he epitomizes their passionate seeming, escapes censure by doing the same thing with a very unique sincerity. Cast a delicate instrument like Dowson into a “hoarse and blas pheming” London ; let him face in millions a brutal repulse ; let his rapt gaze “war with their stupidity” ; and presently you will find him sick and desolate, crying with a feverish ecstacy the self-excruciating In music I have no consolation, No roses are pale enough for me; The sound of the waters of separation Surpasseth roses and melody. Storm-tossed and beaten, not only by the crowds, but far more poignantly by the “unobservant feet” of heavenly beings which knew him not, he himself was veritably hell. Such a hopeless creature, born of man’s “weary laughter and his sick despair,” must surely seek a haven, if nowhere but in the delusions of love. If there is a single word which characterizes every poem Dowson wrote, it is the word love. Everyone of those delicate evasions, those lyrical out bursts of passion, suggests either love or desire. The most humble of men, his too exquisite sensibility kept him from bellicose proposals, and flung away the objects of his adoration. The futile, never-ending hope of this man, the patient refusal to grasp the mundane objects of his pruriency, expose the secret of many of his most perfect emo tions. Constantly he weeps the passing-by of his loves, murmuring with an inevitable acquiescence : I watch you pass and pass. Serene and cold : I lay My lips upon your trodden, daisied grass, And turn my life away. Her lips, her eyes all day became to me The shadow of a shadow utterly. I shall forget her eyes, how cold they were ; Forget her voice, how soft it was and low.

Upon such idealizations, such ineffectual loves, hopes and futilities, was founded Dowson’s romanticism. For he was all feeling and passion ; his emotions were often peculiar to himself, often un worthy, and had no counterpart in intellect. To be intellectual, a poet need not be didactic, but he need be something more than passive animation. He cannot escape being philosophic, and certainly Dowson had no philosophy to speak of. Goethe was a poetic Spinoza. Words worth, Coleridge, Emerson, Shakespeare, all were one in depth and energy of thought. Beautiful images, it is true, came to the pen of Dowson, falling like dew-drops upon his canvas ; but they are just about as substantial. They seem interpenetrated with veins of fire which dominate and destroy them. The lack here, as in the whole school of minor poets, is a correspondent weight of thought and sentiment. If we accept Dowson as a lover-poet, he is not versatile enough in this field to be great. He is too busied with his own eccentric loves. He has not virility with beauty of spirit. He writes nothing ennobling or inspiring. Illicit loves, inconsequential notes done into pretty verses, reminiscences of child faces, child loves, and yearnings after the solace of tomorrow are necessarily of the gossamer of Dowson’s poetic texture. His field is his own soul, selfishly his own. But, granting its expression as indispensable love-poetry, what then have we ? Over and over the emotions are identical ; the diaphanous vo cabulary is one ; the form is small stimulant to the attention ; and whole phrases used on one page are bodily transferred to another. Cynara, which critics have called his masterpiece, despite its per fumery, exhibits the weakness in point. Placed somewhere in the middle of the volume, it has been read a dozen times before it is actually reached. Every word of it, except the name Cynara, all but one characterizing phrase, have previously been employed. Even the mood is a composite of other moods. And this, of course, is the egregious fault of the poems ; they interlace to the end, and reshape on a hundred pages the one phthisical essence of the poet.

The touch of fingers, the glory of bought lips, the pallor of roses in lilytime, the coldness of other eyes, the Cyrenaic love of the transient and intense — these are the elements of Dowson’s applied ethics. “Be a child,” he pleads with a grown-up woman, who has stirred him; “for I, even I, am love.” Ever he is exceeding his grasp, ever he is sick of an old passion. His life emerges from a dream ; it is all very ideal, and there are red-lipped creatures here for him, wrapped in rose-silks and drenched with ambergris; and after some weeping and laughter, his life closes within the dream, and he has finished. It all means the call of blood, red and blue in veins like pearl, the eternal cry of insatiate flesh. If he might make one last choice before the mortal veilings close, he would cry for One day of the great lost days, one face of the other faces. A word like this, I dare say, fell from his lips in the momentous interim between the ending and the starting of turbulent orgies. And thus he lived, repenting now and again, too conscious not to be ideal in everything, but too weak to disentangle and sort his Arabian dreams of life. The greatest value of Dowson’s poetry lies in its euphonious expression. I find everywhere a subtle and seductive music. Take the single verse, The bitter pastures of the dead. We are delighted with the classic economy. The conception is happily abstracted just far enough beyond the workaday world. There is music; there is likewise beauty; and, above all, there is a peculiar associative value which claims the scholarly reader. It is not often we find anywhere such an extenuating verse. Dowson’s ear for casual phonetic combinations, while it lends distinction, does not vitiate the respectable poetry he writes. Melo dious words and mellow verses, with Dowson, are one and inseparable.

Dark is the church and dim the worshippers, Hushed with bowed heads, as though by some old spell. While through the incense-laden air there stirs The admonition of a silver bell.

The last verse is far from mediocrity and admirable as a study in effect. The sonorous wording, the profluence of the line, and all, originate somewhere lyric echoes of the bell. In a number of his pieces there is that pre-Raphaelite ideal of simplicity; but at once there is a dearth of spiritual quality. Where Dowson has not the richness of spirituality that Rossetti had, he brings instead this exceptional sweetness of phrase: Be no word spoken ; Weep nothing; let a pale Silence, unbroken Silence prevail ! Now the intoxicating music of Cyncra, as a variant, lies as much in the atmosphere of the poem, as in the continuity of euphonious ex pression. The very title is the raindrop before the shower, fore- hinting what is to follow. And the atmosphere is the creation of thought adventurously on the borderland of disrepute. The poet, however, is here confessing with unfathomable sincerity; and, in much the same spirit we ought only to call the piece a poetic indiscretion : All night upon my heart 1 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 woke and found the dawn was gray: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara ! in my fashion. Sincerity had a vast deal to do with the poetic Dowson. Under neath the impotent words of such a poem as Impenitentia Ultima, there is obviously an unutterable agony of spirit, at other times re vulsive in its ardor, but always genuine. We did not expect a sinewed strength or much originality, but we were rewarded in our search for little passages from a man’s heart. In some measure they are ideal into the bargain, especially in form. Probably the personal touch accounts for this in Dowson ; for never was a man more con fessedly an idealist in all things; never was a man more candid in his grotesque idealization of things sophisticated. But his profound honesty leads him at times into a simplicity which is disastrous. In point, he is not artificial enough to please when he writes into an otherwise acceptable poem such verse as left me sorrowful, inclined to weep, With all my memories that could not sleep. As a personal memoir, I could never doubt its genuineness; but as poetry, it is sadly juvenile.

Dowson demands no classification. I prefer to think of him as an unprofessional poet, or perhaps as one who found in snatches of song talismans to help his dreams to their desires. It is not hard, in passing, nor very worth while either, to construct his character from his work. When Shelley confessed failure in Alastor, he also wrote of undying faith in some better thing that is still to come. Dowson had no faith in his heart, but hope sat there, like his old priest with tremulous hands. And this was the spirit he wrote into his verses, weakly remonstrating and weakly acquiescing. A meditative pathos, set in exquisite music, but without the administration of virile thought joined to his fine sensibility — mere driblets of poetry. In any case, Dowson had a beautiful soul which, if pagan and indeed unworthy, might have been “strained through the starry strata and the musky loam of Paradise.”


Arthur Wilson.

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