Table of contents

Introduction: Dowson, the Nineties and Decadent Movement.
The Dowson-Legend.
Dowson’s poetry: influences and overview.
Dowson’s style and ‘mimetic artefact’: defying traditional kinds of critical analysis.
Brief discussion of "Cynara".
Electronic resources

Abstract [TOP]

My presentation is centered around the 'minor-poet' Ernest Dowson and his poetry. Firstly I will briefly situate him in the English Decadent Movement of the 1890's. Secondly (and bearing L. Strachey in mind) I will yield some attention to the so-called 'Dowson-legend' by focusing on the inaccuracy of Dowson-biographical accounts and the underlying motifs for such myth-making. Thirdly, I'd like to take a basic taxonomy of his poetry as a starting point for briefly touching two typically late Victorian issues, namely the preoccupation with religion (Roman Catholicism) and the Victorian 'child-cult'. Finally, I'd like to discuss Dowson's most famous "Cynara"-poem, and demonstrate how his poetry is challenging traditional kinds of critical analysis.

Introduction: Dowson, the Nineties and Decadent Movement.[TOP]

Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) is often considered to be one of the most important exponents of what is generally called the English ‘Decadent’ ‘Aesthete’ or ‘fin-de-siècle’ movement of the 1890’s. Such labeling has however delayed our understanding of these writers because literary criticism has concentrated more on attempts to define the terms than on understanding the writers individually. In addition, the 1890’s Movement can hardly be called a homogeneous and cohesive group, because of the differences between individual poets.

But on the other hand there are some common features to be mentioned about the movement, which was held together by something more than a chronological accident. Their main feature is that most of the writers of the nineties offered their work to an earnest-minded Victorian world wich expected a message in almost every single line (although revolt -as a perpetual and universal process- from Victorian conventions had already been accomplished by the Pre-Raphaelites). The Decadent Movement indeed believed that art shouldn’t be concerned with controversial issues (such as politics or the woman question), and that it should be restricted to celebrating beauty in a highly personal and polished style.

It goes without saying that this belief in 'art for art’s sake' was highly influenced by tendencies from the other side of the Channel. Théophile Gautier and Baudelaire (filtered through Walter Pater and Swinburne), symbolists such as Verlaine (who together with Baudelaire had recently become a topic of lively interest among the Oxford avant-garde), Mallarmé and Rimbaud. Many of the English decadents of the Nineties also toyed with the typical theme of ennui.

The list of stylistic influences was also rooted in the writings of some of their 19th century predecessors in England. They were in a sense the last heirs of the Romantics (appeal to the senses in Rossetti, Tennyson and Keats). Secondly, there was some Swinburnian influence in their lack of morality, and in the feverish emotional tone and tedium vitae which was in its turn influenced by French poets. Finally we could mention Walter Pater and the dreamy and evocative language of the Pre-Raphaelites as a possible influence on the Movement.

By their strongly held belief in the independence of art and the view that a work of art has its own unique kind of value, they also provided some of the basic elements of modern criticism. The Decadent poets might even have had an impact on the style of early twentieth century poets and novelists such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Yeats and D.H. Lawrence. It is especially in the loosening rhythm and syntax from the hold of the rhetoric (colloquial idiom) that Dowson paved the way for Eliot.

So the movement (whose internal differences do not encourage thinking of them as a school of poets) reaches both backward and forward, it intersects with a considerable number of major literary movements; stands midway between Romanticism, Symbolism on the one hand, and Modernism on the other.

Dowson is generally associated with a group of poets calling themselves the Rhymers’ Club that met during the nineties and which is named after the Soho restaurant where they used to gather on a monthly basis. The Rhymers' Club was an exclusively male organisation (Wilde was an occasional visitor), and as its name denoted, it aimed at the unpretentious pursuit of pure song devoid of Victorian Rhetoric (and moralizing). What these London poets aimed at was in fact a mere duplication of the artistic atmosphere of the Parisian literary cafés and salons. They were later to be memoralized (and mythologized) by Yeats as the ‘tragic generation’ because of the sheer amount of misery they endured. Both Dowson and Lionel Johnson were to die in their thirties. John Davidson drowned himself in 1909 at the age of 43. And Arthur Symons (although he lived to be nearly 80) went mad in his later years.

The nineties was a great period for literary magazines and manifestos in the form of periodicals: The Yellow Book, which was published between 1894 and 1897, is generally regarded as the quintessential expression of the fin de siècle spirit (esp. the first four numbers of which Aubrey Beardsley, who also illustrated Dowson’s publications and died young, was art editor). The nineties-spirit was also good captured in The Savoy (1896), which was edited by Arthur Symons. Another important late-Victorian magazine was The Century Guild Hobby Horse. Dowson contributed poems to all of these magazines, that served as an important link between writers and publishers. Leonard Smithers who was editor of the Savoy became Dowson’s publisher and was at the time the most celebrated publisher in London. The point I'm making is, that their importance -as mere intermediary institutions- shouldn't be underestimated.

The Dowson-Legend.[TOP]

Because of his early death (Dowson died at the almost symbolical age of 32 from TB) and unconventional way of living, Dowson biographers gave already from the beginning until today rise to what is known as the 'Dowson-legend', which basically portrays Dowson as a totally dissipated absinth- and drug-addict, a homeless vagabond who frequently got into fights with fishermen in bars (cfr. the characterization of Dowson as an "English Poe – a saint of the gutter, a Catullus lost in the wilderness of English respectability" in Donald Davidson's British poetry of the Eighteen-Nineties). Louis Untermeyer in the biographical note to the selection of Dowson’s poems for his Modern British Poetry (1920) stated that Dowson "literally drank himself to death". And Symons (prime misrepresenter of Dowson's days at Oxford) wrote in the Introduction to his edition of Dowson’s poems the one damning-sentence "At Oxford, his favourite form of intoxication had been haschisch".

The Dowson legend can be modified if not rejected by recalling that during the first half of the nineties the poet was intensely serious about his poetry, and that he did belong to the literary London (and Paris) establishment, by attending various salons. So Dowson’s bohemian tortured soul-nature has been exaggerated too often. Such romantic and spectacular reports may make for good reading, in the end they are entirely inaccurate.

Over-simplification and a sense of the theatrical were responsible for the origin and still continuing of the Dowson legend, which was created almost entirely on the one hand by men who knew him only slightly, on the other hand (and ironically) by accounts of contemporary artisits such as W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symons, with his well-known Lytton Strachey-like (subjective, fragmentative and unreliable -- though not debunking but rather the opposite) obituary essay on Dowson.

Even Dowson's latest biography by former Sun-journalist Jad Adams (Madder Music, Stronger Wine: the life of Ernest Dowson, Victorian Decadent. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999) frequently refers to Dowson’s bad teeth and hoarse voice, as a result of his absinth-addicton…


In that way, the biographical attention for Dowson’s bohemian way of life (which was, after all, not a pose like in the case of many others of his time: Dowson did lead an unsettled and unhealthy life, and he did often refer to his drunkenness in his letters) cast a shadow over the analysis and interpretation of his work. Scholars have been more concerned with what Dowson did in the pub than what he did at his desk...



Dowson’s poetry: influences and overview.[TOP]

Dowson, who spent most of his childhood in France, was especially interested in the work of the French symbolist poets and in their theories of verbal suggestiveness and of poetry as incantation, as "mere sound and music, with just a suggestion of sense", as he once wrote in a letter (cfr. Verlainean concept of "la musique avant toute chose"). In his adolescent years, he also widely read Roman poets such as Horace, Catullus and Propretius (which can be seen in his experimenting with metres and the long Latin titles to his poems). Finally, he was also influenced by a miscellaneous assortment of English and American authors, of whom John Webster, De Quincey, Swinburne, Keats, Poe and Henry James were his favourites.

Ernest Dowson’s total production of poems was quite small, and his range is relatively narrow; virtually all of his poetry, which consisted of only two volumes (Verses, 1896 and Decorations, 1897) was written in an interval of less than ten years. Although there is little latitude and variety in his poetry, it does lend itself to some classification (bearing in mind that some themes and moods frequently overlap).

The most common of his topics can be classified in the following categories:

1. Devotional religious poetry.

eg. "Benedictio Domini", "Extreme Unction", "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration" and Carthusians (only these four).

They were all written in 1891-1892 during the time of his conversion to Roman Catholicism (he was receceived on 25 September 1891). But Dowson was not a Catholic poet in the sense that Coventry Patmore, G.M. Hopkins or even his friend Lionel Johnson (who convinced Dowson to conversion) were. It is not entirely clear whether he became a Catholic only on account of ritual ecclesiastical ornamentation (censers, Ave Marias, Latin vespers and all that), or whether his conversion was the result of careful and prayerful deliberation. However, religion and morals had little in common to him – Dowson obviously made no pretense whatsoever of leading a consistently sober and devout Catholic life. He did not crave mystical revelation and experience (cfr. Hopkins).

It is important to note that -though we are speaking of late Victorians- the sense of religious uncertainty was still there. Especially Catholicism seemed to be very much ‘in the air’ in the nineties (among Decadents). Aubrey Beardsley was converted to Roman Catholicism towards the end of his short life, and Oscar Wilde became a Catholic on his death-bed (a parallel could be drawn with Joris Karel Huysmans and Gerard Reve).

2. Carpe diem (seize the day) poems, the tone of which reminds us of the carpe diem-poems written by the Cavalier poets of the 17th c. (cfr. some of Lionel Johnsons's poems).

eg. the relatively small "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchohare longam" (speaking for itself; classical quote: 'days of wine and roses') and "La jeunesse N’a Qu’un Temps".

3. Poems indicating Dowson’s love for children.

eg. "The Dead Child", "(Sonnet) Of a little girl", "Ad Manus Puellae" and "Yvonne of Brittany", which brings us to another interesting Victorian issue, namely the preoccupation with younger girls.

Throughout the 19th century, the child developed as a symbol of purity, innocence and asexuality. Yet the child could also be a figure of fantasy, obsession and suppressed desires (cfr. Lewis Caroll’s Alice and his supposed ‘paedophilia’). The image of the child as both pure and strangely erotic at times is part of the mythology of the Victorians, who indeed viewed children in ways that seem complex and perhaps bizarre to us.

It is important to note that this fondness and abiding love for children (little girls) had its precedents among writers and elsewhere; and although such attachments are unusual (esp. in post-Dutroux and Lolita era), there needn’t be anything sinister or perverse in them. Undoubtedly, the sentimental adoration of the girl-child was a symptom (if not a pathology) of the Victorian Age, which, more than any other era, seemed to have been pervaded by a special fascination for little girls (cfr. the paintings of Paul Chabas, Carl Larsson's "The Little Girls' Room", ...).

The Little Girls' Room...

Dowson too repeatedly alluded to his fancies for little girls in his letters ('I think it is possible for the feminine nature to be reasonably candid and simplex, up to the age of 8 or 9. Afterwards - phugh! (88) 'I've been kissing my hand aimlessly from the window to une petite demoiselle of my acquaintance (...) this has temporarily revived me (...) there is nothing in the universe supportable save the novels of Hy. James, & the society of little girls' (108) ‘Why the deuce does anyone write anything but books about children! <-We> Quelle dommage that the world isn’t composed entirely of little girls from 6-12!’ (161-162)).

And any biographical account of Dowson mentions his 'Beatrician' encounter with the 12-year-old Adelaide –Missie- Foltinowicz, whom he desperately fell in love with and who, according to the Dowson-legend and to Dowson's own preface to his Verses, inspired the major part of Dowson’s work.

Question is whether Dowson and the many others (cfr. Wilde on Leonard Smithers in 1897: "He loves first editions, especially of women: little girls are his passion") was expressing a purely artistic affectation or some kind of unconscious response to the growing social and political power of women – a kind of retreat and escapist move from the image of womanhood and a yearn for the purity of the child they couldn't find anymore in women. (cfr. Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity on the mysoginic fear of the mature 'New' woman’s devouring sexual instincts - cfr. Hardy's Tess). The fin-de-siècle child indeed often seemed to prevent the threat of a sexual challenge.

Surely in Dowson’s case, little girls served as symbols for innocence, in which he found a kind of sanctifying grace. Hence his extensive dealing with the ways that time steals away the inocence and beauty of childhood and the helplessness he feels in the face of the passage of time.

But on the other hand, in reducing Dowson (& co.) to a one-dimensional artist whose poems seemed to merely reflect some personal neurosis centered around little girls, we risk contributing to the Dowson myth-making ourselves...

4. The largest number of his poems are love poems in general, and in them the emphasis is largely on lost love (a subject that is not shared by the other members of the Rhymer’s club) and the sadness and weariness of life in general; the disgust with mankind.

eg. "You Would Have Understood Me", "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno cynarae" (the "Cynara" poem).

5. A few occasional poems addressed to particular friends in connection with special events. eg. "On the Birth of a Friend’s Child", "The Passing of Tennyson" (scarcely characteristic of the poet’s theme or manner).

Dowson’s style and ‘mimetic artefact’: defying traditional kinds of critical analysis.[TOP]

Dowson experimented with a variety of meters: pentameters trimeters, tetrameters and alexandrines (in the last he achieved his greatest metrical succes with the "Cynara poem"). It goes without saying that punctuation was highly important to Dowson; there are in a number of the poems a large amount of variants, although they shouldn’t be very alarming (by generating different layers of meaning).

There is no doubt that Dowson was a painstaking and skilful craftsman, always searching for le mot juste (as Flaubert had called it), and that he attached importance to the composition of his poems in particular.

This finally leads to Dowson's style and diction, which should be considered the most important aspect of Dowson’s poetry, for it is there that the Decadents borrowed the most from their influences and left the most to their successors. Neither Dowson, nor his fellow Rhymers developed in their poetry highly theoretical ideas; it was mood and tone which was estimated the most important. What mattered to Dowson & co was the mere articulation of a state of mind, a subjective response, or an emotion; the effort to bring poetry as close as possible to human perception.

Now this sincere attempt to render a particular mood necessarily has its correlative in style. Mood in his poetry tends to be exclusively realized by means of the poet’s meticulous manipulation of rhythmic effects.

Such an analysis fails however to account for the relationship between form and content in Dowson’s poets. One could argue "well, Dowson does not really has much to say, but he says it splendidly" – Dowson’s style shouldn’t be reduced to mere ornamentation however. Moreover, Dowson’s syntactic style is an irreducable part of theme and structure. And any hypothesis made made about the relationship between form and content should also have to consider such matters as diction, phonological effects and unfamiliar metrical patterns.

Michael James O’Neal argues that style in Dowson’s poetry is mimetic, which means that it imitates some kind of action. The reader can only apprehend his poems through syntactic schemes that mirror that subjectivity and in that way makes it accessible to him. In this linguistic approach O'Neal gives a response to the poems' challenge of traditional kinds of literary analysis.

Dowson’s poems are indeed fraught with linguistic manipulations and strategies. The most important stylistic trait in Dowson’s poetry is parallellism and repetition, for it is there that the reader can discern his aesthetic response to states of mind. In that way Dowson betrays a sense of purposelessnes and ennui, but paradoxically often a closed structure too (by eg. slightly altering the last repetitive phrase).

I’d like to illustrate this briefly by considering the highly anthologized love poem "Cynara".

Brief discussion of "Cynara".[TOP]

The "Cynara" poem is his best known work, in which the persona laments his lost love and inability to forget that love; he cannot forget Cynara even while he is making love to another woman (obviously a prostitute; cfr. D.G. Rossetti's "Jenny" and Wilde's "The Harlot's House"). The man tells Cynara that he has forgotten many things, "gone with the wind" (from which Margaret Mitchell got the title for her bestseller and one of the most quoted lyrics in English verse), and that he has tried to forget her through riotous (bohemian) living, but it didn’t help him either.

Interestingly, this most famous of Dowson’s love poems appears not to have been inspired by a woman, but by a line from an ode of Horace (4.1) in which the poet pleads with Venus to stop tormenting him with love since he is growing old and is no longer what he was when under the influence of Cynara, the girl he used to love.

It is a mistaken notion that has become part of the Dowson legend that Cynara was in fact the already mentioned Adelaide, who kept him at arm’s length and then cast him out (cfr. the Norton Anthology: "Dowson's "Cynara" was, in fact, a Polish woman by the name of Adelaide Foltinowicz" - p. 1680 n1; my italics). The idea that Adelaide both made and destroyed a poet is not really supported by the facts: Dowson wrote much poetry before he knew Missie, nor did his inspiration cease after the attachment was broken. In addition, no satisfactory conclusion can be drawn concerning its genesis.

Whether Cynara was indeed ‘Missie’ (to whom he in fact dedicated all poems in Verses), or his neglected art (self-reflexive reading, cfr. Tennyson), or his recurrent image for the sanctifying grace of innocence (of the child Cynara), or a combination of all of them, makes no essential difference in evaluating the poem as a poem. Besides, it is always enticing (and certainly it is less work) to read a poem as if it were a diary entry - but one could argue whether such a reading would do justice to the poem...

"Cynara" undoubtedly added a new melody to English poetry (which is in fact not based on the length of syllables but on stress, beat or accent). The basic line is the alexandrine, originally a ‘classical’ French verse, mostly consisting of six iambic feet (~ -). The six-line stanza too which Dowson used here was more common in French than in English poetry. The basic feature of this metrical pattern, which Dowson particularly admired, is that it varies the stress and ceasura, which means that all possible weariness (so typical of English lines) is removed, and is substituted by a more moving lyrical kind of verse.

The major stylistic (syntactic) device Dowson uses to extend the line is, as stated before, the parallelism -- both between stanzas and within lines. Five out of six lines in the first stanza contain parallellism or compounding of short syntactic units. The first line is marked by the near repetition of "Last night" and "yesternight", as well as the compound objects of "betwixt". In line 2, there is a loose parallellism between "there fell thy shadow" and "thy breath was shed". These low-level parallellisms foreshadow (echo) the larger structural parallelism (between stanzas) which is achieved by the nearly exact ('And' vs. 'But') repetition of lines 4 and 6 in all of the other three stanzas of the poem. This kind of parallellism is not peculiar to "Cynara"; it is part of the syntactic style of other Dowson alexandrine poems as well. Dowson may not really have much to say, he says it indeed in a splendid way, and thereby challenges any traditional approach. In my opinion, this (and, I admit, the Dowson-legend too) is what makes Dowson's poetry still fascinating for the modern reader.

© Willem Van den Daele, 16.06.2000


Books [TOP]

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of perversity: fantasies of feminine evil in fin-de-siècle culture. New York: Oxford university press, 1986.

Dowson, Ernest. The Letters of Ernest Dowson. Collected & Edited by Desmond Flower and Henry Maas. London: Cassell, 1967.

Dowson, Ernest; Flower, Desmond. The poetical works of Ernest Dowson. London: Cassell, 1968.

Dowson Ernest; Longaker, Mark. The poems of Ernest Dowson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Dowson, Ernest; Johnson, Lionel; Davidson, John; Stanford, Derek. Three poets of the rhymer’s club: Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, John Davidson. Chesire: Carcanet press, 1974.

Halladay, Jean R. Eight late Victorian poets shaping the artisic sensibility of an age: Alice Meynell, John Davidson, Francis Thompson, Mary Coleridge, Katharine Tynan, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson. New York: Mellen Lewiston, 1992.

Kincaid, James R. Child-loving. The erotic child and Victorian culture. New York; London: Routledge, 1992.

O’Neal, Michael James; Bowling Green State university. A linguistic examination of the syntactic style of three English decadent poets: Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson. Michigan: University microfilms international Ann Arbor, 1978. (Diss. Doct. Philos.).

Electronic resources (visited May 18, 2000) [TOP]

on-line publications via EBSCOhost:

Shaw, Robert B. "Tragic Generations." Poetry 3 (2000): 210-219.

Showalter, Elaine. "The Burden of Success." Civilization 6 (1999): 60-62.

Whittington-Egan, Richard. "The Poets and Poetry of the 1890's. A Millennial View." Contemporary Review 1591 (1998): 84-87.