2 August 2010 marked a rather unlikely milestone in the legacy of Victorian bard Ernest Dowson; some eighty people gathered at the Brockley and Ladywell cemetery to behold the unveiling of Dowson’s restored grave.
Along with the unveiling were a memorial service, a toast of absinthe (Dowson’s beloved drink), and a recital of the poet’s work by Jad Adams, whose Madder Music, Stronger Wine provides an incisive exploration of this ill-fated writer who was so much at the epicentre of 1890s London bohemia.
Dowson was well acquainted with both the bastions of high culture and the most disreputable of dens. He contributed to the iconic Yellow Book and belonged to the influential Rhymers’ Club. He was also a friend of such prominent characters as William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde, with whom some of his most memorable London carousels were spent.
Born in 1867 Dowson spent much of his adolescence working at his father’s East London dry-docking business. He then attended Oxford University, where he became a scholar of classical languages, despite never obtaining a degree.
Out of school, Dowson began contributing lyrics to The Hobby Horse. He also made trips to 20 Fitzroy Street – site of the first meetings of The Rhymers’ Club, a rather short-lived group which included members who would find immense success, or complete destitution, or both … in the fullness of time.
Dowson evinced a fondness for the outings at 20 Fitzroy, which he called the ‘sacred house’. However, his memoirs show that by the end of 1890 he was toying with the idea of establishing his own group.
Of this group nothing came. Dowson’s was a temperament unsuited to organisation, much less taking charge; so he became a Rhymer and deferred to the more organised personality of friend and founder William Butler Yeats, the mystical Irish poet who brought his blossoming talents and love of Celtic folklore.
Yeats also carried his obsession with a woman, a prominent actress no less. It was likely that he and Dowson had a spiritual kinship, for both were mired in fervent but unrequited passions, though Yeats’s beloved was more widely coveted than Dowson’s, who was the pubescent daughter of a restaurant owner on Sherwood Street.
Though he would spend many an evening at this modest eatery, Dowson made sure to attend the ‘rhymed’ proceedings at 20 Fitzroy. An early 1891 letter tells of him heading there to mingle with a ‘select assembly’, among whom was one Oscar Wilde.
Fresh off the release of Dorian Gray, Wilde had emerged as London’s messiah of literary decadence; his company, so often coveted, would now be especially compelling. Wilde, however, was not the only figure of intrigue in attendance.
In slightly cryptic terms, Dowson described the affair as ‘a most queer assembly of Rhymers, and a quaint collection of Rhymes’. As for his own contribution, it was recited by another poet; admittedly he was ‘too shy to read his work out loud’ – a rather unfortunate condition which seems to have been overcome eventually, as several former Rhymers have shared recollections of Dowson recitals.
Though the venue offered a colourful cast of personalities, these early Fitzroy Street gatherings were no triumph. Yeats remarked: ‘The meetings were always decorous and often dull. Someone would read out a poem and we would comment, too politely for the criticism to have any value’.
A visitor to one Rhymers’ outing spoke of ‘a small assemblage of poetically pious young men … all seething with the stern sense of their poetic mission … I never heard a Rhymer laugh, their smiles were rare and constrained’.
On other members Dowson produced a curious effect. ‘Most found him rather odd,’ according to Ernest Rhys, who added that Dowson was ‘the one Rhymer we believed to have the most potential in the group. His poems had an individual savour unlike that of any other poet, which seemed to point to the rarer imaginative work he might yet do.’
Despite the apparent ability, Dowson did not exactly inspire much confidence. ‘He was frail physically, had no idea at all of taking care of himself.’ His face was described as ‘almost painfully sensitive, delicate as a silverpoint, recalling at once Shelley and Keats, too worn for one so young, haggard, one could not but surmise, with excessive ardours of too eager living’.
The eager one began taking his ardours to the British Museum Reading Room, where he researched archaic French texts for his essay on sixteenthcentury writers who strove to advance French to the rank of classical languages.
Upon completing the day’s research, Dowson would emerge from the museum’s dreamy splendour en route to more hectic places, including those where ‘absinthe makes the tart grow fonder’.
Though he had introverted tendencies, Dowson was generally not too hard to find. A man about town, his typical evenings consisted of absinthe, billiards, card games and strolls through the urban crowd, culminating in a mission to the Crown Tavern near Leicester Square. Whatever the vicissitudes of his psyche, he had cultivated something of a routine.
Among the reasons Dowson makes for an interesting study is that he cared more about his prose than his poetry, for which he is far more remembered. Whether working in verses or paragraphs, his recurring themes include unrequited passion and unattainable desire; he also explores the decadence of ‘wine, women, and song’ as well as more cloistered subjects, found in such works as ‘Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration’.
On 6 February 1891 Dowson’s most enduring poem was composed at the Cock Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue. In a picture now rather cliché of a starving artist, he was seated at a ‘little marble-topped table … with an absinthe in front of him and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, writing with the stub of a pencil on scraps of paper torn from business letters’.
The poem bears the imposing title of ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’. However, it is commonly referred to as the ‘Cynara’ poem, much to the relief of many readers, and likely to the benefit of its composer’s legacy.
For this work, Dowson employed the Alexandrine poetic form, one that has been viewed by scholars as ‘particularly ill-suited to the English language’. Undeterred, he chose to follow the meter of his beloved bards of La Pleiade, who had endeavoured to make the Alexandrine the ‘dominant poetic form of the French Renaissance’.
Perhaps ‘Cynara’s’ most salient theme is the insatiable nature of debauchery and how the debauchee inevitably wants more and more: ‘I cried for madder music and for stronger wine.’
In Dowson’s case, he actually dared to live what he wrote – an achievement inversely correlated to one’s health. Indeed, much of his life was consumed by paltry dissipation. Aside from the habitual inebriation and those girls with ‘crustaceans’, he frequently partook in seaport brawls, an activity to which his slight build would not have been conducive … especially seeing as how he was consumptive.
In light of Dowson’s lifestyle, not everyone was so sympathetic. The artist Aubrey Beardsley, himself of poor health, could not tolerate ‘the spectacle of [Dowson] slowly killing himself, not with radiance, still less with decorum, but in a mumped and sordid way, with no decoration in the process, but mean drink-shops, poisonous liquor, filth and malady’.
William Gaunt’s Aesthetic Adventure further conveys the selfdestructiveness of Dowson: ‘As consumption advanced, he hid in his lodgings, refused to see a doctor, let himself starve; until a friend who found him one day, practically penniless and scarcely able to walk, took him off to a cottage at Catford’.
This cottage belonged to Robert Sherard, a fellow writer and generous soul who did what he could for the stricken poet, providing him with food, a place to sleep, and a volume of Charles Dickens to read.
But ultimately Dowson’s frail body had endured too much, and he soon expired – at age thirty-two. His death was no shock to those aware of his habits. Yeats later said of him: ‘I cannot imagine the world where he would have succeeded.’