Speechless the Magazine

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Arthur Symons described his friend Ernest Dowson as having “a look and manner of pathetic charm” and “the face of a demoralized Keats”.

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Poems we missed the first time around

Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)

In 1900, at age 32, poet Ernest Dowson succumbed to complications resulting from TB, binge drinking, and disappointment in love. Quite perfectly the death fit the dier. And he was well suited to his milieu also—those disillusioned descendants of the Romantics who reveled unhappily in the taverns and brothels of London and Paris, a group only loosely connected but distinctive enough to earn a literary designation, The Decadents. And yet— wouldn’t you know it?—deep down, many of them, and none more fervently than Dowson, still clung to some ideal of purity and beauty.

In a marvelous remembrance and introduction for the slim volume published soon after Dowson’s death, Arthur Symons records that his friend had “the face of a demoralized Keats” and “an appearance generally somewhat dilapidated”. Though in paleness and frailty he might have shared some traits with the strewn lilies of his verses, he was not listless. The poet, as Symons describes him, seemed bestirred by wayward energies— even on the occasion of their first meeting. Symons and a companion, strolling late one night through a district near Leicester Square, all wrapped up in a discussion about “the vagabond poet Lord Rochester”, encountered Dowson and another man “wandering aimlessly and excitedly about the streets.”

Even without Symons’ clarifying account, we’d know that at some stage in his various excited wanderings Ernest Dowson dropped into a modest restaurant and fell hopelessly and haplessly in love with the young Polish émigré who waited tables. The chaste courtship, which allowed little more than hand-holding across a table, ended two years later when she elected to marry the waiter. Had the matter played out differently the 60s film version of the Broadway hit Kiss Me Kate would not have Ann Miller tapping through her sprightly dance number singing “I’ve Always Been True to You In My Fashion”. Moreover, that Civil War epic, the one said to have sold more copies around the world than any other English language book except for the English translation of the Bible, would be known by some other name. And what else could contain the succinct and sweeping power of Gone With the Wind?

So would the hit movie made from the book—some title not nearly as good. Turnip Eating Days.

(Someone really should make a list of all the books and movies that take their titles from poems, so that those many people who don’t know or like poetry, and therefore don’t know the source—Reader, please feel free to take my meaning in more ways than one— would discover they’ve been exposed to snatches of the stuff all along.)

In any case, just as Eric Clapton gave the real-life subject of his obsession a mysterious and magical name, “Layla” (“Patty”—Paa-tee—something’s not quite right), Dowson transformed Adelaide into Cynara. (Actually, Cynara!). Everyone remembers the refrain but only Latin scholars remember the poem’s title. It’s probably best he left it in Latin; had he translated those exact words into English many would read no further: “I am not as I was under the sway of the good Cynara”.

Precious, and fairly conventional, even by the standards of their day, Dowson’s other poems have not aged well. “…Cynara”, however, comes along as a different sort of thing —an inhalation of incense and narcotizing fumes. Certain breeds of post-graduate school experts might scoff at its grand, cornball gestures, its obviousness. And yet the way the poem’s technical control and sweeping rhythms shore up those heated imaginings, riotously flung roses, that longing…. A hundred-plus years later, just as it seemed to the disturbed and obligingly shocked Victorians, it’s a fever dream. — Ed.

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
     Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I 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 awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
     Yea, all the time because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
     Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach