A meditation on Ernest Dowson, on his 149th birthday

13612294_10154454044200337_5186216429025899667_nOkay, it has now been over a month since the EU referendum and its famous result. A week or two afterwards I did write a whole blog post about it – about that first morning when we heard the news – but just as I got to the end, WordPress ate it, and I had used up all my energy. And that is pretty much the story of the ensuing month-&-a-bit.

In short, I’ve been relatively unable to write much except for Facebook arguments, which are more like opening a tap to let out the rust and other contaminants. I’ve been, as the saying goes, in a bit of a misty dream, wafting through the world in an almost incorporeal way, in a state of shock.

But it’s time to move on, and what better occasion than the birthday of Ernest Dowson, late poet of this city, a sad and compelling figure who drank himself to death (though the TB didn’t help) at only 32 in February 1900. I do feel strongly that Ernest – if he had thought about it, which he might not have as he was obsessed with both poetry and his doomed love, and also off his face on absinthe – would have been a firm Remainer. There are several reasons for this:

  1. He had an active interest in international trade. His family owned a dockyard (albeit a pretty down at heel one) in Limehouse. After the tragic deaths of his parents (both of TB, complicated – as it were – by suicide) he was left on his own, literally waiting for his ship to come in.
  2. He made no shakes about nationality or economic migration. His great unrequited love was for a (very – she was 12) young Polish girl called Adelaide Foltinowicz (‘Missie’ for short), whose parents ran a cafe, I think somewhere off the Strand. She was oblivious to his adoration (and indeed his proposal), and at 17 she married a tailor.
  3. He appreciated the benefits of travel, nipping over to Paris sometimes to visit his old pal, Oscar. In fact, Dowson and Aubrey Beardsley were the two of Wilde’s friends who attended the Paris premiere of Wilde’s play Salomé, which was banned in the UK for being too racy. (I’ve seen it. It’s not all that racy now, but it is stuffed chockfull of 1890s moon imagery.)
  4. He was a paid-up member of the metropolitan elite: he studied at Oxford, and was a poet, novelist, critic (in the magazine, The Critic), and prolific literary translator from the French. He knew absolutely everyone, contributed to decadent magazines like The Yellow Book, and is said to have been an influence on Yeats’ style. He used to go to the Café Royal.

800px-Ernest_DowsonLike so many of us paid-up members of the metropolitan elite, he had not a bean of his own. He was the one who coined the sentence, ‘absinthe makes the tart grow fonder’; he loved the prostitutes, sometimes staying the night with one of them as he had worked out that it was cheaper than getting a room. He also used to hang out in the cabmens’ shelters in the wee hours, during his long walks through London. In the end he became homeless, and was luckily taken in by his publisher, Robert Sherard. He died in an upstairs room in Sherard’s house in Catford, still convinced that he would be able to repay him as soon as his ship arrived.

Oscar Wilde wrote of Dowson: ‘Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too, for he knew what love was’. Wilde himself would be dead nine months later.

There’s more about Dowson. His poetry is out of favour now, but he contributed several phrases to the English language. He was the one who wrote ‘They are not long, the days of wine and roses’. He also wrote, ‘I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,/ Flung roses…’ And he was the first documented person to use the term ‘soccer’.

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam*

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream;
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Happy birthday, Ernest.

* Or, ‘The short sum of life prevents long hopes’

(N.b.’ the painting at the top is a Czech painting called ‘The Absinthe Drinker’, by Viktor Oliva – painted in 1901, a year Dowson never saw…)

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