Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Aldous Huxley
Ernest Dowson (18671900)
[Ernest Christopher Dowson, born August 2, 1867, lived the earlier part of his life abroad. He was educated at Queens College, Oxford, which he left in 1887 without taking a degree. Thenceforward he lived partly in London, partly in Paris, returning finally to London only to die, February 23, 1900. He did a number of translations from the French, hack-work for which he received a regular pittance, and was part author of two novels. In verse he published Verses (1896), The Pierrot of the Minute (1897), while Decorations appeared posthumously, published by John Lane.]
HISTORY affords us only too many examples of the poets whom life and its diurnal miseries have overwhelmed. Out of this pitiful company, some, like Chatterton and de Nerval, found in suicide their only road of escape. Others needed not to go ridiculement se pendre au réverbère: to these, in its own time, came early death, putting a period to all their wretchedness. Ernest Dowson is numbered among these. For him reality meant poverty and disease. Conquered by life, he was yet in a sense its conqueror; for out of his lifes ugliness and pain he created beauty. The cry that his agony extorted from him was an articulate music, always melancholy and pathetic, and possessing sometimes a plaintive loveliness all its own.
His poetry is always essentially lyrical and personal. He generalized no world-philosophy out of his experiences. Because life wearied him he did not, like Byron or Leopardi, postulate a universal ennui, did not rise in titanic curses against the Creator of a world where life was only supportable by illusions. Dowson did not see in his own misfortunes the Promethean symbol of persecuted but indomitable humanity. His poetry is the poetry of resignation, not of rebellion. He suffers, and records the fact. That is enough; he draws no universal conclusions, he does not rail on fate; he is content to suffer and be sad.
Weariness and resignationthese are his themes; weariness of life and a great desire for the quiet consummation of death, the annihilator; resignation, helpless and hopeless, to the fate that persecutes him. This constitutes his stock of poetical material. He sings the same song over and over, a thin, lamenting melody.
With no great desire to achieve originality, he made unashamed use of all the time-honoured poetical paraphernalialute and viol, poppy and rose and lily, with all those rare, remote precious things which the poets throughout the ages have appropriated to their peculiar use. He did not trouble himself to seek out a new diction, to invent new moulds of expression in which to cast his thought. The old conventional language of poetry, a language consciously archaic and aloof from the living speech of men, satisfied him completely. In his language he never passes the traditional bounds of nineteenth-century Elizabethanism.
What is it, then, which makes Dowson a poet? We have seen how limited was his stock of ideas, how familiar his images and diction. What is the quality in his work which raises it above flat mediocrity and makes it readable? Wherein does his magic consist? The answer to these questions is surely to be found in that quality of musical beauty which is characteristic of all his work.
Each poet has his musical beauty, each period is distinguished by its own harmony. To wed the musical form with the content of meaning so that the music expresses the thought in the purely sensuous symbols of its harmonythat is the achievement of the true poet. A great poet can tune his music to every mode.
Dowson, with his very limited poetical genius, knew of only one kind of music, the music of sadness. The rhythm of his lines is always slow and passionless. No harshness of abrupt energy breaks their melancholy sweetness, no eagerness quickens the weariness of their march. To heighten the effect of his music he makes frequent use of the refrain. Every reader of poetry knows how absurd or how deeply impressive this serial return to the same point may be. Dowsons use of the device is for the most part happy: I have been faithful to you, Cynara! in my fashion. Sufficient for the day are the days evil things are haunting lines, whose return, stanza by stanza, produces a cumulative effect upon the mind, like the insistent moan of Dunbars Timor Mortis conturbat me. Musical arrangements more elaborate than the simple periodical refrain are often used in Dowsons works. He has written several villanelles, of which one is quoted here. Well handled, the form is capable of being of great beauty. A little, passionately, not at all!he evokes here a drooping, evanescent music, a dying fall of poetry. Indeed, all Dowsons poetry possesses this quality of a music wearily drooping towards its close, trembling on the verge of silence. He reproduces the negative emotions of spent passion, the feelings of quiet sadness evoked by a song that draws to an enda great period of human activity that closes. It is not for us to complain that he did not achieve more, as much as the great poets. Rather, we must be thankful for the contribution of beauty which he has brought to the general treasuryhowever small that contribution may be.