he late nineteenth-century poet Ernest Dowson led a tragic life. Despite his middle-class beginnings as the son of a beautiful mother and successful father, he became eventually beset by disease, bankruptcy, and heartbreak. Having attended Queen's College at Oxford, the poet dropped out before obtaining his degree. (www.wikipedia.org) A few years later, he lost both parents, his father to an overdose during his final struggle with tuberculosis, his mother to suicide only a year later. Dowson declined from that point forward, utterly dejected and plagued by addiction himself. The poet personified the clichéd notion of a drunken poet, scribbling verses at a bar with a glass of absinthe and a cigarette dangling between his lips, "scribbling deathless verse on the back of an envelope" (Adams, 46). His poetry rings true to this melancholic state, expressing passionately the woes of unrequited love and the hopeless nature of a world where "tears and prayers are all in vain" ("It Is Finished").
Dowson represents the archetype of the Decadent Movement — the school of writers in the 1890s combining a tendency towards sexual promiscuity and dubious living with an appreciation of classical scholarship and a devotion to the Catholic church. The movement, originally French in origin, possessed the connotations specific to that culture: corruption, immorality, and a love of the artificial. As British relations with the French remained tense, anything associated with their culture approached treason in its nature, perhaps enhancing the movement's appeal as a forbidden fruit. Decadence also connoted a sense of decline, describing the end of an empire where "the riches built up in more stoical times are enjoyed for their luxury," accounting for the frequent references to classical civilizations and their imminent demise. (Adams, x).
Dowson possesses an affinity for conclusion in many of his poems, the change in season, the death of a flower, the end of a love affair, or the end of a life. In examining his poem "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae," we glimpse the poet in all his gloom bemoaning the loss of love.
The poem's title draws upon a line in Horace's Odes IV, 1, line 3, where the poets claims he is not the man he used to be when the gracious Cynarae ruled his heart. More than this excerpt, though, Dowson calls upon the speaker's helpless feeling in the larger verse:
After a long cessation, O Venus, again are you stirring up tumults? Spare me, I beseech you. I am not the man I was under the dominion of good-natured Cynara. Forbear, O cruel mother of soft desires.
Dowson assumes a similarly powerless tone in his poem, where his desolation and sickness dominate.
The poem's subject sparked much discussion at the time of its release. In 1889, Dowson was said to have fallen in love with the then-eleven-year-old Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Polish restaurant owner (www.wikipedia.org). While this claim seems reasonable, as Dowson often referred to the beauty of young women in his poetry, the language in "Cynara" describes a more mature female than an eleven-year-old.
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…
To take possession of the night in this way evokes a woman of maturity, not a child. In his other poems, Dowson contemplates the beauty of young girls directly, suggesting that his focus in "Cynara" is a woman of higher age and development. In "Sonnet of a Little Girl," the poet describes:
Thy tender hand, and in those pure grey eyes
That sweet child face, those tumbled curls of gold,
And in thy smiles and loving, soft replies
I find the whole of love.
The saccharine language in this excerpt of "Sonnet" contrasts the passionate wording of "Cynara," where Dowson employs force and action in his description of a sexualized scene. While Cynara may represent a woman whose innocence is lost, she is not likely the age of young Adelaide, more likely to possess "that sweet child face" ("Sonnet") than that "bought red mouth" ("Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae").
While the poet was said to have written verse quickly, "Cynara" required a certain amount of labor in word choice, punctuation, and especially rhyme scheme. Written in the Alexandrine verse form, with which Dowson became familiar through his study of its revival during the French Renaissance, the poem's twelve-syllable lines lack the characteristic monotony they usually possess when written en anglais. The poet achieves such lyricism via a number of factors. The use of mono or duo-syllabic words seems to contribute to the ease with which the verse reads. In the second stanza, for example, the short words sandwiched by consonants allow the mouth to round around them:
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay.
The alleged awkwardness of Alexandrine rhyme scene in English, then, fails to counter the lilting rhythm of Dowson's "Cynara" .
Alliteration proves another useful tool in the rhythmic poem, the "roses, roses rioutously," and the "lost lilies" of the third stanza serving as devices to exercise the tongue. Most obviously, the refrain of each stanza's conclusion invites the reader to a familiar return- "And I was desolate and sick of an old passion . . . I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion. Like the comfort of a returning chorus in a song, the recurrence of this line ties together each stanza, comprising at last a poem set to what Arthur Symons called "an intoxicating and perhaps immortal music" (quoted Longaker, 81).
1. The concept of pleasure with a conscience manifests itself as evidence of the vascillation between deviancy and devotion in the Decadent lifestyle. Is this tension apparent in the rhetoric of Dowson's poem
2. Does Downson refer to young Adelaide as his subject? Can these passionate descriptions really apply to a girl before maturity?
3. How does the reference to Horace in the title affect the reading of Dowson's poem? Does this immediate classical reference set a certain tone?
Adams, Jad. Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Downson, Poet and Decadent. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000.
Longaker, Mark. Ernest Downson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945.
The Poems of Ernest Dowson. Ed. Mark Longaker. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.
Last modified 20 March 2007