ERNEST DOWSON: John Lucas reviews a new selection of work by at this late 19th Century poet compiled by James Hodgson & Henry Maas

Ernest Dowson: A Selection of his Work
Edited and Introduced by James Hodgson & Henry Maas
Greenwich Exchange, 2022 
ISBN  9781910996591

The Decadence, Fin-de-siecle, the Aesthetic Movement, even the Yellow Decade. Call it what you will, the 1890s is a unique period in the history of English literature. Nearly all the century’s great writers were by then dead – Arnold, both Brownings, Clough, Dickens, George Eliot, Gaskell, Christina Rossetti – or were in their dotage – Swinburne (assuming him to be among that great, which I rather doubt), Tennyson, (died 1892), which left only Hardy, James, and, perhaps, Kipling, although he was then starting out, as was Arnold Bennett. Of those writers and artists who emerged at the end of the century, most seemed to be bowed under a crippling, self-imposed consciousness that they were living in the age’s all-but extinct volcanic energy, and that in its ashes there was not much by way of wonted fire. They included Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Hubert Crackenthorpe and Lionel Johnson, all of them dead by the time the new century arrived.

Among this group of lost souls was Ernest Dowson. I first heard his name on the lips of Ian Fletcher. Ian, or Iain as he preferred to style himself in his early days, was a lecturer in the wonderful English department at Reading University. He had been appointed by the great, eccentric Professor there, D.J. Gordon, who had learnt of Ian’s existence through John Wain and Frank Kermode, both of whom taught in the department and who came across Ian in the literary London of those rackety post-war days. He lacked a degree but was almost impossibly erudite, especially when it came to the byways and crannies of English poetry, and he knew, you sometimes felt, so much about the 1890s in particular that it was possible to feel that he had invented the decade single-handed. Gordon, a Renaissance scholar, but one whose own interests ranged widely, was both intrigued and impressed, and airily waved aside protests by staider members of the Faculty that to appoint to a lectureship someone without a degree would bring lasting shame on the University.

Besides, Ian (or Iain) was himself a poet. His first volume had been published in 1947 by the fabled Tambimuttu of Poetry Editions London, and bore the title, Orisons; Poems Metaphysical And Picaresque, which the poet himself once described in his cups as a delicate melange of the recherché  and the voulu, though this is to underrate its genuine originality. Anyway, by the mid-1950s he was installed at Reading, himself a melange of the comic, bizarre, and wonderfully diverting; and if you wanted to know anything about the 1890s, he was your man. And even supposing you didn’t, he’d tell you anyway. No wonder that in due course he should go on to edit for OUP British Poetry and Prose 1870-1905 (1987) with its roll-call of names more or less invisible to the naked eye.

Ian had the most extraordinary voice for reading poetry. Sonorous, full of shade, able to range in volume from astonishingly loud to equally astonishing whisper. ‘I could make the London Telephone Directory interesting’ he once said with pardonable exaggeration; and he could certainly make the utmost of any poem he read. Hence my recall of his performance in the autumn of 1956 to a first-year class of undergraduates (supposedly being inducted into the mysteries of literary criticism) of a poem which went by the title of ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’, and which began,

                          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.

The vaguely sinister religiosity, the sense, unspecified, of some spiritual disease, the strange formality of utterance, the crepuscular atmosphere: not exactly the stuff to give the troops. You could imagine any Leavisite being torn between contempt and outrage that undergraduates should be asked to attend to such verse, let alone take it seriously.

To be honest, I don’t think I did take it seriously. On the other hand, I was certainly fascinated by the poem, Outré, perhaps? A Fletcherian word, one that might well apply to both poem and reader. I even went so far as to read more of Dowson’s verse, borrowing from the University library shelves an anthology of later 19th century Poetry (I think it was) that looked in mint condition, from which I not unreasonably concluded it had never previously been taken out for inspection. Dowson was represented by some half dozen or so poems, none of which made much of an impression, beyond, that is, a general sense of lassitude, of rain falling through the universe, though for some reason I did remember the opening of a poem dedicated to Hubert Crackenthorpe, ‘Strange grows the river on the sunless evenings!’

Reading again that particular poem in the book under the present review, and knowing now what I didn’t know then, that Crackenthopre killed himself in 1896, I sense that the reason it got under my skin was the closing line of each carefully rhymed quatrain: ‘Sufficient for the day are the day’s evil things,’ which is modified in the final stanza to ‘were the day’s evil things.’ Yes, but what evil things? Dowson mentions labour and longing and despair, but in the most general of terms. I was hot for certainties, but the poet was no help as far as such matters were concerned. On the other hand, he took care to fold rhymes back on themselves, in a manner I came to know as Baudelairian, or associated with those most decadent of poets, Rimbaud and Verlaine. It was Baudelaire who, I think I’m right in saying, introduced the pantoum into modern French poetry, and whose ‘Harmonie du Soir’ is one of the masterpieces of the form; and as for the villanelle, common enough in later French poetry, well, I took for granted that rhyming was easier in French. (Though the villanelle became almost a staple of English poetry in the 1930s: think Auden, Empson, Dylan Thomas ….)

Now, looking through the Hodgson and Maas Selection, I see that it includes a ‘Villanelle of Marguerites’, which begins:

                           ‘A little, passionately, not at all?’
                              She casts the snowy petals on the air:
                           And what care we how many petals fall!

                           Nay, wherefore seek the seasons to forestall?
                             It is but playing, and she will not care,
                           A little, passionately, not at all!

The Selection contains several other villanelles, and while I wouldn’t claim any of them to be major accomplishments, it is well worth applauding Dowson for taking what can certainly be called an enabling interest in such formal matters, and congratulating Hodgson and Maas for recognising the need to honour it. Moreover, in his version of Paul Verlaine, Dowson succeeds in folding rhymes back on each other so as to pay proper tribute to the French originals, as here, in a poem that begins with a line from Rimbaud: Il pleut doucement sur la ville:

                              Tears fall within my heart,
                              As rain upon the town:
                              Whence does this languor start,
                              Possessing all my heart.

This isn’t to be compared with Verlaine’s ‘Chanson D’Automne,’ but it catches a good deal of the French poet’s tone, his weary regret for the lost days of wine and roses.

As to his stories. ‘Tragedy should be a great kick at misery,’ Lawrence famously said. Dowson, you feel, never kicked out at anything much, either in verse or prose fiction, and this can become wearying. I am pleased that the editors chose to include some of his short stories, relieved that they resisted any impulse they may have felt to provide more. Such stories as they print tend to be set in a provincial France redolent with village pieties and young girls renouncing the flesh in favour of a life offered in marriage to the church. ‘Well, sod that for a game of soldiers,’ as a robust young woman of my acquaintance once said to me when reporting that her local RC church, of which she was then a member, had enquired as to whether she thought she might have a ‘vocation.’ It is tempting, perhaps inevitable, to feel that Dowson’s rather damp presentation of the alternatives depends less on an imagined anguish of choice than on his inability as a member of the Church to confront them. But then, as the editors note in their substantial and informative Introduction, he himself was in love with, or at least besotted by, ‘a young girl whom he called Missie … the daughter of a Polish restaurant keeper in Soho [who] was only eleven when Dowson first met her.’ Dodgson, Dowson …. What is it with the Ds. Even Dickens was a bit too ready to celebrate innocence with a kind of sideways proprietorial glance. Florence Dombey, Dora Copperfield, Little Dorrit.

Perhaps the best of the stories on show is ‘Apple Blossom In Brittany,’ which rather beautifully evokes the Breton atmosphere in Spring, although even here there is a reaching for language which determinedly, and mistakenly, treats the present time as ‘quaint’ and requiring a full dose of diminutives and coy intensifiers. A priest ‘chaunts’ from his book, a young girl’s white dress is ‘very simple,’ she wears a ‘little straw hat,’ and she herself is ‘a little figure’ who sets a man’s hat ‘daintily’ on his head. She is called Marie-Ursule, and the author speculates that ‘she might have been sixteen.’ As for the man, a visiting guardian of sorts from England, he is lumbered with the name Benedict Campion. We are told that ‘he might be’ old enough to be her father, and he thinks of making her his wife. But he hesitates and all is lost. The girl chooses a conventual life, and the story ends with them both acknowledging renunciation. ‘She took his hand in silence, and they stood so for a minute, gravely regarding each other. Then they prepared to descend.’

Renunciation of a different kind is on show in ‘The Eyes of Pride,’ where a successful artist loses a woman he desires through his wilfulness and her pride. The story promises much, and had Henry James been the author, much could have been expected of the final outcome. But Dowson throws his subject away. He simply doesn’t know how to handle the dialogue, let alone the final meeting between the two, which takes place in a London drawing-room, where they talk as though brought in from a bad piece of West End theatricals.

              ‘So this is the end?’ she said lightly; and her subtile (sic) voice had grown expressionless.
              ‘Yes,’ he replied dully; ‘this is the very end.’

Well, no, Dowson writes neither curtain nor curtains, but the story’s ending is far closer to Pinero than to James.

It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to find that in the book’s final section we are shown a very different Dowson. As letter writer, he is altogether brisker, relaxed, at ease, even funny. He is in fact an excellent correspondent. I’d very much like to have met this Dowson. ‘Cher collaborateur,’ he writes to Arthur Moore,

          It is some time since the Sunday ed: has gone to you. Let it be resumed.
          I trust you arrived chez toi – in all  sobriety last night …. I feel today that I
          possess a liver –doubtless the result of that little green absinthe. I know
         not whether I sail tomorrow. If I do not let us dine together Tuesday.  Let it
         be arranged. Yes, please.

The editors preface their section on the Letters by helpful notes which identify who Dowson’s chief correspondents were. They include Victor Plarr, member of the Rhymers’ Club and author of Ernest Dowson: Reminscences, 1887-1897, published in 1914, the infamous Leonard Smithers, publisher and, as Wilde labelled him, Erotomaine, who denied Beardsley’s deathbed request to burn the artist’s obscene drawings (there was money to made from printing them), Arthur Symons, Man of Letters, champion of Pater and early Yeats, and Samuel Smith, of whom I’d never heard but who matters because his translation of Lysistrata was the one for which Beardsley made his erotic illustrations. Smith and Dowson had been contemporaries at Oxford, and for many years Smith was, so the editors tell us, a teacher at Enfield Grammar School, where he became the ‘recipient of some of Dowson’s most intimate letters,’ including ones about the poet’s developing passion for his under-age ‘Missie.’ I don’t know how many of Dowson’s letters survive, but the ones published here reveal both a lively manner and a poet hopelessly at odds with circumstance who, while by no means a sad case, comes across as someone deserving of the sympathetic consideration offered throughout by the exemplary Hodgson and Maas.

Nothing will make Dowson into a major poet, let alone an accomplished writer of prose fiction, but he remains the author of some splendidly lively letters and a dozen or so poems we need to attend to if we are to understand the 1890s; and for this, as well as for presenting their material in so attractive a format, both editors and publishers deserve our very considerable thanks.