Authors: Ernest Dowson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet, novelist, and short-story writer.

August 2, 1867

Lee, England (now in London, England)

February 23, 1900

London, England

Biography

Ernest Christopher Dowson, the best remembered of the minor poets of the 1890s, came from a not undistinguished family. His great-uncle Alfred Domett, a poet, had been prime minister of New Zealand; his father, who was interested in literature, was financially able to live on the French Riviera for his poor health. Dowson thus spent a great part of his youth in France and knew the French language well, a fact that had an effect on his poetry. He attended Queen’s College, Oxford, but left in 1887 without taking a degree. It was during his university years, in all probability, that he was converted to Roman Catholicism.

Ernest Dowson.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After leaving Oxford, Dowson settled in London, where he joined the young poets who founded the “Rhymers’ Club” (another poet who became a member was William Butler Yeats). According to those who knew him, Dowson drank heavily and was happiest in the slums of London and Paris. His last years were passed mostly in France. Having returned to London, miserably poor, ill, and living in squalor, he was found by a friend, who took him to a bricklayer’s cottage at Catford, a part of London. Dowson died a few weeks later.

Like many poets of the period, Dowson was influenced by the French poetry of the Symbolist and “decadent” schools. His knowledge of French made this poetry easily accessible to him. Particularly important was the influence of Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes (Gallant parties, 1869). The poetic stylistics of Verlaine fascinated Dowson, and Dowson’s brief verse play, The Pierrot of the Minute (1897), reads like an expansion of one of the French poems. Very like Verlaine also are the melancholy and the resignation that pervade Dowson’s work. All is an autumnal twilight; nothing is worth striving for.

Dowson showed great skill in handling the French poetic forms then much in vogue, and his translations of Verlaine are admirable. He wrote at least one poem that has continued to appeal to readers, “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” (more commonly referred to as “Cynara”), the title of which was taken from Roman poet Horace. In spite of vast changes in taste since the early twentieth century, this poem still finds a place in anthologies. With its gentle, haunting music, its refrain—“I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion”—and its mood of weariness and satiety, it is a perfect poem of the 1890s.

Author Works Poetry: Verses, 1896 Decorations, 1899 The Poems of Ernest Dowson, 1905 Long Fiction: A Comedy of Masks, 1893 (with Arthur Moore) Adrian Rome, 1899 (with Arthur Moore) Short Fiction: Dilemmas, 1895 The Stories of Ernest Dowson, 1947 Drama: The Pierrot of the Minute, pb. 1897 Nonfiction: The Letters of Ernest Dowson, 1967 New Letters from Ernest Dowson, 1984 Translations: Majesty, 1894 (of Louis Couperus’s Majesteit; with Alexander Teixeira de Mattos) La Terre, 1894 (of Émile Zola’s La terre) The History of Modern Painting, 1895–96 (of Richard Muther’s Geschichte der Malerei; with G. A. Greene and Arthur Cecil Hillier) La Fille aux Yeux d’Or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes), 1896 (of Honoré de Balzac’s La fille aux yeux d’or) Les Liaisons Dangereuses; or, Letters Collected in a Private Society, and Published for the Instruction of Others, 1898 (of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses) Memoirs of Cardinal Dubois, 1899 (of Guillaume Dubois’s Mémoires du cardinal Dubois) La Pucelle, the Maid of Orleans, 1899 (of Voltaire’s La pucelle d’Orléans) The Confidantes of a King: The Mistressese of Louis XV, 1907 (of Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt’s Les maitresses de Louis XV) The Story of Beauty and the Beast, 1908 (of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s La belle et la bête) Bibliography Adams, Jad. Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent. I. B. Tauris, 2000. Explores Dowson’s decadent lifestyle and the circles in which he moved. Dowson, Ernest Christopher. New Letters from Ernest Dowson. Edited by Desmond Flower, Whittington Press, 1984. A collection of Dowson’s correspondence. Duffy, John J. “Ernest Dowson and the Failure of Decadence.” The University Review, vol. 34, no. 1, 1967, pp. 45–49. Argues that Dowson’s short story “Diary of a Successful Man” is based on Henry James’s “The American,” and thus lacks depth because it is relies on secondhand observations of life. Gardner, Joseph. “Dowson’s Pastoral.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 46, no. 3, 1991, pp. 376–95. Argues that Dowson’s poetry can be read as pastoral. Kermode, Frank. “Amateur of Grief.” 1967. Continuities, by Kermode, Routledge, 2015, pp. 61–67. Explores Dowson’s fundamental role in the decadent movement. Longaker, Mark. Ernest Dowson. 3rd ed., U of Pennsylvania P, 1967. A detailed and readable biography of Dowson. Third edition includes new correspondence. Swann, Thomas B. Ernest Dowson. Twayne Publishers, 1964. A full-length critical study of Dowson’s work.

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