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Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Decadent's Dilemmas

Numbers in brackets are, as usual, footnotes; numbers in parentheses are page references to The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson. A single page citation may serve for several quotations and appears only after the last.


My copy of The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson is a Salvation Army purchase, a shabby first edition, an early Modern Library volume with an introduction by Arthur Symons from 1919 during the Boni and Liveright days before Bennett Cerf took the series over and founded Random House. It is a paperback not quite emerged from the cocoon, almost pocket-sized with soft but cloth-covered boards. With the later turn toward the canon of classics, few remember that the series’ original emphasis was modernist literature. Surely Dowson was one of the early authors dropped from the list; time has not been kind to his reputation. He survives in Pound’s Mauberley and in a few phrases: “ days of wine and roses,” “gone with the wind,” not to mention Cole Porter’s witty free-spirited turn “Always True to You” on Dowson’s lament with the title from Horace. [1] My volume has become itself a “yellow book,” and its tired exterior and foxing pages have a certain charm; they seem appropriate in particular to this author, “the most characteristic figure of the Decadence,” according to a recent critic. [2]

Dowson is remembered as much for his life as for his writing. A reproduction of William Rothenstein’s pencil drawing which serves as frontispiece shows a young man ill-at-ease, but with a certain elegance. He is, at least, dressed in better taste than in the anonymous photograph that appeared in the 1905 edition of this book in which he wears t a stricken expression, striped pants and a jacket that looks as though it had been borrowed from a carnival barker. Afflicted by alcoholism, obsessive sexuality, poverty, and tuberculosis as well as by world-weariness, he was a member with Yeats, Symons, and La Gallienne of the Rhymers’ Club and co-author of two novels, a “dramatic phantasy,” significant translations from the French and reviews as well as the poetry for which is best known.

The title of his book of short stories Dilemmas was chosen perhaps for its indeterminacy; in fact it does little to suggest the stories’ content. The subtitle is more descriptive: Stories and Studies in Sentiment, though Dowson may have liked the alliteration of this phrase as much as the meaning. (Symons says that he thought “the viol, the violet and the vine” to be Poe’s best line.) (14) In fact Dowson’s themes might better be termed tortured sentiment or anti-sentiment. Every one of his stories describes a frustrated relationship, romantic in four of the stories and semi-paternal in the other, though for Dowson there may have been little difference in these categories. [3] The distinctive element in Dowson’s romantic problems is that the very “sentiment” that makes his love so urgent and potent also generates his absolute aestheticism . In the end, art is hardly compatible with a mutual relationship, and, in Dowson’s stories, art is regularly privileged. The reader has the story on the page to verify that. Yet the loss of human love is represented as tragic, filling the characters’ lives with suffering rather than joy.

“Diary of a Successful Man” opens with Dowson’s characteristic note, describing Bruges as “autumnal” and “melancholy” and thus in keeping with his own mood. (133) Having returned after a long absence, he finds the unchanged city a disturbing contrast his own alteration. [4] Though “successful,” in the title’s ironic adjective, in terms of money and comfort, he feels only regret after having lost the lady of his youth who, he believes, many years before, preferred his friend. As it turns out, she had meant to marry him, but, due to a chance misunderstanding, his life (whiled away in penitential service in India), his friend Lorimer’s, and that of their beloved Mme. De Savaresse were all ruined. The narrator has suffered the loss of the love of his life – the wife whom he married in India is inconsequential enough to be dismissed in a word. (134) Meanwhile his friend Lorimer has experienced constant love-longing while at the same time accusing himself justly of having wronged his rival. And their beloved Delphine has taken refuge among the Dames Rouge with whom she is heard singing in the final scene. In a scene of rich Roman Catholic aestheticism complete with incense and Latin, the Virgin Mary is conflated with the dear Countess (the woman’s name is hardly used here as though it were a matter of sacred taboo), as she and her fellow choristers sing the epithets of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. [5] Like her divine counterpart she is, in Lorimer’s words, “so near, and yet so far away – so near and yet never quite close.” (147)

This plot rests on coincidence fully as impossible as those in any romance, but the conclusion defies Frye’s description of romances as “wish-fulfillment.” [6] In fact, like all conventions, those of romance are may be inverted. Just as a usual romance quest ends in victory, here the protagonist is doomed from the start, and the unlikeliness of the misdelivered notes and the chance encounter with Lorimer only emphasize the inexorable intertangled working of their nemesis.

“A Case of Conscience” concerns another impossible love, this time between the middle-aged protagonist and the Breton maiden with whom he is taken. His friend Tregellan asserts the moral and social imperatives that condemn this love, yet he is implicated like Lorimer, traduced by his own desire. Murch’s previous marriage is the element that settles the issue formally, but the couple’s incompatibility is far more fundamental and significant than that legalism. Tregellan downplays the difference of class and age , warning instead that when the country girl is exposed to the sophisticated urban crowd, “all the clever bores,” (157) “everybody who is emancipated will know her, and everybody who has a ‘fad,’ and they will come in a body and emancipate her, and teach her their ‘fads.’” (158)

Murch is surely justified in objecting “That is a caricature of my circle,” a devastating caricature that reduces artistic and intellectual life to an ego-centered procession of meaningless vogues, one endlessly succeeding another. Because they are free-thinkers, they are shallow and corrupt. She, on the other hand, need never think since “everything is fixed for her by that venerable old Curé.” Whereas this traditional unquestioning conservatism offers a life “so easy, so ordered,” the city intelligentsia have only “a world without definitions, where everything is an open question.” (158) To Murch, Tregellan, and other cosmopolitans, Ploumariel may possess picturesque charm, but its most prominent feature is “that little church with its worm-eaten benches, and its mildewed odour of dead people, and dead ideas.” (152)

Tregellan is convinced that she not only could not accept the world-view of the artists and writers, she would react to it with terror. His fears seem justified by her own earlier statement , “”You make me afraid . . . .You suggest so much to me that is new, strange, terrible.” “When you speak, I am troubled . . .all my old landmarks appear to vanish. “ (150-1) She, on the other hand is “a perfect thing,” (158) one of a series extending toward Dowson from Rousseau and Wordsworth and after through D. H. Lawrence and a host of modern celebrators of the simple. She cannot be improved but only spoiled by contact with advanced views. Murch cannot relocate to her village -- he notes “with a suggestion of irony,” that “it would interfere a little with my career,” and he realizes that she, too, cannot be successfully transplanted. (157)

The opposition between art and honest emotion is also central in “An Orchestral Violin.” Here both the seemingly paternal love of Cristich and the romantic interest of the narrator in the celebrated singer Romanoff are frustrated by her single-minded devotion to her art. Her heartlessness causes Mrs. Destrier to warn the narrator against meeting her, and when he does the lady comments only on his art and attempts to justify her own neglect of the former. The antepenultimate paragraph is full of his continuing doubts about her and the story ends with equal doubts about himself: “Have I been pusillanimous, prudent, or merely cruel? For the life of me I cannot say!” (186) Even as a child she had declared her passion for Cristich’s music alone was what governed their relationship. Bon-bons and tender feelings could not compete in her affections with art. (174) An artist manqué himself, unable to really excel or even to make a living playing the music he loves, he understands and would have it no other way, in spite of his loss of any more emotional form of her love. The narrator’s enthusiastic appreciation of a performance of Fidelio (169) provides the model – only art can satisfy the genuine artistic sensibility.

“Souvenirs of An Egoist” opens with a signature sigh from Horace, “Eheu fugaces!” [6] Here the situation of the previous story is reversed and the narrator feels he must abandon his street gamine to tend properly to his art. Ego and artistic achievement are identified as Anton the narrator rises from orphanhood and penury to wealth and aristocratic status through his skills as a violinist. Ninette, since she is a mere organ-grinder and not a genuine artist, is able to experience true love, love so perfect that she accepts his departure. He had been perfectly clear for his preference for his instrument over his beloved. “As much as I ever cared for anything except my art, I cared for Ninette. But still she was never the first with me, as I must have been with her.” (194) Though jealous, her own love is undiminished. (199) Anton’s patron, Lady Greville, another aesthete, is fond of his art while feeling more “repugnance” than fondness for him. (205) He can well understand, though, for in his own case, “since I was a boy, nothing has troubled the serene repose of my egoism.” (206) Though she sponsors his artistic career, “We parted as we had lived together, without affection.” (205)

He calls himself, his patron, and her nephew Felix “who believes in nothing and cares for nothing except himself” (198) the “three most cynical persons in the universe.” (197) Yet art’s triumph is always a strain. Anton knows “I cannot forget Ninette” and even the formidable Mrs. Destrier keeps a file of old letters from her husband in India. (198) All the same, the story concludes with the narrator utterly satisfied with the pleasures of the narrative and with his own indulgence in nostalgic sentiment. “I owe that unmusical old organ a charming evening, tinged with the faint soupçon of melancholy which is necessary to and enhances the highest pleasure. Over the memories it has excited I have smoked a pleasant cigar – peace to its ashes!” (209)

In “The Statute of Limitations” love is ruined neither by art (as it is in “Souvenirs of An Egoist” and “An Orchestral Violin”) nor by a scrupulous acceptance of defeat (as in “Diary of a Successful Man” and “A Case of Conscience”) but by the protagonist’s own self-discipline which becomes compulsive and in the end destroys the original love motive. This melodramatic and monstrous irony (reminiscent of those in Kleist) leads the one-time lover to spend his life toiling in Chile (called here Chili), perversely dedicating himself to the addictive accumulation of wealth, his original motive so far lost he feels his most graceful option in the end is suicide. The narrator reflects that, by this desperate gambit, he has borne with him into death “an unspoilt ideal” as well as leaving his fiancée with “a memory that experience could never tarnish, nor custom stale.” (219)

Dowson’s aestheticism, in contrast to Pater’s, for example, entails romantic tragedy. Whereas Gilbert’s Bunthorne in Patience merely pretends to aestheticism in order to pursue women, for Dowson a love of art precludes a satisfying relationship with a woman. For Dowson the artist’s need for love is in no way lessened by his incapacity. If anything, the feelings of those of tender sensibilities are represented as more powerful than most. Dowson’s heroes are crushed by their frustrated desire for love, but their defeat is a noble one, indicating their lofty standards. The many commentators on the author’s own obsession with the juvenile Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz might consider the possibility that, under the conviction that he could not really take a lover, he chose with open eyes an impossible object for his affections. The “dilemmas” of the title are insoluble, since the protagonists are constitutionally unable either to accept or reject love. Ernest Dowson, the supposed exemplary aesthete, has documented in his stories the insufficiency of the purely aesthetic for his heroes who can find fulfilment and satisfaction neither with the Muses nor with Aphrodite.


1. I discuss the borrowing in my essay this month on “Allusion.”

2. Houston Baker, “A Decadent’s Nature: the Poetry of Ernest Dowson,” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1968.

3. In a “Missing Persons” entry of the Dictionary of National Biography (1993) Bertrand Richards notes of Dowson, “In the letters and poetry there runs a strong current of paedophilia “ which is to Richards “tempered by a humane appreciation of the freshness and generosity of children.”

4. A variant of the theme in Dorian Gray which had been published two years earlier. Compare also to the decaying quarters of Mme. De Savaresse.

5. Dowson was himself a convert like Lionel Johnson and John Gray. Catholics claim with some evidence that Oscar Wilde converted on his deathbed.

6. See Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, The Mythos of Summer: Romance Third Essay: Archetypal Criticism: The Theory of Myths.

7. Odes 2.14. Some might consider the entire elevation of art to be a poignant struggle to overcome time symbolically. One thinks of Horace’s solace in his conviction of his artistic immortality (Odes 3.30), Shakespeare’s promising immortality in his sonnets, or Yeats’ “more miracle than bird” or handiwork” “in glory of changeless metal.” (“Byzantium”).

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