Poems, Ernest Dowson
Selected with a Foreword by Henry Maas
The Greville Press, 2021 £7.50
More than anthology poems
I’d be surprised if Ernest Dowson had ever featured on an English Literature syllabus. Most poetry readers will know him, however, from the two poems anthologised in The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 (New edition, 1939). Their long Latin titles are less memorable than some of their lines. For example —
They are not long, the days of wine and roses
or the haunting confessional regret in —
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.
Those long, yearning vowels, that melancholy tone: they are recognisably late nineteenth century but also painfully universal in feeling.
Has the experience of being steeped in these two poems fooled me into thinking I know Dowson’s poetry? I suspect it has, so this judicious selection fills a gap.
Henry Maas’s Foreword gives a brief overview of Dowson’s short, sad life. He died at 32, from ‘drink, poverty, self-neglect and tuberculosis’ after producing only two small collections of poetry. His unrequited passion for Adelaide, the teenage daughter of Polish restauranteurs, had shaped his life and work.
There are twenty-one poems here, every one with phrases or lines made memorable by their inner music. Dowson had stated his purpose in poetry —
[ … ] verses in the manner of the French ‘symbolists’: verses making for mere sound and music, with just a suggestion of sense, or hardly that; a vague Verlainesque emotion.
Tastes in poetry have changed but there is still space for the musical interplay of vowels, for delight in harmony. ‘Villanelle of his Lady’s Treasures’ ends —
I stole her laugh, most musical:
I wrought it in with artful care;
I took her dainty eyes as well;
And so I made a Villanelle.
This is Dowson standing back from his work, watching himself weave the elements of a formal poem, finding pleasure in the exercise of his own skill, and with an unexpected delicate humour.
There’s more to Ernest Dowson than the familiar anthologised poems.
D A Prince
Copies can be had from: Anthony Asbury, The Greville Press, 6 Mellors Court, The Butts, Warwick CV34 4ST