Ernest Christopher Dowson (DOWS-uhn), the best remembered of the minor poets of the 1890’s, 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 matriculated at 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.
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. 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 (1869). The poetic stylistics of Verlaine fascinated Dowson, and Dowson’s brief verse play, The Pierrot of the Minute, 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, “Cynara,” with its long Latin title 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 1890’s.