Published in 1894, Edward Dowson’s “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” was written only six years before his untimely death at age thirty-two. The title, taken from Book IV of Horace’s Odes, translates to "I am not as I was under good Cynara's reign." Though Cynara’s character was incidental in Horace’s ode—only serving to describe an earlier time when the speaker was more able—Dowson chose to make her the focal point of his own poem. With Cynara as his subject, Dowson crafted a poem about an unforgettable love. Employing the extravagant language and sinful indulgence that characterized the decadent movement, Dowson portrays lost love as something akin to an incurable disease.
Many believe that “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” was inspired by a real-life love of Dowson’s. At age twenty-three, Dowson met Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of a restaurant owner who lived near the Dowson family’s dry-docking business. Though Adelaide was only eleven years old at the time, Dowson became utterly infatuated with her and ultimately proposed marriage. In a rejection that devastated and haunted Dowson, Adelaide refused his offer of marriage and later married another man. Dowson’s unending regard for Adelaide led many scholars to speculate that she was the inspiration behind this poem about obsessive love.
In the poem’s first stanza, the speaker addresses his former lover Cynara. Though he has tried to forget her and move on, he is unable to. When he tries to take a new lover, the shadow of Cynara falls between them. As the title suggests, he cannot bring himself to be the same person he once was because he is “desolate and sick of an old passion.” The use of the word “sick” is quite literal in this context. Though the speaker’s obsessive love for Cynara prevents him from living his life to the fullest, he cannot rid himself of it; it has infected him like a disease. The last line of the stanza, which is repeated throughout the poem, declares that despite any new love affairs the speaker may engage in, his heart will always remain faithful to Cynara. Thus he remains faithful “in my fashion.”
The second stanza contains a description of the speaker’s lover, whom he has held all night long. He reflects that despite the sweetness of her kisses, he remains sick with his longing for his old love. When he awakes in the morning, he knows that this tryst has done nothing to change his feelings for Cynara. It is worth noting that the description of his lover’s lips as “her bought red mouth” heavily suggests prostitution. This unapologetic suggestion of immorality is characteristic of the writers of the decadent movement—such as Dowson—who often led lives of decadence and sin themselves.
The third stanza is one of Dowson’s best-known pieces of poetry and contains the often quoted line: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind.” In fact, it is this line that inspired the title of Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel Gone with the Wind. In this stanza, the speaker describes how he has tried to distract himself from Cynara, whom he associates with the innocence of “pale, lost lilies.” The speaker has “gone with the wind” and thrown himself deliriously into life, but despite it all, Cynara remains foremost in his thoughts.
In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker describes having indulged in life’s pleasures, calling for ever “madder music” and “stronger wine.” But when the merriment is over and the lights are extinguished, his longing for Cynara returns. The tense shifts in this final stanza, turning the repeated line “And I was desolate and sick of an old passion” to “And I am desolate and sick of an old passion” (italics added). This switch to the present illustrates the never-ending nature of his longing; Cynara has haunted him in the past and now, even at the end, she haunts him still. The regular rhyme scheme of the poem further reinforces the idea of a love that is constant and unchanging. The use of repetition signifies the speaker’s inability to let go and break the cycle of self-abuse he has created. Within every stanza, we see the speaker try to forget Cynara through other women or alcohol only to painfully dwell on her afterward. Through a speaker whose inability to move on from his past prevents him from living, Dowson powerfully conveys the addictive nature of love.