The Poetry of Dowson Critical Essays

Ernest Dowson

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

If a choice had to be made of the most typical member of the tragic and wasted generation of the “yellow Nineties,” that choice would almost inevitably be Ernest Dowson, for in so many ways did his short life fit into what came to be the established pattern of the period. His unhappy love affair with the daughter of a Polish restaurateur, conversion to Roman Catholicism, alcoholism, and early death—all these details, plus the publication of only two small volumes of poems and a verse play, give us, in the career of one man, a portrait of the age. His photograph, taken while he was at Oxford, shows us a shy, limp figure, marked by unusually large eyes that seem fixed in the dreamlike stare of a somnambulist; the drawing by Rothenstein is of a man so dim as to resemble Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames.

The fantastic decade, variously known as “the yellow Nineties” and “the Beardsly Period,” was, above all, the period of the minor poet. After the giants of the Victorian Age had left the scene, there was no one to take their places, and English poetry suffered a sharp decline. By 1895, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold were dead; Swinburne had been incarcerated in Putney under the watchful eye of Watts-Dunton; and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement had spent its force. To be sure, Kipling had, in 1886 and 1892, published his two most famous volumes of poems; but Kipling was the precise opposite of “the poet’s poet”; he was, in spite of his great gifts, a popular writer who had no influence on contemporary literature. The really outstanding talent of the period, that of A. E. Housman with his A Shropshire Lad of 1896, was not to be widely recognized until many years later. Thus the stage was occupied only by these minor figures: Dowson, John Gray, Francis Thompson, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, who seem in retrospect, as perhaps do the minor poets of any period, to have been conventionally grouped.

A consideration of the work of any of these minor poets always leads to a consideration of the influence upon it of French poetry and particularly that of Paul Verlaine. Two aspects of Verlaine’s work are to be noted here. In 1869 he had published his Fetes galantes and in 1874 his Romances sans paroles. The first of these was an evocation of the eighteenth century, the formal gardens of Versailles where, in the twilight of an autumn evening, the Abbes and shepherdesses, Pierrot and Columbine, stroll along the paths between the clipped yews:

Their short vests, silken and bright,Their long pale silken trains,Their elegance of delight,Twine soft blue silken chains.And the mandolines and they,Faintlier breathing, swoonInto the rose and greyEcstasy of the moon.

It is the world of brocaded coats and elaborately curled wigs, depicted so superbly by Beardsley in his illustration for Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, that Verlaine sought to reanimate and that Dowson used as the background of his slight verse drama, The Pierrot of the Minute, which is a Verlaine poem expanded into a colloquy in rhyming couplets between Pierrot and a Moon Maiden. Quite appropriately, the volume was provided with five illustrations by Beardsley. The scene is laid in the Parc du Petit Trianon, in the twilight, and the opening lines give a fair impression of the style:

My journey’s end! This surely is thegladeWhich I was promised: I have wellobeyed!A clue of lilies I was bid to find,Where the green alleys most...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)