Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ernest Dowson, Gone with the Wind!

Ernest Dowson died on February 23, 1900. The Poetry Foundation sums up his life and work:

Ernest Dowson lived in London, worked at his parents’ dry-docking business, and was a member of the Rhymers’ Club with W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symons. Dowson’s poems trace the sorrow of unrequited love and are the source of the phrases “gone with the wind”[*] and “days of wine and roses.” [**] He also supplied the earliest written mention in English of soccer. Both of Dowson’s parents committed suicide, and Dowson, who rarely had a fixed home, died at the age of 32.

Note that Dowson became a Catholic in 1892. This article discusses the conversions of the fin-de-siecle poets and writers of the Decadent school. Of Dowson, the author says that in one letter:

 . . . Catholicism appears as a way—perhaps the only way—of escaping the mediocrity and vulgarity that according to Dowson characterise the world he lives in:
I am so tired of Anglican condescension and Latitudinarian superiority; where Rome is in question. That, and the vulgarity of the dogmatic atheists, and the fatuous sentimentality of the Elesmere people et hoc genus omne: I am afraid, my dear, I am being driven to Rome in self defence. Vulgarity, sentimentality, crudity: isn’t there an effectual protest against it all? I confess Our Lady of the Seven Hills encroaches on me, in these latter days.
Dowson denigrates the Anglican Church, in particular the Broad Church (Latitudinarians, as he calls them, suggested that the Church should re-examine traditional Christian teaching in the light of Biblical criticism and abandon positions that appeared as incompatible with modernity), clearly marking his preference for the unshakeable dogmas of Catholicism. It should be noted that he does not explicitly mention the Catholic Church, but “Rome,” which he also calls “Our Lady of the Seven Hills,” referring simultaneously to the Virgin Mary and to the ancient Latin city. Catholicism is attractive precisely because it is Roman, i.e. foreign. In opposition to a Church that defines itself as national (Church of England), the Catholic Church appears as alien, exotic, and hence uncorrupted by Victorianism.

*From the third stanza of "Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae":

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

**From Vitae Summa Brevis" (1896):

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

He wrote this poem about Carthusian monks, and it certainly reminds me of the Carthusians of the Charterhouse of London, as Prior John Houghton and his monks tried "To dwell alone with Christ, to meditate and pray" and were instead pulled from their cloister to face trial, execution, and starvation:

Through what long heaviness, assayed in what strange fire,
Have these white monks been brought into the way of peace,
Despising the world’s wisdom and the world’s desire,
Which from the body of this death bring no release?

Within their austere walls no voices penetrate;
A sacred silence only, as of death, obtains;
Nothing finds entry here of loud or passionate;
This quiet is the exceeding profit of their pain:

From many lands they came, in divers fiery ways;
Each knew at last the vanity of earthly joys;
And one was crowned with thorns, and one was crowned with bays,
And each was tired at last of the world’s foolish noise.

It was not theirs with Dominic to preach God’s holy wrath,
They were too stern to bear sweet Francis’ gentle sway;
Theirs was a higher calling and a steeper path,
To dwell alone with Christ, to meditate and pray.

A cloistered company, they are companionless,
None knoweth here the secret of his brother’s heart:
They are but come together for more loneliness,
Whose bond is solitude and silence all their part.

O beatific life! Who is there shall gainsay,
Your great refusal’s victory, your little loss,
Deserting vanity for the more perfect way,
The sweeter service of the most dolorous Cross.

Ye shall prevail at last! Surely ye shall prevail!
Your silence and austerity shall win at last:
Desire and mirth, the world’s ephemeral lights shall fail,
The sweet star of your queen is never overcast.

We fling up flowers and laugh, we laugh across the wine;
With wine we dull our souls and careful strains of art;
Our cups are polished skulls round which the roses twine:
None dares to look at Death who leers and lurks apart.

Move on, white company, whom that has not sufficed!
Our viols cease, our wine is death, our roses fail:
Pray for our heedlessness, O dwellers with the Christ!
Though the world fall apart, surely ye shall prevail.

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