Ernest Dowson


They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

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.

Ernest Dowson is buried in the Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery in South-East London, England.

Dowson was the purest representative of the literary movement of the 1890s referred to as the ‘Decadence.’ His life of exquisite verse, classical learning, French travel, dissolution, blighted love and Catholic conversion made him the archetypal 1890s character even before he set the seal on his iconic status with an early death.

Ernest Dowson's Grave

Ernest Dowson's Grave (Photo by Philip Walker)


Ernest Dowson

Dowson had no formal education but some tutoring as his family travelled around the resorts of Europe seeking respite for his father’s tuberculosis. Though deficient in other areas of knowledge, Dowson became a fine linguist and a lover of the verse of Horace, Catullus and Propertius who were significant influences on his writing.

He spent five terms at Oxford then was called back to London to help out with the family’s failing dry dock business in London’s East End. Dowson wrote poetry from his teenage years; from the start working on themes of love and death. Later in life he was to include religious elements, pointing towards the genuineness of his conversion to Catholicism that took place in 1891.

He was a regular part of the London literary and drinking scene from 1888, he contributed to The Yellow Book and The Savoy and both Books of the Rhymers’ Club. The Rhymers brought him into regular contact with such leading characters as W.B.Yeats, Arthur Symons, Ernest Rhys, Richard Le Gallienne, John Davidson, John Gray and Lionel Johnson. He was also a friend of Wilde and a supporter of him at the time of his trial and after his release from gaol. He knew Verlaine and spent much time in his later years, after the financial failure of the family dock, in Paris and Brittany. He was frequently a companion of Leonard Smithers who published his later writing and gave Dowson work in translating erotic French novels.

Dowson had a fascination with girl children which was considered eccentric rather than deviant to his contemporaries. He fell in love with the young daughter of a Soho restaurant owner, Adelaide, to whom his first book of verse and his book of stories are dedicated. After six years of uncertain courtship her marriage to another man, coupled with Dowson’s parents’ deaths (perhaps both from suicide) precipitated the poet’s final decline. He died in R.H.Sherard’s home in Catford, from tuberculosis exacerbated by his depression and alcoholism, at the age of thirty-two.

He had lived for little but literature, dying with virtually nothing to his name but the clothes he stood up in and his tattered manuscript book of verse. In A Comedy of Masks, one of the novels he co-wrote with Arthur Moore, he depicts Oswyn, an intense, drunken, bohemian character who gives a creed which is so close to Dowson’s that it seems to be a self portrait. Oswyn’s personal failings are not intended to diminish his moral stature as an artist. He says,‘I may fail or I may succeed, as the world counts those things. It is all the same: I believe in myself.’

Written by Jad Adams






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