A Short Analysis of Ernest Dowson’s ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’

A reading of a classic Decadent poem

‘Non sum qualis eram.’ I am not as I was. So begins the longer Latin title of this curious English poem, written by one of the 1890s’ most curious poets. Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) was a Decadent poet who embodied the best and the worst of that literary and artistic movement: the drink, the drugs, the longing for inappropriate female companions, the poetry almost intoxicated with its own sound. Along with another short masterpiece – which also bears a long Latin title – ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ is the most famous of Ernest Dowson’s poems. We’re going to attempt to analyse why that’s the case.

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

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.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

The title of Dowson’s poem is taken from the Roman poet Horace, and specifically from Book 4 of his Odes. It means ‘I am not as I was in the reign of good Cynara’. (Cynara, by the way, means ‘artichoke’ in Greek.) That phrase, ‘I am not as I was’, points up the poem’s speaker as somebody who is past his prime, whose best days are behind him. As we will discover, the speaker of the poem is lovesick: ruined by the hopeless love for a woman.

Dowson1In summary, the poem’s speaker addresses Cynara, telling her that last night, as he was kissing another woman, the ‘shadow’ of Cynara fell between them. In other words, Dowson’s speaker was kissing somebody but thinking of somebody else. He feels alone and is sick to the stomach because of the ‘old passion’ he bears for Cynara. The two refrains, ‘But I was desolate and sick of an old passion’ and ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion’ recur in each of the four stanzas, beginning here.

In the second stanza, we discover that the woman he is with is a prostitute (her ‘red mouth’ was ‘bought’, revealing that he has paid for her company). In the third stanza, the speaker says that he has tried to have a good time and forget about Cynara and move on, but he has still not forgotten that ‘old passion’ he feels for her. In the fourth and final stanza, he says that while he is having a good time dancing and drinking he has tried his best to shut out the memories of her, crying for ‘madder music and for stronger wine’, but when the party’s over and he retires to bed, thoughts of her return. He has been ‘faithful’ to her ‘in [his] fashion’: i.e. by being unable to get her out of his mind. It’s like every lovesick pop song that’s been written since – only with better lyrics. That final line and repeated refrain, ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion’, was taken up by Cole Porter for the song ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ from the musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Indeed, while we’re on the subject of phrasemaking, the phrase ‘gone with the wind’, which provided Margaret Mitchell with the title for her novel (and thus the title of the film), is one of a number of references to things passing or fading in the poem: ‘the feast is finished and the lamps expire’ (itself the inspiration for US pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard’s suicide note), which lend the poem its Decadent strain. And the lines ‘betwixt her lips and mine / There fell thy shadow, Cynara!’ may have inspired the lines in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, ‘Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow’, given the sharing of betwixt/between and the falling shadow in both poems. (While we’re on the subject of Ernest Dowson’s linguistic legacy, we have to mention that he provides the Oxford English Dictionary with its earliest reference to soccer, as ‘socca’, in 1889.)

But it’s easy to get side-tracked by the influence of Dowson’s memorable phrases and forget to attend to the meaning of the Cynara poem. Fundamentally, it’s a poem about being unable to forget a former lover, and seeing their face and feeling their presence in everything you do. As a piece of Decadent poetry it’s fun to analyse, especially given the lushness of the language, or the contrast between the ‘bought red mouth’ of the prostitute and the altogether purer and whiter ‘pale, lost lilies’ of Cynara.

Image: from The Poems of Ernest Dowson © 1905, public domain.


  1. Reblogged this on newauthoronline and commented:
    A wonderful poem by a poet who does not receive the recognition he deserves. One can find Cynara in “The New Oxford Book of English Verse”, along with “They Are not long the weeping and the laughter”. However much of his work remains unknown accept by those who care to search it out.

  2. Reblogged this on MB Blissett and commented:
    A beautiful poem, analysed without losing any of it’s appeal in the process.