The 1890s was a productive time to be inactive and indolent: poets, artists, and intellectuals delighted in ennui, lethargy, and fears that the world was coming to an end. Indeed, for some, that was the perfect excuse to shake up the status quo. Decadence was the signature ‘movement’ of the time, embodied by some of the classic poems we’ve selected below. Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who famously called for people to ‘get drunk’, faced prosecution for the publication of his 1857 volume of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (‘flowers of evil’). In this volume, Baudelaire pioneered the Symbolist method of poetry, and took poetry into new, darker territory. It was his fellow nineteenth-century French poet Théophile Gautier who first called Baudelaire ‘decadent’, in a preface to Les Fleurs du Mal in 1868.
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.
What’s the connection between wine, poetry, Gone with the Wind, and soccer? In a couple of previous posts, on George Meredith and Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, we’ve endeavoured to find five interesting things about two of Victorian literature’s neglected figures. Now it’s the turn of Ernest Dowson – decadent poet. Some of these are particularly surprising. 1. … Read more