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.