Greville Press, 2006 - £7.50
In this handsome pamphlet, Robert Nye provides us with brief biographical foreword, followed by a fine selection of the obsessive poems of late nineteenth-century poet Ernest Dowson, who died—some say of a broken heart—at the age of thirty-two on a cold winter morning just under two months after the century had turned. As a poet, Dowson intrigued modernist writers Eliot and Pound: Eliot appreciated his technical expertise, and Pound was attracted to his serious rhythmic and repetitive obsessiveness. Given that both Pound and Eliot were writing at a time when abstraction in visual art was gaining acceptance and vers libre was challenging the boundaries of formalist poetry, it is not surprising that both found Dowson’s work interesting, but for different reasons. Dowson’s work might be described as archaically modern, steeped in abstraction and tangled in romanticism.
Even today, in our post-modern world, there is still something oddly enthralling about Dowson’s passionately rhythmic and, as he describes it, “idolatrous” verse that focuses almost exclusively on emotions displayed abstractly. “I was not sorrowful, I could not weep,” he writes in ‘Spleen’; “I could have loved you,” in ‘You would have understood me.’ The emotion is spoken; it has neither colour, weight, nor shape. It lingers—formless, ghostlike—outside the world. Spell-bound, Dowson writes in thrall to his passion for a very young girl (only eleven years old when he, a young man, first fell head over heels in love with her). His poems, unattached to the objects of the world, swim in the river of an unrequited love that keeps his beloved as afloat as a Madonna but also prevents her clinging to any rocky shore, littered with the objects of the everyday.
The hypnotic rhythms of Dowson’s songs to impossible love and its constant partner, despair, are (as Eliot suggested) beautifully crafted. But without an awareness of the very real world within which requited love, as imperfect as it might be, can thrive and grow, they remain frustratingly fragile and transparent. The images of the real that Dowson does allow into his lines have themselves frequently slipped into the abstract—images that, through over-use, have lost any evocative power. Rain falls as tears; lips are red; breasts “upbraid the snow”. The reader cannot see rain pooled on leaves or imagine this Beloved as breathing, laughing, living with dirt under fingernails, mud on her shoes. Dowson, as Arthur Symons notes in his 1900 memoir, moves through his verse as a “ghostly lover, wandering in a land of perpetual twilight.”
He does, however, emerge occasionally from that twilight, most notably in ‘Breton Afternoon’, a robust poem that allows for “scented-gorse” to float through “sun-stained air”, but he does not stay washed by that real sun for long. Here, lying on a “lone hill-side, in the gold sunshine” with “the gorse above and red, red earth beneath”, the poet recognizes that his “world fades into a dream” and that he has not been made strong but “weak and blind” through his frequent and familiar drift away from the real into the radiance of his passion:
Mother of God, O Misericord, look down in pity on us.
The weak and blind who stand in our light and wreak
Careful readers of these lyrical poems can find Dowson both as the radiance behind the veil of the romantic and as a prisoner of passion and despair. Caught in a web of abstraction, readers will understand, perhaps as clearly as Dowson did or perhaps as ironically as a post-modern lens might allow, that a move towards a privileging of emotion ungrounded in the real is also a move away from life, despite any passion proclaimed.