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Poem -- Ernest Dowson

Guest poem submitted by Ravi S Mundoli:
(Poem #394) Poem
  "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.
-- Ernest Dowson
(Translation of the subtitle: 'I am not as I was under the reign of the good

Not being someone who knows too much about such things as structure, composition
etc. (unlike other worthies here)  I will gallantly refrain from spouting forth.
This poem affects me. The imagery (mad music, strong wine, riotous roses, pale
lilies, grey dawn, bought red mouth) generates a heady chaos in my head. And the
last three lines in every stanza serve very well to reinforce the general
feeling of heartbrokenness and despair. An explanation of the poet's life
(below) will be useful in understanding it.

I keep seeing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings in my head when I read this
poem. His life, at one point, was at a stage when he could have written
something like this. If you ever lay your hands on it, read "Moulin Rouge". Its
a novel based on the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. Come to think of it, even Philip
Carey from Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" would have probably empathized
with the thing.


All said and done, with Martin and Thomas acting as censors, I thought if one
thing could clinch the weblication of this poem, it would be trivia.

1. "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae" is a quote from Horace. I have
not been able to (i.e. not bothered to) find any reference to Cynarae
elsewhere.  If someone knows more, please post.

2. Margaret Mitchell lifted stuff from the first line of the third stanza.

[About the poem]

Living for a while in the East End of London where his father owned a dry dock,
Ernest Dowson fell in love with the daughter of a restaurant keeper. It was a
platonic love, and the girl could not understand either Dowson's reticent
idealism nor the poem he wrote to her. Its title was a line which Dowson had
taken from Horace. This classic of sentimental decadence was wasted on his
"Cynarae"; she ran off and married one of her father's waiters.

- (Men and Women: The Poetry of Love: American Heritage Press 1970)


Ernest Dowson was born at Belmont Hill in Kent in 1867. His great-uncle was
Alfred Domett (Browning's "Waring"), who was at one time Prime Minister of New
Zealand. Dowson, practically an invalid all his life, was reckless with himself
and, as disease weakened him more and more, hid himself in miserable
surroundings; for almost two years he lived in sordid supper-houses known as
"cabmen's shelters." He literally drank himself to death.

Dowson was a prominent member of the aesthetic movement, a group of English
poets and painters of the 1890s formed as a reaction against Victorianism. His
delicate and fantastic poetry was an attempt to escape from a reality too big
and brutal for him. His passionate lyric, 'I have been faithful to thee, Cynara!
in my fashion', a triumph of despair and disillusion, is an outburst in which
Dowson epitomized himself. "One of the greatest lyrical poem of our time",
writes Arthur Symons, "in it he has for once said everything, and he has said it
to an intoxicating and perhaps immortal music".

Dowson died obscure in 1900, one of the finest of modern minor poets. His life
was the tragedy of a weak nature buffeted by a strong and merciless environment.

[broken link]

26 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

Delius set Dowson's poem to music.

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Anonymous said...

First read the original Horace ode: "Am I to fall in love again? Give over, Venus, please. I'm not the man I was in the reign of Queen Cynara...etc." Dowson was educated, chose carefully.

Jeanne McLaughlin said...

It's rather unfair to say that Margaret Mitchell "lifted stuff" from Horace. So did almost everybody. It's called 'allusion.'

rikvanbike said...

This was a poem that had some importance to a girlfriend and me 50 years ago. We never really got it together because we used the theme as an excuse for going out with others! Finding it again today is quite moving. What might have been? Oh miss spent youth!

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