Childhood nostalgia in Ernest Dowson’s Praeterita

In his lifetime, Ernest Dowson published two volumes of poems, Verses and Decorations. Both are included in The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson published by Arthur Symons, available on the web as a Project Gutenberg Ebook; some of these poems are also found in the web page Selected Poems and Prose — Ernest Dowson of The New Formalist. Dowson kept in a drawer a booklet of poems written in his youth, which was published posthumously under the title Poésie Schublade (“drawer poetry” in a mix of French and German); these poems are not widely available on the web, and this is one reason for including some of them in Agapeta. However, they also shine with freshness and evoke nostalgia for childhood, two qualities partially lost in the more polished verses of his maturity. The poem Praeterita (Latin word for “gone” or “dead”) expresses Dowson’s longing for those cherished memories from childhood.

Arthur Rackham - Ring-a-ring-a-roses

Arthur Rackham – Ring-a-ring-a-roses

PRAETERITA

O childish forms and faces
    That live in memorie’s shrine;
O pleasant paths and places
    That small feet trod with mine,
The old days that are dying
Soft melodies are sighing
Of something that is lying,
    Pale in the past behind

The laughter that rejoices
    Responds not to our quest,
The tender children’s voices,
    Are long time hushed to rest,
And all the stress of ages,
And all the love of sages
Can not return the pages
    That life has once down pressed.

Before us dawns the vista
    Of all our days to be,
But shall we find, my sister,
    The charm that used to be
We know now to our sorrow,
The sad and strange to morrow,
Can never never borrow
    The old time mystery.

When you and I did wander
    On straying childish feet,
Before us lying yonder
    The hills so strange and sweet;
When life was in the dawning,
The fair and golden morning
Sent unto us no warning
    To stay the years’ deceit.

The golden light has faded
    That met our dazzled eyes,
The purple hills are shaded,
    And leaden clouds arise;
And spring of childhood’s gladness
And youth’s brief summer madness
Has yielded to the sadness
    Of dull autumnal skies.

Source: from Poésie Schublade, in Ernest Dowson Collected Poems, Robert Kelsey Rought Thornton and Caroline Dowson (editors), Birmingham University Press, 2003.

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3 thoughts on “Childhood nostalgia in Ernest Dowson’s Praeterita

  1. I’ve only recently discovered Dowson’s poetry and it really speaks to me as a girl-lover. I wonder – are we particularly prone to nostalgia? Is it just a coincidence that Ruskin, another Victorian who was very probably a girl-lover, when he published his autobiography chose to call it ‘Praeterita’? Or was it just a word that was particularly resonant or in vogue at the time?
    Anyway – I’m enjoying what I’ve read of your blog, Christian!

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    • Thanks for your interest. If you remember my article about Dowson in Pigtails in Paint (which you commented too), there was another comment by Seelenwahnsinn recommending the book “Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman” by Catherine Robson, and I replied by expressing some skepticism toward “her hypothesis that Victorian men loved girls because at that time in England, small children (< 6yo) of both sexes were dressed in the same way, with long robes". Anyway, I don't see why girl-lovers should be more nostalgic than boy-lovers. On the other hand I can imagine that child loving can involve nostalgia for the past when one was, and one's friends were, inside that magical state that one now worships.

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