Ernest Dowson, poet, novelist, short story writer and translator of French literature, was born on August 2, 1867, exactly 150 years ago. In his youth he worshipped the child actress Minnie Terry, then became the devoted lover of the young Adelaide Foltinowicz.
Dowson enjoyed absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular amongst poets and artists; he used to say “Whisky and beer for fools; absinthe for poets,” and “absinthe has the power of the magicians; it can wipe out or renew the past, and annul or foretell the future.”
His life was mostly a sad one. His father died of a medication overdose, then his mother committed suicide. His inheritance was blocked because of legal proceedings, so he lived in misery, earning here and there a bit of money through translations. Then his love for Adelaide was rejected, and she married another man. As wrote Guy Thorne (Ranger Gull) in TP’s Weekly, July 1913:
He seemed a lost creature, a youthful ghost strayed amongst the haunts of men, an object of pity. Pale, emaciated, in clothes that were almost ragged, poor Ernest flittered from bar to bar in search of someone with whom to talk. When he found a friend, his face would light up with a singular and penetrating sweetness that made one forget his untidiness—to use no other word—which verged on offence. He was never penniless, was always the first to pay for others, and when the drink was served he would sometimes furtively take a little golden cross from his waistcoat pocket and dip it in the glass before he drank. Someone who did not know the circumstances said, “Ernest, were you ever in love?” The poet answered in the words of Voltaire. “Vous me demandez si j’ai aimé: oui! c’est une histoire singulière et terrible.” While I live I shall never forget the wan smile, the haunted look in the poor fellow’s eyes.
(Translation of the French sentence: “You ask me if I have loved: yes! It is an odd and terrible story.”)
Dowson died at age 32 on February 23, 1900, his body worn out by tuberculosis, neglect and alcohol, and his heart broken by grief. To express the deep disappointment with life that he must have felt, I give one of his sad poems:
We have dreamt dreams but now they are long over,
Dreams of a life the other side of death;
Drop down the curtain on the play completed,
The farce of life is finished with the breath.
We have believed the beautiful, false stories,
Fed on the faiths that after childhood fail,
Now to our eyes the universe appeareth
A vessel rudderless without a sail.
Man, in a world but fair in semblance only
Veiling in light its secret of disgust,
Is he not far of all vile things the vilest,
He, the foul spawn of Nature’s filthy lust?
Man with his hopes and pitiful illusions,
Is he not pitiful, grotesque, forlorn?
White with desire for that life cannot proffer,
Must we not weep that ever we were born?
Is there one happy? Can there be one happy?
Nay, for the only good we can attain,
Death our dull goal, the senseless sleep for ever
Puts alike end to pleasure and to pain.
There shall we rest, but shall not ever know it,
Shall not have love nor knowledge, nor delight,
Only shall feel the fevered life fall from us,
Sleepers unwitting in an endless night.
Source of the quote: The Letters of Ernest Dowson, Desmond Flower and Henry Maas (editors), Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967, pages 379–380.
Source of the poem: from Poésie Schublade, in Ernest Dowson Collected Poems, Robert Kelsey Rought Thornton and Caroline Dowson (editors), Birmingham University Press, 2003.