Monday, April 1, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MADDER MUSIC, STRONGER WINE – The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent” by Jad Adams (first published 2000)

            I was visiting Wellington some months ago and, as an Aucklander, was again astounded and envious at the fact that there are four excellent second-hand-book shops within easy walking distance of one another in Wellington’s CBD. The same used to be true of central Auckland, but high rents have caused most of them to shut up shop, and there is now only one good second-hand-book shop in Auckland’s CBD, although there are some good ones still in the far-flung suburbs.

Anyway, on this trip to Wellington my wife and I decided to devote a whole afternoon to trawling through Wellington’s four finest, and we’re glad we did. Both of us found something to our taste in each of the four of them, and bought it – she buying sheet-music and I snapping up old novels and biographies.

At Pegasus Books on Cuba Mall, my prize was Jad Adams’ Madder Music, Stronger Wine, his biography of the decadent poet Ernest Dowson. I read it avidly last month.

Ernest Christopher Dowson (1867-1900) died at the age of 32, and was exactly as Adams describes him in his brief introduction:

He was the archetypal decadent poet, combining all the characteristics which made up the decadent temperament: strange delights, sexual promiscuity and wild entertainments co-existing with classical scholarship and devotion to the Catholic Church to which Dowson converted as so many decadents did.” (pp. ix-x)

As this painful, and at the same time enlightening, brief (barely 200 pages) biography makes plain, Dowson had a blighted life. His father Alfred Dowson was a tubercular, unsuccessful businessman who had aspirations to be a literary gentleman but who lacked the cash to fulfil them. Dowson Senior owned, and tried to make a living by renting out, a wharf on the Thames; but he never really prospered and neither did the son to whom he attempted to pass on the business. Ernest Dowson was also tubercular and even less fitted for business affairs then his father was. Alfred Dowson despaired and committed suicide when Ernest was in his twenties, and Alfred’s wife Annie soon followed suit.

Nevertheless, the two of them had been able to send Ernest to Oxford. The boy did show early a facility for verse – he wrote his poetry swiftly and seemingly without effort, rarely revising and filling up many notebooks. It was the writing of prose over which he agonised. He tried very hard to become a novelist, and wrote two novels in collaboration with somebody else. Both were published, but they apparently merit little attention. Before he died, Ernest also produced enough short stories to fill up a slim volume. And, when he was forced into hackwork to earn a living, his specialty was the translation of French novels.

The peculiarities of Ernest’s character were soon evident. At Oxford, says Jad Adams, when he attempted to mingle with other writers, poets and aesthetes,

 He would stand on the outskirts of their circles, listening to what was being discussed, with a strange little smile on his face which some mistook for irony and others interpreted as a sort of envy that he was unable to participate in their talk. His rooms were bare, without the ornament or decoration common to other students, and visitors received the impression that he was just moving in or just moving out. This impermanence was a perennial feature of Dowson’s life; it was as if he were not really there, or had come to go.” (Chapter 2, Pg.11)

The common stereotype depicts all decadents as talking in witty aphorisms like Oscar Wilde and rejoicing in a cutting, camp sort of humour. Au contraire, Dowson was shy, withdrawn, no conversationalist and habitually depressive.

Once or twice at Oxford, Dowson had taken hashish but, despite the legend, which I have seen repeated in other books (such as Barbara Hodgson’s Opium, published in 1999), Dowson was not a great drug-taker or opium inhaler. He was, however, a prodigious drinker of alcohol and he was apparently a very nasty drunk, constantly getting into brawls with people. Most notoriously, when he was settled in Brittany in 1896 (running away from debts), Dowson was beaten up by the local baker after, in a drunken fit, he had first chased the baker’s wife and then smashed some of the baker’s windows. In his later years he became heavily dependent on absinthe. (Adams chronicles this at Chapter 8, Pg.81).

Added to this, Dowson took no care of himself, and perversely rejoiced in his own squalor. Periodontitis led to the loss of his front teeth and, by the age of 29, as Adams tells it, he was a shambling, drunken, dishevelled, unwashed, noisome figure, with a big black gap where his front teeth should have been. Adams notes that “[Aubrey] Beardsley developed an ill-concealed contempt for Dowson which probably tells the observer more about Beardsley than it does about the poet.” (Chapter 11, Pg.124) Well, maybe. The greatest artist of the decadents, Beardsley was tubercular just as Dowson was, but he detested Dowson’s slovenliness – and do remember that in his later days Dowson could hardly bring himself to wash.

There were positive sides to Dowson’s character. He had a touching naivete about him, barely understanding politics and focussed very narrowly on his literary craft. Unlike some other associates of Oscar Wilde, he stood by his friend when he was on trial and later gave Wilde some emotional support when he was in France. And despite all his defects, he did write some exquisite poems.

But no biography of Dowson would make sense without some analysis of his sexuality, and it was very odd indeed. Jay Adams says much of the sexual decadence of members of the of the Rhymers Club, which met at the Cheshire Cheese, was “mere posing” (Chapter 4 pg.38), with much more talk than actual sexual activity. Many of the best-known British decadents were homosexual (Oscar Wilde, Alfred Douglas, Lionel Johnson, John Gray).

Ernest Dowson was heterosexual, but perversely so.

When it came to women, he had an extreme version of the angel-or-whore mentality. At the age of twenty, he fell in love with an eleven-year-old girl of Polish parentage called Adelaide. She lived in the East End of London, where her parents ran a restaurant. Dowson idolised her, put her on a pedestal, wrote poems about her and, as she grew through her teenage years, seriously thought about marrying her. There is no suggestion that he ever interfered with her sexually. Their relationship – often chaperoned – was decorous and chaste. But it was a sickly outcrop of that worship of helpless young virginity, which lived in much Victorianism. Indeed, the fact that his love was, when he first met her, pre-pubescent, put a safe barrier between them. And, given that the relationship was platonic, Dowson relieved his sexual urges by visiting cheap prostitutes, frequently. Along with alcohol, sex with whores was his chief addiction. Here is carnal sex, paid for. There is the unattainable and virginal ideal of womanhood. Dowson was never able to put love and sex together. He lived his life drinking, paying for whores, idolising a little girl who gradually showed less and less interest in him, and pursuing hackwork to pay the bills while his slovenliness made him less and less socially presentable.

At some stage nearly all the decadents became Catholic, attracted by the colourful ritual and the Latin and the sense of colour and drama that found no parallel in any other church. This included Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Johnson was an even heavier drinker than Dowson was (he died as a result of hitting his head after falling off a bar-stool). Of Johnson’s influence on Dowson, Adams writes wryly “Johnson fancied he was a good influence on Dowson, which [Arthur] Symons joked was limited to those times when Dowson had heard enough about the Fathers of the Church and declared his intention to go and look for a ‘ten-penny whore’, and Johnson would encourage him to stay and have another drink instead.” (Chapter 4, Pg.41)

After Dowson himself died (of tuberculosis) there was a particularly nasty sequel to his tale of misplaced love. His beloved Adelaide died at the age of 26 of a septic abortion, late in 1903, less that four years after Dowson died. In rapid succession, she had borne three children to the German husband she chose in preference to Dowson; and she was trying to get rid of a fourth child she’d conceived in a dalliance with the lodger, when her husband was away. This is such a nasty end that I will withhold such comments as “So much for idolised virginity!”

Jad Adams is a sympathetic and conscientious biographer, who looks carefully at the genesis of Dowson’s best-known works and does not over-step his role by becoming an amateur psychoanalyst. As he remarks in judicious summary late in this book:

It is tempting to fit the parts of Dowson’s personality together to make a modern diagnosis: the paedophilia, sexual promiscuity, inability to form relationships with women who were his equals, self-neglect to the point of dirtiness, and the active seeking of sensations which tormented him would indicate to a psychiatrist some sort of trauma in his childhood, probably sexual abuse. As there is no direct evidence of this, it would be wrong to pursue the analysis (and people never are as explicable as psychiatric diagnoses would have us believe) but Dowson was strange even by the standards of other decadents, let alone ordinary society. Something had affected him to rend his soul so terribly.” (Chapter 13, Pg.146)

After reading of this wretched, unhappy, maladjusted young man, part of me couldn’t help thinking of Dr Samuel Johnson’s life of the debt-ridden and tormented minor 18th century poet Richard Savage. Not only is that because of some kinship in subject matter, but because both works are models of the short and pithy biography. Even more, however, I think of Ernest Dowson in the same way I think of the minor 18th century poet William Collins – a blighted life (melancholy-madness in Collins’ case) which resulted in a handful of great poems.

Perhaps the poems justify the life. Perhaps the good that men do should live in after them, the evil be interred with their bones. Although, if I truly believed that, I would never read biographies such as this one.

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