Monday, April 1, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
ERNEST DOWSON’S POEM FOR THE UNATTAINABLE
I have just been discussing Madder Music, Stronger Wine, Jad Adams’ biography of the Decadent poet Ernest Dowson. The title of the biography comes from Ernest Dowson’s most famous poem, often considered his masterpiece, Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae (“I am not as I was in the reign of the good Cynara”). If the poncy Latin title puts you off, it is good to learn that in conversation, Dowson himself referred to it simply as “the Cynara poem”.
The poem, as any guide to Dowson will quickly tell you, has been plundered for quotations by other writers. Dowson’s “falls thy shadow” became T.S.Eliot’s “falls the shadow”. “Gone with the wind” became the name of an American best-seller. I have on my shelves a comic novel by Peter de Vries called “Madder Music”, which quotes as its epigraph the same section of the poem that gave Jad Adams the title for his book. Guides to Dowson will also point out that others of his poems have been similarly plundered. The phrase “days of wine and roses” (which became the title of a 1960s American movie about alcoholism) comes from Dowson’s poem Vitae Summa Brevis. For such a minor poet, he has been very widely quoted and adapted.
I think the Cynara poem contains the most creative deliberate use that has ever been made of bathos. It is Bathos Sublime.
But let me first discourse on the aesthetics of the matter. As you might have noticed, I flinch from literary criticism that relies too much on biographical data concerning the writer. Such criticism has the habit of reducing any work to notes towards psychoanalysis of the writer. Therefore, I don’t wish to overwhelm the poem with the knowledge I now have that Dowson’s “Cynara” was Adelaide, the little girl he worshipped; the virgin who contrasted with the whores with whom he habitually slept.
The poem already made sense to me – a more universal sense – before I had any knowledge at all about Dowson’s life and his misdirected love.
As I read it, Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae is the poem that expresses a typical self-deception of which both men and women can be guilty. Consider the implicit dramatic situation behind the poem. A man is in bed with a prostitute (“the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet”). He tries every sensual stimulant that he can to keep his mind distracted (“the kisses and the wine”…. “Flung roses, roses riotously…”, “Dancing…”). Eventually, like revellers at a strobe-lit, rock-music-pounding party, his search for distraction reaches the point of frenzy (“I cried for madder music and for stronger wine”). But no distraction can stifle his essential sense that he is betraying something. The shadow of Cynara falls on him, her lilies trumping the roses of sensual excess. This might seem the contrast of true, pure love with mere fucking, but the poem is more complex than that, for the “old passion” makes the speaker “desolate and sick”. There is something perverse and unreal in the love for Cynara, just as there is something evasive in the frenzied sensual pleasures.
The speaker is wrenched between these contradictions, and this is where the Bathos Sublime comes in. Was there ever a lamer, more bathetic statement than the conclusion of each stanza “I have been faithful to thee… in my fashion”? It is a statement which even the speaker knows is untrue. He has been faithful to nothing. His morality is the morality of the whore who pretends “I’m not really giving myself to this man who had paid for me. I’m only giving my body and my body isn’t me.”
What I’m saying is that this self-deception is the self-deception of dualism – the convenient belief that the self can be split in two when we wish to evade moral responsibility for something we have done or are doing. With the lame, apologetic “…in my fashion”, Dowson rubs our noses in this dishonesty, and that is the true genius of the poem. You do not have to know about Dowson’s Adelaide to understand all this. The very dying-fall rhythm tells you that this is a poem about a man lying to himself.
Instinctively we know this habit of mind is a lie. In fact, it can very easily be parodied and ridiculed, which is exactly what Cole Porter did with the phrase in one of the songs in his musical Kiss Me Kate. I must confess (blush, blush) that I knew Cole Porter’s parody before I knew Dowson’s original poem, because I saw the movie version of Kiss Me Kate at the local flea-house when I was a kid. In the song a good-time girl (played by Ann Miller in the movie) is explaining her multiple mercenary infidelities to her boyfriend in verses such as
“When a custom-tailored vet
asks me out to something wet,
if the vet begins to pet I shout ‘Hooray!’
But I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion.
Yes, I’m always true to you, darling, in my way.”
This is the reductio ad absurdum of Dowson’s poem, but is, I think, a legitimate extension of it too.
One last observation. The first few dozen times I read this poem, I pronounced the name Sigh-NA-ra, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Searching Youtube, I found two or three good readings of the poem, but the best of them is a reading by Richard Burton, and he pronounces the name SIN-ara, with the emphasis on the first syllable. For the sake of the poem’s rhythms, I think Burton’s reading is right.
Now that I have completely ruined the poem for you by over-explanation, I think I owe it to you to let you read it without further comment.
Here it is: