Christina Rossetti and Ernest Dowson lived in wholly different Victorian worlds. She was a devout Anglican who lived a quiet, somewhat reclusive life. He was the quintessential 1890s Decadent figure: a dissipated poet who wandered between London and Paris, dead at the age of 32.
Dowson wrote what are perhaps the two best-known poems of the Nineties: "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae" ("I am not the man I was under kind Cynara's rule" is one translation of the title, which is from Horace's Odes, IV.i.3) and "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" ("the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in long-term hope" is one translation of the title, which is from Horace's Odes, I.iv.15).
Despite the differences between Rossetti and Dowson, Rossetti's "One Certainty" (which appeared in my previous post) and Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis" have, I think, much in common.
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Dowson, Verses (1896).
Dowson lacked the religious comfort that Rossetti had. Still, the way he puts it, the prospect of what awaits us after the "One Certainty" does not seem frightening. Our fate seems peaceful, restful: "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream." He sounds like a Taoist or a Buddhist.
A temporary lodging
on this side of the road all
must go, in the end.
To recover the time he rested,
The traveller hastens on.
Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen), Heart's Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei (Stanford University Press 1994).