Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"This Is The End Of All The Songs Man Sings"

The arrival of poetic moods is a funny thing.  In this part of the world, we are in the midst of a summer-like week:  all is bright and warm and abloom.  Yet, I have unaccountably found myself drawn into the twilit, misty, dream-laden, death-haunted world of the Decadent poets of the Nineties (the 1890s, that is).  Moreover, I am feeling perfectly serene and equable.  I am not cultivating gloom and melancholy.  As a matter of fact, reading their poetry makes me feel quite cheerful and at peace with the world.

Here, for instance, is the quintessential Nineties poem by the quintessential Nineties poet.  And a lovely poem it is.

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).

The title of the poem comes from Horace's Odes, I.iv, line 15, and may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (University of Birmingham Press 2003), page 225.

Paul Maitland, "Kensington Gardens" (c. 1890)

"Vitae summa brevis" is a carefree stroll in the park compared with this:


The fire is out, and spent the warmth thereof,
(This is the end of every song man sings!)
The golden wine is drunk, the dregs remain,
Bitter as wormwood and as salt as pain;
And health and hope have gone the way of love
Into the drear oblivion of lost things.
Ghosts go along with us until the end;
This was a mistress, this, perhaps, a friend.
With pale, indifferent eyes, we sit and wait
For the dropt curtain and the closing gate:
This is the end of all the songs man sings.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations: In Verse and Prose (1899).

The basic elements of a Nineties poem are all here: "golden wine," ghosts, "pale, indifferent eyes," and wormwood (the source of absinthe, mais oui). And I cannot help but be seduced by the music of it all.  "This is the end of all the songs man sings" is wonderful, both in sound and sense.

Paul Maitland, "The Flower Walk, Kensington Gardens" (c. 1897)

Every respectable Decadent poet has to pay a visit to Hades and its five rivers.  In this case, the river is Acheron, haunt of Charon the Ferryman. However, Charon does not make an appearance here.  In his stead, we have a more illustrious figure:  Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.

          Villanelle of Acheron

By the pale marge of Acheron,
     Methinks we shall pass restfully,
Beyond the scope of any sun.

There all men hie them one by one,
     Far from the stress of earth and sea,
By the pale marge of Acheron.

'Tis well when life and love is done,
     'Tis very well at last to be,
Beyond the scope of any sun.

No busy voices there shall stun
     Our ears:  the stream flows silently
By the pale marge of Acheron.

There is the crown of labour won,
     The sleep of immortality,
Beyond the scope of any sun.

Life, of thy gifts I will have none,
     My queen is that Persephone,
By the pale marge of Acheron,
     Beyond the scope of any sun.

Ernest Dowson, Ibid.

Mind you, I am not in any way mocking these poems.  I admire them a great deal, and they always bring me pleasure.  No one does this sort of thing better than the Nineties poets.

Paul Maitland, "Fall of the Leaves, Kensington Gardens" (c. 1900)


Clarissa Aykroyd said...

I've always preferred to read The Hound of the Baskervilles in the summer. You would think it's an autumn/winter read, but not so much for me...

Perhaps sometimes we need the contrast. If I feel well, I may be able to handle the darker, gloomier poets, whereas in a darker mood, I'd probably turn to something to cheer me up! Thanks for sharing these poems.

Girders said...

It's interesting that Dowson picks up on Horace's reflection on the brevity of life while missing out two rather practical and Roman elements of the poem which perhaps do not quite fit with the evanescant atmosphere of the 90s poets. First of all, Horace is writing to celebrate the return of spring, and the dances and sacrifices are fertility rites. Secondly, the line which Dowson takes as his title is part of a reflection on the commonplace that Death impartially stalks both the rich and the poor, so laying aside simple pleasures to pursue wealth and power is futile. The last couplet seems, on the surface, to resemble Catullus' 'nox est perpetua una dormienda', but even there the context is in taking the greatest pleasure from love while you have the chance: trying, against the clock, to fit it all in. That is very different from the Wildery-Patery world of immersing oneself in an aesthetic languour as one waits to embrace death, which seems to be what is going on in the Villanelle. But perhaps I am being unfair.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Aykroyd: thank you for visiting again. It's always good to hear from you.

I hadn't thought of that. Thus, reading Dowson in the midst of a dark and soggy north Pacific winter (which I know you are familiar with) might just push one over the edge!

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Girders: thank you very much for that classical background, which is well beyond my capacities!

With respect to the issues you raise, you may wish to have a look at an article (although you may already be familiar with it) titled "Ernest Dowson and the Classics" by Rowena Fowler. (The Yearbook of English Studies, Volume 3, 1973, pp. 243-252. It is available on JSTOR.)

Fowler notes the same sorts of incongruities in Dowson's use of Latin sources that you mention. (Although not the particular ones you point out in your comment.)

Here is her overall view of things: "Dowson borrowed whatever appealed to him and freely adapted his borrowings for his own ends. . . . he chose fragments which he himself found attractive or evocative or which, as in some cases, gave him the germ of a poem." (Page 244.) (By the way, she also notes that 24 of the titles of Dowson's poems are in Latin, which is "almost a fifth" of his total output. Page 243.)

Your mention of Pater is certainly apt: Pater's influence can be seen throughout Dowson's work, can't it? Fowler discusses Pater as well in connection with Dowson's use of Latin sources derived from Pater's work.

Thank you very much for increasing my knowledge on these subjects. And thank you for visiting again.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen, I knew I was a fan of the Decadent Movement after reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Wilde. A Decadent novel most decidedly, with its emphasis on death and morality among other things.
Dowson certainly had reason to be a bit drawn to the movement with his long struggle with unrequited love, I think suicides in the family and much more tragedy and angst. Its a fascinating period in Literature with that French influence and its revolt against the romanticism that preceded it.
But still, inexplicably, it cheers me to read it as it does you~

S. Snyder said...

I first encountered Dowson by way of Eugene O'Neill. I think he quotes "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae" in "Long Day's Journey into Night." I cried for madder music and for stronger wine...

And hooray for decadence. As Walter Pater put it, “Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

Happy I found this well-written blog, which popped up because I was searching for a line from Derek Mahon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: I'm abashed to say I haven't read The Picture of Dorian Gray, only some of Wilde's poetry. A large omission, given that he was one of the era's leading figures.

Yes, Dowson's personal history does make him sort of the archetypal Decadent, doesn't it? But for all his faults, I cannot help but be fond of him. You may find interesting a biographical memoir of him by Victor Plarr, his friend (and also a poet). Plarr sought to correct the caricature of Dowson as an absinthe-addled drunk. It can be found on the Internet Archive.

Thank you very much for visiting again. I'm always happy to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Professor Quest: thank you very much for the kind words.

I had forgotten that Dowson appears in Long Day's Journey into Night -- it's been so long since I've read that. And I agree with your citation of Pater. He is perhaps now seen as outmoded or quaint. I think not.

I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope you will return often.

Jonathan Dore said...

You were prescient to note the "music" of Dregs -- the composer David Bedford used it as the text for his extraordinary 1974 work for 16 unaccompanied voices, "The Golden Wine is Drunk". You can hear it at -- an amazing range of textures, moods and harmonies well worth twelve minutes of anyone's time.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jonathan Dore: Thank you very much for sharing the reference to David Bedford's setting of the poem, which I was not aware of. I was able to find a version of it on YouTube, as performed by the Netherlands Chamber Choir -- it is amazing.

Thank you again.