(Illustration by The Free Press. Photo by Dennis Hallinan via Getty Images)

Things Worth Remembering: The Days of Wine and Roses

Ernest Dowson is a little-remembered poet whose language of love and loss we will never forget.

Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read Ernest Dowson’s most famous (and floridly named) poem, “Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam,” click below: 

But enough of this talk of happy love. What plenty of people go to poetry for is commiseration when feeling unhappy in love. And we should linger for a moment on that fact. Because unhappiness carries a strange pleasure all its own—the pleasure of reveling in a love unfulfilled. 

It is a feeling that, in limited quantities, can be exquisite.

If ever there were a poet of unhappy or unfulfillable love, it is the 1890s poet Ernest Dowson. It isn’t quite enough to say that Dowson was a nineties poet—he is the poet most completely representative of the fin de siècle

Why the 1890s figure so highly in poetry—or, at least, the poetry that appeals to me—is a matter we may come back to. But part of it is there was simply something so very fin about them. 

Almost all of the figures who epitomized the era were gone by the time their decade was over. The decade of Aubrey Beardsley in the arts, of Dowson and Oscar Wilde in poetry. It can’t have been deliberate, but they all flourished and then faded before the twentieth century arrived, as though they sensed what was to come and knew it wasn’t for them.

Dowson was born in Kent in 1867 into a literary family, which meant “poor.” He went up to Oxford but didn’t take a degree. His father couldn’t make ends meet or put food on the table. Once, a fish sent from a relative in Scotland allowed the family to eat. 

Like many Victorians, Dowson Senior lived in terror of ending up in the poorhouse. He avoided it in 1894—aged 51—by taking an overdose of the sleeping draft chloral hydrate. 

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