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XXVIIe Colloque de la S.F.E.V.E., à l'université Paris 13, Villetaneuse (15-17 janvier 2004) « L'Excès »

Dowson’s Excesses and Poetics

Adrian Grafe


Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), the archetypal Décadent poet, is still as relevant as ever, if not more so, in the 21st century. Did Dowson’s excesses merely consign him to being one of the also-rans of Victorian poetry? Or, rather, were his addiction and self-degradation not somehow related to the unfolding of his technically innovative poetics? The 1890s were nothing if not a time of excess. The fin de siècle poets, almost all of whom had tragically overshort lives (and not by accident, either), were excessively aesthetic, drunk, and wild(e)—and none more so than Dowson.

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1Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) arguably wrote some of the most memorable lyrics of the late Victorian period, including such lines ‘days of wine and roses’ and ‘gone with the wind’. He was equally at ease in England and France, which because of its economic accessibility at the time was inviting to Englishmen. A translator of Zola, Voltaire, Balzac, the Goncourts, and Verlaine, he was especially influenced by the latter’s word-music and, in some ways, his poetry reads the way Verlaine’s would if the Frenchman had been an English poet. His father was a wealthy London dock-owner and his mother was beautiful. The family fortunes declined during Ernest’s youth and after his father’s death in 1894 Ernest was unable to cope with running the family business. His mother died six months after his father, in 1895, with the inquest recording a verdict of suicide while temporarily insane. (He had a younger brother who left England to start a new life in Canada shortly after their mother’s death). Dowson went downhill after the death of his beloved mother. His all-consuming devotion to a young Polish restaurateur’s daughter went unrequited. A friend of Wilde, Beardsley (who illustrated his poems) and Symons, Dowson’s absolute poetic sincerity, his impecuniousness and irresistible attraction to Bohemianism, his melancholy and his alcoholism make him the archetypal Nineties poet. Dowson brings together at least two strands of meaning attached to the word excess. Apart from the general question of surfeit or overabundance, which Dowson and his poems raise in several different ways, along with the notion of lack or negative excess, he also exemplifies the life of excess in terms of intemperance, debauchery and dissipation. Dowson’s excesses in alcohol addiction, self-neglect, devotion to children, especially little girls, and frequent, cheaply-bought sex, become a matter of paradox in the poems. They often display a smooth surface which only serves to make the underlying emotion and sensation all the more sinister. Furthermore, the phrase ‘excesses and poetics’ begs the question of the excesses, if any, of the poetics. Dowson was by all accounts a weak man and a minor poet. Edward Thomas, acknowledged then, as now, as the most outstanding poetry critic of the late Victorian period, wrote of Dowson in terms which show to what extent Dowson’s excess was a moral problem for his contemporaries:

  • 1 From a 1905 review of Dowson’s collected poems, in Edna Longley (ed.), A Language not to be Betraye (...)

Moralists will talk of the connection between excess and a feeble frame, and liver, delirium, and despair; and it is likely they will end with a lament and a question as to what Dowson might have done had he been moderate, in spite of the testimony of the thousands of moderate persons who black our boots and write our reviews; he might have become an Imperialist, a picturesque grandfather, a discoverer of something less nourishing than Grape Nuts.1

  • 2 Longley 61: ‘Deep within the dark background [of his poems], is the comic, terrible cry of the supe (...)

2In the final clause of this superb sentence Thomas defends Dowson through the brilliant throwaway series of Victorian clichés into which Dowson’s critics would have loved to transform him—thereby killing the poet in him—if only he could have been persuaded to give up his excesses. Nevertheless, Thomas also regarded Dowson as the archetype of what the critic called the ‘superfluous man’.2 In this sense, he saw in Dowson a man who felt himself socially in excess—unwanted, unrequired, so that, if one accepts Thomas’s idea, both Dowson’s lived excesses, and his poetry, become ways in which he combated this superfluousness.

  • 3 The Letters of Ernest Dowson, Collected and Edited by Desmond Flower and Henry Maas (London: Cassel (...)
  • 4 Jean-Jacques Chardin, Ernest Dowson (18671900) et la crise de fin de siècle anglaise (Paris: éditi (...)

3There is above all an air of reality about everything Dowson says and does which makes him a memorable and appealing figure. While for others 90s decadence was a pose or mask designed to attract attention, he truly lived it in all its aspects, from its most squalid to its most aesthetic ones—indeed, for a poet like Dowson, these two things, squalor and aestheticism, seem to go hand in hand. He was endowed with perhaps the most excessive character trait of all, what he himself called ‘barometric psychology’—cyclothymia, manic depression.3 Besides, excess in behaviour is often the sign of some sort of existential unease; and what is generally understood as life and living were not so to Dowson. His attraction to Schopenhauer can in this light be seen in terms of a kind of negative excess—a paucity of vitality for which the Schopenhauerian will might provide the antidote. With Dowson what was at stake was a specific relationship with life and death. What is his love of childhood, well attested in the extraordinary piece on ‘The Cult of the Child’ and in his correspondence, but the symptom of a peculiar, even Keatsian relationship with death, though with a decadent perversity entirely foreign to Keats? The drinking of absinthe before breakfast and the love of childhood, and more specifically girlhood, for its own sake are attempts to evade the course of time and the encounter with death: c’est la préscience de la mort et l’imminence de l’anéantissement qui donnent corps à l’écriture [de Dowson]’, says Jean-Jacques Chardin.4

  • 5 Cf. Adrian Noble’s highly successful 2003 production—in both popular and critical terms—of Wilde’s (...)
  • 6 See Chapter 4, ‘Ernest Dowson’, of The Decadent Dilemma (London: Edward Arnold,1983) 70–107, passim

4Despite his status and debatable quality as an artist, he has, over recent years in particular, been well served critically and biographically, a sign, perhaps, of the way in which the excesses of our own age find an echo in those of the 1890s.5 In France, Jean-Jacques Chardin in his doctoral thesis published in 1995, from which the above quotation is taken, magisterially attempted to explore the ways in which Dowson exemplified the sensibility and aesthetics of the 1890s. In Britain, Jad Adams published a superb biography of Dowson in 2000, as informative about fin-de-siècle culture and the excesses of its sub-culture as it is sensitive to the misfortunes of the poet. Such a study as the present one cannot but be indebted, to such detailed explorations as these, as well as to R. K. R. Thornton’s chapter on Dowson in The Decadent Dilemma. Thornton interprets the poet in terms of his dissociation of sensibility, the split between the ideal and the real.6 This split is the root cause of Dowson’s excesses. For if the sensibility is split in terms of such a bi-polarity, then each of the poles goes unchecked and is liable to run riot. It is only the harmonising of the two poles that could have checked their excesses, and for Dowson that was at best a dream, though the music of the poems at times figures such harmony.

  • 7 All quotations from the poems and dedicatory preface are taken from: The Poetical Works of Ernest C (...)
  • 8 LD 143–44

5Perhaps the most striking quality of Dowson’s poetry thrown up by an initial, cursory reading—and doubtless confirmed by further perusal—is the feeling of dark, deep-seated anguish contained within a highly wrought poetic form: ‘And I send these songs out to thee from the shadows,/And I call to thee and cling’ (‘Seraphita-Seraphitus’).7 The shadows and the clinging seem somehow inseparable from the songs. And it seems as though whatever other people thought exaggerated, above all in terms of sentiment, for him was the norm: any feeling that was less than excessive was worthless and perhaps barely worthy of the name of feeling since it was imperceptible to him: Quelquefois vos paroles me reviennent comme un écho lointain, comme le son d’une cloche apporté par le vent’, he writes in his dedicatory preface, half in English, half in French, to Adelaide, the young innkeeper’s daughter who kept him in exquisite anguish by playing free and easy with him. Besides, the phrase ‘apporté par le vent’ cannot but remind us of what was to be turned into one of his famous ones, ‘gone with the wind’ in ‘Cynara’. The poet goes on: ‘[E]t il me semble que vous êtes quand je lis des passages de l’amour dans les livres. Tout ce qu’on y blâme d’exagéré, vous me l’avez fait ressentir.’ This already suggests the heightened—some would say over-excited—emotional and imaginative fervour fed by idealism which indicates the intensity with which Dowson both lived and wrote. Perhaps someone of such impossible emotional aspiration could only be satisfied, if it ever was satisfied in Dowson’s case, by religion. There was some hope that this—for Dowson, like many of the Nineties poets, converted to Catholicism—if not ‘the one form pure and perfect’ of poetry, could provide such a man as Dowson with relief from the disgust of this world, ‘the seething obscene throng’ (‘Seraphita-Seraphitus’), ‘Man’s weary laughter and his sick despair’ (‘Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration’). ‘The seething obscene throng’, which sounds like a sort of Baudelairean hatred of the crowd mixed with an orgy of Roman proportions, incidentally returns in ‘Cynara’: ‘Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng’. For Dowson, the world was ‘but fair in semblance only/Veiling in light its secret of disgust’ (‘Awakening’); in another poem, he rhymes ‘lust’, ‘dust’ and ‘distrust’. The excess of Dowson’s desolation is figured in the oxymoron of the disgust ‘veiled in light’. Yet Dowson’s disgust arising from his attempts to fulfil his sexual appetite can be seen as inseparable from disgust with Victorian attitudes to sexuality: ‘Read the summary of Tolstoi’s latest (unpublished) novel ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ in the current Universal—I did not know that Great man had such excellent views on sexual morality. He talks of marriage as a heinous crime against morality—vituperates as strongly as I could wish against the monstrous division drawn between licensed and unlicensed lust’.8 The question remains to what extent this view of marriage as ‘licensed lust’ was a commonly held Victorian—or even Decadent—view, and to what extent it was Dowson’s own. This view of marriage may explain why Dowson never married, and indeed why he never frequented any woman he was ever likely to marry.

  • 9 Quote from Yeats’s Autobiographies by Jad Adams, Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Do (...)

6Yeats wrote that Dowson’s religion was ‘the desire for a condition of virginal ecstasy’, a phrase which suggests to me a mingling of death, paedophilia and poetry fitting Dowson to a tee.9 Dowson’s romantic idealism, fixing itself as it did on the waitress Adelaide Foltinowicz, who was eleven years old when Dowson became infatuated with her in 1889, could only be matched by his vast sexual appetite and his promiscuity. Even Leonard Smithers, the famous erotomaniac and publisher, and Dowson’s benefactor, seemed impressed by Dowson in this respect. Smithers, it seems, could quite happily live with lust; whereas for a man of scrupulous conscience like Dowson it only filled him with disgust (in ‘Awakening’, ‘lust’ rhymes with ‘disgust’). Adelaide, by the way, fully aware of the courtship Dowson had been assiduously paying her for two years, jilted him after two years for the waiter employed by her parents. Dowson now promptly took lodgings next door to the couple above the restaurant, in order, doubtless, to suffer the more keenly. ‘Cynara’, his most famous poem, nails down with piercing self-knowledge, this split in Dowson’s consciousness between romantic idealism and a sordid sexual life. Indeed, his well-attested, Verlainesque fondness for the sordid is inseparable from the poet’s love of children. This makes a poem like ‘It Is Finished’, the contemplation of the face of a dead child, ambiguous to say the least:

The little face is white and cold,
The parted lips give forth no breath,
The grape-like curls of sun-bleached gold,
Are clammy with the dews of death.
to her and she will not hear [. . .]

7These lines are the second stanza and the first line of the third—only then is it revealed that the dead child is a girl. For Dowson, who was unable or unwilling to form an attachment with a mature woman, the onset of female puberty was the beginning of the end. A girl-child was better dead than grown up. Here he revels amorously in the child’s parted lips and blonde hair, and even her clammy skin, in a way that, I think, he never celebrates the living Adelaïde, the dedicatee of his verses. Idealisation of women results in idolatry, as Dowson shows he was only too aware of in ‘Epigram’:

Because I am idolatrous and have besought,
With grievous supplication and consuming prayer,
The admirable image that my dreams have wrought
of her swan’s neck and her dark, abundant hair:
jealous gods, who brook no worship save their own,
Turned my live idol marble and her heart to stone.

8The poem can be read as a version of guilt: the poet has channelled a huge reserve of desire (‘grievous supplication and consuming prayer’, the two adjectives specifically figuring the excess at work here) into envisioning the woman as an image and—shades of Dorian Gray here—she has duly become one. Longing perhaps becomes excessive when its object is impossible, and can then only be assuaged, if at all, by excessive means. Excessive idealisation—or excess in any form, perhaps—brings about a form of death in which the marmoreal stone-like character of the beloved at the end of the poem is in fact a metaphor for something within the poet himself. Contemporary accounts of Dowson’s attempted courtship of Adelaide suggest that he so thrived on idealisation that he would have probably run a mile if she had reciprocated his feelings for her.

  • 10 Richard Le Gallienne, The Romantic 90s (London: Putnam & Co., 1951) 110 (1926).
  • 11 LD 189–190.

9Dowson is the decadent Keats. His features reminded some contemporaries of the Romantic, and Keats’s ‘Oh for a life of sensation rather than of thought’ was taken to extremes by Dowson, who was always in search of ever more, ever stronger sensations: ‘I cried for madder music and for stronger wine’. Richard Le Gallienne described Dowson’s face as ‘too worn for one so young, haggard . . . with excessive ardours of too eager living.’10 There is undoubtedly in Dowson that excess which Plato, in what is the locus classicus of the topic, the Phaedrus, describes as ‘that type of desire which overcomes judgement’. It is possible to relate this to Dowson’s poetics. Both the music and the wine of the line just quoted show a desire to move beyond—to exceed—the intellect. Incidentally the use of the verb ‘to cry’ here suggests either a lamentation over the absence of stronger sensation, or an imperious call for ever more excessive thrills. One interpretation is passive, the other active, and the poem plays them off against each other. ‘I have been writing verses, in the manner of the French “symbolists”: verses making for mere sound, and music, with just a suggestion of sense, or hardly that; a vague Verlainesque emotion’.11 By backgrounding meaning, Dowson is perhaps searching through poetics for what he cried for from the music and wine: a loss of self, of consciousness and conscience, oblivion. Dowson’s attempts through sensual excess and the love of childhood to escape the passage of time and the approach of death or—conversely, though it comes to the same thing—to get through life as fast as possible in a mad dash towards death account, I think, for the statuary quality of his poetry, as though only through language were it possible to find an existential mode which was neither escapism nor a form of suicide.

  • 12 LD 162.

10Dowson, as has been said, had a fixation with childhood, girlhood especially: ‘Why the deuce does any one write anything but books about children! Quelle dommage [sic] that the world isnt [sic] composed entirely of little girls from 6-12.’12 In another letter Dowson says:

  • 13 LD 144.

Children certainly reconcile one—at least in my case) more than anything else to one’s life but on the whole I am more and more convinced that there is nothing really worth doing or having or saying. At least I can’t fix on any tangible object or aim in life which seems so desirable as the having got it finally over—& the remaining in perpetuo without desire or aim or consciousness whatsoever.13

11The fixation with childhood might lead us to expect the statuary, stationary quality which indeed partly characterises Dowson’s verse. This quality is figured in the numerous Latin titles of his poems—twenty-five of his one hundred and thirty-two poems have a Latin title, while the titles of nine others are wholly or partly French (and therefore more Latin than English). It is—in part—this quality precisely which has enabled some of his lines to survive long after many of his contemporaries’ have been consigned to popular oblivion: whatever lay within his escape from or struggle against time somehow entered his poetics and made certain lines of his as lasting as Greek or Roman sculpture. Poetry enabled him as it were to pour his being into a sculptural mould where the vicissitudes to which he was prone and the excesses to which he subjected himself could be transformed into something lasting. The titles of some of his short stories such as ‘A Case of Conscience’ and ‘The Statute of Limitations’ show Dowson was aware of the need to develop a moral aesthetic or a poetics of limitation into which he could integrate his natural craving for excess. In ‘Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration’, a successful poem, Dowson makes music not only out of the ‘dream of prayer’ that lies at the heart of the nuns’ lives, but from the desirable limitation of the religious life contrasted with the excess of life in ‘the world’:

Outside, the world is wild and passionate;
weary laughter and his sick despair
Entreat at their impenetrable gate:
They heed no voices in their dream of prayer.
They saw the glory of the world displayed;
saw the bitter of it, and the sweet;
knew the roses of the world should fade,
     And be trod under by the hurrying feet.
Therefore they rather put away desire, [. . .]

12In the last stanza, ‘the roses’ becomes ‘our roses’, and it seems that Dowson sees himself as forever to be on the ‘outside’, where he will never be strong enough to ‘put away desire’, though his very excesses are his attempt to achieve a desireless state. Hence, once again, the marmoreal aspect of some of his verse, which is in reality an artistic achievement. The nuns are in some sense a version of Dowson as he would like to be, and their voluntary imprisonment behind ‘high convent walls’ corresponds to the forced imprisonment of ‘To One in Bedlam’. Dowson seems to view the madman’s ‘strait-caged universe’ somewhat enviously, though once again excess seems to lie on both sides of the divide in different or opposing ways. Despite his internment, the madman wears a ‘rapt gaze’, an image of ecstasy which lifts him high above the ‘dull world’ into the same kind of oblivion (cf ‘thine oblivious hours’) as the nuns in their ‘dream of prayer’. The nuns’ excessive detachment and the madman’s rapture represent aspects of Dowson’s poetic persona, of himself as he might like to be. Though absinthe drinking also acts as a route to oblivion, the prose poem ‘Absinthia Taetra’ (Hideous Absinthe), is in itself a rigorous structure built on a web of modulated anaphora growing more complex each time the drinker downs a glass of the stuff—’Then he drank opaline . . . But he drank opaline. . . . [and] He drank opaline’: the opaline is presumably, though teasingly, the absinthe. As ‘the man’ watches the green liquid cloud, such, I think, is the expectancy the beverage arouses in him, that he enters a state of heightened awareness: ‘a mist fell away from his mind.’ After a draught of absinthe, he is subject to overwhelming anxiety: ‘Memories and terrors beset him. The past tore through him like a panther’. Following the second refrain, a state called ‘that obscure night of the soul, and the valley of humiliation’ are now ‘forgotten’. The excess lies in the spectacular ways in which the absinthe affects the speaker’s mind.

13Dowson’s poetics is as much an attempt to come to terms with excess as to reflect it. Perhaps his line lengths are the most evident locus where he is able to figure both excess and limitation. The four-line stanzas of ‘Amor Umbratilis’ are in trimetre except for every third line, which is pentametre:

A gift of Silence, sweet!
Who may not ever hear:
To lay down at your unobservant feet,
     Is all the gift I bear.

14This device—possibly something of an innovation in English poetry— enables Dowson to modulate the feeling of the poem and make the third lines of the stanzas all the more poignant. Part of the shock here is the lengthening of the line combined with the inclusion in the poem (this is the first stanza) of a four-syllable word—’unobservant’—when the rest of the stanza, except for the word ‘Silence’ is monosyllabic. The shock is compounded by the switch from the idea of being deaf to silence to feet refusing to see—an image which might be described as excessively unaesthetic, though the rhythm is so pleasant that it almost seems churlish to raise the question of meaning. His love poems are mainly variations on the indifferent response the poet receives to his vast outpouring of generosity, and the longer third line may represent something of the latter.

  • 14 Gallet’s book on Hopkins is entitled Excès de présence (Paris: FAC éditions, 1984).

15His best poem by common consent, ‘Cynara’, is a love poem of a different sort, in which the woman the poet really loves seems to be quite out of reach, while the unnamed prostitute is invariably found to be in the closest possible intimacy with the poet. One reason why it has always been considered so favorably—and indeed it was the poet’s favourite—is perhaps the fact that Dowson lets his riotous side come to the fore more than in many of his poems: his desolation and passion-sickness seem to take on a less languorous, more combative tone than elsewhere: ‘I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,/Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,/Dancing to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;’ The word ‘Cynara’ appears seven times in the poem, and is always followed by an exclamation mark. Dowson was extremely attentive to punctuation, and sparing in his use of rhetorical emphasis. Therefore the punctuation alone suggests that the sensation evoked by Cynara in the poet’s mind outweighs that procured by ‘the kisses of her [sc. the prostitute’s] bought red mouth’. The ‘obscure night of the soul’, as Dowson calls it in the absinthe prose poem, is in ‘Cynara’ just one of a huge range of motifs criss-crossing the poem. The poet’s desolation and sickness of heart is imaged in the first line with the shift from the familiar, ordinary ‘Last night’ to ‘ah, yesternight’, the more unusual, compound form suggesting, perhaps, the uniqueness of the poetic experience and of Cynara herself. The naming of a particular night becomes in the second stanza ‘All night’ which in turn leads to ‘Night-long’: these forms figure, I think, the all-consuming nature of the speaker’s erotic experience with the prostitute. The ‘All night’ prepares us for the poet’s being ‘desolate and sick of an old passion,/Yea, all the time, because the dance was long’. (italics mine). The poem moves astonishingly into the present tense in the last stanza (if we take the experiences of the first three stanzas as belonging to the past: ‘. . . I was desolate and sick of an old passion’.): ‘I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,/But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,/Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine’. Here, excess of absence within the vast desolation, heart-sickness and emptiness of the night, in poetic terms becomes, in René Gallet’s happy phrase from a different context, excess of presence.14 This is figured by the line lengths: all the lines of each stanza are in alexandrines mainly of twelve syllables; except the one before the refrain which is a pentametre; and this only serves to heighten the excess of the last line of each stanza, the unvarying refrain ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion’ which is fourteen syllables long.

16There is a sense, within the economy of excess, that true excess is neverending, never static, that it never reaches a term or a point of satiety but lies in continual growth; as far as a poem like ‘Cynara’ is concerned, excess seems to feed on itself and derive its hunger from itself: ‘I cried for madder music and for stronger wine’. The music can never be mad enough, the wine never strong enough for such sorrow as Dowson’s. The excess of feverish sexual activity in ‘Cynara’ is a reflection—or more precisely a projection— of the speaker’s excess of desire for the irrecoverable Cynara.

  • 15 Adams 145.
  • 16 Longley 61. Many thanks: Alain Jumeau (Paris IV), Alexander Schnell (Poitiers), and Gilbert Pham-Th (...)

17The example of Dowson shows that the subculture of excess in the Decadent movement was both a matter of aestheticism and a human reality. When both Dowson and Wilde were living in France, they dined in the company of a Norwegian artist, Fritz Thaulow, whom Wilde later asked for his opinion of the poet. ‘Thaulow replied, “It’s a pity he drinks so much absinthe.” Wilde shrugged and said, “If he didn’t drink, he would be somebody else. Il faut accepter la personnalité comme elle est. Il ne faut jamais regretter qu’un poète est saoul, il faut regretter que les saouls ne soient toujours pas poètes [sic]”’.15 As suggested above, Edward Thomas would have agreed with accepting Dowson as he was, excesses and all; in the superlative terms without which no account of Dowson seems to be replete, Thomas called Dowson ‘the most concentrated’ of all his contemporaries, who already, in 1905, seemed ‘but an unbodied melancholy.’16

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Adams, Jad. Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent. 2000. London: I. B. Tauris, 2002.

Chardin, Jean-Jacques. Ernest Dowson (18671900) et la crise de fin de siècle anglaise. Paris: éditions Mesiène, 1995.

Flower, Desmond, ed. The Poetical Works of Ernest Christopher Dowson. London: Cassell & Co. Ltd. and John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd., 1934.

Flower, Desmond, & Henry Maas, eds. The Letters of Ernest Dowson. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1976.

Le Gallienne, Richard. The Romantic 90s. 1926. London: Putnam & Co., 1951.

Longley, Edna, ed. A Language Not to Be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas. Manchester: Carcanet, 1981.

Thornton, R. K. R. The Decadent Dilemma. London: Edward Arnold, 1983.

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1 From a 1905 review of Dowson’s collected poems, in Edna Longley (ed.), A Language not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas (Manchester: Carcanet, 1981) 60. Thomas (1878–1917) is a fascinating figure in his own right in terms of literary history: he was a Victorian and an Edwardian as a prose writer, and a Georgian as a poet, since he only began writing poetry in 1914.

2 Longley 61: ‘Deep within the dark background [of his poems], is the comic, terrible cry of the superfluous man.’—comic because socially ineffective.

3 The Letters of Ernest Dowson, Collected and Edited by Desmond Flower and Henry Maas (London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1976) 162. This volume is referred to hereafter as LD.

4 Jean-Jacques Chardin, Ernest Dowson (18671900) et la crise de fin de siècle anglaise (Paris: éditions Mesiène, 1995) 288.

5 Cf. Adrian Noble’s highly successful 2003 production—in both popular and critical terms—of Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where the play was premièred in 1895. Among a myriad of witty lines it contains the famous dictum ‘Nothing succeeds like excess’.

6 See Chapter 4, ‘Ernest Dowson’, of The Decadent Dilemma (London: Edward Arnold,1983) 70–107, passim.

7 All quotations from the poems and dedicatory preface are taken from: The Poetical Works of Ernest Christopher Dowson, ed. with an introd. by Desmond Flower, M. A. (London: Cassell & Co. Ltd. and John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd., 1934).

8 LD 143–44

9 Quote from Yeats’s Autobiographies by Jad Adams, Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002 (2000)) 146.

10 Richard Le Gallienne, The Romantic 90s (London: Putnam & Co., 1951) 110 (1926).

11 LD 189–190.

12 LD 162.

13 LD 144.

14 Gallet’s book on Hopkins is entitled Excès de présence (Paris: FAC éditions, 1984).

15 Adams 145.

16 Longley 61. Many thanks: Alain Jumeau (Paris IV), Alexander Schnell (Poitiers), and Gilbert Pham-Thanh (Paris XIII).

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Adrian Grafe, « Dowson’s Excesses and Poetics »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 63 Printemps | 2006, mis en ligne le 21 février 2023, consulté le 16 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Adrian Grafe

Adrian Grafe, diplômé des universités d’Oxford et de Paris VII, agrégé d’anglais, est maître de conférences à l’UFR d’anglais de l’université de Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV. Il est l’auteur d’articles notamment sur Hopkins, Patmore, et Edward Thomas, et de Hopkins La profusion ténébreuse (Septentrion, 2003).

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