A century after his death from tuberculosis at the age of 32, British poet Ernest Dowson remains one of the major "minor" poets of what W. B. Yeats called "the tragic generation," those Decadent writers of the 1890s who wrote beautifully and met untimely ends. In this new biography of Dowson, the first to be written in some 50 years, Jad Adams presents a rawly honest account of Dowson's self-destructive life that avoids the romanticized adulation often found in previous biographies of the poet.
In many ways, Dowson is the archetypal tragic poet. "His life was a human sacrifice," Adams contends. Dowson ended his life penniless and homeless, dying at a friend's house in tattered clothes. Both of his parents were suicides; he spent much of his later years fruitlessly trying to sort out the twisted finances of his family's failed business. His health suffered not only from the ravages of the tuberculosis that eventually took his life but from his alcoholism and overindulgence in absinthe. Adams looks unflinchingly at Dowson's darker urges: He was emotionally attracted to prepubescent girls but unable to establish normal relationships with sexually-mature women; he frequented prostitutes for sexual release; he apparently enjoyed provoking drunken fights with toughs in the street for the pleasure of getting beaten. Dowson's tragedy, Adams makes clear, owed much to a self-destructive urge and an inability to deal with the real world and its responsibilities. As Yeats said: "I cannot imagine the world in which he would have succeeded."
But succeed he did, if writing lasting poetry can be deemed success. Adams believes that "life presented [Dowson] with suffering, and he returned it as beauty." To prove his contention, Adams draws comparisons between the tragic events of Dowson's life and what Adams sees as corresponding lines in his poetry where the pain was rendered into art. The approach is sometimes speculative but always fascinating. Adams argues most convincingly that Dowson's love poems in particular are rooted in his unfortunate infatuation with the young Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of Polish immigrants who owned a restaurant Dowson frequented. Only 11 years old when they met, the girl caught Dowson's attention–as did all the young girls he fancied–for her innocence, as yet untouched by the ravages of puberty. The relationship was doomed, of course. After visiting Adelaide at her family's restaurant to talk and play cards, Dowson would go drinking, later roaming the streets looking for a prostitute for the evening. Dowson courted Adelaide without being able to make his feelings clear to her. One suspects the feelings were not clear to himself either. (Dowson's famous line "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion" comes to mind.) Their relationship developed in this awkward way until, at the age of 18, Adelaide finally married the boarder who lived above the restaurant. She later died during a botched abortion trying to rid herself of a lover's child.
Many in Dowson's circle died young and tragically. His illustrator Aubrey Beardsley died at the age of 25. Poet John Davidson threw himself into the sea near Cornwell, while writer Hubert Crackenthorpe drowned himself in the Seine. The actor Charles Goodhart went into a butcher's shop one Christmas morning, picked up a knife, and cut his own throat. And then, of course, there is Oscar Wilde, who died in disgrace after serving a prison sentence for indecency. (One of the book's few laughs comes when Dowson attempts to turn Wilde into a heterosexual by taking him to the local brothel. Wilde gamely went through the ordeal while a crowd of well-wishers from a nearby pub cheered him from the street.)
Unknown to most readers of today, Dowson was nonetheless the author of lines--"Gone with the wind" and "The days of wine and roses"--which have become part of our common culture. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Rupert Brooke, and D. H. Lawrence all spoke of their debt to Dowson's poetic example. Adams's measured, honest biography should acquaint a fresh generation of readers with this tragic genius whose poetry so beautifully embodied the painful life he lived.