[The Cunning Tower by Wilfrid: March 16, 2009]
I have written several times in this place about past Bohemias, about the Montmartre of Francis Carco and the New York of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. Something draws me back to the study of these coteries of marginal artists and lifestyle pioneers who come together periodically, almost always in urban settings, to "demonstrate new and potentially transgressive ways of thinking, talking, dressing, walking, living."
For what it's worth, I've been wrapped up in 1890s London for the last couple of months. Pure escapism, I suspect. Not necessarily a happier time, but an exotic period certainly. The trials of Wilde, the Rhymer's Club at the Cheshire Cheese, a truly great arts magazine, The Yellow Book, and a regiment of ashen-faced poets and painters drinking their talent away at the Café Royal and The Crown.
I think I was a teenager when I first committed some of Ernest Dowson's poetry to memory. He's generally and not unfairly described as a minor poet, although Eliot credited him with introducing a new cadence to English poetry in his Cynara poem - "Non sum qualis eram bonam sub regno Cynarae," to give its full title. If Dowson was lousy at naming poems, he was a killer phrase maker. "Gone with the wind" is Dowson, as is "the days of wine and roses," and "always true to you, darling, in my fashion" is a deliberate and sly paraphrase of Dowson by Cole Porter. Eliot drew "falls the shadow" from Cynara, and "The Hollow Men" surely echoes the "hollow lands" of Dowson's "A Last Word."
A kernel of priceless verbal talent, then, which manifested itself in perhaps two or three poems which will last, and some quite good short stories which are no longer read. The main theme of Dowson's fiction is failed romance, melancholia, and a sort of neurasthenic waiting for the end. "The Dying of Francis Donne" is little more than the account of the death of an aesthete: at least Huysman's doomy Des Esseintes snaps out of his reverie at the end of A Rebours and returns to Paris.
Dowson famously claimed to be lovelorn himself, ravaged by a doomed infatuation with a young Polish waitress, who quite reasonably went off and married a young Polish man. I have always been suspicious of the influence of this episode on his aesthetic development, and indeed his short life. Recent (relatively recent) research on the German poet Novalis has demonstrated the extent to which his pining for his young, dead fiancée, Sophie, was as much a fruitful intellectual construct and a simple outpouring of grief. Dowson had all the examples he needed from his wide reading in contemporary French literature to create his doomy poems and stories, without falling for a shopgirl.
And if one needs to explain why he drank himself to death - which he did - one can hardly overlook the fact that both his parents committed suicide.
But I didn't mean to write about Dowson. What I've been reading recently is the poetry of his close friend Lionel Johnson. They shared not only literary interests, and conversion to the Roman church, but a destructive attraction to the bottle. Dowson died in February 1900, aged thirty-two. Johnson just outlived him, dying in 1902 aged thirty-five, following a fall in the street (although tradition long had it that he fell from a bar stool).
No-one can be sure why a person drinks with such self-harming assiduity, but certainly Johnson embraced enough contradictions in his life to make anyone thirsty. An Englishman, born at Broadstairs, and a passionate royalist, he adopted the Celtic revival and Irish cause which as much passion as his friend Yeats. A devout Catholic, who wrote much religious poetry and criticism, he spent his nights rambling around drinking dens with Dowson. Almost certainly gay, he was a savage critic of Wilde's influence on young men. His poem about Wilde, "The Destroyer of a Soul" isquite disgustingly vituperative - "I hate you with a necessary hate" - and only avoids towering hypocrisy if one assumes Johnson successful in repressing his own sexuality. No wonder he and Dowson were so excited to see Verlaine, France's gay Catholic alcoholic bard, on one of his London visits.
He comes close to wrestling with that particular demon in the intriguing poem "The Dark Angel" which seems to say, as best I can read it, that the temptation of sexual sin (from Johnson's perspective) is to be welcomed only because successful resistance opens the road to salvation. Suppression is a cold and solitary path, though: Lonely, unto the lone I go..." Gin and beer may have provided anaesthetic relief. Mildly depressing all this may be, but it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that early death was as much a part of Johnson's practical aesthetic as pining from unrequited love was part of Dowson's.
Aged twenty-one, he wrote: "The pausing from all thought!/ My life, I cannot taste: the eternal tomb/ Brings me the peace, which life has never brought.// For all the things I do, and do not well;/ All the forced drawings of a mortal breath:/ Are as the hollow music of a bell,/ That times the slow approach of perfect death."
Easily dismissed as adolescent weltschmerz, except that Johnson hammered a successful career out of it, and his life shows - if nothing else - that he meant it. Among the relatively few poems he left which are still readable (the faux Irish stuff is awful), his persistent theme - release from temporal struggles - is ultimately as morbid as Dowson's: "Could we but win earth's heart, and give desire release: / Then were we all divine, and then were ours by right/ These stars, these nightingales, these scents: then shame would cease." Shame again.
His newspaper criticism is beautifully written, lucid, but already losing relevance when it was published. He was an early advocate of Thomas Hardy, but inevitably rejected Hardy's atheistic world view. He is a passionate enthusiast for Walter Pater, but Pater was himself a representative of a dying age. The lost generation of the 1890s can be seen, from one perspective, as the last flickering of Romanticism's flame. Dowson and Johnson lost to alcohol, Beardsley and Harland - The Yellow Book's remarkable editorial team - to tuberculosis. Hubert Crackanthorpe, aspiring to be England's answer to Huysmans, a suicide at twenty six. John Davidson, a poet of almost uncanny ambition, and another acknowledged influence on Eliot, almost certainly a suicide in his early fifties.
The decadence. It was a triangular trade. Paris to London to New York. In the next part, I'll look at the less told New York part of the story.