Biography of Ernest Dowson

Ernest Christopher Dowson
Ernest Dowson.jpg
Ernest Dowson
Born(1867-08-02)2 August 1867
Lee, London, UK
Died23 February 1900(1900-02-23) (aged 32)
Catford, England, UK
Alma materThe Queen's College, Oxford
OccupationPoet, novelist, and short-story writer

Ernest Christopher Dowson (2 August 1867 – 23 February 1900) was an English poet, novelist,

short-story writer, often associated with the Decadent movement.


Ernest Dowson was born in Lee, London, in 1867. His great-uncle was Alfred Domett, a poet and politician who became Premier of New Zealand and had allegedly been the subject of Robert Browning's poem "Waring." Dowson attended The Queen's College, Oxford, but left in March 1888 without obtaining a degree.

In November 1888, he started work with his father at Dowson and Son, a dry-docking business in Limehouse, east London, which had been established by the poet's grandfather. He led an active social life, carousing with medical students and law pupils, going to music halls and taking the performers to dinner. He was also working assiduously at his writing during this time. He was a member of the Rhymers' Club, which included W. B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson. He was a contributor to such literary magazines as The Yellow Book and The Savoy.

Dowson collaborated on two unsuccessful novels with Arthur Moore, worked on a novel of his own, Madame de Viole, and wrote reviews for The Critic. Later in his career, Dowson was a prolific translator of French fiction, including novels by Balzac and the Goncourt brothers, and Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos.

In 1889, aged 23, Dowson became infatuated with the 11 year old Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz, daughter of a Polish restaurant owner; in 1893 he unsuccessfully proposed to her. To Dowson's despair, Adelaide was eventually to marry a tailor.

In August 1894, Dowson's father, who was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, died of an overdose of chloral hydrate. His mother, who was also consumptive, hanged herself in February 1895. Soon after her death, Dowson began to decline rapidly.

The publisher Leonard Smithers gave him an allowance to live in France and write translations, but he returned to London in 1897 (where he stayed with the Foltinowicz family, despite the transfer of Adelaide's affections).

In 1899, Robert Sherard found Dowson almost penniless in a wine bar and took him back to the cottage in Catford, where Sherard was living. Dowson spent the last six weeks of his life at Sherard's cottage where he died at age 32. He had become a Catholic in 1892 and was interred in the Roman Catholic section of nearby Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries. After Dowson's death, Oscar Wilde wrote: "Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was". Wilde himself was dead before the end of the year.


Dowson is best remembered for such vivid phrases as "Days of Wine and Roses":

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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, from "Vitae Summa Brevis" (1896).

and "Gone with the wind":

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;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

– Ernest Dowson, from Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae,[a] third stanza (1894).

This latter poem was first published in The Second Book of the Rhymer's Club in 1894, and was noticed by Richard Le Gallienne in his "Wanderings in Bookland" column in The Idler, volume 9. This is also the source of the phrase 'I have been my fashion'.

Margaret Mitchell, touched by the "far away, faintly sad sound I wanted" of the third stanza's first line, chose that line as the title of her novel Gone with the Wind.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dowson provides the earliest use of the word soccer in written language (although he spells it socca, presumably because it did not yet have a standard written form).[b]

His prose works include the short stories collected as Dilemmas (1895), and the two novels A Comedy of Masks (1893) and Adrian Rome (each co-written with Arthur Moore).


  • A comedy of masks: a novel (1893) With Arthur Moore.
  • Dilemmas, stories and studies in sentiment (1895)
  • Verses (1896)
  • The Pierrot of the minute : a dramatic phantasy in one act (1897)
  • Decorations in Verse and Prose (1899)
  • Adrian Rome (1899) With Arthur Moore.
  • Cynara: a little book of verse (1907)
  • Studies in sentiment (1915)
  • The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson, With a Memoir by Arthur Symons (1919)
  • Letters of Ernest Dowson (1968)
  • Collected shorter fiction (2003)


His collaborator Arthur Moore wrote several witty comic novels about the young adult duo of Anthony 'Tony' Wilder and Paul Morrow (one, 'The Eyes of Light' is mentioned by friend E. Nesbit in her book 'The Phoenix and the Carpet'). Tony is based on Dowson, while Paul is based on Moore.

Frederick Delius set a number of Dowson's poems, in his Songs of Sunset and Cynara.

John Ireland included a setting of "I Was Not Sorrowful (Spleen)" from Verses (1896) in his 1912 song cycle Songs of a Wayfarer.

T. E. Lawrence quotes from Dowson's poem, "Impenitentia Ultima," in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, chapter LIV.

In anticipation of the anniversary of Dowson's birth on 2 August 2010, his grave, which had fallen derelict and been vandalized, was restored. The unveiling and memorial service were publicised in the local (South London Press) and national (BBC Radio 4 and the Times Literary Supplement) British press, and dozens paid posthumous tribute to the poet 110 years after his death. In the Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson, a 1919 memoir written by Arthur Symons, Symons described Dowson as, "... a man who was undoubtedly a man of genius ... There never was a poet to whom verse came more naturally ... He had the pure lyric gift, unweighed or unballasted by any other quality of mind or emotion..."


  1. ^ Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae ("I am not what I was, under the reign of the good Cynara"), is a quotation from Horace's Odes, Book IV,1 "vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam..."

  2. ^ "I absolutely decline to see socca' matches." (letter by Dowson, 21 February 1889). Soccer , in Oxford English Dictionary online, (subscription required), accessed 30 April 2014.

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