Victorian Literature Ernest Dowson
by
Kirsten MacLeod
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0134

Introduction

The dissipated life and tragic early death of Ernest Dowson (b. 1867–d. 1900) are the stuff of legend, such that he is widely taken as the most representative example of the “tragic generation” of decadent poets. The exaggerated accounts of Dowson’s drinking and drug-taking and his romantic entanglements with young girls and prostitutes have, since his death, overshadowed his work. Born in 1867 in Lee, Kent, the roots of his later bohemianism lie in a peripatetic childhood spent traveling through Europe with his parents. Despite his lack of formal education, Dowson would go on to read Greats at Oxford, but he went down after five terms to help run his family’s floundering dry dock business. At Oxford, Dowson determined he would embark on a literary career, and, once back in London, he established himself in the emerging avant-garde literary scene alongside figures such as Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and W. B. Yeats, became a member of the Rhymers’ Club, and published work in a series of little magazines. Dowson’s thwarted love for a young waitress, Adelaide (Missie) Foltinowicz, was an important influence in this period as was his interest in religion and conversion to Roman Catholicism. Literary influences included Algernon Charles Swinburne, the French symbolists, and the classical Latin poets for verse, and Henry James and Émile Zola for prose. The failure of the dry dock business, the tragic suicides of his parents, his poverty, and his romantic disappointment with Missie contributed to Dowson’s decline. In 1900, he succumbed to the tuberculosis that had plagued him since 1894. Though his total output of work was slight, it is impressive considering his short career and the illness and personal tragedy that he suffered. Publications in his lifetime consisted of two volumes of poetry, Verses (1896) and Decorations: In Verse and Prose (1899); a verse drama, The Pierrot of the Minute: A Dramatic Phantasy in One Act (1897); contributions to two Rhymers’ Club volumes; a collection of short stories, Dilemmas (1895); two novels written in collaboration with Arthur Moore, A Comedy of Masks (1893) and Adrian Rome (1899); and a series of translations. Though Dowson and his contemporaries are often treated as minor figures in the pantheon of Victorian and Modernist poets that preceded and succeeded them, current revisionist scholarship has done much to reevaluate these writers working during the fin de siècle period. Dowson merits consideration not only as a mythic embodiment of decadence, but also as a literary artist in his own right.

General Overviews

A number of useful general overviews are available about Dowson and the fin-de-siècle, ranging from article-length and chapter-length entries to full-length treatments. McDowell 1983, Thornton 1983, and Thornton 1994 provide thorough biographical and critical accounts that will be useful to those new to Dowson as well as those seeking to refresh their knowledge. Thornton 1983 and Alford 1994 also include instructive critical evaluations of the Dowson legend (see the Dowson Legend for more sources on this topic). For those wanting a more in-depth treatment, Swann 1964 and Chardin 1995 are the only full-length studies of Dowson’s work. The critical approach in Swann 1964 is belletristic in style, but it will be more accessible to many English-speaking scholars than Chardin 1995, which is not available in English translation. Reed 1968 and Snodgrass 1993 provide solid general surveys of Dowson’s work that are critically complex and more narrowly focused than other overviews. As such, they are more suitable for those with a good grounding in Dowson and fin-de-siècle poetry.

  • Alford, Norman. The Rhymers’ Club: Poets of the Tragic Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Devotes two chapters to Dowson, one focused on the Dowson legend (for further sources on this topic, see the Dowson Legend) and one serving as a general overview of the biography and poetry.

  • Chardin, Jean Jacques. Ernest Dowson, 1867–1900, et la crise fin de siècle anglaise. Paris: Éditions Messene, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Merits consideration as one of the only full-length critical studies of Dowson (see also Swann 1964). A comprehensive account that strikes a balance between contextual and biographical approaches. Includes a general introductory chapter and analyses of the themes of mutability, women, the self, art, and religion.

  • McDowell, Margaret B. “Ernest Dowson, 2 August 1867–23 February 1900.” In British Poets, 1880–1914. Vol. 19 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Edited by Donald E. Stanford, 149–157. Detroit: Gale, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent bio-bibliography with a well-structured discussion of his poetic influences, style, and output. McDowell’s taxonomy and discussion of the major themes and forms of Dowson’s poetry (the poems about young girls and lost love, religious poems, and villanelles) serve as a solid basis for scholars new to Dowson.

  • Reed, John R. “Bedlamite and Pierrot: Ernest Dowson’s Aesthetic of Futility.” English Literary History 35 (1968): 94–133.

    DOI: 10.2307/2872339E-mail Citation »

    A detailed thematic study that ranges across Dowson’s poetry, fiction, and drama. Explores, through a Schopenhauerean lens, the tension between the ideal and reality and the interest in escape through romantic love, the idealization of innocence, and religion in Dowson’s work.

  • Snodgrass, Chris. “Ernest Dowson and Schopenhauer: Life Imitating Art in the Victorian Decadence.” Victorians Institute Journal 21 (1993): 1–46.

    E-mail Citation »

    Snodgrass provides a unique take on the Dowson legend, arguing that Dowson’s worldview was not shaped by his poverty, illness, and failures in love relationships in the 1890s, but by his adherence to Schopenhauerean principles. These ideas are further developed in Snodgrass 1983 and Snodgrass 1992, cited under Thematic Studies.

  • Swann, Thomas Burnett. Ernest Dowson. New York: Twayne, 1964.

    E-mail Citation »

    The only full-length critical study of Dowson in English, it has its uses, providing a solid general overview of the oeuvre. Chapters devoted to Dowson’s literary context, poetry, verse drama, short fiction, and novels provide a good introductory basis for approaching Dowson.

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

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    A cogent and comprehensive chapter on Dowson’s life and work. His analysis of the themes and stylistic aspects of Dowson’s poetry is thorough and his detailed comparisons of Dowson with Baudelaire, Pater, Swinburne, Gautier, and Eliot demonstrate his position within a literary tradition.

  • Thornton, R. K. R. “Ernest Dowson, 2 August 1867–23 February 1900.” In British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Realist Tradition. Vol. 135 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Edited by Donald E. Stanford, 96–105. Detroit: Gale, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    A solid bio-bibliography that provides a detailed overview of Dowson’s short fiction (including prose poems) and links it to the thematic concerns of Dowson’s better-known poetry.

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