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Ernest Dowson: Religious Poetry at the Time of the “Tragic Generation”

Luca Fumagalli

Ernest Christopher Dowson is one of the many forgotten poets of that decadent milieu that W. B. Yeats renamed “the tragic generation”.

Born on 2 August 1867, after leaving Oxford without a degree, he worked for a period at his father’s factory while frequenting the artistic world of London. He was a friend of Oscar Wilde and a fervent admirer of Verlaine and the French Symbolists, and therefore lived several years in Paris.

In 1892 he was received into the Catholic Church, after which he wrote various poems with religious themes. Like nearly all converts of the fin de siècle, Dowson was particularly drawn to the aesthetic beauty of Catholic ritual, but this does not necessarily mean his spiritual intentions were not serious. In the poem “Extreme Unction”, inspired by a scene by Madame Bovary, the priest’s gestures are narrated with extreme precision and the poet’s gaze does not fail to linger on the sick man’s eyes, lips and feet, marked with sacred oil.

Nun and monks as well exercised a mixture of fascination and admiration for Dowson for their courageous choice to dedicate their lives to God, renouncing the allurements of the world (the poems “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration” and “Carthusians” demonstrate this). Faith was for him an oasis of peace, an interlude of happiness in an existence dominated by sin.

Dowson was considered, along with Lionel Johnson and John Davidson, one of the most talented members of the Rhymers’ Club, a group of poets founded by W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys in 1890. He was also a very prolific author and besides the volumes Verses (1896) and Decorations in Verse and Prose (1899), published a play in poetry, The Pierrot of the Minute (1897), and two novels, Comedy of Masks (1893) and Adrian Rome (1899), both written in collaboration with Arthur Moore. Unfortunately, however, his Christian lyrics cannot compete, for quality, with the rest of his output, which continued to be highly regarded until his death on 23 February 1900.

However, there is a composition, “Benedictio Domini”, which emerges, as an exception, for the singular beauty that avoids the usual triteness of Catholic verbal aestheticism: in a badly lit church – perhaps Notre Dame de France, near Leicester Square, where the author usually went to Mass – an old priest blesses the crowd with a fearful hand, while an indistinct shouting outside describes the indifference of a humanity that has renounced Christ.