Friday, March 02, 2007

Vitæ Summa Brevis

Oh to be Decadent for a day. Part of the Decadent movement in poetry, that is. Back in the late 1900s, writers influenced by Gothic novels and those who turned from the realism of the day to include symbolism and a renewed appreciation of the aesthetic, earned the title "decadent" from their critics. Many of them embraced the term and applied it to themselves.

In some ways, the decadent movement is an outcropping of the Romantic era (think Victor Hugo and the like). It really is a bridge between the Romantic era and Modernism, if you, like me, studied those movements in college and therefore have some idea what it all means.

Ernest Dowson was one of the poets of the Decadent movement. He was raised mostly in France, but attended Oxford. He left without a degree, however, and then spent his life living pretty much hand-to-mouth. He contributed to The Critic, The Yellow Book (a literary magazine, not a phone book), and The Savoy, and belonged to the Rhymers' Club, which was founded by W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys. Oscar Wilde turned out for some of the meetings (when they were in private homes).

Dowson lost both of his parents to tuberculosis in the mid 1890's, and himself started to decline in health as well. When he was 22, he'd fallen in love with an eleven-year old girl (eww, ick, I know), and when he was 30, she married someone else. He died at the age of 32, either of tuberculosis or alcoholism, or a combination. But not before he wrote a few great poems that gave rise to other works of art in later years. His poem, Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae (from one of Horace's Odes: "I am not what once I was under the reign of the kind Cynara"). Dowson's poem was a paen to the young girl he'd loved, and a rich source of inspiration to later writers: The phrase "gone with the wind" inspired Margaret Mitchell to apply the phrase to her only novel; the last line of the same poem, "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion" inspired Cole Porter's song, "Always True to You in my Fashion" (from Kiss Me, Kate).

Today's featured poem reminds us that "Lives are short."

Vitæ Summa Brevis
by Ernest Dowson

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
    Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
    We pass the gate.
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.


Caught "the days of wine and roses", did you? Yeah, he came up with that one too. Both the film and the song of the same name won the Oscar in 1963. Interesting that somebody you probably never heard of contributed to so many different forms of art with a few turns of phrase, isn't it?

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