Friday, January 11, 2008

Ernest Dowson: Lewisham Decadent

Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), in the words of his biographer, was a ‘poet and decadent’ who lived and died in the Lewisham area.

Dowson was born in his parent’s home, Gothic House, The Grove, Lee on 2 August 1867. After his father's suicide in 1894, his mother moved to 97 Quentin Rd, Lee where she killed herself the following year.

As a poet Dowson became involved with The Rhymers Club, whose poets included WB Yeats and John Barlas, an anarchist arrested in 1891 for shooting a pistol near the speaker of the House of Commons residence (Oscar Wilde stood bail). Wilde sometimes attended Club as did Edgar Jepson, whose lodgings in Harleyford Road, Vauxhall were sometimes used as a crashpad by Dowson after a night's drinking.

Dowson lived a short life of poetry, drink and poverty – he was turned down when he applied for a job at Newington Library in 1892, still open today on Walworth Road.

He died in February 1900 while staying at the home of Robert Sherard, a writer and former friend of Verlaine, who lived at 26 Sandhurst Gardens (now 159 Langley Road), Catford. He was visited there by the novelist Conal O'Riordan (living in Bromley) and the artists Charles Conder and Augustus John. His grave is in Ladywell cemetery.

Dowson is best known for the lines:

"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”.
Other famous phrases include 'gone with the wind', 'stranger in a strange land' and 'I've been faithful to thee in my fashion'.

A favourite quote of mine is the following: 'Give me the streets and the yellow gas, the roar of the City, smoke, haggard faces, flaming omnibuses, parched London, and the river rolling oilily by the embankment like the Styx at night when the lamps shine" (Dowson and Arthur Moore, A Comedy of Masks, 1893). There is a selection of his poems here.

Source: Madder Music, Stronger Wine: the life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent - Jad Adams (London: Tauris, 1990)

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