Ernest Dowson

Ernest Dowson (2nd August 1867-23rd February 1900) was a talented writer of poetry, prose, and drama, but is best remembered for his poetry. Dowson led a tragic life and died young.

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Ernest Dowson


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Ernest Dowson (2nd August 1867-23rd February 1900) was a talented writer of poetry, prose, and drama, but is best remembered for his poetry. Dowson led a tragic life and died young.

Below is a biography of Dowson and a summary of his published poetry collections. You will also find an overview of his most famous poem and a table of key quotes from his works.

Ernest Dowson, content warning, StudySmarter

Ernest Dowson: biography

Below is Dowson's biography.

Ernest Dowson: early life

Ernest Dowson was born on 2nd August 1867 in Lewisham, London, to parents Alfred and Annie. Alfred Dowson owned a docking company that afforded the family a relatively privileged life. His parents instilled an appreciation of art and literature in Dowson from a young age. However, the family's wealth dwindled as Dowson got older. They spent a great deal of time travelling around France and Italy which meant Dowson's education was at times chaotic. However, he did gain a deep love of French and Latin.

Ernest Dowson: education and career

Before attending university, Dowson published his first poem, a sonnet entitled 'To a Little Girl', in the London Society journal in 1886. Dowson began his time in Oxford in the same year, studying many of literature's greats. Dowson continued to publish poetry and prose in various journals and magazines during his time in Oxford, including 'Souvenirs of an Egotist' (1888), published in Temple Bar. This was Dowson's first work of prose to be published. However, Dowson eventually left the university two years later without a degree.

Ernest Dowson, an image of Oxford University, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Many notable authors have attended Oxford University.

After departing Oxford, Dowson began working for his father's docking company In London but disliked it immensely. He spent his nights in the city's centre, drinking and mixing in literary circles. Dowson became part of the Rhymers' Club. This was a group of all-male poets that often met in London at this time and produced poetry anthologies together. They mainly focused on life's tragic aspects, which appealed to Dowson greatly. Members of the club included W.B. Years, Oscar Wilde, and Alfred Douglas. Around this time, Dowson also wrote reviews for The Critic and worked on a novel called Madame de Viole, which was never published.

In 1894, one of Dowson's most famous and respected poems, 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae' was published. It focused on lost love and was adored by other members of the Rhymers' Club. It is widely known that Dowson's own life inspired the poem. While out in London on one particular night, Dowson ate at a restaurant and immediately became infatuated with the owner's daughter, Adelaide Foltinowicz. However, Adelaide was only eleven years old.

This attraction was not unusual for Dowson; he very regularly found himself interested in much younger women and often girls.1 His affection for Adelaide pushed him to romanticise her and young women more generally. This idealism can be seen in much of Dowson's poetry from the period. However, when he eventually proposed to Adelaide when she was fifteen, she rejected him. This was a source of deep disappointment for Dowson.

Dowson wrote quite extensively throughout the early 1890s. A collaboration with Arthur Moore, A Comedy of Masks, was published in 1893. He also wrote short stories, including 'The Statute of Limitations' (1893). This story also touched on the issue of an older man's interest in younger girls. Many poems of Dowson's were also included in Rhymers' Club anthologies in this period. While Dowson is remembered and respected today as a poet, he much more considered himself a writer of prose.

Ernest Dowson: later years

Dowson's life took a very negative turn following this. In 1893, he suffered a bout of tuberculosis. The following year, Dowson lost both his parents within six months. His mother's death was a confirmed suicide, and his father's a suspected one. Dowson became depressed and reliant upon alcohol. These tragedies would impact his work for the rest of his life.

However, Dowson's career was still having some success. He wrote well-received short stories for the periodicals Yellow Book and Savoy. This provided him with a steady wage. Dowson's first poetry collection, Verses, was published in 1896 to a lukewarm reception from critics. His second collection, Decorations in Verse and Prose was published in 1899. The poems, for example, 'Dregs', reflected Dowson's depressive state. Dowson travelled between England and France around this time, staying with friends and unable to settle anywhere.

Ernest Dowson: cause of death

Ernest Dowson died from the effects of his alcoholism in the home of his friend and writer Robert Sherard on 23rd February 1900. He was 32.

Ernest Dowson: books

Let's look at the two poetry collections that Dowson published in his lifetime.

Ernest Dowson: Verses

While he had published many poems in magazines and periodicals by this time, Dowson's first solo poetry collection, Verses, was published in 1896. It was dedicated to Adelaide and included Dowson's most popular poems up until this time, many of which revolved around the theme of older men being interested in younger girls. One such poem is 'Yvonne of Brittany'. It is written from the perspective of an adult male narrator, addressing a young girl named Yvonne. He met her in her mother's apple orchard the previous year at a very young age. However, this does not stop the narrator from taking a romantic interest in the naive girl, and seeing his love as reciprocated. He also sexualises Yvonne as she grows slightly older, using nature as a metaphor for her shedding her childhood innocence. This can be shocking reading for a modern audience.

Another poem from the collection, 'Ad Domnulam Suam', covers similar themes. The narrator is addressing someone he loves. His use of language makes her youth clear. He refers to her as 'little lady' in four of the poem's five stanzas and also addresses her as 'Child'. She is evidently much younger than he, and the narrator revels in this fact.

Ernest Dowson: Decorations in Verse and Prose

Decorations in Verse and Prose was published in 1899, the last of Dowson's poetry collections to be published during his lifetime. In many ways, it reflects the stage of life he was in by the late 1890s. The tone and subject matter of the collection is dark and depressive. By this time, Dowson had lost both his parents and been conclusively rejected by the now married Adelaide. He was reliant on alcohol, continually moving between friends' houses.

'The Dead Child' is one such dark poem. It details a child losing their life as the narrator muses over their short life. Dowson has progressed from idealising and sexualising childhood to depicting an innocent child dying. This represents his shift in mindset over the preceding years. The narrator's wish to join the child in their eternal slumber, further emphasises this change.

Dowson's collection ends with the poem 'A Last Word'. It has a dark and foreboding tone, focusing on the topic of things ending. The narrator encourages a move to the 'Hollow Lands', seemingly some sort of afterlife. He wishes for this, praying to be turned to dust. 'A Last Word' is a poem designed to end a collection, but it takes on extra poignancy when we consider that Dowson passed away a year after the collection's publication.

Ernest Dowson: poems

Dowson's most famous poem is 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae', initially published in 1894 and included in his Verses collection. When first presented to the Rhymers' Club, this poem was adored by Dowson's fellow members. They saw it as highly representative of the Decadent movement they were all part of, including Dowson.

The Decadent movement was an artistic movement that began in France and gradually spread to the rest of Europe. It was characterised by its focus on material excess and enjoying all parts of the human experience. Some works simply appreciated these things, while others used them to criticise wider society. The movement was most popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae' revolves around a narrator missing his lost lover deeply. He is caught up in nostalgia despite the distractions he attempts to drown himself in. He surrounds himself with parties, alcohol, and prostitutes but can never forget the woman he addresses as Cynara. This name, and the poem's title, are borrowed from a work by the Ancient Roman poet, Horace. 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae' is a mournful poem with a consistent rhyme scheme, lamenting lost love. Although the poem does not explicitly mention youth or innocence, Dowson is thought to have found inspiration for this poem also in his love for Adelaide.

Ernest Dowson: quotes

Below is a table with key quotes from Dowson's work.

'But I know your heart was beating,Like a fluttered, frightened dove.Do you ever remember, Yvonne,That first faint flush of love?''Yvonne of Brittany', ll. 21-24.The narrator is addressing the young Yvonne. He emphasises her youth in the fear she felt at love, but insists that she felt it strongly. This age gap is likely unsettling to many modern readers.
'Ah, child so tired of play,I stand confessed: I want to come thy way,And share thy rest.''The Dead Child', ll. 27-30.Dowson's narrator confesses that he wishes to follow the young child in the poem in death. Although through the guise of a narrator, this is a concerning admission for the poet, particularly due to his poor mental state at the time.
'O pray the earth enfold Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.''A Last Word', ll. 13-14.These are the final lines of 'A Last Word'. As in 'The Dead Child', Dowson once again features a narrator wishing for death. The group in the poem find themselves sick of life and yearning for what comes after.
'Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mineThere fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shedUpon my soul between the kisses and the wine;''Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae', ll. 1-3.The opening lines of this poem exemplify the themes expressed. Dowson's narrator attempts to distract himself, kissing another woman and drinking wine. However, Cynara's shadow falls over everything. Memories of her haunt him.

Ernest Dowson - Key takeaways

  • Ernest Dowson was a renowned poet of the late 1800s and a member of the Decadents movement.
  • Dowson had a tragic life, losing his parents to suicide and dying young.
  • Ernest Dowson had a long-running infatuation with a woman much younger than him named Adelaide.
  • Verses (1896) and Decorations in Verse and Prose (1899) are the two poetry collections he published in his lifetime.
  • 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae' (1894) was Dowson's most famous poem.

Ernest Dowson, content warning, StudySmarter


  1. Jane Desmarais, Ernest Dowson, Literary Encyclopedia, 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ernest Dowson

Dowson was a poet of the Decadents movement.

Dowson died on 23rd February 1900.

It is about being haunted by nostalgia for a lost love.

Ernest Dowson wrote this line in his poem 'Vitae Summa Brevis'.

The poem was written in 1894.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

When was 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae' written?

What artistic movement was Dowson a part of?

What kind of imagery does Dowson's poem have?


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