It was my birthday on Monday; my family came up, we ate lovely food and drank nice wine, amongst other drinks. It’s quite odd, being twenty-one, when one has spent all of one’s current life thinking twenty-one to be very old and grown up, only to reach it and realise that is all false. I’m bringing this all up, as today’s post is relevant for my birthday: I’ve decided to treat myself, and write about what is probably my favourite poem, by my favourite poet.
First off, don’t look at the Latin title and shy away, saying ‘Nay, I shall brook no translation; I need poetry in its original!’ The poem is English, so no need to fear if one’s Latin has become rather rusty after all these years! Anyway, this poem is by Ernest Dowson, one of the most depressive people I’ve ever read; a Decadent from the 19th century, who almost drank himself to death, before dying in his early thirties. Quite a sad life, really; and if his poems are based on this, then even sadder it was! This poem, though, is fantastic; the title is a quote from Horace’s Odes IV 1, and translates as “I am not as I was under the reign of good Cynara.” Horace’s poem I haven’t read in quite some time; from what I recall, Horace wrote about how, now he is old, he begged Venus to cease from making him love; the line is a bit of a throwaway, referring to his younger days of love and romping, and all that sort of stuff. But, as we’ll see, this has become far stronger in Dowson’s.
I felt this Pon and Zi classic fit the poem well…
The poem can be read here. Briefly, the poem describes an obsessive, pervading love that the poet bears still for this Cynara; despite everything he does, her love rules him still, and he is bound to her. The first stanza describes how the poet was in the midst of drinking and kissing, when the memory of Cynara came upon him; ‘There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed/ Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine.’ I always loved this description, first off; the shadowy memory of Cynara, rising out of the wine and the kisses, and forcing the poet to bring her memory to the fore.
Then comes the refrain of all four stanzas; ‘And I was desolate and sick of an old passion… I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.’ These two lines, interspersed with a fresh line every stanza, so as to maintain the rhyme, are brilliant; some might say it’s overdone, but I don’t believe so – it describes just how all-pervasive and controlling this love for Cynara was; even now, her shadow controls him, and drives him to despair and sickness from this old love. The last line, showing how, through all the wine, women, and more, the poet has always kept her to the fore; it’s not a faithfulness anyone would want nor describe, but it’s his faithfulness – of being driven onwards and controlled by this inescapable love. I think the lines come across well.
The next stanza is probably my favourite; it describes a scene of passion and love, which it tears down in only one line:
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
It is so well done; the first two lines bring up an image of love and tenderness; perhaps, perhaps this is a sweet memory of the never-forgotten Cynara – and then, in the third line, we discover the truth of this scene of love, and, finally, realise that all this feigned passion is still driven by the mad love for Cynara.
The third stanza is also quite good. I don’t, personally, think it is as good as the other lines, but it is well done nevertheless. The stanza describes well the various activities and vanities in which the poet has flung himself wholeheartedly, so as the move on and forget Cynara, and leave her in the past – yet all of it is vain hope, ‘I was desolate and sick of an old passion/ Yea, all the time, though the dance was long;/ I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.’
The fourth stanza is where the poem really climaxes. It describes how the poet drove harder into wine and entertainments,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Now, as the poem gathers the feeling and energy of madness, we finally gain the present tense, and see how, night after night, the poet is consumed by this maddening love for Cynara. This love is not something that was pleasant, and the memory of which drove him; it is still here, its shadow haunting and consuming, feasting on the poet’s misery.
And with one last ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion,’ the poem comes to an abrupt, but satisfying end. Dowson, in four stanzas, captures perfectly this sickening love which drives and destroys him, even now, and always remains despite the wine, songs, women, and more with which he attempts to forget Cynara. The poem gathers some sort of maddening, frantic rush towards the end, as one finds and sense the poet’s own need to escape, to forget and move on, but sees how he is trapped forever by the shadow of this old passion; yet manages to end when the reader has been caught up by the passion, before the reader grows bored, and, with the final refrain, leaves the haunting shadow of Cynara upon the reader’s own mind.
To put it simply, I love this poem. I read it when I was fifteen or sixteen, and have loved it ever since; I’ve memorised it, I say it to myself when there is nothing else to do; I can’t quite say why, exactly, I love it – although one is tempted to draw a conclusion as to my attraction for the poem, as this was about the same time that I fell in love with Sunny Day Real Estate’s Song About an Angel. Perhaps the emo in me loved finding a poem of the same theme… Regardless, it is skilfully done, and Dowson is one of those great, albeit incredibly depressing, poets who are oft-forgotten, though everyone should be reading his poetry!