One-off Poets

  Jerome Shea       June 3, 2012      Weekend Wonk

“One-off Poets” is the best title I can come up with, because—see Steve Goodman—I am still reluctant to denigrate them with the term “one-hit wonders.” This week I want to return to Ernest Dowson and Francis Thompson, two Victorians who glimmered for a moment and were gone. Next week I want to look at three others who are perhaps more well known today, but, again, for only one work.

I admit that this is a tricky business. It has to do with audience, especially. For example, Dowson and Thompson may not be good examples anymore. To say that most people know “The Hound of Heaven” is silly. Dowson and Thompson are known for just one or two works, but those works in turn are known only to a minuscule number of English majors who are now nearing their dotage. But at least they were known at one time, and survived long enough to get a place in college anthologies almost a hundred years later. But the works in those anthologies were always Dowson’s two poems based on lines from Horace, and Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.”

So. Ernest Dowson, 1867-1900. By any measure he was an odd duck. What are we to make of a twenty-something who falls in love with an eleven-year-old girl? The girl was Adelaide “Missie” Foltinowicz and Dowson was mad about her (or perhaps just mad). Eventually, and at a more appropriate age, she married someone else. Dowson never really recovered, but he did give the world “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” (“I am not the man I once was under the sway of Cynara”), Cynara being Missie. The speaker is a rake, a roue, who debauches himself because Cynara has made him so. It also has the line “I called for madder music and stronger wine,” which I think had some staying power. The other poem comes from another Horacian epigram that translates roughly as “The brevity of life forbids us the hope of enduring long.” In fact, he was often the life of the party, but desperately so, driven to drink life (and other beverages) to the lees. Dowson exemplifies the dregs of the Romantic movement, I think. It is a good thing that only these two gossamer laments survive. The lad was rather gossamer himself, but just the ticket for sophomores with tragic aspirations. He managed to drink himself to death by the age of 32.

But he did give us “gone with the wind” and “days of wine and roses,” the latter the title of a well-received movie in 1962, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Henry Mancini won an Oscar for the title song. The movie was about (surprise!) an alcoholic couple fighting to recover. He does, she doesn’t.

Francis Thompson made it all the way to 47 before dying of tuberculosis in 1907. But it was a hard road he traveled, with opium addiction, extreme poverty, and on-going ill health. As a special grace-note, he said that a prostitute, never identified, became his physical and spiritual savior. (Will these Romantics never have done?)

But “The Hound of Heaven,” a kind of spiritual autobiography, is a truly remarkable poem. You could say that Thompson almost lusted to be Saved, and “The Hound of Heaven” records the soul’s desperate flight from salvation while God, like a relentless hound, “follows after.” It really is the work of a mystic. The poet is terrified that if he gives himself to God he will have lost the joys of this world, when in fact, as the conclusion shows, all things are in God. In surrender there is total victory. (“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest / I am He Whom thou seekest / Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”)

It is a long, a very long, poem—four single-spaced pages when I printed it out. The version I remember from college must have been severely abridged. It is a poem that bristles with energy, daring you to keep up the pace it sets you. Listen:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unpeturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betrayest thee, who betrayest Me.’

This is real poetry, children, a tour de force! The imagery is startling—literally fantastic—the language heroic, the rhythms mesmerizing, the theme epic.

Sometimes the “one-off” really is a work of genius.

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