I have always been fond of the English decadents. In an age of blustering nationalism, industrialism, and ideological zaniness, poets like Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson preserved some little corner of beauty. Yes, they drank too much, experimented too much, affected too much, but they wrote poems worth remembering. I’ve already presented some Johnson, so let us try my favorite of Dowson’s small corpus.
(For Arthur Symons)
I was not sorrowful, I could not weep,
And all my memories were put to sleep.
I watched the river grow more white and strange,
All day till evening I watched it change.
All day till evening I watched the rain
Beat wearily upon the window pane.
I was not sorrowful, but only tired
Of everything that ever I desired.
Her lips, her eyes, all day became to me
The shadow of a shadow utterly.
All day mine hunger for her heart became
Oblivion, until the evening came
And left me sorrowful, inclined to weep,
With all my memories that could not sleep.
Here is another, Ad manus puellae
I was always a lover of ladies’ hands!
Or ever mine heart came here to tryst,
For the sake of your carved white hands’ commands;
The tapering fingers, the dainty wrist;
The hands of a girl were what I kissed.
I remember an hand like a fleur-de-lys
When it slid from its silken sheath, her glove;
With its odours passing ambergris:
And that was the empty husk of a love.
Oh, how shall I kiss your hands enough?
They are pale with the pallor of ivories;
But they blush to the tips like a curled sea-shell:
What treasure, in kingly treasuries,
Of gold, and spice for the thurible,
Is sweet as her hands to hoard and tell?
I know not the way from your finger-tips,
Nor how I shall gain the higher lands,
The citadel of your sacred lips:
I am captive still of my pleasant bands,
The hands of a girl, and most your hands.
Many of the Decadents were drawn, for reasons both sensuous and spiritual (it is not always hard to distinguish) to the Roman Church. Here is a rare religious poem of Dowson,
Without, the sullen noises of the street!
The voice of London, inarticulate,
Hoarse and blaspheming, surges in to meet
The silent blessing of the Immaculate.
Dark is the church, and dim the worshippers,
Hushed with bowed heads as though by some old spell.
While through the incense-laden air there stirs
The admonition of a silver bell.
Dark is the church, save where the altar stands,
Dressed like a bride, illustrious with light,
Where one old priest exalts with tremulous hands
The one true solace of man’s fallen plight.
Strange silence here: without, the sounding street
Heralds the world’s swift passage to the fire:
O Benediction, perfect and complete!
When shall men cease to suffer and desire?