University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries Lewisham, London Borough of Lewisham, Greater London, England
Ernest Christopher Dowson (2 August 1867 – 23 February 1900) was an English poet, novelist, short-story writer, often associated with the Decadent movement. After his release from prison, Oscar Wilde was persuaded by Ernest Dowson to visit a prostitute in Dieppe in order to acquire ‘a more wholesome taste’. When he emerged from the brothel, a small crowd, supposedly, had gathered in the street. He whispered to Dowson, ‘The first these ten years, and it shall be the last. It was like chewing cold mutton!’ Then, in a louder voice: ‘But tell it in England, for it will entirely restore my character!’
Ernest Dowson was born in Lee, London, in 1867. His great-uncle was Alfred Domett, a poet and politician who became Premier of New Zealand and had allegedly been the subject of Robert Browning's poem "Waring." Dowson attended The Queen's College, Oxford, but left in March 1888 without obtaining a degree. In November 1888, he started work with his father at Dowson and Son, a dry-docking business in Limehouse, east London, which had been established by the poet's grandfather. He led an active social life, carousing with medical students and law pupils, going to music halls and taking the performers to dinner. He was also working assiduously at his writing during this time. He was a member of the Rhymers' Club, which included W. B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson. He was a contributor to such literary magazines as The Yellow Book and The Savoy. Dowson collaborated on two unsuccessful novels with Arthur Moore, worked on a novel of his own, Madame de Viole, and wrote reviews for The Critic. Later in his career, Dowson was a prolific translator of French fiction, including novels by Balzac and the Goncourt brothers, and Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. In 1889, aged 23, Dowson became infatuated with the 11 year old Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz, daughter of a Polish restaurant owner; in 1893 he unsuccessfully proposed to her. To Dowson's despair, Adelaide was eventually to marry a tailor. In August 1894, Dowson's father, who was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, died of an overdose of chloral hydrate. His mother, who was also consumptive, hanged herself in February 1895. Soon after her death, Dowson began to decline rapidly. The publisher Leonard Smithers gave him an allowance to live in France and write translations, but he returned to London in 1897 (where he stayed with the Foltinowicz family, despite the transfer of Adelaide's affections).
In the late 1890s, the decadent poet and Rhymers’ Club member, Ernest Dowson, in the company of author Robert Thurston Hopkins, played a regular game of ‘Blind Chivvy’ through the by-ways, alleys and courts of central London. Hopkins described this game with Dowson in his essay ‘A London Phantom’. The two men sometimes rove forlornly about the foggy London streets, ‘initiated bohemians, tasting each other’s enthusiasms, sharing money and confessions’. The route that they took from the Bun House at 417 The Strand to Dowson’s lodgings at 152 Euston Street would have taken them straight through the St Giles area, passing through Simeon Solomon’s former residence at Dyott Street. Hopkins described these streets as the ‘slinking alleys and byways which then were not well known to the average London man’. There is, perhaps, a sense of excitement and titillation in Hopkins’s telling of this tale as the story culminates in the two men being dramatically chased through the streets by a derelict hawker with a Gladstone bag who aroused an ‘essence of terror and repulsion’ in them.
In 1899, Robert Sherard found Dowson almost penniless in a wine bar and took him back to the cottage in Catford, where Sherard was living. Dowson spent the last six weeks of his life at Sherard's cottage where he died at age 32. He had become a Catholic in 1892 and was interred in the Roman Catholic section of nearby Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries. After Dowson's death, Oscar Wilde wrote: "Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was". Wilde himself was dead before the end of the year.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE