Sunday, December 10, 2006

"The world, it was the old world yet..."

...on the literary uses of drunkenness...
(Image from Wikipedia)

In his poem "Terence, this is stupid stuff," A. E. Housman (1859-1936) promises:
"And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man."
But that's merely a promissory note, and meanwhile, the bill must be paid, as Housman himself recognizes from a bout with "Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer," which after first persuading him of the world's great loveliness leaves him with a rueful lesson learned:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.
Lesson learned? Beer brings the drunken illusion of a lovely world. Drunkenness, however, always wears off. Solution? More beer!

Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), however, put his trust in wine, hoping to thereby extinguish an old flame and use wine's alcoholic fumes to fuel a new one ... if only for a failing moment:
Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

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,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray;
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long;
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I read this poem as a 19-year-old sophomore at Baylor University and mourned for poor Ernest Dowson even though I hadn't yet truly fallen into real love and knew not the terrible force of a great passion or a stiff drink ... though I was soon enough to find out.

Dowson -- despite his poetic gift at evoking the forlorn regret for an irretrievably lost love -- begins to look ridiculous, even a bit creepy, when one discovers that the obscure object of his desire was none other than a twelve-year-old girl.

Perhaps that was befitting of a decadent poet, but he was fortunately only a failed Humbert Humbert, for his Lolita showed no interest, and Dowson succumbed to the stronger wine to which he had turned when it turned on him.

In the meantime, that stronger wine -- like his illicit, unrequited love -- had its uses, both momentary (in forgetting her) and literary (in remembering her forever).


At 7:03 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Now, I didn't know that! Dowson, at 24, courting a 12 year muse.

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, but can we trust Wikipedia?

All I previously knew from my Norton of many years ago was that Dowson was in love with the daughter of a Polish tavernkeeper.

Did Norton suppress her age?

Naughty Norton, ignoring or not acknowledging that!

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" proposed love as the answer to life's darkened glass. Perhaps I shouldn't even put it that strongly, though. Hopefully no lolitas there.

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, was that a reference to Paul's remark about seeing through a "glass darkly"?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery. Yes, I did mean that. The murky imagery in the poem struck me as an allusion to I Corinthians 13, only Arnold's version is much more pessimistic, and without the divine component.


Post a Comment

<< Home