THEY ARE NOT LONG, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES: THE BRIEF LIFE OF ERNEST DOWSON

Today’s poem is by Ernest Dowson (1867-1900).  Merely discussing him is a sad matter, because, like Sebastian Flyte in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Dowson was both a student at Oxford for a time and a severe alcoholic whose life ended far too early.  We can extend the parallel further in that both were Roman Catholic, in Dowson’s case by conversion.

English: Portrait photo of English poet Ernest...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We should not be surprised that he titled his poem in Latin; this was in the days, after all, when a knowledge of Latin was considered indispensable to a good education.  So that is why students of English poetry find themselves faced with these Latin words at the head of the poem:

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

It means, essentially, that the brief (brevis) sum (summa) of life (vitae) forbids/prevents (vetat) us (nos) beginning (incohare) a long (longam) hope (spem).  But we can think of it  as meaning simply:

The Shortness of Life Forbids Us Long Hopes

The phrase comes from lines in Ode 1.4, by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.):

pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas       
regnumque turris. o beate Sesti,
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam;

“Still pallid Death is knocking at the hovels of paupers
And the towers of kings.  O happy Sestius,
The short span of life forbids us undertaking long hopes.”

But now to the poem:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
    Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
   Within a dream.

Yesterday I discussed Wenlock Edge, by A. E. Housman, in which he tells us that the emotional gale of human life soon wears itself out from its own force and disappears.  Dowson is similarly speaking of the brevity of human emotions.  Weeping and laughter, love and desire and hate, he says, do not last long, and he thinks they end with death (“passing the gate”).

In like manner, he tells us, the days of pleasure and happiness, which he poetically terms “the days of wine and roses,” are not long either.  And as for our short life, it is like a path seen coming out of a mist, then disappearing into that same mist.

It is a variation on an old simile.  The Venerable Bede tells the story of the comment of an advisor to King Edwin of Northumberland:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

But Bede’s simile is more bleak and far less beautiful than Dowson’s “path out of mist” metaphor, which has more the flavor of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s lines:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.             What is life?  A frenzy.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,           What is life?  An illusion,
una sombra, una ficción,                    A shadow, a fiction,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:             And its greatest good is small.
que toda la vida es sueño,                  For all of life is a dream,
y los sueños, sueños son.                    And dreams are dreams.

Dowson’s metaphor reminds me also of a hokku I once wrote from experience, with his poem not at all in mind, and without metaphor:

The river;
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Dowson’s poem is undeniably beautiful:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Happiness is brief, life is short and vague and a mystery, but in reading those lines by Dowson we must say that, as R. H. Blyth once remarked, put that way, it doesn’t sound too bad.

Dowson did have a sense for the poetic phrase.  Many who have never read his poem know the words “the days of wine and roses,” which were used for the title of a movie about a descent into alcoholism.  And it is from another poem by Dowson (Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae) that the words come which gave the title to Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the famous film of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind:

I have forgot much, Cynara!  gone with the wind,
Flung rose, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind…

One writer calls Ernest Dowson “The incarnation of dissipation and decadence,” which combined with the sad beauty of today’s poem, brings to mind the rather indelicate expression that a rose may grow out of a manure pile — the “pile” in this case being Dowson’s decadent and deadly habits.  For him, the combination of an excessive lifestyle and alcoholism with his tuberculosis proved quickly fatal.  He died a few months beyond his 32nd year.

David

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8 Responses to THEY ARE NOT LONG, THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES: THE BRIEF LIFE OF ERNEST DOWSON

  1. onestitchatatime says:

    Dowson’s poem was also quoted in full by the character Waldo Lydecker in a radio broadcast at the conclusion of the film noir classic “Laura” (1940) I found you when I went looking for the Laura quote.

  2. rairden says:

    Likewise, Laura led me here.
    Rairden

  3. Jennifer says:

    Same here.

  4. John says:

    I too arrived here from Laura

  5. Ruth says:

    Love this poem. I too remember this poem as quoted by Clifton Webb in the movie “Laura”. I don’t think any other actor could have quoted it so elegantly.
    I was reminded of this poem just now by watching TCM.

  6. laows says:

    “Our path emerges for a while, then closes… Within a dream.” is such a beautiful, truthful, efficient line. Reminds me a bit of the Lewis Carroll poem “Life is but a Dream” http://www.poetry-archive.com/c/life_is_but_a_dream.html

  7. clmindecia says:

    Thank you for this wonderful, touching, thought provoking blog post. Please keep this post up on the web forever.

  8. camaulay says:

    Great analysis. Keep it up.

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