ERNEST DOWSON AND THE PERPETUAL CHILD: LA JEUNESSE N’A QU’UN TEMPS

In a previous posting we took a look at the poetry of Ernest Dowson, who sadly lost himself in drink and other excesses and died at age 32.  It puts us in mind of Dylan Thomas, who similarly was afflicted by alcoholism and died at 39.  That should be a warning to those who are sensitive souls to avoid alcohol completely.

We might also note that a strong theme in both Dowson and Dylan Thomas was a focus on youth as a golden time from which they did not really want to part.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, developed the theory of the Puer Aeternus, the “eternal child,” — we might also think of it as “perpetual child” — a man who cannot quite make the psychological transition from childhood to genuine adulthood, and consequently lives life in a reckless and often dangerous way, and frequently dies young as a consequence.  Such people behave as though they are invulnerable.

A classic example in literature, according to Jung’s student Marie-Louise von Franz, is the character of the Little Prince,  in the the popular story of the same name by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — an author and adventurer who also drank too much and took too many risks, and again died rather young, at age 44.

I had my own experience of a Puer Aeternus in a young man I met many years ago. I recall how together we went to see Crater Lake, in Oregon, which is a very deep and  blue lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano.  There was a protective wall marking off the viewing area at the high edge of the crater, but this young fellow climbed over the wall and walked some distance down a slope of loose rubble just above a sheer drop of several hundred feet into the caldera.  When I saw him climbing over the wall onto that unstable and slippery edge, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I urged him again and again to come back, but he refused; he had to go peek over, closer to the very edge.  Fortunately he survived that day, and managed to climb back to safety (but only after he had done as he wished) without falling to his death.  But this risky behavior, I gradually found as I got to know him better, manifested in other ways in his life as well, and within about three years he was dead.  I always think of him whenever I hear the term Puer Aeternus.

This poem by Ernest Dowson shows us a view of life through the eyes of such a person.  It is titled in French: La Jeunesse N’a Qu’un Temps.  It means literally, “Youth Has But One Time.”  In other words, youth only happens once, never to be repeated.  That is the constant refrain of this poem:

Swiftly passes youth away
Night is coming, fades the day,
All things turn to sombre grey

This reminds one of the beginning of the poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici:

How beautiful is youth
Which nonetheless is fleeting…

Notice how Dowson sees nothing between the time of youth and the time of death.  Youth quickly passes, only to be replaced by the end of day (the end of life) and death (All things turn to sombre grey).

Pass the cup and drink, friends, deep
Roses upon roses heap,
Soon it will be time to sleep.

This is precisely the attitude of the “Eternal Child”;  youth is short and already passing, so, as is said in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Soon it will be time to sleep).  And we know what this life of excess did for and to Dowson.

Man, poor man, is born to die,
Love and all things fair will fly;
Fill the cup and drain it dry.

This is the same “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” sentiment, and it is repeated in the next two stanzas:

Make ye merry, while ye may;
Snatch the sweetness of the day,
Pluck life’s pleasures while they stay.

When our youth has taken flight,
When the day is lost in night,
There can be no more delight.

Then comes the last stanza, a rather black and bleak drinking toast:

Here’s a glass to memory
Here’s to death and vanity,
Here’s a glass to you and me.

The memory of youth and happiness, the anticipation of death, the realization that all of life seems pointless and vain, and that all of this applies “to you and me” — such hopelessness is the despairing attitude of the perpetual child, the Puer Aeternus, who like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up — but who, unlike Peter Pan, has to try to live in the real world, but cannot adjust.

It is a sad tale, and a caution that we should learn to recognize that there is life after youth.  If one does not learn this in good time, it is all too easy to fall into the hedonistic and fatalistic trap that caught Dowson and has similarly caught many other sensitive young people who have trouble making the transition from youth to adulthood.

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David

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