Dowson attended The Queen's College, Oxford, but left before obtaining a degree. In November 1888, he started work with his father at Dowson and Son, a dry-docking business in Limehouse, east London, established by the poet's grandfather. He led as active a social life as he could, carousing with medical students and law pupils, going to music halls, taking the performers to dinner, and so forth. At the same time he was working assiduously at his writing. He was a member of the Rhymers' Club, which included W. B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson. He was also a frequent contributor to the literary magazines The Yellow Book and The Savoy. Dowson collaborated on a couple of unsuccessful novels with Arthur Moore, was working on his own novel Madame de Viole, and was working as an unpaid reviewer for The Critic.
In 1889, at the age of twenty-three, Dowson fell in love with eleven-year-old Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Polish restaurant owner. Adelaide is reputed to be the subject of one his best-known poems, Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae. He pursued her unsuccessfully; in 1897, she married a tailor who lodged above the restaurant, and Dowson was crushed. In August 1894, his 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, and Dowson began to decline rapidly.
Robert Sherard one day found Dowson almost penniless in a wine bar and took him back to the cottage in Catford where he was himself living. Dowson spent the last six weeks of his life at Sherard's cottage and died there of alcoholism at the age of 32. He is buried in the Roman Catholic section of nearby Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries.
Dowson is best remembered for some vivid phrases, such as days of wine and roses from his poem Vitae Summa Brevis, which appears in the stanza:
- 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.
and "gone with the wind", from Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae, the third stanza of which reads:
- 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.
His prose works include the short stories collected as Dilemmas (1895), and the two novels A Comedy of Masks and Adrian Rome (each co-written with Arthur Moore). Some of his short prose was first published in the journal The Yellow Book.
- Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson by Jad Adams (I.B. Tauris 2000).
- See also sections in: Madonnas and Magdalens - the origins and developments of Victorian sexual attitudes. London. Eric Trudgill. (Heinemann, 1976).
"non sum qualis eram ..." is a quotation from Horace's Odes, Book IV,1 "vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam..." is from Horace's Odes Book I, 4
Primary Works (modern scholarly editions):
- Ernest Dowson, The Stories of Ernest Dowson, ed. by Mark Longaker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947)
- Ernest Dowson, The Poems of Ernest Dowson, ed. by Mark Longaker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962)
- Ernest Dowson, The Letters of Ernest Dowson, ed. by Desmond Flower and Henry Maas (London: Cassell, 1967)
- Jad Adams, Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2000)
- Elisa Bizzotto, La mano e l'anima. Il ritratto immaginario fin de siècle (Milano: Cisalpino, 2001)
- Jean-Jacques Chardin, Ernest Dowson et la crise fin de siècle anglaise (Paris: Editions Messene, 1995)
- Linda Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986)
- Ifor Evans, English Poetry in the Later Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1966)
- Ian Fletcher, Decadence and the 1890s (London: Edward Arnold, 1979)
- Graham Hough, The Last Romantics (London: Duckworth, 1949)
- Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927)
- Mark Longaker, Ernest Dowson: A Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945)
- Franco Marucci, Storia della letteratura inglese dal 1870 al 1921 (Firenze: Le Lettere, 2006)
- William Monahan (2000-10-11). "A Gallows Sermon: Life & Death Among the Decadents". New York Press. http://www.nypress.com/13/41/news&columns/feature.cfm. Retrieved 2007-03-06.
- Murray G. H. Pittock, Spectrum of Decadence: The Literature of the 1890s (London: Routledge, 1993)
- Mario Praz, La carne, la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica (Firenze: Sansoni, 1976)
- Bernard Richards, English Poetry of the Victorian Period (London: Longman, 1988)
- Thomas Burnett Swann, Ernest Dowson (New York: Twayne, 1964)
- Arthur Symons, The Memoirs of Arthur Symons, ed. by Karl Beckson (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977)
- William Butler Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955)
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Ernest Dowson|
- A few of Dowson's poems, through the University of Toronto.
- Arthur Symons' memoir of Dowson.
- Works by Ernest Dowson at Project Gutenberg