Ernest Dowson was born in Lee, south-east London in 1867. His great uncle, Alfred Domett, a poet and politician became the colonial secretary of New Zealand in 1862. He was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford but left in 1888 without taking a degree to work in the family dry-docking business, Dowson and Son, founded by his grandfather.
His first love was literature however and after six years he left to try and establish himself as a writer. He became a member of the Rhymers’ Club whose members included W B Yeats, Arthur Symonds and Francis Thompson and was associated with the Decadent movement which followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality. He contributed to magazines such as The Yellow Book and THe Savoy and wrote reviews for The Critic. He had his first volume of poetry, Verses, published in 1896 and Decorations in Verse and Prose three years later.
In 1889 he became infatuated with a twelve year-old girl, Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Polish restaurant owner. Four years later he proposed to her and was rejected. She went on to marry one of her father’s waiters. In 1894 his father committed suicide and his mother did likewise the following year. In 1895 he wrote a book of short stories entitled Dilemmas. The publisher Leonard Smithers gave him an allowance to live in France where he wrote a novel Madame de Viole and translated the novels of Balzac, Zola, Voltaire and the Goncourt brothers. He also wrote The Pierrot of the Minute: a dramatic phantasy in one act. He returned to England in 1897 and stayed with the Foltinowicz family. Fueled by drink, his life took an increasingly downward spiral and he died in 1900, aged 32, at the home of a friend, penniless and broken in spirit.
After his death Oscar Wilde wrote of him “Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry”. His poetry, which was heavily influenced by that of the French poet Paul Verlaine, displays a meticulous attention to melody and cadence and many of his themes trace the sorrow of unrequited love. He is best remembered for phrases like “gone with the wind” from his poem Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae, a wistful lament for Adelaide, and “days of wine and roses” from his poem They are not Long, a fitting epitaph to his own short, unhappy life. Arthur Symonds, a friend and fellow poet, published The Poems of Ernest Dowson in 1905, prefixed by an essay on his life and work.