In the summer of 1894, one of Ernest Dowson's circle, an actress called "Marie", overdosed on an abortion potion. She was taken upstairs to the rooms above the Soho restaurant where Dowson hung out and was there nursed by Dowson and his friend Goodhart. Once she was fit enough to stand, they packed her off on a train to her sister in Scotland. On receiving a telegram telling of her safe arrival, they went out to celebrate: "We met at seven and consumed four absinthes apiece in the Cock till nine. We then went and ate some kidneys - after which two absinthes apiece at the Crown. After which, one absinthe at Goodie's club.
"This morning Goodhart and I were twitching visibly. I feel rather indisposed and in fact we decided we must spend a few days on nothing stronger than lemonade and strychnine."
For Dowson, this was just a day's work. As the quintessential decadent poet, his life was a round of drinking, bohemian cafes and liaisons with actresses and prostitutes. Both his parents committed suicide, his father by taking an overdose of chloral hydrate and his mother by hanging herself from the rail of her bedstead. Dowson wandered about, unkempt and uncared for, his clothes dirty and ragged and his teeth black with decay. For most of his adult life, he was wracked by tuberculosis and he died at 32 in the house of a friend, owning nothing but a tattered manuscript of verse.
While Dowson's is the classic bohemian life of excess and melancholia, it is also, as Jad Adams shows in his biography, Madder Music, Stronger Wine , paradoxical in a way that is typical of the decadent movement. Yeats wrote that Dowson's religion was a "desire for a condition of virginal ecstasy". While he was sexually promiscuous with prostitutes, Dowson participated in the late 19th-century cult of little girls (in which Lewis Carroll had been an earlier part-icipant) and was devoured for most of his adult years by love for a young Polish girl, Adelaide Foltinowicz, who was 11 when they first met.
The attraction of young girls was their innocence, even if the desire felt for them was latently sexual. The tension between the decadent sexuality of the promiscuous poet and the innocent purity of the unobtainable ideal love is evident in Dowson's most famous poem, "Cynara", probably inspired by Adelaide: "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 am 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."
Dowson was also paradoxical in that much of his life was prosaic. Just as Swinburne, a generation earlier, had ended his days in unromantic Putney, so Dowson died in Catford (Adams includes a photograph of a very ordinary-looking house) and for several years had a day job managing a Limehouse dock he inherited from his father. (His first novel, A Comedy of Masks , starred a consumptive, heavy-drinking dock-owner). Until now, Dowson has just really been a footnote in other people's biographies. He mixed with Yeats in the Rhymers club in London and visited Wilde in France when many former friends had shunned him after his release from Reading gaol.
But Dowson is an interesting character in his own right and someone who inspired others by his lyrics and colourful antics. It is strange, therefore, that Adams's prose is not more colourful. His previous biographies have been of Tony Benn and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and one feels that the excesses of Dowson's absinthe addiction are being subjected to the same dispassionate historical objectivity as Benn's tea drinking.
Biographies can often over-sensationalise. Adams does well to be careful about accepting the myth of Dowson's melancholia or drug taking, for example, and to weigh the evidence judiciously. But the bizarre contradictions of decadence, particularly the paedophilia, are not confronted head on in this biography and could almost be missed. I read the book in various cafes. They seemed the most appropriate place. But I suspect in future the book is more likely to stay within library walls.
Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent
Author - Jad Adams
ISBN - 1 86064 470 8
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £19.95
Pages - 211