The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 62. Ernest Dowson

The last pair of all our company once more supply, between them, a representative contrast; but it is of a very different kind. Ernest Dowson and Richard Middleton, who both died about the age of thirty, though there were some dozen years between their births, reproduce once more a situation which has been already noted twice in surveying nineteenth-century poetry. As, at the beginning, there were those who had partially, and, later, those who had fully, shared the influence of the great romantic school from Wordsworth to Keats; as, later, there was a similar division among those who felt the power of Tennyson and Browning; so, now, was it with regard to the school of Rossetti and Swinburne. Both Dowson and Middleton represent the poetry of youth—and of youth which has been brought up from the beginning on the theories of art for art’s sake and enjoyment (literary and other) for enjoyment’s sake. Both have had the benefit of that “Marcellus allowance,” as it has been called, which is earned by early death; and, in consequence of sympathy from these various sources, both have been extravagantly praised. The extravagance, however, may be thought to have been far better justified in Dowson’s case than in his companion’s. He wrote little, his life being, undoubtedly, shortened by habits destructive of health, peace and power of mental exertion. His work may be injured to some tastes, though not to all, by its being largely in the artificial forms noticed above. Dowson was an excellent French scholar. His verse is exquisitely finished and curiously appealing. His most famous poem, I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion, is couched in unusual, but quite defensible, metre and has singular music and “cry.” A little more virility would have made it a very beautiful poem, and it is actually a beautiful one. Something else, and no little thing, may be said in Dowson’s favour. There is scarcely a single poem in his scant hundred and sixty pages of largely and loosely printed verse which, when one has read it, one does not want to read again, and which does not leave an echo of poetry, fainter or less faint, in the mind’s ear.