Tragic Rhymers

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.

Ernest Dowson, 1896
(‘Vitae summa brevis’)

Cheshire is the one of the oldest recorded English cheeses and is referred to in the Domesday Book. The Olde Cheshire Cheese at no.145 Fleet Street was one of a number of taverns to have been rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. The vaulted cellars are thought to belong to a thirteenth century Carmelite Monastery which once occupied the site (the Carmelite Order or White Friars had reached England in 1242). The original building may have been its guesthouse, sold off in 1538 as an inn after the dissolution of convents and monasteries by Henry VIII. Many famous people have frequented this tavern. Ben Jonson frequented the house and Samuel Johnson was a regular, himself living at no. 17 Gough Square, located just north of Fleet Street. He popped in there while he was working on his magnum opus, The Dictionary of the English Language. Dickens mentions the establishment frequently and, in The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy refers to the chef’s delicious pies containing steak, kidneys, oysters, larks, mushrooms and spices. Other literary drinkers and diners at the Cheshire included Oliver Goldsmith (the knocker on the front door of the pub supposedly came from his house), Henry Makepeace Thackeray, Mark Twain, and Arthur Conan Doyle. G.K. Chesterton used to dress up as Samuel Johnson for special costume dinners held in the Cheese in the Doctor’s memory.

In 1891, members of the Rhymers Club gathered for the first time in the Cheshire Cheese to read their poems to each other. Although the Club only lasted for about three years, it published two collections (1892 and 1894) of its members’ poetry. Kent-born Ernest Christopher Dowson was one of the participants. Having received only irregular early schooling he went up to Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1886. He left in March 1888 after five terms, without a degree. For a short while, Dowson worked supervising the dry dock which his father owned at Limehouse (featuring as ‘Rainham’s Dock’ in A Comedy of Masks). However, he preferred to share the London literary society of Lionel Pigot Johnson, Richard Le Gallienne, Oscar Wilde, and Aubrey Beardsley. He contributed to the principal aesthetic magazines: the Century Guild Hobby Horse, The Yellow Book, and The Savoy, and was assistant editor on the short-lived magazine The Critic in 1890. In his famous essay ‘The tragic generation’ (in: The Trembling of the Veil, 1922) Yeats recalled the personalities of the 1890s, including Dowson, and with it he helped to create the image of a generation of British decadent poètes maudits. The myth has been modified somewhat since Yeats’s essay, but the general picture of Dowson as a decadent poet, living a life opposed to Victorian views of propriety, persists. His principal influences were Swinburne and Verlaine as is reflected in his main published works, Dilemmas (1895), Verses (1896) and Decorations (1899). T.S. Eliot appreciated Ernest Downson as the most accomplished poet of his age.

The most intense love affair of Dowson’s life was with Adelaide (Missie) Foltinowicz, who was eleven years old when he first noticed her serving in her father’s restaurant The Poland, Sherwood Street, in November 1889. She was his Beatrice and the dedicatee of the Verses. Missie married a tailor named August Noelte, causing the poet great mental anguish. He regarded his unsatisfied love for her as something like Keats’s for Fanny Browne. Some critics have suggested that through his letters and poetry of that period runs a current of paedophilia. About 1891/2 Dowson was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and he produced certain religio-aesthetic poems, such as ‘Nuns of Perpetual Adoration’ and ‘Carthusians’. Shortly after, he moved to France where he kept himself alive with a series of translation (Zola, Balzac, Laclos, De Goncourt and others). Together with Alexander Texeira de Mattos he translated Majesteit (‘Majesty’, 1895) by Louis Couperus, one of the few Dutch novelists who enjoyed a large following in Britain.

In August 1894 Ernest’s father died from an overdose of a sleeping draught and his mother committed suicide by hanging six months later. These painful experiences in addition to a combination of drink and depression caused by the ‘betrayal’ of Missie, and the tuberculosis he had contracted in 1894, weakened his mental and physical resistance. He died six years later in impoverished circumstances.

Another Rhymer, Scottish poet John Davidson, also celebrated the hostelry in verse. In his happier days he wrote this tribute to the tavern where the band of Rhymers used to meet, drink, and discuss poetry, politics and the quality of pork pies:

This modern world so stiff and pale
You leave behind you when you please
For long clay pipes and great old ale
And beefsteaks at the Cheshire Cheese.

Davidson, who remains appreciated for some fine ballads, was as much a depressive character as Ernest Dowson. In the grip of a mental depression he drowned himself at Penzance in Cornwall. Drink, drugs and depression had become the deadly enemies of this once bohemian band of poets and artists.

Leonard Smithers was publisher to Dowson and the Decadents and a key figure in the literary culture of late Victorian England. His life story had a tragic ending as well. Initially, he was primarily known for publishing books of exclusive pornography. While a young solicitor in his native Sheffield, Smithers established a correspondence with explorer and translator of exotic texts, Captain Richard Burton. This friend of Algernon Charles Swinburne was associated with the so-called Cannibal Club which included anthropologists, lawyers and writers amongst its members. Their interests lay mainly in forms of domination and submission, from flagellation to erotic anthropology.

Burton himself was most excited by Eastern erotica. He translated and printed the Kama Sutra (1883) and The Perfumed Garden (1886) and published a complete edition of the Arabian Nights, which was published by Smithers from 1885 onwards and as a translation still stands unchallenged. Smithers collaborated with Burton in the publication of two Latin erotic texts, the Priapeia and the Carmina of Catullus. He also published a limited edition of Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon. In his private life, Leonard Smithers was notorious for deflowering young girls or, as Oscar Wilde put it famously, he loved first editions. A slogan posted at his bookshop in Bond Street read ‘Smut is cheap today’. There was nothing secretive about his lust for sex. Wilde called him the most ‘learned erotomaniac in Europe’.

After the death of Burton in 1890, Smithers continued as a literary adviser to Lady Isabel Burton. During this time he formed a partnership with Harry Sidney Nichols, and together they produced a series of pornographic books under the imprint of the Erotika Biblion Society (founded in 1888 and discontinued in 1907 with the death of Smithers). A title of lasting interest under that imprint is Teleny, or, The Reverse of the Medal. The novel was published anonymously in 1893, but has been widely attributed to Oscar Wilde (although neither his authorship nor editorship has been ascertained). At the time of publication the story was described as ‘pornographic’. Set in fin-de-siècle Paris, it describes the passionate though tragic affair between a young Frenchman named Camille de Grieux and the Hungarian pianist René Teleny. The novel is significant as one of the earliest pieces of English-language prose dealing with homosexuality. Its linguistic refinement and its complexity of plot and character place the novel solidly in the tradition of the European Aesthetic movement.

The years between 1895 and 1900 were Smithers’s glory years when he published prose by Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, and poetry by Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons that proved to be the finest expression of the Decadent Movement. With Symons, he founded The Savoy, a periodical that ran to eight issues in 1896. When Wilde was arrested for sodomy, Beardsley found himself linked in the popular press with him, and after a mob broke the windows of the publishers of The Yellow Book, he lost his job, livelihood and family home in Pimlico. Smithers came to the rescue. He offered the artist space in the Savoy. Some of Beardsley’s best designs were published during 1896, together with part of his erotic novel Venus and Tannhäuser which came out in the magazine as ‘Under the Hill’.

Smithers remained loyal to Oscar Wilde as well and published the first edition of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in 1898. Smithers paid a heavy price for his continuous and brave involvement with the Decadents. The cultural climate in Britian had changed radically and his publishing ventures were no longer relevant in a world that was turning more macho and muscular by the day. This after all was the age of Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, the Prussian bodybuilder who, known as Eugen Sandow, became the revered ‘blond god’ of nineteenth century masculinity. He held the first bodybuilding contest at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1901 where his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acted as one of the judges. At a time that had become obsessed with fear of degeneration, Sandow helped to develop the ‘Grecian ideal’ of manhood as a formula for the perfect physique. Decadence was dead. As a consequence, Smithers publishing house suffered severely. He went bankrupt in 1900 and died seven years later from an overdose of drink and drugs. His naked body was found in a house in Parson’s Green, surrounded by empty bottles of chlorodyne, a mixture of laudanum, cannabis and chloroform. It was his forty-sixth birthday. He was buried in an unmarked grave, paid for by Lord Alfred Douglas, in a cemetery in Fulham Palace Road – just another member of the tragic generation.

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