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ERNEST DOWSON1S AESTHETICS OF CONTAMINATION By Chris Snodgrass (University of Florida) Dating from at least Arthur Symons' "Literary Causerie" article which initiated the notorious "Oowson Legend," Ernest Dowson has been regarded as virtually emblematic of what Yeats called the "tragic generation"—the nineties "decadent" whose life and artistic energy were ultimately destroyed because his delicate aesthetic ideal could not bear the weight of nagging poverty, personal tragedy, and an immoderate lifestyle. Certainly, that view would not seem to be diminished by the paradigmatic structure of Dowson's art, which seems to reflect to a large degree the world-view of the Victorian Decadence: a calm, virginal sanctuary of aestheticized "lily time" sheltered from the swirling corruption and decay of an outside world which surrounds and constantly threatens to violate it. Like most of his nineties colleagues, Dowson subscribed to the Decadent faith that aesthetic beauty—most frequently represented in Dowson's works by the innocence of a little girl or the purity and awe of religious ritual—comprised the sacred core of all value. Implicit , too, was the ancillary faith, rooted in Arnold and Pater, that the aesthetic sensibility precipitated a form of moral sensitivity and ultimately fostered human sympathy and communion. But the evidence in Dowson's works reveals that with that implicit faith in the sanctifying power of the aesthetic sensibility there is also an anxiety and despair which call it into question. What we find in Dowson's poetry and fiction is not merely the simple axiom that dreams cannot withstand vulgar reality , but a more complex and devastating fear which strikes at the foundation of the Decadent "religion of art": the fear that the ideal, the good, the pure, the innocent , precludes human realization; that an intrinsic guilt in the human condition contaminates the very ideal to which man aspires; and, finally, that in actual practice the aesthetic sensibility of the artist is destructive of the very human sympathy and communion it is so often presumed to create. As has been noted by Dowson's contemporaries and by Dowson critics, including Mark Longaker in his standard biography Ernest Dowson (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1945), the Paterian aestheticism so prevalent in the eighties and early nineties was alloyed with a fairly heavy measure of philosophical pessimism , the primary authority of which was taken to be the Haldane and,Kemp translation of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World As Will and Idea (1883-86). The nexus of Paterian aestheticism and Schopenhaurean pessimism was in some respects a natural one. Schopenhauer's hypothesis that there is no God or afterlife and that the world is in fact an endlessly blind, irrational, deterministic, and self-perpetuating exercise of evil "Will" had the effect of freeing many young Victorians from the tortuous task of having to reconcile manifest evil and chaos with the presumed existence of a benevolent God; it also reinforced the predisposition to seek out a life of aesthetic beauty as the only acceptable means of escaping the cruelty and ugliness of a utilitarian world. Schopenhauer had himself argued that, short of the saint's total denial of life, one could only escape the ravages of the Will through "aesthetic contemplation," that "disinterested" state of mind by which one rose above the temporal and changing to apprehend the. object not as a desired thing but as the eternal Platonic Idea (WWSI, I, 208-210). 162 Dowson's own pessimism, of course, was not derived solely (or necessarily even predominantly) from his readings of Schopenhauer; Dowson read extensively the works of a number of "pessimistic" writers, including Baudelaire, Poe, Swinburne, and Zola, all of whom no doubt contributed to his bleak view of the world. Nevertheless , Schopenhauer was generally seized as the authoritative focus of such sentiment , and there is much evidence that The World As Will and Idea had early on become an integrated and functioning element of Dowson's thought and a significant theoretical influence on his art. Classmate W. R. Thomas testifies that "the Dowson who came up to Queen's had certainly done some hard thinking, and the pessimism to which he always remained faithful had been based, in the main, on the writings of Schopenhauer...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 162-174
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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