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158 THE FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE IN THE POETRY OF ERNEST DOWSON By Richard Benvenuto (Michigan State University) Poets of the 189Os, conscious that they were living in a period of transition, viewed it ambivalently, and were as aware of what the times denied them as they were of what they had gained. Their assertion of freedom from the rhetoric and moral concerns of Victorian poetry is commonly known. Just as important is their sense of being without a deep-rooted poetic tradition which they felt the Victorian order had helped to make possible. Looking back on the 1890s, Richard Le Gallienne said, "The death of Tennyson in 1892 was perhaps the most impressive event of my first years in London. It seemed even more than the death of a great poet, and it touched the imagination as giving dramatic emphasis to the passing of the old Victorian order of which, more than any other, he had been the spiritual and intellectual spokesman."! Lionel Johnson, reviewing the major poetry of the nineteenth century, saw it as the work of an inspired imaginative strength, supporting man in a time of spiritual need» "Poetry has been a power these last hundred years; it has both expressed and excited their vague unrest, their despairs and hopes, their lookings backward and their lookings forward. . . . the highest poetry of the century, the most intellectual and ideal, has furnished many minds with a kind of religion." It offers, he suggested, an alternative authority for life to that of Darwin and science.2 Such assurance of their mission was not so forthcoming to Johnson's contemporaries in the '90s - "No artist desires to prove anything," Wilde had announced in the "Preface" to Dorian Gray - and Yeats remembered Johnson and other Rhymers associates as "typical figures of transition, doing as an achievement of learning and of exquisite taste what their predecessors did in careless abundance."3 But the Victorian predecessors of the transitional '90s were themselves conscious of living in an age of transition and uncertainties, of wandering like Arnold between a dead world and a world unborn.4 Tennyson showed the artist fluctuating and divided between Shalott and Camelot, the palace of art-and the city of men. The "representative poem of the age," as Houghton remarks, is not a poem of "belief or unbelief. It is a poem of doubt."5 The conflicts of Victorian thought and the divisions between private and public art - aesthetic and social values - persisted into the '90s as a continuous, if changing, stream of transition, and Tennyson's crisis in poems like "The Palace of Art" - or Arnold's dilemma in "A Summer Night" reappears in the work of Ernest Dowson, the most representative fin-de-siècle poet. Yet Dowson, like Le Gallienne, saw in the death of the laureate the end of the old Victorian order. He wrote an appreciative requiem, "The Passing of Tennyson," in which the old poet, a "prince of song," walks with the "laureled few o'er fields Elysian"« 159 We mourn him not, but sign with Bedivere, Not perished be the sword he bore so long, Excalibur, whom none is left to wear— His magic brand of song.6 Dowson's image of Tennyson is not one of a transitional figure like himself, but that of a poet whose achievement stands as an impossible ideal in the '90s. The sense is that a line of succession has been broken; and to know the meaning of the poet's role and the function of his art, Dowson felt that he had to begin at the beginning. In a number of his most representative poems, he questioned and explored the foundations of poetry - the nature of language - and he succeeded in formulating a place for the poet in a divided world. Dowson's poems are concerned with the question of language, and one of their recurring motifs opposes the futility of words to the efficacy of silence. Often the theme appears as a breakdown of communication between lovers who, like those in "You would have understood me had you waited," are "fated / Always to disagree ," and who cannot join in a common speech; What is the use...


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pp. 158-167
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