OVERCOMING TIME AND DESPAIR:
ERNEST DOWSON'S VILLANELLE
Victorian Poetry 34, 1, 101-8, Spring 1996.
Introduced into English in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the villanelle was generally considered to have been appropriate for light verse, having little potential for meaning, much less profundity. As W.E. Henley characterized it, "A dainty thing's the Villanelle; / And, filled with sweetness, as a shell/ Is filled with sound..." This hollow sweetness is due, in part, to the forced and predictable rhymes repeated in predictable patterns as necessary to the form. But the complex uses to which later poets such as Auden, Empson, Pound, Thomas, and Theodore Roethke have put the villanelle indicate its potential even in earlier periods, and a closer look at some of Ernest Dowson's efforts in this form reveals an inconspicuous intricacy that both reflects the limitations of his time and anticipates some of the complexities of the moderns. For Dowson employs the repetitious and cyclical villanelle to various philosophical purposes, and an examination of two of his villanelles discloses this form as a way to transcend the non-progressive patterns of life without capitulating to the lofty goals of the Victorians.
Of the five villanelles of Ernest Dowson, "Villanelle of His Lady's Treasures" and "Villanelle of the Poets' Road, are most interesting to explore in detail because although antithetical in their subject matter, they cover the major range of Dowson's themes and illustrate many of his considerations. "Villanelle of His Lady's Treasures" treats the relationship between love, life and art, which underlies much of Dowson's work, and with its central ars poetica theme; "Villanelle of the Poets' Road" illustrates Dowson's version of end-of-century time and progress.
Wine and woman and song,
Three things garnish our way:
Yet is day over long.
Lest we do our youth wrong,
Gather them while we may:
Wine and woman and song.
Three things render us strong,
Vine leaves, kisses and bay;
Yet is day over long.
Unto us they belong,
Us the bitter and gay,
Wine and woman and song.
We, as we pass along,
Are sad that they will not stay;
Yet is day over long.
Fruits and flowers among,
What is better than they:
Wine and woman and song?
Yet is day over long.
The title of this deceptively simple poem provides the basis for the problem developed in "Villanelle of the Poets' Road," as the much-used metaphor of the road of life is given a new twist. Linear and progressive as a road is, its perception is enclosed in the cyclical, obsessive and repetitive form of the villanelle. In this context, the two likely purposes in life - pleasure and advancement - cancel each other out, leaving the individual with only the weariness of frustration.
The first line, recalling Fitzgerald's Rubiyat, with its "book of verses... a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou," presents the favored nineteenth century version of the carpe diem theme. Yet the second line qualifies Omar Khayyam's enthusiasm over these transformative totems, which are here only "garnish," and connected to each other with no subordination or qualification. Fitzgerald's syntax accentuates the 'Thou' far more than the others, diminishing the verses, food and wine to accessories accentuating the pleasure of the beloved, but Dowson sandwiches the 'other' between two equally significant nouns and connects them all with the equalizing 'and'. Like the more contemporary "Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll," the wine, poetry, and love form no hierarchy, and lead to no higher pleasure.
With no goal, the "way" becomes central, but the pleasures of "Wine and women and song" cannot carry the weight of this burden. At best they afford a temporary, partial distraction. There is, of course, an implicit criticism of society in the emphasis upon the necessity for escape from society. One might compare even further "Wine, women and song" with the "Sex, Drugs, Rock'n'roll" slogan of the sixties in which the concept of a progressive society is negated in the temporary, changeable, and 'insignificant' goals which would only be counted at best as 'means' in the conceptions of the dominant culture.
Repetition here is the key to understanding the growing meaninglessness of these 'garnishes.' The reason for this devaluation of the totemic nouns appears in the form - the recurrence inevitable in the prescribed cyclical form represented by the villanelle. Once around the cycle, all is mere reiteration. After a phenomenon has been experienced, the experience itself can no longer be a singular goal.
Nevertheless the poem is neither static nor merely cyclic. The apparently tangential decoration becomes a social and/or ethical obligation in the second verse, "lest we do our youth wrong." Carpe diem has become an historical imperative, and the phrase "gather them while we may," is meant to recall and contrast with Herrick's far more innocent enjoinder to "Gather ye rosebuds while thee may." There is already a poetic tradition, and knowledge of it has turned an ingenuous pursuit into a hedonistic imperative, ruining the freshness of discovery while negating the ultimate value of attainment.
It should be emphasized that Dowson's use of Herrick and Fitzgerald, frequently dismissed as "derivative," is very much like the contemporary practices of pastiche and sampling - using well known references as a statement on the sad persistence of well-known themes and the impossibility of progress. Herrick and Fitzgerald are used to prove their part in the failure of their own values.
In the third verse a veritable double-bind becomes apparent as the three magical items grant a form of sustenance, which "render us strong," even as they diminish in significance and force to impotent synecdoches. The repeated, "Yet is day over long," begins to acquire a justification different from the apparent jaded pose of the first tercet. For "Vine leaves, kisses, and bay," are only the fragments which sustain "us," even though they are all there is. They are also 'leaves' and not flower (like rosebuds) or fruit.
By the fourth verse the "wine and women and song" have become wearisome through the sameness of their recurrence. Therefore, although they are now exclusive property, belonging to "us," and affording some distraction, they inspire a bitterness because their very presence emphasizes the emptiness and fragmentedness they represent in contrast to their literary sources.
Pleasures can not be pleasing because of the sophistication of our awareness of time and the insignificance of individual experiences in this light. Rather than finding the facts of transience a command to search for pleasure, as the carpe diem theme imperializes, Dowson's villanelle negates the value of pleasure given an ephemeral universe.
It is the temporariness of this property that is acknowledged and emphasized in the fifth verse: "they will not stay," a temporality that can evoke only a vague sadness, even as it diminishes its value. This idea is continued in the last verse in which the best the world has to offer is not good enough, as unlike fruits and flowers as leaves can be. In these last lines, Dowson breaks the usual order of the villanelle by stopping at the end of the penultimate line with a question. It is a technique, as McFarland points out, characteristic of Dowson, and is here used to stop the cycle, the rhythm, and the flow of the poem with what J. Alfred Prufrock called an "overwhelming question." The initial judgement of "garnish" is the final one as well, and the poem returns to its beginning, but with the realization that day is overlong because all there is is embellishment.
Throughout the poem there is a considerable emphasis upon the artificiality and hollowness of the subject - much of this emphasis is brought about through the use of masculine rhymes and sharp end-stopped lines, giving a hollowness to the traditional trochaic trimeter of the villanelle: like life the lines are short, sudden, and empty.
Despite the seeminartificiality of this poem there is a marked realism - a consciousness of reality and the use of literature. Dowson was aware of the characteristics of the villanelle, was cognizant of the fact that, as McFarland notes, "for many writers that [special] mood and moment [necessary to the composing of a villanelle] involved some form of nostalgia for the Golden Age (often pastoral), for past love, or for passing time (fin de siecle, as often as not.) ("Victorian Villanelle," p. 129). It is for this reason that Dowson evokes previous writers. But the point of Dowson's villanelle is the contrast between the accepted themes and use of form and his own knowledge gained from the reading of these poets. It is because we know pleasure loses its individuality and passes, because we`ve read Herrick and the others, we cannot believe in any intrinsic value. McFarland complains of the victorian villanelle that "there remains the inclination to limit the villanelle to those milder strains of nostalgia which offer only a low-key pathos even when dealing with the contemplation of death." ("Victorian Villanelle," p. 138) But nostalgia, as they say, is not what it used to be.
The power of this poem, it should be emphasized, is gained from the pain this contrast evokes. Yeats quotes to Dorothy Wellesley lines from the "Villanelle of the Poets' Road" to support the contention that "people much occupied with morality always lose heroic ecstasy." Those who have it most often are those described in his poem. "Bitter and gay" becomes their heroic mood."
The influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy for this structure cannot be overemphasized. Such critics as Chris Snodgrass and John Reed have noted in detail the significance to Dowson of Schopenhauer's pessimism, "trapped in 'time's deceit,' the very Schopenhauerean vortex of self-subverting 'dreams of prayer' and 'broken vows'. But it is in this villanelle that Dowson attempts to embody the trap.
Antithetical in its subject matter and concentration, the "Villanelle of His Lady's Treasures," illustrates entirely different techniques of Dowson:
I took her dainty eyes, as well
As silken tendrils of her hair:
And so I made a Villanelle!
I took her voice, a silver bell,
As clear as song, as soft as prayer;
I took her dainty eyes as well.
It may be, said I, who can tell,
These things shall be my less despair?
And so I made a Villanelle!
I took her whiteness virginal
And from her cheek two roses rare:
I took her dainty eyes as well.
I said: 'It may be possible
Her image from my heart to tear!'
And so I made a Villanelle.
I stole her laugh, most musical;
I wrought it in with artful care;
I took her dainty eyes as well;
And so I made a Villanelle. (76)
The self-conscious self-reflection of Dowson's work is emphasized most obviously by the repetition of the line describing the creation of the poem being read. Rhyming villanelle with the obviously artificial and contrived "as well," and emphasizing both the rhyme and its artificiality by including two syllables in the rhyme draws attention also to the artifice. For the eyes, so central in other poems by Dowson, are here diminished in value to poetic artifacts, merely additional material to be picked up into the weave of a poem.
The point of this artificiality is not to create a trivial work of art, or to complain of the triviality of life, but to artificialize the real in order to control it - to lessen despair and diminish the power of the lady's "treasures." The poem works as a kind of incantation, a voodoo experience, and the more synthetic the form, the more power over the pains of existence. "Villanelle of His Lady's Treasures" show how Dowson reduces an image of female beauty in his mind to the form of his poem.
This attempt to transform the Lady into a work of art should be contrasted with the Shakespearean assertion of transcendence through poetry. Whereas Shakespeare proclaims the eternal life of the woman through the poem, Dowson, in tune with the times, emphasizes the artistry and not the lady. "The [decadent] poem," notes John Reed, "enshrines only the poem, not love, nor the idea of beauty" (pp. 98-99). And by being transformed into art, the woman becomes separated from the chaos of existence into something controllable and bearable, lessening his despair.
The reiteration of the phrase, "I took her," is particularly effective. Not only does it gives the speaker the power of action but it also evokes an antithetical situation to the one represented in the poem - since the poem of course is about not being able to 'take her.' The last verse, offering the variation, "I stole her," intensifies this distinction, since the theft of "her laugh, most musical;" indicates that it is not only the subject matter that is 'taken' from the girl, but also the rhythm, the music, "I wrought it in with artful care," and that the villanelle is in fact, the speaker's possession of his subject.
Yet it is impossible to avoid the fact that the praise of the woman's beauty ends not with her love but with the line, "And so I made a Villanelle." Closure like this - end-stopped, almost bathetic, would be almost unbearable in its implications were the lines not built into the form of the poem, were this not only the final repetition. As Michael O'Neal has pointed out in his brilliant study of Dowson's style, "Closure is another way of saying that the poems do not 'go' anywhere; by the patterned repetition of linguistic structures, Dowson betrays a sense of purposelessness, creating in the reader the cumulative impression that the persona's emotions have been enfolded within a linguistic equivalent for a consistent world-view - one of an artificial, paralytic order." Closure in this villanelle emphasizes the impossibility of love, of fulfillment in life, and accentuates the only possibility left - art.
In much of his work, Dowson turns to craft and structure in despair at a chaotic universe and an absence of appropriate and just closure. His "Villanelle of Sunset" develops the opening line, "Come hither, Child! and rest:" from a gentle parental encouragement, into a gradual ennui and despair at the world's potential. "Tired flower! upon my breast,/ I would wear thee alway:/ Come hither, Child! and rest;/ Behold the weary West!" (p. 44) "Villanelle of Acheron" is concluded with a similar artful election of control through the choice of death.
The villanelle provides Dowson with a form that forces a conclusion which incorporates and shapes the elements of the poem, shaping and directing subjects which have no form and direction in life. Because the villanelle's conclusion can give such a complete sense of the arbitrary and contrived, it is a good reflection of the actual situation.
. William Ernest Henley, Works, II (London: David Nutt, 1908), p. 228.
. It is also possible that the relationship of the form to its origins in peasant song, and its association with the word "villain," are initially responsible for this tradition.
. Ernest Dowson, The Poems of Ernest Dowson. Mark Longaker, ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), p. 110.
. "there is a tendency for the second line of the concluding couplet to break away from the first." Ronald E. MacFarland, "Victorian Villanelle," Victorian Poetry 20 (1982 Spring Winter), pp. 125-138, p. 137.
. Feminine rhymes in first and third lines of tercet were the tradition.
. W.B. Yeats, Letters on Poetry from W.B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 7.
. Chris Snodgrass, "Aesthetic Memory's Cul-de-sac: the Art of Ernest Dowson." ELT 35:1 (1992), pp. 26-53, 49. See also John Reed, "Bedlamite and Pierrot: Ernest Dowson's Esthetic of Futility." ELH 35 (1968), pp. 94-113.
. McFarland ("Revival," 174) suggests that Dowson's innovation in the Villanelle is to employ slant or near rhymes, so that the rhymes do not appear to be forced, but in this poem at least the very slightly forced rhyme contributes to the feeling of artfulness.
. Michael J. O'Neal, "Style as Mimesis in the Poetry of Ernest
Dowso," Style, 13 (Fall, 1979) #4, pp. 365-376, p. 365.