Loss and Consolation

Loss and Consolation

5 June 2020: Poet’s Day 10

I have picked this moment because it is the third anniversary of my darling Nicola’s death this week. The feeling of loss is still keen—there is no measurement for it—and my sorrow that such a vibrant, generous and happy person should have been lost so young is still a powerful emotion.

In “Footsteps of Angels”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow conjures up the shade of his lost wife and gains consolation,

The narrator of “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae” by Ernest Dowson searches for consolation in a hedonistic frenzy but is unable to shake off his obsession.

Christina Rossetti’s “Remember” expresses the desire to be remembered with smiles rather than tears — this would be Nicola’s choice too, and there are plenty of memories to make me smile.

Next week, we move from despair to hope, and the week after that, I promise some light relief!

Poem 28. Footsteps of Angels

“And with them the Being Beauteous, who unto my youth was given, more than all things else to love me, and is now a saint in heaven.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—1882)

When the hours of Day are numbered,
And the voices of the Night
Wake the better soul, that slumbered,
To a holy, calm delight;

Ere the evening lamps are lighted,
And, like phantoms grim and tall,
Shadows from the fitful firelight
Dance upon the parlor wall;

Then the forms of the departed
Enter at the open door;
The beloved, the true-hearted,
Come to visit me once more;

He, the young and strong, who cherished
Noble longings for the strife,
By the roadside fell and perished,
Weary with the march of life!

They, the holy ones and weakly,
Who the cross of suffering bore,
Folded their pale hands so meekly,
Spake with us on earth no more!

And with them the Being Beauteous,
Who unto my youth was given,
More than all things else to love me,
And is now a saint in heaven.

With a slow and noiseless footstep
Comes that messenger divine,
Takes the vacant chair beside me,
Lays her gentle hand in mine.

And she sits and gazes at me
With those deep and tender eyes,
Like the stars, so still and saint-like,
Looking downward from the skies.

Uttered not, yet comprehended,
Is the spirit’s voiceless prayer,
Soft rebukes, in blessings ended,
Breathing from her lips of air.

Oh, though oft depressed and lonely,
All my fears are laid aside,
If I but remember only
Such as these have lived and died!

Longfellow gains consolation from thinking of those he has lost, conjuring their spirits in the mind’s eye: the hale, the sickly and finally and most importantly to him “the Being Beauteous”, who comes to him and brings him solace in his black moments of solitude.

He wrote this poem following the death of his first wife Mary after a miscarriage. Longfellow was devastated and wrote “One thought occupies me night and day…She is dead — She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” I can attest to the truth of this statement, though I can’t claim to have been inspired to write any poetry of lasting virtue.

Poem 29. Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae

“And I am desolate and sick of an old passion, yea, hungry for the lips of my desire: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

Ernest Dowson (1867—1900)

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

This poem is a different proposition to Longfellow’s—it seems almost dreamlike, as if the poet is wedded to something other than a human being—a vampire or a drug: there is an implication of desperation, of dependency and obsession, as if the poet is a shadow without Cynara, who I have always imagined to be his lost love. No matter where he seeks solace and consolation: the arms of a woman, mad dances and music and strong wine, the shadow of Cynara haunts him and he cannot find peace, though he constantly affirms his faithfulness (in his fashion).

The Latin title means “I am not what I was, under the reign of the good Cynara”. The poem is notable for coining the phrase “gone with the wind” which Margaret Mitchell considered to be the “far away, faintly sad sound” she wanted as the title of her novel. Dowson is also apparently the first writer to use the word “soccer”, though he spells it differently and is certainly not a fan: “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches,” he declared in a letter in 1889. His poem “Vitae Summa Brevis” introduces the phrase “The Days of Wine and Roses”.

Dowson was another in the long line of Victorian poets who died young: he was only 32 at the time of his death. He wrote poems, novels and short stories and worked at his father’s business in Limehouse (having left Oxford without a degree) during the day and went out on the town in the evening, drinking with students of medicine and the law and taking music hall performers out to dinner after attending their shows. He contributed to literary magazines and wrote a novel; he also translated a great deal of French fiction. His life went off the rails after his father died of an overdose of the drug chloral hydrate in 1894 and his mother (who suffered from the same disease) committed suicide less than a year later. His publisher gave him funds to live in France and translate other French works, but Dowson returned to London two years later and a friend eventually discovered him in a wine bar in 1899: Dowson was penniless and the friend took him to his cottage in Catford where he died.

Poem 30. Remember

“Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad.”

Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830—1894)

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

This sonnet expresses the hope that when the poet is no more, their loved one will remember them without grieving. I have always found the final lines rather soothing: better to be happy in forgetfulness than mourning her memory.