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4. The Melancholy Disposition of Dowson and Arnold in Cease Smiling, Dear!

A little While Be Sad and The Buried Life

In 1809 eminent apothecary and physician John Haslam, citing the recent scientific research of Dr
Ferriar, speculated upon the nature of melancholia saying:

Melancholia, the other form in which this disease [madness] is supposed to exist, is
made by Dr Ferriar to consist in 'intensity of idea'. By intensity of idea I presume is
meant, that the mind is more strongly fixed on, or more frequently recurs to, a certain set
of ideas, than when it is in a healthy state.1

It is this intensity of idea and the recurrence of a certain set of ideas, most prevalently ideas of
love and death, which typify the melancholy poetry of Matthew Arnold and Ersnest Christopher
Dowson. While I take Haslams definition of Melancholia as the starting point of my examination of
this trait in the poetical works of Arnold and Dowson, I must also heed the 1820 warning of JeanEtienne Esquirol that the word melancholia, consecrated in popular language to describe the habitual
state of sadness affecting some individuals should be left to poets and moralists whose loose
expression is not subject to the strictures of medical terminology. 2 It is therefore this loos[er]
expression of the melancholic that I shall focus my analysis upon: the poetic intensity of emotion and
desire, and the propensity for the deep contemplation of the implications of these emotions, socially
and morally, but which are also expressive of the intensity of idea noted by Haslam.

1 G. E. Berrios, 'Melancholia and Depression During the 19th Century: A Conceptual History', The British
Journal of Psychiatry, 153 (1988)
<http://bjp.rcpsych.org.eresources.shef.ac.uk/content/153/3/298.full.pdf > [accessed
18/01/14] (p. 299).

2 G. E. Berrios, BJP p.300

Arnold and Dowson crystallise in their poetry a sense of melancholy originating in a frustrated sense
of sexual and emotional fulfilment, a feeling of alienation and isolation arising from the inevitable
dichotomy between dignity and desire in a society so heavily regulated by notions of respectability
and etiquette.
Christian evangelism, which had gained strength at the end of the eighteenth century, was still
prevalent in Victorian society, and its dictum of moral struggle between temptation and the mastery of
desire still informed the exercise of Victorian moral and social conduct. 3 An antisensualism was
gaining momentum on the back of an ascetic set of ideals that in post-Enlightenment schemes of
progress, often disdain[ed] sex as an animal function at odds with a distinctively human rationality. 4
William Godwin even went as far as to propose in his 1793 essay Political Justice that the progress
of civilisation would be marked by the withering away of sexual desire, to the point where
reproduction would be a social duty wholly susceptible to rational control. 5 It is this emotional
conflict, created by suppression of natural sexual desires in favour of a supposed rationality, with its
ascetic and coded approach to sexuality, in which melancholy sentiments arise. It is the exploration of
frustrated sexuality and the rebuttal of this emotional conservatism that define Arnold and Dowsons
poetry in relation to the melancholy and it is their vision of a freer more honest emotional dialogue
that I will examine below.

Both Dowson and Arnold express a frustration at the coded way of speaking about sexuality adopted
at the time. The poets entreat their lovers to be silent and hush a while respectively, in favour of
more visual and light forms of physical communication that are not subjected to such rigorous
restrictions by etiquette. Dowson entreats his lover, in his poem which takes the first line for its title,
to Cease smiling, Dear! A little while be sad / here in silence, under the wan moon; / sweet are thine
3 James E. Adams, 'Victorian Sexualities', in A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, ed. by Herbert
F. Tucker, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.125-38 (p. 127).

4 James E. Adams, 'Victorian Sexualities' p.128.


5 James E. Adams, 'Victorian Sexualities' p.128.

eyes.6 While Arnold makes a similar plea to his lover saying Give me thy hand, and hush awhile, /
and turn those limpid eyes on mine, / and let me read there, love! Thy innermost soul. 7 The entreaty
to give Arnold her hand shows a greater trust in physical forms of communication over the verbal
communication of light words [which] bring no rest and expresses the poets desire to explore his
partner physically via touch. 8 The hand becomes synecdochic of the body as a whole but also of a
desire to wed in order to license his physical desires towards her within the construct of Victorian
society. Both poets place a strong emphasis upon the eyes and the ability to read therein the true
desires of their partner, both of their animal desires which exist outside the strictures of an
evangelical moral code and, on a spiritual level, the emotional desire to become one being which has
its roots in the physicality of intercourse. It is the frustration of the ability to communicate earnestly
in which the melancholy nature of the poetry arises as Arnold declares in exasperation what we say
and do / Is eloquent, is well but tis not true!9

Arnold makes a veiled allusion to the pressures placed upon romantic intercourse by religion saying
Ah! Well for us, if even we, / Even for a moment, can get free / Our heart, and have or lips
unchaind; / For that which seals them hath been deep ordaind! 10 The imagery of the lips chained by
religious doctrine implies a kind of slavery of emotion to religion, the key to unlocking which is the
heart. In this way Arnold subverts the influence of the church, juxtaposing the will of the church
antithetically with the will of the heart, to create a tyrannical persona of the church.

6Victorian Web, 'The Buried Life', The Works of Matthew Arnold (2001)
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/arnold/writings/buriedlife.html > [accessed:
18/01/14] (para. 1).

7 Matthew Arnold, The Buried life


8 Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life
9 Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life
10 Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life

Dowson in his own way subverts the doctrine of the church in forgoing the life of eternal bliss in
heaven proffered by the church in favour of a wish that the moment spent with his lover in her youth
could be perpetuate.11 Melancholy therefore, relates to the frustration of human nature by the
restraints placed upon it by social institutions, such as the church, and the relegation of natural
physical urges from the realm of the spiritual, where they reside for Arnold and Dowson, to the realm
of sin.

Both Arnold and Dowson place an emphasis upon the knowledge of the self as a means to break the
constraints of society upon the emotional realm. The words know, knew and knowledge appear
frequently throughout Arnolds poem The Buried Life. In reference to social etiquette he intones
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest, / We know, we know that we can smile! The repetition of yes
and we know demonstrate Arnolds exasperation and frustration at the formal pleasantries that are
used to mask the true strength of human emotion and exposes the artifice of such modes of
communication.

Arnold relates:

I knew the mass of men conceald


Their thoughts, for fear that if reveald
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trickd in disguises.12

11 Hyper Texts, 'Cease Smiling, Dear! A Little While Be Sad', The Works of Ernest Dowson (2003)
<http://www.thehypertexts.com/Ernest%20Dowson.htm > [accessed: 18/01/14] (para. 15).
12 Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life

The use of syncope here whilst maintaining the iambic rhythm of the poem also acts to imitate
phonically, the clipped nature of the expressed, when mens true thoughts are conceald. While
Arnold recognises that this restraint is an unfortunate trait between men, and encourages more
fraternal openness, he feels it irreconcilable with his feelings towards his lover and despairs of how
we [..] doth like a spell benumb/ Our hearts, our voices? and questions must we too be dumb? 13
This alignment of the heart with the voice relates to the lips chained by the moral codes of the church
and calls upon the reader to speak out about their feelings, in a hope that the flow of words might
reconcile the reader emotionally with the river of [their] life, a metaphor Arnold uses to represent the
true self, a device I will come to explore in more detail later. The concealment of human emotion of
the doctoring of mans true nature to conform to society consigns sexual feeling to the sphere of
otherness, in speaking out via the medium of poetry, and encouraging the reader to do likewise,
Arnold aims to counteract the melancholy that pervades the frustrated sexuality of existence within a
restrained social sphere and give a voice to that otherness.

For Dowson the knowledge of the self comes from the contemplation of ones own mortality and your
proximity to death. In Cease Smiling, Dear! A little While Be Sad Dowson contrasts the idealised
youth of his sweetheart with his own dreaded feelings of mortality. Dowson rues the idea of having
grown old, and faded, [...] and past desire and expresses a desire to Let memory die, a process he
enacted with excessive consumption of alcohol, lest there be too much ruth,/ Remembering the old,
extinguished fire/ Of our divine youth.14 It is this imagery of the fire of his youth that acknowledges
Dowsons sexual desire and strongly illustrates his knowledge of his inner self. But it is in this
knowledge that melancholic sentiment arises, for youth cannot be preserved neither in his lover or
indeed himself outside of an ideal. Dowson must face not only his own mortality but also the mortal
nature of his idealised lover. It is a mortality that Dowson readily embraces professing a wish to Reap
death from his lovers lips saying what sweets have life to me sweeter than this/ Swift dying on thy
13 Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life
14 Ernest Dowson, 'Cease Smiling, Dear! A Little While Be Sad'

breast? But in this reaping of death the speaker presents not quite an acceptance of mortality but a
wish to immortalise their youth in dying young.

Dowson did in fact fulfil his wish, dying aged only 32 of a self destructive alcoholism after he had
fallen into after a prolonged period of depression caused by the unrequited nature of his love for
Adelaide Foltinowicz, the woman addressed in his poetry. Dowson had Courted Adelaide, sharing his
poetry with her and buying her trinkets, since she was eleven years old. She eventually overlooked
Dowson in 1897 in favour of marrying a tailor who was an acquaintance of her father. Dowson was
devastated and the resulting alcoholism, a danger that had lurked beneath the surface in his happy
days of courtship, overtook him and he died only three years later in 1900. 15
Symons, in his memoire of Dowson speaks of his fatal dedication to the ideal of youth saying:
Always, perhaps, a little consciously, but at least always sincerely, in search of new sensations,
[Dowson] found what was for him the supreme sensation in a very passionate and tender adoration of
the most escaping of all ideals, the ideal of youth. 16 Symons astutely sums up, at once, the beauty of
Dowsons idealism, and the flaws within it, saying of his relationship with Adelaide: In the case of
Dowson, there was a sort of virginal devotion, as to a Madonna; and I think, had things gone happily,
to a conventionally happy ending, he would have felt (dare I say?) that his ideal had been spoilt. 17 It
is the irreconcilable nature of Dowsons ideals with his desires in which the melancholy of Dowsons
poetry arises. The constant recurrence to his thoughts to the themes of his love for Adelaide and her
transient youthfulness form the basis of his melancholic reflections in the sense outlined by Haslam.
His veneration of youth and innocence could never be conducive to the fulfilment of his desires and it
is in this exquisite conflict that the keen nature of his melancholic disposition is felt on a poetic level.

15 Victorian Web, 'Memoire of Ernest Dowson', The Works of Arthur Symons (2003)
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/symons/dowson.html > [accessed: 18/01/14] (para.
3).

16Arthur Symons, Memoire of Ernest Dowson (para. 6).


17 Arthur Symons, Memoire of Ernest Dowson (para. 6).

Arnold and Dowson both represent nature symbolically, creating metaphysical spaces which embody
the true expression of the inner self and its desires. For Arnold it is the flow of a buried stream,
which Edd[ies] at large in blind uncertainty, the river of life which runs from the hill of our birth to
sea of our death. To Arnold the river represents the true course of moral and spiritual fulfilment and
the realisation of the self. For Arnold it is from this river, From the souls subterranean depth
upborne/ As from an infinitely distant land,/ Comes airs, and floating echoes, and convey[s]/ A
melancholy into all our day.18 These floating echoes are the reverberations of our inner desires against
the moral sphere of our external world and it is the conflict of these with the ethical codes of society
which convey the sense of melancholy.

Dowsons natural space is a garden Beyond the reach of time and chance and change, in which he
resides with his lover, a garden representative of a Garden of Eden, a repository of innocence
immortalised and untroubled by sin.19 It is in this garden that Dowson tastes, at least in this fantasised
space, the red pomegranate of [his lovers] perfect mouth. 20 The association of the mouth with the
pomegranate fruit carries connotations of fertility and a sensual sexuality but also echoes the story of
Persephone, who is banished to the underworld for six months of the year to rule as queen to Hades
for having eaten six pomegranate pips whilst captive in the underworld after his kidnapping of her.
During this time the world becomes barren (representing the months of winter) as the harvest goddess
Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter to Hades. 21 In this way Dowson expresses his desire of
oblivion in an underworld, where he may keep his lover immortal and forever young as with

18 Matthew Arnold The Buried Life


19 Ernest Dowson, 'Cease Smiling, Dear! A Little While Be Sad'
20 Ernest Dowson, 'Cease Smiling, Dear! A Little While Be Sad'
21 Wikipedia, 'Persephone', Greek Mythology (2003) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persephone>
[accessed: 18/01/14] (para. 1).

Persephone. In this way the Pomegranate of his lovers lips is at once conflated with an apparent ripe
sexuality and a barren absence of fulfilment.

Both Dowson and Arnold create these metaphysical spaces on subterranean stratum which lends itself
to the otherness of their desires and represents the repressed nature of their desires. It also acts to
create a dynamic in which the soul must pass into another world or sphere in order to achieve spiritual
fulfilment and the nature of the melancholic lies in the frustration of that transition or an inability to
reconcile ones self with that transitional state, the realisation of the self via poetic expression,
whether through the medium of poetry itself or through a sensualised poetic attitude to the aesthetic of
life.

Poetry is then an expression of the melancholic, the exploration of an emotional state of sadness and
deep reflection upon a set of recurrent thoughts or emotions, which people of a poetic nature, in their
pursuit of sensuality, are prone to. The melancholic pertains to the sensual, emotional sphere of being,
which relates to our primal human instincts to love, to seek companionship and to form bonds with
other individuals, to form communities and care for their wellbeing and ultimately fear the erosion of
these communities by death. The melancholy also arises when this natural instinct to form
communities and bonds of love becomes overly regulated in a civilised society, and the emotions
pertaining to the self and the forming of bonds with others become constricted by this pretence of
appearing civilised. In becoming frustrated by a cyclical emotional downward spiral, the protagonist
gives themselves up to the hopes of ever fulfilling their ideals of human interaction.

But more than being a mere expression of these patterns of human behaviour, poetry, not only the
reading and writing of it but in having a poetic outlook itself, contains an inherent therapeutic quality
to remedy the sense of melancholy. It nurtures an ability to contemplate ones being, ones spiritual
composition and the nature of ones emotional connection with both nature and those around them.
Poetry becomes a vehicle for counteracting social pretences that work to create a melancholic
disposition in stifling a sensual approach to human desire. The melancholic disposition of Arnold and

Dowson therefore represents an emotional integrity in finding themselves in conflict with a repressive
Victorian moral sphere.
Word Count: 2776

Bibliography
Adams, James E. 'Victorian Sexualities', in A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, ed. by Herbert F.
Tucker, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.125-38
Berrios, G. E, 'Melancholia and Depression During the 19 th Century: A Conceptual History', The British
Journal of Psychiatry, 153 (1988)
<http://bjp.rcpsych.org.eresources.shef.ac.uk/content/153/3/298.full.pdf > [accessed
18/01/14]
Hyper Texts, 'Cease Smiling, Dear! A Little While Be Sad', The Works of Ernest Dowson (2003)
<http://www.thehypertexts.com/Ernest%20Dowson.htm > [accessed: 18/01/14]
Victorian Web, 'Memoire of Ernest Dowson', The Works of Arthur Symons (2003)
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/symons/dowson.html > [accessed: 18/01/14]
Victorian Web, 'The Buried Life', The Works of Matthew Arnold (2001)
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/arnold/writings/buriedlife.html > [accessed:
18/01/14]
Wikipedia, 'Persephone', Greek Mythology (2003) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persephone>
[accessed: 18/01/14] (para. 1).

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