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Poem of the week: Non sum qualis eram

bonae sub regno Cynarae by Ernest Dowson

A yearning for a past love ebbs and flows dreamily under the influence of the 12-syllable French

Flowering obsession ... Dowson's Cynara which comes from the Greek word for artichoke
represents a lost love. Photograph: Andrew Mccaul/Getty Images

Carol Rumens

Monday 14 March 2011 11.48 GMT First published on Monday 14 March 2011 11.48 GMT

According to his friend and fellow Rhymer, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson's favourite line of
poetry was Poe's, "The viol, the violet and the vine." If so, perhaps Dowson was not merely
attracted by the scent of the symbolism, but had recognised one of his own qualities in the
American writer that ability to melt down the staccato language, English, till it flowed like a
Romance language.

The French influence was enabling. Dowson had been educated in France, and he was a
translator of Verlaine. This week's poem, "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae",
owes some of its dreamy music to the 12-syllable French line, the Alexandrine, which dominates
the beginning of each stanza, and carries the poem's story, such as it is.

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The title, from Horace's Odes, Book 4, 1, translates as "I am not as I was in the reign of good
Cinara." In Horace's poem, the speaker implores Venus to wage no further erotic wars on him.
He is advanced in years, he says, and she should bother some younger man, better endowed for
love. But there is a fascinating turn at the end, when the speaker declares, in tears, the presence
of a new and unattainable erotic attraction, a young man called Ligurinus.

Cinara is unimportant in Horace's poem. Her name merely provides the impulse for his recusatio,
his rebuttal, of Venus's powers. She symbolises the attachment her former lover no longer claims
or pretends no longer to claim, since he now loves someone new.

Dowson's Cynara represents the lost love who has become a constant obsession. The image the
poet briefly draws of her is rather pre-Raphaelite, her "pale, lost lilies" contrasting with the
prostitute's "bought red mouth" and the flung roses of dissipation. The diction is archaic:
("yesternight", "betwixt", "yea") but the scenes could not be more fin de sicle, more knowingly
decadent. And yet the impression is of pure unfeigned emotion.


In the poem's most famous line, "I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind," the subject of
"gone with the wind" appears to be "I", not Cynara. This stanza reveals the lover's frantic onward
movement, his dance of death. That Cynara is ever-present, in spite of everything, is all the poem
wants to say, the whole of its simple story. Getting to the refrain is what matters, riding the
delirious emotional sweep from "passion" to "fashion", obsessively re-igniting the old flame. The
tense shifts to present in the final stanza: "then falls thy shadow, Cynara", "And I am desolate"
(my italics), evoking the live current of the compulsion. "Sick" is not a poeticism, under the
circumstances: this love is near to disease. And perhaps, had the poem been a stanza longer, we
might have got sick of the old passion, too. As it is, Dowson stops well before his reader can start
yawning. He has found not only the right form but the right length for this slight but emotionally
overwhelming story.

His art is not all music and movement; there is a cleverly choreographed stillness as well. An
exclamation mark after each address to Cynara creates a perfectly natural-seeming caesura. But it
is an unusually forceful one, visual as well as aural. The pause extends for an extra half-beat, and
adds emphasis to the name. In the body of the poem it is always "Cynara!", never simply

How relevant is Horace's poem to Dowson's? Of course, the Latin tag is eloquent and melodious,
and the source of an attractive-sounding name for the lost beloved, even if "cynara" means
"artichoke" in Greek. When, however, Dowson works the same trick in "Vita summa brevis
spem nos vetat incohare longam" ("The brevity of life forbids us to entertain a distant hope,"
Odes, 1.4) the tag seems rather more relevant. "They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,"
Dowson's poem begins, and while it's hardly a translation, it seems not unrelated to Horace's own
tracing of the passage of time. In "Non sum qualis " the Latin seed has produced an altogether
stranger flower. The emotions that Horace attaches to Ligurinus, Dowson attaches to Cynara. He
yearns for a woman from the past, Horace for a new boy. But it's probably all one to Venus.

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae


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 grey:
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.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/mar/14/non-sum-qualis-cynarae-

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