DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES – Love and poetry au fin de siecle

If you are visiting London you will find the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street conveniently placed for the museum district and for shopping at Harrods. Sadly, a recent facelift by international designers has deprived the hotel of its former, slightly faded, Victorian elegance, removed poached haddock from the breakfast menu and replaced it with avocado on sourdough. It was here on the 6th April 1895 that Oscar Wilde was arrested and taken to Bow Street Police Court. Oscar lived with his wife Constance and sons Cyril and Vyvyan only a short walk away at 16 Tite Street, but used the hotel as a peaceful sanctuary to write and to enjoy the company of its permanent resident, Lillie Langtry.

Oscar had once courted the notorious Lillie as he had Ellen Terry, a Diva of London’s serious theatre (‘she stands with eyes marred with the mists of pain, like some wan lily overdrenched with rain’). His overtures had also been rejected by society beauty Florence Balcombe who chose Bram Stoker, then manager of the Lyceum Theatre and later author of ‘Dracula’, the blueprint for all future vampire literature. Finally, in 1884, Constance Lloyd, ‘a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair, which made her flower-like head droop like blossom’ agreed to marry Oscar.  All was well for the next two years until Robbie Ross, a Canadian journalist and art critic ‘with the face of Puck’ introduced Oscar to physical love between men.

Five years later, soon after the publication of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Oscar met the twenty one year old blonde and beautiful (but spoilt, arrogant and petulant) Bosie (his nickname for Lord Alfred Douglas), beginning the tragic relationship that would eventually result in Oscar’s arrest.

To mark the change in his sexual preferences Oscar abandoned the lily for the green carnation. Few of Oscar’s words or actions had no meaning, symbolic or otherwise; surely the previously omnipresent lily was the Jersey Lily. Oscar’s affair with Bosie may dominate his love life in the public imagination, but Oscar loved beauty, whatever form it took. When Ms Langtry told Oscar he was wasting his time before surrendering herself to the Prince of Wales, Oscar retired hurt leaving this moving love poem, addressed simply to LL, which reveals the depth of his feelings.

….I remember we used to meet
By an ivied seat.
And you warbled each pretty word
With the air of a bird:

And your voice had a quaver in it,
Just like a linnet,
And shook, as the blackbird’s throat
With its last big note:

And your eyes, they were green and grey
Like an April day,
But lit into amethyst
When I stooped and kissed:

And your mouth, it would never smile
For a long, long while,
Then it rippled all over with laughter
Five minutes after.

You were always afraid of a shower,
Just like a flower:
I remember you started and ran
When the rain began.

          *   *   *

I remember so well the room,
And the lilac bloom
That beat at the dripping pane
In the warm June rain?

And the colour of your gown,
It was amber-brown,
And two yellow satin bows
From your shoulders rose.

And the handkerchief of French lace
Which you held to your face…
Had a small tear left a stain?
Or was it the rain?

On your hand as it waved adieu
There were veins of blue,
In your voice as it said good-bye
Was a petulant cry.

‘You have only wasted your life.”
(Ah, that was the knife!)
When I rushed through the garden gate
It was all too late.

         *   *   *

Well, if my heart must break,
Dear love, for your sake,
It will break in music, I know
Poet’s hearts break so.

But strange that I was not told
That the brain can hold
In a tiny ivory cell
God’s heaven and hell.

The charges against Oscar were laid under the provisions of The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made all sex acts between men illegal. In spite of the efforts of eminent physician (and Ripper suspect) Havelock Ellis to change the law on the basis that homosexuality should be accepted as a fact of life, the law was to ruin countless lives for a further 72 years until its repeal in 1967.That same year, as if in celebration, the world’s first bookstore catering for gay and lesbian readers,‘ The Oscar Wilde Bookshop’,  opened in New York . Alas, like so many bookstores, it fell victim to ‘dotcom’ disease, the on-line buying mania emanating from the Internet, and closed its doors in 2007.

While being escorted by the constabulary from the hotel to a waiting carriage, Oscar was clutching a copy of L‘Aphrodite, a mildly erotic novel by French author Pierre Louys. Desperate for further evidence to fuel their outrage, spectators and Press alike identified the book by its yellow covers as THE Yellow Book, an avant garde, literary journal associated with dandyism, decadence, feminism and, after Oscar’s trial, with homosexuality. Following public vandalism of its offices, The Yellow Book’s publisher, Bodley Head (or ‘Sodley Bed’ according to certain of its critics), dismissed Art Director Aubrey Beardsley for bringing the journal into disrepute, first for binding the periodical in the same yellow covers used by French publishers of pornography and then for his exquisite drawings packed with sexual innuendo. Beardsley was also tainted with decadence by providing the illustrations for Wilde’s play ‘Salome’. But other than its yellow covers and Beardsley’s drawings, the magazine was relatively harmless. Henry James was a contributor, as were HG Wells and WB Yeats and artists John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert (another of the many ‘Ripper’ suspects). The perception of decadence and the loss of Beardsley were critical; The Yellow Book struggled on for two years until finally closing its doors in the spring of 1897.

Naturally the instigators of all this effeminacy and degeneracy were the French. Already responsible for introducing the British to sexually transmitted diseases (‘French Pox”), the roots of the decadent movement were clearly present in two French publications: Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 volume of verse ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ (Flowers of Anguish’) and J K Huysmans novel ‘A Rebours’ (‘Against the Grain’ or ‘Against Nature’) published in 1884. Rejecting the current, popular literary themes of romance and naturalism, Baudelaire elected to criticise the charmless corridors of Haussmann’s new Paris and to write of prostitutes, wine and eroticism, thereby earning himself lasting fame and a fine of 300 francs for insulting public decency. Like all good pupils, Huysman took things further. His plotless novel, a manual for the rich delinquent, revolves around the eccentric and reclusive Jean des Esseintes who is dedicated to exquisitely perverse pleasures. He reminisces about past orgies, creates a garden of entirely poisonous plants and kills a tortoise by setting gemstones into its shell. The book celebrated all those values that were deplored and unfashionable in contemporary France. Immediately condemned as decadent it became the Bible of the movement spawned under that name. Oscar’s Salomé was inspired by Huysman’s description of Gustave Moreau’s painting of the Dancer of the Seven Veils; it is the handbook of erotic advice given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry Wotton claiming it contained ‘all the sins of the world’. A copy of ‘A Rebours’ was produced by the prosecution at Oscar’s trial as evidence of the defendant’s decadence.

Decadence, like the pox, soon spread across the English Channel. That is not to say England did not have its own home grown decadents. Algernon Swinburne had shocked Victorian society with his dandyism, atheism, alcoholism and masochism. The art critic, Walter Pater, who was gay and effeté but not a ‘decadent’, remained a subversive in that he rejected the Victorian ideal that art should contain a moral message.  Art, he said, is for its own sake and beauty should be worshipped as a religion.

Decadents and aesthetes like Wilde, Swinburne and Pater were despised, especially Wilde who purposely exaggerated his effeminate and theatrical mannerisms for the purpose of annoying others. The Victorians appreciated men of action, men in red uniforms sporting dundrearies, forming squares to repulse hordes of charging Zulus or whirling dervishes, men like Lord Roberts of Kandahar, hero of the Afghan and Boer wars and General Gordon who attained hero status by committing suicide in Khartoum. Otherwise it was sufficient to be the Christian, sober, hardworking head of a family. Poets, by contrast, had no visible, steady job or a workplace to go to. They tended to be foppish and effeminate. However, not all those with artistic leanings were deplored; the novels of GA Henty, H Rider Haggard and RM Ballantyne all preached an acceptable message. Rudyard Kipling’s thirty two line poem ‘If’ remains a catalogue of Imperial values. Today, when we expect and applaud extremism in everything, from cake baking to cage fighting, we have lost much of our ability to be amazed or scandalised.  Oscar with his green coat and lily buttonhole, his defence of homosexuality, even his abandonment of wife and children would not shock us.

The national pursuit of manliness created a mania for health and fitness. The bottle of Perrier mineral water on your table today owes its distinctive shape to Victorian gentleman Sir John Harmsworth who, having bought the French source, designed the bottles in the shape of the Indian clubs he used for exercise. War and sport, so hard to distinguish in the 21st century, were taught at an early age. In 1844 draper George Williams founded the YMCA (‘healthy body, mind and spirit’) and, in 1883, The Boys Brigade, the world’s first uniformed youth organisation was formed. But it was the Public schools, with their message of ‘muscular Christianity’ that became the main spawning grounds for the ideal Victorian male and remained so until the early 1960s.

Another casualty of The Yellow Book’s death by mistaken identity was one of its regular poetry contributors, the shy and scholarly Ernest Dowson. Born thirty year before the journal’s collapse into a modestly prosperous family in South London, Ernest had spent much of his youth on the continent where his father sought relief from tuberculosis. By the age of fifteen Ernest was fluent in French and, by nineteen, sufficiently well read in Latin and Greek to find a place at Oxford where his interests lay with the French Symbolist poet Verlaine, Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire, placing him from an early age amongst followers of the decadent movement.  Meanwhile income from the family’s small dry dock on the Thames, unable to service the larger vessels that were now appearing in the port of London, was dwindling and Ernest was forced to abandon his studies.

He turned to writing for a living and joined ‘The Rhymers’, a literary circle founded by WB Yeats and Ernest Rhys. They met in a room over Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street where Dowson, often too shy to recite his own work, would discuss his favoured poetic form, the villanelle, a French pastoral song consisting of five tercets followed by a quadrain, only remembered now as the name of the fictional assassin in the TV series ‘Killing Eve’. Oscar, an occasional visitor, expressed his admiration for Dowson’s poetry and initiated their brief friendship by taking him to lunch at the Cafe Royale.

Whereas Oscar had once admired Ellen Terry, Ernest became infatuated with her niece, Minnie, a child actress who had first attracted the poet’s attention when he saw her, at the age of six, on a London stage. For the next two years he amassed a collection of photographs of Minnie that, today, would place him on a paedophile watch list but which, at the time, raised no eyebrow. The ‘Cult of the Little Girl’, the worship of young girls for their innocence and purity was commonplace. The theme resonates through the works of Dickens (Little Nell), JM Barrie (Wendy Darling) and Lewis Carroll (Alice) as well as through many of the portraits by Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais. Shirley Temple’s entry into adolescence marked the end of the cult. For Ernest, this period of devotion to Minnie was ‘the most intense experience’ of his life.

One evening in 1889, entering a small restaurant in Sherwood Street, Piccadilly, Ernest found his muse. Adelaide, or Missie as he called her, was the eleven year old daughter of the restaurant’s Polish proprietor, Joseph Foltinowicz. Dowson’s evenings soon adopted a regular pattern; a few drinks at the Cock Tavern and then dinner at Sherwood Street  where Missie would occasionally serve at table or sit and talk with him after he had finished his meal. At ten o’clock when Missie had been sent to bed, Ernest, normally the meekest of fellows, turned into Mr Hyde. After finding solace in the arms of a prostitute Ernest, shameful of his disloyalty to Missie, would become angry and aggressive. Torn between feelings of lust and self-disgust, he drowned himself in drink. ‘Absinthe’, he claimed ‘makes the tart grow fonder’.

The agony Ernest felt by the contest between pure love and lust dominated his life and became a major theme in his poetry. No poem expressed it better than Cynara:

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.

In 1894 Dowson’s father died of tuberculosis. Within months, Annie his wife, also a victim, hanged herself rather than have the disease end her life. Soon after Ernest found that he too was affected. Tuberculosis or consumption, called also the wasting disease and, in previous centuries, The White Plague and The King’s Evil, has also managed to attract another epithet – romantic.  Although indiscriminate in its choice of victim, its responsibility for the deaths of Edgar Allen Poe, Paganini, Charlotte Bronte, Keats, Chopin and Modigliani helped promote its romantic image in the public imagination. But it was the publication of Alexander Dumas fils’ novel, ‘La Dame aux Camelias’ (Camille) in 1848 that sealed the disease’s romantic reputation. Based on Dumas’ real life lover, the beautiful demimondaine, Marguerite Gautier, signals her availability for naughties by wearing either a white or red camellia. The fatal disease takes hold just as there appears the possibility of true love.  ‘The death of a beautiful woman’, said Edgar Allen Poe, ’is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’.  Yes said Verdi and penned La Traviata, based upon the story of Camille, which opened in Venice in 1853. High opera specialises in the death of beautiful women and Puccini followed suit in 1896 with La Boheme, in which its heroine, Mimi, also dies of consumption. The two spots of blood left on the white handkerchief became a theatrical trope.

If you lived in the latter half of the 19th century, were British, tubercular and prosperous you would have gone to the French resort of Menton for treatment. Ernest Dowson’s father was there for the cure with his family in the winter of 1873, staying at the Hotel du Pavillon where they made the acquaintance of Robert Louis Stevenson, another victim of the disease. Poor Aubrey Beardsley went there to die in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in 1898. It was the publication in 1861 of ‘Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean’, in which Dr James Henry Bennett claimed to have been cured of the disease after a stay in Menton, that was to transform the town into the tuberculosis capital of Europe. From two or three hotels in 1861 the number had grown to thirty by 1875, while the cemeteries filled with the tombs of English dead. Naturally, patients and visitors found time to explore and report home on the charm that existed along the rest of the Cote d’Azur. Tourists and royalty followed and the seafront thoroughfare in Nice became La Promenade des Anglais. Meanwhile Dr Bennett grew rich and built a villa overlooking the town with gardens impressive enough to merit a visit by Queen Victoria. No small wonder there still stands a statue of Dr Bennett in the rue Partouneaux. The inscription merely states the good doctor’s name and dates. His services to French tourism go unmentioned.

On his father’s death what little income Ernest received from the dock dried up completely as teams of Dickensian lawyers tied up the business in probate. There was no way Ernest could afford a cure in Menton. The publication in 1895 of Dilemmas, a collection of short stories which he dedicated to ‘AF’ (Missie), brought some relief, but Ernest was now sleeping rough and drinking more. He was ‘a ship without a rudder in a night without a star’. His misery was compounded when Missie finally turned down a proposal of marriage he had made two years earlier when she was fifteen. 1897 proved to be an annus horribilis; it was the year The Yellow Book closed, depriving Ernest of much needed income, it was the year Oscar Wilde left prison a broken man and it was the year Missie married Augustus Noelte, a tailor.

After the trial Oscar spent most of his two years’ hard labour in Reading Goal.  Bosie never wrote but Oscar addressed a letter of fifty thousand words to him. Prevented from sending it, Oscar handed the manuscript to Robbie Ross on his release. Ross published a truncated edition titled ‘De Profundis’ in 1905; a full version would not appear until 1962. As they left, the prison governor warned Ross, ‘he looks well, but like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.’

The first 1899 edition revealing the author’s name

After his release in May 1897, Oscar, still with the devoted Ross, took ship from Newhaven, disembarking at Dieppe as Sebastian Melmoth, an allusion to the early Christian martyr and to the Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. With Ross, he settled in a small fishing village on the Normandy coast and sat down to write his last poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Goal’, the story of a fellow prisoner convicted of cutting his wife’s throat who was executed in the prison in July 1896.

Shunned by the long-established publishers such as John Lane (whose descendent, Alan Lane, was to found Penguin Books), Oscar turned to Dowson’s publisher, Leonard Smithers, who operated from his shop in Bond Street where he sold rare, antiquarian books in the front and pornography, or curiosa as it was called then, in the back. ‘He loves first editions’ wrote Wilde ‘especially of women’. This was to be the last golden age of erotic literature as the F and C words were soon to lose all their potency by becoming part of everyday speech.

When the poem first appeared in print in June 1898 its author was identified only by Oscar’s prison number, C33. Seven editions and a year later, in June 1899, his identity was finally revealed.

After the trial Constance had retired with her children to Switzerland where she changed their name to Holland. True to her given name, Constance now offered her husband financial aid and the hope of a family reunion on the condition he never saw Bosie again. Astonishingly, Oscar declined and when Bosie called he came running. The reunion was not to last long and Oscar, after leaving Bosie’s villa near Naples, wandered through Italy before finally making his way to Paris.

On 23rd February 1900 Ernest Dowson died at the age of thirty three, leaving only a single volume of poems, some short stories and a few translations. Wilde wrote to Smithers:  ‘I am greatly distressed  to hear of Ernest’s death…Poor wounded, wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb, and rue and myrtle too, for he knew what love is’.

Six months after Dowson’s death the prison governor’s grim forecast proved to be accurate. If you are visiting Paris you will find the simply named L’Hotel at 13 rue des Beaux Arts conveniently placed for shopping at Au Bon Marche and enjoying a kir royale at Les Deux Magots. Now a sumptuous nest of expensive Belle Epoque rooms, in 1900 it was the Hotel d’Alsace, a shabby doss house where, on 30thNovember, 1900, Oscar died beyond his means. The French have always been kind to artistic refugees and it is fitting that Oscar should have breathed his last in the arms of the hotel’s proprietor, Monsieur Dupoirier.


Oscars wife, Constance, predeceased him. She died 7th April 1898 after some botched surgery in Genoa.

Captain Cyril Holland was killed by a German sniper in France in 1915. His brother Vyvyan was a writer and translator whose Australian wife, Thelma, was a cosmetician and personal beauty advisor to Queen Elizabeth II. They lived briefly in Melbourne from 1948 to 1952.Their son Merlin, a writer, lives in Burgundy. Oscar’s great grandson Lucian is a computer programmer living in London.

After Oscar’s death, Bosie returned to England, married and settled down to a life of letters, turning out scores of uninteresting Petrarchian sonnets and publishing the right wing, anti-Jewish journal Plain English. By a bizarre turn of fate he was imprisoned for six months in 1924 for libelling Winston Churchill, responding to Oscar’s ‘De Profundis’ with his own ‘De Excelsis’ (from the heights) a slim volume of sonnets, one viciously anti-semitic. His memory was further blackened by his disgraceful treatment of Robbie Ross who he repeatedly attempted to have arrested for homosexuality.

Oscar’s true friend, Robbie Ross, exercised his duties as Wilde’s literary executor with energy, tracking down and purchasing the rights to Oscar’s works that had been sold off on his bankruptcy. All the rights he acquired he gave to Oscar’s sons. He also worked hard to restore his friend’s reputation, producing definitive editions of his works. In 1950 Robbie’s ashes were placed in a small compartment in Oscar’s tomb that he had asked Jacob Epstein to include in his design.

Adelaide Foltinowicz, Dowson’s ‘Missie’, only outlived him by a few years, dying of septicaemia following an abortion in 1903. The abortionist, Bertha Baudach, was arrested and incarcerated for seven years for causing Adelaide’s death.

Dowson never achieved Wilde’s fame; however, he is remembered each time we watch a re-run of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell ensured the popularity of her 1936 Civil War novel by preferring as title a line from one of Dowson’s poems over her previous choices of ‘Bugles Sang True’, ‘Not in our Stars’ and ‘Tote the Weary Load’.

In 1962 Dowson’s poetry was pillaged once again for the Oscar winning film ‘Days of Wine and Roses’; it also inspired Henry Mancini’s song of the same name:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
            We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses :
            Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
            Within a dream.


What I read:

  • The Life of Oscar Wilde; Hesketh Pearson, Methuen, London,1946
  • Madder Music, Stronger Wine; Jad Adams, I B Tauris, London, 2000
  • Ernest Dowson, Poetry & Love in the 1890s; Henry Maas, Greenwich Exchange, London, 2009
  • Oscar Wilde, An Exquisite Life; Stephen Calloway & David Colvin, Orion, London, 1997
  • The Ballad of Reading Goal; Oscar Wilde, Smithers, London, 1899
  • Bohemian London; Nick Rennison, Oldcastle, Harpenden, 2017
  • The Poems of Ernest Dowson; The Bodley Head, London 1906
  • De Profundis; Oscar Wilde, Methuen, London, 1905
  • Salome and Other Plays; Oscar Wilde, Penguin Books, undated.
  • Fin de Siecle; Nevile Wallis, Wingate, London, 1947
  • Collected Poems; Lord Alfred Douglas, Martin Secker, London, 1907
  • Men and Memories; William Rothenstein, Coward McCann, New York, 1935
  • In Excelsis; Lord Alfred Douglas, Martin Secker, London 1924
  • The Importance of Being Oscar; Micheal MaLiammoir, Collin Smythe, Bucks, 1995

……. and of course Wikipedia.

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