Fidelity & Its Inebriates: Ernest Dowson, Frederick Delius, & The Days of Wine and Roses

The phrase “days of wine and roses” is Ernest Dowson’s, from his 1896 Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam, which is a line from Horace’s First Ode, and which translates as ‘The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long.’

Ernest Dowson

Ernest Dowson

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.

Dowson was intellectually versatile, prolific as a writer and translator, and an incorrigible alcoholic who died of his incorrigibility at the age of 32. He fell in love with a waitress, versified as Cynara, who was quite unable to understand his work, and who absconded with a waiter, and the poet was thus “gone with the wind,” which is the phrase that stimulated Margaret Mitchell, as did another phrase, in his fashion, stimulate Cole Porter while he was redesigning The Taming of the Shrew as a Broadway musical.

Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Still for The Days of Wine and Roses.

Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Still for The Days of Wine and Roses.

Blake Edwards’s 1962 film does well with the bevi con me as conceived by Iago. Henry Mancini’s theme music, not remotely like Verdi, and set to irrelevant lyrics by Johnny Mercer, won an Academy Award, but its sounding is blissfully brief. However, the acting by Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, and Charles Bickford is excellent, often brilliant. Alcohol is a predator, and it is expert in luring its prey. The film is harsh and does not judge. The scenes of insatiable inebriation are harrowing. I started to recount from my memory all those whom I knew who were ruined by booze; it is not a short list. And yes, it is so that one sometimes does have to give up on people. Edwards, Lemmon, and Remick all themselves sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frederick Delius, 1907.

Frederick Delius, 1907.

Dowson’s Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae (“I am not as I was in the reign of good Cinara’—also from Horace, his Fourth Ode) has the phrase “between the kisses and the wine … I was desolate and sick of an old passion.” Frederick Delius set the poem to music in 1907, but left it incomplete until 1929, when he had been blinded by syphilis. It is a music replete with the destruction people can rain upon themselves when the desolation of irremediable loss sets in, and is an accurate prologue to what the film The Days of Wine and Roses so accurately, so persuasively, portrays. The image is only what one imagines one wants to see, or hear.

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 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.
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3 thoughts on “Fidelity & Its Inebriates: Ernest Dowson, Frederick Delius, & The Days of Wine and Roses

  1. Life brevity themes go back farther, at least to the Story of Sinuhe from Egypt ca. 1900 BCE, where the protagonist who is abroad amid privilege is told that he is aging: “Recall to yourself the day of burial, when you are sent to honor” launches a bid to persuade him to return home immediately and avoid the ugly fate of a death on foreign soil. However, Egyptians still held hopes of rejuvenation, as when Sinuhe is depilated and massaged with oil upon his reinstallment in the palace, “stripping years away from” his body. Something happened between then and Roman times to darken this picture of enduring for “millions of years,” although of course it’s unlikely Egyptian mortuary culture directly informed the unrelated Roman beliefs.

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