“Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae,” by Ernest Dowson

A simple poem speaks eloquently to the loneliness of grief
Drawing of Ernest Dowson who wrote the poem "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae"

Ernest Dowson
Credit: creatureandcreator.ca

Ernest Dowson’s unusually titled poem, “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” (“I am not as I was in the reign of good Cynara”) is a simple yet very effective piece about a man’s longing for a lost lover and his frantic and completely futile efforts to escape his emotional pain. Although the poem does not tell us the reason for the lover’s absence, it’s easy to imagine that Dowson’s protagonist is a bereaved man who has lost the love of his life, a woman named Cynara. He misses her desperately and is using any means he can think of to lessen his suffering — drink, music, dance, debauchery — all to no avail.

The poem begins with the narrator describing a night of passion with a woman we later learn is a prostitute. But the night is spoiled by the man’s longing for Cynara, his true love.  

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.

Even in the arms of another woman, he is “faithful” to Cynara because she is never far from his thoughts.

Dowson’s use of the exclamation point after this and every instance of Cynara’s name acts to accentuate this desperate missing, which is so common in those who have lost lovers and spouses, especially if the relationship was long-lived. Widows and widowers often speak of the terrible emptiness they feel when a spouse dies. And many of them employ desperate measures to try to fill the gaping hole in their lives. Like Dowson’s narrator, who “cried for madder music and stronger wine,” many grievers escape into self-destructive behaviors and addictions of one kind or another simply to numb the pain and loneliness they feel.

Borrowed From an Ancient Roman Poet

A sculpture of Horace, who wrote the original "Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae"

The ancient Roman poet Horace
Credit: alchetron.com

Ernest Christopher Dowson (1867-1900) is viewed as one of the most talented of a group of late-19th century English poets known as the Decadents. He borrowed the title, “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” from the ancient Roman poet Horace — specifically Horace’s Odes, Book 4,1. In Horace’s poem, the narrator speaks to Venus (the goddess of love), begging her to spare him any further encounters with erotic love. When he says “I am not as I was under the reign of good Cinara,” it’s simply a way of marking the passage of time — pointing out that he has become too old to endure love’s quixotic vagaries. (Although he later admits to having fallen in love again — this time with a boy named Ligurinus.)

There’s little similarity between the two poems other than that both speakers are longing for love they can’t have. Nevertheless, the Latin title lends a touch of eloquence and mystery to Dowson’s poem along with a beautiful and exotic-sounding name for the woman he loves. 

The Long Journey of Grief

Dowson’s poem ends on a heartbreaking note, with the narrator speaking to his love about how terribly he misses her. The repetition of the line “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion,” underlines his constant, almost obsessive thoughts of her and demonstrates the depth of his despair.

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.

A grieving man

Credit: patheos.com

Certainly,“Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae” is not an uplifting poem. It speaks to loneliness, grief, and suffering in a very direct and provocative way. Yet, for those who are living with the longing and despair that so often go hand in hand with losing a partner, it is validation that everything they feel is perfectly OK. It tells us that loss is horrible; that grief is long and that living with it is incredibly hard. Anyone who has ever suffered a terrible loss can empathize with Dowson’s protagonist, and, I hope, understand that even when it seems that there is no way to stop the pain, with time it will begin to fade. 

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