Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae by Ernest Dowson

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ by Ernest Dowson is the poet’s best known work and a perfect example of writing made in the midst the Decadent Movement. The time period (1880-1900) is noted for promiscuous writings coupled with inappropriate relationships and a wide variety of destructive behaviours.  

The poem itself is made up of four six lines stanzas. Dowson chose to conform this piece to a rhyming pattern of abacbc, alternating end sounds in each stanza. Although the rhyme is constant, there is no standard meter that runs throughout the text. The majority of the lines are written in iambic hexameter. This means that each line contains six metrical feet made up of two beats. The first of these beats is unstressed and the second stressed. There are a number of moments where the poem diverges from this pattern though. 

 

The Title

The title of this piece comes from Horace’s Odes, Book 4,1. It translates to: “I am not as I was in the reign of good Cinara.” The lines refer to a speaker who has moved past the strongest and most poignant days of his life. There is something lacking in him that he is still coming to terms with. 

 

Images 

Overall, the images created by “Non sum qualis…” are dark and dreary. Dowson’s life was marked by tragedy, especially in his later years. In fact, this piece was written only six years before his death at 32. A mental and emotional darkness shows through clearly. The speaker refers to “desolate” emotions and falling shadows. There are images of sickness and a “gray dawn.” 

In contrast to these depressing descriptions, Dowson throws in images of a “warm heart beat” and a “red mouth.” These are moments of happiness the speaker experiences and they are few and far between. Their scattered presence in the poem makes each instance all the more important. They also supply the reader with a few seconds reprieve from the depression of the text. 

 

Context 

Some have speculated that the subject of ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ is an eleven year old girl, Adelaide Foltinowicz, that Dowson was infatuated with. He eventually proposed marriage to the girl but was rejected. The emotional tumult this non-relationship caused mirrors the desperation in ‘Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae.’ 

 

Summary of Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ by Ernest Dowson tells of a speaker’s unending passion for a woman he can’t have. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing a night he spent with a lover. Although this person was beautiful and filled with passion, his thoughts were with another. When their lips touched he could only think of Cynara, a woman he loved long ago. 

The following lines speak on how depressed the narrator became after these emotions returned to him. He was lost in his own life and everything was without light. Dowson’s speaker repeats in each stanza a line directed at Cynara. He restates his loyalty to her throughout all the changing years of his life. She is the only thing that has remained the same. 

 

Analysis of Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae

Stanza One 

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.

In the first lines of this piece the speaker, who may be the poet himself, is looking back on another night. It becomes clear as the poem progresses that “yesternight” is more than just “last night.” It represents a different period of his life from which he has grown separate. 

It is common in Dowson’s work to come across erotic imagery. In this case it starts out slowly, he presents a vision of the past in which he was “betwixt” or between someone’s lips. When they were kissing a shadow fell on the speaker. It came from “Cynara,” his former lover. For an as yet unstated reason she returned to his mind in a moment of passion with another. 

In the next lines the speaker presents the following period of his life as marked by darkness. After this kiss, which came amongst the wine, he was unable to shake the thoughts of Cynara. He becomes “desolate and sick” with memories of “an old passion.” It forced his head to bow in defeat. He admits that even though their relationship is in the past, mentally and emotionally he has been “faithful to…Cynara.” The last line of this stanza is repeated as a refrain in all the following sections. 

 

Stanza Two 

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.

In the second stanza he describes the initial aftermath of the falling shadow. Although his thoughts should’ve been with his current lover, he lay in bed haunted by the “old passion.” The woman he was with in this moment slept beside him but he wasn’t able to love her as he does Cynara. 

When the speaker woke up the next morning, after suffering with his thoughts all night, the day seemed “gray.” He was unable to find happiness or beauty in the world because his thoughts were trapped elsewhere. 

 

Stanza Three 

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.

The third stanza speaks to the constant presence of Cynara in the speaker’s mind. Although he has forgotten “much” about his life, she remains. He tried to engage in other relationships in an effort to forget her but it was all been in vain. No matter how many roses he threw or dances he did, he could not gather her “lost lilies out of [his] mind.” 

Time has passed and many other things about his life have changed but not how he feels about her. 

 

Stanza Four

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.

The poem concludes in the fourth stanza with the speaker describing how he sought out “madder music and…stronger wine.” He “cried” for these pleasures. After engaging with them for a time, her shadow always fell over him. Each night belongs to her. 

The final lines repeat the refrain for the last time. He has found it impossible to quench his desire for her. There is no real conclusion to the situation the speaker has found himself in. This might lead one to believe that the emotions will never cease. He is going to be plagued by them for the rest of time. 

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