Dowson wrote several poems about the death of a child. The best known one is probably “The Dead Child “in the volume Decorations published in 1899. In it, the poet wishes to be dead, to share the child’s rest.
The following poem comes from his collection Poésie Schublade (“Drawer Poetry”), which was published only posthumously. It was probably written in the middle 1880’s.
IT IS FINISHED
The pure grey eyes are closèd now,
They shall not look on yours again;
Upon that pale and perfect brow,
There stays no sign of grief or pain.
The little face is white and cold,
The parted lips give forth no breath,
The grape-like curls of sun-bleached gold,
Are clammy with the dews of death.
Speak to her and she will not hear,
Caress her, but she will not move,
No longer feels she hope or fear,
No longer knows she hate or love.
Ah dream no false or futile dreams,
Nor lull thyself on fantasy,
That death is other than it seems,
Or leads to immortality.
She will not speak to thee again,
Tho’ thy whole soul in tears be shed,
For tears and prayers are all in vain,
She is but dead, she is but dead!
According to R. K. R. Thornton and C. Dowson, editors of Ernest Dowson Collected Poems, the title quotes Jesus Christ’s last words on the cross according to the Gospel of John, 19:30. Note that the fourth stanza (lines 13–16) stresses that the belief in immortality is a “fantasy” belonging to “false or futile dreams.” Indeed, Christ’s words can be interpreted to mean that death is final, without survival of the soul.
But Dowson’s creeds evolved. In 1890 he drew nearer to the Catholic Church, and he was received into it on September 25, 1891.
Source of the poem: Poésie Schublade, in Ernest Dowson Collected Poems, R. K. R. Thornton with Caroline Dowson (editors), University of Birmingham Press (2003).
Previously published on Agapeta, 2015/04/19.