The Anxiety of Influence
I have seen mysteries, and if I fail to be explicit,
it is because my eyes are dazzled.
Ernest Dowson to Victor Plarr. Note
25 September 1891. The Letters of Ernest Dowson, ed.
Desmond Flower and Henry Maas (London, 1967), p.128.
No honest man, Max. Not content with the numberless slanders contained
in his story Enoch Soames, he dedicated his entire life
to propagating the myth that Soames had existed only within the
rather modest limits of his own poor imagination. Writing to Robert
Ross on 10 June 1916, for example, he listed the various 1890s poets
who had inspired what he claimed to be his fictitious
The waterproof cape worn by Enoch was itself suggested, I think,
by memory of one worn by Arthur Symons. Otherwise Enoch, as drawn
by me, owes nothing to Symons, but much to my imagination of how
Ernest Dowson (whom I never saw) might have been if he had been
rather like Victor Plarr (whom I never had the pleasure of meeting)
with a dash of Theodore Wratislaw and others. Note
The Letters of Max Beerbohm, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (New
York, 1989), pp.104-5.
All of these poets were characterised by the mot juste Enochese
and Beerbohm, for the rest of his days, never tired of his tiresome
game of life and death. Riewald, for instance, remembered Beerbohm
remembering Enoch Soames, with the words (he was) purely a
satire on the Nineties, on writers like Ernest Dowson, Arthur
Symons, and Oscar Wilde Note
J. G. Riewald, Remembering Max Beerbohm (The Hague, 1991),
p.101. and countless others in their recollections became
accomplices to a man who had obviously learned a great deal from
his brief acquaintance with the mendacious A. V. Laider.
What is distressing, of course, is that
Beerbohms almost Cromwellian zeal in creating fables and destroying
historical evidence has made it almost impossible for modern critics
to judge the real impact of Soamess work on the 1890s. Indeed
Beerbohms recent critic Richard Presscott can offer his readers
nothing more than the following paragraph as a summary of the story
Beerbohms story is a dazzling evocation of 1890s London,
a tale which might be said to have been written in the margins
of The Yellow Book. Revelling in the joy of his own absurdity,
Beerbohm shifts between, on the one hand, the real
world of Beardsley and Rothenstein and, on the other, the unreal
world of Enoch Soames and the future with a kaleidoscopic brilliance.
In fact, the intoxicating confusion between life and art is such,
that if we removed the false face of Enoch Soames, we might see
the real mask of a Nineties poet such as Ernest Dowson revealed.
The original Enoch may have been drawn
from any of the men who congregated in The Old Cheshire Cheese
public house in Fleet Street for meetings of the Rhymers
Club. There, over clay pipes, ales and above the noise of a parrot
who quoted continually from Hamlet, they would present
their bouquets of sick lyrical blooms to each other, and poeticise
themselves out of all existence.
It is said that Beerbohm sketched several
caricatures in his own copy of The First Book of the Rhymers
Club and it is not difficult to imagine the odd apparition
of Soames, with his soft black clerical hat and his grey waterproof
cape, hidden in the shadows among them. At one meeting an indelicate
bard of that Tragic Generation rhymed fragrant with
vagrantand who but Enoch could have been capable
of committing so unpardonable an artistic crime? Note
R. Presscott, Chichinohana (Flower of Breast Milk) (Kagoshima,
1995), pp.109-110. Prescotts Journalistic style
would no doubt have appealed to Beerbohm, but one hardly dares
imagine the horror with which Soames himself might have read it.
We, the poor, banished great-grandchildren
of the real 1890s, are left to mourn and weep in this valley of
lies, half-truths and journalistic legend: Soames, we are told,
is the archetype of the fallen angels of the fin-de-siècle;
and yet Soames, we are constantly minded, was not real.
The truth of the matter is surely much
stranger than Beerbohms supposed fiction, and it is the aim
of this essay to prove that this is so; for Enoch Soames was no
synthesis of all that is Enochese about the 1890srather
the 1890s were Enochese because they were so thoroughly
permeated by his artistic presence. In examining the case of Soamess
pervasive influence on the life and work of the poet Ernest Dowson,
it is my aim to convince modern critics of the truth of this contention
and, in doing so, to persuade the sceptics that he did, indeed,
exist. In spite of the fact that Soamess literary
remains consist only of the meagre quotations from Fungoids
Enoch Soames, Fungoids (London, 1894). Fungoids
predates Dowsons Verses (London, 1896), by two years
and his Decorations, (London, 1899) by five. We can only
speculate as to the publication date of Negations but,
as Rothenstein received a copy in Paris, it is possible to suggest
any time between 18902 as a likely date.
The way in which the titles of Dowsons works (Decorations,
Dilemmas) echo Soamess title Negations will
not be lost on the attentive reader; moreover the simplicity of
the title Verses is perhaps due to Soamess influence, as it
recalls his wonderful disdain for elaborate titles. If a book
is good in itself, it might have no title at all.
Even Beerbohm, it seems, found it impossible to suppress this delicious
maxim. It is, incidentally, ironic that the British Librarys
decrepit copy of Dowsons Decorations comes with a
white slip with the word frail written on it.
and the facile summary of Negations contained within Beerbohms
essay, yet there is, I believe, enough material to serve our purpose.
Considering first Soamess To
a Young Woman it is possible to trace the poets influence,
unconscious or otherwise, on the verses of Ernest Dowson. The curious
felicity of Soamess Thou hast, recalling
as it does all the glory of the Elizabethan Renaissance, was not
lost on his young disciple, as the following lines show:
Blossom of youth thou hast plucked of me,
flower of my days;
Indeed the phrase was to become a commonplace within Dowsons
work. More significant perhaps is Dowsons continual reference
to, and translation of, the vivid imagery contained in Soamess
For Dowson writes in Moritura:
A song of a faded flower!
In a ladys hair it stood.
Now, ah, now,
Faded it lies in the dust and low. Note
So powerful were Soamess images, then, that they seemed
to become archetypes in the minds of his contemporaries who, in
turn, reworked them for their own purposes. Nocturne
contains many images of this kind and, as such, stands in symbolic
relations to the art and culture of its age; Dowson, for one, could
never liberate himself from the tyrannous influence of the line:
The poem Saint Germain-en-Laye, for instance, contains
Across the terrace that is desolate,
And rang then with thy laughter, ghost of thee,
That holds its shroud up with most delicate,
Dead fingers, and behind the ghost of me,
Ibid., p.133. The use of the word tripping may even
have been an amplification of the praise Soames had received from
the Preston Telegraph. How typical of Dowson to leave, between
the lines, a hidden meaning that only Enochs admirers could
possibly have understood.
and the implied recognition of his debt to Soames is obvious here.
But it is in the fugitive piece Against My Lady Burton
that we see the haunting presence of Soamess line and the
way it changed forever the association of the word laughter
with joyful emotion in Dowsons mind:
To save his soul, whom narrowly she loved
She did this deed of everlasting shame,
For Devils laughter; and was soulless proved.
Heaping dishonour on her scholars name. Note
I am indebted to Mary Dunhanna for permission to quote from this
From the internal evidence of the poetry, then, it is impossible
to deny the powerful influence Soamess work exercised over
The examples could of course be multiplied and we direct the curious
reader to such lines as Dowsons A song of an old, old
man in Moritura and the repetition of the phrase
When I am old in In Tempore Senectutis,
(Verses, pp.5051) for further confirmation of this thesis.
Dowsons imitation of Soames is in fact apparent a er the most
cursory glance at any one of his works.
Dowsons prose, too, we may immediately recognise the quintessentially
Soamesian touch. The epigrammatic style, which Soames had employed
with such success in the preface to Negations, is never far
beneath the surface of Dowsons work, even in its lighter moments,
and his annotations to the classics clearly demonstrate this: Theism,
Pantheism, Christianity, Positivism wrote Dowsonunder
the pseudonym of a German academiclie so close together
that it is like splitting hairs to consider them apart. The vital
issue is between optimism and pessimism. Note
Victor Plarr, Ernest Dowson (London, 1914), p.44.
And if in art there was imitation, in life,
too, Dowson consistently tried to ape Soamess grand aphoristic
manner: the Enochese saying Tomorrow one dies
caresit will not stop the traffic passing over London Bridge
Dowson, Letters; Appendix D, p.441. was, apparently, ever
on his lips. Whiskey and beer for fools, absinthe for Poets,
was another of his most obvious plagiarisms. Robert Sherard, writing
of Dowsons propensity to start street brawls, relates an anecdote
that is Dowson at his most revealingly Soamesianor at least
it is Soames and water: When at last I induced
Dowson to leave the omnibus, he wrote,
and was remonstrating with him for the folly of provoking
a man who could have stunned him with one blow, he answered in
French, Welland if it pleases me to be beaten?
Robert Harborough Sherard, Twenty Years in Paris (London,
1905), p.402. My italics.
T. S. Eliot wrote that I regard Dowson
as a Poet whose technical innovations have been underestimated
Dowson, Letters, p.5. but, on the basis of the above
evidence, it is possible to suggest that the opposite is the casethat
Soamess innovations are those that have been underestimated.
It is hardly for us to suggest that Dowson consciously stole from
Soamess work, but even Oscar Wilde, who seated Plagiarism
upon the throne of Philosophy, would find it hard to deny that Soames
was the real, the onlie begetter of Dowsons ensuing
And, all in all, what shoddy work he made
of his imitation! Certainly he has Soamess literary rangeDowson
wrote Poems, Prose, Poems in Prose, Prose in Poems and Prosaic Poemsbut
really he lacks Soamess mastery of these various forms. Soames
was, in the final reckoning, a symbolist whose work consistently
fulfilled the criteria Mallarmé established for the art of
Think, for example, of Mallarmés definition of poetry
as the miracle by which a natural object is almost made to
disappear beneath the magic waving wand of the written word,
and his statement that it is not description which can unveil
the efficacy and beauty of monuments, seas, or the human face, but
rather evocation, allusion, suggestion. Mallarmé, Selected
Prose Poems, Essays & Letters (Baltimore, 1956), pp.4042.
whilst Dowson ever writes as though versi¥ing his diary; where
Soamess words are opaque, Dowsons are transparent; where
Soames uses verse to investigate the possibilities of language,
Dowson uses language to explore the possibilities of his own soul;
and where Soames is Dionysian, Dowson is all Apollo.
But this is to move too far ahead in our
The Soamesian manner in which Dowson conducted his long and rather
unlovely suicide is too well-known to require repetition here. But,
though the face of the life-sick and desolate Dowson after his days
of Soames, wine and roses is altogether too familiar, certain aspects
of his life are so peculiarly Enochese that they lead us to speculate
as to where the two poets must have met.
In order to become the symbol of his tragic
generation, Dowson copied Soamess appearance, his manner and
habits with great meticulousness. Where Beerbohm records that Soames
put his cigarette out in his glass of Sauterne, Plarr remembers
Dowsons dirty and nicotine-stained hands discarding them in
cups and saucers; Note
Plarr, p.122. Where Rothenstein questions the correctness
of Soamess French, Plarr tells us that Dowsons own
French was dim; Note
Ibid., p.24. My italics. where Soames was Bohemian in his
apparel, Dowson deliberately exaggerated his and, we are told, was
pale, emaciated, in clothes that were almost ragged
a youthful ghost stray[ing] among the haunts of men; Note
Ibid., pp.125-6. and if Soames could be somewhat reticent
and self-effacing at times, Ernest Rhyss description of Ernest
Dowson at a gathering of the Rhymers Club reads like a satirical
commentary on this Soamesian affectation: He came late
and broke three clays in succession in trying
to light up. Then, asked if he had any rhyme to read, he pulled one
out of his pocket, looked at it, shook his head as much as to say
it wouldnt do, and thrust it back again. Note
In Mark Longaker, Ernest Dowson (Pennsylvania 1945), p.107.
Again the debt is profound: where Soames said that he did not care
about recognition, we read in Dowsons letters that: I
have long passed the point at which one is seriously moved by hostile
criticism of anybody. To take the world so seriously! Enfin, cest
trop bête. Plarr, p.55.
The correspondences are then quite uncanny,
and even if much of the evidence comes from various creators of
the Dowson Legend (a legend which Plarr described as
half diabolic Note
John Gawsworth, The Dowson Legend (London, 1939), p.105.
My italics. there can be little doubt that Dowson and Soames
must indeed have met. It would be almost impossible for it to have
been otherwise. There follow a few tentative suggestions as to where
the two men may have met, collected from the various schools of
thought on the subject. Note
This has been compiled with reference to Sir Edward Saladd, Annie
OWright, and Martis Mavellen, arguably the only true authorities
Poison in Paris.
Dowson visited Paris on numerous occasions between 18891900,
and, as Beerbohm tells us that Soames once lived there, many scholars
believe that it was in the City of Light that he met Enoch. There
is a tantalising episode described by Plarr, in which the author
alludes enigmatically to a Mephistophelian character Dowson met
there: Paris was a city full of decadents he wrote topped
by Verlaine and a certain parasite on the genius of others who is
dead, and shall remain nameless, who was, in great measure, his
Quoted in B. Gardiner, The Rhymers Club: A Social and
Intellectual History (New York, 1988), p.141. Who could
Dowsons perverter have been other than Enoch?
If we add to this the fact that Dowson always looked particularly
dilapidated in Paris, and even more sick and desolate of old passions
than usual, then the evidence seems conclusive: even Dowsons
most forgiving friends could not tolerate him there, and when Vincent
OSullivan asked Leonard Smithers what had brought him to Frances
capital, the learned erotomane and publisher replied Ive
come to Paris to kill Dowson. Note
Vincent OSullivan, Aspects of Wilde (London, 1936),
p.126. On another occasion, Smithers seemed to take a more favourable
view of Dowsons excesses in Paris, when he praised the resilience
of his constitution. On hearing that a young Parisian had died of
debauchery he exclaimed Damned puny Frenchmen! They cant
stand anything. Look at Dowson. Is he dead? Is Conder dead? Am I
dead? OSullivan, p.134. What other than Dowsons
mournful nostalgia for Soames, as he walked the same streets they
had once strolled together arm in arm, could account for the various
forms of self-humiliation he indulged in?
The Reading Room of the British
Ernest Rhys maintained that in the 1890s the Reading Room
itself was the most extraordinary club in the world, where one met
poets and lunatics, beggars and literary big-wigs Note
Gardiner, p.70. and Yeats, Davidson, Symons, Moore, Radford,
Johnson and Soames himself were all regular readers. From Dowsons
Letters it is clear that he also visited the Reading Room and, in
fact, would complain when illness or indolence prevented him from
doing so: O! why am I not now in the British Museum,
he wrote to Arthur Moore; there are many things I want to
do there. Note
Letter of 26 July 1889, Dowson, Letters, pp.95-6.
On 20 March 1891, he writes to Moore again: I must
go to the Museum but I know your aversion to it: still if
you can compass it, you will find me there from 36, among
the books. Note
Dowson, Letters, p.152. His most interesting allusion
to the Reading Room is, however, the unconsciously prescient description
he gives of the readers there in a letter of 11 January 1890:
the Menagerie were there as usual at the same old desks.
Do B.M. readers ever die? I shall have to give up going there
if it tends to immortality in this way.
Could he, one wonders, have been describing Enoch?
The circumstantial evidence then is strongly
suggestive of an encounter in the Reading Room, and one can easily
imagine the two poets meeting beside those great green catalogues
which Yeats was too delicate to lift, or in the Portico as they
smoked their cigarettes. Nor is this all.
The Soames scholar Sir Edward Saladd recently
discovered some curious marginalia in the Librarys 1891 edition
of The Letters of John Keats, edited by Sir Sidney Colvin.
The annotations are clearly in two separate hands, and whilst the
first only marks the occasional passage, the second writes more
heavily in the margins and even signs some of his annotations E.
D. It is notable that Dowson, in letters from the last year
of his life, quotes many phrases of Keatss letters from memory,
and, considering Soamess fondness for those certain
passages in Keats, it is not hard to imagine that the poets
read the volume together, side by side, beneath the great dome.
Perhaps they had met when Dowson, having discovered that the book
was out to one Soames, Enoch, plucked up the courage
to go over to the desk of the great, unrecognised poet andbut
at this late date we can only speculate on the details.
Soames and the Rhymers Club.
Scholarship has failed to prove that Soames ever attended meetings
of the Rhymers Club Note
The self-explanatory diagram printed at the end of this chapter
was published in Gardiner, Rhymers, pp.212
and is reprinted here, with slight emendations, without the permission
of the author. but there remains overwhelming circumstantial
evidence to suggest that he did. For example we know that at least
one anonymous Rhymer wore a Renaissance cloak Note
Gardiner, p.31. and we also know that three members were
bearded. There was John Todhunter
with one of those
flowing beards, wrote Jepson, G. A. Greene, with a trimmed
Longaker, p.93. and then, perhaps, Soames with his
but, as usual, history is silent on this point, and the third bearded
member remains unidentified.
Nevertheless it is inconceivable that Soames
was absent when the following conversation took place: Mr.
Yeats proposed, relates Plarr,
that we should, in the future, debate on poetry, and by way
of beginning he made a speech, pointing out that poetry had at
one time passed through four stages, which were, I think the Diabolic,
the Seraphic, the Celestial, and something else. Note
Plarr, p.63. My italics.
Dowson, we are told, was unimpressed by all this chatter
about Shelley but surely Soames would have agreed with at
least the diabolic part of Yeatss argument; he may
even have challenged Dowsons dismissive attitude to poetic
theory on this very point. Finally, Yeatss words at one meeting
seem to have been seared indelibly into Enochs mind: None
of us can say who will succeed, Yeats remarked during a speech
on the posthumous life of verse, or even who has or has not
W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London, 1955), p.171.
The Art of Wandering.
Dowson frequently slept on the sofa at Victor Plarrs Great
Russell Street rooms during the period 18891891, and he was
notably fond of Bloomsbury. It was, he remarked, perfectly
Dowson, Letters, p.116. and gave him the opportunity to wander
its streets in his desultory and no doubt intensely lyrical way.
His love of the streets of London was legendary. After a long night
in Soho, he often played a game with his friends that he called
Blind Chivvy: the idea was, wrote Thurston
Hopkins, to find short cuts or round-about-routes from one
busy part of London to another by way of the slinking alleys and
by-ways which then were not well known. Note
See Dowson, Letters, (Appendix D), p.441. On one
of these nocturnal journeys he would surely have found himself lost
in the maze of alleys that included Dyott Streetthe street
in which Enoch Soames lived.
Dyott Street had once been part of one of
the most notoriously lawless districts of Londonthe rookery
of Saint Gilesbut during the period of Soamess residence
there, it had settled into being a rather quiet road off the New
Oxford Street, which would have served Dowson as a short cut on
his way back from Soho to Plarrs home at Museum Mansions.
And there, beneath the lamplights that burned with gem-like flames,
the two poets might conceivably have metone looking for a
rhyme for Violet, the other trying to read his destiny
in the stars. The history of what else they said and did on that
evening is a blank, but Dowsons short story An Orchestral
Dowson, Dilemmas (London, 1895). provides us with
some valuable clues.
In the story Dowson describes a great Hungarian fiddler, fallen
on hard times:
His coat was sadly inefficient, and the nap of his carefully
brushed hat did not indicate prosperityperhaps even because
of this suggestion of fallen fortunes, he bore himself with erectness,
almost haughtily. I was somewhat in awe of M. Maurice Cristich
and his little air of proud humility. Note
Cristich lived in a shabby room, near the sky in a
high house in a byway of Bloomsbury, Note
Ibid., p.61. and as we enter it we are told of the way he
used to set his kettle on the open fire, and of the customary silences
that punctuated his conversation as he gazed deep into the flames.
It is nearly impossible to turn the pages of the storyan early
example of a writer using Enoch for his own fictional purposeswithout
feeling that we have penetrated to the very heart of the Dowson-Soames
Soames and Rothenstein.
Rothensteins pastel portrait of Soames is well known, but
the artists depiction of Dowson is less familiar. Tradition
has it that: the twenty-one-year-old William Rothenstein returned
from Paris in 1893 and in the following year regularly shared Beardsleys
studio in Pimlico. When Dowson shouted below the window Rothenstein
admitted him on condition that he would sit for a portrait
Dowson, Letters, p.260. and it is possible that the
two poets met on that occasion. In fact, Dowson stayed with Rothenstein
on many occasions: [He] arrived at my studio, the artist
would usually refuse the spare bed,
and insist on lying under an old-fashioned piano which stood in
the sitting room. Note
William Rothenstein, Men and Memories (London, 1931), p.238.
Other theories, some of rather questionable
value which need barely detain us here, are also current in academic
circles: it has been argued, for instance, that Dowson and Soames
met at Verlaines lecture in Barnards Inn in 1893, and
a contemporary account of the event is certainly suggestive: A
very English scene, confided Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper
to their (shared) diary. Satan in a frock coat, reading religious
poetry and darting pitch-spark glances at a company incapable of
understanding the tragedies of Hell. Note
Quoted, Alford, p.67. It has also been maintained that they
first came across each other during Latin mass at Farm Street where,
as the great Philip Larkin has it,
Incense took them to lands invented by Baudelaire
As they savoured the folded silence that follows prayer. Note
Philip Larkin, High Windows (London, 1981), p.27.
And, finally, the Crown and the Domino Room of the Café
Royal have been offered as possible venues for the historic meeting.
But we are, as in every major point of fact in the life of Enoch
Soames, forced to admit that the truth of the matter may never be
That the Soames/Dowson friendship ended in tragedy is clear. At
some point and for some reasonperhaps it was when Dowson began
writing for The Yellow Bookthe inevitable split came.
Its effect upon Dowson was catastrophic: as his rhymes became increasingly
delicate, his health became even more so. The unpleasant nature
of the conclusion to the relationship is not known, but what few
stray hints there are lead us to believe that the break was irrevocable,
and left Dowson in a state of hopeless remorse. One such comes from
Sherard, who writes poignantly:
In a side chapel in the Church at Arques, where [Dowson] spent
some months of his life, there is the picture of a martyred virgin
from whose chin a long beard grows. It is related of him that
he used to spend hours on his knees in adoration before the altar
over which this painting hangs. Note
See Sherard, pp.41011. My italics.
That it reminded him of Enoch is obvious.
Yet it would be wrong to pity Ernest Dowson,
for his fame, as we have displayed, rests entirely on the work and
superior genius of Enoch Soames. Yeats made sure that Dowson defeated
devouring time by memorialising him in the words:
Dowson and Johnson most I praise
To troop with those the worlds forgot,
And copy their proud steady gaze. Note
W. B. Yeats, The Grey Rock. In Collected Poems (London,
How much closer to the truth would it have been if Yeats had written
Soames and Johnson most I praise. Indeed the
man whom Oscar Wilde described as a tragic reproduction of
all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene; a sweet singer, with
a note all the lovelier because it reminds us of how thrushes sang
in Shakespeares day Note
Letter to Leonard Smithers, 24 February 1900. In Oscar Wilde, Letters
(New York, 1962), p.816. might just as easily be described
as the greatest poetical forger since Chatterton. Though Dowson
may have played Erasmus to Soamess Thomas More, Wordsworth
to Soamess Coleridge, posterity and Max Beerbohm have conspired
to deny to Soames his true place in the pantheon of Literary Greats.
The aim of Soames scholars around the world
has been to right these wrongs and to convince the unsatisfied that
Soames did indeed exist. That we shall eventually succeed in our
aim cannot be seriously doubted, and surely the day will soon come
when we will be able to shout the triumphant words of Victor Plarr
from the rooftops in praise of Enoch Soames:
The weak ways and the wandering thought
Are grown divine because you fell:
Friend, you have won a rest unsought,
By Miltons side! You have conquered Hell. Note
Victor Plarr, Nocturnes. From In the Dorian Mood
(London, 1896), p.89.