Friday, June 10, 2011

Tracing A Reference: Cynara

A guilty look.
 The Movie
   Free-associater that I am, I stayed away from Cynara (1932, directed by King Vidor) for quite a while, figuring it had to do with suffering, lost love and cyanide.  Having just watched this movie for the first time, I will say that I was spot on about two of these (and possibly even three).  I'd congratulate myself, but just the fact that this is a Kay Francis film pretty much gives the first two away.
   Ronald Colman has top billing in this flick, playing Jim Warlock (uh-oh), a lawyer with a high-flying career.  His wife, Clemency Warlock (Kay Francis), departs unexpectedly for vacation in Venice to get her sister away from a bad romance.  This leaves Jim, who up until now has been a happily-married man, at the mercy of a very bad octagenarian influence.  At his friend's not-so-subtle urgings to be less dull and get more variety in life, Jim responds to a girl he meets in a restaurant (Phyllis Barry).  He quickly quashes her advances, but when they are thrown together again at a bathing beauty pageant, the trouble really begins...

   Instead of cyanide, the title of this movie references a poem 'Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' (I am no more the man I was in the reign of the good Cynara), written by Ernest Dowson. The poem's narrator speaks to Cynara, telling her how, while he drank, danced and made love to prostitutes, the thought of her turned these earthly pleasures into empty actions. Cold comfort, but a beautiful poem.
Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno
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. 
               -- Ernest Dowson (1876-1900)

   'Non Sum Qualis...' is a poem following the Alexandrine pattern of twelve-syllable lines. Margaret Mitchell took the title of her famous novel, Gone with the Wind, from the third verse. 

Ernest Dowson
  Dowson was a poet considered to be of the Decadent school, a contemporary and acquaintance of Oscar Wilde and Yeats.  He was born into a middle-class family in 1867 and trained at Oxford, but did not finish his course.  After his schooling, he spent some time in England, some in France and most of it in and out of pubs, taverns and dinner clubs pursuing a dissolute lifestyle.  During this period he completed a play, a novel, wrote for several journals and continued with his poetry.  Key to any detail of Dowson's life was his love from afar for the 11-year-old daughter of a local restaurant owner.  It is possible that 'Non Sum Qualis...' was composed for her.  She was either unaware of or unresponsive to his love, eventually marrying a tailor who lodged above the family restaurant.
   The biography of Ernest Dowson is short; he died of alcoholism at 32.  In memorial at the time of his death, many words of praise were written by a friend, Arthur Symons,  who also wrote the following about Dowson's short life:  "We get out of life, all of us, what we bring to it; that, and that only, is what it can teach us. There are men whom Dowson's experiences would have made great men, or great writers; for him they did very little." 

Original Reference
    The poem's title in Latin comes from an ode written as if to Venus by Horace, a classical Roman poet.  In this ode, the author asks Venus (the goddess of love) to let him alone because he feels he is too old to love again - he is not the young man he was when he was with Cynara - it would be more fitting if the passion were given to another man.  Yet by the end of the poem, the poet admits that he has succumbed to Venus, and passion for the cold-hearted young man Ligurinus has him tied in knots.

After a long cessation, O Venus, again are you stirring up tumults? Spare me, I beseech you, I beseech you. I am not the man I was under the dominion of good-natured Cynara. Forbear, O cruel mother of soft desires, to bend one bordering upon fifty, now too hardened for soft commands: go, whither the soothing prayers of youths invoke you. More seasonably may you revel in the house of Paulus Maximus, flying thither with your splendid swans, if you seek to inflame a suitable breast. 
As for me, neither woman, nor youth, nor the fond hopes of mutual inclination, nor to contend in wine, nor to bind my temples with fresh flowers, delight me [any longer]. But why; ah! why, Ligurinus, does the tear every now and then trickle down my cheeks? Why does my fluent tongue falter between my words with an unseemly silence? Thee in my dreams by night I clasp, caught [in my arms]; thee flying across the turf of the Campus Martius; thee I pursue, O cruel one, through the rolling waters.                 --Horace  (65 BC - 8 BC, Rome)
Links and Sources
The Works of Horace, Authorama
Poem -- Ernest Dowson, Wandering Minstrels
Ernest Dowson, The Victorian Web
Ernest Dowson
Gone With the Wind, Wikipedia
Horace, Wikipedia

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