Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae

Frederick Delius is by no means my favourite composer, but when I heard yesterday of the death of the fine English baritone John Shirley-Quirk, I immediately decided to post this piece as a tribute. It’s a sumptuous setting, by Delius, of Ernest Dowson‘s sensual and languid poem Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae which is named after a phrase from Horace but is actually, obviously, about the poet’s obsession with a lost love. I probably shouldn’t mention that the lost love in question was an eleven year old girl and he was 24.  Dowson pursued her unsuccessfully for eight years. When eventually, at the age of 19, she married someone else he drank himself to death at the age of 32. Oscar Wilde said of Dowson:

Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was.

Anyway, the music and words are beautifully woven together and also beautifully sung.  RIP John Shirley-Quirk.

Here’s the text of the poem

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 grey:
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.

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4 Responses to “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yet who believes that if Dowson, with such a temperament, had successfully wooed Cynara into marriage then they would have been happy? (Or am I being Cynical?) It seems that women unattained can stir poets at least as deeply as otherwise, for we have this girl, and Laura, and Beatrice, to thank for much of the poetry of Dowson, Petrarch and Dante.

  2. Kevin Stagg Says:

    There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it. (GBS as you will know.). I have always loved Dowson’s “Non sum” but had not known that Delius had set it to music. For this post, gratis agimus tibi, Vir Optime.

  3. Kevin Stagg Says:

    Gratias, not gratis, idiot spell checker!

  4. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “I probably shouldn’t mention that the lost love in question was an eleven year old girl and he was 24.”

    Former German President Johannes Rau didn’t marry until he was 51. When asked why, his answer was that his wife wasn’t old enough before then, who was 25 when they were married. He had literally known her all of her life. She was also the granddaughter of another German President, Gustav Heinemann. What was Mrs Rau’s maiden name? Delius. 🙂

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