This essay argues that Ernest Dowson's poems are organized according to patterns of color, in which bright hues fade to gray, and of sound, in which superfluous, even erroneous, punctuation marks generate syntactic strain and precisely modulate the pauses between words and lines. These patterns are central to Dowson's effort to estrange his literary language from everyday, communicative discourse and its reference to the meanings of the world, to make poetry a "pure" medium of art rather than a representation of life. As such, Dowson's poetry differs from the impressionist and naturalist art of the fin de sicle, with which his work is often incorrectly conflated, and it marks a cleavage between empiricist and anti-empiricist approaches to representation, especially in relation to matters of observation, objectivity, and particularity. Dowson's aestheticism represents an extreme limit of anti-empiricist literary formalism, whose legacy for modernism consists not principally in its successes but in its failures.
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