In “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration,” Ernest Dowson describes the lives of the nuns as dull, unchanging, and monotonous as he seemingly criticizes them for living without unyielding passion and breathtaking beauty:

Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray:
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.

These heed not time; their nights and days they make
Into a long, returning rosary,
Whereon their lives are threaded for Christ's sake;
Meekness and vigilance and chastity.

Ernest Dowson, who identified strongly with the decadent crowd of the late 1880s and '90s, describes the daily lives of the nuns with a tone that seems to condemn their cloistered lives. He uses phrases like “Calm, sad, secure” as well as describes their indifference to changes in day and night and the passage of time. By highlighting the repressed and routine aspects of their lives he through the technique of indirect comparison pulls the reader in to believe that a more decadent life would surely be more fulfilling. However, as the poem reads, on Dowson starts presenting images of the world outside the gates of the nunnery as beautiful but depressingly fleeting:

They saw the glory of the world displayed;
They saw the bitter of it, and the sweet;
They knew the roses of the world should fade,
And be trod under by the hurrying feet.

Furthermore, as the poem ends he questions whether the lives of the nuns are as empty as he previously assumed:

And there they rest; they have serene insight
Of the illuminating dawn to be:
Mary's sweet Star dispels for them the night,
The proper darkness of humanity.

Calm, sad, secure; with faces worn and mild:
Surely their choice of vigil is the best?
Yea! for our roses fade, the world is wild;
But there, beside the altar, there, is rest.

He describes how the nuns, despite living lives of safety and security, have acquired “serene insight” that helps them to see the beauty of the world and remain divorced from the “proper darkness of humanity.” Dowson then questions his indulgence in the decadent lifestyle and wonders whether belief in beauty actually leads to a meaningful life. As he ends the poem he leaves the question open ended and concedes that “our roses fade” but also points out that the “world is wild” as if to say that he recognizes the comfort of invariability but would rather live a life colored by experiences of pleasure and pain.

Questions

1. What techniques does Dowson use to describe the lives of the Nuns to make them appear dull? What imagery does he use? How does he describe the world outside the nunnery? How does he use imagery to point out the faults in the outside world? How are his techniques similar to those of other writers like Wilde or Swinburne? How are they different?

2. Why does Dowson choose religious subjects to contrast the different lifestyles? Is he trying to advocate the teachings of religion? Is he trying to condemn it?

3. Dowson suffered through a self-inflicted, tumultuous personal life filled primarily with heartbreak and depression as he continually attempted to pursue his ideals of beauty and love. He died at an early age due to his obscene alcoholism and complete disregard for nutrition as well as hygiene. Was this poem a meditation on the pain he felt in his personal life? How could the idea of security through religion perhaps appeal to Dowson?


Ernest Dowson

Last modified 27 April 2009