n "Extreme Unction," Ernest Dowson describes the act of anointing the sick in danger of death. Nevertheless, Dowson does not focus on this spiritual ritual as one which is solely concerned with the body, but rather, here unction becomes a form of atonement, a cure of both the spirit and the senses. In short, Dowson seems to highlight the division between the body and soul, and in doing so speaks to the distinction between the sensual, or physical, experience found in life and the spiritual awakening or transcendence which occurs at the moment of death. Thus extreme unction becomes more of an act of moral healing than a ritual which attempts to achieve a physical cure:
Upon the eyes, the lips, the feet,
On all the passages of sense,
The atoning oil is spread with sweet
Renewal of lost innocence.
The feet, that lately ran so fast
To meet desire, are smoothly sealed;
The eyes, that were so often cast
On vanity, are touched and healed. [lines 1-8]
Because the poem's first two stanzas do not explicitly concentrate on a single character, we can almost take these acts of vanity and desire as very general, human shortcomings. Here, Dowson seems to suggest that the main aspect of human nature which pulls us towards such religious transgressions and ultimately to such suffering is that of sensual pleasure, for in the first two stanzas of the poem we see that the primary purpose of the anointing oil is to seal up the senses. On the one hand, we might generally view such a ritual which almost literally seems to alter the body (for all "passages of sense" are here closed up, including air passages such as the nose and mouth), as a kind of physical deprivation or suffering. The speaker, nonetheless, urges that this ritual is no deprivation at all, but rather it is a relief, a soothing (the feet are "soothly sealed") feeling which ultimately cures us of our sins and leads us to an ultimate reward or pleasure. This reward, or consolation, the poem seems to ultimately say, is death. As Dowson suggests in the third stanza, with the closure of the senses, it may be possible to discern death's true nature or even its onset:
From troublous sights and sounds set free;
In such a twilight hour of breath,
Shall one retrace his life, or see,
Through shadows, the true face of death? [lines 9-12]
Dowson soon answers this question by affirming that the loss of our senses gives us a more spiritual or profound vision; to use the old maxim, blinded, we see. The "Viaticum," or Eucharist offered to the dying, thus soon becomes in the following stanza like a drug sought after by the living who are, essentially, craving death. As the flesh deteriorates in the final stanza, and as the speaker alludes to a physical death of the body, there occurs a spiritual awakening of the soul. Dowson is playing on the typical, Christian binaries here between light and dark, flesh and spirit, sight and sense. Thus, essentially, he finally presents in "Extreme Unction" what is a very anti-Blakian notion of the transcendence of life into death, for here the senses must be stripped away in order to gain prophetic vision and to pass into the paradise of the afterlife.
Whereas it is, perhaps, not too difficult to follow the general trend of this poem, Dowson does create several abstractions and contradictions which are somewhat difficult to follow. For example, although all the passageways for sensory enjoyment have been sealed, (and therefore we assume the anointed cannot see, speak, hear, taste, touch, or even, most importantly, breathe) Dowson states in the third stanza that this moment of sensual deterioration and anointing is the "twilight hour of breath." How are we to reconcile ourselves with this paradox, and is Dowson suggesting that we live only in death, or that we only breathe once breathless, just as we only see once sightless? Also, at the end of the poem, the speaker claims that after each sense is sealed, all the senses can "see." How are we to take the exchange of taste, touch, sound, and smell for sight, and why does this become the most spiritual sense during the transcendence into death?
How does the alliteration in the poem (particularly the "s" sounds in moments such as "smoothly sealed" and "sights and sound set free") along with the poem's rhythm and meter seem to enhance its overall mood and mimic the action of anointing? Also, how and why does the poem shift between the third and fourth stanzas in terms of this rhythm?
Finally, in the first three stanzas the ritual of extreme unction and the healing of human shortcomings are all generalized because there is no specific person who is being anointed. Nevertheless, we soon realize that there is an actual voice behind the poem, and in the fourth stanza when Dowson introduces this "I," he is portrayed in the light of an addict who desperately seeks the soothing effects of the Eucharist. The shift here thus seems to suggest that while the physical anointing is soothing, it is also druglike. How does this new voice affect our initial reading of the first few stanzas, and does this poem then read like one of Browning's dramatic monologues? While we can, perhaps, safely say that the speaker seems to undermine the importance of sensual pleasures in life, where does the poet stand on this issue? That is to say, is Dowson's intent one of exposure, and, therefore, different from the intent of the speaker?
Last modified 27 November 2006