In “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration,” Ernest Dowson lists a number of worldly concerns which the convent’s inhabitants avoid due to their seclusion:
Outside, the world is wild and passionate;
Man's weary laughter and his sick despair
Entreat at their impenetrable gate:
They heed no voices in their dream of prayer.
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.
By listing these advantages of convent life, Dowson appears to promote seclusion from society. A nun has no reason to fear exposure to romantic drama, violence, finances, or any of the other factors that trouble an average city-dweller. A withdrawn lifestyle, however, hides an individual from the phenomena and art of the outside world. By sheltering themselves from ever having to see the fading of beauty, represented by roses in the poem, the nuns are never able to experience the initial beauty at all. This message seems to be at odds with Aestheticism. Furthermore, by promoting a particular lifestyle in the first place, Dowson gives his poem a moral message, another significant deviation from the ideals of the movement.
How does a poem that seems so anti-Aesthetic come from such a well-known Aesthete? To find the answer, one must more deeply examine the idea of renunciation and withdrawal. The nuns are not losing contact with art and beauty by living ascetic lives, they are simply replacing contact with art and literature with the thoughts of religious beauty and majesty through prayer. The beauty of these visions could even surpass that of worldly art, as it is unadulterated by the limitations of a physical medium or personal desires of the artist. Furthermore the “art” of prayer exists solely for its own sake, as it has no end goal other than the demonstration of penance and respect. In this manner, renunciation and prayer can be accepted and even embraced by an Aesthete.
Dowson adopted this attitude, which the respectful and admiring tone makes clear, while describing the process of the nuns’ renunciation:
Therefore they rather put away desire,
And crossed their hands and came to sanctuary
And veiled their heads and put on coarse attire:
Because their comeliness was vanity.
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.
This same subject comes up in some of Dowson’s other works. In the story “Apple Blossom in Brittany,” the female romantic interest decides to join a convent at the peak of her courtship with the protagonist, just as he prepares to propose. She explains her view that withdrawal from the world is the only means for her to preserve the beauty of her innocence. “Life in the convent is changeless, she feels, and since change is what destroys innocence, retreat is one means of preventing spoilation in herself” (Reed, 105). She compares herself to an apple blossom which would produce apples and cider if left to nature, but which, in her view, is most beautiful while preserved in its current state. “Carthusians,” a Dowson poem which describes a strict order of monks in a monastery, discusses similar ideas. Here, too, Dowson idealizes isolation and the victory of refusal, and states that the monks’ “silence and austerity shall win at last.”(“Carthusians,” Poems, 105) Religion and renunciation played an important role in Dowson’s life outside of his work, as he joined the Catholic Church in 1894, and began to withdraw from the public sphere later in life before his untimely death.
1. Does “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration” fully support the nuns’ lifestyle, or is Dowson slightly ambivalent on the merit of their ways?
2. In “Carthusians,” Dowson calls on the monks to continue their work and isolation:
Move on, white company, whom that has not sufficed!
Our viols cease, our wine is death, our roses fail:
Pray for our heedlessness, O dwellers with the Christ!
Though the world fall apart, surely ye shall prevail.
Does the fact that Dowson more openly praises the monks and criticizes the rest of the world in this poem make it more effective in conveying its message? Or does “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration” gain something by being so ambivalent?
3. How was this poem accepted by other Aesthetes of the time, given its unusual perspective and topic for Aesthetic writing?
4. Can any parallels be drawn between either the nuns of “Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration” or the monks of “Carthusians” and Dawson himself?
Last modified 30 April 2009