Ernest Dowson paints a picture of the inherent contradictions in the lives of nuns in his poem, "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration." They are "sad," but it is not the sort of ranting, active grief that we have seen some Victorian poets discuss. Rather, the nuns are "calm." He describes the security they feel within the tall walls of the convent, but even as they are safe from the outside world, his use of the word "impenetrable" to describe the gate separating the interior of the convent from the outside world has strong connotations; it seems that this gate not only prevents the entrance of the outside world, but significantly it physically and emotionally traps the nuns within their cloistered home. Although Dowson suggests the righteousness of the choices the nuns have made and the virtue embedded in their way of life, there are strong undertones throughout the poem that challenge the very premises of their way of life. These challenges are openly expressed in a que! stion at the end of the poem.
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.
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. [Lines 17-24]
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. [Lines 29-32]
The nuns reject the "wild and passionate" world because they know that the beauty and joy of such a world are transient. The nuns are spared the fading of lovely flowers and the other pains necessarily present in a constantly changing world, and instead they live in a timeless, peaceful place, spared even the "proper darkness of humanity." Dowson views the nuns' experience as unnatural in the way that it rejects aspects of life that should be common to all people. When Dowson finally questions whether the nuns have chosen the best course, his sarcasm reflects an understanding of Tennyson's wisdom, "'T is better to have loved and lost, / Than never to have loved at all" (In Memoriam, 85, lines 3-4).
1. In addition to the contradictions Dowson illuminates about life in a convent, his use of sensuous language throughout the poem also helps convey to the reader that the poem is not simply an ode to the undeniable virtues of being nun. Nonetheless, the poem does not explicitly satirize the nuns' existence either, except perhaps in the question at the end of the poem. What impression are readers supposed to have of nuns?
2. What does Dowson mean by "rest" at the end of the poem? If the nuns' rest is merely an escape from the hard realities of life, why does it seem to be a reward?
3. What effect does Dowson achieve by forming his least-veiled attack on the choices nuns make as a statement, counter to what he believes, with a question mark at the end?
Last modified 2 December 2003