After reading Ernest Dowson's "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration," I could not determine the author's attitude toward the nuns. In contemplating the choice of religious isolation, we might expect an author to agree or disagree with it; Dowson, it seems, does both. In the final stanza, Dowson actually asks the question "Are the nuns right?" and answers it:

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. [29-32]

In successive readings, this simple answer is troubled by a subtext suggesting that Dowson does not really want to give the nuns such an assured "Yea!" In the fourth stanza, we are disturbed by the nuns indifference to the world:

Man's weary laugh and his sick despair
Entreat at their impenetrable gate:
They need no voices in their dream of prayer. [14-16]

Since many orders of nuns are known for their charity and social work, one wonders why these would bar their door against "sick despair." And for what? For a "dream of prayer," which could indicate a meditative state (admirable) or that their prayer is a dream, a fiction. But just as the nature of the dream is of uncertain value, it occurs that the closed gates could also be read as barriers to sin — despair, as we know, is the other half of pride.

In the penultimate stanza, we find another conundrum of this sort. Dowson says that "Mary's sweet Star dispels for them the night, / The proper darkness of humanity" (27-28). Here the problem hinges on a single word. If we take "proper" to mean "belonging to" (as in, the darkness that belongs to humanity) then we find the nurses enlightened and above the common folk. But if we read "proper" in the sense of "correct," then the line is saying the darkness is humanity's correct state, and by inference the opposite, the clearing of that darkness, the nuns' choice would be incorrect.

Questions

1. What is the final judgment of the nuns? Is there one at all?

2. Dowson several times compares the nuns to religious objects: "their nights and days they make/ into a long, returning rosary" (5-6) and "their prayers and their penances/ are fragrant incense" (11-12). Is this "objectification" a gender issue?

3. Dowson references watching or seeing several times in the poem (twice uses "watch" in the second line; and "vigil" and "vigilance") and calls the nuns "a vowed patrol." Who watches the watchers: how reliable is the narrator, especially once we notice that he is talking to us from outside the "high convent walls"?


Ernest Dowson

Last modified 4 December 2003