The nuns described in Ernest Dowson's "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration" lead lives consisting of "meekness and vigilance and chastity" as they dedicate their lives to Christ "behind high convent walls." The poem accredits their choice for this devout lifestyle in part to the decadent nature of humankind.

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.

Although the poem suggests that the nuns have sheltered themselves from the "proper darkness of humanity" by living a seemingly timeless existence in the church, the poem also hints at how miserable and boring this lifestyle can be.

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.

Being described as "Calm", "sad", and "secure" with "faces worn and mild", the nuns live solemnly and disconnected from the rest of the world. Consequently, they do not experience most of the joys of humankind, nor of course the griefs. In this sense the nuns can be seen as abnormal, being devoid of the experiences common to most of humankind and ironically those which arguably God intended for humankind to have, being their creator.

Questions

1. Dowson uses certain phrases like "proper darkness" and "sick despair" in association with humankind, giving the impression that humankind is doomed. How does this compare to Swinburne's view of humankind in "By the North Sea"?

2. The phrase "impenetrable gate" has a multitude of meanings. It can mean that neither the corruption of humankind can enter, nor can the nuns escape their austere, devout lifestyle. It can also be an allusion to the nuns' chastity. Does the phrase have any other meanings? What can it be saying about the power and longevity of religion?

3. Towards the end of the Victorian era, at the height of the decadent and aesthetic movements, did views of Christianity change? If so, how?

4. For the most part, the poem argues that the benefit of being a nun lies in their avoidance of the woes inherent in the lives of humankind. If "their choice of vigil" is truly the best, why doesn't the poem mention any other benefits for this kind of lifestyle, like rewards in the afterlife?


Ernest Dowson

Last modified 27 April 2009