"Ernest Dowson's poems "Extreme Unction" and "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration" share dominant, overlapping themes and images of religious practices and human senses. Sight, especially, is isolated an essential sense that allows people to observe, remember, and judge the world without participating, for better or worse. The gaze takes on an introspective, spiritual, and potentially limiting role in "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration" as "These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray" (2). Watching in this instance opposes action or participation in the world, which reflects the severe separation the speaker builds between the nuns' world and the messy and chaotic — yet more real and desirable — outside world.
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. ("Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration," 13-20)
The double meaning of "their impenetrable gate" transforms the tone of the poem from a potentially serious reflection on religious life to an irreverent mocking of the cloistered nuns' chastity. The choice of roses, loaded with romantic and sexual symbolism, as the metaphor for the world's impermanent joys reinforces the sexual connotation of the "impenetrable gates" and makes reference to the sentiment — if not to the poem itself — of "Gather ye roses while ye may" in Richard Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time."
The eyes themselves are separated from the unified, agentive body and isolated as instruments of passive observation once the nuns "put away desire,/ And crossed their hands and came to sanctuary/ And veiled their heads and put on coarse attire." The image of the nuns, with hands folded and bodies obscured from head to toe in veils and habits, serves as a visual commentary on the nuns' inability to act or participate in the messy, chaotic world from which they are separated. Dowson uses the rhetorical fragmentation of the body to assess the nuns' role as non-members of human society and as symbols of the religious institutions that the speaker aims to critique.
1. Eyes and hands have relatively stable significance in literature, but what if anything are feet meant to represent?
2. How does the rhetorical isolation of eyes, hands, and feet in "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration" compare or contrast with the similar effect in "Extreme Unction"?
4. Does "Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration" acknowledge any redeemable role the nuns might play in human society?
Last modified 22 April 2009