Recently, I have discovered the work of the poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900). He has swiftly become a favourite. His Decadent verse originated the phrases “gone with the wind” and “the days of wine and roses.” He was also a Catholic convert. His poetry often explores the contrast between the perishable delights of the world and the undying realm of the supernatural. In Dowson, we see the forked path that comes with the recognition of the world’s vanity: the choice lies between hedonistic decadence and the rigors of ascesis and contemplation. These two monastic poems express precisely that tension in his sad life as well as his powerful artistic vision.
Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration
Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray:
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.
These heed not time; their nights and days they make
Into a long, returning rosary,
Whereon their lives are threaded for Christ’s sake;
Meekness and vigilance and chastity.
A vowed patrol, in silent companies,
Life-long they keep before the living Christ.
In the dim church, their prayers and penances
Are fragrant incense to the Sacrificed.
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.
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.
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.
Through what long heaviness, assayed in what strange fire,
Have these white monks been brought into the way of peace,
Despising the world’s wisdom and the world’s desire,
Which from the body of this death bring no release?
Within their austere walls no voices penetrate;
A sacred silence only, as of death, obtains;
Nothing finds entry here of loud or passionate;
This quiet is the exceeding profit of their pain:
From many lands they came, in divers fiery ways;
Each knew at last the vanity of earthly joys;
And one was crowned with thorns, and one was crowned with bays,
And each was tired at last of the world’s foolish noise.
It was not theirs with Dominic to preach God’s holy wrath,
They were too stern to bear sweet Francis’ gentle sway;
Theirs was a higher calling and a steeper path,
To dwell alone with Christ, to meditate and pray.
A cloistered company, they are companionless,
None knoweth here the secret of his brother’s heart:
They are but come together for more loneliness,
Whose bond is solitude and silence all their part.
O beatific life! Who is there shall gainsay,
Your great refusal’s victory, your little loss,
Deserting vanity for the more perfect way,
The sweeter service of the most dolorous Cross.
Ye shall prevail at last! Surely ye shall prevail!
Your silence and austerity shall win at last:
Desire and mirth, the world’s ephemeral lights shall fail,
The sweet star of your queen is never overcast.
We fling up flowers and laugh, we laugh across the wine;
With wine we dull our souls and careful strains of art;
Our cups are polished skulls round which the roses twine:
None dares to look at Death who leers and lurks apart.
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.