Ernest Dowson, a member of the ‘Decadent Movement’, seems to have been a bit of a nut, a troubled oddball, a talented, tragic writer, who died at the age of thirty-two. Oscar Wilde said of him: “Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was”. But Dowson wrote of the ‘days of wine and roses’ – and wrote this:
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.
Note: the painting is Anne of Austria, Queen of France and regent for Louis XIV, with Mechtilde of the Holy Sacrament (Catherine de Bar) adoring the Holy Eucharist in 1654, when the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were moved to their new monastery at Paris. The ‘Tyburn nuns’ are part of this order.