Founded in Medieval France, the white-robed Carthusian monks are named for the Chartreuse Valley where they began. Known as the “Marine Corps of monastic orders,” they live in complete isolation from the world in the strictest of silence, pursuing a purely contemplative existence. Their daily schedule has changed little since their founding, and modern innovations have little place therein. (They were featured in the 2008 award-winning documentary “Into Great Silence.“)
Today the English poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) is largely forgotten, but in his day he was highly regarded by the likes of Oscar Wilde and T.E. Lawrence. Phrases from two of his poems have entered popular jargon: “days of wine and roses,” and “gone with the wind” (author Margaret Mitchell was a Dowson fan.) An alcoholic who lived a short, tragic life, Wilde called him a “poor, wounded wonderful fellow.” A convert to Catholicism at age twenty-five, several of his poems contain Catholic themes, such as tribute to the Carthusians. He is buried in the Catholic section of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries in Lewisham, England.
By Ernest Dowson
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 love 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 holiness,
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 sweetest service of the most dolorous Cross.
Ye shall prevail at last! Surely ye shall prevail!
Your silence and your 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.
(*The above drawing of Ernest Dowson is by Pat McNamara.)