Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Renewal of Lost Innocence

Extreme Unction
by Ernest Dowson


Upon the eyes, the lips, the feet,
On all the passages of sense,
The atoning oil is spread with sweet
Renewal of lost innocence.

The feet, that lately ran so fast
To meet desire, are soothly sealed;
The eyes, that were so often cast
On vanity, are touched and healed.

From troublous sights and sounds set free;
In such a twilight hour of breath,
Shall one retrace his life, or see,
Through shadows, the true face of death?

Vials of mercy! Sacring oils!
I know not where nor when I come,
Nor through what wanderings and toils,
To crave of you Viaticum.

Yet, when the walls of flesh grow weak,
In such an hour, it well may be,
Through mist and darkness, light will break,
And each anointed sense will see.

If the standard of excellent poetry is to say something about a subject in the best way to say it, I think this poem comes close to doing so; the one thing it is lacking is the recognition that extreme unction expresses by sign the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and bodily life in the world to come. It comes very close to this in the last stanza, but doesn't quite express the theology of redundantia or overflow -- i.e., that the grace and glory of the beatified soul will overflow the body. (I've been meaning to write a post on the subject for ages; perhaps this will motivate me to get around to it sooner.) We get almost there -- maybe, maybe, maybe we get there in the last line -- but if so, it's left a bit obscure. At the same time, extreme unction is not exactly the easiest sacrament to express in words.

I know very little about Dowson. Indeed, before some recent reading I'm not sure if I had ever even heard of him before. Apparently he's usually considered one of the Decadents and was a friend of Oscar Wilde.

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