Dream Women Shaped His Destiny (Dec. 8)

Dream Women Shaped His Destiny
De Quincy imagined that three women were sent to him so that
he might know the depths of his soul. Real women could not
have wielded greater influence. It is fortunate that everyone does
not meet these weird women.
(Thomas De Quincy died Dec. 8, /S59.)
Read: LEVANA AND OUR LADIES OF SORROW. Vol. 27, pp. 319-325

LEVANA AND OUR LADIES OF SORROW
OFTENTIMES at Oxford I saw Levana in my dreams. I
knew her by her Roman symbols. Who is Levana ? Reader,
that do not pretend to have much leisure for very much
scholarship, you will not be angry with me for telling you. Levana
was the Roman goddess that performed for the new-born infant the
earliest office of ennobling kindness,—typical, by its mode, of that
grandeur which belongs to man everywhere, and of that benignity
in powers invisible which even in pagan worlds sometimes descends
to sustain it. At the very moment of birth, just as the infant tasted
for the first time the atmosphere of our troubled planet, it was laid on
the ground. But immediately, lest so grand a creature should grovel
there for more than one instant, either the paternal hand, as proxy
for the goddess Levana, or some near kinsman, as proxy for the
father, raised it upright, bade it look erect as the king of all this
world, and presented its forehead to the stars, saying, perhaps, in his
heart, "Behold what is greater than yourselves!" This symbolic act
represented the function of Levana. And that mysterious lady, who
never revealed her face (except to me in dreams), but always acted
by delegation, had her name from the Latin verb (as still it is the
Italian verb) levare, to raise aloft.
This is the explanation of Levana, and hence it has arisen that
some people have understood by Levana the tutelary power that
controls the education of the nursery. She, that would not suffer at
his birth even a’ prefigurative or mimic degradation for her awful
ward, far less could be supposed to suffer the real degradation
attaching to the non-development of his powers. She therefore
watches over human education. N o w the word educo, with the
penultimate short, was derived (by a process often exemplified in the
crystallisation of languages) from the word educo, with the penulti-
319

320 DE QUINCEY
mate long. Whatever educes, or develops, educates. By the education
of Levana, therefore, is meant,—not the poor machinery that moves
by spelling-books and grammars, but by that mighty system of central
forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life, which by passion,
by strife, by temptation, by the energies of resistance, works for ever
upon children,—resting not night or day, any more than the mighty
wheel of day and night themselves, whose moments, like restless
spokes, are glimmering for ever as they revolve.
If, then, these are the ministries by which Levana works, h ow
profoundly must she reverence the agencies of grief. But you, reader!
think,—that children are not liable to such grief as mine. There are
two senses in the word generally,—the sense of Euclid, where it
means universally (or in the whole extent of the genus), and in a
foolish sense of this word, where it means usually. Now, I am far
from saying that children universally are capable of grief like mine.
But there are more than you ever heard of who die of grief in this
island of ours. I will tell you a common case. The rules of Eton
require that a boy on the foundation should be there twelve years:
he is superannuated at eighteen, consequently he must come at six.
Children torn away from mothers and sisters at that age not unfrequently
die. I speak of what I know. The complaint is not entered
by the registrar as grief; but that it is. Grief of that sort, and at that
age, has killed more than have ever been counted amongst its martyrs.
Therefore it is that Levana often communes with the powers that
shake a man’s heart: therefore it is that she dotes on grief. "These
ladies," said I softly to myself, on seeing the ministers with whom
Levana was conversing, "these are the Sorrows; and they are three
in number, as the Graces are three, who dress man’s life with beauty;
the Parcce are three, who weave the dark arras of man’s life in their
mysterious loom, always with colours sad in part, sometimes angry
with tragic crimson and black; the Furies are three, who visit with
retribution called from the other side of the grave offences that walk
upon this; and once even the Muses were but three, who fit the harp,
the trumpet, or the lute, to the great burdens of man’s impassioned
creations. These are the Sorrows, all three of w h om I know."
The last words I say now; but in Oxford I said, "One of whom I
know, and the others too surely I shall know." For already, in my

LEVANA 321
fervent youth, I saw (dimly relieved upon the dark background of
my dreams) the imperfect lineaments of the awful sisters. These
sisters—by what name shall we call them? If I say simply, "The
Sorrows," there will be a chance of mistaking the term; it might be
understood of individual sorrow,—separate cases of sorrow,—whereas
I want a term expressing the mighty abstractions that incarnate
themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart; and I wish to
have these abstractions presented as impersonations, that is, as
clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing
to flesh. Let us call them, therefore, Our Ladies of Sorrow. I know
them thoroughly, and have walked in all their kingdoms. Three
sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are
wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end. Them I saw
often conversing with Levana, and sometimes about myself. Do
they talk, then? O, no! mighty phantoms like these disdain the
infirmities of language. They may utter voices through the organs
of man when they dwell in human hearts, but amongst themselves
there is no voice nor sound; eternal silence reigns in their kingdoms.
They spoke not, as they talked with Levana; they whispered not;
they sang not; though oftentimes methought they might have sung,
for I upon earth had heard their mysteries oftentimes deciphered by
harp and timbrel, by dulcimer and organ. Like God, whose servants
they are, they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by
words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth,
by pulses in secret rivers, heraldries painted on darkness, and hieroglyphics
written on the tablets of the brain. They wheeled in mazes;
/ spelled the steps. They telegraphed from afar; / read the signals.
They conspired together; and on the mirrors of darkness my eye
traced the plots. Theirs were the symbols; mine are the words.
What is it the sisters are ? What is it that they do ? Let me describe
their form, and their presence: if form it were that still fluctuated in
its outline, or presence it were that for ever advanced to the front,
or for ever receded amongst shades.
The eldest of the three is named Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady
of Tears. She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for
vanished faces. She stood in Rama, where a voice was heard of
lamentation,—Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be

322 DE QUINCEY
comforted. She it was that stood in Bethlehem on the night when
Herod’s sword swept its nurseries of Innocents, and the little feet
were stiffened for ever, which, heard at times as they tottered along
floors overhead, woke pulses of love in household hearts that were
not unmarked in heaven.
Her eyes are sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy, by turns; oftentimes
rising to the clouds, oftentimes challenging the heavens. She
wears a diadem round her head. And I knew by childish memories
that she could go abroad upon the winds, when she heard the sobbing
of litanies or the thundering of organs, and when she beheld
the mustering of summer clouds. This sister, the eldest, it is that
carries keys more than papal at her girdle, which open every cottage
and every palace. She, to my knowledge, sat all last summer by the
bedside of the blind beggar, him that so often and so gladly I talked
with, whose pious daughter, eight years old, with the sunny countenance,
resisted the temptations of play and village mirth to travel
all day long on dusty roads with her afflicted father. For this did God
send her a great reward. In the spring-time of the year, and whilst
yet her own Spring was budding, he recalled her to himself. But her
blind father mourns for ever over her; still he dreams at midnight
that the little guiding hand is locked within his own ; and still he
wakens to a darkness that is now within a second and a deeper
darkness. This Mater Lachrymarum has also been sitting all this
winter of 1844-5 within the bed-chamber of the Czar, bringing before
his eyes a daughter (not less pious) that vanished to God not less
suddenly, and left behind her a darkness not less profound. By the
power of the keys it is that Our Lady of Tears glides a ghostly
intruder into the chambers of sleepless men, sleepless women, sleepless
children, from Ganges to Nile, from Nile to Mississippi. And
her, because she is the first-born of her house, and has the widest
empire, let us honour with the title of "Madonna!"
The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum—Our Lady of Sighs.
She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds. She
wears no diadem. And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be
neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would
be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten
delirium. But she raises not her eyes; her head, on which sits a

LEVANA 323
dilapidated turban, droops for ever, for ever fastens on the dust.
She weeps not. She groans not. But she sighs inaudibly at intervals.
Her sister, Madonna, is oftentimes stormy and frantic, raging in the
highest against heaven, and demanding back her darlings. But Our
Lady of Sighs never clamours, never defies, dreams not of rebellious
aspirations. She is humble to abjectness. Hers is the meekness that
belongs to the hopeless. Murmur she may, but it is in her sleep.
Whisper she may, but it is to herself in the twilight. Mutter she does
at times, but it is in solitary places that are desolate as she is desolate,
in ruined cities, and when the sun has gone down to his rest. This
sister is the visitor of the Pariah, of the Jew, of the bondsman to the
oar in the Mediterranean galleys; and of the English criminal in
Norfolk Island, blotted out from the books of remembrance in sweet
far-off England; of the baffled penitent reverting his eyes for ever
upon a solitary grave, which to him seems the altar overthrown of
some past and bloody sacrifice, o n which altar no oblations can now
be availing, whether towards pardon that he might implore, or
towards reparation that he might attempt. Every slave that at noonday
looks up to the tropical sun with timid reproach, as he points
with one hand to the earth, our general mother, but for him a stepmother,—
as he points with the other hand to the Bible, our general
teacher, but against him sealed and sequestered;—every woman
sitdng in darkness, without love to shelter her head, or hope to
illumine her solitude, because the heaven-born instincts kindling in
her nature germs of holy affections which God implanted in her
womanly bosom, having been stifled by social necessities, now burn
sullenly to waste, like sepulchral lamps amongst the ancients; every
nun defrauded of her unreturning May-time by wicked kinsman,
whom God will judge; every captive in every dungeon; all that are
betrayed and all that are rejected outcasts by traditionary law, and
children of hereditary disgrace,—all these walk with Our Lady of
Sighs. She also carries a key; but she needs it little. For her kingdom
is chiefly amongst the tents of Shem, and the houseless vagrant
of every clime. Yet in the very highest walks of man she finds
chapels of her own; and even in glorious England there are some
that, to the world, carry their heads as proudly as the reindeer, who
yet secretly have received her mark upon their foreheads. But the

324 DE QUINCEY
third sister, who is also the youngest 1 Hush, whisper whilst we
talk of her! Her kingdom is not large, or else no flesh should live;
but within that kingdom all power is hers. Her head, turreted like
that of Cybele, rises almost beyond the reach of sight. She droops
not; and her eyes rising so high might be hidden by distance; but,
being what they are, they cannot be hidden; through the treble veil
of crape which she wears, the fierce light of a blazing misery, that
rests not for matins or for vespers, for noon of day or noon of
night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very
ground. She is the defier of God. She is also the mother of lunacies,
and the suggestress of suicides. Deep lie the roots of her power;
but narrow is the nation that she rules. For she can approach only
those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions;
in whom the heart trembles, and the brain rocks under
conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within.
Madonna moves with uncertain steps, fast or slow, but still with
tragic grace. Our Lady of Sighs creeps timidly and stealthily. But
this youngest sister moves with incalculable motions, bounding,
and with tiger’s leaps. She carries no key; for, though coming rarely
amongst men, she storms all doors at which she is permitted to
enter at all. A n d her name is Mater Tenebrarum—Our Lady of
Darkness.
These were the Semnai Theai, or Sublime Goddesses, these were
the Eumenides, or Gracious Ladies (so called by antiquity in shuddering
propitiation), of my Oxford dreams. Madonna spoke. She
spoke by her mysterious hand. Touching my head, she said to Our
Lady of Sighs; and what she spoke, translated out of the signs which
(except in dreams) no man reads, was this:—
"Lo! here is he, whom in childhood I dedicated to my altars.
This is he that once I made my darling. H i m I led astray, him I
beguiled, and from heaven I stole away his young heart to mine.
Through me did he become idolatrous; and through me it was, by
languishing desires, that he worshipped the worm, and prayed to
the wormy grave. Holy was the grave to him; lovely was its darkness;
saintly its corruption. Him, this young idolater, I have seasoned
for thee, dear gentle Sister of Sighs! Do thou take him now
to thy heart, and season h im for our dreadful sister. And thou,"—

LEVANA 325
turning to the Mater Tenebrarum, she said,—"wicked sister, that
temptest and hatest, do thou take h im from her. See that thy sceptre
lie heavy on his head. Suffer not woman and her tenderness to sit
near h im in his darkness. Banish the frailties of hope, wither the
relenting of love, scorch the fountain of tears, curse h im as only thou
canst curse. So shall he be accomplished in the furnace, so shall he
see the things that ought not to be seen, sights that are abominable,
and secrets that are unutterable. So shall he read elder truths, sad
truths, grand truths, fearful truths. So shall he rise again before
he dies, and so shall our commission be accomplished which from
God we had,—to plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities
of his spirit."

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