The Ancient "Lady of Sorrow"


[The worship of the Madonna, or Mater Dolorosa— "Our Lady of Sorrow"—is not confined to the Roman Catholic faith; it was an important feature in all the ancient Pagan systems of religion, even the most primitive. In the Sacred Mysteries of Egypt and of Greece her worship was the distinctive and prominent element. In the latter her name was Achtheia, or Sorrow. Under the name of Demeter, by which she was generally known among the Greeks, she, like the Egyptian Isis, typifying the Earth, was represented as sympathizing with the sorrowing children of Earth, both as a bountiful mother, bestowing upon them her fruits and golden harvests, and in her more gloomy aspects—as in autumnal decay, in tempests, and wintry desolation—as sighing over human frailty, and over the wintry deserts of the human heart. The worship connected with this tradition was vague and symbolical, having no well-defined body of doctrine as to sin, salvation, or a future life. Day and Nignt, Summer and Winter, Birth and Death, as shown in Nature, were seized upon as symbols of vaguely understood truths.]

Her closing eyelids mock the light;
Her cold, pale lips are sealéd quite;
Before her face of spotless white
       A mystic veil is drawn.
Our Lady hides herself in night;
In shadows hath she her delight;
       She will not see the dawn!

The morning leaps across the plain—
It glories in a promise vain;
At noon the day begins to wane,
       With its sad prophecy;
At eve the shadows come again:
Our Lady finds no rest from pain,
       No answer to her cry.

In Spring she doth her Winter wait;
The Autumn shadoweth forth her fate;
Thus, one by one, years iterate
       Her solemn tragedy.
Before her pass in solemn state
All shapes that come, or soon or late,
       Of this world's misery.

What is, or shall be, or hath been,
This Lady is; and she hath seen,
Like frailest leaves, the tribes of men
       Come forth, and quickly die.
Therefore our Lady hath no rest;
For, close beneath her snow-white breast,
       Her weary children lie.

She taketh on her all our grief;
Her Passion passeth all relief;
In vain she holds the poppy leaf—
       In vain her lotus crown.
Even fabled Lethe hath no rest,
No solace for her troubled breast,
       And no oblivion.

"Childhood and youth are vain," she saith,
"Since all things ripen unto death;
The flower is blasted by the breath
       That calls it from the earth.
And yet," she saith, "this thing is sure—
There is no life but shall endure,
       And death is only birth.

"From death or birth no powers defend,
And thus from grade to grade we tend,
By resurrections without end,
       Unto some final peace.
But distant is that peace," she saith;
Yet eagerly awaiteth Death,
       Expecting her release.

"O Rest," she saith, "that will not come,
Not even when our lips are dumb,
Not even when our limbs are numb,
       And graves are growing green.
O Death, that, coming on apace,
Dost look so kindly in the face,
       Thou wear'st a treach'rous mien!"

But still she gives the shadow place—
Our Lady, with the saddest grace,
Doth yield her to his feigned embrace,
       And to his treachery!
Ye must not draw aside her veil;
Ye must not hear her dying wail;
       Ye must not see her die!

But, hark! from out the stillness rise
Low-murmured myths and prophecies,
And chants that tremble to the skies—
       Miserere Domine!
They, trembling, lose themselves in rest,
Soothing the anguish of her breast—
       Miserere Domine!

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.