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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Dead Sister
By Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859)
From ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’

ON the day after my sister’s death, whilst the sweet temple of her brain was yet unviolated by human scrutiny, I formed my own scheme for seeing her once more. Not for the world would I have made this known, nor have suffered a witness to accompany me. I had never heard of feelings that take the name of “sentimental,” nor dreamed of such a possibility. But grief even in a child hates the light, and shrinks from human eyes. The house was large, there were two staircases; and by one of these I knew that about noon, when all would be quiet, I could steal up into her chamber. I imagine that it was exactly high noon when I reached the chamber door; it was locked, but the key was not taken away. Entering, I closed the door so softly that although it opened upon a hall which ascended through all the stories, no echo ran along the silent walls. Then turning around, I sought my sister’s face. But the bed had been moved, and the back was now turned. Nothing met my eyes but one large window wide open, through which the sun of midsummer at noonday was showering down torrents of splendor. The weather was dry, the sky was cloudless, the blue depths seemed the express types of infinity; and it was not possible for eye to behold or for heart to conceive any symbols more pathetic of life and the glory of life.  1
  Let me pause for one instant in approaching a remembrance so affecting and revolutionary for my own mind, and one which (if any earthly remembrance) will survive for me in the hour of death,—to remind some readers, and to inform others, that in the original ‘Opium Confessions’ I endeavored to explain the reason why death, cæteris paribus, is more profoundly affecting in summer than in other parts of the year; so far at least as it is liable to any modification at all from accidents of scenery or season. The reason, as I there suggested, lies in the antagonism between the tropical redundancy of life in summer and the dark sterilities of the grave. The summer we see, the grave we haunt with our thoughts; the glory is around us, the darkness is within us. And the two coming into collision, each exalts the other into stronger relief. But in my case there was even a subtler reason why the summer had this intense power of vivifying the spectacle or the thoughts of death. And recollecting it, often I have been struck with the important truth, that far more of our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects, pass to us as involutes (if I may coin that word) in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled, than ever reach us directly and in their own abstract shapes. It had happened that amongst our nursery collection of books was the Bible, illustrated with many pictures. And in long dark evenings, as my three sisters with myself sate by the firelight round the guard of our nursery, no book was so much in request amongst us. It ruled us and swayed us as mysteriously as music. One young nurse, whom we all loved, before any candle was lighted would often strain her eye to read it for us; and sometimes, according to her simple powers, would endeavor to explain what we found obscure. We, the children, were all constitutionally touched with pensiveness; the fitful gloom and sudden lambencies of the room by firelight suited our evening state of feelings; and they suited also the divine revelations of power and mysterious beauty which awed us. Above all, the story of a just man—man and yet not man, real above all things and yet shadowy above all things, who had suffered the passion of death in Palestine—slept upon our minds like early dawn upon the waters.  2
  The nurse knew and explained to us the chief differences in Oriental climates; and all these differences (as it happens) express themselves in the great varieties of summer. The cloudless sunlights of Syria—those seemed to argue everlasting summer; the disciples plucking the ears of corn—that must be summer; but above all, the very name of Palm Sunday (a festival in the English Church) troubled me like an anthem. “Sunday!” what was that? That was the day of peace which masked another peace, deeper than the heart of man can comprehend. “Palms!” what were they? That was an equivocal word; palms in the sense of trophies expressed the pomps of life; palms as a product of nature expressed the pomps of summer. Yet still, even this explanation does not suffice; it was not merely by the peace and by the summer, by the deep sound of rest below all rest, and of ascending glory, that I had been haunted. It was also because Jerusalem stood near to those deep images both in time and in place. The great event of Jerusalem was at hand when Palm Sunday came; and the scene of that Sunday was near in place to Jerusalem. Yet what then was Jerusalem? Did I fancy it to be the omphalos (navel) of the earth? That pretension had once been made for Jerusalem, and once for Delphi; and both pretensions had become ridiculous as the figure of the planet became known. Yes, but if not of the earth, for earth’s tenant Jerusalem was the omphalos of mortality. Yet how? There on the contrary it was, as we infants understood, that mortality had been trampled under foot. True; but for that very reason, there it was that mortality had opened its very gloomiest crater. There it was indeed that the human had risen on wings from the grave; but for that reason, there also it was that the Divine had been swallowed up by the abyss; the lesser star could not rise before the greater would submit to eclipse. Summer therefore had connected itself with death, not merely as a mode of antagonism, but also through intricate relations to Scriptural scenery and events.  3
  Out of this digression, which was almost necessary for the purpose of showing how inextricably my feelings and images of death were entangled with those of summer, I return to the bedchamber of my sister. From the gorgeous sunlight I turned round to the corpse. There lay the sweet childish figure, there the angel face; and as people usually fancy, it was said in the house that no features had suffered any change. Had they not? The forehead indeed,—the serene and noble forehead,—that might be the same; but the frozen eyelids, the darkness that seemed to steal from beneath them, the marble lips, the stiffening hands laid palm to palm as if repeating the supplications of closing anguish,—could these be mistaken for life? Had it been so, wherefore did I not spring to those heavenly lips with tears and never-ending kisses? But so it was not. I stood checked for a moment; awe, not fear, fell upon me; and whilst I stood, a solemn wind began to blow,—the most mournful that ear ever heard. Mournful! that is saying nothing. It was a wind that had swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries. Many times since, upon a summer day, when the sun is about the hottest, I have remarked the same wind arising and uttering the same hollow, solemn, Memnonian, but saintly swell; it is in this world the one sole audible symbol of eternity. And three times in my life I have happened to hear the same sound in the same circumstances; namely, when standing between an open window and a dead body on a summer day.  4
  Instantly, when my ear caught this vast Æolian intonation, when my eye filled with the golden fullness of life, the pomps and glory of the heavens outside, and, turning, when it settled upon the frost which overspread my sister’s face, instantly a trance fell upon me. A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky a shaft which ran up forever. I in spirit rose, as if on billows that also ran up the shaft forever, and the billows seemed to pursue the throne of God; but that also ran before us and fled away continually. The flight and the pursuit seemed to go on for ever and ever. Frost, gathering frost, some Sarsar wind of death, seemed to repel me; I slept—for how long I cannot say; slowly I recovered my self-possession, and found myself standing as before, close to my sister’s bed.  5
  O flight of the solitary child to the solitary God—flight from the ruined corpse to the throne that could not be ruined!—how rich wert thou in truth for after years! Rapture of grief that, being too mighty for a child to sustain, foundest a happy oblivion in a heaven-born dream, and within that sleep didst conceal a dream; whose meaning, in after years, when slowly I deciphered, suddenly there flashed upon me new light; and even by the grief of a child, as I will show you, reader, hereafter, were confounded the falsehoods of philosophers.  6
  In the ‘Opium Confessions’ I touched a little upon the extraordinary power connected with opium (after long use) of amplifying the dimensions of time. Space also it amplifies, by degrees that are sometimes terrific. But time it is upon which the exalting and multiplying power of opium chiefly spends its operation. Time becomes infinitely elastic, stretching out to such immeasurable and vanishing termini that it seems ridiculous to compute the sense of it, on waking, by expressions commensurate to human life. As in starry fields one computes by diameters of the earth’s orbit, or of Jupiter’s, so in valuing the virtual time lived during some dreams, the measurement by generations is ridiculous—by millennia is ridiculous; by æons, I should say, if æons were more determinate, would be also ridiculous. On this single occasion, however, in my life, the very inverse phenomenon occurred. But why speak of it in connection with opium? Could a child of six years old have been under that influence? No, but simply because it so exactly reversed the operation of opium. Instead of a short interval expanding into a vast one, upon this occasion a long one had contracted into a minute. I have reason to believe that a very long one had elapsed during this wandering or suspension of my perfect mind. When I returned to myself, there was a foot (or I fancied so) on the stairs. I was alarmed; for I believed that if anybody should detect me, means would be taken to prevent my coming again. Hastily, therefore, I kissed the lips that I should kiss no more, and slunk like a guilty thing with stealthy steps from the room. Thus perished the vision, loveliest amongst all the shows which earth has revealed to me; thus mutilated was the parting which should have lasted forever; thus tainted with fear was the farewell sacred to love and grief, to perfect love and perfect grief.  7
  O Ahasuerus, everlasting Jew! fable or not a fable, thou, when first starting on thy endless pilgrimage of woe,—thou, when first flying through the gates of Jerusalem and vainly yearning to leave the pursuing curse behind thee,—couldst not more certainly have read thy doom of sorrow in the misgivings of thy troubled brain, than I when passing forever from my sister’s room. The worm was at my heart; and confining myself to that state of life, I may say, the worm that could not die. For if when standing upon the threshold of manhood, I had ceased to feel its perpetual gnawings, that was because a vast expansion of intellect,—it was because new hopes, new necessities, and the frenzy of youthful blood, had translated me into a new creature. Man is doubtless one by some subtle nexus that we cannot perceive, extending from the new-born infant to the superannuated dotard; but as regards many affections and passions incident to his nature at different stages, he is not one: the unity of man in this respect is coextensive only with the particular stage to which the passion belongs. Some passions, as that of sexual love, are celestial by one half of their origin, animal and earthly by the other half. These will not survive their own appropriate stage. But love which is altogether holy, like that between two children, will revisit undoubtedly by glimpses the silence and the darkness of old age; and I repeat my belief—that unless bodily torment should forbid it, that final experience in my sister’s bedroom, or some other in which her innocence was concerned, will rise again for me to illuminate the hour of death.  8

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