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St. John's Nocturnal Beloved Could Have Been Named “Layla”

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St. John of the Cross silences the names of his feminine poetic alter egos. In this essay, I propose a symbolic name for the nocturnal lover of Noche oscura del alma: Layla. In Arabic layl means “night,” and this is the name of the woman Qays loved to the point of madness, according to the famous pre-Islamic legend. Forced to part from his beloved, Qays goes to the desert and writes desperate love verses to her until he feels so spiritually transformed in Layla that he is Layla herself. As “Majnūn Layla,” or “Layla's fool,” the Lover no longer needs the Beloved's physical presence. Sufi mystics like Rūmī read this legend in terms of the mystical union, transforming Layla into the symbol of the dark night of the soul. St. John of the Cross is much indebted to Islamic mystical symbolism, and he closely follows the Islamic symbolism of the dark night in his poem.


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