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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Death
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The air of mystery which most of us assume when we speak about the great change that marks the bound of our mortal progress has engendered a kind of paralysing terror which makes ordinary people shudder at the notion of bodily extinction. We are glad enough to enjoy the beautiful things of life, we welcome the rapture of love, the delight of the sun, the promise of spring, the glory of strength; and yet forsooth we must needs tremble at the grand beneficent close which rounds off our earthly strivings and completes one stage in our everlasting progress. Why should we not speak as frankly of Death as we do of love and life? If men would only be content to let their minds play freely around all the facts that concern our entrance, our progress, our exit, then existence would be relieved from the presence of terror. The Greeks were more rational than we are; they took the joys of life with serenity and gladness, and they accepted the mighty transformation with the same serenity. On their memorial-stones there is no note of mourning. A young man calmly bids adieu to his friends and prepares to pass with dignity from their presence; a gallant horseman exults in the knowledge that he once rejoiced in life--"Great joy had I on earth, and now I that came from the earth return to the earth." Such are the carvings and inscriptions that show the wise, brave spirit of the ancients. But we, with our civilisation, behave somewhat like those Indian tribes who keep one mysterious word in their minds, and try to avoid mentioning it throughout their lives. Even in familiar conversation it is amusing to hear the desperate attempts made to paraphrase the word which should come naturally to the lips of all steadfast mortals. "If anything should happen to me," says the timid citizen, when he means, "If I should die"; and it would be possible to collect a score more of roundabout phrases with which men try to cheat themselves. It is right that we should be in love with life, for that is the supreme gift; but it is wrong to think with abhorrence of the close of life, for the same Being who gave us the thrilling rapture of consciousness bestows the boon of rest upon the temple of the soul. "He giveth His beloved sleep," and therein He proves His mighty tenderness.

Strange it is to see how inevitably men and women are drawn to think and speak of the great Terror when they are forced to muse in solitude. We flirt with melancholy; we try all kinds of dismal coquetries to avoid dwelling on our inexorable and beneficent doom; yet, if we look over the written thoughts of men, we find that more has been said about Death than even about love. The stone-cold comforter attracts the poets, and most of them, like Keats, are half in love with easeful death. The word that causes a shudder when it is spoken in a drawing-room gives a sombre and satisfying pleasure when we dwell upon it in our hours of solitude. Sometimes the poets are palpably guilty of hypocrisy, for they pretend to crave for the passage into the shades. That is unreal and unhealthy; the wise man neither longs for death nor dreads it, and the fool who begs for extinction before the Omnipotent has willed that it should come is a mere silly blasphemer. But, though the men who put the thoughts of humanity into musical words are sometimes insincere, they are more often grave and consoling. I know of two supreme expressions of dread, and one of these was written by the wisest and calmest man that ever dwelt beneath the sun. Marvellous it is to think that our most sane and contented poet should have condensed all the terror of our race into one long and awful sentence. Perhaps Shakspere was stricken with momentary pity for the cowardice of his fellows, and, out of pure compassion, gave their agony a voice. That may be; at any rate, the fragment of "Measure for Measure" in which the cry of loathing and fear is uttered stands as the most striking and unforgettable saying that ever was conceived in the brain of man. Everybody knows the lines, yet we may once more touch our souls with solemnity by quoting them:

"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling!--'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death."

There is no more to be said in that particular line of reflection; the speech is flawless in its gruesome power, and every piercing word seems to leap from a shuddering soul. The other utterance which is fit to be matched with Shakspere's was written by Charles Lamb. "Whatsoever thwarts or puts me out of my way brings death into my mind. All partial evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore. I have heard some profess an indifference to life. Such hail the end of their existence as a port of refuge, and speak of the grave as of some soft arms in which they may slumber as on a pillow. Some have wooed death--but 'Out upon thee,' I say, 'thou foul, ugly phantom! I detest, abhor, execrate thee, as in no instance to be excused or tolerated, but shunned as a universal viper, to be branded, proscribed, and spoken evil of! In no way can I be brought to digest thee, thou thin, melancholy _Privation_. Those antidotes prescribed against the fear of thee are altogether frigid and insulting, like thyself.'"

Poor Charles's wild humour flickers over this page like lambent flame; yet he was serious at heart without a doubt, and his whirling words rouse an echo in many a breast to this day. But both Shakspere and Lamb had their higher moments. Turn to "Cymbeline," and observe the glorious triumph of the dirge which rings like the magnificent exultation of Beethoven's Funeral March--

"Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great--
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat--
To thee the reed is as the oak;
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust."

Here in rhythmic form we have the thought of the mighty apostle--"O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?" Shakspere was too intensely human to be absolved from mortal weakness; but, in the main, he took the one view which I should be glad to see cherished by all. His words sometimes make us pause, as we pause when the violet flashes of summer lightning fleet across the lowering dome of the sky; but, in the end, he always has his words of cheer, and we gather heart from reading the strongest and most perfect writer the earth has known. Turn where we will, we find that all of our race--emperor, warrior, poet, clown, fair lady, innocent child--are given to dwelling on the same thought. It is our business to seek out those who have spoken with resignation and dauntlessness, and to leave aside all those who have only affectations of bravery or affectations of horror to give us. Here is a beautiful word:--

"The ways of Death are soothing and serene,
And all the words of Death are grave and sweet;
Approaching ever, soft of hands and feet,
She beckons us, and strife and song have been.
A summer night, descending cool and green
And dark on daytime's dust and stress and heat,
The ways of Death are soothing and serene,
And all the words of Death are grave and sweet.
O glad and sorrowful, with triumphant mien
And hopeful fancies look upon and greet
This last of all your lovers, and to meet
Her kiss mysterious all your spirit lean!
The ways of Death are soothing and serene!"

Even Shakspere hardly bettered that!

I should not like to see men begin to encourage the recklessness of the desperado, nor should I like to see women affect the brazen abandonment of the Amazon. I only care to see our fellow-creatures rise above pettiness, so that they may accept all God's ordinances with unvarying gratitude. Is it not pitiful to see a grown man trembling and waving his hand with angry disgust when the holy course of Nature is spoken of with gravity and composed resolution? I have seen a stout, strong man who had amassed enormous wealth fly into pettish rage like a spoiled child when a friend spoke to him about the final disposal of his riches. Like a silly girl, this powerful millionaire went into tremors when the inevitable was named in his ear, for he had imbibed all the cowardly conventions that tend to poison our existence. He died a hundred deaths in his time, and much of his life was passed in such misery as only cultivated poltroonery can breed. Wicked wags knew that they could frighten him at any moment; they would greet him cordially, and then suddenly assume an air of deep concern. The poor plutocrat's face changed instantly, and he would ask, "What is the matter?" The joker then made answer, "You are a little flushed. You should rest." This was enough. The truant imagination of the unhappy butt went far afield in search of terrors; neither food, nor wine, nor the pleasures of the theatre could tempt him, and he remained in a state of limpness until the natural buoyancy of his spirits asserted itself. What a life! How much better would it have been for this rich man had he trained himself to preserve General Gordon's composure, even if he had bought that composure at the price of his whole colossal fortune! Riches were useless to him, the sun failed to cheer him, and his end was in truth a release from one incessant torture.

Turn from this hare-hearted citizen, and think of our hero, the pride of England, the flower of the human race--Charles Gordon. With his exquisite simplicity, Gordon confesses in one of his letters that he used to feel frightened when he went under fire, for the superstitious dread of death had been grafted on his mind when he was young. But he learned the fear of God and lost all other fear; he accustomed himself to the idea of parting with the world and its hopes and labours, and in all the long series of letters which he sent home from the Soudan during his period of rule we find him constantly speaking quietly, joyously about the event which carries horror to the hearts of weak men--"My Master will lay me aside and use some other instrument when I have fulfilled His purpose. I have no fear of death, for I know I shall exchange much weariness for perfect peace." So spoke the hero, the just and faithful Knight of God. He was simple, with the simplicity of a flawless diamond; he was reverent, he was faithful even to the end, and he was incredibly dauntless. Why? Because he had faced the last great problem with all the force of his noble manhood, and the thought of his translation to another world woke in his gallant soul images of beauty and holiness. Why should the meanest and most unlearned of us all not strive to follow in the footsteps of the hero? Millions on millions have passed away, and they now know all things; the cessation of human life is as common and natural as the drawing of our breath; why then should we invest a natural, blessed, beautiful event with murky lines of wrath and dread? The pitiful wretch who flaunts his braggart defiance before the eyes of men and shrieks his feeble contempt of the inevitable is worthy only of our quiet scorn; but the grateful soul that bows humbly to the stroke of fate and accepts death as thankfully as life is in all ways worthy of admiration and vivid respect. We are prone to talk of our "rights," and some of us have a very exalted idea of the range which those precious "rights" should cover. One of our poets goes so far as to inquire in an amiable way, "What have we done to thee, O Death?" He insinuates that Death is very unkind to ply the abhorred shears over such nice, harmless creatures as we are. Let us, for manhood's sake, have done with puerility; let us recognise that our "rights" have no existence, and that we must perforce accept the burdens of life, labour, and death that are laid upon us. We can do no good by nourishing fears, by encouraging silly conventionalities, by shirking the bald facts of life; and we should gently, joyfully, trustfully look our fate in the face and fear nothing. Life will never be the joyous pilgrimage that it ought to be until men have learned to crush their pride, their doubts, their terrors, and have also learned to regard the beautiful sleep as a holy and fitting reward only to be rightly enjoyed by those who live purely, righteously, hopefully in the sight of God and man.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Death