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An essay by James Runciman


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

I have never been disposed to be niggard of cheerfulness; for it has always seemed to me that one of the duties of a writer is to supply solace in a world where, amid all the beauty, so many things seem to go wrong. But, while I would fain banish cankered melancholy, sour ill-humour, cynicism, and petty complaining, I have never sought to disturb those who are mastered for a time by the sacred sorrow which takes possession of the greatest and purest and gentlest souls at times. There have been great men who were joyous--and they bore their part very bravely on earth; but the greatest of all have gained their strength in Sorrow's service. It matters not which of the kings amongst men we choose, we find that his kingship was only gained and kept after he had passed through the school of grief. It is a glad world for most of us--else indeed we might wish that one cataclysm would overwhelm us all; but our masters, those who teach us and guide us, have all been under the dominion of a nameless something which we can hardly call Melancholy, but which is a kind of divine sad sister to Melancholy. There is no discontent in the sorrow of the great ones; they are not querulous, and none of them ever sought to avenge their subdued grief on the persons of their fellow-creatures. The kings bear their burden with dignity; they love to see their human kindred light of heart; but they cannot be light-hearted in turn; for the burden and mystery of the world are ever with them, and their energy is all needed to help them in conquering pettiness of soul, so that by no weak example may they dishearten those who are weak. I am almost convinced that the man who composed the inscription on the emerald which is said to have reached Tiberius must have seen the Founder of our religion--or, at least, must have known some one who had seen Him. "None hath seen Him smile; but many have seen Him weep." It is so like what we should have expected! The days of the joyous pagan gods were passing away, the shadows of tedium and of life-weariness were drooping over a world that was once filled with thoughtless merriment--and then came One who preached the Gospel of Sorrow. He preached that gospel, and a faithless world at first refused to hear Him; but the Divine depth of sorrow drew the highest of souls; and soon the world left the religion of pride and vainglory and pleasure to embrace the religion of Pity.

The sorrow of the weary King Ecclesiast has never seemed to me altogether noble; it is piercing in its insight--and I understand how youths who are coming to manhood find in the awful chapters a savage contrast to the joys of existence. Young men who have reached the strange time of discontent through which all of us pass are always profoundly affected by the Preacher; and they are too apt to pervert the most poignant of his words; but men who have really thought and suffered can never help feeling that there is a species of ingratitude in all his splendid lamentations. Why should the mighty king have bidden the youth to rejoice after so many awful words had been penned to show the end of all rejoicing? Every pleasure on earth the king had enjoyed, and he had drained life's chalice so far down that he tasted the bitterness of the lees. But had he not savoured joy to the full? Was there one gift showered by the lavish bounty of God which had not fallen on the chosen of fortune? We revere the intellect of the man who chastens our souls with his sombre discourse; but I could wish he had veiled his despair, and had told us of the ravishing delights which he had known. No; the Preacher is great, but his sorrow is not the highest. I give my chief reverence to the men who let their sorrow pass into central fire that blazes into deeds; I revere the men and women who bear their yoke and utter never a word of complaint; on them sorrow falls like a pure soft snow that leaves no stain.

Of late, the nations of the world have been thrilled by the deeds of one humble man who embraced Sorrow and let her claim him for the best part of his life. I cannot bear to think much of the tragedy of Damien's life--and I shall not dream of endeavouring to find excuses, or of declaring that life an essentially happy one. The good Father chose Grief and clave to her as a bride; he chose the sights and sounds of grief as his surroundings and he wrought on silently under his fearful burden of holy sorrow until the release was given. He spoke no boastful words of contentment save when he thought of the rest that was coming for him; he gallantly accepted the crudest and foulest conditions of his dreadful environment, and he uttered no craving for sympathy, no wish for personal aid. If we think of that immortal priest's choice, we understand, perhaps for the first time, what the religion of Sorrow truly means. On the lonely rock the meek, strong soul spent its forces; joy, friendly faces, laughter of sweet children, healthy and kindly companions--there were none of these. The sea moaned round with many voices, and the sky bent over the lonely disciple; the melancholy of the sea, the melancholy of the changeless sky, the monotony of silence, must all have weighed on his heart. In the daytime there were only sights whereat strong men might swoon away--pain, pain, pain all round, and every complication of horror; but the Child of Sorrow bore all. Then came the sentence of death. For ten weary years the hero had to wait in loneliness while the Destroyer slowly enfolded him in its arms. We pity the monster who dies a swift death after his life of wickedness has been forfeited; we are vexed if a criminal endures one minute of suffering; but the noble one on that sad isle watched his doom coming for ten years, and never flinched from his task during that harrowing time. It makes the heart grow chill, despite the pride we feel in our lost brother. The religion of Sorrow has indeed conquered; and Father Damien has set the seal to its triumph.

But around us there are others who have composedly accepted sorrow as their portion. We have, it may be, felt so much joy in living, we have been so pierced through and through in every nerve and every faculty of the mind with pure rapture during our pilgrimage, that we would fain let all dwellers on earth share the blessedness that we have known. It is not to be; the gospel of pity must needs claim some of its disciples wholly--and sorrow is their portion. Perhaps under all their sadness there lurks a joy that passes all known to slighter souls--I hope so; I hope that they cannot be permitted to endure what Dante endured. In the purlieus of our cities these resigned, resolute spirits expend their forces, and their unostentatious figures, passing from home to home where poor men lie, offer a lesson to the petty souls of some whose riches and worldly powers are by no means petty. Ah, it is lovely to see those merciful sisters of the fallen or falling--good to see the men who help them! Need we pity them? They would say "No"; but we must, for they live hard. A delicate lady quietly sets to work in a filthy tenement; her white hands raise up and cleanse the foulest of the poor little infants who swarm in the slums; she calmly performs menial offices for the basest and most ungrateful of the poor--and no one who has not lived among those degraded folk can tell what ingratitude is really like. Day after day that lady toils; and the only word of thanks she receives is perhaps a whine from some woman who wishes to cajole her into bestowing some gift. These sisters of Sorrow do not need thanks any more than they need pity; they frankly recognise the baseness of ill-reared human nature, and they go on trustfully in the hope that maybe things may grow slowly better. They meet death calmly; they hide their own sorrow, and even their pity is disciplined into usefulness. The men of the good company are the same. They have resigned all the lighter joys of earth, they are calm, and they let the unutterable sadness of the world spur them on only to quiet efforts after righteousness. Think what it must be for a man to leave the warm encompassment of the cheerful day and pass composedly to a gloom which is relieved only by the inner light that shines from the soul! Were not the hearts of the heroes pure, they must grow cynical as they looked on the evil mass of roguery, idleness, foulness, and cunning that seethes around them. But they have passed the portal beyond which peace is found; and the sorrow wherewith they gaze on their hapless fellow-men is tinctured neither by scorn nor weariness. If there is no reward for them, then we all of us have cause for bitter disappointment. But the forlorn hope of goodness never trouble themselves about rewards; they face the shadows of doom only as they face the squalor of their daily martyrdom. A certain philosopher said that he could not endure so sombre an existence because his nerves and sinews were frail and the pain would have mastered him; but he gladly owned that the enthusiasts had conquered his admiration and taken it for their permanent possession. The cool keen eye of the scoffer divined the strength of sorrow, and he admired the men whom he durst not imitate.

There are others who pass through life enwrapped by the veil of a noble sorrow; and, when I see them, I am minded to wonder whether any one was ever the worse for encountering the touch of the chilly Mistress whom most children of earth dread. When I think the matter over I become convinced that no one who has once felt a noble and gentle sorrow can ever become wholly bad; and I fancy that even the bad, when once a real sorrow has pierced them, have a chance of becoming good. So in strange ways the things that seem hard to bear steadily tend to make the world better. When the bell tolls and the brown earth gapes and the form of the loved one is passed from sight for ever, it is bitter--ah, how bitter! But the chastening touch of Time takes away the bitterness, and there is left only an intense gentleness which seeks to soothe those who suffer; and the mother whose babe seemed to take her very heart away when it went into the Darkness can pity the other bereaved ones; so that her soul is exalted through its grief. The poet is thought by some to have uttered a mere aimless whim in words when he said--

"To Sorrow
I bade good-morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly--
She is so constant to me and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her;
But, ah, she is so constant and so kind!"

It sounds like a whim; but it is more than that to those who have been in the depths of grief; for they know that out of their affliction grew either a solemn scorn of worldly ills or a keen wish to be helpful to others.

I have no desire to utter a paradox when I say that all the world holds of best has sprung from sorrow. Shakspere smiles and is still. I love the smiles of his wiser years; but they would never have been so calmly content, so cheering with all their inscrutable depth, had not the man been weighed down with some dark sorrow before his soul was rescued and purified. I do not care for him when he is grinning and merry. He could play the buffoon when he willed--and a very unpleasant buffoon he was in his day; but Sorrow claimed him, and he came forth purified to speak to us by Prospero's lips. He had his struggle to compass resignation, he even seems to have felt himself degraded, and there is almost a weak complaint in that terrible sonnet, "No longer mourn for me when I am dead;" but his heart-strings held; he kept his dignity at the last, and he gave us the splendours of "The Tempest." I have no manner of superstition about the great poet--indeed I feel sure that at one time of his life he was what we call a bad man, his self-reproaches hinting all too plainly at forms of wickedness, moral wickedness, which pass far beyond the ordinary vice which society condemns--but I am sure that he became as good as he was serene; and I like to trace the phases of his sorrow up to the time of his triumph.

Of late it has been the fashion to talk about Byron's theatrical sorrow. One much-advertised critic went so far as to speak of "Byron's vulgar selfishness." It might have been supposed that incontestable evidence had come before him; but a careful perusal of the documents will prove that, though Byron was as selfish as most other men during his mad misguided youth, yet, after sorrow had blanched his noble head, he cast off all that was vile in him and emerged from the fire-discipline as the most helpful and utterly unselfish of men. His last calm gentle letter to the woman who drove him out of England is simply perfect in its dignified humility; and the poorest creature that ever snarled may see from that letter that grief had turned the wayward fierce poet into a gentle and forbearing man who had suffered so much that he could not find it in his heart to inflict suffering on his worst enemy. I call the Byron of the Abbey a bad man; the Byron whose home became the home of pure charity--charity done in secret--was a good man.

Sorrow may appear repulsive and men bid her "Avaunt!" Yet out of sorrow all that is noblest and highest in poesy and art has arisen; and all that is noblest in life has been achieved by the sorrow-stricken. Joy has given us much; and those who have once known what real earthly joy means should be content to pass unrepining to the Shades; but Sorrow's gifts are priceless, and no man can appraise their worth. Even poor Carlyle's sorrow, which was oftentimes aught but noble, if all tales be true, was sufficient to endow us with the most splendid of modern books. It is strange to see how that crabbed man with the passionately-loving heart keeps harping on the beneficence of sorrow. Once he spoke of "Sorrow's fire-whips"; but usually his strain is far, far different. He cleaves to the noble and sorrowful figures that crowd his sombre galleries; and I do not know that he ever gives more than a light and careless word of praise to any but his melancholy heroes. Cromwell, Abbot Sampson, the bold Ziethen, Danton, Mirabeau, Mahomet, Burns, "the great, melancholy Johnson," and even Napoleon and Luther--all are sorrowful, all are beautiful. Peace to them, and peace to the strong soul that made them all live again for the world!

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Sorrow