By Hugh Black
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his pew.
* * * * * *
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead.
Sunk though he be beneath the watery flow.
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves.
The Eclipse of Friendship
As it is one of the greatest joys of life when a kindred soul is for the first time recognized and claimed, so it is one of the bitterest moments of life when the first rupture is made of the ties which bind us to other lives. Before it comes, it is hard to believe that it is possible, if we ever think of it at all. When it does come, it is harder still to understand the meaning of the blow. The miracle of friendship seemed too fair, to carry in its bosom the menace of its loss. We knew, of course, that such things had been, and must be, but we never quite realized what it would be to be the victims of the common doom of man.
If it only came as a sudden pain, that passes after its brief spasm of agony, it would not be so sore an affliction; but when it comes, it comes to stay. There remains a place in our hearts which is tender to every touch, and it is touched so often. We survive the shock of the moment easier than the constant reminder of our loss. The old familiar face, debarred to the sense of sight, can be recalled by a stray word, a casual sight, a chance memory. The closer the intercourse had been, the more things there are in our lives associated with him--things that we did together, places that we visited together, thoughts even that we thought together.
There seems no region of life where we can escape from the suggestions of memory. The sight of any little object can bring him back, with his way of speaking, with his tricks of gesture, with all the qualities for which we loved him, and for which we mourn him now. If the intimacy was due to mere physical proximity, the loss will be only a vague sense of uneasiness through the breakdown of long-continued habit; but, if the two lives were woven into the same web, there must be ragged edges left, and it is a weary task to take up the threads again, and find a new woof for the warp. The closer the connection has been, the keener is the loss. It comes back to us at the sight of the many things associated with him, and, fill up our lives with countless distractions as we may, the shadow creeps back to darken the world.
Sometimes there is the added pain of remorse that we did not enough appreciate the treasure we possessed. In thoughtlessness we accepted the gift; we had so little idea of the true value of his friendship; we loved so little, and were so impatient:--if only we had him back again; if only we had one more opportunity to show him how dear he was; if only we had another chance of proving ourselves worthy. We can hardly forgive ourselves that we were so cold and selfish. Self-reproach, the regret of the unaccepted opportunity, is one of the commonest feelings after bereavement, and it is one of the most blessed.
Still, it may become a morbid feeling. It is a false sentimentalism which lives in the past, and lavishes its tenderness on memory. It is difficult to say what is the dividing line between healthy sorrow and morbid sentiment. It seems a natural instinct, which makes the bereaved care lovingly for the very grave, and which makes the mother keep locked up the little shoes worn by the little feet, relics hid from the vulgar eye. The instinct has become a little more morbid, when it has preserved the room of a dead mother, with its petty decorations and ornaments as she left them. Beautiful as the instinct may be, there is nothing so dangerous as when our most natural feeling turns morbid.
It is always a temptation, which grows stronger the longer we live, to look back instead of forward, to bemoan the past, and thus deride the present and distrust the future. We must not forget our present blessings, the love we still possess, the gracious influences that remain, and most of all the duties that claim our strength. The loving women who went early in the morning to the sepulchre of the buried Christ were met with a rebuke, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" They were sent back to life to find Him, and sent back to life to do honor to His death. Not by ointments and spices, however precious, nor at the rock-hewn tomb, could they best remember their Lord; but out in the world, which that morning had seemed so cold and cheerless, and in their lives, which then had seemed not worth living.
Christianity does not condemn any natural human feeling, but it will not let these interfere with present duty and destroy future usefulness. It does not send men to search for the purpose of living in the graves of their dead hopes and pleasures. Its disciples must not attempt to live on the relics of even great incidents, among crucifixes and tombs. In the Desert, the heart must reach forward to the Promised Land, and not back to Egypt. The Christian faith is for the future, because it believes in the God of the future. The world is not a lumber room, full of relics and remembrances, over which to brood. We are asked to remember the beautiful past which was ours, and the beautiful lives which we have lost, by making the present beautiful like it, and our lives beautiful like theirs. It is human to think that life has no future, if now it seems "dark with griefs and graves." It comes like a shock to find that we must bury our sorrow, and come into contact with the hard world again, and live our common life once more. The Christian learns to do it, not because he has a short memory, but because he has a long faith. The voice of inspiration is heard oftener through the realities of life, than through vain regrets and recluse dreams. The Christian life must be in its degree something like the Master's own life, luminous with His hope, and surrounded by a bracing atmosphere which uplifts all who even touch its outer fringe.
The great fact of life, nevertheless, is death, and it must have a purpose to serve and a lesson to teach. It seems to lose something of its impressiveness, because it is universal. The very inevitableness of it seems to kill thought, rather than induce it. It is only when the blow strikes home, that we are pulled up and forced to face the fact. Theoretically there is a wonderful unanimity among men, regarding the shortness of life and the uncertainty of all human relationships. The last word of the wise on life has ever been its fleetingness, its appalling changes, its unexpected surprises. The only certainty of life is its uncertainty--its unstable tenure, its inevitable end. But practically we go on as if we could lay our plans, and mortgage time, without doubt or danger; until our feet are knocked from under us by some sudden shock, and we realize how unstable the equilibrium of life really is. The lesson of life is death.
The experience would not be so tragically universal, if it had not a good and necessary meaning. For one thing it should sober us, and make our lives full of serious, solemn purpose. It should teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. The man, who has no place for death in his philosophy, has not learned to live. The lesson of death is life.
On the whole, however, it is not our own liability to death which oppresses us. The fear of it to a brave man, not to speak of a man of faith, can be overcome. It is the fear of it for others whom we love, which is its sting. And none of us can live very long without knowing in our own heart's experience the reality, as well as the terror, of death. This too has its meaning for us, to look at life more tenderly, and touch it more gently. The pathos of life is only a forced sentiment to us, if we have not felt the pity of life. To a sensitive soul, smarting with his own loss, the world sometimes seems full of graves, and for a time at least makes him walk softly among men.
This is one reason why the making of new friends is so much easier in youth than later on. Friendship comes to youth seemingly without any conditions, and without any fears. There is no past to look back at, with much regret and some sorrow. We never look behind us, till we miss something. Youth is satisfied with the joy of present possession. To the young friendship comes as the glory of spring, a very miracle of beauty, a mystery of birth: to the old it has the bloom of autumn, beautiful still, but with the beauty of decay. To the young it is chiefly hope: to the old it is mostly memory. The man who is conscious that he has lost the best of his days, the best of his powers, the best of his friends, naturally lives a good deal in the past.
Such a man is prepared for further losses; he has adjusted himself to the fact of death. At first, we cannot believe that it can happen to us and to our love; or, if the thought comes to us, it is an event too far in the future to ruffle the calm surface of our heart. And yet, it must come; from it none can escape. Most can remember a night of waiting, too stricken for prayer, too numb of heart even for feeling, vaguely expecting the blow to strike us out of the dark. A strange sense of the unreality of things came over us, when the black wave submerged us and passed on. We went out into the sunshine, and it seemed to mock us. We entered again among the busy ways of men, and the roar of life beat upon our brain and heart,
Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll,
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever looked with human eyes.
Was it worth while to have linked our lives on to other lives, and laid ourselves open to such desolation? Would it not be better to go through the world, without joining ourselves too closely to the fleeting bonds of other loves? Why deliberately add to our disabilities? But it is not a disability; rather, the great purpose of all our living is to learn love, even though we must experience the pains of love as well as the joys. To cut ourselves off from this lot of the human would be to impoverish our lives, and deprive ourselves of the culture of the heart, which, if a man has not learned, he has learned nothing. Whatever the risks to our happiness, we cannot stand out from the lot of man, without ceasing to be men in the only true sense.
It is not easy to solve the problem of sorrow. Indeed there is no solution of it, unless the individual soul works out its own solution. Most attempts at a philosophy of sorrow just end in high-sounding words. Explanations, which profess to cover all the ground, are as futile as the ordinary blundering attempts at comfort, which only charm ache with sound and patch grief with proverbs. The sorrow of our hearts is not appreciably lessened by argument. Any kind of philosophy--any wordy explanation of the problem--is at the best poor comfort. It is not the problem which brings the pain in the first instance: it is the pain which brings the problem. The heart's bitterness is not allayed by an exposition of the doctrine of providence. Rachel who weeps for her children, the father whose little daughter lies dead at home, are not to be appeased in their anguish by a nicely-balanced system of thought. Nor is surcease of sorrow thus brought to the man to whom has come a bereavement, or a succession of bereavements, which makes him feel that all the glory and joy of life, its friendship and love and hope, have gone down into the grave, so that he can say,
Three dead men have I loved,
And thou wert last of the three.
At the same time, if it be true that there is a meaning in friendship, a spiritual discipline to educate the heart and train the life, it must also be true that there is equally a meaning in the eclipse of friendship. If we have enough faith to see death to be good, we will find out for ourselves why it is good. It may teach us just what we were in danger of forgetting, some omission in our lives, which was making them shallow and poor. It may be to one a sight into the mystery of sin; to another a sight into the mystery of love. To one it comes with the lesson of patience, which is only a side of the lesson of faith; to another it brings the message of sympathy. As we turn the subject toward the light, there come gleams of color from different facets of it.
All life is an argument for death. We cannot persist long in the effort to live the Christian life, without feeling the need for death. The higher the aims, and the truer the aspirations, the greater is the burden of living, until it would become intolerable. Sooner or later we are forced to make the confession of Job, "I would not live alway." To live forever in this sordidness, to have no reprieve from the doom of sin, no truce from the struggle of sin, would be a fearful fate.
To the Christian, therefore, death cannot be looked on as evil; first, because it is universal, and it is universal because it is God-ordained. In St. Peter's, at Rome, there are many tombs, in which death is symbolized in its traditional form as a skeleton, with the fateful hourglass and the fearful scythe. Death is the rude reaper, who cruelly cuts off life and all the joy of life. But there is one in which death is sculptured as a sweet gentle motherly woman, who takes her wearied child home to safer and surer keeping. It is a truer thought than the other. Death is a minister of God, doing His pleasure, and doing us good.
Again, it cannot be evil because it means a fuller life, and therefore an opportunity for fuller and further service. Faith will not let a man hasten the climax; for it is in the hands of love, as he himself is. But death is the climax of life. For if all life is an argument for death, then so also all death is an argument for life.
Jowett says, in one of his letters, "I cannot sympathize in all the grounds of consolation that are sometimes offered on these melancholy occasions, but there are two things which have always seemed to me unchangeable: first, that the dead are in the hands of God, who can do for them more than we can ask or have; and secondly, with respect to ourselves, that such losses deepen our views of life, and make us feel that we would not always be here." These are two noble grounds of consolation, and they are enough.
Death is the great argument for immortality. We cannot believe that the living, loving soul has ceased to be. We cannot believe that all those treasures of mind and heart are squandered in empty air. We will not believe it. When once we understand the meaning of the spiritual, we see the absolute certainty of eternal life; we need no arguments for the persistence of being.
To appear for a little time and then vanish away, is the outward biography of all men, a circle of smoke that breaks, a bubble on the stream that bursts, a spark put out by a breath.
But there is another biography, a deeper and a permanent one, the biography of the soul. Everything that appears vanishes away: that is its fate, the fate of the everlasting hills as well as of the vapor that caps them. But that which does not appear, the spiritual and unseen, which we in our folly sometimes doubt because it does not appear, is the only reality; it is eternal and passeth not away. The material in nature is only the garb of the spiritual, as speech is the clothing of thought. With our vulgar standards we often think of the thought as the unsubstantial and the shadowy, and the speech as the real. But speech dies upon the passing wind; the thought alone remains. We consider the sound to be the music, whereas it is only the expression of the music, and vanishes away. Behind the material world, which waxes old as a garment, there is an eternal principle, the thought of God it represents. Above the sounds there is the music that can never die. Beneath our lives, which vanish away, there is a vital thing, spirit. We cannot locate it and put our finger on it; that is why it is permanent. The things we can put our finger on are the things which appear, and therefore which fade and die.
So, death to the spiritual mind is only eclipse. When there is an eclipse of the sun it does not mean that the sun is blotted out of the heavens: it only means that there is a temporary obstruction between it and us. If we wait a little, it passes. Love cannot die. Its forms may change, even its objects, but its life is the life of the universe. It is not death, but sleep: not loss, but eclipse. The love is only transfigured into something more ethereal and heavenly than ever before. Happy to have friends on earth, but happier to have friends in heaven.
And it need not be even eclipse, except in outward form. Communion with the unseen can mean true correspondence with all we have loved and lost, if only our souls were responsive. The highest love is not starved by the absence of its object; it rather becomes more tender and spiritual, with more of the ideal in it. Ordinary affection, on a lower plane, dependent on physical attraction, or on the earthly side of life, naturally crumbles to dust when its foundation is removed. But love is independent of time or space, and as a matter of fact is purified and intensified by absence. Separation of friends is not a physical thing. Lives can be sundered as if divided by infinite distance, even although materially they are near each other. This tragedy is often enough enacted in our midst.
The converse is also true; so that friendship does not really lose by death: it lays up treasure in heaven, and leaves the very earth a sacred place, made holy by happy memories. "The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity," said William Blake, speaking of the death of a loved brother, with whose spirit he never ceased to converse. There are people in our homes and our streets whose highest life is with the dead. They live in another world. We can see in their eyes that their hearts are not here. It is as if they already saw the land that is very far off. It is only far off to our gross insensate senses.
The spiritual world is not outside this earth of ours. It includes it and pervades it, finding a new centre for a new circumference in every loving soul that has eyes to see the Kingdom. So, to hold commerce with the dead is not a mere figure of speech. Heaven lies about us not only in our infancy, but all our lives. We blind ourselves with dust, and in our blindness lay hold feverishly of the outside of life, mistaking the fugitive and evanescent for the truly permanent. If we only used our capacities we would take a more enlightened view of death. We would see it to be the entrance into a more radiant and a more abundant life not only for the friend that goes first, but for the other left behind.
Spiritual communion cannot possibly be interrupted by a physical change. It is because there is so little of the spiritual in our ordinary intercourse that death means silence and an end to communion. There is a picture of death, which, when looked at with the ordinary perspective, seems to be a hideous skull, but when seen near at hand is composed of flowers, with the eyes, in the seemingly empty sockets of the skull, formed by two fair faces of children. Death at a distance looks horrible, the ghastly spectre of the race; but with the near vision it is beautiful with youth and flowers, and when we look into its eyes we look into the stirrings of life.
Love is the only permanent relationship among men, and the permanence is not an accident of it, but is of its very essence. When released from the mere magnetism of sense, instead of ceasing to exist, it only then truly comes into its largest life. If our life were more a life in the spirit, we would be sure that death can be at the worst but the eclipse of friendship. Tennyson felt this truth in his own experience, and expressed it in noble form again and again in In Memoriam--
Sweet human hand and lips and eye,
Dear heavenly friend that canst not die;
Strange friend, past, present, and to be;
Loved deeplier, darklier understood;
Behold I dream a dream of good,
And mingle all the world with thee.
Thy voice is on the rolling air;
I hear thee where the waters run;
Thou standest in the rising sun,
And in the setting thou art fair.
It is not loss, but momentary eclipse, and the final issue is a clearer perception of immortal love, and a deeper consciousness of eternal life.
The attitude of mind, therefore, in any such bereavement--sore as the first stroke must be, since we are so much the creatures of habit, and it is hard to adjust ourselves to the new relationship--cannot be an attitude merely of resignation. That was the extent to which the imperfect revelation of the Old Testament brought men. They had to rest in their knowledge of God's faithfulness and goodness. The limit of their faith was, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away." But to resignation we can add joy. "Not dead, but sleepeth," said the Master of death and life to a sorrowing man.
For one thing it must mean the hallowing of memory. The eclipse of love makes the love fairer when the eclipse passes. The loss of the outward purifies the affection and softens the heart. It brings out into fact what was often only latent in feeling. Memory adds a tender glory to the past. We only think of the virtues of the dead: we forget their faults. This is as it should be. We rightly love the immortal part of them; the fire has burned up the dross and left pure gold. If it is idealization, it represents that which will be, and that which really is.
We do not ask to forget; we do not want the so-called consolations which time brings. Such an insult to the past, as forgetfulness would be, means that we have not risen to the possibilities of communion of spirit afforded us in the present. We would rather that the wound should be ever fresh than that the image of the dear past should fade. It would be a loss to our best life if it would fade. There is no sting in such a faith. Such remembrance as this, which keeps the heart green, will not cumber the life. True sentiment does not weaken, but becomes an inspiration to make our life worthy of our love. It can save even a squalid lot from sordidness; for however poor we may be in the world's goods, we are rich in happy associations in the past, and in sweet communion in the present, and in blessed hope for the future.