Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XXIV.

THE WORLD AFTER US.

“What if thou shalt fall
Unnoticed by the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure ? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care,
Plod on, and each one, as before, will chase
His favourite phantom.”

W. C. BRYANT'S Thanatopsis.

A

GREAT truth is not to be ignored. If it bring with it the duty of personal applica

tion, it should be sought and not shunned. Sad it may be, at first, and seemingly humiliating ; yet shall its investigation ultimately prove to be profitable. Only, be the enquiry made in a humble and chastened spirit, befitting the disciples of a crucified and glorified Master.

It may read like a truism, to affirm that the world will be “after us," and will be the same when we are gone, as now when we are participating in its daily occurrences. Self-evident is the assertion's truth, yet is it suggestive of reflections, improving and perhaps as yet inexperienced. When our place knoweth us no more, just as regularly then will the sweet Spring carpet the earth with her flowers; and blushing Summer, as a maiden in her loveliness, enchain the eyes of every beholder; and russet Autumn from her cornucopia pour out her stores; and pale Winter hang from the boughs and cottageeaves her pendant icicles. The Ocean, without intermission, will know its periodical ebbings and flowings. The Sun will irradiate the eastern horizon, duly climb into its mid-station in the heavens, and slowly sink away in the glories of even-tide. The Moon will occupy the midnight heavens; and, as a queen, show herself there, walking in brightness.

“ That glorious Star
In its untroubled element will shine
As now it shines, when we are laid in earth."*

Cities will be all a-light; fulness and want, splendour and misery, blamelessness and sin, will abound in them as now. The calm country will still be seen, stretching away in its loveliness. The mountain will lift its head, and the brook hasten on its way;

the bird carol in the tree, and the insect disport itself in the air; and we—shall behold them no longer! Nay, these dwellings, that we foolishly call “home,” will forget us. Others will claim them, and establish themselves in full possession. Within and without, alterations will be effected. Strangers will occupy the well-known apartments, and will re-fashion and re-furnish them after their pleasure. In the very chamber where our last breath was given, will be heard the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness——the voice of the bridegroom, and the

* Wordsworth's " Excursion." Book vi.

voice of the bride. And we—shall be utterly forgotten.

In one of his multitudinous epistles, the poet Pope remarks grimly that “all things would be as gay as ever on the day of his death ;” and Boswell* has preserved for us some of Johnson's comments on this, as he calls it, “plaintive reflection.” I do not adduce these apophthegms of the lexicographer ; for they appear to me trivial and commonplace, unworthy of the theme, and unworthy of the great thinker that uttered them. Far nobler, in my judgment, are the utterances of good Bishop Hallt:

“When I am dead and forgotten, the world will be as it is; the same succession and varieties of seasons, the same revolutions of heaven, the same changes of earth and sea, the like occurrents of natural events and human affairs. It is not in my power to alter the course of things, or to prevent what must be. What should I do, but quietly take my part of the present; and humbly leave the care of the future to that all-wise Providence, which ordereth all things, even the most cross events, according to His most holy and just purposes ?

Few are willing to assume this humbled, yet most happy, position. The many, in the dim consciousness of immortality, confound forgetfulness with annihilation; and, as they cannot endure the thought of extinction, so continually protest they against the defacement of their memories by oblivion. To retard, if not to prevent, the casualty, the costly mausoleum is piled; the marble is made to assume man's living lineaments; the brass registers high deeds of daring; and the pennon waves its drapery over the silent house of the dead. And all is found, in the end, to be but labour and sorrow. Man “cometh in with vanity, and departeth in darkness, and his name is covered with darkness." He seeks to make of himself some record in life; and it is as though he wrote on the sands. Ere long the cold wave sweeps over that place, and blots out its inscribed characters for ever.

* “The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” Vol. ii. page 151. London : 1791.

+ “Select Thoughts; or, Choice Helps for a Pious Spirit : A Century of Divine Breathings for a Ravished Soul, Beholding the Excellencies of her Lord Jesus.” London : 1647.

My quaint old favourite, Sir Thomas Browne,* has written about these things so convincingly, that I may not enter into competition with him. Here are his reflections in a necropolis :

What time the persons of these ossuaries entered into the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and counsellors, might admit a wide solution. But who are the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarianism; not to be resolved by man.

Had they made as good provision for their names as they have done for their relics, they had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes, which, in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as emblems of mortal vanities, antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and maddening vices.”

* The delightful author, it is hardly necessary for me to say, of Religio Medici,” first published in 1642; of “Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a Treatise on Vulgar Errors,” published in 1646 ; of Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial,” published in 1658, and of other masterpieces of English prose literature.

He sets forth the uselessness of monuments :

“There is no antidote against the opium of time, which temporally considereth all things. Our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce forty years.

Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks. To be read by bare inscriptions like many in Gruter,* to hope for eternity by enigmatical epithets, or first letters of our names, to be studied by antiquaries who we were, and have new names given us, like many of the mummies, are cold consolations unto the students of perpetuity, even by everlasting languages.”

Mere names, "naked nominations,"

“as Browne calls them, “without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsam of our memories, the entelechia and soul of our subsistences,” are rightly estimated by him as nothing. He proceeds :

“To be nameless in worthy deeds exceeds an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives more happily without a name than Herodias with one. And who had not rather have been the good thief than Pilate?

He considers the “iniquity”—or, as we should now say, the inequality—“of oblivion.” He pities the founder of the pyramids. He shows that the name of the burner of Diana's temple at Ephesus has reached us, while we have almost forgotten that of the builder; that the epitaph of Adrian's horse is preserved, while we have lost that of himself; and that bad names are likely to live as long as good names, for Thersites is mentioned in the same page

* The compiler of the well-known collection of Epitaphs, entitled Inscriptiones Antique.

« PreviousContinue »