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No. 72. SATURDAY, JANUARY 15, 1780.
Sunt lacrynice rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt.
VIRG. ÆN. i. . 462.
The consideration of death has been always made use of, by the moralist and the divine, as a powerful incentive to virtue and to piety. From the uncertainty of life, they have endeavoured to sink the estimation of its pleasures, and, if they could not strip the seductions of vice of their present enjoyment, at least to load them with the fear of their
Voluptuaries, on the other hand, have, from a similar reflection, endeavoured to enhance the value, and persuade to the enjoyment, of temporal delights. They have advised us to pluck the roses which would otherwise soon wither of themselves, to seize the moments which we could not long command, and, since time was unavoidably fleeting, to crown its flight with joy.
Of neither of these persuasives, whether of the moral or the licentious, the severe or the gay, have the effects been great. Life must necessarily consist of active scenes, which exclude from its general tenor the leisure of meditation, and the influence of thought. The schemes of the busy will not be checked by the uncertainty of their event, nor the amusements of the dissipated be either controlled or endeared by the shortness of their duration. Even the cell of the anchorite, and the cloister of the
monk, have their business and their pleasures ; for study may become business, and abstraction pleasure, when they engage the mind, and occupy the time. A man may even enjoy the present, and forget the future, at the very moment in which he is writing of the insignificancy of the former, and the importance of the latter.
It were easy to show the wisdow and benignity of Providence - Providence ever wise and benign in this particular of our constitution; but it would be trite to repeat arguments too obvious not to have been often observed, and too just not to have been always allowed.
But, though neither the situation of the world, nor the formation of our minds, allow the thoughts of futurity or death a constant or prevailing effect upon our lives, they may surely sometimes, not unseasonably, press upon our imagination; even exclusive of their moral or religious use. There is a sympathetic enjoyment which often makes it not only better, but more delightful, to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting.
Perhaps I felt it so, when, but a few days since, I attended the funeral of a young lady, who was torn, in the bloom of youth and beauty, from the arms of a father, who doated on her, of a family by whom she was adored; I think I would not have exchanged my feelings at the time for all the mirth which gayety could inspire, or all the pleasure which luxury could bestow.
Maria was in her twentieth year. To the beauty of her form, and excellence of her natural disposition, a parent equally indulgent and attentive had done the fullest justice. To accomplish her person, and to cultivate her mind, every endeavour had been used; and they had been attended with that success
- which they commonly met with, when not prevented by mistaken fondness or untimely vanity. Few young ladies have attracted more admiration ; none ever felt it less ; with all the charms of beauty, and the polish of education, the plainest were not less affected, nor the most ignorant less assuming. She died when every tongue was eloquent of her virtues, when every hope was ripening to reward them.
It is by such private and domestic distresses, that the softer emotions of the heart are most strongly excited. The fall of more important personages is commonly distant from our observation; but even where it happens under our immediate notice, there is a mixture of other feelings by which our compassion is weakened. The eminently great, or extensively useful, leave behind them a train of interrupted views, and disappointed expectations, by which the distress is complicated beyond the simplicity of pity. But the death of one who, like Maria, was to shed the influence of her virtues over the age of a father and the childhood of her sisters, presents to us a little view of family affliction, which every eye can perceive, and every heart can feel. On scenes of public sorrow and national regret, we gaze as upon those gallery pictures, which strike us with wonder and admiration ; domestic calamity is like the miniature of a friend, which we wear in our bosoms, and keep for secret looks and solitary enjoyment.
The last time I saw Maria, was in the midst of a crowded assembly of the fashionable and the gay, where she fixed all eyes by the gracefulness of her motions, and the native dignity of her mien; yet so tempered was that superiority which they conferred with gentleness and modesty, that not a murmur was heard, either from the rivalship of beauty or
the envy of homeliness. From that scene, the transition was so violent to the hearse and the pall, the grave and the sod, that once or twice my imagination turned rebel to my senses ; I beheld the objects around me as the painting of a dream, and thought of Maria as living still.
I was soon, however, recalled to the sad reality. The figure of her father bending over the grave of his darling child; the silent suffering composure in which his countenance was fixed; the tears of his attendants, whose grief was light, and capable of tears; these gave me back the truth, and reminded me that I should see her no more.
There was a flow of sorrow with which I suffered myself to be borne along, with a melancholy kind of indulgence; but when her father dropped the cord with which he had helped to lay his Maria in the earth, its sound on the coffin chilled my heart, and horror for a moment took place of pity!
It was but for a moment. He looked eagerly into the grave; made one involuntary motion to stop the assistants who were throwing the earth into it; then, suddenly recollecting himself, clasped his hands together, threw up his eyes to beaven ; and then first I saw a few tears drop from them. I gave language to all this. It spoke a lesson of faith, and piety, and resignation. I went away sorrowful, but my sorrow was neither ungentle nor unmanly; cast on this world a glance rather of pity than of enmity; on the next, a look of humbleness and hope!
Such, I am persuaded, will commonly be the effect of scenes like that I have described, on minds neither frigid nor unthinking; for of feelings like these, the gloom of the ascetic is as little susceptible as the levity of the giddy. There needs a certain
pliancy of mind, which society alone can give, though its vices often destroy, to render us capable of that gentle melancholy which makes sorrow pleasant, and affliction useful.
It is not from a melancholy of this sort, that men are prompted to the cold unfruitful virtues of monke ish solitude. These are often the effects rather of passion secluded than repressed, rather of temptation avoided than overcome. The crucifix and the rosary, the death's head and the bones, if custom has not made them indifferent, will rather chill desire than excite virtue; but, amidst the warmth of social affection, and of social sympathy, the heart will feel the weakness, and enjoy the duties, of humanity.
Perhaps, it will be said, that such situations, and such reflections as the foregoing, will only affect minds already too tender, and be disregarded by those who need the lessons they impart. But this, I apprehend, is to allow too much to the force of habit, and the resistance of prejudice. I will not pretend to assert, that rooted principles, and longestablished conduct, are suddenly to be changed by the effects of situation, or the eloquence of sentiment; but if it be granted that such change ever took place, who shall determine by what imperceptible motive, or accidental impression, it was first begun? And, even if the influence of such a call to thought can only smother, in its birth, one allurement to evil, or confirm one wavering purpose to virtue, I shall not have unjustly commended that occasional indulgence of pensiveness and sorrow, which will thus be rendered not only one of the refinements, but one of the improvements, of life.