The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
"Those Whom the Gods Love Die Young"
by W. Osborne Brigstocke
"Warum bin ich vergánglich, o Zeus? So fragte die Schönheit.
Literal translation from Google/Babblefish Language Tools:
Far in the past of every race and nation lie, half concealed, ideas that appear to have a common origin. One of these is the idea that the loved of the gods die young.
And yet the thought is not convincingly true; it comes to all of us inevitably in a twofold aspect—subjectively and objectively: in the one case we assent, in the other we cannot but dissent. No one can look without a touch of sorrow upon a work that death has intercepted. Stand in an orchard when the spring gales roughly fling the blossoms and the unformed fruit to shrivel on the grass. Or see that withered nosegay in the dusty road on which the evening vainly drops its quickening dew: why should a few wild roses, buttercups and poppies make one feel that, being picked, they would not have been thus left to die except for rue? Or read the half-told tale until you come to where the writer had to lay down the pen for ever. In a word, go when you will where death steps in to put an unexpected full stop in the sentence of a life, and ask yourself whether or not you are quite satisfied to think that the priceless tissue God gives each man to be embroidered should, to all appearance, be left but partly wrought. It seems indeed that, as Lord Tennyson said, our only teachers are time and God: that it must be best to live and not die young, for—
"The best is yet to be
And in this mood we are apt not to think of the many for whom time's horn of plenty has no gifts except the added years; of the many whose "hearts are dry as summer dust—burnt to the socket" [Wordsworth]; we think far rather of the great old men who dread to "live after their flame lacks oil, to be the snuff of younger spirits," [from All's Well That Ends Well] yet keep the flame of life bright till the close, and show how life can be a struggle to the very end, and, therefore, a continual pressing forward. Childhood, they say, is innocence indeed, but age is sympathy, and sorrows, though "lessons right severe" [Robert Burns], are fountains of wit that can be got "nae other where."
And yet, how few who have not known days when they wished they had died in youth, died when the whole world was small compared with their boundless hope, died when the sun and stars, and the hills and the flowers, and wide, wide sea still shimmered in gleaming brightness through an unrent veil of mist, died when faith still taught that this wicked world is good, died when ambition glowed with such fervour that no effort seemed great enough, died before time had revealed that a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend may be unkind, before death had wrung the heart dry of all comfort except one promise that Someone is the life, died, as Stevenson says, "in the hot-fit of life, a tip-toe on the highest point of being," whence one could pass "at a bound to the other side, the noise of the mallet and chisel scarcely quenched and the trumpets hardly done blowing."
The value of life cannot be measured by its length; a few years may leave an indelible trace on the world; much joy and sorrow may be crowded into a short intense existence—such for instance as Pompilia's, Shelley's, Ganymede's. And readers of Goethe cannot hear this last name without thinking of the upward longing, up and upward thither where young minds so easily, so fondly dwell,—where hearts can be that wish for room to love, where artist souls may linger when they dream of beauty that eludes them, where music seems to come uncalled to give expression to the tenderest emotions. That is the death that Caponsacchi spoke of as a "spurning of the ground," that is the land to which it is a favour to be called, called by the gods in youth even from this lovely world where summer breezes laden with the flowers' fragrance dally with the leaves that try to see their silver sides reflected in a pool half hidden by the water plants on which the sun flakes quiver—from a world with possibilities of love and light and sound and sympathy boundless enough for the most eager soul—all this one leaves, for a land above where love is not a possibility but the life, where fragrance, colour music, beauty, are not things that come and go, but stay to gladden heavenly souls for-ever. That is the home of those whom the gods love, those who die young. Would we not be with them rather than left behind to live and to grow old!
"It is as natural to die as to be born": but as Lord Bacon adds a few lines lower down, "we must above all believe that the sweetest canticle is Nunc Dimittis [Song of Simeon in Luke 2], when a man hath obtained worth, ends and expectations." When; there's the rub. And with the bereaved one may indeed ask "why before then?" Why should we hear a mourner by a child's death-bed sobbing, "Is it good that a child should die? Is it good that the light should turn dark, the dawn die in east? Is it good that the frail fair spring should shrivel in an April frost, that the blossoms and blooms should wither before summer's coming? Is it right that lambs should languish, that the birds should find closed beaks when they fly to their nests with food? Is it good a child should die, die in its lovely innocence, in its joy, in its hope, in its love? Ah, wherefore the pain and watching, the affectionate longing care? And wherefore this glimpse of a better joy if the treasure belong to death? Why should death steal a life full of promise, full of unknown possibilities? Is it good? Is it good? Yet they say that the children that die are the ones whom the gods love most!"
And with the grief the thoughts crowd in upon him, thoughts of the future thus abruptly closed, of the strange, mysterious taking of a life he justly deemed his own. He is blind—ah, no! it is the tears that for the moment blind him—to the happy fields through which the young soul must have "run back to the Creator who first gave it life," to the bright seventh heaven where those angel children always look upon the Light of light—to that he cannot turn his half-numbed thoughts feeling sure that he has "reason to be fond of grief," that with poor Arthur's mother he must say—
"Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
"As you fondle your little one, says Epictetus, murmur to yourself, 'To-morrow perchance it will die.'—'Ominous, is it?'—'Nothing is ominous,' said the sage, 'that signifies an act of nature. Is it ominous to harvest the ripe ears?' The green grape, the cluster, the raisin, change following change, not into nothingness, but to the not yet realized."
These few words added by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus as a comment on a brother Stoic's teaching, must surely stand as a refutation of the charge of stony-heartedness which is so often advanced against a man who must indeed in some ways have been almost superhuman in his abnegation and self-mortification. Few utterances are sadder than his words, "As autumn leaves thy little ones!" But surely that beautiful thought "to the not yet realised" betrays the golden malleable heart hidden by that steely will. There is the whole secret of that confident assertion that those whom the gods love die young. It is because there is somewhere deep down in the innermost recesses of every human heart the conviction that it is not to nothingness but to the "not yet realised" that we go when we leave this world.
And yet, even when we realize that it is to this "yet unrealised" that a loved child goes, can we restrain the thought that for our sakes—for us who stay behind to mourn—the brightness of his life might have been left to gladden us? The lovely words of Schiller, "Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten, ist herrlich," ["even to be a lament in the mouth of a loved one is glorious"], can only give us consolation in our happier moods. Does it reconcile us to our loss to realise that loveliness is by nature fleeting?
But after all, there comes, like half-obliterated memories fetched back to mind in later years, the knowledge that no death is premature. How can it be? We ask not for the privilege of living. Also the Nunc Dimittis comes in God's good time. What if it come during the first young years? God calls a loved child; can we wonder that the child we love so deeply is one of those whom God loves too, so that He cannot spare him any longer? And in our most despondent moments, we may hear, like some old melody that takes the mind back to loved scenes long since lost, the sweet words:—
"I know not where His islands lift
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, September 2008
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