Rock Island, IL
A gentleman, said John Henry Newman, “submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is inevitable.”
This is toward the end of The Idea of a University. Cardinal Newman is discussing “some of the lineaments of the ethical character, which the cultivated intellect will form, apart from religious principle.”
Such lineaments “are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate.” They “form the beau-ideal of the world.”
That we medicate for pain, hire litigious men to compensate bereavement, and call upon applied science to postpone death—indefinitely, were science able to do so—suggests how utterly unutterable these remarks are now. We submit to nothing. And that certainly merits commentary.
But I would say a word in favor of our unwillingness to submit, especially as regards death. I am not saying anything in favor of our appeals to applied science, which I take to be the narrowest of habits. Nor am I saying, as did a certain woman in one of Poe’s stories, that “man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will,” though I have some sympathies with that sentiment.
Rather, I am saying something in favor of life—of what Tennyson’s Ulysses called “life piled on life,” which itself “were too little” for one who has enjoyed and suffered all things “greatly” and who, even in his dotage, holds that
something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
For such men know something of what it is to be alive.
I don’t mean—and Tennyson didn’t mean—mere breathing (“as though to breathe were life”); I mean living.
I mean living as, I think, Emerson meant it when in “The Divinity School Address” he said, “In this refulgent summer it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.”
Think what you will of the address; Emerson hit the right note about this amazing frustrating exhilarating thing called life, the desire for which (the desire “but for life” as Poe’s Ligeia knew it ) is sometimes so intense a man can hardly bear it. “The meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers…. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade,” said the wondrously confused, the sometimes-right-and-often-wrong Sage of Concord. He, at least, knew what it meant to leave his study, to walk out-of-doors, and be a man again.
And yesterday I left The Ivory Dungeon under the cloak of God’s open sky, careless of whoever might notice, and, for fourteen bucks, stole fifteen holes of fall golf in the late warm October sun amid the purple oaks, the bee-loud glade, the twittering swallows, and the gathering twilight. You should have seen the beautiful right-to-left tee shot I hit on the long par-five twelfth. If it weren’t for the strong southerly wind—and praised be the climes that sent it thither—my five-wood second shot from an up-hill lie would have reached the dance floor. But I stuck a half-wedge hole-high anyway and then missed a twelve-foot birdie putt by hair’s breadth, caring not an ounce. In this mellowing autumn it has been a luxury to draw the sweet breath of dying life.
And what a life, dying though it be! This morning outside my third-floor office window a rainbow stretched itself across Old Man River, reminding me and all those who were paying attention on a certain day in British Romanticism that nature does not—decidedly it does not—enjoy an existence independent of our perception. We made that rainbow, by God! We and sunlight and rainfall and God Himself. That’s what a proper doctrine of imagination maintains–and what anyone who cares to investigate the matter knows full well. Let the materialists boast and pontificate and rage to the contrary. We who on honey-dew have fed, we who have drunk the milk of paradise, know better. The materialists, sod them, are wrong, wrong, wrong! Let them fornicate themselves!
But, alas, ever at my back I hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
For this high priest of life has seen it sacrificed upon the altar of youth. Thrice he has seen nature reversed, its normal succession interrupted. That is to say that, within a very narrow circle of relations, he has seen a grandfather, a father- and mother-in-law, and an uncle and aunt all put a son or daughter in the ground.
And all his bad dreams are about burying a child. Who’s to say, given the familial percentage, that he will escape the family scourge?
I am saying that against the refulgent summer stands the chilling winter—the winter not of our discontent but of our sorrowful condition. Who, I wish to know, can reconcile the refulgent summer of this incredible life with chilling winter of its cessation?
But notwithstanding the familial record, which I fear bodes poorly for some unsuspecting someone, I for one am on the side of life. I will not give myself willingly to the angels. A sickness unto death would make short work of that stance, I know, and Miss O’Connor, who is never to be dismissed, said that such a sickness is a great mercy, but for now I’m with those pleasing anxious beings who cast that last longing lingering look behind, as Gray put it in his incomparable elegy. I’m with Peter Mathiessen’s dying lioness, who, as life forsakes her, licks passionately the grass about her withered and trembling frame.
Cling to the old rugged cross? Not I. I’ll cling to the topside of the rugged ground. I “can something,” said Hopkins, can “hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.”
Let goods and kindred go? This mortal life also? Not so fast. It was all pronounced good, every inch of it. And every inch of it is redeemable, the death of any particle thereof an atrocity. I’ll drink it to the lees. I’ll have the refulgent and the Indian summers alike. I’ll have the snow and the bitter cold. I’ll have the niggardly spring and the sultry fourth of July. The body they may kill. It is resurrected still.