Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
A Reverie on Death
By William Drummond of Hawthornden (15851649)
From A Cypress Grove
HAVING often and diverse times, when I had given myself to rest in the quiet solitariness of the night, found my imagination troubled with a confused fear, or sorrow or horror, which, interrupting sleep, did astonish my senses, and rouse me all appalled, and transported in a sudden agony and amazedness: of such an unaccustomed perturbation not knowing, not being able to dive into any apparent cause, carried away with the stream of my then doubting thoughts, I began to ascribe it to that secret foreknowledge and presaging power of the prophetic mind, and to interpret such an agony to be to the spirit, as a sudden faintness and universal weariness useth to be to the body, a sign of following sickness; or as winter lightnings, earthquakes, and monsters are to commonwealths and great cities, harbingers of wretched events, and emblems of their sudden destinies.
Hereupon, not thinking it strange, if whatsoever is human should befal me, knowing how providence overcomes grief, and discountenances crosses; and that, as we should not despair in evils which may happen to us, we should not be too confident, nor lean much to those goods we enjoy; I began to turn over in my remembrance all that could afflict miserable mortality, and to forecast everything which could beget gloomy and sad apprehensions, and with a mask of horror show itself to human eyes: till in the end, as by unities and points mathematicians are brought to great numbers and huge greatness, after many fantastical glances of the woes of mankind, and those incumbrances which follow upon life, I was brought to think, and with amazement, on the last of human terrors, or (as one termed it) the last of all dreadful and terrible evils, Death.
For to easy censure it would appear, that the soul, if it can foresee that divorcement which it is to have from the body, should not without great reason be thus over-grieved, and plunged in inconsolable and unaccustomed sorrow: considering their near union, long familiarity and love, with the great change, pain, and ugliness, which are apprehended to be the inseparable attendants of Death.
They had their being together, parts they are of one reasonable creature, the harming of the one is the weakening of the working of the other. What sweet contentments doth the soul enjoy by the senses! They are the gates and windows of its knowledge, the organs of its delight. If it be tedious to an excellent player on the lute, to abide but a few months the want of one, how much more the being without such noble tools and engines be painful to the soul? And if two pilgrims which have wandered some few miles together, have a hearts-grief when they are near to part, what must the sorrow be at parting of two so loving friends and never-loathing lovers, as are the body and soul?
Death is the violent estranger of acquaintance, the eternal divorcer of marriage, the ravisher of the children from the parents, the stealer of parents from their children, the interrer of fame, the sole cause of forgetfulness, by which the living talk of those gone away as of so many shadows or age-worn stories. All strength by it is enfeebled, beauty turned into deformity and rottenness, honour into contempt, glory into baseness. It is the reasonless breaker off of all actions, by which we enjoy no more the sweet pleasures of earth, nor contemplate the stately revolutions of the heavens. The sun perpetually setteth, stars never rise unto us: It in one moment robbeth us of what with so great toil and care in many years we have heaped together: By this are succession of lineages cut short, kingdoms left heirless, and greatest states orphaned: It is not overcome by pride, soothed by flattery, tamed by entreaties, bribed by benefits, softened by lamentations, nor diverted by time. Wisdom, save this, can prevent and help everything. By Death we are exiled from this fair city of the world: it is no more a world unto us, nor we any more a people unto it. The ruins of fanes, palaces, and other magnificent frames yield a sad prospect to the soul; and how should it without horror view the wreck of such a wonderful masterpiece as is the body?
That Death naturally is terrible and to be abhorred, it cannot well and altogether be denied, it being a privation of life, and a not being; and every privation being abhorred of nature, and evil in itself, the fear of it too being ingenerated universally in all creatures. Yet I have often thought that even naturally, to a mind by nature only resolved and prepared, it is more terrible in conceit than in verity, and at the first glance than when well pryed into; and that rather by the weakness of our fantasy than by what is in it; and that the marble colours of obsequies, weeping, and funeral pomp (which we ourselves paint it with) did add much more ghastliness unto it than otherwise it hath. To aver which conclusion, when I had gathered my wandering thoughts, I began thus with myself.
If on the great theatre of this earth among the numberless number of men, to die were only proper to thee and thine, then undoubtedly thou had reason to repine at so severe and partial a law. But since it is a necessity, from which never any age by-past hath been exempted, and unto which they which be, and so many as are to come, are thralled (no consequent of life being more common and familiar), why shouldst thou with unprofitable and nought-availing stubbornness, oppose so inevitable and necessary a condition? This is the high-way of morality, and our general home: Behold what millions have trod it before thee, what multitudes shall after thee, with them which at that same instant run. In so universal a calamity (if Death be one) private complaints cannot be heard: with so many royal palaces, it is no loss to see thy poor cabin burn. Shall the heavens stay their ever-rolling wheels (for what is the motion of them but the motion of a swift and ever-whirling wheel, which twineth forth and again uprolleth our life), and hold still time to prolong thy miserable days, as if the highest of their working were to do homage unto thee? Thy death is a pace of the order of this All, a part of the life of this world; for while the world is the world, some creatures must die, and others take life. Eternal things are raised far above this sphere of generation and corruption, where the first matter, like an ever flowing and ebbing sea, with divers waves, but the same water, keepeth a restless and never tiring current; what is below in the universality of the kind, not in itself doth abide: Man a long line of years hath continued, This man every hundred is swept away. This globe environed with air is the sole region of Death, the grave where everything that taketh life must rot, the stage of fortune and change, only glorious in the inconstancy and varying alterations of it, which though many, seem yet to abide one, and being a certain entire one, are ever many. The never agreeing bodies of the elemental brethren turn one into another; the earth changeth her countenance with the seasons, sometimes looking cold and naked, other times hot and flowery: nay, I cannot tell how, but even the lowest of those celestial bodies, that mother of months, and empress of seas and moisture, as if she were a mirror of our constant mutability, appeareth (by her too great nearness unto us) to participate of our changes, never seeing us twice with that same face; now looking black, then pale and wan, sometimes again in the perfection and fulness of her beauty shining over us. Death no less than life doth here act a part, the taking away of what is old being the making way for what is young. This earth is as a table-book, and men are the notes; the first are washen out, that new may be written in. They who fore-went us did leave a room for us, and should we grieve to do the same to those which should come after us? Who, being suffered to see the exquisite rarities of an antiquarys cabinet, is grieved that the curtain be drawn, and to give place to new pilgrims? And when the Lord of this Universe hath shewed us the amazing wonders of his various frame, should we take it to heart, when he thinketh time, to dislodge? This is his unalterable and inevitable decree: As we had no part of our will in our entrance into this life, we should not presume to any in our leaving it, but soberly learn to will that which he wills, whose very will giveth being to all that it wills; and reverencing the Orderer, not repine at the order and laws, which al-where and always are so perfectly established, that who would essay to correct and amend any of them, he should either make them worse, or desire things beyond the level of possibility. All that is necessary and convenient for us, He hath bestowed upon us, and freely granted; and what He hath not bestowed or granted us, neither is it necessary nor convenient that we should have it.
If thou dost complain that there shall be a time in which thou shalt not be, why dost thou not also grieve that there was a time in which thou was not; and so that thou art not as old as that enlivening planet of time? For not to have been a thousand years before this moment, is as much to be deplored, as not to live a thousand after it, the effect of them both being one: that will be after us, which, long long before we were, was. Our childrens children have that same reason to murmur, that they were not young men in our days, which we have to complain that we shall not be old in theirs. The violets have their time, though they impurple not the winter, and the roses keep their season, though they disclose not their beauty in the spring.
Empires, states, and kingdoms have, by the doom of the supreme Providence, their fatal periods; great cities lie sadly buried in their dust; arts and sciences have not only their eclipses, but their wanings and deaths. The ghastly wonders of the world, raised by the ambition of ages, are overthrown and trampled: some lights above, not idly entitled stars, are lost, and never more seen of us: the excellent fabric of this universe itself shall one day suffer ruin, or a change like ruin; and should poor earthlings thus to be handled complain?
But that, perhaps, which anguisheth thee most, is to have this glorious pageant of the world removed from thee in the spring and most delicious season of thy life; for though to die be usual, to die young may appear extraordinary. If the present fruition of these things be unprofitable and vain, what can a long continuance of them be? If God had made life happier, he had also made it longer. Stranger and new halcyon, why would thou longer nestle amidst these unconstant and stormy waves? Hast thou not already suffered enough of this world, but thou must yet endure more? To live long, is it not to be long troubled? But number thy years, which are now and thou shalt find that whereas ten have outlived thee, thousands have not attained this age. One year is sufficient to behold all the magnificence of nature, nay, even one day and night; for more is but the same brought again. This sun, that moon, these stars, the varying dance of the spring, summer, autumn, winter, is that very same which the Golden Age did see. They which have the longest time lent them to live in, have almost no part of it at all, measuring it either by the space of time which is past, when they were not, or by that which is to come. Why shouldst thou then care, whether thy days be many or few, which, when prolonged to the uttermost, prove, paralleled with eternity, as a tear is to the ocean? To die young, is to do that soon, and in some fewer days, which once thou must do; it is but the giving over of a game, that after never so many hazards must be lost. When thou hast lived to that age thou desirest, or one of Platos years, so soon as the last of thy days riseth above thy horizon, thou wilt then, as now, demand longer respite, and expect more to come. The oldest are most unwilling to die. It is hope of long life that maketh life seem short. Who will behold, and with the eye of judgment behold, the many changes attending human affairs, with the after-claps of fortune, shall never lament to die young. Who knows what alterations and sudden disasters in outward estate or inward contentments, in this wilderness of the world, might have befallen him who dieth young, if he had lived to be old? Heaven foreknowing imminent harms, taketh those which it loves to itself before they fall forth. Death in youth is like the leaving a superfluous feast before the drunken cups be presented. Pure, and (if we may so say) virgin souls carry their bodies with no small agonies, and delight not to remain long in the dregs of human corruption, still burning with a desire to turn back to the place of their rest; for this world is their inn, and not their home. That which may fall forth every hour, cannot fall out of time. Life is a journey on a dusty way, the furthest rest is Death, in this some go more heavily burdened than others: Swift and active pilgrims come to the end of it in the morning or at noon, which tortoise-paced wretches, clogged with the fragmentary rubbish of this world, scarce with great travail crawl unto at midnight. Days are not to be esteemed after the number of them, but after the goodness. More compass maketh not a sphere more complete, but as round is a little as a large ring; nor is that musician most praiseworthy who hath longest played, but he in measured accents who hath made sweetest melody. To live long hath often been a let to live well. Muse not how many years thou mightest have enjoyed life, but how sooner thou mightest have losed it; neither grudge so much that it is no better, as comfort thyself that it hath been no worse. Let it suffice that thou hast lived till this day, and (after the course of this world) not for nought thou hast had some smiles of fortune, favours of the worthiest, some friends, and thou hast never been disfavoured of Heaven.
As those images were pourtrayed in my mind (the morning star now almost arising in the East), I found my thoughts in a mild and quiet calm; and not long after, my senses, one by one, forgetting their uses, began to give themselves over to rest, leaving me in a still and peaceable sleep, if sleep it may be called, when the mind awaking is carried with free wings from our fleshly bondage. For heavy lids had not long covered their lights, when I thought, nay sure, I was, where I might discern all in this great All, the large compass of the rolling circles, the brightness and continual motion of those rubies of the night, which by their distance here below cannot be perceived; the silver-countenance of the wandering Moon, shining by anothers light; the hanging of the Earth, as environed with a girdle of crystal; the Sun enthronised in the midst of the planets, eye of the heavens, and gem of this precious ring, the World. But whilst with wonder and amazement I gazed on those celestial splendours and the beaming lamps of that glorious temple, like a poor country man brought from his solitary mountains and flocks to behold the magnificence of some great city, there was presented to my sight a Man, as in the spring of years, with that self-same grace, comely features, and majestic look, which the late was wont to have; on whom I had no sooner set mine eyes, when (like one planet-stricken) I became amazed: But he, with a mild demeanour, and voice surpassing all human sweetness, appeared (methought) to say:
What is it doth thus anguish and trouble thee? Is it the remembrance of Death, the last period of wretchedness, and entry to these happy places; the lantern which lighteneth men to see the mystery of the blessedness of Spirits, and that glory which transcendith the curtain of things visible? Is thy fortune below on that dark globe (which scarce by the smallness of it appeareth here) so great, that thou are heart-broken and dejected to leave it? What if thou wert to leave behind thee a so glorious in the eye of the world (yet but a mote of dust encircled with a pond) as that of mine, so loving , such great hopes, these had been apparent occasions for lamenting; and but apparent. Dost thou think thou leavst life too soon? Death is best young. Things fair and excellent are not of long endurance upon earth. Who liveth well liveth long. Souls most beloved of their Maker are soonest relieved from their bleeding cares of life, and most swiftly wafted through the surges of human miseries. Opinion, that great enchantress and poiser of things, not as they are but as they seem, hath not in anything more than in the conceit of Death, abused man: who must not measure himself, and esteem his estate, after his earthly being, which is but as a dream; for, though he be born on the earth, he is not born for the earth, more than the embryo for the mothers womb. It complaineth to be delivered of its bands, and to come to the light of this world; and man bewaileth to be loosed from the chains with which he is fettered in that valley of vanities.