Louise Imogen Guiney

On dying considered as a dramatic situation

A man of thought wears himself out, standing continually on the defensive. The more original a character, the more it is at war with common conditions, the more it wastes its substance scourging the tides and charging windmills; and this being recognized, the exceptional person, your poet or hero, is expected to show an ascetic pallor, to eat and sleep little, to have a horrible temper, and to die at thirty-seven. Has he an active brain, he must pay for it by losing all the splendid passivity, inner and outer, which belongs to oxen and philosophers. Nor, on the other hand, will stupidity and submission promote longevity: for this is a bullying world. A wight with no mind to end himself by fretting and overdoing, is charitably ended by the action of his superiors, social or military. How many privates had out of Balaklava but a poor posthumous satisfaction! The Saxon soldier does not shed his skin in times of peace: he is the same in garrisons and barracks as amid the roar of guns; and his ruling passion is still to stand in herds and be killed. A few years ago, an infantry company, in the south of England, were marching into the fields for rifle-practice. Filing through a narrow lane, they saw two runaway horses, half-detached from their carriage, round the bend and rush towards them. The officer in charge either did not perceive them so soon as the others, or else he was slow to collect his wits, and give the order to disperse into the hedgerows for safety. As the order, for whichever cause, was not uttered, not a single recruit moved a muscle; but the ranks strode on, with as solid and serene a front as if on dress-parade, straight under those wild hoofs and wheels: and afterwards, what was left of eleven men was cheerfully packed off, not to the cemetery, by great luck, but to the hospital. And in Germany, only the other day, the sergeant who superintends the daily gymnastic exercises of a certain camp, marched a small detachment of men, seven or eight in number, into the lake to swim. In went the men, up to their necks and over their heads, and made an immediate and unanimous disappearance. The sergeant, impatient to have them finish their bath, returned presently, and was shocked to discover that they were all drowned! Now, it happened that the seven or eight could not swim a stroke between them, but they thought it unnecessary to make any remark to that effect. Is it not evident that these fine dumb fellows can beat the world at a fight? Yet their immense practical value has no artistic significance. They strike the unintelligent attitude. It is no part of a private’s business to exert his choice, his volition; and without these, he loses pertinence. Therefore, to wear the eternal “piece of purple” in a ballad, you must be at least a corporal.

The mildest and sanest of us has a sneaking admiration for a soldier: lo, it is because his station implies a disregard for what we call the essential. The only elegant, gratifying exit of such a one is in artillery-smoke. A boy reads of Winkelried and d’Assas with a thrill of satisfaction. Hesitation, often most meritorious, is unforgivable in those who have espoused a duty and a risk. Courage is the most ordinary of our virtues: it ought to win no great plaudits; but for one who withholds it, and “dares not put it to the touch,” we have tremendous vituperations. In short, that man makes but a poor show thenceforward among his fellows, who having had an eligible chance to set up as a haloed ghost, evades it, and forgets the serviceable maxim of Marcus Aurelius, that “part of the business of life is to lose it handsomely.” Of like mind was Masonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus: “Take the first chance of dying nobly, lest, soon after, dying indeed come to thee, but noble dying nevermore.” Once in a while, such counsels stir a fellow-mortal beyond reason, and persuade him “for a small flash of honor to cast away himself.” And if so, it proves that at last the right perception and application of what we are has dawned upon him.

Though we get into this world by no request of our own, we have a great will to stay in it: our main desire, despite a thousand buffets of the wind, is to hang on to the branch. The very suicide-elect, away from spectators, oftenest splashes back to the wharf. Death is the one visitor from whom we scurry like so many children, and terrors thrice his size we face with impunity at every turn. The real hurt and end-all may be in the shape of a fall, a fire, a gossamer-slight misunderstanding. Or “the catastrophe is a nuptial,” as Don Adriano says in the comedy. But we can breast out all such venial calamities, so that we are safe from that which heals them. We have, too, an unconscious compassion for the men of antiquity. Few, if it came to the point, would change day for day, and be Alexander, on the magnificent consideration that, although Alexander was an incomparable lion, Alexander is dead. Herrick’s ingenuous verse floats into memory:

I joy to see
Myself alive: this age best pleaseth me

Superfluous adorners of the nineteenth century, we have no enthusiasm to be what our doom makes us, mere gradators, little mounting buttresses of a coral-reef, atoms atop several layers, and presently buried under several more. We would strut, live insects for ever, working and waltzing over our progenitors’ bones. Seventy-five flushing years are no boon to us, if at that tender period’s end, we must be pushed aside from the wheel of the universe, and swept up like so much dust and chaff. Nor does it help us, when it comes to the inevitable disposal, to recall that while there were as yet no operas, menus, nor puns, one Methusalem and his folk had nine lazy centuries of it, and that their polar day, which was our proper heritage, vanished with them, and beggared the almanac. Appreciation of life is a modern art: it seems vexing enough that just in inverse proportion to the growing capacity of ladies and gentlemen, is the ever-diminishing room allotted wherein to exhibit it to “the scoffing stars.” Time has stolen us from our decades sacred to truancy and the circus, to adventure and loafing. Where is the age apiece in which to explode shams, to do vast deeds, to generalize, to learn a hawk from a hernshaw, to be good—O, to be good! an hour before bedtime? Evening for us should be a dogma in abstracto; seas and suns should change; horizons should stretch incalculably, cities bulge over their boundaries, deserts thicken with carriages, polite society increase and abound in caves and balloons, and in starlit tavern doorways on Matterhorn top: and still, crowded and jostled by less favored humanity, elbowing it through extinct and unborn multitudes, we would live, live! and there should be no turf broken save by the plough, and no urns except for roses.

It demonstrates what an amusing great babe a man is, that his love of life is usually equivalent to love of duration of life. To be ninety, we take to mean that one has had ninety years’ worth out of the venture: a calculation born of the hoodwinking calendar, and of a piece with Dogberry’s deductions. But this estimable existence of ours is measured by depths and not by lengths; it is not uncommon for those who have compassed its greatest reach to be translated young, and wept over by perspicuous orators. And the smug person who expires “full of years,” and empty, forsooth, of all things else, whose life is indeed covered, in several senses, by a life-insurance, is thought to be the enviable and successful citizen. It is quite as well that the gods have allowed us no vote concerning our own fates: it would be too hard a riddle to guess whether it is a dignified thing to continue, or when it is a profitable hour to cease. A greedy soul, desiring to live, reaps his wish, like Endymion, between moonrise and dawn, and gapes, yet unaware, for a bank-account and octogenarianism. Why wouldst thou grow up, sirrah? “To be a philosopher? a madman. An alchemist? A beggar. A poet? esurit: a hungry jack.” Mere possibility of further sensation is a curious object of worship and desire. It has no meaning, save in relation to its starry betters in whose courts it is a slave, for whose good it may become a victim. A lover protesting to his lady that she is dearer to him than his life, is paying her, did he but consider it, a tricksy trivial compliment: as if he had said that she was more precious than a prejudice, adorable beyond a speculation. On the negative side only, in the subjective application, life is dear. Certainly, one can conceive of no more monstrous wrong to a breathing man than to announce his demise. Swift’s mortuary joke on Partridge is the supreme joke. A report that you are extinct damages your reputation beyond repair. We may picture a vision of wrath bursting into the editor’s office: “I am told that yesterday you had my name, sir, in your column of Deaths. I demand contradiction.” Unto whom the editor: “The Evening Bugaboo never contradicts itself. But I will, with pleasure, put you in, to-night, under the heading of Births.” Some considerations are to the complainant a fiery phooka: strive as he will to adjust them, he get thrown, and bruises his bones.

Life is legal tender, and individual character stamps its value. We are from a thousand mints, and all genuine; despite our infinitely diverse appraisements, we “make change” for one another. So many ideals planted are worth the great gold of Socrates; so many impious laws broken are worth John Brown. We may give ourselves a ha’pence fees for horses, social vogue, tobacco, books, a journey; or be lavished at once for some good outranking them all. And of the two dangers of hoarding and spending, the former seems a thousand times more imminent and appalling. Our moralists, who have done away with duels, and taught us the high science of solidarity, have deflected us from our collateral relative, the knight-errant, who seemed to go about seeking that which might devour him. But there are times when a prince is called suddenly at his coronation, and must throw largesses as he rides; when the commonest workday life hears a summons, and wins the inalienable right to spill itself on the highway, among the crowd. We make a miserable noisy farcical entry, one by one, on the terrene stage; it is a last dramatic decency that we shall learn to bow ourselves out with gallantry, be it even among the drugs and pillows of a too frequent lot. But the enviable end is the other: some situations have inherent dignity, and exist already in the play. Death in battle is (for the commissioned officer) a gracefully effective mode of extinction; so is any execution for principle’s sake. The men who fill the historic imagination are the men who strove and failed, and put into port at Traitor’s Gate. The political scaffold, in fact, is an artistic creation. When a scholar looks up, the first eyes he meets are the eyes of those who stand there, in cheerful acquiescence, “alive, alert, immortal.” “An axe,” says Bishop Jeremy Taylor, “is a much less affliction than a strangury.” While the headsman awaited on every original inspiration, under “hateful Henry” as under Nero, life certainly had a romance and gusto unknown to modern spirits. The rich possibilities of any career got, at some time, congested tragically into this. How readily any one might see that, and welcome the folly and ignominy which drove him to an illustrious early grave! Raleigh, at the last, kissed the yet bloodless blade “which ends this strange eventful history,” saying: “’Tis a sharp medicine, but a cure for all diseases.” Disguised and hunted, Campion of S. John’s, following his duty, steals along the Harrow Road, by Tyburn tree, and passing it, in a sort of awful love-longing, and as if greeting the promised and foreordained, smilingly raises his hat. Not by grace only are men “so in love with death,” but by habit, by humor, and through economic effort. Logic as well as faith understands the evangel: “Whoso loseth his life shall find it.” The hero can await, without a flutter, the disarming of his hand and hope; for he can never be stolen upon unawares. His prayer has always been for

Life that dares send
A challenge to its end,
And when it comes, say, “Welcome, friend!”

He must cease en gentilhomme, as he has heretofore continued. To have Azrael catch him by the leg, like a scampering spider, is not agreeable to his ideas of etiquette. At any age, after any fashion, it is only the hero who dies; the rest of us are killed off. He resembles Cartwright’s “virtuous young gentlewoman”:

Others are dragged away, or must be driven;
She only saw her time, and stepped to Heaven.

We act out to its close our parable of the great babe, who has clutched his little treasure long and guardedly, unwilling to share it, and from whom, for discipline’s sake, it must needs be taken. But the martyr-mind, in conscious disposal, is like the young Perseus, bargaining with Pallas Athene for a brief existence and glory. The soul meets its final opportunity, as at a masked ball; if it cannot stand and salute, to what end were its fair faculties given? Or, we are all pedestrians in a city, hurrying towards our own firesides, eager, preoccupied, mundane. Perhaps at the turn of a steep street, there is the beauty of sunset, “brightsome Apollo in his richest pomp,” the galleons of cloudland in full sail, every scarlet pennon flying. One or two pause, as if from a sharp call or reminder, and beholding such a revelation, forget the walk and the goal, and are rapt into infinitude. Immortalitas adest! Now, most of us crawl home to decease respectably of “a surfeit of lampreys.” We keep the names, however, of those who seem to make their exit to the sound of spiritual trumpets, and who fling our to-morrow’s innocent gauds away, to clothe themselves with inexhaustible felicity.

(1897)

MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “On dying considered as a dramatic situation.” 1897. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 5 Mar 2007. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/dying_considered/>.

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