Alexander Smith

Of death and the fear of dying

Let me curiously analyse eternal farewells, and the last pressures of loving hands. Let me smile at faces bewept, and the nodding plumes and slow paces of funerals. Let me write down brave heroical sentences—sentences that defy death, as brazen Goliath the hosts of Israel.

When death waits for us is uncertain, let us everywhere look for him. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; who has learnt to die, has forgot to serve. There is nothing of evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that death is no evil; to know how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint. Paulus Aemilius answered him whom the miserable king of Macedon, his prisoner, sent to entreat him that he would not lead him in his triumph, 'Let him make that request to himself.' In truth, in all things, if nature do not help a little, it is very hard for art and industry to perform anything to purpose. I am, in my own nature, not melancholy, but thoughtful; and there is nothing I have more continually entertained myself withal than the imaginations of death, even in the gayest and most wanton time of my age. In the company of ladies, and in the height of mirth, some have perhaps thought me possessed of some jealousy, or meditating upon the uncertainty of some imagined hope, whilst I was entertaining myself with the remembrance of some one surprised a few days before with a burning fever, of which he died, returning from an entertainment like this, with his head full of idle fancies of love and jollity, as mine was then; and for aught I knew, the same destiny was attending me. Yet did not this thought wrinkle my forehead any more than any other. . . . Why dost thou fear this last day? It contributes no more to thy destruction than every one of the rest. The last step is not the cause of lassitude, it does but confer it. Every day travels toward death; the last only arrives at it. These are the good lessons our mother nature teaches. I have often considered with myself whence it should proceed, that in war the image of death—whether we look upon it as to our own particular danger, or that of another—should, without comparison, appear less dreadful than at home in our own houses, (for if it were not so, it would be an army of whining milksops,) and that being still in all places the same, there should be, notwithstanding, much more assurance in peasants and the meaner sort of people, than others of better quality and education; and I do verily believe, that it is those terrible ceremonies and preparations wherewith we set it out, that more terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living, the cries of mothers, wives and children, the visits of astonished and affected friends, the attendance of pale and blubbered servants, a dark room set round with burning tapers, our beds environed with physicians and divines; in fine, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us, render it so formidable, that a man almost fancies himself dead and buried already. Children are afraid even of those they love best, and are best acquainted with, when disguised in a vizor, and so are we; the vizor must be removed as well from things as persons; which being taken away, we shall find nothing underneath but the very same death that a mean servant, or a poor chambermaid, died a day or two ago, without any manner of apprehension or concern.

—Montaigne

Men feare death as children feare to goe in the darke; and as that natural feare in children is increased with tales, so in the other. Certainly the contemplation of death as the wages of sinne, and passage to another world, is holy and religious; but the feare of it as a tribute unto nature, is weake. Yet in religious meditations there is sometimes mixture of vanitie and of superstition. You shal reade in some of the friars’ books of mortification, that a man should thinke unto himself what the paine is if he have but his finger-end pressed or tortured; and thereby imagine what the pains of death are when the whole body is corrupted and dissolved; when many times death passeth with lesse paine than the torture of a Lemme. For the most vitall parts are not the quickest of sense. Groanes and convulsions, and a discoloured face, and friends weeping, and blackes and obsequies, and the like, shew death terrible. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the minde of man so weake but it mates and masters the feare of death; and therefore death is no such terrible enemy when a man hath so many attendants about him that can winne the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over death, love subjects it, honour aspireth to it, griefe fleeth to it, feare pre-occupieth it; nay, we read, after Otho the emperour had slaine himselfe, pitty, (which is the tenderest of affections,) provoked many to die, out of meer compassion to their soveraigne, and as the truest sort of followers. . . . . It is as naturall to die as to be born; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for the time scarce feels the hurt; and, therefore, a minde mixt and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the sadness of death. But above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is Nunc Dimittis, when a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations. Death hath this also; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envie.

—Bacon

These sentences of the great essayists are brave and ineffectual as Leonidas and his Greeks. Death cares very little for sarcasm or trope; hurl at him a javelin or a rose, it is all one. We build around ourselves ramparts of stoical maxims, edifying to witness, but when the terror comes these yield as the knots of river flags to the shoulder of Behemoth.

Death is terrible only in presence. When distant, or supposed to be distant, we can call him hard or tender names, nay, even poke our poor fun at him. Mr. Punch, on one occasion, when he wished to ridicule the useful-information leanings of a certain periodical publication, quoted from its pages the sentence, “Man is mortal,” and people were found to grin broadly over the exquisite stroke of humour. Certainly the words, and the fact they contain, are trite enough. Utter the sentence gravely in any company, and you are certain to provoke laughter. And yet some subtile recognition of the fact of death runs constantly through the warp and woof of the most ordinary human existence. And this recognition does not always terrify. The spectre has the most cunning disguises, and often when near us we are unaware of the fact of proximity. Unsuspected, this idea of death lurks in the sweetness of music; it has something to do with the pleasures with which we behold the vapours of morning; it comes between the passionate lips of lovers; it lives in the thrill of kisses. “An inch deeper, and you will find the emperor.” Probe joy to its last fibre, and you will find death. And it is the most merciful of all the merciful provisions of nature, that a haunting sense of insecurity should deepen the enjoyment of what we have secured; that the pleasure of our warm human day and its activities should to some extent arise from a vague consciousness of the waste night which environs it, in which no arm is raised, in which no voice is ever heard. Death is the ugly fact which nature has to hide, and she hides it well. Human life were otherwise an impossibility. The pantomime runs on merrily enough; but when once Harlequin lifts his vizor, Columbine disappears, the jest is frozen on the Clown’s lips, and the hand of the filching Pantaloon is arrested in the act. Wherever death looks, there is silence and trembling. But although on every man he will one day or another look, he is coy of revealing himself till the appointed time. He makes his approaches like an Indian warrior, under covers and ambushes. We have our parts to play, and he remains hooded till they are played out. We are agitated by our passions, we busily pursue our ambitions, we are acquiring money or reputation, and all at once, in the centre of our desires, we discover the “Shadow feared of man.” And so nature fools the poor human mortal evermore. When she means to be deadly, she dresses her face in smiles; when she selects a victim, she sends him a poisoned rose. There is no pleasure, no shape of good fortune, no form of glory in which death has not hid himself, and waited silently for his prey.

And death is the most ordinary thing in the world. It is as common as births; it is of more frequent occurrence than marriages and the attainment of majorities. But the difference between death and other forms of human experience lies in this, that we can gain no information about it. The dead man is wise, but he is silent. We cannot wring his secret from him. We cannot interpret the ineffable calm which gathers on the rigid face. As a consequence, when our thought rests on death we are smitten with isolation and loneliness. We are without company on the dark road; and we have advanced so far upon it that we cannot hear the voices of our friends. It is in this sense of loneliness, this consciousness of identity and nothing more, that the terror of dying consists. And yet, compared to that road, the most populous thoroughfare of London or Pekin is a desert. What enumerator will take for us the census of dead? And this matter of death and dying, like most things else in the world, may be exaggerated by our own fears and hopes. Death, terrible to look forward to, may be pleasant even to look back at. Could we be admitted to the happy fields, and hear the conversations which blessed spirits hold, one might discover that to conquer death a man has but to die; that by that act terror is softened into familiarity, and that the remembrance of death becomes but as the remembrance of yesterday. To these fortunate ones death may be but a date, and dying a subject fruitful in comparisons, a matter on which experiences may be serenely compared. Meantime, however, we have not yet reached that measureless content, and death scares, piques, tantalises, as mind and nerve are built. Situated as we are, knowing that it is inevitable, we cannot keep our thoughts from resting on it curiously, at times. Nothing interests us so much. The Highland seer pretended that he could see the winding-sheet high upon the breast of the man for whom death was waiting. Could we behold any such visible sign, the man who bore it, no matter where he stood—even if he were a slave watching Caesar pass—would usurp every eye. At the coronation of a king, the wearing of that order would dim royal robe, quench the sparkle of the diadem, and turn to vanity the herald’s cry. Death makes the meanest beggar august, and that augustness would assert itself in the presence of a king. And it is this curiosity with regard to everything related to death and dying which makes us treasure up the last sayings of great men, and attempt to wring out of them tangible meanings. Was Goethe’s “Light—light, more light!” a prayer, or a statement of spiritual experience, or simply an utterance of the fact that the room in which he lay was filling with the last twilight? In consonance with our own natures, we interpret it the one way or the other—he is beyond our questioning. For the same reason it is that men take interest in executions—from Charles I. on the scaffold at Whitehall, to Porteous in the Grassmarket execrated by the mob. These men are not dulled by disease, they are not delirious with fever; they look death in the face, and what in these circumstances they say and do has the strangest fascination for us.

What does the murderer think when his eyes are forever blinded by the accursed nightcap? In what form did thought condense itself between the gleam of the lifted axe and the rolling of King Charles’s head in the saw-dust? This kind of speculation may be morbid, but it is not necessarily so. All extremes of human experience touch us; and we have all the deepest personal interest in the experience of death. Out of all we know about dying we strive to clutch something which may break its solitariness, and relieve us by a touch of companionship.

To denude death of its terrible associations were a vain attempt. The atmosphere is always cold around an iceberg. In the contemplation of dying the spirit may not flinch, but pulse and heart, colour and articulation, are always cowards. No philosophy will teach them bravery in the stern presence. And yet there are considerations which rob death of its ghastliness, and help to reconcile us to it. The thoughtful happiness of a human being is complex, and in certain moved moments, which, after they have gone, we can recognise to have been our happiest, some subtle thought of death has been curiously intermixed. And this subtle intermixture it is which gives the happy moment its character—which makes the difference between the gladness of a child, resident in mere animal health and impulse, and too volatile to be remembered, and the serious joy of a man, which looks before and after, and takes in both this world and the next. Speaking broadly, it may be said that it is from some obscure recognition of the fact of death that life draws its final sweetness. An obscure, haunting recognition, of course; for if more than that, if the thought becomes palpable, defined, and present, it swallows up everything. The howling of the winter wind outside increases the warm satisfaction of a man in bed; but this satisfaction is succeeded by quite another feeling when the wind grows into a tempest, and threatens to blow the house down. And this remote recognition of death may exist almost constantly in a man’s mind, and give to his life keener zest and relish. His lights may burn the brighter for it, and his wines taste sweeter. For it is on the tapestry or a dim ground that the figures come out in the boldest relief and the brightest colour.

If we were to live here always, with no other care than how to feed, clothe, and house ourselves, life would be a very sorry business. It is immeasurably heightened by the solemnity of death. The brutes die even as we; but it is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us human. If nature cunningly hides death, and so permits us to play out our little games, it is easily seen that our knowing it to be inevitable, that to every one of us it will come one day or another, is a wonderful spur to action. We really do work while it is called to-day, because the night cometh when no man can work. We may not expect it soon—it may not have sent us a single avant-courier—yet we all know that every day brings it nearer. On the supposition that we were to live here always, there would be little inducement to exertion. But, having some work at heart, the knowledge that we may be, any day, finally interrupted, is an incentive to diligence. We naturally desire to have it completed, or at least far advanced toward completion, before that final interruption takes place. And knowing that his existence here is limited, a man’s workings have reference to others rather than to himself, and thereby into his nature comes a new influx of nobility. If a man plants a tree, he knows that other hands than his will gather the fruit; and when he plants it, he thinks quite as much of those other hands as of his own. Thus to the poet there is the dearer life after life; and posterity’s single laurel leaf is valued more than a multitude of contemporary bays. Even the man immersed in money-making does not make money so much for himself as for those who may come after him. Riches in noble natures have a double sweetness. The possessor enjoys his wealth, and he heightens that enjoyment by the imaginative entrance into the pleasure which his son or his nephew may derive from it when he is away, or the high uses to which he may turn it. Seeing that we have no perpetual lease of life and its adjuncts, we do not live for ourselves. And thus it is that death, which we are accustomed to consider an evil, really acts for us the friendliest part, and takes away the commonplace of existence. My life, and your life, flowing on thus day by day, is a vapid enough piece of business; but when we think that it must close, a multitude of considerations, not connected with ourselves but with others, rush in, and vapidity vanishes at once. Life, if it were to flow on forever and thus, would stagnate and rot. The hopes, and fears, and regrets, which move and trouble it, keep it fresh and healthy, as the sea is kept alive by the trouble of its tides. In a tolerably comfortable world, where death is not, it is difficult to see from what quarter these healthful fears, regrets, and hopes could come. As it is, there are agitations and sufferings in our lots enough; but we must remember that it is on account of these sufferings and agitations that we become creatures breathing thoughtful breath. As has already been said, death takes away the commonplace of life. And positively, when one looks on the thousand and one poor, foolish, ignoble faces of this world, and listens to the chatter as poor and foolish as the faces, one, in order to have any proper respect for them, is forced to remember that solemnity of death, which is silently waiting. The foolishest person will look grand enough one day. The features are poor now, but the hottest tears and the most passionate embraces will not seem out of place then. If you wish to make a man look noble, your best course is to kill him. What superiority he may have inherited from his race, what superiority nature may have personally gifted him with, comes out in death. The passions which agitate, distort, and change, are gone away forever, and the features settle back into a marble calm, which is the man’s truest image. Then the most affected look sincere, the most volatile, serious—all noble, more or less. And nature will not be surprised into disclosures. The man stretched out there may have been voluble as a swallow, but now—when he could speak to some purpose—neither pyramid nor sphinx holds a secret more tenaciously.

Consider, then, how the sense of impermanence brightens beauty and elevates happiness. Melancholy is always attendant on beauty, and that melancholy brings out its keenness as the dark green corrugated leaf brings out the wan loveliness of the primrose. The spectator enjoys the beauty, but his knowledge that it is fleeting, and that he fleeting, adds a pathetic something to it; and by that something the beautiful object and the gazer are alike raised.

Everything is sweetened by risk. The pleasant emotion is mixed and deepened by a sense of mortality. Those lovers who have never encountered the possibility of last embraces and farewells are novices in the passion. Sunset affects us more powerfully than sunrise, simply because it is a setting sun, and suggests a thousand analogies. A mother is never happier than when her eyes fill over her sleeping child, never does she kiss it more fondly, never does she pray for it more fervently; and yet there is more in her heart than visible red cheek and yellow curl; possession and bereavement are strangely mingled in the exquisite maternal mood, the one heightening the other. All great joys are serious; and emotion must be measured by its complexity and the deepness of its reach. A musician may draw pretty notes enough from a single key, but the richest music is that in which the whole force of the instrument is employed, in the production of which every key is vibrating; and, although full of solemn touches and majestic tones, the final effect may be exuberant and gay. Pleasures which rise beyond the mere gratification of the senses are dependant for their exquisiteness on the number and variety of the thoughts which they evoke. And that joy is the greatest which, while felt to be joy, can include the thought of death and clothe itself with that crowning pathos. And in the minds of thoughtful persons every joy does, more or less, with the crowning pathos clothe itself.

In life there is nothing more unexpected and surprising than the arrivals and departures of pleasure. If we find it in one place to-day, it is vain to seek it there to-morrow. You cannot lay a trap for it. It will fall into no ambuscade, concert it ever so cunningly. Pleasure has no logic; it never treads in its own footsteps. Into our commonplace existence it comes with a surprise, like a pure white swan from the airy void into the ordinary village lake; and just as the swan, for no reason that can be discovered, lifts itself on its wings and betakes itself to the void again, it leaves us, and our sole possession is its memory. And it is characteristic of pleasure that we can never recognise it to be pleasure till after it is gone. Happiness never lays its finger on its pulse. If we attempt to steal a glimpse of its features it disappears. It is a gleam of unreckoned gold. From the nature of the case, our happiness, such as in its degree it has been, lives in memory. We have not the voice itself; we have only its echo. We are never happy; we can only remember that we were so once. And while in the very heart and structure of the happy moment there lurked an obscure consciousness of death, the memory in which past happiness dwells is always a regretful memory. This is why the tritest utterance about the past, youth, early love, and the like, has always about it an indefinable flavour of poetry, which pleases and affects. In the wake of a ship there is always a melancholy splendour. The finest set of verses of our modern time describes how the poet gazed on the “happy autumn fields,” and remembered the “days that were no more.” After all, a man’s real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich, in nothing else is he poor.

In our warm imaginative youth, death is far removed from us, and attains thereby a certain picturesqueness. The grim thought stands in the ideal world as a ruin stands in a blooming landscape. The thought of death sheds a pathetic charm over everything then. The young man cools himself with a thought of the winding-sheet and the charnel, as the heated dancer cools himself on the balcony with the night-air. The young imagination plays with the idea of death, makes a toy of it, just as a child plays with edge-tools till once it cuts its fingers. The most lugubrious poetry is written by very young and tolerably comfortable persons. When a man’s mood becomes really serious he has little taste for such foolery. The man who has a grave or two in his heart, does not need to haunt churchyards. The young poet uses death as an antithesis; and when he shocks his reader by some flippant use of it in that way, he considers he has written something mightily fine. In his gloomiest mood he is most insincere, most egotistical, most pretentious. The older and wiser poet avoids the subject as he does the memory of pain; or when he does refer to it, he does so in a reverential manner, and with some sense of its solemnity and of the magnitude of its issues. It was in that year of revelry, 1814, and while undressing from balls, that Lord Byron wrote his “Lara,” as he informs us. Disrobing, and haunted, in all probability, by eyes in whose light he was happy enough, the spoiled young man, who then affected death-pallors, and wished the world to believe that he felt his richest wines powdered with the dust of graves,—of which wine, notwithstanding, he frequently took more than was good for him,—wrote,

That sleep the loveliest, since it dreams the least.

The sleep referred to being death. This was meant to take away the reader’s breath; and after performing the feat, Byron betook himself to his pillow with a sense of supreme cleverness. Contrast with this Shakspeare’s far out-looking and thought-heavy lines—lines which, under the same image, represent death—

      To die—to sleep;—
To sleep! perchance to dream;—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come!

And you see at once how a man’s notions of death and dying are deepened by a wider experience. Middle age may fear death quite as little as youth fears it; but it has learned seriousness, and it has no heart to poke fun at the lean ribs, or to call it fond names like a lover, or to stick a primrose in its grinning chaps, and draw a strange pleasure from the irrelevancy.

The man who has reached thirty, feels at times as if he had come out of a great battle. Comrade after comrade has fallen; his own life seems to have been charmed. And knowing how it fared with his friends—perfect health one day, a catarrh the next, blinds drawn down, silence in the house, blubbered faces of widow and orphans, intimation of the event in the newspapers, with a request that friends will accept of it, the day after—a man, as he draws near middle age, begins to suspect every transient indisposition; to be careful of being caught in a shower, to shudder at sitting in wet shoes; he feels his pulse, he anxiously peruses his face in a mirror, he becomes critical as to the colour of his tongue. In early life illness is a luxury, and draws out toward the sufferer curious and delicious tendernesses, which are felt to be a full over-payment of pain and weakness; then there is the pleasant period of convalescence, when one tastes a core and marrow of delight in meats, drinks, sleep, silence; the bunch of newly-plucked flowers on the table, the sedulous attentions and patient forbearance of nurses and friends. Later in life, when one occupies a post, and is in discharge of duties which are accumulating against recovery, illness and convalescence cease to be luxuries. Illness is felt to be a cruel interruption of the ordinary course of things, and the sick person is harassed by a sense of the loss of time and the loss of strength. He is placed hors de combat; all the while he is conscious that the battle is going on around him, and he feels his temporary withdrawal a misfortune. Of course, unless a man is very unhappily circumstanced, he has in his later illnesses all the love, patience, and attention which sweetened his earlier ones; but then he cannot rest in them, and accept them as before as compensation in full. The world is ever with him; through his interests and his affections he has meshed himself in an intricate net-work of relationships and other dependences, and a fatal issue—which in such cases is ever on the cards—would destroy all these, and bring about more serious matters than the shedding of tears. In a man’s earlier illnesses, too, he had not only no such definite future to work out, he had a stronger spring of life and hope; he was rich in time, and could wait; and lying in his chamber now, he cannot help remembering that, as Mr. Thackeray expresses it, there comes at last an illness to which there may be no convalescence. What if that illness be already come? And so there is nothing left for him, but to bear the rod with patience, and to exercise a humble faith in the Ruler of all. If he recovers, some half-dozen people will be made happy; if he does not recover, the same number of people will be made miserable for a little while, and, during the next two or three days, acquaintances will meet in the street—“You’ve heard of poor So-and-so? Very sudden! Who would have thought it? Expect to meet you at ——’s on Thursday. Good-bye.” And so to the end. Your death and my death are mainly of importance to ourselves. The black plumes will be stripped off our hearses within the hour; tears will dry, hurt hearts close again, our graves grow level with the church-yard, and although we are away, the world wags on. It does not miss us; and those who are near us, when the first strangeness of vacancy wears off, will not miss us much either.

We are curious as to death-beds and death-bed sayings; we wish to know how the matter stands; how the whole thing looks to the dying. Unhappily—perhaps, on the whole, happily—we can gather no information from these. The dying are nearly as reticent as the dead. The inferences we draw from the circumstances of death, the pallor, the sob, the glazing eye, are just as likely to mislead us as not. Manfred exclaims, “Old man, ’tis not so difficult to die!” Sterling wrote Carlyle “that it was all very strange, yet not so strange as it seemed to the lookers on.” And so, perhaps, on the whole it is. The world has lasted six thousand years now, and, with the exception of those at present alive, the millions who have breathed upon it—splendid emperors, horny-fisted clowns, little children, in whom thought has never stirred—have died, and what they have done, we also shall be able to do. It may not be so difficult, may not be so terrible, as our fears whisper. The dead keep their secrets, and in a little while we shall be as wise as they—and as taciturn.

(1863)

MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “Of death and the fear of dying.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 Sep 2007. 25 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/death_and_the_fear_of_dying/>.

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