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The Inner Life - HAMLET AMONG THE GRAVES Post by :axeman Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :1839

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The Inner Life - HAMLET AMONG THE GRAVES

(1844.)

AN amiable enthusiast, immortal in his beautiful little romance of Paul and Virginia, has given us in his Miscellanies a chapter on the Pleasures of Tombs,--a title singular enough, yet not inappropriate; for the meek- spirited and sentimental author has given, in his own flowing and eloquent language, its vindication. "There is," says he, "a voluptuous melancholy arising from the contemplation of tombs; the result, like every other attractive sensation, of the harmony of two opposite principles,--from the sentiment of our fleeting life and that of our immortality, which unite in view of the last habitation of mankind. A tomb is a monument erected on the confines of two worlds. It first presents to us the end of the vain disquietudes of life and the image of everlasting repose; it afterwards awakens in us the confused sentiment of a blessed immortality, the probabilities of which grow stronger and stronger in proportion as the person whose memory is recalled was a virtuous character.

"It is from this intellectual instinct, therefore, in favor of virtue, that the tombs of great men inspire us with a veneration so affecting. From the same sentiment, too, it is that those which contain objects that have been lovely excite so much pleasing regret; for the attractions of love arise entirely out of the appearances of virtue. Hence it is that we are moved at the sight of the small hillock which covers the ashes of an infant, from the recollection of its innocence; hence it is that we are melted into tenderness on contemplating the tomb in which is laid to repose a young female, the delight and the hope of her family by reason of her virtues. In order to give interest to such monuments, there is no need of bronzes, marbles, and gildings. The more simple they are, the more energy they communicate to the sentiment of melancholy. They produce a more powerful effect when poor rather than rich, antique rather than modern, with details of misfortune rather than titles of honor, with the attributes of virtue rather than with those of power. It is in the country principally that their impression makes itself felt in a very lively manner. A simple, unornamented grave there causes more tears to flow than the gaudy splendor of a cathedral interment. There it is that grief assumes sublimity; it ascends with the aged yews in the churchyard; it extends with the surrounding hills and plains; it allies itself with all the effects of Nature,--with the dawning of the morning, with the murmuring of wind, with the setting of the sun, and with the darkness of the night."

Not long since I took occasion to visit the cemetery near this city. It is a beautiful location for a "city of the dead,"--a tract of some forty or fifty acres on the eastern bank of the Concord, gently undulating, and covered with a heavy growth of forest-trees, among which the white oak is conspicuous. The ground beneath has been cleared of undergrowth, and is marked here and there with monuments and railings enclosing "family lots." It is a quiet, peaceful spot; the city, with its crowded mills, its busy streets and teeming life, is hidden from view; not even a solitary farm-house attracts the eye. All is still and solemn, as befits the place where man and nature lie down together; where leaves of the great lifetree, shaken down by death, mingle and moulder with the frosted foliage of the autumnal forest.

Yet the contrast of busy life is not wanting. The Lowell and Boston Railroad crosses the river within view of the cemetery; and, standing there in the silence and shadow, one can see the long trains rushing along their iron pathway, thronged with living, breathing humanity,--the young, the beautiful, the gay,--busy, wealth-seeking manhood of middle years, the child at its mother's knee, the old man with whitened hairs, hurrying on, on,--car after car,--like the generations of man sweeping over the track of time to their last 'still resting-place.

It is not the aged and the sad of heart who make this a place of favorite resort. The young, the buoyant, the light-hearted, come and linger among these flower-sown graves, watching the sunshine falling in broken light upon these cold, white marbles, and listening to the song of birds in these leafy recesses. Beautiful and sweet to the young heart is the gentle shadow of melancholy which here falls upon it, soothing, yet sad, --a sentiment midway between joy and sorrow. How true is it, that, in the language of Wordsworth,--

"In youth we love the darkling lawn,
Brushed by the owlet's wing;
Then evening is preferred to dawn,
And autumn to the spring.
Sad fancies do we then affect,
In luxury of disrespect
To our own prodigal excess
Of too familiar happiness."

The Chinese, from the remotest antiquity, have adorned and decorated their grave-grounds with shrubs and sweet flowers, as places of popular resort. The Turks have their graveyards planted with trees, through which the sun looks in upon the turban stones of the faithful, and beneath which the relatives of the dead sit in cheerful converse through the long days of summer, in all the luxurious quiet and happy indifference of the indolent East. Most of the visitors whom I met at the Lowell cemetery wore cheerful faces; some sauntered laughingly along, apparently unaffected by the associations of the place; too full, perhaps, of life, and energy, and high hope to apply to themselves the stern and solemn lesson which is taught even by these flower-garlanded mounds. But, for myself, I confess that I am always awed by the presence of the dead. I cannot jest above the gravestone. My spirit is silenced and rebuked before the tremendous mystery of which the grave reminds me, and involuntarily pays:

"The deep reverence taught of old,
The homage of man's heart to death."

Even Nature's cheerful air, and sun, and birdvoices only serve to remind me that there are those beneath who have looked on the same green leaves and sunshine, felt the same soft breeze upon their cheeks, and listened to the same wild music of the woods for the last time. Then, too, comes the saddening reflection, to which so many have given expression, that these trees will put forth their leaves, the slant sunshine still fall upon green meadows and banks of flowers, and the song of the birds and the ripple of waters still be heard after our eyes and ears have closed forever. It is hard for us to realize this. We are so accustomed to look upon these things as a part of our life environment that it seems strange that they should survive us. Tennyson, in his exquisite metaphysical poem of the Two Voices, has given utterance to this sentiment:--

"Alas! though I should die, I know
That all about the thorn will blow
In tufts of rosy-tinted snow.

"Not less the bee will range her cells,
The furzy prickle fire the dells,
The foxglove cluster dappled bells."

"The pleasures of the tombs!" Undoubtedly, in the language of the Idumean, seer, there are many who "rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they can find the grave;" who long for it "as the servant earnestly desireth the shadow." Rest, rest to the sick heart and the weary brain, to the long afflicted and the hopeless,--rest on the calm bosom of our common mother. Welcome to the tired ear, stunned and confused with life's jarring discords, the everlasting silence; grateful to the weary eyes which "have seen evil, and not good," the everlasting shadow.

Yet over all hangs the curtain of a deep mystery,--a curtain lifted only on one side by the hands of those who are passing under its solemn shadow. No voice speaks to us from beyond it, telling of the unknown state; no hand from within puts aside the dark drapery to reveal the mysteries towards which we are all moving. "Man giveth up the ghost; and where is he?"

Thanks to our Heavenly Father, He has not left us altogether without an answer to this momentous question. Over the blackness of darkness a light is shining. The valley of the shadow of death is no longer "a land of darkness and where the light is as darkness." The presence of a serene and holy life pervades it. Above its pale tombs and crowded burial-places, above the wail of despairing humanity, the voice of Him who awakened life and beauty beneath the grave-clothes of the tomb at Bethany is heard proclaiming, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." We know not, it is true, the conditions of our future life; we know not what it is to pass fromm this state of being to another; but before us in that dark passage has gone the Man of Nazareth, and the light of His footsteps lingers in the path. Where He, our Brother in His humanity, our Redeemer in His divine nature, has gone, let us not fear to follow. He who ordereth all aright will uphold with His own great arm the frail spirit when its incarnation is ended; and it may be, that, in language which I have elsewhere used,

--when Time's veil shall fall asunder,
The soul may know
No fearful change nor sudden wonder,
Nor sink the weight of mystery under,
But with the upward rise and with the vastness grow.

And all we shrink from now may seem
No new revealing;
Familiar as our childhood's stream,
Or pleasant memory of a dream,
The loved and cherished past upon the new life stealing.

Serene and mild the untried light
May have its dawning;
As meet in summer's northern night
The evening gray and dawning white,
The sunset hues of Time blend with the soul's new morning.

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