Here to return to
THE PLEASURES OF MELANCHOLY
THIS wintry November forenoon I was on a sea beach; the sky clouded, the wind high and cold, cutting to the marrow; a bleak and comfortless place. A boy, dragging a child's cart, was gathering chips of driftwood along the upper edge of the sand, — one human figure, such as painters use to make a lonesome scene more lonesome. A loon, well offshore, sat rocking upon the water, now lifted into sight for an instant, now lost behind a wave. Distant sails and a steamship were barely visible through the fog. So much for the world on its seaward side. There was little to cheer a man's soul in that quarter.
On the landward side were thickets of leafless rosebushes covered with scarlet hips; groves of tall, tree-like, smooth-barked alders; swampy tracts, wherein were ilex bushes bright with red Christmas berries, and blueberry bushes scarcely less bright with red leaves. Sometimes it was necessary to put up an opera-glass before I could tell one from the other. Here was a marshy spot; dry, shivering sedges standing above the ice, and among them four or five mud-built domes of muskrat houses. Shrewd muskrats! They knew better than to be stirring abroad on a day like this. “If you haven’t a house, why don't you build one?” they might have said to the man hurrying past, with his neck drawn down into his coat collar. Here I skirted a purple cranberry bog, having tufts of dwarfed, stubby bayberry bushes scattered over it, each with its winter crop of pale-blue, densely packed, tightly held berry clusters.
Not a flower; not a bird. Not so much as a crow or a robin in one of the stunted savin trees. I remembered winter days here, a dozen years ago, when the alder clumps were lively with tree sparrows, myrtle warblers, and goldfinches. Now the whole peninsula was a place forsaken. I had better have stayed away myself. Here, as so often elsewhere, memory was the better sight.
By a summer cottage upon the rocks was a ledge matted over with the Japanese trailing white rose. There were no blossoms, of course, but what with the leaves, still of a glossy green, and the bunches of handsome, high-colored hips, the vine could hardly have been more beautiful, I was ready to say, even when the roses were thickest upon it. Beside another house a pink poppy still looked fresh. Frail, belated child of summer! I could hardly believe my eyes. All its human admirers were gone long since. Every cottage stood vacant. Nobody would live here in this icy wind, if he could find another place to flee to. I remembered Florida beaches, summery abodes, where every breath from the sea brought a welcome coolness.
Why should I not take the next train southward? Shall a man be less sensible than a bird?
That was five or six hours ago. Now I am a dozen miles inland. The air is so still that the sifting snowflakes fall straight downward. Even the finest twigs of the gray birches, so sensitive to the faintest breath, can hardly be seen to stir. A narrow footpath under. the window is a line of white running through the green grass. Beyond that is the brown hillside, brightened with a few pitch-pines; and then a veil shuts down upon the world, with a spray of bare treetops breaking through. It is the gray month in its grayest mood.
Be it so. I will sit at my window and enjoy the world as it is. This sombre day has a beauty and charm of its own — the charm of melancholy. The wise course is to tune our thought to nature's mood of soberness, rather than to force a different note, profaning the hour, and cheating ourselves with shallow talk and laughter. There is a time for everything under the sun — L' Allegro and Il Penseroso, each in its turn.
Now is a time to think of what has been and of what will be. Only the other day the year was young; grass was greening, violets were budding, birds were mating and singing. Now the birds are gone, the flowers are dead, the year is ending as all the years have ended before it.
And as the year is, so are we. A few days ago we were children, just venturing to run alone. We knew nothing, had seen nothing, looked forward to nothing. Life for us was only a day in a house and a door-yard, a span of playtime between two sleeps.
A few days ago, I say. Yet what a weary distance we have traveled since then, and what an infinity of things we have seen and dealt with. How many thoughts we have had, coming we know not whence, how many hopes, one making way for the other, how many dreams. We have made friends; friends that were to be friends forever; and long, long ago, with no fault on either side, the currents of the world carrying us, they and we have drifted apart. It is all we can do now to recall their names and their manner of being. Some of them we should pass for strangers if we met them face to face.
What a long procession of things and events have gone by us and been forgotten. Almost we have forgotten our own childish names, it is so many years since any one called us by them. Should we know ourselves, even, if we met in the street the boy or girl of thirty or forty or fifty years ago? Was it indeed we who lived then? who believed such things, enjoyed such things, concerned ourselves with such things, trembled with such fears, were lifted up by such hopes, felt ourselves enriched by such havings? How shadowy and unreal they look now; and once they were as substantial as life and death. Nay, it is some one else whose past we are remembering. The boy and the man cannot be the same.
Shall we rejoice or be sad that we have outgrown ourselves thus completely? Something of both, perhaps. It matters not. The year is ending, the night is falling. The past is as if it had never been; the future is nothing; and the present is less than either of them. Life is a vapor; nothing, and less than nothing, and vanity.
So we say to ourselves, not sadly, but with a kind of satisfaction to have it so. Yet we love to live over the past, and, with less assurance, to dream of the future.
“The flower that once has blown forever dies.”
Yes, we have heard that, and we will not dispute; this is not an hour for disputing; but the flowers that bloomed forty years ago — the iris and the four-o'clocks in a child's garden — we can still see in recollection's magic glass. And they are brighter than any rose that opened this morning. We have forgotten things without number; but other things — we shall never forget them. A friend or two that died when they and we were young; “the loveliest and the best;” we can see them more plainly than most of those whose empty, conventionalized faces, each like the other, each wearing its mask, we meet day by day in the common round of business and pleasure. Death, which seemed to destroy them, has but set them beyond the risk of alteration and forgetfulness.
After all, the past
is our one sure possession. There is our miser's chest. With that, while
memory holds for us the key, we shall still be rich. There we will spend our
gray hours, with friends that have kept their youth; one of the best of them
our own true self, not as we were, nor as we are, but as we meant to be.
“These pleasures, Melancholy, give;
And I with thee will choose to live.”