“LIFE AND THE GRAVE” from the New-York Mirror

by Ann Neilson

I found this curious article within the pages of the December 29, 1827 issue of The New-York Mirror, and Ladies’ Literary Gazette. Certain sections in this are humbling, while others are, understandably, morose. As we enter this New Year, may we all reevaluate our goals, whether short term or long term, and continue striving to do good works, not only for our own benefit, but more importantly for the benefit of others, our planet, and the future generations to come. Time and life are precious, and we needn’t spend our lives perpetually indulging in frivolous pleasure, when we should be lending our talents and resources to better ourselves and those around us while we are still able to. Pseudo-contemplative remarks aside, I hope you enjoy this article. It comes from a series of articles by the same author under “The Essayist” section of The New-York Mirror, and only ran between 1827-1828. To my knowledge and research, the articles cannot be traced to any other source other than the Mirror. Finally, on a side note, I was unable to track down the author of this article, only relying on the author’s initials, “C. M. A.” I am only lead back to one writer and scholar, Charles Anthon (where does the mysterious “M” fit in that name? I’m not positive—), although I doubt he wrote these articles. If you agree, disagree, or have a better lead, please feel free to comment and let me know. Also, if you’d be interested in reading the other articles in his series, I’d be happy to post them.

FOR THE NEW-YORK MIRROR.
LIFE AND THE GRAVE.
“How sad a sight is human happiness,
“To those whose thought can pierce beyond an hour?”

I LOVE to indulge in that kind of pleasure termed melancholy—to look on the dark side of the picture of human life—to meditate on the many ills to which we are subject here—and to become inured, through reflection on the difficulties we meet with, to the various hardships, and troubles, and trails of life. There is a pleasing sadness in this strain of feeling, a melancholy pleasure, which often invites my attention, and which claims the merit of not being elsewhere found. It renders the feelings that were once soft, tender, and fearful of the rude blasts of adversity, cold and callous to their howlings; and imparts to the mind a thoughtful, determined preparation to endure whatever troubles may be imposed upon it.
How gloomy and forbidding is that view which reality and experience unfold to us of the state of human life! How dark the picture presented for our inspection! How few streaks of light and cheerfulness are interspersed throughout that vast extent of gloomy canvass! How few scenes of bliss and happiness are mixed with those numerous objects of misery and wretchedness that appear on its surface! How many and various are the blemishes of crime, rapine, and fraud, that stain and pollute to its appearance! There is, indeed, but little happiness here–but little to hope for—but little that is worth having, which we can desire with a probability of our request being granted.
If we take a retrospective glance, and look back on times and scenes gone by, we find but little in the recollection that can add to our present comfort. A few pleasures we may have experienced, but they were few indeed, and, like angels’ visits, “far between.” The man of fourscore can claim but a small portion of even his past life as being one of pure and unalloyed happiness. If he but estimates his age according to the pleasure he may have enjoyed, deducting from his years every portion of time spent in sorrow or anxiety, he will find himself but an infant in age, a mere babe in life. If we cast a glance beyond time past and present, and look inquiringly into the unborn future, what is there that will calm and cheer our spirits, now so drooping?—what that will make us more peaceful, more happy, more contented?—what that will act as a charm on our senses, rendering them insensible to pain, and lively to emotions of pleasure?—what that will be different from present experience of the vanity, coldness, and dreariness of life? It will be but a repetition of former scenes and former sorrows—a change of time, indeed, not of circumstances;—
——————”Endless is the list of human ills,”
“And sighs might sooner fail than cause to sigh.”
There is another theme of contemplation which I love—that inspired by a walk among the monuments of the dead—among those stones which bear the names and descriptions of those beneath them buried. Can it be that these inmates of the grave, whose forgotten names, and still more forgotten bodies, were once as I am now—as full of life and vigour—more full of its hopes and expectations—as fond of life’s enjoyments—and as pleased with the routine of fashionable pleasures—as those now in being? When they left the world, how did they leave it?—Did they die willing victims to the grave? Did they leave earth’s toys behind them as do those who know their emptiness, and give a welcome to death as a to messenger of peace that would convey them to an abode beyond the reach of life’s adversities?—or did they, in their last agonies, still cling to life—still hang to that brittle thread which bound them to earth’s domain, and wish that it might strengthen and wax stronger, that it could draw them back again to the scenes of gayety, and folly, and fashions, which once occupied their attention, and usurped the greater part of their life?
A walk in the grave-yard, when we are deeply impressed with the sensations of awe and dread inspired by the place and occasion, will be of benefit to the mind, as it is there that we can discuss dispassionately, if any where, the merits and demerits of life’s enjoyments. We feel a kind of sacred seclusion from the world, and that which usually troubles us—we imagine ourselves cut off from all sensual connexion with it, and evince but few, if any, desires to become again possessed of the charms it once maintained;—we wonder in what consisted the attractions which before bound us to life—what there was so great and glorious in the world, of a nature sufficient to cause our labours and cares to be so much and so often called into exercise—why we were once so unwilling to yield and give up those pleasures which now possess no value in our estimation—and why we declined regarding the duties enjoined on us by the will of heaven, when the faithful performance of them we now esteem to be of the greatest consequence. We contemplate also the labours of man, and endeavor to recollect for what ends his exertions are called into motion. We find the gratification of ambition to be the aim of one—the acquisition of wealth to be the desire of another—the indulgence of sensual pleasure to be the wish of a third. Various as are all of these, they alike have their end in the grave. It is, indeed, the end of man. Why then be so anxious to acquire the possession of those things whose stay must be so short, when acquired?
“Why all this toil for triumphs of an hour?
“What though we wade in wealth, or soar in fame?
“Earth’s highest station ends in ‘here he lies’—
“And ‘dust to dust’ concludes her noblest song.”
What a picture of contemplation and reflection does the grave-yard present! The old and the young are there, and the poor and the rich are there. The child of five years lies beside of the man of eighty. They alike rest in peace—unnoticed by friends, undisturbed by foes. Nought remains of what was once flesh, and life, and vigour, but a few crumbling bones, and they turning to their original dust, as fast as the revolutions of times and seasons can make them.
It is but a few years at most that can divide the grave from the now living. A short space of time will intervene, and then shall all be brought victims to its ravages, and be swallowed up in the multitude of its openings. However much we may wish this time protracted, “to this condition we must come at last”—and it is doubtful whether it will then be welcomed more cheerfully than it would be at the present moment.
Taking this view of life and the grave, would it not be wisdom to follow the advice of the poet, so beautifully given in the following lines?
“Lean not on earth—’twill pierce thee to the heart;
“A broken reed, at best; but oft, a spear;
“On its sharp point peace bleeds, and hope expires.”
C. M. A.