Death in Life.

From: Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1874).
Author: R.W. Emerson, W.H. Channing, J.F. Clarke
Published: Roberts Brothers 1874 Boston


  The moon tempted me out, and I set forth for a house at no great distance. The beloved south-west was blowing; the heavens were flooded with light, which could not diminish the tremulously pure radiance of the evening star; the air was full of spring sounds, and sweet spring odors came up from the earth. I felt that happy sort of feeling, as if the soul’s pinions were budding. My mind was full of poetic thoughts, and nature’s song of promise was chanting in my heart.

  But what a change “when I entered that human dwelling! I will try to give you an impression of what you, I fancy, have never come in contact with. The little room-they have but one-contains a bed, a table, and some old chairs. A single stick of wood burns in the fire-place. It is not needed now, but those who sit near it have long ceased to know what spring is. They are all frost. Everything is old and faded, but at the same time as clean and carefully mended as possible. For all they know of pleasure is to get strength to sweep those few boards, and mend those old spreads and curtains. That sort of self-respect they have, and it is all of pride their many years of poor-tith has left them.

  And there they sit,—mother and daughter! In the mother, ninety years have quenched every thought and every feeling, except an imbecile interest about her daughter, and the sort of self-respect I just spoke of. Husband, sons, strength, health, house and lands, all are gone. And yet these losses have not had power to bow that palsied head to the grave. Morning by morning she rises without a hope, night by night she lies down vacant or apathetic; and the utmost use she can make of the day is to totter three or four times across the floor by the assistance of her staff. Yet, though we wonder that she is still permitted to cumber the ground, joyless and weary, “the tomb of her dead self.” we look at this dry leaf, and think how green it once was and how the birds sung to it in its summer day.

  But can we think of spring, or summer, or anything joyous or really life-like, when we look at the daughter?—that bloodless effigy of humanity, whose care is to eke out this miserable existence by means of the occasional doles of those who know how faithful and good a child she has been to that decrepit creature; who thinks herself happy if she can be well enough, by hours of patient toil, to perform those menial services which they both require; whose talk is of the price of pounds of sugar, and ounces of tea, and yards of flannel; whose only intellectual resource is hearing five or six verses of the Bible read every day,—“my poor head,” she says, “cannot bear any more;” and whose only hope is the death to which she has been so slowly and wearily advancing, through many years like this.

  The saddest part is, that she does not wish for death. She clings to this sordid existence. Her soul is now so habitually enwrapt in the meanest cares, that if she were to be lifted two or three steps upward, she would not know what to do with life; how, then, shall she soar to the celestial heights? Yet she ought; for she has ever been good, and her narrow and crushing duties have been performed with a self-sacrificing constancy, which I, for one, could never hope to equal.

  While I listened to her,—and I often think it good for me to listen to her patiently,—the expressions you used in your letter, about “drudgery,” occurred to me. I remember the time when I, too, deified the “soul’s impulses.” It is a noble worship; but, if we do not aid it by a just though limited interpretation of what “Ought” means, it will degenerate into idolatry. For a time it was so with me, and I am not yet good enough to love the Ought.

  Then I came again into the open air, and saw those resplendent orbs moving so silently, and thought that they were perhaps tenanted, not only by beings in whom I can see the germ of a possible angel, but by myriads like this poor creature, in whom that germ is, so far as we can see, blighted entirely, I could not help saying, “O my Father! Thou, whom we are told art all Power, and also all Love, how canst Thou suffer such even transient specks on the transparence of Thy creation? These grub-like lives, undignified even by passion, these life-long quenchings of the spark divine,—why dost Thou suffer them? Is not Thy paternal benevolence impatient till such films be dissipated?”

  Such questionings once had power to move my spirit deeply; now, they but shade my mind for an instant. I have faith in a glorious explanation, that shall make manifest perfect justice and perfect wisdom.

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