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LETTER CXXIII. From a Clergy man in the Country, to a Lady in
London, on the death of a valuable friend. Madam, Death, that king of terrors, having pierced with his fatal shaft the heart of the generous Pollio, I went to pay my last duties to my deceased friend ; but who can describe that torrent of sorrow which overwhelmed my breast on my arrival at the house of mourning ! he had just completed an ample and commodious seat, but was not permitted to spend one joyful hour under its roof. His gardens were planted with the choicest fruits, and decorated in the most graceful manner, but their master is gone down to the valley of the shadow of death. Since death is the portion of every individual, we should engrave the thought, in the most legible characters, on the tablets of our memories. We see our neighbours fall,—we turn pale at the shock, and feel a trembling dread. No sooner are they removed from our sight, but, driven in the whirl of business, or lulled in the languors of pleasure, we forget Providence, and neglect its errand. The impression made on our unstable minds, is like the trace of an arrow through the penetrated air, or the path of the keel in the furrowed waves. Did we reflect seriously on the numberless disasters, such as no human prudence can foresee, nor the greatest care prevent that lie in wait to accomplish our doom, we would be obliged to look upon ourselves as tenants at will, and liable to be dispossessed of our earthly tabernacle at a moment's warning. The last enemy has not only unnumbered avenues for his approach, but even holds his fortress in the seat of our life. The crimson fluid which distributes health, is impregnated with the seeds of death Some unforeseen impediment may obstruct its passage, or some unknown violence may divert its course ; in either of which cases it acts the part of a poisonous draught, or a deadly wound. The partition which separates time from eternity, is nothing more than the breath of our nostrils, and the transition may be made in the least particle of time.
If we examine the records of mortality, we shall find the memorials of a mixed multitude, resting together without any regard to rank or seniority. None are ambitious of the uppermost rooms or chief seats in the mansions of the dead ; none entertain fond and eager expectations of being honourably greeted in their darksome cells.
The man of years and experience, reputed as an oracle in his generation, is content to lie down at the feet of the babe, In this common receptacle the master is equally accommodated with his servant. The poor indigent lies as softly as the most opulent possessor. All the distinction that subsists, is a grassy hillock, bound with osiers, or a sepulchral stone, ornamented with imagery.
Why then should we raise such a mighty stir about superiority and precedence, when the next remove will reduce us all to a state of equal meanness? why should we exalt ourselves and debase others, since we must all one day lie on a common level ? we must all be blended together in the same common dust. Here persons of contrary interests, and different sentiments, sleep together ; death having laid his hands on the contending parties, and brought all their differences to an amicable conclusion.
Eternity! how are our boldest, our strongest thoughts lost and overwhelmed in thee ! who can set land-marks to limit thy dimensions, or find
pluinmets to fathom thy depth? what numbers can state, what line guage the lengths and breadths of eternity ? mysterious mighty existence! when ages, numerous as the bloom of spring, increased by the herbage of the summer, both augmented by the leaves of autumn, and all multiplied by the drops of rain, which drown the winter,—ten thousand more than can be represented by any similitude, or imagined by any conception, are all involved in eternity,-vast, boundless eternity! after all these numerous ages are expired, eternity is only beginning to begin.—I am, Madam,
Your sincere, though afflicted Friend.
LETTER CXXIV. From a Gentleman to his Friend on Happiness.
Dear Sir,-It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity. The time present is very seldom able to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyments, and we are therefore forced to supply the deficiency by recollection or anticipation.
Every one so often experiences the fallaciousness of hope, and the inconveniences of teaching himself to expect what a thousand accidents may preclude, that, when time has abated the confidence with which youth rushes out to take possession of the world, we naturally endeavour, or wish at least, to find entertainment in the review of life, and to repose upon real facts, and certain experience.
But so full is the world of calamity, that every source of pleasure is polluted, and tranquillity disturbed. When time has supplied us with events sufficient to employ our thoughts, it has mingled them with so many disasters and afflictions, that we shrink from the remembrance of them, dread
their intrusion on our minds, and fly from them to company and diversion.
No man that has passed the middle point of life, can sit down to feast upon the pleasures of youth without finding the banquet embittered by the cup of sorrow. Many days of harmless frolic, and many nights of honest festivity will recur; he may revive the memory of many lucky accidents, or pleasing extravagancies ; or if he has engaged in scenes of action, and been acquainted with affairs of difficulty, and vicissitudes of fortune, may enjoy the nobler pleasure of looking back upon distress firmly supported,-upon danger resolutely encountered,-and upon oppression artfully defeated.
Æneas very properly comforts his companions, wlien, after the horrors of a storm, they have landed on an unknown and desolate country, with the hope that their miseries will, at some distant period, be recounted with delight. There are perhaps, few higher gratifications than that of reflection on evils surmounted, when they are not incurred by our own fault, and neither reproach us with cowardice nor guilt.
But this kind of felicity is always abated by the reflection, that they with whom we should be most pleased to share it, are now in the grave.
A few years make such havoc among the human race, that we soon see ourselves deprived of those with whom we entered the world. The man of enterprise, when he has recounted his adventures, is forced, at the close of the narration, to pay a sigh to the memory of those who contributed to his success; and he that has spent his life among the gayer part of mankind, has quickly his remembrance stored with the remarks and repartees of wits, whose sprightliness and merriment are now lost in perpetual silence. The trader whose industry has sup
plied the want of inheritance, when he sits down to enjoy his fortune, repines in solitary plenty, and laments the absence of those companions with whom he had planned out amusements for his latter years ; and the scholar, whose merit, after a long series of efforts, raises him from obscurity, looks round in vain from his exalted state, for his old friends, to be witnesses of his long sought-for affluence, and to partake of his bounty.
Such is the imperfection of all human happiness ; and every period of life is obliged to borrow its enjoyments from the time to come. In youth we have nothing past to entertain us ;—and in age we derive nothing from the retrospect but fruitless sor
The loss of our friends and companions impresses hourly upon us the necessity of our own departure. We find that all our schemes are quickly at an end, and that we must lie down in the grave, with the forgotten multitudes of former ages, and yield our places to others, who, like us, shall be driven a while by hope and fear about the surface of the earth, and then, like us, be lost in the shades of death.
Beyond this termination of our corporeal existence we are therefore obliged to extend our hopes, and every man indulges his imagination with something which is not to happen till he has lost the power of perceiving it. Some amuse themselves with entails and settlements,-provide for the increase and perpetuation of families and honours, and contrive to obviate the dissipation of fortune, which it has been the whole business of their lives to accumulate. Others, more refined and exalted, congratulate their own hearts upon the future extent of their reputation, the lasting fame of their performances, the reverence of distant nations, and the gratitude of unprejudiced posterity.