The Measure of
Joy in Life by Robert Herrick
She. Yet, how short it will be! How awful to have the days and weeks
and months slip by, and know that at the best there is only a reprieve
of a few years. I think from this night I shall have my shadow of
death. I shall always be doing things for the last time; a sad life
that! And perhaps we change; as you say, we may become dead in life,
prepared for a different state; and in that change we may find a new
joy—a longing for perfection and peace.
He. That would be an acknowledgment of defeat, indeed, and that is
the sad result of so much living. The world has been too hard, we
cry—there is so much heartbreaking, so much misery, so few arrive! We
look to another world where all that will be made right, and where we
shall suffer no more.
Let the others have their opiate. You, at least, I think, are too brave
for that kind of comfort. Does it not seem a little grasping to ask for
eternity, because we have fifty years of action? And an eternity of
passivity, because we have not done well with action? No, the world has
had too much of that coddling, that kind of shuffle through, as if it
were a way station where we must spend the night and make the best of
sorry accommodations. Our benevolence, our warmheartedness, goes
overmuch to making the beds a bit better, especially for the feeble and
the sick and old, and those who come badly fitted out. We help the
unfortunate to slide through: I think it would be more sensible to make
it worth their while to stay. The great philanthropists are those who
ennoble life, and make it a valuable possession. It would be well to
poison the forlorn, hurry them post haste to some other world where
they may find the conditions better suited. Then give their lot of
misery and opportunity to another who can find joy in his burden.
She. A world without mercy would be hard—it would be full of a
strident clamor like a city street.
He. Mercy for all; no favoritism for a few. Whoever could find a new
joy, a lasting activity; whoever could keep his body and mind in full
health and could show what a tremendous reality it is to live—would be
the merciful man. There would be less of that leprosy, death in life,
and the last problem of death itself would not be insurmountable.
So I think the common men who know things, concrete things,—the price
of grain, if you will; the men of affairs who have their minds on the
struggle; the artists who in paint or words explore new
possibilities—all these are the merciful men, the true comforters whom
we should honor. They make life precious—aside from its physical value.
You know the keen movement that runs through your whole being when you
come face to face with some great Rembrandt portrait. How much the man
knew who made it, who saw it unmade! Or that Bellini's Pope we used to
watch, whose penetrating smile taught us about life. And the greater
Titian, the man with a glove, that looks at you like a live soul, one
whom a man created to live for the joy of other men. In another form, I
feel the same gift of life in a new enterprise: a railroad carried
through; a corrupt government cleaned for the day. And, again, that
Giorgione at Paris, where the men and women are doing nothing in
particular, but living in the sunlight, a joyful, pagan band.
And then think of the simpler, deeper notes of the symphony, the
elements of light and warmth and color in our world, the very seeds of
existence. I count that day the richest when we floated into the Cape
harbor in the little rowboat, bathed in the afternoon sun. The
fishermen were lazily winging in, knowing, like birds, the storm that
would soon be on them. We drank the sun in all our pores. It rained
down on you, and glorified your face and the flesh of your arms and
your hands. We landed, and walked across the evening fields to that
little hut. Then nature lived and glowed with the fervor of actual
experience. You and the air and the sun-washed ocean, all were some
great throbs of actualities.
She. You remember how I liked to ride with you and sail, the stormy
days. How I loved to feel your body battling even feebly with the wind
and rain. I loved to see your face grow crimson under the lash of the
waves, and then to feel you, alive and mine!
He. It would not be bad, a heaven like that, of perpetual physical
presentiment, of storms and sun, and rich fields, and long waves
rolling up the beaches. For nerves ever alive and strung healthily all
along the gamut of sensation! Days with terrific gloom, like the German
forests of the Middle Ages; days with small nights spent on the sea;
September days with a concealed meaning in the air. One would ride and
battle and sail and eat. Then long kisses of love in bodies that spoke.
She. And yet, how strange to life as it is is that picture—like some
mediæval song with the real people left out; strange to the dirty
streets, the breakfasts in sordid rooms, the ignoble faces, the houses
with failure written across the door-posts; strange to the life of papa
and mamma; to the comfortable home; the chatter of the day; the horses;
the summer trips—everything we have lived, you and I.
He. Incomplete, and hence merely a literary paradise. It is well,
too, as it is, for until we can go to bed with the commonplace, and
dine with sorrow, we are but children,—brilliant children, but with
the unpleasant mark of the child. Not sorrow accepted, my love, and
bemoaned; but sorrow fought and dislodged. He is great who feels the
pain and sorrow and absorbs it and survives—he who can remain calm in
it and believe in it. It is a fight; only the strong hold their own.
That fight we call duty.
And duty makes the only conceivable world given the human spirit and
the human frame: even should we believe that the world is a revolving
palæstrinum without betterment. And the next world—the next? It must
be like ours, too, in its action; it must call upon the same
activities, the same range of desires and loves and hates. Grander,
perhaps, more adorned, with greater freedom, with more swing, with a
less troubled song as it rushes on its course. But a world like unto
ours, with effort, with the keen jangle of persons in effort, with
sorrow, aye, and despair: for there must be forfeits!
Is that not better than to slink away to death with the forlorn comfort
"Requiescat in pace?"
PARIS, December, 1895.