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There are many other painful instances in these times of that “ restless wisdom” which “ has a broom for ever in its hand to rid the world of nuisances.” There are, for example, the plans of Mr. Owen, with his infallible recipes for the formation of character. Virtue is not to be forced in artificial hot-beds, as he proposes. Rather let it spring up where it will from the seed scattered throughout the earth, and rise hardly in sun and shower, while the “ free mountain winds have leave to blow against it.” But I feel that I have already broken too violently on my habits of dreamy thought, by the asperity into which I now and then have fallen. Let me then break off at once, with the single expression of a hope, that this “ bright and breathing world” may not be changed into a Penitentiary by the efforts of modern reformers.
I am, Sir,
A CHAPTER ON “ TIME.”
BEING AN ATTEMPT TO THROW NEW LIGHT ON AN OLD SUBJECT:
[New Monthly Magazine.]
66 We know what we are," said poor Ophelia, “but we know not what we may be." Perhaps she would have spoken with a nicer accuracy had she said, " we know what we have been." . Of our present state we can strictly speaking, know nothing. The act of meditation on ourselves, however quick and subtle, must refer to the past, in which alone we can truly be said to live. Even in the moments of intensest enjoyment, our pleasures are multiplied by the quick-revolving images of thought; we feel the past and future in each fragment of the instant, even as the flavour of every drop of some delicious liquid is heightened and prolonged on the lips. It is the past only which we really enjoy as soon as we become sensible of duration. Each bygone instant of delight becomes rapidly present to us, and w bears a glass which shows us many more." This is the great privilege of a meditative being-never properly to have any sense of the present, but to feel the great realities as they pass away, casting their delicate shadows on the future.
Time, then, is only a notion-unfelt in its passage-a mere measure given by the mind to its own past emotions. Is there, then, any abstract common measure by which the infinite variety of intellectual acts can be meted—any real passage of years which is the same to all-any periodical revolution, in which all who have lived, have lived out equal hours? Is chronology any other than a fable, a “tale
that is told?” Certain outward visible actions have passed, and certain seasons have rolled over them; but has the common idea of time, as applicable to these, any truth higher or surer than those infinite varieties of duration which have been felt by each single heart? Who shall truly count the measure of his own days—much more scan the real life of the millions around him? The ordinary language of moralists respecting time shows that we really know nothing respecting it. They say that life is fleeting and short; why, humanly speaking, may they not as well affirm that it is extended and lasting? The words “short" and “long” have only meaning when used comparatively; and to what can we compare or liken this our human existence? The images of fragility—thin vapours, delicate flowers, and shadows cast from the most fleeting things—which we employ as emblems of its transitoriness, really serve to exhibit its durability as great in comparison with their own. H life is short, compared with the age of some fine animals, how much longer is it than that of many, some of whom pass through all the varieties of youth, maturity, and age, during a few hours, according to man's reckoning, and, if they are endowed mith memory, look back on their early minutes through the kong vista of a summer's day! An antediluvian shepherd might complain with as much apparent reason of the brevity of his nine hundred years, as we of our three score and ten. He would find as little to confute or to establish his theory. There is nothing visible by which we can fairly reckon the measure of our lives. It is not just to compare them with the duration of rocks and hills, which have withstood “a thousand storms, a thousand thunders;” because where there is no consciousness, there is really no time. The power of imagi. nation supplies to us the place of ages. We have thoughts which “date beyond the pyramids.” Antiquity spreads around us her mighty wings. We live centuries in contemplation, and have all the sentiment of six thousand years ... in Our memories:—
“'The wars we too remember of King Nine,
Whence then the prevalent feeling of the brevity of our life? Not, assuredly, from its comparison with any thing which is presented to our senses. It is only because the mind is formed for eternity that it feels the shortness of its earthly sojourn. Seventy years, or seventy thousand, or seven, shared as the compon lot of a species, would seem alike sufficient to those who had no sense within them of a being which should have no end. When this sense has been weakened, as it was amidst all the exquisite forms of Grecian mythology, the brevity of life has been forgotten. There is scarcely an allusion to this general sentiment, so deep a spring of the pathetic, throughout all the Greek tragedies. It will be found also to prevail in individuals in proportion as they meditate on themselves, or as they nurse in solitude and silence the instinct of the Eternal.
The doctrine that Time exists only in remembrance, may serve to explain some apparent inconsistencies in the language which we use respecting our sense of its passage. We hear persons complaining of the slow passage of time, when they have spent a single night of unbroken wearisomeness, and wondering how speedily hours, filled with pleasure or engrossing occupations, have flown; and yet we all know how long any period seems which has been crowded with events or feelings leaving a strong impression behind them. In thinking on seasons of ennui we have nothing but a sense of length—we merely remember that we felt the tedium of existence; but there is really no space in the imagination filled up by the period. Mere time, unpeopled with diversified emotions or circumstances, is but one idea, and that idea is nothing more than the remembrance of a listless sensation. A night of dull pain and months of lingering weakness are, in the retrospect, nearly the same thing. When our hands or our hearts are busy, we know nothing of time—it does not exist for us; but as soon as we pause to meditate on that which is gone, we seem to have lived long, because we look back through a long series of events, or feel them at once peering one above the other like ranges of distant hills. Actions or feelings, not hours, mark all the backward course of our being. Our sense of the nearness to us of any circumstance in our life is determined on the same principles— not by the revolution of the seasons, but by the relation which
the event bears in importance to all that has happened to us since. To him who has thought, or done, or suffered much, the level days of his childhood seem at an immeasurable distance, far off as the age of chivalry, or as the line of Sesostris. There are some recollections of such overpowering vastness, that their objects seem ever near; their size reduces all intermediate events to nothing; and they peer upon us like “ a forked mountain, or blue promonitory," which, being far off, is yet nigh. How different from these appears some inconsiderable occurrence of more recent date, which a flash of thought redeems for a moment from long oblivion ;-which is seen amidst the dim confusion of halfforgotten things, like a little rock lighted up by a chance gleam of sunshine afar in the mighty waters!
What immense difference is there, then, in the real duration of men's lives! He lives longest of all who looks back oftenest, whose life is most populous of thought or action, and on every retrospect makes the vastest picture. The man who does not meditate has no real consciousness of being. Such a one goes to death as to a drunken sleep; he parts with existence wantonly, because he knows nothing of its value. Mere men of pleasure are, therefore, the most careless of duellists, the gayest of soldiers. To know the true value of being, yet to lay it down for a great cause, is a pitch of heroism which has rarely been attained by man. That mastery of the fear of death which is so common among men of spirit, is nothing but a conquest over the apprehension of dying. It is a mere victory of nerve and muscle. Those whose days have no principle of continuity--who never feel time but in the shape of ennui—may quit the world for sport or for honour. But he who truly lives, who feels the past and future in the instant, whose days are to him a possession of majestic remembrances and golden hopes, ought not to fancy himself bound by such an example. He may be inspired to lay down his life, when truth or virtue shall demand so great a sacrifice; but he will be influenced by mere weakness of resolution, not by courage, if he suffer himself to be shamed, or laughed, or worried out of it!
Besides those who have no proper consciousness of being, there are others even perhaps more pitiable, who are constantly irritated by the knowledge that their life is cut up into