It is a curious speculation whether a man’s love of nature diminishes as he grows old. Certainly, if it does not diminish, it changes. The rapture departs from it, as is beautifully expressed in the familiar lines of Wordsworth. Half of a young man’s pleasure in a magnificent sunset, for example (although he does not know it), is because it typifies his hopes and dreams of the future; it is a revelation of loveliness or of glory akin to what he looks for, in one form or another, in his own future career. The grander aspects of nature, therefore, it must be admitted, confer more pleasure upon youth than upon old age. Moreover, inasmuch as the physical world never grows old, there is a want of harmony between it and old age. Nature, fresh, lusty, vigorous, constantly renewing her beauty and her youth, is sadly out of tune with an old man whose days are numbered. But, on the other hand, the old man appreciates the every-day aspect of nature more, perhaps, than does the youth; certainly more than does he of middle age. The longer one lives, wider and wider appears the discrepancy between the beauty of the universe and the wretchedness of the men who inhabit it. The sunshine on a temperate day; the stars at night, “when the heavens are bare;” the fruitful rain that falls gently on the leaves and grass; the black trunks of trees; the long spring twilight, when the young and as yet silvery-voiced frogs tune their throats, — these and a thousand other commonplace aspects of nature are, I believe, observed with more fidelity and with more zest in old age than at any other period of life.
Toward the close of Cicero’s De Senectute there are some noble and touching sentiments, to which I have alluded. Thus he exclaims, with what appears to be unaffected feeling, “As I come near to death, I feel like the mariner when he first catches sight of land, and, after a long and weary voyage, beholds the harbor opening before him.” Then he adds, “I do not despise life, as many learned men have done, nor do I regret my own existence, since I have so lived that I think I can truly say I was not born in vain; and I shall depart this life not as one who leaves home, but as one who sets out from a tavern by the roadside.”
This sentiment which Cicero puts into the mouth of Cato is a noble and dignified one: “I have so lived that I do not think myself to have been born in vain.” It is the speech of a man who sums up his earthly career with pardonable pride, and, with a firm and confident air, approaches the next stage of existence, if any such there be. It is the speech of a man of honor and an aristocrat.
Precisely the same idea, I think, is conveyed by the oft-quoted lines of Bryant’s Thanatopsis, though indeed the context would imply something different:
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
It is a fine, handsome frame of mind, but is it the highest, is it the most fitting, is it in accordance with the facts of tile case; is it, in short, founded on truth or on a lie? This mood, indicated by Cicero, and also, as I think, by our own Bryant, is the supreme pagan mood in which death could be met. There is a passage in Vanity Fair that illustrates another and different mood, which may be said to have come in with Christianity, but which can be justified, which indeed is demanded, on grounds altogether outside of Christianity. Thackeray is describing the death of old Sedley, bankrupt and broken-hearted, and he thus contrasts his end with that of an ordinary, successful person, whose mood is the pagan mood of Cicero: “Suppose you are particularly rich and well to do, and say on that last day, ‘I am very rich. I am tolerably well known. I have lived all my life in the best society, and, thank Heaven, come of a most respectable family. I have served my king and country with honor. I was in Parliament for several years, where, I may say, my speeches were listened to, and pretty well received. I don’t owe any man a shilling; on the contrary, I lent my old college friend, Jack Lazarus, fifty pounds, for which my executors will not press him. I leave my daughters with ten thousand pounds apiece, — very good portions for girls. I bequeath my plate and furniture, my house in Baker Street, with a handsome jointure, to my widow for her life; and my landed property, besides money in the funds, and my cellar of well-selected wine in Baker Street, to my son. I leave twenty pounds a year to my valet. And I defy any man, after I have gone, to find anything against my character.’