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A POINT OF BIOGRAPHY
There is hardly a writer now--of the third class probably not one--who
has not something sharp and sad to say about the cruelty of Nature; not
one who is able to attempt May in the woods without a modern reference to
the manifold death and destruction with which the air, the branches, the
mosses are said to be full.
But no one has paused in the course of these phrases to take notice of
the curious and conspicuous fact of the suppression of death and of the
dead throughout this landscape of manifest life. Where are they--all the
dying, all the dead, of the populous woods? Where do they hide their
little last hours, where are they buried? Where is the violence
concealed? Under what gay custom and decent habit? You may see, it is
true, an earth-worm in a robin's beak, and may hear a thrush breaking a
snail's shell; but these little things are, as it were, passed by with a
kind of twinkle for apology, as by a well-bred man who does openly some
little solecism which is too slight for direct mention, and which a
meaner man might hide or avoid. Unless you are very modern indeed, you
twinkle back at the bird.
But otherwise there is nothing visible of the havoc and the prey and
plunder. It is certain that much of the visible life passes violently
into other forms, flashes without pause into another flame; but not all.
Amid all the killing there must be much dying. There are, for instance,
few birds of prey left in our more accessible counties now, and many
thousands of birds must die uncaught by a hawk and unpierced. But if
their killing is done so modestly, so then is their dying also. Short
lives have all these wild things, but there are innumerable flocks of
them always alive; they must die, then, in innumerable flocks. And yet
they keep the millions of the dead out of sight.
Now and then, indeed, they may be betrayed. It happened in a cold
winter. The late frosts were so sudden, and the famine was so complete,
that the birds were taken unawares. The sky and the earth conspired that
February to make known all the secrets; everything was published. Death
was manifest. Editors, when a great man dies, are not more resolute than
was the frost of '95.
The birds were obliged to die in public. They were surprised and forced
to do thus. They became like Shelley in the monument which the art and
imagination of England combined to raise to his memory at Oxford.
Frost was surely at work in both cases, and in both it wrought wrong.
There is a similarity of unreason in betraying the death of a bird and in
exhibiting the death of Shelley. The death of a soldier--_passe_
_encore_. But the death of Shelley was not his goal. And the death of
the birds is so little characteristic of them that, as has just been
said, no one in the world is aware of their dying, except only in the
case of birds in cages, who, again, are compelled to die with
observation. The woodland is guarded and kept by a rule. There is no
display of the battlefield in the fields. There is no tale of the game-
bag, no boast. The hunting goes on, but with strange decorum. You may
pass a fine season under the trees, and see nothing dead except here and
there where a boy has been by, or a man with a trap, or a man with a gun.
There is nothing like a butcher's shop in the woods.
But the biographers have always had other ways than those of the wild
world. They will not have a man to die out of sight. I have turned over
scores of "Lives," not to read them, but to see whether now and again
there might be a "Life" which was not more emphatically a death. But
there never is a modern biography that has taken the hint of Nature. One
and all, these books have the disproportionate illness, the death out of
Even more wanton than the disclosure of a death is that of a mortal
illness. If the man had recovered, his illness would have been rightly
his own secret. But because he did not recover, it is assumed to be news
for the first comer. Which of us would suffer the details of any
physical suffering, over and done in our own lives, to be displayed and
described? This is not a confidence we have a mind to make; and no one
is authorised to ask for attention or pity on our behalf. The story of
pain ought not to be told of us, seeing that by us it would assuredly not
There is only one other thing that concerns a man still more exclusively,
and that is his own mental illness, or the dreams and illusions of a long
delirium. When he is in common language not himself, amends should be
made for so bitter a paradox; he should be allowed such solitude as is
possible to the alienated spirit; he should be left to the "not himself,"
and spared the intrusion against which he can so ill guard that he could
hardly have even resented it.
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