EVERY man hath two birth-days;
two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving
the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one
is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual
desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper
birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who
reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing
in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of
an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No
one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is
that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left.
It is the nativity of our common Adam.
Of all sounds of all
bell -- (bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven) -- most
solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year.
I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration
of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth;
all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected in that regretted
time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. It takes
a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary,
when he exclaimed
I saw the skirts of
the departing Year.
It is no more than what in sober sadness every
one of us seems to he conscious of, in that awful leave-taking.
I am sure I felt it, and all felt it with me, last night; though
some of my companions. affected rather to manifest an exhilaration
at the birth of the coming year, than any very tender regrets
for the decease of its predecessor. But I am none of those who
Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.
I am naturally, beforehand,
shy of novelties: new books, new faces, new years, -- from some
mental twist which makes it difficult. in me to face the prospective.
I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects
of other (former) years. I plunge into foregone visions and conclusions.
I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments. I am armour-proof
against old discouragements. I forgive, or overcome in fancy,
old adversaries. I play over again for love, as the gamesters
phrase it, games, for which I once paid so dear. I would scarce
now have any of those untoward accidents and events of my life
reversed. I would no more alter them than the incidents of some
well-contrived novel. Methinks, it is better that I should have
pined away seven of my goldenest years, when I was thrall to the
fair hair, and fairer eyes, of Alice W--n , than that so passionate
a love-adventure should be lost. It was better that our family
should have missed that legacy, which old Dorrell cheated us of,
than that I should have at this moment two thousand pounds in
banco, and be without the idea of that specious old rogue.
In a degree beneath
manhood, it is my infirmity to look back upon those early days.
Do I advance a paradox, when I say, that, skipping over the intervention
of forty years, a man may have leave to love himself, without
the imputation of self-love?
If I know aught of myself,
no one whose mind is introspective -- and mine is painfully so
-- can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have
for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome;
a notorious * * * addicted to * * * * : averse from counsel, neither
taking it, nor offering it: -- * * * besides; a stammering buffoon;
what you will; lay it on, and spare not: I subscribe to it all,
and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door --
-- -- but for the child Elia -- that "other me," there,
in the back-ground -- I must take leave to cherish the remembrance
of that young master -- with as little reference, I protest, to
this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a
child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over
its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can
lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ's, and
wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness
hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how
it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood. -- God help
thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated. -- I
know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was -- how
religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not
fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself, -- and not
some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give
the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my
That I am fond of indulging,
beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom
of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause;
simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned
to project myself enough out of myself: and having no offspring
of my own to daily with, I turn back upon memory, and adopt my
own early idea, as my heir and favourite If these speculations
seem fantastical to thee, reader -- (a busy man, perchance), if
I tread out of the way of thy sympathy, and am singularly-conceited
only, I retire, impenetrable to ridicule, under the phantom cloud
The elders, with whom
I was brought up, were of a character not likely to let slip the
sacred observance of any old institution; and the ringing out
of the Old Year was kept by them with circumstances of peculiar
ceremony. -- In those days the sound of those midnight chimes,
though it seemed to raise hilarity in all around me, never failed
to bring a train of pensive imagery into my fancy. Yet I then
scarce conceived what it meant, or thought of it as a reckoning
that concerned me. Not childhood alone, but the young man till
thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal. He knows it
indeed, and, if need were, he could preach a homily on the fragility
of life; but he brings it not home to himself, any more than in
a hot June we can appropriate to our imagination the freezing
days of December. But now, shall I confess a truth ? -- I feel
these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities
of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and
shortest periods, like miser's farthings. In proportion as the
years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods,
and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the
great wheel. I am not content to pass away "like a weaver's
shuttle." Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the
unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with
the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity: and reluct
at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green
earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes,
and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle
here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived;
I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer.
I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit,
as they say, into the grave. -- Any alteration, on this earth
of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My
household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted
up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores.
A new state of being staggers me.
Sun, and sky, and breeze,
and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of
fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes and society,
and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations,
and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself -- these things
go out with life?
Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt sides, when
you are pleasant with him?
And you, my midnight
darlings, my Folios! must I part with the intense delight of having
you (huge armfuls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me,
if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and
no longer by this familiar process of reading?
Shall I enjoy friendships
there, wanting the smiling indications which point me to them
here, -- the recognisable face -- the "sweet assurance of
a look" -- ?
In winter this intolerable
disinclination to dying -- to give it its mildest name -- does
more especially haunt and beset me. In a genial August noon, beneath
a sweltering sky, death is almost problematic. At those times
do such poor snakes as myself enjoy an immortality. Then we expand
and burgeon. Then are we as strong again, as valiant again, as
wise again, and a great deal taller. The blast that nips and shrinks
me, puts me in thoughts of death. All things allied to the insubstantial,
wait upon that master feeling; cold, numbness, dreams, perplexity;
moonlight itself, with its shadowy and spectral appearances, --
that cold ghost of the sun, or Phoebus' sickly sister, like that
innutritious one denounced in the Canticles : -- I am none of
her minions -- I hold with the Persian.
or puts me out of my way, brings death into my mind. All partial
evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore. -- I have
heard some profess an indifference to life. Such hail the end
of their existence as a port of refuge; and speak of the grave
as of some soft arms, in which they may slumber as on a pillow.
Some have wooed death -- -- -- but out upon thee, I say, thou
foul, ugly phantom! I detest, abhor, execrate, and (with Friar
John) give thee to six-score thousand devils, as in no instance
to be excused or tolerated, but shunned as a universal viper;
to be branded, proscribed, and spoken evil of! In no way can I
be brought to digest thee, thou thin, melancholy Privation, or
more frightful and confounding Positive!
Those antidotes, prescribed
against the fear of thee, are altogether frigid and insulting,
like thyself. For what satisfaction hath a man, that he shall
"lie down with kings and emperors in death," who in
his life-time never greatly coveted the society of such bed-fellows
? -- or, forsooth, that "so shall the fairest face appear?
" -- why, to comfort me, must Alice W--n be a goblin? More
than all, I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming
familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every
dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious
truism, that "such as he now is, I must shortly he."
Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the mean-time
I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy
betters! Thy New Years' Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate
for 1821. Another cup of wine -- and while that turn-coat bell,
that just now mournfully chanted the obsequies of 1820 departed,
with changed notes lustily rings in a successor, let us attune
to its peal the song made on a like occasion, by hearty, cheerful
Mr. Cotton. -
THE NEW YEAR.
Hark, the cock crows, and yon bright
Tells us, the day himself's not far;
And see where, breaking from the night,
He gilds the western hills with light.
With him old Janus doth appear,
Peeping into the future year,
With such a look as seems to say,
The prospect is not good that way.
Thus do we rise ill sights to see,
And `gainst ourselves to prophesy;
When the prophetic fear of things
A more tormenting mischief brings,
More full of soul-tormenting gall,
Than direst mischiefs can befall.
But stay ! but stay! methinks my sight,
Better inform'd by clearer light
Discerns sereneness in that brow,
That all contracted seem'd but now.
His revers'd face may show distaste,
And frown upon the ills are past;
But that which this way looks is clear,
And smiles upon the New-born Year.
He looks too from a place so high,
The Year lies open to his eye;
And all the moments open are
To the exact discoverer.
Yet more and more he smiles upon
The happy revolution.
Why should we then suspect or fear
The influences of a year,
So smiles upon us the first morn,
And speaks us good so soon as born?
Plague on't! the last was ill enough,
This cannot but make better proof;
Or, at the worst, as we brush'd through
The last, why so we may this too;
And then the next in reason shou'd
Be superexcellently good:
For the worst ills (we daily see)
Have no more perpetuity,
Than the best fortunes that do fall;
Which also bring us wherewithal
Longer their being to support,
Than those do of the other sort:
And who has one good year in three,
And yet repines at destiny, [p 32]
Appears ungrateful in the case,
And merits not the good he has.
Then let us welcome the New Guest
With lusty brimmers of the best;
Mirth always should Good Fortune meet,
And renders e'en Disaster sweet:
And though the Princess turn her back,
Let us but line ourselves with sack,
We better shall by far hold out,
Till the next Year she face about.
How say you, reader -- do not these
verses smack of the rough magnanimity of the old English vein?
Do they not fortify like a cordial; enlarging the heart, and productive
of sweet blood, and generous spirits, in the concoction? Where
be those puling fears of death, just now expressed or affected
? --passed like a cloud -- absorbed in the purging sunlight of
clear poetry -- clean washed away by a wave of genuine Helicon,
your only Spa for these hypochondries -- And now another cup of
the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all,