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A Quick Musing on Death and Time

In Arts & Letters, Essays, Literature, Writing on August 5, 2011 at 10:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

There’s an essay by Abraham Cowley, the seventeenth-century poet, called “Westminster Abbey,” that’s so strikingly relevant that it reads as if it were written lately, perhaps by a man like Russell Kirk.  The speaker muses about his stroll through the great cathedral.  He remarks that the gloominess of the place, the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it would seem to fill the mind with melancholy and thoughtfulness.

Having spent the previous afternoon meditating in the churchyard and cloisters, amusing himself, he claims, with tombstones and inscriptions, he now considers the grave as a strange register of experience, a satire upon the dead.  “Most of them,” he says of the tombstones and inscriptions, “recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day, and died upon another: the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances, that are common to all mankind.”

Reduced to the facts of birth and life, as though nothing took place in between, the departed human reminds one of the permanent things, which find their most magnificent expression because of impermanence and death.

Cowley’s essay seems relevant because death is always with us, always relevant.  The contemplation of death, Cowley suggests, raises dark and dismal thoughts in timorous minds.  But to those who, like the speaker, take a broad view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes—who improve themselves on thoughts that others consider with terror—the contemplation of death is humbling and awesome, revealing as it does the vanity of grief.

As the speaker entertains himself by digging a grave, he considers “what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.”

These bodies, imagined or seen, allow the speaker to feel an intimacy with death: an intimacy that ultimately leads him to reflect “with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of makind.”

“When I read,” the speaker declares, “the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”

These words are only more resonant in light of the distance between us and Cowley, the some three-hundred-forty-four years that separate his death from the present.  What was real and existent for Cowley is not even memory for us.  We have memories of memories, and words recalling memories that we fill with our own experience.  But we don’t have the moments themselves.  We can’t have those back.

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