A Prothalamion by Robert Herrick

Story type: Literature

The best man has gone for a game of billiards with the host. The maid of honor is inditing an epistle to one who must fall. The bridesmaids have withdrawn themselves, each with some endurable usher, to an appropriate retreat upon the other coasts of the veranda. The night is full of starlight in May. The lovers discover themselves at last alone.

He. What was that flame-colored book Maud was reading to young Bishop?

She. The Dolly Dialogues; you remember we read them in London when they came out.

He. What irreverent literature we tolerate nowadays! I suppose it’s the aftermath of agnosticism.

She. It didn’t occur to me that it was irreligious.

He. Irreverent, I said–the tone of our world.

She. But how I love that world of ours–even the Dolly Dialogues!

He. Because you love it, this world you feel, you are reverent toward it. I have hated it so many years; it carried so much pain with it that I thought every expression of life was pain, and now, now, if it were not for Maud and the Dolly Dialogues, these last days would seem to launch us afresh upon quite another world.

She. Yes, another world, where there is a new terror, a strange, inhuman terror that I never thought of before, the terror of death.

He. Why, what a perversity! You think of immortality as so real, so sure! Relief from that terror of death is the proper fruit of your firm belief.

She. But I never cared before about the shape, the form, the kind of that other life. I was content to believe it quite different from this, for I knew this so well, enjoyed it so much. When the jam-pot should be empty, I did not want another one just like it. But now….

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He. I know. And I lived so much a stranger to the experiences I could have about me that I was indifferent to what came after. Now, what I am, what I have, is so precious that I cannot believe in any change which should let me know of this life as past and impossible. That would be “the supreme grief of remembering in misery the happy days that have been.”

She. It makes me shiver; it is so blasphemous to hate the state of being of a spirit. That would seem to degrade love, if through love we dread to lose our bodies.

He. Strange! You have come to this confession out of a trusting religion and I from doubt–at the best indifference. You are ashamed to confess what seems to you wholly blasphemous against that noble faith and prayer of a Christian; and I find an invigorating pleasure in your blasphemy. There is no conceivable life of a spirit to compare with the pain, even, of the human body; it is better to suffer than to know no difference.

She. But “the resurrection of the body”: perhaps the creed, word for word without interpretation, would not mean that empty life which we moderns have grown to consider the supreme and liberal conception of existence.

He. Resurrection in a purified form fit for the bliss, whatever one of all the many shapes men have dreamed it may vision itself in!

She. But this love of life, this excessive joy, must fade away. The record of the world is not that we keep that. Think of the old people who dream peacefully of death, after knowing all the fulness of this life. Think of the wretches who pray for it. That vision of the life of spirits which is so dreadful to us has been the comfort of the ages. There must be some inner necessity for it. Perhaps with our bodies our wills become worn out.

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He. That, I think, is the mystery–the wearing out, which is death. For death occurs oftener in life than we think; I know so many dead people who are walking about. As for sick people, physicians say that in a long illness they never have to warn a patient of the coming end. He knows it, subtly, from some dim, underground intimation. Without acknowledging it, he arranges himself, so to speak, for the grave, and comforts himself with those visions that religion holds out. Or does he comfort himself?

But apart from the dying, there are so many out of whose bodies and spirits life is ebbing. It may have been a little flood-tide, but they know it is going. You see it on their faces. They become dull. That leprosy of death attacks their life, joint by joint. They lay aside one pleasure, one function, one employment of their minds after another. The machine may run on, but the soul is dying. That is what I call death in life.

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