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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Death and Sleep
By Henry Mills Alden (1836–1919)
 
From ‘A Study of Death’

THE ANGEL of Death is the invisible Angel of Life. While the organism is alive as a human embodiment, death is present, having the same human distinction as the life, from which it is inseparable, being, indeed, the better half of living,—its wingèd half, its rest and inspiration, its secret spring of elasticity, and quickness. Life came upon the wings of Death, and so departs.  1
  If we think of life apart from death our thought is partial, as if we would give flight to the arrow without bending the bow. No living movement either begins or is completed save through death. If the shuttle return not there is no web; and the texture of life is woven through this tropic movement.  2
  It is a commonly accepted scientific truth that the continuance of life in any living thing depends upon death. But there are two ways of expressing this truth: one, regarding merely the outward fact, as when we say that animal or vegetable tissue is renewed through decay; the other, regarding the action and reaction proper to life itself, whereby it forever springs freshly from its source. The latter form of expression is mystical, in the true meaning of that term. We close our eyes to the outward appearance, in order that we may directly confront a mystery which is already past before there is any visible indication thereof. Though the imagination engaged in this mystical apprehension borrows its symbols or analogues from observation and experience, yet these symbols are spiritually regarded by looking at life on its living side, and abstracted as far as possible from outward embodiment. We especially affect physiological analogues because, being derived from our experience, we may the more readily have the inward regard of them; and by passing from one physiological analogue to another, and from all these to those furnished by the processes of nature outside of our bodies, we come to an apprehension of the action and reaction proper to life itself as an idea independent of all its physical representations.  3
  Thus we trace the rhythmic beating of the pulse to the systole and diastole of the heart, and we note a similar alternation in the contraction and relaxation of all our muscles. Breathing is alternately inspiration and expiration. Sensation itself is by beats, and falls into rhythm. There is no uninterrupted strain of either action or sensibility; a current or a contact is renewed, having been broken. In psychical operation there is the same alternate lapse and resurgence. Memory rises from the grave of oblivion. No holding can be maintained save through alternate release. Pulsation establishes circulation, and vital motions proceed through cycles, each one of which, however minute, has its tropic of Cancer and of Capricorn. Then there are the larger physiological cycles, like that wherein sleep is the alternation of waking. Passing from the field of our direct experience to that of observation, we note similar alternations, as of day and night, summer and winter, flood and ebb tide; and science discloses them at every turn, especially in its recent consideration of the subtle forces of Nature, leading us back of all visible motions to the pulsations of the ether….  4
  In considering the action and reaction proper to life itself, we here dismiss from view all measured cycles, whose beginning and end are appreciably separate; our regard is confined to living moments, so fleet that their beginning and ending meet as in one point, which is seen to be at once the point of departure and of return. Thus we may speak of a man’s life as included between his birth and his death, and with reference to this physiological term, think of him as living, and then as dead; but we may also consider him while living as yet every moment dying, and in this view death is clearly seen to be the inseparable companion of life,—the way of return, and so of continuance. This pulsation, forever a vanishing and a resurgence, so incalculably swift as to escape observation, is proper to life as life, does not begin with what we call birth nor end with what we call death (considering birth and death as terms applicable to an individual existence); it is forever beginning and forever ending. Thus to all manifest existence we apply the term Nature (natura), which means “forever being born”; and on its vanishing side it is moritura, or “forever dying.” Resurrection is thus a natural and perpetual miracle. The idea of life as transcending any individual embodiment is as germane to science as it is to faith.  5
  Death, thus seen as essential, is lifted above its temporary and visible accidents. It is no longer associated with corruption, but rather with the sweet and wholesome freshness of life, being the way of its renewal. Sweeter than the honey which Samson found in the lion’s carcass is this everlasting sweetness of Death; and it is a mystery deeper than the strong man’s riddle.  6
  So is Death pure and clean, as is the dew that comes with the cool night when the sun has set; clean and white as the snowflakes that betoken the absolution which Winter gives, shriving the earth of all her Summer wantonness and excess, when only the trees that yield balsam and aromatic fragrance remain green, breaking the box of precious ointment for burial.  7
  In this view also is restored the kinship of Death with Sleep.  8
  The state of the infant seems to be one of chronic mysticism, since during the greater part of its days its eyes are closed to the outer world. Its larger familiarity is still with the invisible, and it seems as if the Mothers of Darkness were still withholding it as their nursling, accomplishing for it some mighty work in their proper realm, some such fiery baptism of infants as is frequently instanced in Greek mythology, tempering them for earthly trials. The infant must needs sleep while this work is being done for it; it has been sleeping since the work began, from the foundation of the world, and the old habit still clings about it and is not easily laid aside….  9
  That which we have been considering as the death that is in every moment is a reaction proper to life itself, waking or sleeping, whereby it is renewed, sharing at once Time and Eternity—time as outward form, and eternity as its essential quality. Sleep is a special relaxation, relieving a special strain. As daily we build with effort and design an elaborate superstructure above the living foundation, so must this edifice nightly be laid in ruins. Sleep is thus a disembarrassment, the unloading of a burden wherewith we have weighted ourselves. Here again we are brought into a kind of repentance, and receive absolution. Sleep is forgiveness.  10
 
 
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