Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: August 11, 1840
Publication information: Long-Island Democrat 11 August 1840: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00306
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Samanthe Braswell, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen
cropped image 1
SUN-DOWN PAPERS.—[No. 6]
From the Desk of a Schoolmaster
I know not a prettier custom, than that, said to have been prevalent among several nations, of strewing the coffins of young people with flowers.1 When persons of middle or old age die, the work of the Pale Mower seems connected with something of roughness: it creates what I would call a coarse kind of grief, often overpowering, and always without any aid from very refined associations.2 But when we see an infant laid away to a quiet slumber in the bosom of the great mother of men—when we behold a young girl departed to those mysterious regions which we are fond of believing to be filled with resplendent innocence and beauty—or when we look on a boy, shrouded in the cerements of death, his hair parted on his forehead, and those features and limbs that we have known as so joyous and active now without motion, and all prepared for that fearful ceremony, the burying—then our painful sensations have much about them of gentleness and poetic melancholy. In the last cases, our grief is not gross, but delicate, like the just perceptible fragrance of the lily: in the former, it more resembles the scent of a thick and full blown rose.
One reason, probably, of this different mode of view is this: we are well aware that men who have lived a length of time in the world, must have committed many little meannesses—must have done wrong on various occasions—must have had the fine bloom of simplicity and nature nearly rubbed off—and must have been connected with much that would sully that healthiness and freshness of character, which almost every body has for the first few years of life—while with the quite young none of these things have happened: they are taken away, like blossoms with the dew upon them, in all their sweetness and modesty; time has not seared up the delightful spring of spirits; the course of years has not withered that susceptibility and pliancy which might be turned to so much account, but is so often misdirected by the carelessness of the old; nor have Guilt and Wretchedness yet had dominion over them.—The contrast between the two cases is, therefore, the contrast between the drying up of some clear and narrow brook, and the extinction of an inland river: the latter stronger, to be sure, and of more importance than the other, but not so pure, transparent, and resigned. The last would leave a greater vacuum also; but on its dry bed would remain signs of its having done evil—traces of its fury, its remorselessness, and its treacherous wrecking of what had been trusted to its bosom.
When a man dies, who can say what deep stains may have rested, at one time or another, upon his soul? what crimes (untouchable, perhaps, by the laws of men or the rules of society) he has committed, either in evil wishes or in reality? How many persons go down to the grave, praised by the world and pointed to as examples, who were still far, very far, from good men! They may have respected custom, honored the government, followed the fashion, paid to public charity every cent which the law demanded, kept clear of glaring transgressions, stood up or bowed down their heads in houses of worship just at the due time, and still, if we could open their hearts and see what went on there we should be sickened and amazed! It is a true saying, that we can never, in the great drama of life, pronounce judgment upon the good or ill performance of his part by a fellow creature, until the last act and the last scene are over, the bell rung, and the curtain dropped.—With the dead girl or boy, the transient play is finished: we know that the worst deeds they ever committed were but children's follies; and one great balm, on such occasions, is the knowledge, that for them the future has no terrors, the time to come no temptations or miseries.
Perhaps I may as well relate, in conclusion, the incident that has given rise to these reflections. I have just received, through a newspaper, intelligence of the death of one whom I knew slightly, and whose gentleness and brightness of intellect could not help endearing him to all who love the young. His age was fourteen or fifteen years: he died at a place some distance from home, where he had been sent for his education. The last time I saw him, we walked a mile or two together. It was in the country, and the season was Autumn. How little did I think that ere the grain or fruits would ripen again he would be blighted!—that his Autumn would arrive ere the Spring had passed. Rest in peace, young boy! Your silver thread of life is cut soon; but there are ills on earth to make men envy your fate. Your sleep is calm and quiet. Oh, when the pulse grows faint with its last throbbing—when the cold sweat has dried upon the brow—when the pantings of "life's fitful fever" have ceased—then let us hope to meet you in that far off land of mystery which passes the imagination of man to conceive or the utmost stretch of his intellect to trace.3
1. During this time thoughts on the innocence of children were shifting; children were increasingly seen as wholly innocent, rather than being tainted by original sin. Whitman's characterization of children as innocent in this editorial is evidence of this shift. For additional information about this transformation as a result of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1830), see: Nathan O. Hatch, "Redefining the Second Great Awakening: A note of the Study of Christianity in the Early Republic," The Democratization of American Christianity, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 220-226. For additional reading on customs of mourning children during the nineteenth century, see also: Vincent DiGirolamo, "Newsboy Funerals: Tales of Sorrow and Solidarity in Urban America," Journal of Social History 36:1 (Autumn 2002), 5-30. [back]
2. The term "Pale Mower" is an alternate term used during this time to refer to the Grim Reaper, or a personification of death. For instance, in a poem titled "The Ideal," by William H.C. Hosmer, a stanza reads, "There with his sickle, idle and rust-eaten,/ Sleeps the Pale Mower of our mortal joys;/ And amber drops of purest nectar sweeten/ A cup that never cloys" (Holden’s Dollar Magazine 5-6, , 47). [back]
3. The phrase "life’s fitful fever" comes from Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this scene, Macbeth consoles Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan, a man whom Macbeth feared would prevent him from being king, by saying: "Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep/ In the affliction of these terrible dreams/ That shake us nightly: better be with the dead/ Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,/ Than on the torture of the mind to lie/ In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave/ After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;/ Treason has done his worst: now steel, nor poison,/ Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,/ Can touch him further." Shakespeare’s plays were performed by and for all classes in the United States during the nineteenth century; therefore, Whitman’s readers would have understood the reference. For a discussion of the popularity of Shakespeare during the mid-nineteenth century, see: Lawrence W. Levine, "William Shakespeare in America," Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). [back]