Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Monday, December 31, 2007

Boreham on the End of the Year

This is a time for contemplation. It is true that when a person is on a journey, the important thing is to keep going. Yet there come times when, pausing for a meal or taking breath on the summit of a picturesque knoll, it is convenient—and even profitable—to review the ground that he has already covered and to take his bearings in relation to the unfinished portion of his trudge. It is with some such sensations that we shall spend the present weekend. The end of a year is not, in reality, a point of any consequence; yet it seems to represent the end of one stage and the beginning of another.

This fondness of ours for rounding things off is one of our most characteristic human instincts. Who is there, among those who delight in books, who has not read a dozen times Gibbon's infamous postscript to his monumental "Decline and Fall," the postscript in which he describes the tumult of emotion with which, after a quarter of a century of intense application, he wrote the last sentence of his history? Sir Archibald Alison tells of a similar experience. He called his wife into the room to see the last line written, and both found moisture creeping to their eyes when the pen was finally lifted from the page. And we all like to think of Sir Christopher Wren, old, feeble but tremendously excited, being driven to the city to witness the very last touches being put to his noble cathedral. Such incidents are notable because typical.

Is Man a Squirrel In a Revolving Cage?
The end of a year, however, differs essentially and fundamentally from the end of other things, inasmuch as it is, in its very nature, not only an end, but a beginning. It is a case of: "The King is dead; long live the King!" If the speech of the orator is ill-conceived and ill-finished, he will suffer for it in days to come by being permitted to contemplate from the platform a paralysing array of empty benches. If the manuscript of the author represents scamped and slipshod work, he will meet his Nemesis in the shape of universal neglect. In each case the public will punish the offender for the delinquencies of the past by peremptorily denying him a future. But nothing can deprive us the new year. Whatever the old year has done or left undone, we start afresh. By an amazing distortion of human reasoning, this inevitable system of succession—year following year without respect to the behaviour of the years—has been tortured by unhealthy minds into an excuse for pessimism. Thus, to the gloomy broodings of Nietzsche, it seemed to place humanity in the position of a squirrel in a revolving cage or a convict on a treadmill. The insensate thing twirls round and round unceasingly without regard to any kind of progress. It turns man into a kind of recurring decimal that walks on and on and on indefinitely, but never by any chance works out. The philosophy is a frigid one. We prefer to view the position in the light of a fine story that Lowell tells in the narrative of his travels in Europe. When crossing the Alps with a friend, the pair suddenly reached a summit from which they commanded a magnificent view to east and west. As Lowell gazed eastward, the pageant of antiquity seemed to unroll before his eyes. Baring his head he cried, in a transport of veneration: "Glories for the past, I salute you!" He then turned to his friend who turned his face in the opposite direction. Thinking of all the pregnant potentialities stirring within the life of those younger and more aggressive peoples, he exclaimed, "Glories of the future, I salute you!" Lowell confesses that his friend had the better of him. It is some such reflection—the rapture of the forward look—that dispels pessimism and excites expectancy as we turn our faces to the year that is about to be.

A Philosophy Of Sunshine And Apple Blossom
The cheerfulness thus generated must, however, be curbed by certain necessary modifications. Year may succeed year with the regularity and reliability of the law of gravitation. But what of ourselves? Do the years leave us as they find us? Do they simply break sportively over us as the waves break over the happy bathers? "My hair," explained Mrs. Glover, the actress, to Douglas Jerrold, the humorist, "is turning grey through using essence of lavender." "Are you sure,” Jerrold replied, grimly, "that it is not due to essence of thyme?" We suspect that the subdued melancholy of which we are all conscious at this period is due, not to the substitution of one year for another, but to a secret and subconscious recognition of change within ourselves. Yet, happily, even this pensive mood is not lasting. As soon as the bells ring in the new year, we shake it from us, and, with the ageing Ulysses, we resolve to strive, to seek, to find, but not to yield.

We grow dreadfully old in December, but we are newborn babes in January. Longfellow's biographer has described a certain day on which the poet, his hair as white as snow but his cheeks as ruddy as a rose, was strolling in an orchard with a lady friend. "How is it," she asked, "that you are still so vigorous and that it is still possible for you to write so exquisitely?" "Look at that apple tree," replied Longfellow; "it is the oldest apple tree in the orchard and yet its blossoms this year are as beautiful as I have ever known them during the past fifty years. The secret is simply this: the tree makes a little new wood every year, and out of the new wood comes the wealth of blossom." It was merely a poet’s way of saying what, in his "Marius the Epicurean," Pater says of Cornelius Fronto. "The wise old man," he writes, "would seem to have carefully and consciously replaced each natural trait of youth, as it departed from him, by an equivalent grace of culture." Essence of thyme can never age or wither such heroic spirits. Though the outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. It is impossible to depress men in whose minds the passage of the years awakens no philosophy, but one of sunshine and apple blossom!

F W Boreham, This Day With F W Boreham, 31 December.

Image: "We grow dreadfully old in December."