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OF THE DURATION OF HUMAN LIFE.
The active and industrious portion of the human species in civilised countries, is composed of those who are occupied in the labour of the hand, and in the labour of the head.
The following remarks expressly apply only to the latter of these classes, principally to such as are occupied in productive literature. They may however have their use to all persons a considerable portion of whose time is employed in study and contemplation, as, if well founded, they will form no unimportant chapter in the science of the human mind.
In relation to all the members of the second class then, I should say, that human life is made up of term and vacation, in other words, of hours that may be intellectually employed, and of hours that cannot be so employed.
Human life consists of years, months and days : each day contains twenty-four hours. Of these hours how many belong to the province of intellect?
“ There is," as Solomon says, “a time for all things.” There must be a time for sleep, a time for recreation, a time for exercise, a time for supplying the machine with nourishment, and a time for digestion. When all these demands have been supplied, how many hours will be left for intellectual occupation ?
These remarks, as I have said, are intended principally to apply to the subject of productive literature. Now, of the hours that remain when all the necessary demands of human life have been supplied, it is but a portion, perhaps a small portion, that can be beneficially, judiciously, employed in productive literature, or literary composition.
It is true, that there are many men who will occupy eight, ten, or twelve hours in a day, in the labour of composition. But it may be doubted whether they are wisely so occupied.
It is the duty of an author, inasmuch as he is an author, to consider, that he is to employ his pen in putting down that which shall be fit for other men to read. He is not writing a letter of business, a letter of amusement, or a letter of sentiment, to his private friend. He is writing that which shall be perused by as many men as can be prevailed on to become his readers. If he is an author of spirit and ambition, he wishes his productions to be read, not only by the idle, but by the busy, by those who cannot spare time to peruse them but at the expence of some occupations which ought not to be suspended without an adequate occasion. He wishes to be read not only by the frivolous and the lounger, but by the wise, the elegant, and the fair,
by those who are qualified to appreciate the merit of a work, who are endowed with a quick sensibility and a discriminating taste, and are able to pass a sound judgment on its beauties and defects. He advances his claim to permanent honours, and desires that his lucubrations should be considered by generations yet unborn.
A person, so occupied, and with such aims, must not attempt to pass his crudities upon the public. If I may parody a celebrated aphorism of Quintilian, I would say, “ Magna debetur hominibus reverentiar:" in other words, we should carefully examine what it is that we propose to deliver in a permanent form to the taste and understanding of our species. An author ought only to commit to the press the first fruits of his field, his best and choicest thoughts. He ought not to take up the pen, till he has brought his mind into a fitting tone, and ought to lay it down, the instant his intellect becomes in any degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.
There are extraordinary cases. A man may have so thoroughly prepared himself by long meditation and study, he may have his mind so charged with an abundance of thought, that it may employ him for ten or twelve hours consecutively, merely to put down or to unravel the conceptions already matured in his soul. It was in some such way, that Dryden, we are told, occupied a whole night,
Mankind is to be considered with reverence.
and to a late hour in the next morning, in penning his Alexander's Feast. But these are the exceptions. In most instances two or three hours are as much as an author can spend at a time in delivering the first fruits of his field, his choicest thoughts, before his intellect becomes in some degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.
Nor is this all. He might go on perhaps for soine time longer with a reasonable degree of clear
But the fertility which ought to be his boast, is exhausted. He no longer sports in the meadows of thought, or revels in the exuberance of imagination, but becomes barren and unsatisfactory. Reis necessary,
and that the soil should be refreshed with the dews of another evening, the sleep of a night, and the freshness and revivifying influence of another morning.
These observations lead, by a natural transition, to the question of the true estimate and value of human life, considered as the means of the operations of intellect:
A primary enquiry under this head is as to the duration of life: Is it long, or short ?
The instant this question is proposed, I hear myself replied to from all quarters : What is there so well known as the brevity of human life? “Life is but a span.” It is “as a tale that is told.” “ Man cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down : he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.” We are “as a sleep; or as grass : in the morning it
flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.”
The foundation of this sentiment is obvious. Men do not live for ever. The longest duration of human existence has an end : and whatever it is of which that may be affirmed, may in some sense be pronounced to be short. The estimation of our existence depends upon the point of view from which we behold it. Hope is one of our greatest enjoyments. Possession is something. But the past is as nothing. Remorse may give it a certain solidity; the recollection of a life spent in acts of virtue may be refreshing. But fruition, and honours, and fame, and even pain, and privations, and torment, when they are departed, are but like a feather; we regard them as of no account. Taken in this sense, Dryden's celebrated verses are but a maniac's rant :
To-morrow, do thy worst, for I have lived to-day :
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,
But this way of removing the picture of human life to a certain distance from us, and considering those things which were once in a high degree interesting as frivolous and unworthy of regard, is not the way by which we shall arrive at a true and just estimation of life. Whatever is now past, and is of little value, was once present: and he who