I am lucky enough to have in my personal library a book entitled ‘The Mourner’s Friend or Sighs of Sympathy For Those Who Sorrow’. It is a collection of prose and verse compiled to give comfort to the grieving. Edited by J.B. Syme, published in 1852 by S.A. Howland in Worcester, Mass, USA; its contents are by American and European authors and some surprising famous names. My copy of the book has some water damage, ageing paper, and precarious binding, so before it deteriorates my project to preserve the words of the authors will find its way here on the MOLAM blog.
I find this lovely piece of prose quite fascinating. There is no author listed and no date, but the text appears to be referring to a number of deaths which occurred in the community within a few days. I suspect, as the author refers to the deceased as ‘tender flowers’, that they were possibly children. It is very moving.
The quotes used are not cited, but “why stand ye gazing up into heaven ?” is taken from Acts 1:11, two men (angels) in white robes ask this to the disciples who are still gazing skyward after Jesus’ rather rapid ascension. In full it reads: ‘Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manners as ye have seen him go into heaven.’ The quote “smitten of God, and bereaved” is from Isaiah 53:4. However, the quote “a gloom on the face of Nature” is a little more intriguing. It actually originates from a letter published in The Massachusetts Spy (a newspaper published by Isaiah Thomas). The letter was describing the infamous day of May 19, 1780 known as New England’s Dark Day. The Boston Chronicle of June 8 1780 quoted the Massachusetts Spy and in full it reads: ‘During the whole time a sickly, melancholy gloom overcast the face of nature. Nor was the darkness of the night less uncommon and terrifying than that of the day; notwithstanding there was almost a full moon, no object was discernible, but by the help of some artificial light, which when seen from the neighbouring houses and other places at a distance, appeared through a kind of Egyptian darkness, which seemed almost impervious to the rays. This unusual phenomenon excited the fears and apprehensions of many people. Some considered it as a portentous omen of the wrath of Heaven in vengeance denounced against the land, others as the immediate harbinger of the last day when ‘the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not giver her light.’ ” The last line is a quote from Mark 13:24. The writer is actually describing the effects of what sounds like a massive forest fire which occurred in Canada but whose thick smoke travelled south and darkened the sky of New England in what sounds like a most dramatic way. Many people interpreted this natural phenomenon as a religious warning. Therefore, the quote below does not necessarily date the prose to 1780, but could have been much later as this event of the Dark Day turned into folklore, and even more significantly, local religious discourse which would still have been familiar decades later. How utterly fascinating.
Smitten Of God.
“Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”
WHO has not felt, when one dearly beloved has been snatched away, an inclination to forget all the things of earth, and to stand idle, helpless, stricken, on the shores of Time ; gazing, longing after the lost, regardless of all that is left ; all love, all remembrance, all hope, swallowed up in the one agonized sense of bereavement ?
” Smitten of God, and bereaved ;” was not this, too written by one who knew of what he spoke ? who had felt the bitter pang of parting ; the awful sense of God’s agency in earthly sorrow ; the struggle between passionate regret and holy submission.
The human soul knows no variety in sorrow for the dead. Whatever else may change in the course of time, this remains the same throughout the ages. Paul, the sainted, the subdued, wrote not those tender words without a swelling of he heart ; and many a mourner since responds to them with tears.
Death has been busy, of late. Many a tender flower, many a “shining mark,” many a household stay and comfort, has he snatched away within a few short days. To many of our friends and fellow-citizens the bright spring heavens seem hung in black, and all the joyous associations that came up with the warm sunshine are changed to images of sadness and despondency. The idea of “a gloom on the face of Nature” is not a mere poetic fiction. To the mourner whose grief is in its fresh bitterness, there seems an absolutely perceptible shadow, like a pall of dark vapor, spread over the gayest objects. Nothing looks as it used. The heart sees not like the careless eyes. We feel as if the sun could never shine again for us.