Villon, as we know, has a melancholy fondness for asking these sad, hopeless questions of snow and wind. He muses not only of the drift of fair faces, but of the passing of mighty princes and all the arrogant pride and pomp of the earth—“pursuivants, trumpeters, heralds, hey!” “Ah! where is the doughty Charlemagne?” They, even as the humblest, “the wind has carried them all away.” They have vanished utterly as the snow, gone—who knows where?—on the wind. “’Dead and gone’—a sorry burden of the Ballad of Life,” as Thomas Lowell Beddoes has it in his Death’s Jest Book. “Dead and gone!” as Andrew Lang re-echoes in a sweetly mournful ballade:
Through the mad world’s
We are drifting on,
To this tune, I ween,
“They are dead and gone!”
“Nought so sweet as melancholy,” sings an old poet, and, while the melancholy of the exercise is undoubted, there is at the same time an undeniable charm attaching to those moods of imaginative retrospect in which we summon up shapes and happenings of the vanished past, a tragic charm indeed similar to that we experience in mournful music or elegiac poetry.
For, it is impossible to turn our eyes on any point of the starlit vista of human history, without being overwhelmed with a heart-breaking sense of the immense treasure of radiant human lives that has gone to its making, the innumerable dramatic careers now shrunk to a mere mention, the divinely passionate destinies, once all wild dream and dancing blood, now nought but a name huddled with a thousand such in some dusty index, seldom turned to even by the scholar, and as unknown to the world at large as the moss-grown name on some sunken headstone in a country churchyard. What an appallingly exuberant and spendthrift universe it seems, pouring out its multitudinous generations of men and women with the same wasteful hand as it has filled this woodland with millions of exquisite lives, marvellously devised, patterned with inexhaustible fancy, mysteriously furnished with subtle organs after their needs, crowned with fairy blossoms, and ripening with magic seeds,—such a vast treasure of fragrant sunlit leafage, all produced with such elaborate care, and long travail, and all so soon to vanish utterly away!
Along with this crushing sense of cosmic prodigality, and somewhat lighting up its melancholy, comes the inspiring realization of the splendid spectacle of human achievement, the bewildering array of all the glorious lives that have been lived, of all the glorious happenings, under the sun. Ah! what men this world has seen, and—what women! What divine actors have trod this old stage, and in what tremendous dramas have they taken part! And how strange it is, reading some great dramatic career, of Caesar, say, or Luther, or Napoleon, or Byron, to realize that there was a time when they were not, then a time when they were beginning to be strange new names in men’s ears, then all the romantic