“Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” These words are perhaps so familiar to us that we might miss the offense it bears against the meaning of Easter. (A meaning we should still contemplate in the Paschal season.) For Emily Dickinson death actually turns out to be quite the gentlemen, arriving with the amenities of a roomy “carriage” and “immortality.” But Dickinson was not the only 19th-century American who romanticized death; there were plenty others who personified his deferential nature as an obliging friend who would visit regularly to “chat about such matters as the weather, or recipes for oyster pie, or recent advances in dental technology.”
These benevolent portrayals of death, in lyric or reflection, seem to take the form of some tractable stranger who is civil, knows no haste, and is courteous as an English butler. But perhaps the apogee of sentimentality came in the verse of William Cullen Bryant, who at the wise age of sixteen claimed to have a novel “sight” of death. In his poem “Thanatopsis,” Bryant enjoins us to go to death
not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Surely, here is a better “optics” of death, one that curbs our fears and brings consolation. But such a characterization is anything but new. Long ago, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself (and us) that death was “a thing surely which no man ought to be ashamed of.” This is why he can argue, “Thou must not in matter of death carry thyself scornfully, but as one that is well pleased with it, as being one of those things that nature hath appointed” (Meditations IX.3).
And when Marcus Aurelius tells us that death “is not only a work of nature, but also conducing to nature,” it’s hard to not hear the echoes of this worldly wisdom even in the kitsch world of Disney. Cue now the “Circle of Life” anthem, as Simba the Lion King is hoisted in the air, and notice how neatly death has been grafted into the recurrent system of nature’s cycles. Death, then, is merely the working out of natural causes.
The Stoic Roman Emperor continues, “As generations [genesis], so also death, a secret of nature’s wisdom, a mixture of elements, resolved into the same elements again” (IV.5). We should not be surprised when we hear again echoes of this in Bryant’s verse.
Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
We can pardon Bryant’s cloying images and tone. But the ideas cannot be absolved. How can the materialist, even of that antique variety, claim “pleasant” dreams, when his consciousness ceases and his atoms are dispersed once again back into the universe? Whence comes this confidence to assuage our fears of death?
Perhaps the answer may have more to do with Bryant’s classical education than with his Christian one. After all, Bryant is merely regurgitating what pagan man, without the aid of divine revelation, reasoned about death, looking hard at life in a manner Solomon might call “under the sun.” The height of human wisdom rises to a point, and pagan man can, as St. Paul acknowledges in Romans, glimpse the Creator in contemplating the creation, seeing dimly the Godhead in the forms and garb of Nature. And when confronted with death—the ultimate incongruity—pagan man with reason and imagination can even resolve it and all the pain of life into a recurrent narrative, an ordered system to which man must reconcile himself.
Easter, however, defies this. Easter is that scandalous slap in the Apollonian face of neatly balanced forms and cycles (life and death, death and rebirth). Easter is that reminder that the Christian vision of the world is unique, that death was not the end of the plot. From antiquity, the Scriptures seem to stand out in viewing death as evidence that something had gone terribly wrong with nature. The psalmist suggests Sheol is not a consummation devoutly to be wished but a place of silence, where “the dead do not praise the Lord” (115:17-18; cf. psalm 31:17).
Though death may have been an “unmixed evil,” as Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, the religious burial rites observed in Sophocles and Homer, for instance, only seem to prove how that reconciliation was achieved. And resigned to their respective fates, Achilles and Priam almost become friends, as if each sees his own reflection in the strange mirror of the other (winner becomes the loser; the loser the winner). As bad it was for pagan man, death was not unlike suffering, merely assumed as part of the natural operation of existence. At best, death was a path to immortal glory, feasting and fighting in the mead hall of Valhalla, or reclining in Elysium. Homer might have come closest to seeing death as an enemy in the words of the dead Achilles: “‘Say not a word in death’s favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead’” (Odyssey XI). There are other echoes, doubtless. But it is no Easter.
It is true that both the pagan and the Christian did not fear death (something we’ve lately forgotten in the age of Covid). After all, by his resurrection Christ has released us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). But the reasons for our lack of fear are different. While pagan man sees the but the course of nature or the path to glory per aspera, the Christian sees the world-shattering significance of Christ’s resurrection as a triumph over an adversary. This is why Paul shouts his taunt against death as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:55). It is the meaning of his cry,
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
Perhaps this truth was forgotten in the age of Bryant and Dickinson. To a nineteenth-century culture which was already beginning to take for granted its plausibility structures as a Christian society, perhaps it was a further sign of decay that it should be condemned to rediscover a pagan vision of death as well. But this is the danger of a merely classical education and not a Christian one.
This is worth remembering today, for those of us living in the ash heap of the West and who continue to grow up in the church, whose task it is to stoop and rebuild culture with seemingly worn-out tools. We have the opposite problem of Dickinson and Bryant; our kids grow up singing about how Christ has trampled down death and yet they don’t understand what that means. We can become so used to Easter that its familiarity breeds a weariness and a loss of respect. But this is one of the blessings of what we might recommend as a “pagan education,” for it gives a “firm conviction,” as Lewis himself held, “that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for Paganism.” Classical learning does not save, but it does help to preserve us from two dangers: that we should neither grow too comfortable with death nor grow too weary of Easter’s meaning. Without the resurrection, Christians are of all men most miserable (1 Cor. 15:19). So Easter breaks open the world to a new metaphysics, that the end of a thing is better than its beginning (Eccl. 7:8).