A social activist and one of the founders of the Republican Party, George William Curtis served as editor of Harper's Weekly from 1863 until his death in 1892. During that same period he regularly contributed essays to Harper's Monthly, under the title of "The Easy Chair."
In this reflective essay, originally published in 1887, Curtis uses the occasion of the new year to challenge conventional ideas about youth and age. You may find it rewarding to compare Curtis's essay with Charles Lamb's "New Year's Eve."
The New Year
by George William Curtis
In Germany on Sylvesterabend--the eve of Saint Sylvester, the last night of the year--you shall wake and hear a chorus of voices singing hymns, like the English waits at Christmas or the Italian pifferari. In the deep silence, and to one awakening, the music has a penetrating and indefinable pathos, the pathos that Richter remarked in all music, and which our own Parsons has hinted delicately--
"Strange was the music that over me stole,There is something of the same feeling in the melody of college songs heard at a little distance on awakening in the night before Commencement. The songs are familiar, but they have an appealing melancholy unknown before. Their dying cadences murmur like a muffled peal heralding the visionary procession that is passing out of the enchanted realm of youth forever. So the voices of Sylvester's Eve chant the requiem of the year that is dead. So much more of life, of opportunity, of achievement, passed; so much nearer age, decline, the mystery of the end. The music swells in rich and lingering strains. It is a moment of exaltation, of purification. The chords are dying; the hymn is ending; it ends. The voices are stilled. It is the benediction of Saint Sylvester:
For 'twas born of old sadness that lives in my soul."
"She died and left to me . . .
The memory of what has been,
And nevermore will be."
But this is the midnight refrain--The King is dead! With the earliest ray of daylight the exulting strain begins--Live the King! The bells are ringing; the children are shouting; there are gifts and greetings, good wishes and gladness. "Happy New Year! happy New Year!" It is the day of hope and a fresh beginning. Old debts shall be forgiven; old feuds forgotten; old friendships revived. Today shall be better than yesterday. The good vows shall be kept. A blessing shall be wrung from the fleet angel Opportunity. There shall be more patience, more courage, more faith; the dream shall become life; today shall wear the glamour of to-morrow. Ring out the old, ring in the new!
Charles Lamb says that no one ever regarded the first of January with indifference; no one, that is to say, of the new style. But a fellow-pilgrim of the old style, before Pope Gregory retrenched those ten days in October, three hundred years ago, or the British Parliament those eleven days in September, a hundred and thirty-five years ago, took no thought of the first of January. It was a date of no significance. To have mused and moralized upon that day more than upon any other would have exposed him to the mischance against which Rufus Choate asked his daughter to defend him at the opera: "Tell me, my dear, when to applaud, lest unwittingly I dilate with the wrong emotion." The Pope and the Parliament played havoc with the date of the proper annual emotion. Moreover, if a man should happen to think of it, every day is a new-year's day. If we propose a prospect or a retrospect we can stand tiptoe on the top of every day, yes, and of every hour, in the year. Good-morning is but a daily greeting of Happy New Year.
But these smooth generalizations and truisms do not disturb the charm of regularly recurring times and seasons. That the fifth of October, or any day in any month, actually begins a new year, does not give to that date the significance and the feeling of the first of January. Our fellow-pilgrim of the old style must look out for himself. He may have begun his year in March, and a blustering birth it was. But we are children of the new style, and the first of January is our New Year. That is our day of remembrance, our feast of hope, the first page of our fresh calendar of good resolutions, the day of underscoring and emphasis of the swift lapse of life. "A few more of them, and then--" whispers the mentor, who is not deceived by the jolly compliments of the season, and the sober significance of the whisper is plain enough. "Eheu! Posthume," sang the old Roman. "This world and the next, and all's over!" said airy Tom Lackwit to the afflicted widow.
The relentless punctuality, the unwearied urgency, of old Time, who turns his hour-glass with such a sonorous ring on New-Year's Day, seems sometimes a little wanting in the best breeding. It furnishes so unnecessary a register. The slow whitening and thinning of the hair; the gradual incision of wrinkles; the queer antics of the sight, which holds the newspaper at farther and farther removes, until at last it is forced to succumb to glasses; the abated pace in walking; the dexterous avoidance of stone walls in country rambles; the harmless frauds lurking in the expressed reasons for frequent pauses in climbing a hill to turn and see the landscape--frauds which the tears of my Uncle Toby's good angel promptly wash away; the general and gradual adjustment to greater repose--all these surely are adequate reminders and signs of the sovereignty of Time. Why should he be greedy of more? Why thump and rattle at the door, as it were, on the first of January, and bawl out to the whole world that we are a year older, and that makes--!
Concluded on page two