I am afraid lest I become afraid

Bruce Cummings (aka W. N. P. Barbellion)
Photographer unknown

On 17th November 1915, hours after being deemed unfit to join the British Army, 25-year-old Bruce F. Cummings discovered that he had in fact been living with multiple sclerosis for approximately 18 months, and that he had, at best, only a handful of years left to live. Suddenly, the diary he had been keeping for the past decade became something more profound, and with every new entry he wrote candidly about his struggles with the disease, the despair he felt whilst in its grip, and the solace he found in the natural world. In 1919, months before he died, that incredibly moving diary was published under a pseudonym, W. N. P. Barbellion, and with the title, Journal of a Disappointed Man. Unlike anything published before it, the diary caused a sensation, with many regarding it as an instant classic. This entry was written in 1917, two years after his diagnosis, and with death once again on his mind.

The Diary Entry

March 8, 1917

Have been reading Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond. I do not deny that I am curious about the next world, or about the condition of death. I am and always have been. In my early youth, I reflected continually on death and hated it bitterly. But now that my end is near and certain, I consider it less and am content to wait and see. As, for all practical purposes, I have done with life, and my own existence is often a burden to me and is like to become a burden also to others, I wish I possessed the wherewithal to end it at my will. With two or three tabloids in my waistcoat pocket, and my secret locked in my heart, how serenely I would move about among my friends and fellows, conscious that at some specially selected moment — at midnight or high noon — just when the spirit moved me, I could quietly slip out to sea on this Great Adventure. It would be well to be able to control this: the time, the place, and the manner of one’s exit. For what disturbs me in particular is how I shall conduct myself; I am afraid lest I become afraid, it is a fear of fear. By means of my tabloids, I could arrange my death in an artistic setting, say underneath a big tree on a summer’s day, with an open Homer in my hand, or more appropriately, a magnifying glass and Miall and Denny’s Cockroach. It would be stage-managing my own demise and surely the last thing in self-conscious elegance!

I think it was De Quincey who said Death to him seemed most awful in the summer. On the contrary the earth is warm then, and would welcome my old bones. It is on a cold night by the winter fire that the churchyard seems to me the least inviting: especially horrible it is the first evening after the funeral.

Further Reading

The first edition of Cummings’ Journal of a Disappointed Man was published in March of 1919 while he was still alive and covered his life up until the end of 1917. After his death in October of 1919, another volume was published—titled The Last Diary—which included his remaining entries. Both are now in the public domain and can be found in a single volume at the Internet Archive. It’s an incredible book.

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