William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 11 of 35)
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rather like an eremite of the wilderness than an inhabi-
tant of a city." The hermit crab clings not more obsti-
nately to his rock in the sunless corner of some ocean-dell
than this crabbed hermit clung to his seclusion in the
roaring centre of London. Yet he hardly deserves to be
called crabbed ; since, timidly distrusting men, not hating
them, he seems to have kept his goodness alive by holy
thoughts and kind acts.

Secondly ; there is another class, besides those finding
in it a refuge from worldly agony and despair, to whom
life in the conventual solitude may be wondrously sweet ;
namely, those who have genius enough, exalted passion
and ideality enough, to make the doctrines of their creed
vivid realities, the fellowship of saints and angels, the
vision of heaven, the contact of God, ever present to them,
their rites open communications with the supersensual
sphere. The few rich and ardent souls capable of this,


find paradise in the routine of their ritual and the silence
of their cells. The experience of such as these, recorded
with pens of fire in the pages of a Theodoret, a Palladius,
a Basil, a Francis, a Bernard, compose an eloquence
which may well bewitch and electrify tender and soaring
souls. To such, the world all abjured, the fellowship
of mankind quite renounced, the tempest of sin and woe
roaring faintly afar, the still and lonely cloister, with
its perpetual train of celestial recurrences, may minister
health, wisdom, content, rapture. Happy themselves,
the only evil is that the use of their powers is lost to the

Thirdly ; but when instead of the unhappy or the un-
worldly, voluntarily seeking refuge in this heavenly harbor,
we have the young and hopeful, overpersuaded or forced
into this dismal banishment, with all their ungratified
passions throbbing, when, instead of the imaginative,
ardently coveting an unbroken communion with the trans-
cendent objects of their beliefs, we have the dry and tor-
pid, reduced to a mechanical repetition of forms they are
incapable of animating, then the nun is a victim, the
monk a slave, the monastery a prison, its solitude breed-
ing diseases and miseries. It is hard to imagine any con-
dition more unfavorable to true dignity and happiness
than that of those hopelessly separated from the world by
their vows and their jail, yet burningly attached to it by
the passions that glow and gnaw beneath the placid sur-
face of their ceremonial sanctity. In such examples the
unemployed and dissatisfied forces of the soul turn in to
prey on themselves ; and engender, in some, gross physi-
cal vices ; in others, intense spiritual vices ; in all, either
an irritable unhappiness or a deathly stagnation. The
acrimonious gossip, jealous spite, fathomless pride and
contempt, which may be fostered under such circum-
stances, are fearfully illustrated by Robert Browning
in his " Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," and by Isaac
Taylor in his chapter on the " Fanaticism of the Sym-
bol " ; both of whom, however, fasten on rare exceptions,
and with a dark exaggeration.

But it is common with zealous recluses to substitute


foi religion superstition, with its idle solicitudes, morbid
scruples, and despotic formalities. Ever since the system
was founded some proportion of the recluses have un-
questionably been unhappy, the incurable distress of their
minds raining in a dreary murmur of sighs through the
confessional grate. Yet the number of the unhappy, in-
mates of convents is much less than Protestant writers
would have us believe. The most become content at
least with the second life of habit. Even those Carmel-
ites who rise at four, sleep in their coffins upon straw,
every morning dig a shovel of earth for their own inter-
ment, go to their devotions on their knees, never speak
to those they see, nor are suffered to be seen by those to
whom they speak, and taste food but twice a day, usu-
ally get so attached to their mode of life as not to be
weaned from it. In the French Revolution, when the
Convents were flung open, most of the nuns begged to be
allowed to stay and die there. Judge Story, in his poem
entitled "The Power of Solitude," has described the scene.

Hark, from yon cloisters, wrapt in gloom profound,
The solemn organ peals its midnight sound ;
With holy reverence round their glimmering shrine
Press the meek Nuns, and raise the prayer divine ;
While, pure in thought, as sweet responses rise,
Each grief subsides, each wild emotion dies.

Beckford saw, in a Carthusian convent in Portugal, a
noble and interesting young man who had just taken the
vows, and who seemed very sad. " I could not help ob-
serving, as the evening light fell on the arcades of the
quadrangle, how many setting suns he was likely to be-
hold wasting their gleams upon those walls, and what a
wearisome succession of years he had in all probability
devoted himself to consume within their precincts. The
chill gust that blew from an arched hall where the fathers
are interred, and whose pavement returned a hollow
sound as we walked over it, struck my companion with
horror." The same writer, however, was deeply affected
with a different sentiment, when, at the close of a visit
to the monks in the Grande Chartreuse, the good fathers
accompanied him a hundred paces from their building,


and, amidst the frightful scenery of the place, giving him
their benedictions, laid their hands on their breasts, and
assured him that if ever he became disgusted with the
world, here was an asylum.

Those Hindu fakirs, who, withdrawing from society, sit
in one posture, year after year, in silence, until they are
paralyzed into immovable stocks, illustrate a fanatic abuse
of solitude. This is the essential error and evil of the
monastic system, especially in its logical result, as seen in
such orders as that of La Trappe. The Trappist, on
entering the convent, leaves his name behind him, with
every other earthly clew, digs his own grave, speaks no
more, except to the brethren he meets, the dismal words,
" Remember death ! " admits no news from the rejected
world outside. The Jesuit, representative of one pole of
the monastic spirit, no true hermit, but the votary of a
grim and dread ambition, flees from the world only to
study it in distant detachment, in order to return into it
as a conqueror and ruler of it. The Trappist, repre-
sentative of the other pole, a preternatural solitary, de-
testing beauty, fearing pleasure, makes an ideal of de-
spair, prefers ignorance to knowledge, indifference to
conquest, and buries himself in an anticipated tomb.
He puts death in the place of life. This is the ascetic
spirit ultimated. But surely God has placed us here for
the purpose of living, not of dying. Dying is not the
whole of our earthly destiny, but its act of completion
and transition. The monastic regimen was born in death,
flourishes in death, culminates in death, tests the value of
everything by the standard of death. Whereas the true
standard, while we live, by which to test the value of liv-
ing interests, is the standard of life. True religion is the
vivification of the soul, as extended into the unknown
the religion of La Trappe is the mortification of the soul
as spread over the known.

The- origin of the Carthusian order was, according to
the record in the " Lives of the Saints," on this miracu-
lous wise. A dead man, who had enjoyed the highest
esteem among those who knew him in life, while borne
to burial, lifted his ghastly face from the bier, and dis-


tinctly articulated, " I am summoned to trial ! " After
a fearful pause, the same voice said, " I stand before the
tribunal ! " A few moments of horror ensued, when this
dreadful sentence issued from between the livid lips : " I
am condemned by the just judgment of God." " Alas,"
cried Bruno, who was one of the train of mourners, " of
what avail is the good opinion of the world ? To whom
but to Thee, O Lord, shall I flee ? " And the saint de-
parted, and founded that Order which seeks immortal
life by cherishing the spirit of death enshrined in a form
of the grave. This is not the wisdom and health, but the
fanaticism and disease, of solitude. Better handle roses
than skulls, contemplate the blue freedom of the sky
than the dark narrowness of a cell, think and feel mod-
erately, according to the healthy averages of nature and
life, than with absorbing extravagance on one or two ex-
citing points.

To sum up in a single paragraph this estimate of the
influences of monastic retirement. If the religious vo
tary who exchanges the world for a cell, despises the
world with a too intense predominance, he inflames an
abnormal pride ; and a life fed with scorn must be un-
wholesome. If he seeks to subdue the world to his
caste-interests, like a Dunstan or a Torquemada, he feeds
an ambition less human and worse than the ambition of
martial heroes, the Caesars or Napoleons ; the usual
love of power is replaced by one more unnatural, exas-
perated, and pitiless, which flatters itself with a heavenly
elevation while drawing its nutriment from infernal roots.
If he sinks into a mere mechanical formalist, it is a very
low and poor type of life, no better than if in the routine
of society. If he becomes the victim of suspicious hates,
wretched spiritual frictions, or of brutal appetites of car-
nality, he will exemplify the most degraded and aggra-
vated, because the most unrelieved, forms of these vices.
But if his earthly affections have been so disappointed
or so ravaged as to make a lonesome and contemplative
state truly soothing and medicinal, or if he has a pro-
nounced genius of religious enthusiasm, the cloistered
solitude may be his truest home.


When one avoids his fellow beings for the purpose of
escaping the pervasive opposition and rebuke their pres-
ence administers to his egotistic feelings, every step of
removal is an injury. Lowell has wisely remarked :
" One is far enpugh withdrawn from his fellows if he
keeps himself clear of their weaknesses ; he is not so
truly withdrawn as exiled, if he refuse to share their
strength." Then solitude becomes the hot-house of vice.
Vices which on the highway were shrubs here become
trees, and even exotics are curiously pampered. The pe-
culiarities of any caste of men existing in marked isola-
tion from neighboring humanity, are apt to be a haughty
selfishness and conceit. They acquire the habit of Phar-
isaic exclusiveness, and hold the rights of mankind in
abeyance to the interests of their clique. Thus a priest
may think less of God and truth than of the ecclesias-
tical establishment with which he identifies himself. The
result, of course, is wholly different when the lonely man
spends his thoughts and passions on disinterested prin-
ciples and plans, themes connected with universal truth
and good. The history of monastic ages and of mysti-
cal sects is certainly as full of warnings as of examples.
Their prevailing influence is to withdraw attention from
the general and fasten it on the particular, to absorb the
individual in himself, and make him oblivious of the pub-
lic. They forget that the laws which bind the molecules
into wholes have a sovereign importance immensely be
yond the molecules.

But our chief dangers lie in the opposite quarter, too
much living in a throng, frittering publicity, garrulous
disclosures and uneasy comparisons. Our pining is not
after loneliness, but after the rush and glitter of crowds.
If left to ourselves, we sigh in our desertion, and think it
were far happier to be in the throng. But why do we not
see that happiness resides in the mind, and is no gift of
place? Diocletian and Amurath voluntarily abdicated
their thrones, and withdrew into private life, sick of the
revolting discoveries they had made, overwearied by the
pompous miseries they had found. Charles the Fifth
exchanged his kingdom for a cell, and deemed himself


the gainer. Philip the Third on his death-bed was heard
to sigh, " O that I had never reigned ; that I had rather
been the poorest man ! " Oliver Cromwell declared in
one of his speeches, " I can say in the presence of God,
in comparison of whom we are but like, poor creeping
ants upon the earth, I would have been glad to have lived
under my wood-side, to have kept a flock of sheep, rather
than to have undertook such a government as this." Col-
bert, the great minister of Louis the Fourteenth, who was
proud and fond of his master, but prouder and fonder
of his country, was broken-hearted by the alienation of
the ungrateful egotist he had served too well, and at the
sight of the distress of the people whom he had toiled
so hard to shield and bless. On his death-bed he refused
to hear the letter his penitent master sent. " I wish to
hear no more of the king. It is to the King of kings
that I have now to answer. Had I done for God what I
have done for this man, I should be saved ten times
over ; and now I know not what will become of me."
Worst injustice of all, the people were as ungrateful as
the king. They looked on Colbert as the author of their
hardships, instead of recognizing in him their chief friend
and benefactor. The great minister was buried secretly
by night, for fear the rabble would tear his body from
the bier !

The belief that the men of the greatest celebrity are
the happiest men, is the inveterate fallacy of shallow
minds. The reverse rather is the truth. The fate of
Caesar is a symbol of the fortune of genius ; the crown
on the brow implies the dagger in the heart. To be per-
secuted with dislike makes the man of deep sympathetic
soul unhappy. And certainly this is the common fate of
the great man. Envy scowls at him, and hatred reeks
around him. His illustrious genius rebukes littleness,
his conspicuous place stirs the venom of obscure am-
bition, his incorruptible honesty enrages unprincipled
selfishness, and they seek revenge. Papinian, the
peerless builder of the Roman Law, who, according to
Cujacius, "was the first of all lawyers who have been or
are to be, whom no one ever surpassed in legal knowl-


edge, and no one ever will equal," became unpopular,
and was beheaded by Caracalla for his ability and his
integrity. Looking over the tragic history of the world
thus far, it is obvious that greatness and happiness have
rarely been united. " Inquire," says Lavater, " after
the sufferings of great men, and you will learn why they
are great." In his Dialogue between Nature and a Soul,
Leopardi makes the soul refuse the offer of the highest
gifts of genius, on account of the inevitable suffering con-
nected with them. Yet it will ever be the characteristic
of choice souls to prefer the mournful nobility of the pre-
rogatives of genius, with all their accompanying trials, to
jollity and mirth on a more vulgar level. In their view
pleasure may be a rose, but wisdom is a ruby. With a
thrill of divine valor they affirm that the duty to be noble
takes precedence of the right to be happy.

Unquestionably the moral regimen of the hermitage is
more appropriate for our case than that of the drawing-
room. The frittering multitude of interests and influ
ences is so great, that an economizing seclusion and de-
fence of the soul is one of our greatest needs. The
truth that the world is too much with us, is fitter to fur-
nish exhortations to us than the other truth, that it is not
good for man to be alone. The word trivial, in its ety-
mological origin, is loaded with a forcible lesson. It is
derived from the word trivium, which denotes the meet-
ing-place of three roads ; a point where idlers spent their
time, loitering to see what passed, and to discuss the
worthless items and gossip of the day. How much
weightier are the suggestions of the word solitude !

The Uses of Solitude.

Two men, most emphatically, are alone ; the worst
man and the best. Judas, hugging the thirty pieces of sil-
ver, or throwing them down and retiring to hang himself,
is alone ; and Jesus, sitting by the wayside on Jacob's
well, with meat to eat that the world knows not of, or
going apart into a mountain to pray, is alone. When-


ever we feel deserted it is well to trace the cause of the
feeling ; learn whether the experience be the result of a
fault, of a merit, or of some neutral quality unfitting us
for such fellowship as would otherwise be ours. The first
improvement of our loneliness is to analyze its cause and
meaning, see what kind of solitude we are in, and
what mode of treatment will be best adapted to the case.
These preliminary steps taken, the next duty is to devise
the fittest remedies for whatever is painful or wrong in
our condition, and endeavor to win the richest compensa-
tions from it. A very different regimen should be pre-
scribed for one suffering in the solitude of guilt from that
applied to one suffering in the solitude of grief. The
former needs the processes of penitence, atonement, ref-
ormation : the latter, the ministrations of faith, love,
cheerful communion, useful activity. Much of the bit
terest loneliness in the world arises from an exorbitant
and morbid self-regard, the importunate presence of self
in attention. Hawthorne's story of the Bosom Serpent
is a terrible illustration. There is a whole class of soli-
taries simply from shyness, bashful men like Gray and
Cowper, the poets, and Cavendish, the great chemist.
A much larger class affect seclusion in consequence of
pride. The misfortune of both these classes of sensitive
shrinkers is the same, an inability to escape the conscious-
ness of their own personalities as related to the opinions
of other people. It is not mere self-consciousness that
troubles the trembling sensitive ; it is that self-conscious-
ness imaginatively transferred to another, and exposed
to all the variations of the supposititious opinions there.
The endless multiplicity of competition in modern society,
at every point a prize, at every point a glass, tends to
force us inordinately on our own notice. If we could but
gaze at the prize alone, and break or blink the glass !
But unfortunately mirrors prove more fascinating than
prizes, and most persons are intent on themselves.
No other article of domestic furniture has been so dis-
proportionately multiplied in modern upholstery as the
looking-glass. Parlors, dining-rooms, entries, dormitories,
even ladies' fans and gentlemen's hats, are lined with


looking-glasses. And, not content with this, a recent
American newspaper contained the announcement, in a
description of several sumptuous banquets, that the host
in each instance furnished a photographic likeness of
himself, a gift placed in the plate of every guest. The
reporter thinks it a most delicate attention, and hopes
that the generous givers of dinner-parties will follow the
beautiful example and make it a custom ! Thackeray,
with probing truth, in the vignette to his Vanity Fair,
depicts the representative character, stretched at full
length, neglecting alike the petty and the sublime ob-
jects about him, puppet, crucifix, church, and sky,
with a melancholy air studying his own lugubrious face
in a mirror which he holds in his hand. Yes, this is the
malady of the age, an age of Narcissuses. The cura-
tive desideratum is devotion to a divine end, disinterest-
ed enthusiasm. Give the victim that, and he will fling
off his incubus, his morbid consciousness of self will dis-
appear in a wholesome consciousness of objects.

Sometimes the unhappy subject of this malady, at-
tempting to cure himself by retreating from the crowd
where his self-consciousness is disagreeably stimulated,
only aggravates the cause in solitude. For he still con-
tinues to deal chiefly with his own personality and its
private affairs ; and he who does this will find that ego-
tism and its penalties may be more exasperated in the
hermitage than in the hall. He must put self in the back-
ground, refuse to think of it, escape the haunting torment,
by an absorbing occupation with redemptive objects and
truths. Petrarch one of the most eloquent mission-
aries of solitude has described this untoward experi-
ence in his famous sonnet beginning, " O cameretta che
gia fosti un porto." He writes :

But e'en than solitude and rest, I flee

More from myself and melancholy thought,

In whose vain quest my soul has heavenward flown.

The crowd, long hostile, hateful unto me,

Strange though it sound, for refuge have I sought,

Such fear have I to find myself alone.

That kind of moral solitude which constitutes a pain-


tul loneliness does not consist in the state of the soul
alone, nor in its circumstances alone, but in a want of
adjustment and sympathy between the soul and its cir-
cumstances. Pride, chafing, rebelling, despairing, makes
loneliness ; aspiration, beating, self-sustained, in thin air,
wearied, and falling back on itself, makes loneliness.
Then the sufferer, to find relief, must understand what
the trouble is, and set himself at work to bring the dis-
cord into harmony. If his outer condition is right, or
unalterable, he will subject his own wishes and energies
to it ; if wrong, strive to rectify it. If some of his facul
ties are unduly sensitive, others torpid, he will seek to
restore their equilibrium. If he has fancied non-existent
circumstances, and of existing circumstances magnified
some, depreciated others, and been blind to others, he
will zealously endeavor to correct these errors. Thus
will peace be won, and the blessed fellowships of exist-
ence be re-enjoyed.

In addition to these general directions, there are spe-
cial resources available in special cases, A purpose is
always a companion. An earnest purpose is the closest
of companions. To fulfil duties is more than to enjoy
pleasures : it carries its own reward.

To have the deep poetic heart
Is more than all poetic fame.

There is no bitter loneliness for those affectionately de-
voted to blessing their fellow-creatures. The keeper of
the light-house, when night settles around him, and the
tempest holds revelry, as he looks out on the ghastly
glare of the breakers, and hears the shrieking of the
storm-fiend, finds good company in the thought that the
friendly light he trims will warn endangered crews of their
peril, and perhaps save them from death. Gifted souls
find solace and companionship in their works. It has
been eloquently said of Michael Angelo, that he was " a
lofty, lonely, lordly spirit, but gentle, sensitive, and over-
flowing with sympathy, who moved with a benignant
complacency among the great forms he called into ex-
istence for his own satisfaction." There was a painful.


almost tragic solitude in the life Charlotte Bronte led in
the bare and sombre old parsonage of Haworth ; the
long slopes of monotonous hill behind ; and before, the
dark, dilapidated church, and the rude burial-ground with
its mute hillocks and hollows, its tumbling headstones,
its piteous grass and desolate paths. The great event of
the day to her was the arrival of the post ; and she did
not dare to let her thoughts dwell on this, for fear it
would make her discontented with the duties of the other
hours. Yet she must have found a massive comfort, a
keen joy, in communing with her own genius, and in
composing those powerful books which she flung out
upon the world in rapid succession. It should, further
more, always be remembered that sympathy is not the end
of our life, but only an accompaniment and help. The true
end of life is the fruition of the faculties of our individual

When loneliness of life is caused by superiority of soul,
its compensations furnish the proper antidotes for its
pangs ; and we should be content and happy, not weakly
submit to complain. No doubt conceit often pleads ef-
fectively to persuade us that such is our case when it is
not. Many a self-deceived weakling

Has stood aloof from other men
In impotence of fancied power.

We must beware of the subtle sophistry, and not lay the
flattering unction where it does not belong. On the
other hand, neither modesty nor blindness should be suf-
fered to hide the truth when it is really favorable to a
serious complacency. So few live for truth, virtue, pro-
gress ; so many live for routine, amusement, conformity,
that it is not astonishing for a man of comprehensive

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 11 of 35)