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 12 of 35)
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lineal activity to surpass the range of those given up to
a careless circular activity. A passion for perfection will
make its subject solitary as nothing else can. At every
stop he leaves a group behind. And when, at last, he
reaches the goal, alas ! where are his early comrades ?
Let him thank God that his superiors and his peers are
there before him. Let him honor these, fraternize with
them, and be blessed.


A lost faith is sometimes the cause of a dismal solitude
of soul. A sceptic of fine sensibility, robbed of long-
cherished beliefs, and provided with no substitute, miss-
ing that wonted ministration, may feel as lonely as a pil-
grim overtaken by night on an Alpine ice-ocean, a dark
speck of despair between the shining sea of ice and the
colder sea of stars, a conscious interrogation-point of fate.
His true course is to face his doubts without flinching,
boldly follow every clew, make no unfaithful compromise,
but traverse the deserts of negation to their end, keeping
a spirit open, silent, and watchful for every light of provi-
dential direction and every voice of divine reality. He
will then find denial but the precursor of affirmation, and
disbelief but a process of growth, an extrusion of dead
husks for the appearance of living germs. Dogmatic as-
sent will be superseded by spiritual experience, insight
will take the place of tradition, and blessed truths richly
compensate for the outgrown formularies which it cost
him so much pain to abandon. His trial is in leaving
the injurious but endeared companionship of beliefs no
longer fitted to the wants of his mind, but which he has
always supposed indispensable. His reward will be to
gain a new companionship of higher and truer views,
better beliefs, more accurately adjusted to his real wants
as a conscious sojourner in time and a responsible pil-
grim to eternity.

Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,
Who ne'er the mournful midnight hours,
Weeping upon his bed hath sate,
He knows you not, ye heavenly powers.

One of the most valuable uses of solitude is to prepare
us for society. He who studies, when alone, to under-
stand himself, and to improve himself, to cure his vices,
correct his errors, calm and sweeten his heart, enrich his
mind, purify and expand his imagination and sympathy,
thus makes seclusion a sanitarium, gymnasium, treasury,
and church, and takes the surest means to commend him
self to his fellow-men. He employs the best method both
for giving and securing pleasure when he shall return
from his retirement to mingle with others again. Ma-
7 J


dame Swetchine says, " I hold it a good thing to forsake
the world from time to time, so as not to lose the relish
for it ; as Rousseau liked to leave those whom he loved,
in order to have the pleasure of writing to them." Those
who nurture any of the malign or unsocial sentiments
when by themselves, become unfit for company ; all fre-
quented haunts grow distasteful to them ; they become
jealous, irritable, and wretched everywhere. Advantage
should rather be taken of solitude to assuage every rank-
ling remembrance, all selfish suspicions, to lay emollients
on the wounds of vanity, to foster generous views of our
fellow-beings, and strengthen the benignant feelings.
Then we shall leave our retreat and re-enter the throng,
refreshed and placid, prepared doubly to enjoy the privi
leges of human intercourse. Thus every recurrence of
loneliness, instead of tending to make us misanthropic,
will send us back to our common avocations and plea-
sures with a wiser interest, a keener relish for all that
concerns our kind. Charles Lamb charmingly describes
such an experience in his little poem on the Sabbath
Bells. A solitary thinker is roaming the hills far from the
walks of men, wrapt in abstruse contemplations, debat
ing with himself hard and elusive questions.

Thought-sick and tired
Of controversy where no end appears,
No clew to his research, the lonely man
Half wishes for society again.
Him, thus engaged, the sabbath bells salute
Sudden. His heart awakes, his ears drink in
The cheering music : his relenting soul
Yearns after all the joys of social life,
And softens with the love of human kind.

Such an improvement of seclusion is the way to make
us attractive to others as well as contented in ourselves.
To be ignorant of yourself, uneasy and exacting, is to be
repulsive no less than miserable. Who would enjoy the
world, must move through it detached from it, coming
into it from a superior position. He must not be weakly
dependent on his fellows, but say to himself, Cannot
God, the Universe and I, make my life a rich, self-suffic-
ing thing here in time ? To command love we must not


be dependent on it ; a tragical truth for those who have
most need of love. The way to self-sufficingness is the
way to public conquest. Happy in the closet is winsome
in the crowd. The king of solitude is also the king of
society. The reverse, however, is not so true. Many an
applauded domineerer of the forum, many a brilliant en-
chantress of the assembly, when alone, is gnawed by in-
satiable passions, groans restlessly under the recoil of
disappointment. William von Humboldt wrote to his
friend Charlotte, "There are few who understand the
value of solitude, and how many advantages it offers,
especially to women, who are more apt than men to wreck
themselves on petty disquietudes." Self-inspection, self-
purification, self-subdual to the conditions of noble being
and experience, these form the fitting occupation of our
solitary hours. Yet, self must not be the conspicuous ob-
ject of our contemplation, but great truths and senti-
ments, moral and religious principles, nature, humanity,
and God, the perennial fountains of fresh and pure life.
He who follows this course is best qualified to read and
interpret the secrets of other souls. He is likewise best
fitted to master the world, in the only sense in which a
good man will wish to master it. There is no more effi-
cacious mode of observing mankind, than as they are seen
from the loop-holes of retreat, and mirrored in our own
consciousness. In relation to what is deep and holy, as
compared with each other, society is a concealer, solitude
a revealer : much, hidden from us in that, is shown to us
in this. Amidst a festival the moonlight streams on the
wall ; but it is unnoticed while the lamps blaze, and the
guests crowd and chatter. But when the gossipers go,
and the lights are put out, then, unveiled of the glare and
noise, that silvery illumination from heaven grows visible,
and the lonely master of the mansion becomes conscious
of the visionary companionship of another world. Soli-
tude is God's closet. It is the sacred auditorium of the
secrets of the spiritual world. In this whispering-gallery
without walls, tender and reverential spirits are fond of
hearkening for those occult tones, divine soliloquies, too
deep within or too faintly far ever anywhere else to


suffer their shy meanings to be caught. Given a suffi-
ciently sensitive intelligence to apprehend the revela-
tions, and every moment of time is surcharged with ex-
pressiveness, every spot of space babbles ineffable truths.
Silence itself is the conversation of God. We know that
in the deepest apparent stillness sounds will betray them-
selves to those who have finer sense and pay keener at-
tention than ordinary. On the Alps, when everything
seems so deathly quiet in the darkness, place your ear at
the surface of the ice, and you may catch the tinkle of
rivulets running all through the night in the veins and
hollows of the frozen hills. Has not the soul too its
buried streams of feeling whose movements only the most
absorbed listening, in the most hushed moments, can
distinguish ?

What is it to subject a thing, save to extricate yourself
from it, rise apart, and command it from a higher posi-
tion ? To overcome the world it is indispensable first to
overlook the world from some private vantage-ground
quietly aloof. Would you lift the soul above the petty
passions that pester and ravage it, and survey the prizes,
the ills, and the frets of ordinary life in their proper per-
spective of littleness ? Accustom yourself to go forth at
night, alone, and study the landscape of immensity ; gaze
up where eternity unveils her starry face and looks down
forever without a word. These exercises, their lessons
truly learned, so far from making us hate the society of
our fellow-creatures, or foolishly suffer from its annoy-
ances, will fit us wisely to enjoy its blessings ; be masters
of its honors, not victims of its penalties. If to be alone
breeds in us a sullen taciturnity, it is proof that we are
already bad characters. The more a misanthrope is dis-
sociated from men, the more he loathes them ; the longer
a pure and loving soul is kept from them, the intenser is
his longing to be united with them. None are so bitter
and merciless, so abounding in sneers and sarcasms about
s'ociety and its occupants, as those most thoroughly famif-
iarized and hardened in its routine.

How certainly
The innocent white milk in us is turned


By much persistent shining of the sun !
Shake up the sweetest in us long enough
With men, it drops to foolish curd, too sour
To feed the most untender of Christ's lambs.

The solitary, if rich in heart, are often the fondest of
talking when they find a listener. It eases their fulness.
The wand of approaching sympathy melts a channel for
the pent-up flood of consciousness to flow off in, as when
the ice is broken which had formed over a spring and
forced the stream to accumulate far back in its secret
runnels. The strength of our desire for contact with so-
ciety is proportioned, properly, to the keenness of our
experience, the wealth of our discoveries, in solitude.
No sooner has a truth or principle, unknown to us before,
come into our possession, than we are eager to go out
armed with this talisman, and test again the natures of
men, the phenomena of life, the prizes of the world. It
is a natural and wholesome reaction which takes the
student back from the monologue of metaphysics to the
dialogue of science. Knowledge of self is but half a
knowledge of the universe.

A great compensation for any sadness one may feel in
being alone is the power his calm environment may be
made to yield him. Solitude is the foster-mo'ther of sub-
lime resolves. It is the earth of Antaeus, every fresh
touch of which emits a thrill of fortifying renewal. Rev-
olutions, sciences, religions, have crystalized in the fervid
silence of lonely minds. Had Joan of Arc, instead of
cherishing lonely visions in her solitary life, frequented
balls, whist-parties, sewing-circles, and the like, would
they have given the poor maiden, who could not write
her name, power to make that name immortal? The
wisdom of the Jesuits is perhaps nowhere better shown
than in the tremendous regimen of solitude and contem-
plation of death under which they put their novitiates.
The results of this discipline have been incomparably
great, revolutionizing in its subjects the normal forces of
human nature. Strength grows in repose succeeding
action ; and Pascal says, " We are ridiculous when we
seek repose in the society of our fellows." Enthusiasm


is no more a growth of the arena than peace is. There
is infinitely more apathy in crowded than in deserted
places. Overfull hearts turn from the ball to the bower.
In the purlieus of fashion indifference often passes for
repose, and coldness for power, but warmth for crude-
ness, and diffidence for incapacity.

Solitude stimulates and feeds, rather than generates,
purposes. They are to be acquired elsewhere, confirmed
and fortified here. The design of Mahommed was con-
ceived during his journeys among the idolatrous tribes,
as the factor of Kadijah ; but placed in a focus, and
kindled into a contagious flame, among the lone hills of
the desert where he so often retired to muse. Purposes
and vows are consolidated and intensified by reflection
and repetition ; and these, driven from the glare and
buzz of society, are found in the retreat. Echo is the
frend of the lonely. Every great artist, every serious
genius, who wishes to create on a rare height, feels the
need of a refuge from the trifles and vulgarities of ordi-
nary people. Felix Mendelssohn died just as he was in-
tending to withdraw for several years into solitude at
Rome, to work out in an oratorio his idea of Christ. We
cannot enough lament the loss of the feelings that rich,
pure, and devout nature would have poured around this
sublime theme.

Every marked quality or power of genius is a mental
polarity. Nothing is ordinarily so fatal to this as a frit-
tering multiplicity of interests, a bewilderment of activi-
ties. A throng of objects flitting before the eyes is irri-
tating and exhaustive. It is so with the mind too. A
rapid alternation of attractions and repulsions dries up
sympathy and crumbles thought. To live either in a dis-
tracting medley of private motives and efforts, or in the
constant frictions and frivolities of society, is to be sub-
jected to an influence of the most deteriorating character.
Let that influence be continuous and exclusive, and it will
soon depolarize the associative points of intellectual
power. It is remembrance, admiration, longing, wonder,
musing, love, whose congenial haunts are the still
library, the lonely shore, the hill, the glen, the sea, and


the sky, that feed and inspire the poet. He would be
steadily unpoetized if confined to the barren gossip of
saloons, the corrosive emulations of the crowd. The
legacy of Wordsworth to our times, in the unique origi-
nality of his genius, and its literary expression, perhaps
has no grander feature than his wise withdrawal from the
miscellaneous contacts and wear of cities to the lakes,
his consecration to the stately care of himself in the
bosom of brooding nature, in imaginative sight of man-
kind, in the transcendent embrace of God. His words
of exhortation to others are a noble description of his
own life. He says : " It is an animating sight to see a
man of genius, regardless of temporary gains, whether
of money or praise, fixing his attention solely upon what
is intrinsically interesting and permanent, and finding his
happiness in an entire devotion of himself to such pur-
suits as shall most ennoble human nature. We have not
seen enough of this in modern times ; and never was
there a period in society when such examples were likely
to do more good than at present."

The influence of society is distracting or diffusive ; that
of seclusion is concentrative. Ruskin says, " An artist
should be fit for the best society, and should keep out of
it. Society always has a destructive in'fluence on an
artist ; first, by its sympathy with his meanest powers ;
secondly, by its chilling want of understanding of his
greatest ; thirdly, by its vain occupation of his time and
thoughts. Of course a painter of men must be among
men : but it ought to be as a watcher, not as a compan-

Society, full of multiplicity and change, is every way
finite, wasting its force in incessant throbs ; solitude, an
unaltering unity, is allied to the infinite. Its repose col-
lects and redistributes the force expended by the strug-
gles that rage and subside unheeded in its measureless
realm. Our times want the brooding spirit. When we
read, that, one fine morning, Mithridates, king of Pontus,
disappeared from his palace, and remained missing for
months, so that he was given up for lost ; and, when he
returned, it was found that he had wandered, unknown,


through the whole of anterior Asia, reconnoitering all
the countries and peoples, we are impressed with a
sense of inscrutable solitary force and mystery akin to
that imparted by the ocean, as it goes forth, "dread,
fathomless, alone." Such souls, huge reservoirs of pur-
pose and power, are rare in any age, but especially rare
in ours. Bishop Berkeley said, " In the present age think-
ing is more talked of, but less practised, than in ancient
times." I believe this to be deeply true ; reading and
other substitutes for thinking have vastly increased in
modern times. In power and resources Man undoubt-
edly has gained, but men appear, relatively, to have lost.
There is a tremendous influence in a democratic people
to draw up and pull down exceptions to the general level,
an influence commonly fatal to the production of rich
and strong individualities. There is ground for Byron's
satirical stroke :

Society is now one polished horde,

Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.

Our familiar is rather a nimble and tricksy spirit, like
Puck, than that awing genius of brooding silence which
kept Socrates, spell-bound, standing fast in one spot all
night. We have superabundant impulse, but little pa-
tience. It is all come-and-go, and no stay. The dis-
chargers of power are multiplied out of all proportion
to the generators of power. The swift succession of
events, the thousand vibrating relationships of the age,
the incessant teeming of business enterprises, political
squabbles, reviews and books, scatter our attention and
exhaust our energy. We lie, spread abroad and open,
at the mercy of a disintegrating swarm of influences,
instead of being gathered into one available mass of
purpose steadily directed to its aim. Force enough is
wasted in the sterile chatter of conceited criticism to pro-
duce much of permanent worth, if it were converted into
creative meditation. And so far from seeking to neutral-
ize and correct the evil, strenuously confronting it, resist-
ing it, and curing it by a rectifying regimen of meditation
and prayerful seclusion, a withdrawn and studious culture,


carefully adapted in each instance to the peculiarities of
the person and his circumstances, we make it worse by
indulging its instincts, seeking relief in sympathy or
escape in confusion, turning our already harassed sensi-
bilities to a distracting medley of meetings, parties,
newspapers, novels, theatres. Crabbe says, with his
usual sharpsightedness,

Men feel their weakness and to numbers run,
Themselves to strengthen or themselves to shun.

Exactly the opposite of what they should do. The like-
minded may confirm our disease by flatteringly reflecting
it ; the unlike-minded only take our attention from it
while, perhaps, it grows more inveterate. Surely it is
better to extirpate than to forget an tvil. Killing time
is a poor substitute for improving time. Dissipation may
stem or drown grief, but cannot heal it. The hospital of
loneliness is better fitted for the treatment of wounds
than the stadium of competitors and spectators. Society
drains, solitude supplies. That is the place for expendi-
ture, this for recovery. This is the place of preparation,
that of performance. The work of a man who leads a life
of dissipating publicity flattens into a marsh ; the work
of a man who guards his aim by a solitary determination
looms into a mountain. Wordsworth puts into the mouth
of his Oswald a true and striking image :

Join twenty tapers of unequal height,
And light them joined, and you will see the less
How 't will burn down the taller, and they all
Shall prey upon the tallest.

It is fortunate for us, in this gossiping, headlong age, that,
in each recurrence of slumber the soul takes an invigorat-
ing bath of loneliness ; that, in the mysterious alternation
of our existence, every night the babbling streams of so-
ciety empty into the oceanic solitude of sleep and dreams.
The great soul, apparently dwarfed to the stature of com-
mon men, as soon as alone, dilates again to its native
majesty, and begins to hold converse with themes of its
own altitude.



If the chosen one could never be alone,
In deep mid-silence, open-doored to God,
No greatness ever had been dreamed or done :
Among dull hearts a prophet never grew ;
The nurse of full-grown souls is Solitude.

Solitude is the tent of the Almighty, which no thoughtful
man can enter without awe, or need leave without shrift
and an access of strength.

For fine spirits, hurt and weary in the conflicts of much
company, harassed with its fret and worn with its care, to
be alone for a season is a luxurious refreshment, an in-
describable solace. Chateaubriand surrounded himself
in Paris with a few choice friends, profoundly close and
dear, and sensitively avoided the crowd, which he called
" The vast desert of men." What a eulogy of solitude is
contained in such a phrase as this of Wordsworth:
" The fruitful calm of greatly silent hearts ! " Suffering
from a fevered breast and a distempered mind, who would
not find it a benign change to leave the painted harlot,
Fashion, for the sad wood-nymph, Solitude? With her
society the sage flees into his thought, the saint into his
God, and the horrid discord that tore and stunned
them rolls away and becomes a murmur on the horizon.
The nerves, rasped and drained in the collisions of the
crowd, are lubricated and refilled in the repose of soli-
tude. The fainting consciousness is thus restored, vital
color put into its fading states, the wearing effect of con-
fused voices and calls stopped. Of course, if the ideas of
the things that worried us follow into our retreat, and con-
tinue to operate there, these good results cannot be ex-
pected ; and the organism must sink under the constant
iteration of demands. To profit by retirement we must
not allow the ideal equivalents of the goads and loads
that stung and galled us in the thoroughfare to pursue
and irritate us still, but win a true respite from them by
ceasing to think of them. And we can cease to think of
them by occupying our attention with something better,
something soothing and elevating, something grand and
lovely. The unhappy heart overwhelmed by misfortunes,
when deserted by old associates in whom it had fondly
confided, is apt to add to the crushing weight of the


misfortunes the bitterer weight of a haunting recollection
of the desertion, a recollection full of enervating melan
choly, or perhaps full of poisonous hate. How much
better to forget the desertion and think of remedying the
misfortunes ! The traveller swept by an avalanche into an
Alpine chasm, beyond sight and sound, and left there by
his fellows and guides, to die, alone in the frozen gulf,
must not fasten in his brain the grievous and despairing
thought of his companions gone on their way ; he will
best do his duty by resolutely turning his mind to a con-
templation of God and immortality, or to some manly
plan for self-rescue. Bonnivard, in a dungeon in the
castle of Chillon, was fastened to a ring in a column by a
chain four feet in length. He could walk only three
steps. He resolved to keep himself alive until some prov-
idential deliverance should enable him again to serve
the cause of liberty. A channel worn three or four inches
into the surface of the rocky floor, still visible, marks the
pathetic limits of his daily and determined exercise ; and
within this circle may be seen three yet deeper cavities,
made by the three footfalls which his chain allowed him.
After six years he was rescued. It was his indomitable
purpose alone which kept him from decay and death.

" Solitude is the home of the strong, silence their
prayer." Such is the just and impressive aphorism of
Ravignan. Its counterpart would be, Society is the
refuge of the weak, speech their confession of defect.
Mind and heart grow stronger by drawing strength from
their environment. They cannot create, they must im-
bibe, power. Self-contemplation alone is a jejune and
barren process. Nothing is so sterilizing as retirement,
when, instead of bringing us into, it cuts us off from,
communication with the aboriginal sources of our life.
The very measure of genius is its capacity of sympathy
with its race, with the universal and disinterested as dis-
tinguished from the individual and selfish. Every rumi-
nant must take new food, or the cud itself will fail. The
individual does not manufacture force, but derives it from
the fountain-head of God through the drenched universe.
It will not be imparted to him and accumulated in him


without his co-operation-. To expect the spirit to be

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 12 of 35)