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 13 of 35)
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strengthened by foreign appliances, omitting its own ac-
tion, is absurd. Would you support a bird with props ?
Mental force is communicated in mental food, whence it is
extracted by the digestion of the discriminative faculties,
and secreted by the glands of the soul, and reservoired,
subject to the summons of the will. This process is none
the less real for being without our consciousness. The
increase of our power, therefore, if in its primary as-
pect a gift to us, is in its secondary aspect an appropri-
ation by us. And in truth these two are one. Where
both are not, neither is. The giving from the whole and
the taking by the part are one indivisible act. Their
mystic consent makes the identity of life, as perception
is the middle term in which object and subject coalesce
and are lost to reappear in their ideal equivalent. Con-
tact with a mass of humanity or social machinery too vast
for definite reaction, tends to make a rich soul morbid,
starts activities it cannot satisfy. Contact, on the con-
trary, with overwhelming natural forces or material
scenery, is salutary, concentrates the soul in a brooding
and assimilative mood which collects its powers and
brings them into equilibrium. It is said that those who
stand on the floor of Saint Paul's Cathedral hear a strange
sound rising and sinking in the dome, the aerial rever-
beration of the combined noises of London. That mul-
titudinous murmur, the endless roar of earth's hugest city,
must be painfully oppressive to one who thinks of the
guilt, the struggle, the glory and misery represented by
it; the effort to disentangle and track home its moral
suggestions must be wearisome and disheartening. But
the roaring of the ocean on a forsaken coast, typical of
the everlasting freshness, strength, and grandeur of na-
ture, is peace-giving and wholesome, soothes while h

When these conditions are observed solitude exercises
a nutritious and tonic influence on the higher parts of our
nature, not only refreshing the weary and fortifying the
weak, but renewing loyalty when it is tempted and con-
firming innocence when it falters. Then loneliness and


listening are the richest nourishment of the soul. Con-
science, judgment, better purpose, withdrawing from the
storm of seduction, have an opportunity to recover their
poise. Its effect is as useful in giving moral direction
to our energies as it is in invigorating their source. In
the midst of scrambling antagonists, wild with the ex-
citement of the game, man is tempted to forget the moral
law, and fancy that course best which points the speedi-
est path to the prize ; but a little reflection, in sober re-
tirement, disperses the perilous falsehoods of the arena ;
the dust of busy desire settles ; the clouds and veils of
delusion and occasion blow aside ; the steady lights of
morality shine out ; and from the stars of solitude eter-
nity sheds sublimer counsels on the soul than are ever
discerned by aid of the flaring torches of time.

To one who bravely accepts his public responsibilities,
but keeps conscientious watch over the springs ,of his
conduct, society is the open sea where virtue meets its
foes, solitude the harbor where it repairs its damages.
Careers of loud pretence and manifold showiness have
frequently turned out to be hollow, the speedy prey of
contempt, while " obscurest lives have the starriest souls
disclosed." The wild rose beside the mountain brook
has a freshness of beauty, takes from its mighty environ-
ments of unadulterated nature a charm, which nothing
shown by its haughty sister in the imperial conservatory
can atone for the lack of. There are qualities of charac-
ter, sacred beauties of virgin souls, so infinitely shy in
their subtle modesty and refinement, that public exposure
profanes and destroys them.

A charm most spiritual, faint,

And delicate, forsakes the breast,
Bird-like, when it perceives the taint

Of prying breath upon its nest

Solitude is the nunnery of an innocent mind. It is the
asylum of those who aspire too high for the sympathies
of their fellows, whose standards are too exalted for
the slow and sluggish perceptions of their comrades.
Such an one, constantly feeling himself lowered and in-


jured by the judgments to which he is subjected, at
length seeks protection, and strives to sustain himself
on his true level in the only way availaHe ; he withdraws,
wraps the curtain of his royal thought around him, and
lives in a sublime privacy. The few noble spirits who
make a master-purpose of studying to attain an ideal
perfection are always affecters of solitude. Shake-
speare's Prospero is an imposing example of them, de-
scribing himself as

Neglecting worldly ends, all dedicate

To closeness, and the bettering of my mind.

Those who supremely love truth, beauty, and goodness,
form the most illustrious society in the world, and the
sparsest. Schopenhauer says : " For the most part we
have only the choice between solitude and vulgarity.
The most social men are the least intellectual. To say
' He is very unsocial,' is almost equivalent to saying,
' He is a man of great qualities.' "

An ingenuous and heroic man when left alone is in his
confessional and armory, where he sees the pure standard
of duty, repents of his errors, rectifies what is amiss, and
with sincere vows equips himself afresh for the good
fight. Solitude is the private palaestra where spiritual
athletes put themselves in training for the public contests
of life. It is there we learn the first, last, greatest lesson
taught by our destiny, namely, patience. For, in the
words of Parsons, the excellent words of a true

Patience is the part

Of all whom Time records among the great,
The only gift I know, the only art,
To strengthen up our frailties to our fate.

To stay in seclusion awhile is to keep a fast of the
spirit. Its influence is as wholesome and stimulative on
the mind as that of occasional abstinence is on the body.
" To me," Richter says, " a solitary apartment is a spirit-
ual fountain-hall full of medicinal water." La Bruyere
says, " The misfortunes of men proceed from their ina-
bility to be alone ; from gaming, riot, extravagance, dis-


sipation, envy, and forgetting God and themselves." The
grasshopper leaps about with his pertinacious click amidst
the ruins of the Abbey at Ely, where Canute bade his
rowers pause off the shore, that he might listen to the
monks singing their evening hymn. To linger there, sur-
rendering the soul to all the pensive morals of the place,
must mellow and deepen the heart. But to spend much
time in a gambling-room, in the depraved current of men
who come and go, drinking, smoking, staking, swearing,
can hardly fail to thicken the rust and grossness on the

The streams flowing directly from the glaciers are
turbid and chalky, thick with triturated stones ; but,
drawn apart in glens or wayside pools, they become
wonderfully clear, having deposited the sediment they
before held in solution. Human souls, withdrawing from
the rush and friction of the wearing world, and pausing
in quiet places, surrendering themselves into the natural
arms of God, Rest and Silence, grow transparent, pre-
cipitating the abrasions of life. They resume their native
purity, and at once reveal the bed of consciousness and
reflect the blue of heaven.

Let those who feel the lonesome pinings of the heart,
beware of yielding to the temptations which would induce
them to sink from their high promptings and conform
to the average range and custom for the sake of fellow-
ship. Many have done this, and soon suffered worse
than before, and bitterly regretted the degrading com-
promise. The buzz and clamor of unsympathizing throngs
are an aggravation, not a relief, of the aching and pining
of an affectionate nature. His craving, taken up and re-
peated in all these cold mirrors, is so many times flung
back, unsatisfied and heightened, into his consciousness.

The heart that home rejects to crowds may fly ;
Gay glides the dance, soft music fills the hall :
It flees, to find the loneliness through all.

The chirruping of millions of crickets breaks the silent
monotony of the twilight fields, merely to make the in-
tegral solitude multitudinous; it is not a felicitous ex-


change. To be capable of a great aim, and of sustained
efforts to realize it, is to be one man taken out of ten
thousand. They who have this capacity will not be
found hovering about saloons, half crushed in the rush
to the midnight tables of vulgar fashion. They will
be found rooted in solitude. For the sustenance of
their spirits they revert from the frothy speeches of
the platform, from the spawn of the press, to the al-
coved treasures and the aristocratic comradery of the
great minds of all ages, the profound masters in the
science of monopathy. Who would not rather be alone,
and be capable of appreciating the dialogues of Plato,
than be amidst the crew of a Mississippi flat-boat, dan-
cing with boisterous mirth to a Negro melody ? Ac-
cept your pathetic loneliness without shrinking, and pace
the bleak waste without complaint, despite the yearn-
ing and the grief. Travel on, if need be, through the
stony wilderness of despair, without a star, faithful to
conscience and God ; and an omnipresent voice at length
will interpret the desolation into peace, and fill the trans-
figured solitude with the sweetness of an infinite com-

For loneliness not only affords incomparable opportu-
nities for preparation, not only yields strength and rest,
not only ministers to virtue ; it also furnishes rare and
costly joys in unequalled compensation for the pangs felt
in it. Seclusion and peace are the guardians of innocent
dreams, the nourishers of poetic feeling and holy faith.
The disturbance of rivalry with another, of contempt or
injustice from another, shakes the liquid glass of soul in
which the blessed visions move and the divine joys sleep,
and ruffles them away ; as when in the material world
Wind rides forth with uplifted sceptre,

And breaks
The pageants mirrored in the lakes.

The grandest bestowals approach us not when we an
elbowing in the multitude for a conspicuous place, bul
when, reticent and receptive, quiet and prayerful, we wail
on destiny in secret. The king draws near with a throng


.mid flaunting banners and salvos of cannon. God
comes shrouded in silence and alone. If

We needs must hunger, better for man's love
Than God's truth ! better for companions sweet
Than great convictions !

Jean Paul says, " Great souls attract sorrows as moun-
tains tempests." They also command the same sublime
prospects, and bestow the same inestimable benefits on
the plains. It is noticeable how fond men of genius are
of studying late at night. In the mysterious silence and
seclusion of the time their feelings find an exciting affin-
ity, and their thoughts are busiest. The sounds of outer
industry have died on the air. The dusky landscapes
stretch off into unbroken obscurity. The shapes or the
footfalls of passers no longer vary the monotony. Even
pleasure and rivalry, sickness and pain, care and avarice,
are lulled to rest, and subside into dreams or lapse to
temporary oblivion. Then the great poet, sage, saintly
student and lover of humanity, solemn and ardent adorer
of God, muses and toils. His imagination spreads its
powerful vans, and, alone, awe-struck comrade of infinity,
he sails on, high over the sleeping hosts of mankind, and
far away, beneath the stars.

Wordsworth, who is one of the soundest and care-
fullest teachers mankind have had, writes: "I do not
recommend absolute solitude as an advantage to any-
body. I think it a great evil ; frequent intercourse with
the living world seems necessary to keep the mind in
health and vigor." But we are indebted to the same
deep and patient master of experience for the following
paragraph, the solemn and burning burden of a
prophet: "It is an awful truth, that there neither is
nor can be any genuine enjoyment of poetry among
nineteen out of twenty of those persons who live, or
wish to live, in the broad light of the world, among
those who either are, or are striving to make themselves,
people of consideration in society. This is a truth, and
an awful one, because to be incapable of a feeling of
poetry, in my sense of the word, is to be without love
of human nature and reverence for God."


The nature of the man exposed to a constant round
of fashionable living undergoes a crisping and hardening
process, a veneering process, which destroys its suscepti-
bility to the impressions of natural beauty, mystery, and
piety. He outgrows or rather dies out from the
power of wonder, love, and enthusiasm. This encase-
ment of blunting usage makes him incapable of the
purest range of emotions, cuts him off from admiration,
pity, every deep and fresh impulse of unselfish experi-
ence. Robbed thus of sentiment, dry, conceited, sur-
feited, he never thinks to ask in adoring wonder and
delight, WHO it is that polishes the eye of the antelope,
pins the rainbow to the cloud, and, as often as Night
returns, sets on her sable brow the silent crown of stars.
On the contrary, he who seeks every opportunity for se-
questered reflection, who pauses, apart, when the mur
muring tides of toil are as still as if there were no life,
to commune with the ultimate facts of experience, is
likely to be open to the poetic and religious lures of mys-
tery, quite sure to learn the value of simplicity and inde-
pendence, and to be happy in himself, not resting for his
content on complicated and precarious sets of conditions.

The happiness supposed to belong in those hallowed
refuges from the storms and cares of the world, the ab-
beys and convents of the Middle Age, is charmingly indi-
cated, as Montalembert has remarked, in the names the
monks gave their religious houses. Good Place, Beauti-
ful Place, Dear Island, Sweet Vale, Good Rest, Blessed
Valley, Haven of Delights, Valley of Peace, Bird's Nest,
Valley of Salvation, Way of Heaven, Sweet Fountain,
Brightness of God, Happy Meadow, Blessed Wood, Con-
solation, Dear Place, Joy, Crown of Heaven. The pro-
nunciation of these delicious words is like the dripping
of successive drops of honey on the tongue ; and, with a
half melancholy, half luxurious heart-ache, one almost longs
to loose himself from all other ties, and go make his ever-
lasting home in one of these still retreats.

Many a visitor lingering beyond the intended limits of
his stay in mountain vales, the secluded homes of inno-
cence, truth, frankness, and health, has bid them farewell


with an achuig heart and with tears. Does any one leave
a crowded ball-room or supper-party so ? The picture
drawn by Robert Burns, with his artless but powerful
touch of sweet simplicity, must wake a response in every
unperverted bosom.

How blest the Solitary's lot !

Who, all-forgetting, all-forgot,

Within his humble cell,

The cavern wild, with tangling roots,

Sits o'er his newly gathered fruits,

Beside his crystal well !

Or, haply, to his evening thought,

By unfrequented stream,

The ways of men are distant brought,

A faint collected dream.

The intensely poetic feeling for the secret haunts of
nature, the semi-religious love of the lonely and sublime
scenes of glens and mountains, the solacing and restora-
tive charm of nature for hurt and over-sensitive minds,
this marked phase of modern experience is quite a recent
growth. The deserted and impressive scenery of the
world used to be awful to men. Henri Martin, speaking
of the feeling towards nature expressed in the French
literature of the seventeenth century, says, " The smallest
solitary valley was a horrible solitude, the smallest rock, a
frightful chaos." And he adds that, " it was the excess
of their sociality, the absolute necessity of conversation,
that gave rise to this abhorrence of the desert." But a
deeper and darker influence than this Parisian gloss
would imply, lay under the experience. It was the gen-
eral cruelty and terror and superstition that were abroad.'
It was a lurking belief in diabolic spirits and agencies,
that demoniacal possession of nature in which the pagan
mythology died out in mediaeval Christendom. The
heathen deities, fauns, dryads, oreads, that once tricksily
danced over the classic landscapes, under the influence
of the popular Christianity had changed into devils haunt-
ing every daik and remote place, making solitude fearful.
Rousseau, Saint Pierre, Chateaubriand, free from this
superstition, wounded by men, bearing their passionate
souls into the retreats of nature, finding balm, comfort,


health, bliss in communion with her, by the creative genius
so eloquently breathed in their writings spread abroad
the new and delightful sentiment afterwards deepened by
Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and scores of other gifted
authors, and now become so common. Bernardin Saint
Pierre, whose famous " Studies of Nature" have been so
influential, celebrates in this work his own grateful experi-
ence. At the time his " Paul and Virginia " had melted
all hearts, from the palace to the cottage, he felt his own
heart breaking within him as he wandered, poor, sick,
homeless, alone, and despairing. " The ingratitude," he
says, " of those from whom I had deserved kindness, un-
expected family misfortunes, the loss of my small patri-
mony, the blasting of my hopes, had made dreadful in
roads upon my health and reason. I found it impossible
to continue in a room where there was company. I could
not even cross an alley in a public garden if several per-
sons had collected in it. When alone, my malady sub-
sided. At the sight of any one walking to the place
where I was, I felt my whole frame agitated, and was
obliged to retire. I often said to myself, My sole study
has been to merit well of mankind; why do I fear them?"
He was restored in body and mind by following the ad-
vice of his friend Rousseau. " Renouncing my books, I
threw my eyes upon the works of nature, which spoke to
all my senses a language that neither time nor nations
have it in their power to alter. Thenceforth my histories
and my journals were the herbage of the fields and mead-
ows. My thoughts did not go forth painfully after them,
as in the case of human systems ; but their thoughts, un-
der a thousand engaging forms, quietly sought me. In
these I studied without effort the laws of the Universal
Wisdom." The irritability was stolen from his temper,
the soreness from his mind, the wounds from his affec-
tions, and he grew well and happy, healed by the. accords,
sanctities, and repose of Nature, who smiled on her votary,

Mild druid of her woodpaths dim,
And laid her great heart bare to him.

It is strange how deeply linked the love of nature is


with the souls of her frank intimates, how fondly, even
in their dying moments, they yearn over her familiar spots
with memories unwilling to separate. It is touching to
read of Robin Hood shooting his last arrow to the place
in the forest glade where he wanted his grave to be.
Wilson, the ornithologist, wished that he might be buried
in the woods, where the birds would sing above his grave.
The inmost fibres of the heart mystically respond to the
romantic peace of the immemorial antiquity of nature.
And there is always a double charm in the protected re-
pose and loveliness of lonely nature when it is experienced
as a contrast with the turmoil of civilization, the wrongs
of unkindly men, the sorrows of life. Thomson cries, in
his " Hymn on Solitude,"

O, let me pierce thy secret cell,
And in thy deep recesses dwell !
Perhaps from Norwood's oak-clad hill,
When meditation has her fill,
I just may cast my careless eyes
Where London's spiry turrets rise,
Think of its crimes, its cares, its pain,
Then shield me in the woods again.

When the gentle and holy Silvio Pellico left- his prison,
prematurely aged and broken, he felt that the only boon
left for him was serenity. He withdrew from politics,
from the world, devoting himself to his parents and to the
religion of a peaceful inner life. He did this in no spirit
of hostility, but in a spirit of resignation. He said, " I
read, I think, I love my friends, I hate no one, I respect
the opinions of others and preserve my own." As quoted
by Tuckerman, in his beautiful sketch of the Italian Mar-
tyr, he wrote to his friend Foresti : " I have learned that
but little is needed to beautify existence save the society
of the loved and honorable." Yet so misunderstood and
persecuted was he by personal critics, that he was forced
to say, " I left Spielberg to suffer another martyrdom in
my own country, calumny, desertion, and scorn, which
have stripped all earthly illusion from life." The re-
ligious consolations of loneliness, a resignation to retire-
ment in forgiveness and faith, are the choicest resource
left for such a man in such circumstances.


There can be no equable, sufficing happiness except in
a self-ruled and withdrawn spirit, a spirit that, in the
idea of God, busy with impersonal and eternal objects, in
dear retirement, reposes on great bases of truth, noble-
ness, and peace. I hardly know of a more touching
proof of this than is afforded by the experience of the
illustrious Madame Recamier. After forty years of un-
challenged queenship in French society, constantly envel-
oped in an intoxicating incense of admiration and love
won not less by her goodness and purity than by her
beauty and grace, she writes from Dieppe to her niece :
" I am here in the centre of fetes, princesses, illumina-
tions, spectacles. Two of my windows face the ballroom,
the other two front the theatre. Amidst this clatter I am
in a perfect solitude. I sit and muse on the shore of the
ocean. I go over all the sad and joyous circumstances of
my life. I hope you will be more happy than I have

It is certainly a potent neutralization for the gnawings
of envy and depression to know that the pluckers of the
great prizes and the occupiers of the great seats in the
eyes of the world are not the happiest men, in truth are
generally the least happy men. The common multitude,
who cannot conquer in the arena of social rivalry, should
therefore contentedly stand aside from the struggle, and
either admire or pity the victors, never hate or envy them.
Pope Adrian the Fourth, in his Philosophical Trifles,
says : " I know no person more unhappy than the Sov-
ereign Pontiff. Labor alone, were that his only evil,
would destroy him in a short time. His seat is full of
thorns, his robe stuck with points, and overwhelmingly
heavy. His crown and tiara shine, but it is with a fire
that will consume him. I have risen by degrees from the
lowest to the highest dignity in this world, and have never
found that any of these elevations made the least ad-
dition to my happiness. On the contrary, I feel it impos-
sible to bear the load with which I am charged." The
close of the life of Aristotle, in a very different sphere,
enforces the same moral. This prince of all true think-
ers, loaded with immortal glory, was compelled to flee


suddenly and by stealth to Chalcis, in order to save his
life, and spare, as he said, the Athenians a new crime
against philosophy. There, it is believed, this great man,
in -his old age, wearied with persecution, poisoned himself.
The venerable Hildebrand, the greatest of all the Popes,
after the herculean labors of his self-devoted and mighty
career, crushed by an accumulation of hardships, said :
" I have loved justice and hated iniquity ; therefore I die
in exile." It is impossible to ascribe a slight importance
to the moral lesson taught by the consenting sighs of so
many of the masters of the world.

The greatest men creators of philosophies, founders
of religions, conquerors of nations have ever been fond
of a certain remoteness and privacy, cultivators of soli-
tude. Thus they have walled about their mysterious
personality, clothed themselves with an alluring prestige
which the curiosity of the crowd constantly sought, but
was never permitted, to break into. Such men neu-
tralize the sorrowfulness of their isolation by feeling that
if they are alone, it is because they are so high ; also
that it is their own choice, since they could easily stoop

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 13 of 35)