William Rounseville Alger.

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

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if it so pleased them. But they will not cast off their
wondrous prerogatives. Who would not gladly have the
celestial fire in his breast, even if it does sometimes "pain
him with its burning " ? How much feeling there is in
these words of Michael Angelo !

That which the good and great
So often from the insensate world may meet,
That evil guerdon did our Dante find.
But gladly would I, to be such as he,
For his hard exile and calamity
Forego the happiest fortunes of mankind.

And the spirit of the gifted man often commands royal
society when to the spectator's eye he is most deserted.
Musing on the tracks and signals of his great predeces-
sors he loves them wonderfully well. As he goes on his
way alone, his pent-up walk

Widens beyond the circles of the stars,
And all the sceptred spirits of the past
Come thronging in to greet him as their peer.


The selectest privilege of solitude, its most delicious
charm, is liberty. Schopenhauer says, " Who does not
love solitude, loves not freedom ; for' constraint is the
inseparable consort of society." It was their morbid dis-
like to obey the becks and whims of others, conform to
that average sympathy which is the rule of conventional
breeding, which made Petrarch and Rousseau such lovers
of solitude. The spirit of moral liberty dwells in solitude.
As her votaries approach her altar there, all external con-
straint is gone. We are free. We shed our stiff awkward-
ness, every fatiguing posture, reserve, and grimace, draw
a long sigh of delightful relief, and feel through all our
powers the luxurious flexibility and naturalness of a perfect
ease. To be alone is to be free to act unconstrainedly ;
and in a world of artificialities this is a happiness rarely to
be enjoyed elsewhere. Escaping from the little interests,
little passions, vexatious restraints of society into solitude,
we seem to recover a lost good once native to us. The
innumerable impressions of aboriginal freedom, of un-
tamed nature, accumulated in the ancestral organisms
whose experiences dimly vibrate in our own, constitute a
basis for many weird reactions. In each of us the wild
man sleeps at the bottom of every drop of blood ; and in
many an emotion, strangely vague and strong, he rises
into consciousness. To the overtasked citizen of a fever-
ish and suspicious society, weary, uneasy, ambitious, what
an irresistible sense of relief, refreshment, and enchanted
liberty, there is in the thought of exchanging hot drawing-
rooms and noisy thoroughfares for such a scene as the trav-
eller describes in the Bay of Seven Islands, in the virgin
remoteness of cool Labrador ! " The magnificent sandy
beach of the east side of the bay, with its fringe of beau-
tiful white and balsam spruce, forming the boundary of
the forest which covers the flat country in the rear, is a
fine camp-ground, ample enough for ten thousand Indian
lodges. On a summer day, with a gentle breeze blowing,
it becomes a delightful but very lonely lounge : and with
the sea in front, the calm bay at your feet, the silent
forest just behind, backed by the everlasting hills, which,
inconceivably desolate and wild, stretch f)r a thousand


miles towards the west, it is a fit spot for old memories
to renew themselves, old sorrows to break out afresh."

Happy is he who, free from the iron visages that hurt
him as they pass in the street, free from the vapid smiles
Jind sneers of frivolous people, draws his sufficingness
from inexhaustible sources always at his command when
he is alone. Blest is he who, when disappointed, can turn
from the affectations of an empty world and find solace in
the generous sincerities of a full heart. To roam apart
beside the tinkling rill, to crouch in the grass where the
crocus grows, to lie amid the clover where the honey-bee
hums, gaze off into the still deeps of summer blue, and feel
that your harmless life is gliding over the field of time as
noiselessly as the shadow of a cloud ; or, snuggled in furs,
to trudge through the drifts amidst the unspotted scenery
of winter, when Storm unfurls his dark banner in the sky,
and Snow has camped on the hills and clad every stone
and twig with his ermine, is pleasure surpassing any to
be won in shallowly consorting with mobs of men. If
you are so favored as to have a friend, worthy the name,
whose eye brightens and whose heart replenishes yours,
in whose nature you find the complement and touch the
equilibrium of your own, that is a very different affair.
Exception is to be made in such a case. Every man with
a healthy heart will endorse the charming thought of
La Bruyere, thus versified by Cowper in his excellent
poem, " Retirement."

I praise the Frenchman, his remark was shrewd,
How sweet, how passing sweet is solitude !
But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
Whom I may whisper, Solitude is sweet.

Whoever is fond of receiving great impressions, expan-
sive exaltations of consciousness, cannot fail to be irked
and galled by the littlenesses and the festering jealousies
of the crowd. Like Daniel Boone, he will gasp for breath
within the conventionalities of society, and with a sigh
of boundless relief rush to the wildernesses of nature and
lonely thought, throwing his soul open to the fresh fellow-
ship of field, forest, mountain, stream and star. The
praised, aspiring Maurice de Gue'rin writes in his journal ;


" The longer I live and the clearer I discern between
true and false in society, the more does the inclination to
live, not as a savage or a misanthrope, but as a solitary
man on the frontiers of society, on the outskirts of the
world, gain strength and grow in me. The birds come
and go, and make nests around our habitations, they are
fellow-citizens of our 'farms and hamlets with us; but
they take their flight in a heaven which is boundless, but
the hand of God alone measures to them their daily food,
but they build their nests in the heart of the thick bushes,
or hang them in the height of the trees. So would I, too,
live, hovering round society, and having always at my
back a field of liberty vast as the sky."

A precious prerogative of retirement and stillness is the
rejuvenation of the soul, the sentiments, the ideal faculties,
when years have heaped their scars and burdens on us,
when cares and sorrows have depressed our energies and
undermined our hearts with gnawing distrusts. In the
company of others we are reminded of our rebuffs, our
disappointments, our age. But in solitude the shames of
memory are flung off, no fear of ridicule represses imagi-
nation and affection. We spread our wings there, and soar
with the old joy we knew when we were young and credu-
lous. This profitable delight is strikingly described in the
following passage by Leopardi, one of the loneliest of men,
who knew full well that whereof he wrote when he penned
it : " The habit of soliloquy is so confirmed from day to
day that when restored to intercourse with men its subject
feels himself less occupied in their society than in solitude.
And I do not think that this companionship with self is
confined to men used to meditation, but that it comes
more or less to all. And more to be separated from men,
and, so to speak, from life itself, is useful. For man,
even when wise, enlightened, and disenchanted by expe-
rience of all human things, accustoms himself to admire
them again from a distance, whence they appear much
more beautiful and worthy than close at hand ; forgets
their vanity and misery ; begins to form himself anew, and
almost to recreate the world to his liking ; to appreciate,
love, and desire life ; and with these hopes, ii he is not


entirely deprived of the expectation of restoring himself
to the society of men, nourishes and delights himself as
he was wont to do in his early years. In this way solitude
almost fulfils the office of youth. It makes the soul young
again, restores the power and activity of imagination, and
renews in the man of experience the blessings of his first

One of the uses of solitude is preparation for death.
Schopenhauer said, " My solitary life has prepared me
better than most men for the lonely business of dying."
It is a terrible pain to imagine ourselves absolutely cut off
from sympathy with our fellow-men. Under the premo-
nition of so fatal a loss the soul feels as if it were fainting
away into infinite vacancy. Chaucer describes Arcite
going away from his heart's queen, Emily, to be

In his cold grave
Alone, withouten any company.

To our natural instincts this is, perhaps, the deepesc
meaning of death, to be thus darkly and utterly sun-
dered from our kind. To rehearse the act in idea robs it
of its terror, and of some of its dismalness, by familiariz-
ing us with it It is a bracing moral regimen, an exercise
helping us toward a free personal detachment, often to
fling ourselves forward in imagination to the time when
thousands of men will be merry with their wives, children,
and friends, laughing over their nuts and wine, while we
shall be "walking alone along the lampless and frozen
ways of death." Separated from men by a secluded life,
it is easier for us to wean ourselves from the thought and
love of all that society which death will end. Lacordaire
wrote from his retreat at Soreze to his friend, Madame
Swetchine, " Every day they announce to me, on the part
of those I have formerly known, rejections of opinion and
changes of front, which give me the vertigo. O, how
happy I am in being far from the spectacle ! God in
giving me this solitude has fivefold rewarded the labors
of my life, and I ask Him for only one thing more,
death ! "

Common natures in their social relations suffer most


from want of objects to reciprocate their manifestations
of affection, and thus pacify the hunger of their hearts.
Baffled in this natural quest they pine. The remedy foi
such wounds is magnanimity. There is no escape in
recoil; there is cure in self-forgetfulness. Be willing to
love and serve without noticing whether there is appreci-
ative return or not. This is a magical balsam for the
bruises of self-love. It can even carry the peace of soli-
tude into the heat and laceration of society. The folly
of asceticism makes self-denial, the wisdom of morality
makes self-subjection, the law of man. To live in the life
and feel the good of all, we need not to renounce, but only
to rule, our own.

The divinest souls, yearning abroad among their kind,
chiefly feel the need, not of a return for wha't they give,
but of objects to lavish their exuberant tenderness on
So copiously furnished, they ask not a supply but a vent.
This is seen in the examples of the highest characters of
history. They accept their lot serenely, contented to im-
part alone so long as not thwarted in that. The truly
great man remembers that ordinary men come to him as
they go to a fountain, " not to admire its stream, though
clear as crystal, but to fill their pitchers." When kept
from bestowing, however, there must be profound anguish,
as is shown in the experience of Jesus, in that cry of
transcendent pathos, " O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that
killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto
thee, how often would I have gathered thy children to
gether, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her
wings, and ye would not ! " Then there is one resource,
and no more. Its secret breathes in the sublime declara-
tion, " And yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me."
Simply to relieve the heart we continue to sigh long after
we' have abandoned all hope of a response, as the gray
bird perched on the tree-top sings his lonely plaint al-
though the silence of the woods brings him no answer.
But profoundly beneath all conscious recognition we feel
that there is an invisible auditor, God, who marks every
pang, understands our. love, sympathizes with our strug-
gles and tears.


With what do we wish to live most neighborly ? Not
with beings merely fashioned in our form. No ; but with
the forces that feed our noblest life. Primarily, with the
intimate Divinity who inspires, commands, and loves us,
and secondarily, with the persons who, serving his pur-
poses as we ought to, may help us by their example and
fellowship to do the same. And surely it is often true
that these are nearer to us and more communicative when
we are alone than when we are in company.

O lost to virtue, lost to manly thought,
Lost to the noble sallies of the soul,
Who think it solitude to be alone !
Communion sweet, communion large and high,
Our reason, guardian angel, and our God !
Then nearest these when others most remote,
And all, ere long, shall be remote but these.

Earnestness feels the contact of indifference as a prof-
anation. The deeper and richer that earnestness is, the
more grateful and sufficing solitude becomes. Brood-
ing over and pursuing its own purposes it is an inexhaust-
ible source of true delights. But without a dedicated
spiritual life within, loneliness is a famine breeding death.
What moral profit did the solitude of their cave adminis-
ter to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus ? Yet the natural
affinity of aspiration and wisdom for retirement is clear
to every observer. If you saw two persons intently read-
ing, and, looking over their shoulders, found that one was
absorbed in Lola Montez on the "Arts of the Toilet," the
other in Saint Bruno on the " Delights of Solitude," you
would infer a great difference in their respective charac-
ters, a difference of mental dignity decidedly to the
advantage of the latter. Most men live blindly to repeat
a routine of drudgery and indulgence, without any delib-
erately chosen and maintained aims. Many live to out-
strip their rivals, pursue their enemies, gratify their lusts,
and make a display. Eew live distinctly to develop the
value of their being, know the truth, love their fellows,
enjoy the beauty of the world, and aspire to God. Why
are not more persuaded to join this select class ? The
first condition of desiring it is the removal of vice, shal-


lowness, distraction, and indifference ; and for this the
regimen of solitude, in some form, is indispensable.

Spirituality did ever choose loneliness. For there the
tar, the departed, the loved, the unseen, the divine, throng
freely in, and there is no let or hindrance to the desires
of our souls. Memory, the glass in which we gaze on the
absent, is called into requisition least where the present
are thickest. Solitude is our trysting-place with the dead.
God be thanked no earthly power can close that retreat
or bar us from the sinless fellowship it holds. There,
whenever I turn to the past, comes to meet me the moth-
er too delicate for this harsh world who died so
young, or ever I knew to give her the love she needed.
There the bright and beautiful little brother, who followed
her so soon into the darkness, with his masses of golden
curls, his deep eyes, his winsome ways. There the trans-
figured boys and girls, friendly playmates of my unpol-
luted years, whom the Angel bore away and embalmed
forever, before time could dim the glory on their brows or
mix one adulterating ingredient with their ingenuous
affections. There, too, the beloved youth, my eldest
born, so good and true, just treading in the Castalian
dew and flowers when wrapt in the sable fold of eternity.
And close by him, snatched away in the same week, the
darling daughter, sweet prattler, the youngest born, whose
life was a brief frolic of beauty, innocence, and joy ; the
little angel, who but flew from God to God across my
path. Ah, how it makes the heart ache to remember
that such things were and are not! But that ache is
welcome, as a signal of the deeper life prophetic of its
own future ease. And never will I refuse the still invi-
tation to the tryst of the dead.

There are some lines in the sombre and jagged but
powerful poem of an author whom it is now the fashion
to underrate, which may serve to conclude these reflec-
tions on the uses of solitude. Young says of the dark
solitude of night, that it

Is the kind hand of Providence stretcht out
Twixt man and vanity : 't is reason's reign,
And virtue's too ; its tutelary shades
Are man's asylum from the tainted throng.


The world's infectious ; few bring back at eve,

Immaculate, the manners of the morn.

Something we thought, is blotted ; we resolved,

Is shaken ; we renounced, returns again.

Nor is it strange : light, motion, concourse, noise,

All scatter us abroad ; thought, outward bound.

Neglectful of our home affairs, flies off,

And leaves the breast unguarded to the foe.

Ambition fires ambition ; love of gain

Strikes like a pestilence from breast to breast;

Riot, pride, perfidy, blue vapors breathe ;

And inhumanity is caught from man,

From smiling man. A slight, a single glance,

And shot at random, often has brought home

A sudden fever to the throbbing heart,

Of envy, rancor, or impure desire.

We see, we hear, with peril ; safety dwells

Remote from multitude ; the world 's a school

Of wrong, and what proficients swarm around !

We must or imitate or disapprove ;

Must list as their accomplices or foes ;

That stains our innocence ; this wounds our peace.

From nature's birth, hence, wisdom has been smit

With sweet recess, and languished for the shade.

This sacred shade and solitude, what is it ?

'T is the felt presence of the Deity.

Few are the faults we flatter when alone.

It is worth much time and study to understand all the
varieties of loneliness, from that of the dying savage
writhing on the ground under the sky, to that of the rahat,
or Buddhist saint, hovering on the verge of Nirwana.
There are two fearful specifications of the historic lone-
liness in human life which will load with pain every
sympathetic heart that ponders them. The social lone-
liness of the Galleys is one. Who can appreciate the
awful mass of unshared agony, shrinking apart, and deadly
languishment caused by that barbaric penalty which com-
bined in one overwhelming woe the collected horrors of
exile, foul degradation, physical hardship, and hopeless-
ness ? The individual loneliness of imprisonment is the
other. In connection with every royal house, every ruling
priesthood, in all civilized lands, there have been political
and ecclesiastical prisons. And these prisons have never
long been empty. Their dumb dungeons have been
crowded with noble or criminal aspirants with bards,


patriots, thinkers, divine champions whose thoughts
went out to free and strengthen the world, whose souls
exhaled into eternity through their dark bars. The gen
erous reformers and heretics, kings, high adventurers,
artists, inventors, from Joseph in Egypt to Kossuth in
Austria, from Paul in Rome to Raleigh in London,
from Tasso to Lovelace, from Hebrew Daniel to Bohe-
mian Huss, would form a list of names of extraordinary
interest. The list would be one of portentous length.
And who but would sigh to think that all these have lain
under chains, in dismal cells, utterly cut off from friendly
contact with mankind, feeling the bitter weight and lone-
liness" of their fate until every one of them breathed the
Psalmist's petition, " Lord, lead my soul out of prison ! "

It is no contemptible feat to appreciate the causes and
characteristics of all the kinds of isolation out of the aver-
age community of human life, higher and lower, from
the stealthy solitude of smugglers unloading their boat
in a retired cove, while sea and gale roar together, and
fitful clouds drift over, and the stars shine dimly through
the rifts, to the holy solitude of vestals who celebrate
their devotions, an ocean of crime and wretchedness, shut
out, surging around their walls, while starlight and torch-
light kiss in the storied windows, and the organ peals its
triumphant notes from the choir, and the plaintive strains
of the penitential hymn die along aisle and arch.

But it is especially grand and strengthening to know
the great lonely personalities of the past ; to be sympa-
thetically caught up to the height where they stand, out-
lined against infinitude and eternity ; to be acquainted
with them as they were in their glory and their gloom,
their grandeur and their grief. For, vast as were their
gifts and their strange joys, many times through the most
authentic utterance of their experience

There sobs I know not what ground tone
Of human agony.

This is true of them all, whether it be Moses, composing
his mournful psalm in the desert; Plato, twice imprisoned,
once sold as a slave, forced to teach his deepest and dear-


est thoughts under an esoteric veil ; Empedocles, musing
over his doubts upon Etna ; Tacitus, in the midst of de-
caying Rome, wrapt in the hermit-robe of his individual-
ity, painting those sombre and Titanic pictures of crime
and ruin ; Dante, slowly crystallizing the singular force
and tenderness of his genius in a fabric of immortal
verse with the stores of his learning and all the pangs his
afflicted spirit knew ; Bacon, bequeathing his fame to
his countrymen "when some time be past"; Pascal, sigh-
ing from his cell at Port Royal, " Man is so unhappy that
he is weary without any cause for weariness " ; Shake-
speare, overflowing in the soliloquy of his sonnets, the
dense obscurity that shrouds his life so indicative of its
loneliness ; Kant, pacing the limits of his iron logic-cas-
tle, or writing in his memorandum-book a little before his
death, with reference to that month being the shortest
in the year, " O happy February ! in which man has least
to bear, least pain, least sorrow, least self-reproach " ;
Schleiermacher, passionately breathing his Monologues ;
Mazzini, venting the fiery sadness of a prophet-heart in
his exile-addresses ; or Rothe, immured in the colossal
system of ethics his architectural faith and reason have
built for his unshared residence. Such men as these,
and their sparse peers, form no social groups ; but, far-
scattered in time and space, each one is " as alone as
Lyra in the sky." They are, in a sense, mediators be-
tween God and the crowd. They lift the gaze of their
species. Above their separated epochs and lands, each
on his own throne, Vyasa, Zoroaster, Gotama, Confucius,
Pythagoras, Caesar, Newton, Goethe, Swedenborg, and
the rest, poets, heroes, saints, philosophers, radiant
victors over sloth and sin and error and all the blind
tyrannous brood of misery, they afford to lower men
at once example and inspiration, goal and guidance. He
who has elevated himself into real fellowship with these
solitary heads of great men, rising at wide intervals
above the herd of common names, eternal conquerors
of the oblivion which has made the rest its prey, need
ask no other testimony to his achievements, no ( ther
reward of his toils and sorrows.

8* L


At the top of his mind the devout scholai has a holy
of holies, a little pantheon set around with altars and the
images of the greatest men. Every day, putting on a
priestly robe, he retires into this temple and passes before
its shrines and shapes. Here, he feels a thrill of awe ;
there, he lays a burning aspiration ; further on, he swings
a censer of reverence. To one, he lifts a look of love ;
at the feet of another, he drops a grateful tear ; and before
another still, a flush of pride and joy suffuses him. They
smile on him : sometimes they speak and wave their solemn
hands. Always they look up to the Highest. Purified
and hallowed, he gathers his soul together, and comes
away from the worshipful intercourse, serious, serene, glad,
and strong.


SINCE, in the particular tendencies of the present time,
our weakness lies in the direction of a gregarious miscel-
lany and loquacity of life, instead of an undue seclusion,
it behooves us to court, rather than to repulse, solitude.
Innocence is better than eloquence, self-sufficingness a
costlier prize than social conquest, self-denial and oblivion
an aim of diviner sweetness and height than self-assertion
and display. A holy man may well rejoice to be delivered
by obscurity from the blame and praise of the world, glid-
ing unnoticed to his end like a still rivulet under the grass
in some sequestered vale. But few in our days sincerel v
wish this. And yet it were wisdom and religion to covet

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 14 of 35)