Copyright
William Rounseville Alger.

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

. (page 17 of 35)
Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 17 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


and forthwith they would follow him ; he would stimulate
them, and forthwith they would be harmonious ; he would
make them happy, and forthwith, multitudes would resort
to his dominions ; while he lived, he would be glorious ;
when he died, he would be bitterly lamented."

Early one morning, it is said, he rose, and with his
hands behind his back dragging his staff, moved about
by his door, crooning, " The great mountain must crum-
ble, the strong beam must break, and the wise man wither
away like a plant. In all the provinces of the empire
there arises not one intelligent monarch who will make
me his master. My time has come to die." He went to
his couch and never left it again. He expired on the
eleventh day of March, four hundred and seventy-eight
years before the birth of Jesus. Legge, the best of his
English biographers, from whose great work on the



DEMOSTHENES. 205

Chinese Classics the chief data for this sketch have been
drawn, has painted the closing scene well, and moral-
ized on it not unkindly, though, possibly, in a tone a little
too professional and conventional.

If the end of the great sage of China, as he sank behind
the cloud, was melancholy, it was not unimpressive. He
had drank the bitterness of disappointed hopes : the
great ones of the empire had failed to accept his instruc-
tions. But his mind was magnanimous and his heart was
serene. He was a lonely old man, parents, wife, child,
friends, all gone, but this made the fatal message so
much the more welcome. Without any expectation of a
future life, uttering no prayer, betraying no fear, he ap-
proached the dark valley with the strength and peace of
a well-ordered will wisely resigned to Heaven, beyond a
doubt treasuring in his heart the assurance of having
served his fellow-men in the highest spirit he knew and
with the purest light he had.

For twenty-five centuries he has been as unreasonably
venerated as he was unjustly neglected in his life. His
name is on every lip throughout China, his person in
every imagination. The thousands of his descendants
are a titled and privileged class by themselves. The dif-
fusion and intensity of the popular admiration and honor
for him are wonderful. Countless temples are reared to
him, millions of tablets inscribed to him. His authority is
supreme. He is worshipped by the pupils of the schools,
the magistrates, the Emperor himself in full pomp. Would
that a small share of this superfluity had solace^ some of
the lonesome hours he knew while yet. alive !



DEMOSTHENES.

IN spite of his burning patriotism, great statesmanship,
and unequalled oratoric triumphs, Demosthenes impresses
us as one of the lonely personalities of history. His
exceptional ethical depth and fervoi, his pronounced
strength of character, the determination he formed in his
orphaned youth to secure justice on his guardians for the



206 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

neglect and wrong he had received from them, his tireless
devotion both to the service of his country and to the art
of eloquence, the stories of his long retirement in a cave,
and of his solitary pacings on the stormy sea-shore, the
bitterness with which a host of unscrupulous enemies
pursued him through his whole career, all combine to
show that he was a man marked by a manifold isolation
from his contemporaries. How he must have felt this,
when for political reasons the Areopagus, with such foul
injustice, decreed him guilty of pecuniary corruption !
When his haters, leagued with the rabble, had secured
his banishment, it is said that he shed tears as he went.
And during his exile in Egina, he went every day to sit
on a cliff by the sea to gaze towards his beloved country.
After the destruction of her liberties, the emissaries of
the tyrant tracked him to the temple of Poseidon, where,
turning at bay, he swallowed poison, and died at the foot
of the altar. At a later day his penitent countrymen,
whose eyes too late were opened to his nobleness, built
him a tomb with the inscription, O Demosthenes, had thy
power been equal to thy wisdom, the Macedonian Mars
would never have triumphed in Greece !



TACITUS.

WHEN we read the ominous lines in which Tacitus has
described the corruptions and cruelties of his countrymen,
we form to ourselves a picture of the historian as a lofty
and sombre soul, turning with angry disgust from the
stews and theatres and streets of Rome, from the dissem-
blers, informers, plotters, poisoners, sycophants, revellers,
and murderers around him, to live in his own thoughts.
Regardless of immediate advantages, despising the arts
of popularity, he turned in sorrow and scorn from the
atrocities and beastly vices of pretors and emperors, and
gave himself to the lonely task of transmitting to future
times the terrible record of his own. This side of his life
is revealed in his history. A softer and fairer phase of
his soul, as it pleases us to imagine, appears expressed in



LUCRETIUS. 207

the sentiments he puts into the mouth of Maternus, in his
dialogue concerning oratory. " Woods and groves and
loneliness afford such delight to me that I reckon it
among the chief blessings of poetry that it is cultivated
far from the noise and bustle of the world, without a client
to besiege my doors or a criminal to distress me with his
tears and squalor. Let the sweet Muses lead me to their
soft retreats, their living fountains, the melodious groves,
where I may dwell remote from care, master of myself,
under no necessity of doing every day what my heart con-
demns. Let me no more be seen in the wrangling forum
a pale and anxious candidate for precarious fame. Let
me live free from solicitude, a stranger to the art of
promising legacies in order to buy the friendship of the
great ; and when nature shall give the signal to retire, may
I possess no more than I may bequeath to whom I will.
At my funeral let no token of sorrow be seen, no pompous
mockery of woe. Crown me with chaplets ; strew flowers
on my grave ; and let my friends erect no vain memorial
to tell where my remains repose."



LUCRETIUS.

THE eloquent and mighty Lucretius, lifted far from the
vulgar ignorance and superstition of his time, revolving
sublime thoughts and emotions in his powerful mind,
leaving to posterity scarcely a trace of himself, save his
burning and wonderful De Natura Rerum, was as solitary
in his time as though he had lived in an aerial car, an-
chored miles above Olympus. We wonder what frigid
and distressful isolation of his warm heart, or what mad-
dening sorrow, led him, at the early age of forty-four, to
open into the abyss the forbidden door of suicide. His
story and his end furnish another illustration of the truth,
that, out of an hundred great men, with ninety and nine
the penalty is more than the prize ; the wreath on the head
is less felt than the thorn in the bosom. It is to be hoped
that he enjoyed a happy friendship with the Memmius to
whom he addressed his poem. We recognize the proof of a



208 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS,.

noble heart in the generous enthusiasm with which he
praises Epicurus, Empedocles, Ennius, and others of his
illustrious predecessors. We greatly revere the humanity
and heroism he showed in his powerful labors to free men
from the dreadful curses of superstition so rife in his time.
In the celebrated lines which form the opening of his
second book we cannot but believe \ve see a partial pic-
ture of himself.

How sweet to stand, when tempests tear the main,

On the firm cliff, and mark the seaman's toil J

Not that another's danger soothes the soul,

But from such toil how sweet to feel secure !

How sweet, at distance from the strife, to view,

Contending hosts, and hear the clash of war !

But sweeter far, on Wisdom's height serene,

Upheld by truth, to fix our firm abode,

To watch the giddy crowd that, deep below,

Forever wander in pursuit of bliss.

O blind and wretched mortals ! know ye not

Of all ye toil for, Nature nothing asks,

But for the body freedom from disease,

And sweet unanxious quiet for the mind ?

When we think of the immense mind of Lucretius es-
caping into the Invisible, it affects us as though some lone
planet had rolled off the flaming walls of the Universe,
and sunk into the night.



CICERO.

CICERO is not only one of the most shining and attrac-
tive personages of Roman history, he is also one of its
most original characters. The classic world furnishes
not another example of such a splendid combination of
lalents, personal interest, a dramatic career, a tragic end,
and immense fame. The rich complexity of his traits, his
sensitive vanity, his ardent patriotism, his genial human-
ity, his philosophical tastes, the empassioned mobility of
his moods, his love of natural scenery, the rapid alter-
nations of his hankering for society and his desire for
solitude, give to his spiritual portrait a more modern cast



CICERO. 209

than that of any other of the ancients. He had that dom-
inant self consciousness, that swift vehemence of action
and reaction on the contrasted thoughts of self, friends,
foes, country, mankind, duty, destiny, which we are ac-
customed to regard as a morbid peculiarity of the genius
of later times.

Although of a burning ambition, and intensely subjec-
tive, he was endowed with the noblest susceptibilities for
ail greatness, goodness, truth and beauty. He lacked
that consolidated pride or rebutting self-sufficingness ne-
cessary for stability in his giddy position. He was too
fond of notice and display ; loved too well to flatter and
be flattered ; and was inconsistent with himself, boastful
in prosperity, supplicating in calamity. His very weak-
nesses, however, were at bottom more closely allied to
virtues than to vices. They arose not from selfishness or
cruelty, but from an over-strong regard for the love and
honor of his fellow-men. They sprang chiefly from the
sympathetic vigor of his imagination, which successively
presented to him the different aspects of things, persons,
parties, policies, opinions, so vividly that each was ideally
assumed for the instant. His frequent waverings were
largely due to the fact that, unlike Caesar, Pompey, and
the most of his great contemporaries, he was troubled
with a sensitive conscience. He could not think of single
objects, detached from each other and from associations.
The laws of contrast and affinity, powerfully active in his
mind, were ever distinguishing and joining all to which
7 ie turned his attention. The desire to be remembered,
to be loved and admired, was inseparable from his idea
of himself. Pictures in his own mind of the appearance
he should make in the eyes of mankind had an influence
always too strong for his peace, perhaps sometimes too
strong for his virtue. But surely this is a fault more gra-
cious and venial than that stolid complacency which will
ask nothing from society, or that contempt which scorns
to be depressed and elated by the condemnation and ap-
proval of others.

The thoughts and feelings of Cicero seized him with
such absorbing energy, that, for the moment, he was pos-



210 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

sessed by them, and impelled to give them an expression
of proportionate power. Accordingly, in his orations, in
his essays, especially in his letters, he freely pours him-
self out. He has ' no secrets from his friends, holds
nothing back from his pen. His brother Quintus, after
receiving an epistle from him, writes, " I see you entire
in your letter." Few of the characters of antiquity could
bear this unreserved exposure as well as he does. If he
loses something by it in the respect of the censorious who
criticise him, he gains more in the love of the generous
who judge him. He transports us into the midst of the
scenes he describes, into the midst of his own soul. In
estimating others we give the spectator data for estimat-
ing us ; and the heart of that man is not to be envied
who can, without a glow of loving admiration, read those
honeyed and golden pages of Cicero which have sweet-
ened the hours and enriched the souls of so many of the
greatest men of succeeding ages.

It was as natural that such a man should sometimes
recoil from the drudgery, hate, envy and hollowness that
accompanied the career of ambition in the capital of the
world, as it was that he should irresistibly covet both pri-
vate friendship and public place and applause. Weary
of the conflicts of the great days of the forum, half sick
even of the shouts and laurels of the crowds, he turned
his back on the dust and roar of Rome, and, with a joy
like that of a modern poet, sought the shelter of some
secluded villa. He had villas in the most retired and
beautiful spots, at Antium, Arpinum, Formiae, Tusculum,
where he loved often to retreat to soothe his ruffled nerves,
and to study and write. On reaching one of his country
houses he is delightefl with the fresh beauty of everything,
and with the deep peace. He flies to his books, ashamed
of having left them. His love of solitude is so great that
he never finds himself solitary enough. His clients and
acquaintances come after him, until he cries in vexation,
" This is a public promenade, and not a villa." On the
arrival of two bores he writes to his dear Atticus, " At
the moment of this writing Sebosus is announced. I
have not finished my groan before they tell me that Ar-



CICERO. 211

nus also has come. Is this quitting Rome ? Of what use
is it to fly from others and fall into the hands of these ? "
In these country retreats Cicero enjoyed the echoes of
his fame, and in genial fellowship with nature, letters, and
his absent friends, refreshed himself for further struggles,
or labored to lift his reputation higher, and by means of
philosophical works transmit it to the latest ages. Here,
in his adversity, he vainly strove to forget the world, to
care nothing for the detraction of his enemies and the
neglect of his fellow-citizens. The effort was vain ; for,
wherever he went, he carried Rome in his mind, with all
its passions and plots. He could never forget the Roman
people, nor be indifferent to their opinion of him. The
hate and contempt of his rivals were as torturing to him
as the love of his bosom friends was delicious. His exile
was as agonizing as his coronation had been ecstatic. He
was made for extremes, unfitted for the serene medium
where self-content dwells. Too painfully vexed and hurt
by the reactions of his excessive self-esteem, romantic
imagination, and spiritual wealth, on the ignorance, envy,
and coldness of careless and selfish men, he sought refuge
in solitude. Yet this solitude was not true solitude. It
was but the supersedure of actual companionship by an
ideal one in connection with which he fought over the
battles of the Senate, relived the triumphs of the past, and
imagined greater ones for the future. It is obvious that
he often knew, in all its revulsive force, the sharp loneli-
ness of being flung back on himself, inwardly wounded
and deserted. Every criticism disturbed, every sneer
stung him. He was driven to both extremes, to con-
tend in the suffocating throng, to meditate and sigh in
isolation ; and in both he was happy and unhappy, be-
longed with the most social and with the loneliest of men.
The wittiest and most eloquent man of the Roman world,
who was fonder of the festive board of friendship, or
shone more conspicuously in the thick of swaying multi-
tudes ? Musing on the sea-shore of Sicily, going broken-
hearted into banishment, weeping in the dense woods of
Astura, stretching out his neck to the sword of the
wretch who pursued him, who more sadly solitary ?



212 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Admit that he sought personal glory too keenly, and
weakly shrank from ridicule and neglect ; the fault may
be forgiven, the weakness is even not wholly unlovable
in him. Heap up all the accusations to which he is ob-
noxious, allow to them everything that truth can ask; still
the fact remains that he was a miracle of genius and in-
dustry, an ardent and illustrious lover of his country, of
philosophy, of literature, of humanity, and of virtue, whose
works have scattered delight and benefit over many na-
tions, through many centuries. It is an ignoble and a
hateful task to try to tarnish his record and create scorn
for him. His fame clusters with the affections of the
greatest and best men for two thousand years. It is a
luxury to add to that tribute the homage of one more
throbbing heart.

He has been stigmatized as a coward. It is unjust.
For one with his rich imaginative sensibility it was an
act of trajiscendent courage to turn from the ideal air
of philosophy and hurl those fearful Philippics amidst
the very daggers of the myrmidons of Antony. And,
when his last effort for republican liberty had proved fu-
tile, did he not heroically die on the altar ?

The chief peculiarity of the character of Cicero, in a
historico-biographical point of view, is the extent to which
he anticipated the modern habit of over-sensitive literary
genius, the deliberate portrayal of himself and his feelings
in his writings ; the eagerness with which he strives to
show himself worthy of affection and honor, and to secure
this prize alike from his contemporaries and posterity. In
this respect he is the prototype of Petrarch, who -again
is the prototype of Rousseau and of all who trace him in
his line.

Those who wish to make a study of this great man,
so sweet and commanding despite his foibles, will find
no lack of helps in the works of his numerous biographers
and critics. Middleton, in his Life and Letters of Cicero,
treats him with idolatry ; Niebuhr, in his Vortrage iiber
Romische Geschichte, with enthusiasm ; Drumann, in his
Geschichte Roms, with hate ; Abeken, in his Cicero in
Seinen Briefer^ with generouo impartiality ; Mommsen, in



DANTE. 213

his Romische Geschichte, with insolence ; Merivale, in his
History of the Romans under the Empire, with a fairness
rather severe than merciful ; Forsyth, in his Life of Cicero,
with loving candor ; Boissier, in his Ciceron et Ses Amis,
with affectionate justice. This work of Boissier is the
most interesting, emotional, and just of the whole. One
lays it down with the feeling that Cicero the brilliant,
brave, boastful, shrinking, timid, vain, garrulous, learned,
wise, unhappy, tender, pious, immortal Cicero deserves
to be blamed somewhat, pitied a little, excused a great
deal, admired more, praised and loved most of all, by the
world of his fascinated and grateful readers.

BOETHIUS.

THE author of the "Consolation of Philosophy, 9 Boe-
thius, has a place singularly by himself among men, in
the fame of his beautiful work. After holding at the
court of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, the offices of
Consul and Senator, with brilliant ability, he fell into
undeserved disfavor with his sovereign. His unflinching
honesty, together with his conspicuous kindness, courage,
and watchfulness, brought a pack of informers and other
base men against him. A sentence of confiscation and
death was passed on him unheard. During his imprison-
ment he wrote that precious treatise on the solaces of
wisdom, which has strengthened many a kindred sufferei
from injustice since. He underwent a horrible death,
being first tortured by a cord drawn around his head till
the eyes burst from their sockets, and then beaten with
clubs till he expired. When we trace the lofty medita-
tions with which he comforted himself in his prison, and
compare his sweet, generous mind and heroic virtues with
the brutal ferocity of the jealous mediocrities around him,
a tragic loneliness associates itself with the figure of him
presented by the historic imagination.

DANTE.

DANTE ALIGHIERI is the most monarchic figure in lit-
erary history. Awe and Love now accompany the shade



214 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

of the untamable Ghibelline on the journey of his fame,
as he pictured Virgil guiding his steps through the other
world. That stern, sad, worn face, made so well known
to us by art, looks on the passing generations of men
with a woful pity, masking the pain and want which are
too proud to beg for sympathy, extorting, chiefly from the
most royal souls, a royal tribute of wonder and affection.
Some one has said that Dante was " a born solitary, a
grand, impracticable solitary. He could not live with
the Florentines ; he could not live with Gemma Donati ;
he could not live with Can Grande della Scala." The
truth in the remark is, perhaps, a little misleading. It is
certainly not strange that an exile should be unable to
live at home with the victorious party of his persecutors ;
that a man absorbed in an ideal world should ill agree
with a prosaic and shrewish wife ; or that the demeaning
favors of a patron should gall a generous spirit. Dante
was no separatist, either in theory or in native temper
of soul, though he was lonely in experience and fate.
The inward life was to him the only constant end ; the
ecstasy of the divine vision the only sufficing good.
Memory, thought, and faith were his three cities of refuge.
His intellect was too piercing, his disposition too earnest,
his affections too sensitive and tenacious, his prejudices
and resentments too vehement and implacable, for satis-
factory intercourse with others to be easy. " He delight-
ed," Boccaccio says, " in being solitary and apart from
the world, that his contemplations might not be interrupt-
ed. And when he was in company, if he had taken up
any subject of meditation 'that pleased him, he would
make no reply to any question asked, until he had con-
firmed or rejected the fancy that haunted him." Ben-
venuto da Imola speaks of his having been seen to stand
at a book-stall in Siena, studying a rare work, from mat-
ins till noon ; so absorbed in it as to be unconscious of
the passing of a bridal procession with music and love-
poems, such as he especially delighted in. Owing to the
extraordinary scope, intensity, and pertinacity of his
states of consciousness, he was both an exceedingly lov-
ing and magnanimous, and an exceedingly irascible and



DANTE. 215

revengeful man. If he was sensitively exacting, he could
also he regally self-sufficing. To such a nature fit society
would be delicious, but hard to find ; unfit society, easy
to find, but insufferable ; solitude, a natural refuge, not
less medicinal than welcome.

The different kinds of spiritual loneliness meet in a
more striking combination in Dante than in almost any
other man. He knew, in a distinguishing degree, the
loneliness of individuality ; for he had a most pronounced
originality of character, all of whose peculiar features the
circumstances of his age and life tended to exaggerate.
Altogether, with his towering self-respect, his deep sense
of his own prophetic office, his soft, proud, burning rev-
eries, it would be hard to find a more intrinsically isolated
personality. He knew the loneliness of genius, his mind
being of a scale and altitude far aloof from those about
him. Among the peaks of human greatness, the solitary
cone of the intellect of Dante shoots highest into the sky,
though several others touch a wider horizon and show a
richer landscape. He knew the loneliness of love. The
wondrous fervency and exaltation of his sacred passion
for Beatrice, no one else could enter into : he could speak
of it to no ordinary comrade. In his own words, " The
first time I heard her voice, I was smitten with such de-
light that I broke away from the company I was in, like
a drunken man, and retired within the solitude of my
chamber to meditate upon her." He knew the loneliness
of a passionate, idealizing grief. He says, " I was affect-
ed by such profound grief, that, rushing away from the
crowd, I sought a lonely spot wherein to bathe tke earth
with my most bitter tears ; and when, after a space, these
tears were somewhat abated, betaking myself to my cham-
ber where I could give vent to my passion unheard, I fell
asleep, weeping like a beaten child." And again he
says,

Ashamed, I go apart from men,
And solitary, weeping, I lament,
And call on Beatrice, " Art thou dead?"

He knew the loneliness of an absorbing aim. The pro-
duction of his immortal poem, in which heaven and earth



2l6 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

were constrained to take a part, and which, he says, kept
him lean many years, implies immense studies and toil.
Such an exhaustive masterpiece is not more a result of
inspiration than of unwearied touches of critical art. Ht
knew the loneliness of exile. Banished by party hate, he



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 17 of 35)