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William Rounseville Alger.

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

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he could not go so far to find it, he sought to enjoy it
in the midst of cities," he was engaged in composing a
" Treatise on Illustrious Men." He wrote letters to
Homer, Varro, Cicero, and other great men, as if they
\vere still alive ; and said that he strove to forget sur-
rounding vexations by living mentally with the renowned
spirits of the past. He went into society to enjoy his
friends, to serve his country and the cause of letters, and
<o win glory. He went into solitude not from dislike or
indifference to men, but as an escape from galling re-
straints, or from distressing censures and injuries. His
sensitiveness to public opinion, even to the most trifling
criticism of the most insignificant persons, was excessive
in the extreme. His unrivalled celebrity brought his char-
acter, his writings, his actions, into all men's mouths.
The wretchedness thus caused him was unendurable, and
he fled from it to the bosom of nature. He had written
" Four Books of Invectives against Physicians," exposing



228 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

the impositions and absurdities of the profession in his
time. This bold and serviceable work brought a swarm
of attacks on him. He said, " I shall bury myself in a
solitude so profound that care and envy will not be able
to find me out. What folly ! can I expect to find any
place where envy cannot penetrate ? " After being
crowned Laureate in Rome the first repetition of that
august ceremony for thirteen hundred years he says,
" It only seemed to raise envy and deprive me of the
repose I enjoyed. From that time tongues and pens
were sharpened against me." He cared too much for the
opinion oi men, not too little. He yearned to love and
admire, to be loved and admired. " I esteem myself
happy," he once writes, " in having quitted Venice for
Padua. There I should have been suspected ; here I
am caressed."

Led by too much of his personal experience of the
world to think mankind at large set against virtue and
wisdom, and against the votaries of virtue and wisdom,
his character, as Ugo Foscolo has said, sometimes wears
a tint of misanthropy by no means natural to him. Really
he had " more of fear than hatred, more of pity than con-
tempt for men." He was one of those unfortunate men
whose self-complacency is so unstable, whose sympathy
so keen, that they are afraid of those they love. His
kind acts were innumerable. He owned the only known
copy of Cicero's treatise " De Gloria," and lending it to
his decayed schoolmaster, to be put in pawn for the tem-
porary relief of the poor old man, it was irreparably lost
to the world. " As a man," he said, " I cannot but be
touched with the miseries of humanity ; as an Italian, I
believe no one more keenly feels the calamities of my
country." He was not, in any reprehensible sense, an
egotist, far less a misanthrope, in his love of isolation.
He lacked and this was his central weakness what
made the strong Goethe so sound, the mature Wordsworth
so content, namely, a direct life in the objects of nature,
freedom from brooding on morbid sensations : and a di-
rect life in the general truths of humanity, freedom from
a wearisome attention to personal details. He himself



PETRARCH. 229

Confesses to the mistake of taking " life in details rather
than in the gross."

He read and wrote with hardly the slightest intermis-
sion. He reflected and brooded till he lost his health
of body and mind, and life became " sicklied o'er with
the pale cast of thought." A dreadful ennui devoured him.
He imagined that " a weariness and disgust of everything
naturally inhered in his soul." He said, " I conceived
that to cure all my miseries I must study them night and
day, renouncing all other desires ; that the only way of
forgetting life was to reflect perpetually on death. In
kindred strain he sings,

Ceaseless I think, and in each wasting thought

So strong a pity for myself appears
That often it has brought

My harassed heart to new yet natural tears.

Again he says, " I am weary of life. Whatever patn
I take I find it strewn with flints and thorns. Would
that the time were come when I might depart in search
of a world far different from this wherein I feel so un-
happy." And once more, at a later date, he writes, " I
start up in wildness, I speak to myself; I dissolve in
tears ; I have visions which inflict on me the torments
of hell." This was near the end. His last composition
was a letter to his friend Boccaccio, which closed with the
words, " Adieu, my friends ! Adieu, my studies ! " He
was found dead in his library with his arm resting on a
book. Distinguished honors were paid to his remains
and his memory. At this day in popular fame he stands
at the head of all the poets of love, his name wedded to
that of the Laura he has immortalized. Scholars make
grateful acknowledgment of the signal services he ren-
dered to the cause of learning. Psychologists recognize
him as one of the few whose characters have contributed
a distinctive historic influence to following times.

The richness of his mind, the burning passions of his
heart, lent to the coldness and fickleness of average men
a stronger repulsion, and invested him with a double iso-
lation in giving him superior company of his own. " Be-



230 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

holding, on the shores washed by the Tyrrhene Sea, that
stately laurel which always warms my imagination, through
impatience I fell breathless into the intervening stream. I
was alone and in the woods, yet I blushed at my own heed-
lessness; for, to the reflecting mind, no outward witness is
necessary to excite the emotion of shame." These strik-
ing words touch the secret of the haunting unhappiness of
Petrarch, namely, his intense sympathy, that presence of
his fellow-beings in imagination from which he could not
free himself, of which even his apparent misanthropy it-
self was but one of the disturbed symptoms. Such an
experience as that just quoted was relatively unknown in
classical antiquity. Egypt, Judaea, Greece, Rome, had no
such characters as Zimmermann, Senancour, Chatterton,
Chopin, Heine, David Gray. The self-gnawing wretched-
ness of such men is the product of a later civilization, of
our Christian epoch. What is the cause of this melan-
choly moaning and fading of men of genius, so familiar
to us now ? What makes the unhappiness of Christian
genius in comparison with the .clear content and joyful-
ness of the best type of ancient Pagan life ?

It is a consequence of the enormous enhancement of
sympathy. In antiquity, the family was the unit of life ;
outside of it, the individual had comparatively few re-
sponsive tendrils of feeling. Christianity, with the progress
of civilization, and the universal intercommunication of
the nations of the earth, has generated a powerful feeling
of the relation between the individual and the total race.
Jesus identified himself with all the afflicted members of
humanity : "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the
least of these, ye have done it unto me," a sentence
which has been unspeakably influential on the historic
sentiment of the last eighteen hundred years. Shake-
speare makes Antony say of the murder of Caesar :

O, what a fall was there, my countrymen !
Then you, and I, and all of us fell down.

This feeling of entire humanity in each person devel-
oped an unprecedented, mysterious, objective sympathy
which has since often oppressed sensitive minds as " the



PETRARCH. 231

burden and the weight of all this unintelligible world."
We read, it is true, in the Sanscrit Mahabharata and
Ramayana, in the Persian poets, and in the Arabian
Nights' Entertainments, expressions of feeling as deep,
fine, and vast as anything in modern Christian literature ;
but it is something very different which they express. It
is either personal affection, as when a lover is represented
fainting away at a frown, falling dead under an unkind
word ; or it is a response to ideas of a transcendental
faith, an ecstatic idealism, a pantheistic theosophy. The
pining and swooning emotions of the finest Orientals are
subjective, resulting either from love of a particular per-
son, or from mystic devotion. But the emotions we are
dealing with are objective, although neither personal noi
metaphysical in their object. They are really unrecog-
nized reactions on the vague general idea of humanity.

Now, by means of literature, newspapers, telegraphs,
interlacing ties of business, travel, kindred, friendship,
innumerable mutual interests, a man of sensitive genius
lives constantly as it were in the ideal presence of all
mankind. Public opinion is a reality as solid to him as
the globe, its phenomena as influential as sunshine and
darkness. Where life used to be direct, it is now reflec-
tive. Consciousness, once made up of single lines, now
consists of a mazy web. The immense complication of
actions and reactions, distinctive of modern experience,
produces a mass and multiplicity of feelings not yet "har-
monized, to be harmonized with difficulty and slowness,
but infallibly productive of painful desires and sorrows
until harmonized.

Furthermore, the healthy objectivity of Greek life be-
tokened the well-balanced adjustment of man's desires
with his earthly state. Ecclesiastical Christianity threw
discredit and darkness on the earthly lot by its over-
whelming portrayal of the worthlessness of the evanescent
present in comparison with the everlasting glories of
heaven. The doctrine of immortality engendered a sen-
timent of correspondent proportions, which, unable to
renounce this world and patiently wait for the other, at-
tempted to dilate the prizes of time to the capacity of its



232 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

demands. A vast, hungry sense of incongruity resulted,
prolific in disease and unfathomable misery ; a sick and
sore introspectiveness, a devouring greed for love and
admiration, a frantic effort, in the phrase of Bacon, " to
cure mortality with fame." The increase of sympathy
consequent on the ideas of the unity of the human race
and the community of human life has made the experience
of the modern masses of men happier than that of the
ancient masses ; but its unharmonized excess has created
the unhappiness of that class of exceptional men of genius
of whom the unhappy Petrarch stands as the first popular
literary representative. In his eloquent " Trionfi " he
nobly depicts the great periods in the experience of the
soul. First, Love triumphs over Man ; secondly, Chas-
tity triumphs over Love ; thirdly, Death triumphs over
both ; fourthly, Fame triumphs over Death ; fifthly, Time
triumphs over Fame ; and finally, Eternity triumphs over
Time. The man of large and fine genius, before he can
cease to be unhappy, must, in his own soul, go through
all these triumphs into the last one, by self-denial and the
firm subordination of his impulsive sensibilities to the
unchangeable conditions of destiny.

In personal intercourse Petrarch was one of the most
fascinating of beings. His friends idolized him, " wel-
comed him with tears of joy as though he had been an
angel. One high duty of writers of genius he fulfilled
with* signal effect, that of softening and refining the
feelings of the vulgar. The other duty of great men, to
be healthy and happy, that they may inoculate the needy
world with sanity and joy, he is, perhaps, more to be
pitied than blamed for failing to fulfil.

They say his strains tend to effeminate his countrymen.
Well, there are plenty of influences in the other direction,
military, political, mercantile, mechanical. Not without
good effect does his soft and softening strain mingle in
ths harsh roar of toil, trade, ambition, and battle. In
consideration of his great love his offences must be for
given. They are forgiven and forgotten in the affections
of multitudes of readers, who, gratefully cherishing his
worth and service, blend his name alike with the thought
of loneliness and the memory of Laura.



TASSO. 233

They keep his dust in Arqua, where he died :

The mountain-village where his latter days

Went down the vale of years ; and 't is their pride

An honest pride, and let it be their praise

To offer to the passing stranger's gaze

His mansion and his sepulchre ; both plain

And venerably simple, such as raise

A feeling more accordant with his strain,

Than if a pyramid formed his monumental fane.

And the soft quiet hamlet where he dwelt
Is one of that complexion which seems made
For those who their mortality have felt,
And sought a refuge from their hopes decayed
In the deep umbrage of a green hill's shade,
Which shows a distant prospect far away
Of busy cities, now in vain displayed,
For they can lure no further ; and the ray
Of a bright sun can make sufficient holiday,

Developing the mountains, leaves, and flowers,

And shining in the brawling brook, whereby,

Clear as its current, glide the sauntering hours

With a calm languor, which, though to the eye

Idlesse it seem, hath its morality.

If from society we learn to live,

'T is solitude should teach us how to die.



TASSO.

THE noble Torquato Tasso, fearing that his fathei
would be displeased if he stole time from his legal stud-
ies, hurried into seclusion, and, secretly devoting all his
leisure hours to the muse, produced his brilliant poem of
Rinaldo before he was eighteen years old. His fervid
fancy, fondness for study, exquisite sensibility, and in-
tense desire of popular love and fame, while they made
him keenly crave society and friendship, compelled him
to know much solitude. His enemies, envious critics,
dictatorial patrons, and literary censors, persecuted him
with endless vexations of the most exasperating sort,
bitterly attacking his style, insisting on the omission of
what he felt to be the best passages of his poems, and
circulating grossly altered and mutilated editions of them
in spite of ali his protestations. Escaping from the annoy-



Z34 SKETCHES OB LONELY CHARACTERS.

ances and unappreciation he suffered at Ferrara, he wan-
dered for several years from city to city, " the finest genius
of his time, a prey to sorrow and disease, his splendid
fancy darkened by distress, his noble heart devoured at
once by the agony of hopeless love and the ambition of
literary glory." When he returned to the court of Al-
phonso, expecting affectionate welcome and honor, he
was met with rude neglect. Insulted and derided, he
gave vent to his indignation in such terms as caused the
Duke to have him put under guard in an asylum for pau-
pers and madmen. The misery of such a spirit, so tender
and so proud, so surpassingly alive to the breath of human
opinion, when subjected to the foul injustice and severity
with which the haughty heartlessness of his master here
pursued him, can hardly be conceived by ordinary minds.
His own descriptions of it are indescribably touching.

There is no solitude on earth so deep

As that where man decrees that man shall weep.

He writes to his dear friend Gonzaga, " The fear of being
perpetually imprisoned here increases my melancholy,
and the squalor of my beard, my hair, and habi't, exceed-
ingly annoys me. But, above all, I am afflicted by soli-
tude, which even in my best state was often so tormenting
that I have gone in search of company at the most un-
seasonable hours." Incarcerated for seven long and cruel
years, his loneliness was so great that his disturbed mind
created for itself the belief that a familiar Spirit was in
the constant habit of coming to hold high and kind com-
munion with him.

All the historians of Ta'sso agree in eulogizing "his
candor, his fidelity to his word, his courtesy, his frank-
ness, his freedom from the least tincture of revenge or
of malignity, his attachment to his friends, his gratitude
to his benefactors, his patience in misfortune, his mildness
and sobriety, his purity of life and manners, his sincere
piety. None of his foes seem to have been able to charge
him justly with a single moral stain." He was extremely
sensitive to slights, exacting of the respect due to him.
This was his single ungracious quality. Few things are



BRUNO. 235

more cruel than that so highly loving and gifted a soul
should have had such numerous and rancorous enemies
that his life was embittered and burdened by them until
he was quite weaned from it. When a guest of Rome,
lodged in the Vatican, waiting to be crowned with laurel,
the first poet so honored since Petrarch, he sighed to
flee away and be at rest. Growing very ill, he obtained
permission to retire to the Monastery of Saint Onofrio.
When the physician informed him that his last hour was
near, he embraced him, expressed his gratitude for so
sweet an announcement, and then, lifting his eyes, thanked
God that after so tempestuous a life he was now brought
to a calm haven. The Pope having granted the dying
poet a plenary indulgence, he said, " This is the chariot
on which I hope to go crowned, not with laurel as a
poet into the capitol, but ' with glory as a saint into
heaven."

BRUNO.

GIORDANO BRUNO, an exceedingly brave, sensitive, lov-
ing soul, for these very qualities, which in more favor-
able conditions of society would have blessed him with
dear comrades and popular admiration, was made an
outcast and an exile. Intensely desirous of wisdom and
nobleness, unflinchingly loyal to reality, detesting false-
hood and indifference, a burning worshipper of truth and
freedom, in an age of despotism and conformity he was
naturally considered dangerous, and was put under ban.
Lonely in his loftiness of unterrified thought, hunted from
nation to nation, with brief respites, unfriended, save by
a few generous exceptions like Fulke Greville and Sir
Philip Sidney, the integrity of his own soul was his un-
quenchable comfort, and the presence of the Infinite Spirit
of Eternal Verity was his inseparable companionship.

The tonic of his veracious health and cheer is breathed
in the words he speaks : " To have sought, found, and
laid open a form of Truth, be that my commendation,
even though none understand. If, with Nature, and un-
der God, I be wise, that surely is more than enough.' 1



236 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Imprisoned, mercilessly tortured, kept for over two years
from the sight of all human faces save hostile and mock-
ing ones, with divine resolution refusing to deny a thought
or recant a word, he was at last burned at the stake. In
some lines of his own, written with prophetic anticipation
of this very end, he says, " Open, open the way ! Ye
dense multitude, spare this sightless, speechless face all
harsh obstructions, while the toil-worn, sunken form goes
knocking at the gates of less painful but deeper death /J
Genius often brings with it into the world a feeling of
melancholy strangeness, if not of estrangement, a mys-
terious homesickness of soul. It feels itself a foreigner
on the earth. The features of Bruno in the portrait
transmitted to our times are affectingly expressive of
this. He looks like one whose affections had been re-
pulsed by an unworthy world, and whose soul had found
strength by divinely rallying itself upon God. As we
gaze on his strong, sad, lonely lineaments we are re-
minded of what he himself says in one of his sonnets :
" You may read the story of my life written in my face."



vico.

Vico, the great founder of the science of history, was
one of the loneliest minds of his century. A more pro-
found or original thinker has rarely appeared. While yet
young he became tutor to the nephews of the Bishop of
Ischia, where he spent nine years in the lonely solitude
of Vatolla, dividing his thoughts between poetry, philos-
ophy, and jurisprudence. His chosen comrades, besides
the great Roman jurisconsults, were Plato and Dante,
with the last of whom his ardent and melancholy genius
closely allied him. But even such mental companionship
was more frequently deserted for the pursuit of his own
absorbing reflections.

He saw that the history of mankind was no medley or
phantasmagoria, at the mercy of individual leaders, but a
grand march of humanity, a total evolution of humanity,
governed by great laws and reducible to a science. He



vico. 237

trod the lonely path of this discovery with unweaneJ
patience, every day rising higher in unknown regions,
meeting no rival or companion, leaving his fellow-beings
below him as fast as he mounted, until at last, seating
himself on the summit, and looking around, he saw, spread
out far beneath his feet, all mankind and their history in
one view. " Unhappily," said Michelet, " he found him-
self quite alone. No one could understand him. He
was equally isolated by the originality of his ideas and
by the strangeness of his speech. The opposite of that
which happened to the Seven Sleepers befell him. He
had forgotten the language of the past and could speak
only that of the future, a language then too early and
now too late, so that for this grand and unfortunate
genius the time has never come."

He gave surprising examples of the vigor of his com-
prehensive and penetrating intellect by originating the
doctrine of myths, which, in its application to history,
has since proved so fruitful in valuable results ; also in
first propounding, with as much precision and thorough-
ness as it has since received, the profound truth that the
record of much of the pre-historic experience of mankind
is locked up in the etymological structure of language.
It is only just now, in our own generation, that, in the
hands of the gifted masters of the science of comparative
philology, this deep discovery is amazing the world with
its brilliant revelations, forcing from the dark matrix of
each primitive word some crystallized secret of the for-
gotten life of the human race.

Vico has written his own life ; and it is piteous to read
the account of the painful isolation in which he was left
by the careless and the envious. His rivals, chagrined
by his vast superiority, treated him with cruel injustice.
Some called him insane, others an obscure and paradox-
ical genius. He was traduced, satirized, pursued with
ironical eulogies. He says, "Vico blessed these adversi-
ties which ever drew him back to his studies. Retired in
his solitude, as in an impregnable fortress, he thought, he
wrote, he took a noble vengeance on his detractors. There
he found the new science. From that moment he believed



238 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

he had nothing to envy Socrates, in regard to whom the
good Phedrus expresses the magnanimous sentiment
' Insure me his fame, and I will not shrink from his death.
The envy which followed me living shall absolve me when
dead.' "

At another time he says : " Since completing my great
work I feel that I have become a new man. I am no
longer inclined to declaim against the bad taste of the
age, which, in refusing me the place I demanded, has
given me occasion to compose the new science. Shall I
say it ? I may deceive myself, but I do not wish to de-
ceive myself. The composition of this work has animated
me with a heroic spirit which lifts me above the fear of
death and all the calumnies of my rivals. When I think
of the judgment of God which rewards genius with the
esteem of the wise, I feel myself seated on an adaman-
tine cliff." Frequently in his poems he opens his inmost
heart, and consoles himself for lack of honor and love
with the thought of his great discoveries, " penetrating in
the abyss of wisdom to the eternal laws by which human-
ity is governed," "all nations together forming one city,
founded and ruled by God himself" ; and also with the
thought of posthumous fame. How beautiful are these
words, breathed in his pining solitude : " My dear country
has refused me everything. But I respect and revere her.
A severe mother, who never caresses her son or presses
him to her bosom, is none the less honored. In the
thought of the unrecognized benefits I have conferred on
her, I already find noble consolation."

At last " the unfortunate Vico," to use his own words.
" broken down by age, wrongs, fatigues, and physical suf-
ferings," welcomed the grave as a sweet shelter from all
storms. His fame is still growing brighter, as reflected in
lofty minds, congenial with his own, from generation to
generation. No gentle spirit who has learned to appre-
ciate his quick and tender genius, the unkindness and
desertion he suffered in his time, can read the following
apostrophe from one of his earlier poems without a quick-
ening heart-beat, without longing to call him back to re-
ceive now, so late, the meed he merited then. " Pure and



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 19 of 35)