William Rounseville Alger.

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

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tween its protruded paws originally stood a temple in
which sacrifices were offered. The temple has crumbled
in pieces. The sands have drifted over the feet and high
up the sides of the mysterious monster, on all whose sol-
emn features decay has laid its fingers. Yet the pilgrim
is awed as he looks on the colossal repose, the patient


majesty of those features, and feels the pathetic insignifi-
cance of his own duration, in contrast with the unknown
ages and events that have sped by that postured enigma.

Yes, a ruin, whether mantled rich with ivy or swept
bare by the blast, a feudal castle, crumbling on the cliff,
the snake in its keep and the owl in its turret ; or a tri-
umphal pillar, thrown down and broken, its inscription
obliterated, its history "in the maw of oblivion, wears
the mien of solitude, breathes the sentiment of decay, and
is a touching thing to see. Ruins symbolize the wishes
and fate of man ; the weakness of his works, the fleeting-
ness of his existence. Who can visit Thebes, in whose
crowded crypts, as he enters, a flight of bats chokes him
with the dust of disintegrating priests and kings, see the
sheep nibbling herbage between the fallen cromlechs of
Stonehenge, or confront a dilapidated stronghold of the
Middle Age, where the fox looks out of the window and
the thistle nods on the wall, without thinking of these
things ? They feelingly persuade him what he is.

And how thickly these gray preachers are scattered
over the world, preaching their silent sermons of evanes-
cence, wisdom, peace ! Tyre was situated of old at the
entry of the sea, the beautiful mistress of the earth,
haughty in her purple garments, the tiara of commerce on
her brow. Now the dust has been scraped from her till
she has become a blistered rock, whereon the solitary
fisher spreads his nets ; and along all her coasts, to Sidon
and Tarshish, the booming billows, as freightless they rise
and fall, seem to ask, " Where are the ships of Tyre ?
Where are the ships of Tyre?" A few tattered huts
stand among shapeless masses of masonry where glorious
Carthage stood ; the houses of a few husbandmen, where
voluptuous Corinth once lifted her splendid array of mar-
ble palaces and golden towers. Many a nation, proud
and populous in the elder days of history, like Elephanta
or Memphis, is now merely a tomb and a shadowy name.
Pompeii and Herculaneum are empty sepulchres, which
that fatal flight before the storm of ashes and lava
cheated of their occupants : the traveller sees poppies
blooming in the streets where the chariots once flashed;


unbidden tears come as he lingers where the veil has
been ripped from the statue of Isis, or pauses where the
fire is extinct on the altar of Vesta. Etruria is one stu-
pendous grave, teeming with an empire's dust. The muf-
fled abode of millions of men mingled for ages on ages
with the mould of the globe, it yields no admonishing
reverberation as we tread over it, unless we meditate and
listen ; then, indeed, the mystic soil, borrowing the
tongues of time and destiny, makes every particle of air
in the solitude vocal with pathetic tidings. As the mild
effulgence of lunar light mitigates the ruinous austerity
of the Coliseum, look up and recall the time when the
buzz of a hundred nations ran round those mighty
walls ; and, by contrast, how vacant and how dreary the
desolation is ! Roaming among the remnants of Moorish
grandeur in widowed Granada, strolling through the
chambers of Alhambra, admiring the delicious propor-
tions with enjoyment subdued by pity, the air seems
charged with tearful sighs, and along the lonely halls the
spirit of tradition and sympathy wails in the tones of an
^olian harp, "Ah, woe is me, Alhama, for a thousand
years ! " When we reflect that tigers foray in the palace-
yard of Persepolis, and camels browse in Babylon on the
site of Belshazzar's throne, when, in imagination, at Baal-
bee, we march down majestic avenues littered with decay,
see lizards overrunning the altars of the Temple of the
Sun, and in the sculptured friezes, here the nests of obscene
birds, there the webs of spiders, when we survey the
extent and noble forms of the ruins of Paestum-amongst-
the-Roses, or of Tadmor-in-the-Wilderness, forming a
scene more exquisitely mournful than earth otherwheie
affords, what heart of man will not fill with regret and
presages, and own the unfathomable power of that natu-
ral solitude which crumbling ait fills with the lost history
of our race?



Physical Solitude and Spiritual Loneliness,

AFTER every description of the monotonous wastes
and wilds of outward nature, we receive a heightened
impression of what true lonesomeness is, by turning to
the intenser inner deserts of mental and moral being.
Bleak and monstrous and unvaried as the sterile and
gloomy steppes of Mongolia and Tartary are, the feeling
of vastness and terror they impart is weak in comparison
with that obtained from contemplating the character of

Timour he

Whom the astonished people saw

Striding o'er empires haughtily

A diademed outlaw.

The spirit and career of Attila, the cosmogonic dreams
of Swedenborg, the schemes revolving in the mighty
brain of Mirabeau, the Titanic aloofness and misanthropy
of Schopenhauer, the oceanic soul of Spinoza ringed only
by the All, are more appalling, more suggestive of the
infini'e, than any material bulks or abysses. Is it a terri-
ble chasm in which the sprinkled ranks of the galaxy are
hung ? What, then, is the lonely mystery of the mind in \
whose meditations the spectral infinitude of astronomy I
lies like a filmy dot ?

The physical solitudes of nature are without any feeling
of their own incommunicable separation and dreariness :
but the spiritual solitudes of man are conscious, and either
pine under the burden of isolation or groan for relief.
The sea, as its murmuring lip caresses the shore, or its


mountainous surges shatter against the cliff, seems not to
feel lonely, is company enough for itself, until deserted
yearning man approaches to give it contrast and interpre-
tation. When shipwrecked man lies tossed on the strand,
thoughts and fears of home, love, death, eternity, thun-
dering at the base of reason, then first the sympathizing
phenomena without form a scene of genuine solitude, and
loneliness becomes an experience of anguish. Obviously
there can be no external expanse so deserted, so sublime,
as that night-scene of the soul when it muses, alone, with
faith and wonder, overhung by a still immensity of starry

Physical solitude and spiritual loneliness suggest, but
do not imply, each other. Either may blend with the
other to heighten it, or to relieve it. Either may in-
clude or exclude the other. On a morning of May,
long ago, a young man rode across an Illinois prairie,
with a friend. They passed, on the boundless expanse,
far out of sight of any human habitation, thousands of
crab-apple-trees in full blossom, their beauty and fra-
grance surpassing all that he had ever dreamed of vegeta-
ble loveliness and perfume. It seemed as if the whole
world had been converted into green grass, blue sky,
apple-blossoms, odor, golden sunrise, and two men on
horseback. Yet loneliness was an impossible feeling.
Every capacity of the soul was crowded by the complex
and strange exhilaration of that hour. Compare with such
a scene and experience those presented by a convict un-
dergoing execution in front of a hundred thousand spec-
tators. While the officer adjusts the cap and rope, the
most awful interests of man are brought to bear on the
soul of the unhappy victim. Eternity seems condensed
in the dropping moments. There is no solitude here, but
how dread a loneliness ! There is also often a profound
loneliness, full of pain, in the upper rooms of those high
houses in great cities, in which the poor single occupants
hearken to the almost inaudible murmur of the streets
below, and look up at the stars. Countless thousands of
men close around each wretched garreteer, yet he as
bleakly alone as though drifting on a plank in mid ocean !


To sit on rocks, to muse o'er flood and fell,

To slowly trace the forest's shady scene,

Where things that own not man's dominion dwell,

And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been ;

To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,

With the wild flock that never needs a fold ;

Alone o'er steeps and foaming falls to lean ;

This is not solitude ; 't is but to hold

Converse with Nature's charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But 'midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
And roam along, the world's tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless,
Minions of splendor shrinking from distress !
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all that flattered, followed, sought and sued :
This is to be alone ; this, this is solitude.

Epictetus, in his fine and brave little essay on Solitude,
gives this as his definition of it. " To be friendless is Soli-
tude." The more sharply we meditate on it, the more thor-
oughly we test it, the more deeply to the root of the mat-
ter we shall find this word of the cheerful Phrygian Stoic
to go. Zimmermann says, " Solitude is that state in which
the soul freely resigns itself to its own reflections." This
is really no definition, it is a partial and superficial de-
scription, of solitude. More strictly it is a statement of
one of the effects of being unoccupied from without.
Obviously solitude is the deprivation of companionship ;
but our own reflections are often the bestowers of a vivid
companionship. The true definition is this. Solitude is
the reaction of the soul without an object and without a
product. If our activity has objects, those objects serve
as comrades : if it is creative, the results serve as com-
rades. But if our activity is the overflow of unemployed
powers with no object to meet and return it, with no
product to embody and reflect it, we are conscious of an
unrelieved loneliness. Solitude, therefore, is the reaction
of the soul without an object and without a product.


The Solitude of Individuality.

THE first specification to be made of the loneliness of
human life is that which results from the fatal separate-
ness and hiddenness of each individuality. The inner-
most secret of the self-hood of any being can never be
communicated, can never be shown, to another. Only
little superficial fragments of our life are revealed, in
comparison with the portion which moves on in unguessed
concealment. That marvellous something which makes
us ourselves, constitutes in us an impenetrable adytum
where only the Power that created us can be or look

Vainly strives the soul to mingle
With a being of our kind :
Since the deepest still is single,
Vainly hearts with hearts are twined.

It is a well-known fact in physics that no two particles
of matter ever truly touch ; their contact is but virtual.
An ultimate sphere of force surrounds each atom with a
repulsion absolutely invincible. Were the total universe
made a press and brought to converge on two atoms, that
dynamic investiture could not be broken through and an
actual meeting effected. So with souls. Alas, how
widely yawns the moat that girds a human soul ! Each
one knows its own bitterness, its own joy, its own terrors
and hopes ; and no foreigner can ever really touch, but
only more or less nearly approach, and exchange signals,
like distant ships in a storm.

O the bitter thought, to scan
All the loneliness of man !
Nature by magnetic laws
Circle unto circle draws :
But they only touch when met,
Never mingle, strangers yet.

Will it evermore be thus
Spirits still impervious ?
Shall we never fairly stand
Soul to soul as hand to hand ?
Are the bounds eternal set
To retain us, strangers yet ?


Every man wrestles with his fate not in the public am-
phitheatre, but in the profoundest secrecy. The world
sees him only as he comes forth from the concealed con-
flict, a blooming victor or a haggard victim. We hate or
pity, we strive or sleep, we laugh or bleed, we sigh and
yearn ; but still in impassable separation, like unvisiting
isles here and there dotting the sea' of life, with sounding
straits between us. It is a solemn truth that, in spite of
his manifold intercourses, and after all his gossip is done,
every man, in what is most himself, and in what is deep-
est in his spiritual relationships, lives alone. So thoroughly
immersed is the veritable heart behind the triple thick-
ness of individual destiny, insulating unlikeness and sus-
picion, that only the fewest genuine communications pass
and repass ; rarely in unreserved confidence is the draw-
bridge lowered, and the portcullis raised. Frequently
the most intimate comrades of a life, when the whole tale
of days is told, know little or nothing of each other ; so
successfully are our disguises worn, so closely are these
impervious masks of sense and time and fortune fitted to
the being we are. Occasionally, urged by overstress of cu-
riosity and tenderness, taking the dearest ones we know by
the hand, we gaze beseechingly into their eyes, sounding
those limpid depths, if haply, reading the inmost soul, we
may discern there a mysterious thought and fondness,
answering to those so unspeakably felt in our own. But
again and again we turn away, at last, with a long-drawn
breath, sighing, alas, alas ! No solicitation can woo, no
power can force, admission to that final inviolate sanctu-
ary of being where the personality dwells in irreparable

Were this all, however, only the fewest persons would
be troubled by their isolation. There is another experi-
ence, more open to view, and more oppressive to bear,
that in its sharpness aches for companionship. What is
it ? And what are its conditions ? The solitude necessa-
rily belonging to the inmost essence, structure, and con-
tents of every personality we accept as a law of our
being and circumstances. But to have a peculiar person-
ality is to know a special loneliness which is a trial.


Peculiarities, in the degree in which they mark a soul,
make that soul unintelligible to others. And the more
unlike a soul is to the souls around it, as a general thing
the greater desire it feels to see itself reflected in them,
understood by them, sympathized with and cherished by
them. Chamisso's unique tale of Peter Schlemihl or
the Man without a Shadow, powerfully illustrates this.
Wherever poor Peter goes, his lack of a shadow insulates
him in wretched singularity. Every Jew, curmudgeon,
hunchback, roguish school-boy, spies out his fatal defect ;
and the mob pelt him with mud. He wears away days
and nights in his chamber in solitary sorrow. He wan-
ders on the heath alone with his misery, and at last be-
takes himself to a cave in the Thebais.

It is not simply for one to be by himself that makes
him feel lonely. In the quaint phrasing of Sir Thomas
Browne, we must confess that " they whose thoughts are
in a fair and hurry within, are sometimes fain to retire
into company to be out of the crowd of themselves."
When our noisy task is done, and fellow-laborers retire,
and outer tools and cares are dropped, and leisure ushers
an inner world of congenial pursuits, we may truly say
we are never more completely occupied than when idle.
So a man, as Scipio said of himself, is really never less
solitary than when physically alone, if his solitude be
filled with spiritual presences that give employment to his
mind, keep the currents of consciousness flowing.

Who contemplates, aspires, or dreams, is not
Alone : he peoples with rich thoughts the spot.
The only loneliness how dark and blind !
Is that where fancy cannot dupe the mind ;
Where the heart, sick, despondent, tired with all,
Looks joyless round, and sees the dungeon wall.

So long as the fluent and refluent tides of thought and feel-
ing freely rise and fall, we need not companions to make
us happy : when that condition fails, no society can pre-
vent the painful longings of our lonesomeness. The frui-
tion of a blessed communion is, in essence, simply a harmo
nized action and reaction of the soul and what surrounds
it. Be this realized, and there is fellowship everywhere ;


silence is melodious, and desertion itself social. Then
out of the tender exuberance of his heart one may ex-

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society where none intrudes,'

By the deep sea, and music in its roar :

I love not man the less but nature more,

From these our interviews, in which I steal

From all I may be, or have been before,

To mingle with the universe, and feel

What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.

True desertedness and its pangs ^are experienced when
we want the appropriate nutriment and stimulus for our
faculties and affections, fit dischargers and outlets for their
fulness. It is to miss loved objects, the wonted excitants
and channels of our souls, and to have no sufficing new
ones in their stead, and to feel that none of the people
around understand us and feel with us. The exiled
Switzer pines in a foreign clime for his native mountains,
the sublime prospect, the familiar legendary spots, the
upland breeze, the stimulant variety, the boundless free-
dom : and as he remembers, he weeps till his heart
breaks. The soul, too, has its own deeper homesickness.
An unappropriated enthusiasm ; a full heart aching for a
vent and a return, and finding none ; a spirit thwarted
of its proper action and reaction : this is the painful
essence of solitude, the live vacuum of lonesomeness.

Not the mere presence of numbers can heal this spiritual
pain. There is no solitude in the world so heavy as that
of a great city to the sensitive stranger who stands in its
streets, and sees the endless tides drift by, till he turns
away, feeling, Of all these multitudes hurrying past, not
one, not one, cares anything for me ! Appropriate objects
of thought and affection, if present in imagination, may
furnish satisfying employment for the activities of the soul,
however far they are removed in fact. The wild bird
whose little heart throbs instinctively towards her nest
and broodlets, is happy, as, all alone, she cuts the desert
air towards home with a worm in her mouth. Galileo,


gazing at the constellations through the grating of his
cell, and feeling the fellowship of the illustrious conquer-
ors of science in all ages, was less alone than when he
knelt amid the scowling throng of inquisitors to retract
the truth. Not visible approximation, but conscious affin-
ity, is the chief condition of inter-communication. What
good is it that prison wards are in juxtaposition, and that
the stars are thick ? As well for each other not to exist,
as to exist hopelessly sundered from knowledge and sym-
pathy. The king and the footman may consort as the
lion and the jackal : but bodily presence is not friendship ;
exchange of command and obsequiousness between su-
perior and inferior is not the satisfaction of the natures
of both in common communion. Unlike souls, though
crowded together in ranks, may all the while be as lonely
as the rows of funeral urns in a columbarium. John
Foster writes in his journal, " Relapsed into the solitaire
feeling of being a monad ; a self-originating, sad and
retiring sentiment which seems to say, ' No heart will
receive me, no heart needs me.' " Again he writes, in
the same journal, " Feel this insuperable individuality.
Something seems to say, ' Come away ; I am but a
gloomy ghost among the living and the happy. There is
no need of me ; I shall never be loved as I wish to be
loved, and as I could love.' I will converse with my
friends in solitude ; then they seem to be within my soul ;
when I am with them, they seem to be without it."

The grave-digger, wholly by himself, shovelling up the
skull of poor Yorick, was in a jovial entertainment of
merry thoughts. Hamlet, isolated by his sad endow-
ments, shaking his disposition with thoughts beyond the
reaches of his soul, moved about in the busy press of
ladies and courtiers, appallingly alone. To a great na-
ture, deeply in earnest, frivolous and shallow company
makes desertion twice desolate, as certain sounds serve
but to make stillness seem doubly still. The tenacious
tenants of holy moods and mighty tasks have little in
common with the fugitive hoverers who flutter in and out
of every whim that rises. Any exceptional deprivation,
?ift or experience, either in kind or degree, in proportion


to its distinctive intensity, separates, emphasizes its
subject with solitariness. The loss of any sense by man,
as that of hearing, lifts a sad, dark barrier between him
and his fellows. The solitude of blindness is pre-emi-
nently deep and oppressive. And it is pathetic to think
how many great men have, like Homer and Milton, had
the windows of their souls thus closed. Galileo, in his
seventy-third year, wrote to one of his correspondents :
" Alas ! your dear friend has become irreparably blind.
These heavens, this earth, this universe, which by won-
derful observation I had enlarged a thousand times be-
yond the belief of past ages, are henceforth shrunk into
the narrow space which I myself occupy. So it pleases
God ; it shall, therefore, please me also." Handel passed
the last seven years of his life in total blindness, in the
gloom of the porch of death. How he and the specta-
tors must have felt when the great composer, in seventeen
hundred and fifty-three, " stood, pale and tremulous, with
his sightless eyeballs turned towards a tearful concourse
of people, while his sad song from Samson, ' Total eclipse, y
no sun, no moon ! ' was-delivered."

Nothing can be more lonely than the chief characters
in literary fiction, with exceptional endowments, aims and
achievements, such as Prometheus, Faust, St. Leon, Za-
noni. Hawthorne has expressed a kindred thought, with
his usual vigorous felicity. " The perception of an infi-
nite shivering solitude, amid which we cannot come close
enough to human beings to be wanned by them, and
where they turn to cold, chilly shapes of mist, is one of
the most forlorn results of any accident, misfortune,
crime, or peculiarity of character, that puts an individual
ajar with the world." Hawthorne was himself a lonely
man afflicted with a morbid shyness. He had a preter-
natural insight into the secrets, especially the pathological
secrets, of human nature. That high idea of himself,
intensely emotional, which with his genius he could not
fail to have, was associated with a feeling of inability to
impress it properly and see it reflected in others. In
such an example, extreme shyness, with all its miserable
torture, is no proof of pride or egotism in its subject. It


simply proves the sharp power with which a sub-conscious
occupation with his reflection in others possesses him.
It is that he has extraordinary sympathy, not extraordinary
selfishness. But it is, unfortunately, a viscid and attached,
not a, sparkling and free, sympathy. And it is one of the
most fatal barriers to surrender, fusion, and joy in com

The Solitude of Grief.

THE most common and obvious of the secluding expe-
riences of man is grief. Bereavement, in its essence, is
always the loss of some object accustomed to draw forth
(."he soothing or cheeking reactions of the soul. The ac-
tivity thus deprived of its wonted vent becomes a source
of pain. Turned back upon itself, it aches with baffled
yearning ; or, forced upon objects unfitted to the fine
habit of its affection, it feels desecrated and agonized.
A necessary sense of loneliness is therefore associated
with every deep form of grief. Amidst all its changing
elements a feeling of desertion is the steady character-
istic. Those who have stood by the death-bed of a be-
loved being whose departure from the earth seemed to
leave the earth poor and cold, can never forget the deso-
lating sense of solitude that came when the parting
breath went. The soul of the dying seems borne away
from us on the long-drawn sigh of his last fondly whis-

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 2 of 35)