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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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its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the
air." If the objects of nature were ever made the
beloved playmates of a mortal, that mortal was Shelley.
But it is his great triumph, his profound medicinal lesson
for other men, that extreme as was his suffering from
wrong and obloquy, and deep as were his resources else-
where, he never sank to misanthropy, but always con-
tinued to love and always sought to bless those who hated
and strove to injure him. The scornful Landor, after an
eloquent eulogium of the rare virtues of Shelley, adds,
" This is the man against whom such clamors have been
raised by bigots and cowards, and by those who live and
lap under their tables." In contrast with this frank and
galling contempt, how divine is the strain in which the
outcast poet himself addressed his persecutors :

Alas ! good friend, what profit can you see
In hating such a hateless thing as me ?
There is no sport in hate where all the rage
Is on one side. In vain would you assuage

12* E



274 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Your frowns upon an unresisting smile,

In which not e'en contempt lurks to beguile

Your heart by some faint sympathy of hate.

Of all the expressions of the mind and heart of Shel-
ley, perhaps the most wonderful and sustained in intensity
of richness is his " Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude." In
the prose preface to it he explains its purpose to depict
a poet of the rarest gifts, who, after a devoted pursuit of
the choicest ends of life, thirsts for the sympathy of an
intelligence like his own, and, failing to find it, is blasted
by the disappointment, and droops into an untimely
grave. It is an allegory of the loneliness of genius, de-
scribing how " the pure and tender-hearted perish through
the intensity and passion of their search after the com-
munities of human sympathy." The lesson that " the
self-centred seclusion of genius will be avenged by dark-
ness, decay, and extinction," and that " the selfish, blind,
and torpid multitudes constitute, together with their own,
the lasting misery and loneliness of the world," is taught
in this poem with vivid power by one who

In lone and silent hours,

When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness,
Like an inspired and desperate alchemist,
Staking his very life on some dark hope,
Had mingled awful talk and asking looks
With his most innocent love and his strong tears,

until, conqueror of his enemies in the loving conquest of
himself, he could say,

Serenely now,

And moveless as a long-forgotten lyre
Suspended in the solitary dome
Of some mysterious and deserted fane,
I wait thy breath, Great Parent, that my strain
May modulate with murmurs of the air,
And motions of the forest and the sea,
And voice of living beings, and woven hymns
Of night and day, and the deep heart of man.

Few men, indeed, have either loved solitude better or
had keener experience of wrong at the hands of society
than Shelley. Yet he knew well, and well teaches others,



SHELLEY. 275

how profound is the need of a loving fellowship with his
kind, for the health, force, and joy of every man, for the
highest as well as the lowest. He says, with reference to
self-centred seclusion, " The power which strikes the lu-
minaries of the world with sudden extinction by awaken-
ing them to too exquisite a perception of its influences,
dooms to a slow and poisonous decay the meaner spirits
that dare to abjure its dominion. Their destiny is more
abject and inglorious, as their delinquency is more con-
temptible and pernicious. They who, deluded by no
generous error, instigated by no sacred thirst of doubtful
knowledge, duped by no illustrious superstition, loving
nothing on this earth, and cherishing no hopes beyond,
yet keep aloof from sympathies with their kind, have
their appointed curse. They are morally dead."

The magnificent scorn which Shelley felt for every
form of meanness or cruelty breathes throughout his
works, especially in the burning wrath with which, in his
" Adonais," he blasts the author of the brutal attack in
the Quarterly on Keats. But the terrible contempt with
which he swooped down on the " miserable calumnia-
tors," the " nameless worms," the " viperous murderers,"
the " carrion-kites " of men, was only a passing ideal
anger, never a chronic hatred or personal revengefulness.
The comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the
dwarfish intellects around him, the perception of the vast
superiority of his own power and passions to those of
ordinary men, never, as it did in the case of Byron, fed a
devouring pride in him ; never filled him with disdain for
his race or with disgust at the worthlessness of the prizes
of life. He nobly practised the precept he so nobly
arges :

There is one road

To peace, and that is TRUTH, which follow ye !

LOVE sometimes leads astray to misery.

And some perverted beings think to find

In scorn or hate a medicine for the mind

Which scorn or hate hath wounded. O, how vain !

The dagger heals not, but may rend again.

No man familiar with the writings of Shelley, who has
my appreciation of the scale of ranks in human charac-



276 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

ter, can roam in the haunts wonted to his feet ; muse on
the landscapes his eyes loved to drink ; stand in the halls
where he dwelt ; pause on the beach of the bay where the
sea, with late remorse, gave up the drooping marble of
his form ; recall the scene of his friends restoring his
limbs to dust in fire mixed with wine and frankincense ;
linger in votive thought, the soul of the dead poet trans-
fusing the conscious soul of the pilgrim, before the grave
in Rome holding his heart, and read through tears that
tenderest of all inscriptions, cor cordium, heart of hearts,
without emotions of pity, reverence, love, and wonder,
which \\orcls can hardly convey.

It is impossible more fitly to end this sketch of one
who, in proportion as he is appreciated, will be the dar-
ling of gentle and generous hearts, than by quoting the
words of his enthusiastic friend, Leigh Hunt : " He was
like a spirit that had darted out of its orb and found it-
self in another world. I used to tell him that he had
come from the planet Mercury. When I heard of the
catastrophe that overtook him, it seemed as if this spirit,
not sufficiently constituted like the rest of the world to
obtain their sympathy, yet gifted with a double portion of
love for all living things, had been found dead in a soli-
tary corner of the earth, its wings stiffened, its warm heart
cold ; the relics of a misunderstood nature slain by the
ungenial elements."



COLERIDGE.

THE opinion has been expressed by De Quincey, that
the intellect of Coleridge was " the subtilest and the most
spacious that has yet existed among men." His heart
was not inferior to his mind. Yet how profoundly lonely
he was ! The rich fire of his fancy and the fatal faintness
of his will made the world a dream peopled with phan-
toms. He once characterized himself as "through life
chasing chance-started friendships." Among the lines he
wrote after spending a night in the house once occupied
by the Man of Ross, we read with strong emotion the
following :



WORDSWORTH. 277

But if, like mine, through life's distressful scene,
Lonely and sad thy pilgrimage hath been,
And if, thy breast with heart-sick anguish fraught,
Thou journeyest onward tempest-tossed in thought,
Here cheat thy cares ; in generous visions melt,
And dream of goodness thou hast never felt.

His dear friend Charles Lamb, who almost idolized
him, said "he had a hunger for eternity." No doubt, in
the immensity of his spiritual isolation from ordinary
minds, when he turned back from baffled efforts after a
competent communion, he often felt

So lonely 't was that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.

Aubrey De Vere, in the fine poem he wrote after the
death of the Seer of Highgate, says :

And mighty voices from afar came to him ;

Converse of trumpets held by cloudy forms,

And speech of choral storms.

Spirits of night and noontide bent to woo him.

He stood the while, lonely and desolate

As Adam when he ruled a world yet found no mate.

Though it is true that Coleridge had a few dear friends,
he appeared to live in a spell, with an enchanted barrier
about him. His existence was a long soliloquy of won-
drous richness, weirdly remote from contact, which other
men seem to overhear as unseen listeners.

He said himself: "Perhaps never man whose name
has been so often in print for praise or reprobation had
so few intimates as myself." When he died at Highgate,
after a residence of twenty years, a biographer says " he
was a stranger in the parish, and therefore was interred
alone ! "

WORDSWORTH.

SOLITUDE is to different persons what their characters,
habits, and aims make it. To one and another it is vari-
ously a covert, a prison, a sanctuary, a studio, a forge, a
throne. To Wordsworth, that grand and peaceful spirit,



278 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

patriarch of the intimate muse, it was a bower, a chamber,
a library, and a temple, his place of joy, rest, work, and
worship. Here he retreated from the distressful medley
of popular whims, from the deteriorating strain of com-
mon ambitions, to the intrinsic standards of truth and
good, and the authoritative companionship of greatness
and worth. He retreated hither not to brood over woes,
indulge disdain, and meditate revenge ; but to enjoy
thought, nature, and God, and impart the enjoyment to
mankind.

Wordsworth was fitted for solitude by his informing and
overpowering ideality ; by his brooding, interior tender-
ness ; by his heroic originality, self-respect, and independ-
ence. His impassioned imagination turned things to
thoughts and thoughts to things, and frequently made
absorbing emotions suffice in place of sights and sounds,
deeds and words. He said himself that he was often so
rapt into the world of ideas that the external world seemed
not to be, and he had to reconvince himself of its exist-
ence by clasping a tree or some other object that happened
to be near him. When Sir George Beaumont had made
him a munificent gift, and he had for many weeks neg-
lected to acknowledge the favor, he apologetically says :
" I contented myself with thinking over my complacent
feelings, and breathing forth solitary gratulations and
thanksgivings, which I did in many a sweet and many a
wild place during my late tour." The winter he spent at
Goslar, in Germany, he walked daily on the ramparts by
a pond. " Here," he writes, " I had no companion but a
kingfisher, a beautiful creature that used to glance by me.
I consequently became much attached to it."

He was too occupied and grave and continuous, too
wealthily sensitive and devoutly dedicated, for that flip-
pant, fragmentary jocosity, that free and easy intercourse
on the level of little nothings, in which average natures
take pleasure. His microscopic studies of himself and
his states ; his steadfast sympathies with the simplest and
poorest objects ; his telescopic sweeps of the sublimities
of nature, history, and philosophy, insulated him equal-
ly from the vulgar and the proud. In his own words,



WORDSWORTH. 279

lie was retired as noontide dew,

Or fountain in a noonday grove ;
And you must love him, ere to you

He would seem worthy of your love.

With such souls as his sister Dorothy, Coleridge, and
Charles Lamb, he maintained a glorious community of
mind and heart in a friendship of rare beauty ; but to
the multitude he was uninteresting, and positively repul-
sive to conventional and conceited critics. The multi-
tude neglected him ; the critics made contemptuous war
on him.

This was on account of the peculiar offence of his
originality. Dismounting from the traditional stilts of
poetry, this great poet and true man sought to portray,
in the simple language of genuine insight and passion,
the permanent and universal elements of beauty, dignity,
and joy in the outward works of God, in the structure of
human nature, and in the experience of human life. The
inspiration of loveliness, worth, and sublimity had hither-
to been chiefly sought in the most imposing outer aspects
of life and nature ; in kings, courts, conquerors, philoso-
phers ; in the romantic, the ^exceptional. He sought to
unveil it in the commonest places and forms ; to show the
grandest materials of wisdom, poesy, and religion, trag-
edy and happiness, in huts and laborers, in the most
ordinary lot and landscape of man. He had the moral
courage, love, and perseverance to do this, and genius to
succeed. But, until he had educated a public to appre-
ciate his originality, he had to pay the penalty of his
superiority in the suffering of a long series of insults and
incompetent scorn. With reference to his " Idiot Boy,"
he was called the hero of his own story. His " Peter
Bell " was saluted with a chorus of jeers. His books
were little read, while volumes of trash had a large circu-
lation, and were praised by all the reviews. Was not
here enough to make a man break down in despair, or
recoil into misanthropy? He had an extraordinary pas-
sion for fame, knew himself worthy of it, but was attacked
and despised for the very things for which he- ought to
have been admired and prized.



280 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Without despondency or hate, he fell back on his gifts
and call ; turned from actual men to ideal man, from the
irritating society of fashion and emulation to the pacify-
ing society of the landscape and the Infinite Spirit, and
determined to conquer usefulness and renown by perfect
ing himself and improving his productions. It is one of
the noblest examples in history, the example of " pre
ferring to any other object of regard the cultivation and
exertion of his own powers in the highest possible de-
gree."

The peculiar experience of Wordsworth, united with his
peculiar characteristics, made him a solitary, but not a
lonesome, man. He enjoyed a happy tranquillity nursed
by meditative sympathy ; whereas many a one, under less
trying circumstances, has fallen victim to an irritable
wretchedness nursed by restless antipathy. He was con-
tinually thinking of the things worthy to be loved and
adored ; they, of the things worthy to be shunned and
loathed. The conditions of his moral victory afford an
example worthy of careful study.

In the first place, his self-respect and self-confidence
never failed him ; and

Happy is he, who, caring not for pope,
Consul, or king, can sound himself to know
The destiny of man, and live in hope.

He certainly had dipped his pen in his deepest blood
when he wrote,

Creative art

Demands the service of a mind and heart
Heroically fashioned to infuse
Faith in the whispers of the lonely Muse,
While the whole world seems adverse to desert.

He did not need to be " nourished with the sickly food
of popular applause." Perceiving that men praise us
only as they recognize in us some counterpart of what
they are or wish to be, he saw that often there is no surer
test of merit than obloquy. Taught to feel (perhaps too
much) the self-sufficing power of solitude, invulnerable to
the sleet of hisses and arrows, knowing himself divinely
called to his work, assured that his place was with the great



WORDSWORTH. 281

and good of all ages, he wrote to Southey, " Let the age
continue to love its own darkness ; I shall continue to
write, with, I trust, the light of heaven upon me"; and
to Bernard Barton, with reference to a bitter critique on
him, " I doubt not but that it is a splenetic effusion of
the conductor of that Review, who has taken a perpetual
retainer from his own incapacity to plead against my
claims to public approbation." Again, he writes to Lady
Beaumont, that, knowing the absolute ignorance in which
worldlings of every rank and situation must be wrapt as
to the feelings, thoughts, and images on which the life
of his poems depended, the envy and malevolence which
stand in the way of a work of any merit from a living poet,
he had only the lowest expectations concerning the imme-
diate effect of his writings on the public. But, he adds,
as to the assaults of the critics, " My ears are stone-deaf
to this idle buzz, and my flesh as insensible as iron to
these petty stings. I have an invincible confidence that
my poems will co-operate with the benign tendencies in
human nature and society wherever found ; and that they
will, in their degree, be efficacious in making men wiser,
better, and happier."

His joy in nature was as great as in his vocation.
However isolated, he never felt lonesome, as his person-
ality rather blended with objects that stood relieved
against them.

They flashed upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,

and were either taken up with imaginative enrichment
and transfusion into himself, or himself blent and lost in
them. Many a time and oft he sat amidst his own
thoughts, and amidst the scenes of nature, in such en-
trancement that " even the motion of an angel's wing
would have interrupted the intense tranquillity." In the
silent faces of things he could read unutterable love.

Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy ; his spirit drank
The spectacle ; sensation, soul, and form
All melted into him ; they swallowed up



82 SKETCHES OB LONELY CHARACTERS.

His animal being : in them did he live,
And by them did he live : they were his life.

No wonder he was fond of solitude ; and, though he
"wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high over
vales and hills," he could not be lonesome. In the heart
of the mist ; on the bare moor, or the top of the moun
tain, or under the cope of midnight ; in the haunt of the
heron, by the shy river ; or the remoter nook, where the
pelican sits on the cypress spire and suns himself, he
was at home, with things in which he joyed, and which
seemed to love him. He says well,

I learned betimes to stand unpropped :
And independent musings pleased me so
That spells seemed on me when I was alone :
Yet could I only cleave to solitude
In lonely places ; if a throng was near,
That way I leaned by nature.

Thirdly, his reverential and joyous communion with
himself, and his reverential and joyous communion with
nature, keeping him pure in heart, content with modest
pleasures, removed from little enmities and low desires
and every malignant passion, enabled him also to main-
tain a reverential and joyous communion with man. He
gave no harbor to suspicions and envies, but wholesome-
ly threw them off.

He kept,

In solitude and solitary thought,
His mind in a just equipoise of love.

When he thought of the cruelties and miseries of men, it
was to pity and try to cure them. When he thought of
the oppressions and degradations of men, it was not
weakly to despond, or to give way to hate or scorn ; but,
with generous indignation, to denounce them, and aspire
to liberty and nobleness for all, with a firm reliance on
the great laws and principles tending to realize the pre-
destined order of the Creator. He contemplated pre-
vailingly the diviner qualities and sublime connections of
human nature, the glorious facts and hopes of human life,
until he recognized



WORDSWORTH. 283

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart
He saw man in his own domain of the earth,

As a lord or genius, under God,
Presiding ; and severest solitude
Had more commanding looks when he was there.

Man rose on his sight, set in the most beautiful and im-
posing scenery of the world, encompassed with august
powers of virtue and bliss and tragic troops of woe. The
imagination and passion which many embittered geniuses
have used to darken and degrade the image of man,
Wordsworth employed to depict him in dazzling lights,
endowed with godlike attributes, not as a mere dusty
brother of the worm, but as a being first in every capa-
bility of wisdom, goodness, and rapture, through the di-
vine effect of truth and love. Thus, when he left his
lonely mountains, and, in the tribes and fellowships of
men, was begirt by shapes of vice and folly, bustling
greeds of manners, objects of sport, ridicule and scorn ;
when he " heard humanity in fields and groves pipe soli-
tary anguish, or hung brooding above the fierce storm of
sorrow, barricaded evermore within the walls of cities,"
he was not downcast or forlorn. He turned to the
true ideal man, ennobled by associated connection with
nature and the presence of God, with past and future,
with history, science, and philosophy. There he found
unfailing comfort and inspiration.

But, besides the happiness Wordsworth had in his un-
disturbed self-respect, in the forms and motions of nature,
and in his ardent sympathy with the human race, he knew
a rarer and perhaps keener happiness in the profound
presentiment of his own benignant and illustrious fame
in the future. How well he knew his own place !

If thou indeed derive thy light from heaven,
Then, in the measure of that heaveu-born light,
Shine, poet ! in thy place, and be content

Since his estimate was the simple truth, and not unac-
companied with devout humility, it is a shame to call it
egotism. Hundreds of the best men and women of the



284 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

generation succeeding, and still more of generations yet
to come, will echo the truth of his anticipations. " Of
what moment is the present reception of these poems,"
he wrote to Lady Beaumont, "compared with what I
trust is their destiny ? To console the afflicted ; to add
sunshine to daylight, by making the happy happier ; to
teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to
think, and feel, and therefore to be more actively and
securely virtuous, this is their office, which I trust they
will faithfully perform long after we are mouldered in our
graves." Not many men have ever been better entitled
to feel and to say,

There is

One great society alone on earth,
The noble living and the noble dead.

Lastly, the happiness of Wordsworth in all his solitudes
was completed by his unaffected communion with God,
not the dead God of tradition, not the abstract God
of verbal formulas ; but the living God, who is the Lord
of all that is. By purity, holiness, humility, waiting sym-
pathy, his rnind became a conscious temple for " the
Prophetic Spirit that inspires the human soul of univer-
sal earth dreaming on things to come." He became
wonderfully aware of the significance of those awful in-
cumbencies under which human thoughts creep; and
recognized them as

Visitings

Of the Upholder of the tranquil soul,

That tolerates the indignities of Time,

And, from the centre of Eternity

All finite motions overruling, lives

In glory immutable.

No man, without the utmost sincerity and intensity of
unborrowed religious experience, could have written pas-
sages that abound in the poems of Wordsworth, particu-
larly in his "Excursion," "Tintern Abbey," and "Ode
on the Intimations of Immortality."

In such access of mind, in such high hour . .

Of visitation from the living God,

Thought was not ; in enjoyment it expired.

No thanks he breathed, he proffered no request ;



WORDSWORTH. 285

Rapt into still communion that transcends
The imperfect offices of prayer and praise,
His mind was a thanksgiving to the Power
That made him.

This religious originality ranks him among the inspiring
prophets of the race. To know this, must, amidst the
abuse and the neglect he suffered, have administered ex-
alted consolation to him. "It shall be my pride," he
says,

That I have dared to tread this holy ground,
Speaking no dream, but things oracular.

This I speak,

In gratitude to God, who feeds cur heart
For his own service ; knoweth, loveth us,
When we are unregarded by the world.

In Wordsworth, the transitions of consciousness were
ever from the insignificant to the august, from the ugly
to the fair, from individuals to humanity, from the tran-
sient and exceptional to the permanent and universal,
from the finite creation to the Infinite Spirit. Thus he
avoided the rasping shocks of disappointment, neutral-
ized exasperating vexations, healed grief and despon-
dency, rested serenely on sublime supports of peace and
happiness. In this manner, he so informed his mind with
quietness and beauty, so fed it

With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Could e'er prevail against him, or disturb
His cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.

Who was ever better rewarded than Wordsworth in the



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 23 of 35)