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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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realization of what, in one of his earliest poems, he had
distinctly seen and coveted as the highest earthly prize ?

A mind, that, in a calm, angelic mood
Of happy wisdom, meditating good,
Beholds, of all from her high powers required,
Much done, and much designed, and more desired,
Harmonious thoughts, a soul by truth refined,
Entire affection for all human kind.



286 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

It is a beautiful thing, too, to know, that, before he died,
the meeds he had so grandly earned were poured at his
feet in lavish tributes from abroad, not alone in the silent
honor and love of the best minds in the world, but also
when old Oxford twined her lofty laurel round his head,
while her children made her arches shake above their
shouted welcome ; and, still more, when the wronged and
glorious Shelley said to him,

Thou \vert as a lone star whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter's midnight roar ;
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude.

Wordsworth is still more a teacher than a poet, one of
the very deepest and soundest moral teachers of the
world. His muse, indeed, often reminds us rather of
Academus than of Parnassus. But more than is lost in
art and beauty is gained in guidance and edification.
He incarnates for us the endless lesson that to promote
and fortify the general welfare of our own being is the
paramount end, a fact which almost all forget in a dis-
tracted pursuit of externalities. He would call us home
into the possession of ourselves, not for any egotistic
pampering, but in order that we may lose ourselves in
fruition and worship of the whole. " We live too little
within," sighs poor Maurice de Guerin. " What has be-
come of that inner eye which God has given us to keep
watch over the soul, to be the witness of the mysterious
play of thought, the ineffable movement of life, in the
tabernacle of humanity? It is shut; it sleeps."

The special value of Wordsworth is as an exemplify-
ing teacher and contagious imparter of certain habits of
thought and feeling. He is an original apostle of the
enthusiasm of nature, the enthusiasm of principles, and
the enthusiasm of humanity. There is a deep and vital
philosophy in his creed,

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran ;

as life itself is primarily " an adjustment of inner rela-
tions w'th outer relations," a moving reflection within us



WORDSWORTH. 287

of something originally without us. He has in this direc-
tion given an invaluable new impulse both to literature and
to direct experience. He teaches us to recognize human-
ity not as the mere sum of existing men, but, in addition
to this, as a spirit diffused through time and space over
the whole world from its beginning to its end, enriched
with all history and all hope, a conception under whose
influence our entire existence becomes thronged with in-
spiring impregnations of reflection and sentiment. Who
truly receives this instruction will learn

To prize the breath we share with human kind,
And look upon the dust of man with awe.

He teaches us that

By love subsists

All lasting grandeur, by pervading love ;
That gone, we are as dust

He would make us

Know that pride,

Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness ; that he who feels contempt
For any living thing hath faculties
Which he has never used.

With unwearied earnestness of conjoined example and
precept, he illustrates how

Unelbowed by such objects as oppress

Our active powers, those powers themselves become

Strong to subvert our noxious qualities ;

They sweep distemper from the busy day,

And make the big, round chalice of the year

Run o'er with gladness.

He leads us to be

Studious more to see
Great truths than touch and handle little ones.

He teaches us pre-eminently the lesson which alienated
moroseness so constantly inverts :

To enfeebled power,

From clear communion with uninjured minds
\Vhat renovation may be brought, and what
Degree of healing to a wounded spirit,



288 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Dejected, and habitually disposed
To seek in degradation of her kind
Excuse and solace for her own defects.

He exemplifies in all his life, and in all his works, the
habit of seeing the great in the small, the sublime in the
vulgar, the strange in the common, the awful authority and
charm of humanity in the poorest and most ignorant men,
and God everywhere, a habit invaluable alike for wis-
dom, for virtue, for dignity, for peace, and for happiness.
Fortunate every one who learns the secret !

He teaches us, finally, the restorative efficacy and charm
of solitude, like a prophet familiar with all her secrets.
To turn from a Heine to a Wordsworth is like changing
attention from the roar and blaze of brothels, groggeries,
and hells, to a nightingale warbling on a moonlit bough
in heaven. What a strain he pours on the ears of the
fops, loungers, gladiators, and slaves of time !

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is solitude !
How potent a mere image of her sway !
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre, a hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness ;
Votary, in vast cathedral, where no foot
Is treading, where no other face is seen,
Kneeling at prayers ; or watchman on the top
Of lighthouse beaten by Atlantic waves ;
Or as the soul of that great Power is met
Sometimes embodied on a public road,
When, for the night deserted, it assumes
A character of quiet more profound
Than pathless wastes.

The immortal fame of Wordsworth is secure with the im
mortal, benefits he will render his docile readers. While
Winander, Fairfield, and Rydal remain, to all visionary
minds his wraith will haunt them and as long as Der
went runs, it will murmur his name to the pilgrims on its
banks. Men will have a more blessed and mysterious
communion with nature, a more constant and pervading
sense of the presence of God, a more firm and tender



BYRON. 289

love of their fellow-beings, because he has lived and sung.
Fitly does Lowell say, referring to him : " Parnassus has
two peaks : the one where improvising poets cluster ;
the other, where the singer of deep secrets sits alone,
a peak veiled sometimes from the whole morning of a
generation by earth-born mists and smoke of kitchen
fires, only to glow the more consciously at sunset, and
after nightfall to crown itself with imperishable stars."



BYRON.

ANY list of the great solitary spirits of the world, not
to be strikingly defective, must contain the name of Byron.
He has written the best lines in the English language on
the subject of solitude. His personality, full of fascinating
interest, stands in relief from the mass of men. His ex-
perience furnishes instructive illustration of many of the
conditions and consequences of spiritual isolation. We
may in his example trace the dark secrets of .unhappiness
more clearly than almost anywhere else.

Byron was marked out from average humanity from his
very birth. He inherited from both parents a " blood all
meridian," on one side rich with voluptuous sensibility, on
the other side tingling with vehement irritability. He had
a dark, tempestuous passionateness of temperament, com-
bining in the most singular manner a remarkably keen
and abiding sense of himself with a remarkable freedom
from the meannesses of selfishness, and an unusual sus-
ceptibility to noble thoughts and sentiments. The deceit-
fulness, fickleness, coldness, meanness which his sharp
intelligence, aggravated by his morbid consciousness,
taught him to trace in the characters and deeds of most
of his associates, the great disparity between what he
craved and what he found, very early gave a stronger
warp and an intenser tinge to his natural bias towards lone-
liness and a melancholy brooding over his own thoughts.

The brain of Byron, physiologically considered, was a
wonderful organ. It was at once uncommonly powerful
and uncommonly small. What fineness and firmness of
13 s



290 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

fibre, what compactness and vigor of cells, what profuse
ness of polarity it must have had ! And in addition to
the original concentrated strength of his highly charged
nervous structure, everything in his circumstances and life
contributed to heighten his genius by intensifying his
mental polarities and disturbing their equilibrium. One
distinguishing element in his self-consciousness was his
rank. He was heir to a title giving him prominence
among his fellows, yet without the better accompaniments
of respectful deference and tenderness which should at-
tend such a birth. His intellectual pride kept him from
obtruding his titular supremacy. His generous democratic
impulses and his contempt for the illustrious mediocrities
of the peerage and the throne, made him disdainful of
inherited insignia; yet in him the feeling of the peer ever
lay underneath the feeling of the poet and fast by the
feeling of the man. The poverty and neglect which
shrouded his childhood lent a new acuteness to his feel-
ing of his social and personal claims. His sufferings
when first sent from home to school, poor, proud, shy,
affectionate, unknown, unfriended, unnoticed in the herd of
boys, were pitiable. When by the death of a relative he
succeeded to his ancestral honors, as the master called his
name in school, for the first time with the prefix of lord,
he burst into tears in the midst of his staring mates. A
dark slough of mortified pride, created by his young
school experience at Harrow, hung over his mind for
years. There is a tomb in the churchyard at Harrow,
commanding a view over Windsor, which was such a fa-
vorite resting-place with him that the boys called it Byron's
tomb. Here he would sit for hours wrapt in thought,
" brooding lonelily over the first stirrings of passion and
genius in his soul, perhaps indulging in those forethoughts
of fame, under the influence of which, when little more
than fifteen years of age, he wrote " :

My epitaph shall be my name alone :
If that with honor fail to crown my clay,
O may no other fame my deeds repay !
That, only that, shall single out the spot,
By that remembered or with that forgot.



BYRON. 291

Anothei heiglitener of self-consciousness in Byron was
his superb personal beauty. The romantic charm of his
noble features, with the mystery of his genius, drew all
eyes on him wherever he went, as soon as he had become
known, and secured for him that flattery of attention and
curiosity which cannot fail to react on its object. That
he was fully conscious of this, and that it wrought on him
with a keen force, is obvious from many particulars ;
among others from the pains he took with his toilet,
shaving the hair off his temples, setting the fashion of the
turned-down collar. This over-consciousness of himself
was raised to a painful pitch by the slight malformation
and lameness of one of his feet. " The embittering cir-
cumstance of his life," Moore says, " which haunted him
like a curse, and, as he persuaded himself, counterbal-
anced all the blessings showered on him, was the trifling
deformity of his foot." He once said mournfully to his
friend Becher, who was trying to cheer him by the assur-
ance of his great gifts, " Ah, my dear friend, if this (lay-
ing his hand on his forehead) places me above the rest
of mankind, that (pointing to his foot) places me far, far
below them." He said the " horror and humiliation "
which came over him once in childhood, when his mother
called him " a lame brat " were unutterable. He also
once, on overhearing Mary Chaworth, of whom he was
desperately enamored, say to a female friend, " Do you
suppose I could love that lame boy ? " darted out of the
house in a state of frenzy, and fled into the solitude of
the forest, where he stayed until late in the night.

The boyish sensibility of Byron was strangely empas-
sioned, easily piqued, resentfully retentive of wrongs,
slights, and pains. When his favorite schoolmate, young
Lord Clare, expressed regret at the departure, of another
friend, Byron was tortured with jealousy. It affords the
skilled psychologist a deep glimpse into the secrets of his
bosom to know that he was bashful even to the end of
his life, and had the habit of blushing. When staying in
his boyhood at Mrs. Pigot's, if he saw strangers approach-
ing the house, he would leap out of the window to avoid
meeting them. The same trait is ascribed to himself by



2Q2 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Rousseau, with whom Byron had much in common, in
spite of his elaborate disclaimer of the asserted likeness.
It is also recorded of Virgil that his diffidence often
caused him to beat a sudden retreat into shops, to escape
the gaze of those who met him in the streets of Rome.
Such a union of qualities always makes its possessor fond
of seclusion, and gives him at least a superficial twist of
misanthropy. The youngest muse of Byron sang to one
of his earliest friends :

Dear Becher, you tell me to mix with mankind :
I cannot deny such a precept is wise :
But retirement accords with the tone of my mind,
And I will not descend to a world I despise.

It is affecting to see how soon a half sad, half angry
soreness towards the world mingled with his strong and
haughty boldness of self-assertion. On the death of his
mother, nearly at the same time with that of his two
friends, Matthews and Wingfield, he wrote to Hodgson,
" I am solitary, and I never felt solitude irksome before."

During his first journey in Greece, he said, his chief
delight was to climb to some high rock above the sea,
and remain there for hours, gazing on the sky and waters,
lost in reverie. There are immortal passages in his
poems which demonstrate how often and how sincerely
he must have enjoyed this sombre luxury. When he tes-
tified, " My nature leads me to solitude, and every day
adds to this disposition," his words expressed the simple
truth, and no freak of affectation. His mind was cast in
a deep and gloomy mould. Few could adequately sym-
pathize with him. Conscious of this he strove to exag-
gerate it, with an emphatic liking for whatever empha-
sized his unlikeness from the human commonalty. He
drew himself in such characters as a Childe Harold,
"Apart he stalked in joyless reverie," a Conrad, a
Lara " lord of himself, that heritage of woe," to ex-
aggerate the more his contrast with other men, to make
them wonder and tremble, to give a stronger charge to
their awe and curiosity pertaining to him.

He took a dark delight in cherishing tragic ideas and



BYRON. 293

lookivig on objects of terror from which other persons
would shrink horrified. His stormy soul felt most at
home with the storm. Amidst the awful revelry of the
elements on the benighted Alps, hearing the live thunder
leap from crag to crag, seeing the lake lit into a phos-
phoric sea, he longs to fly abroad in the carnival of nat
ural horrors, a disembodied portion of the tempest and
the night. His passion for images of terror, his passion
for female beauty, his passion for all lonely and savage
scenes of nature, almost exclusively gratified in seclusion
from the distractions of company, fed his great passion
for solitude, because there he felt himself lifted into dis-
tinct prominence from other men, saved from what he
regarded as the profane vulgarity of being sunk and con-
fused in the mass of humanity. He loved solitude too
because it set his faculties free. Men of his style of
mind are intolerably restive under any external restraint.
Their intractable self-will cannot bear a yoke, or a for-
eign direction, but must obey its own impulse alone.

I have not loved the world, nor the world me ;

I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed

To its idolatries a patient knee,

Nor coined my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud

In worship of an echo. In the crowd

They could not deem me one of such ; I stood

Among them, but not of them ; in a shroud

Of thoughts which were not their thoughts.

The morbid bias in the soul of Byron received a darker
and more decisive turn from his distress at the marriage
of Mary Chaworth. His mad love for her, his grief on
her wedlock with another, the permanent influence it
exerted on his character and fortunes, are depicted in his
marvellous poem, " The Dream." His genius spread the
wretched workings of this bitter disappointment over all
society. He felt himself singled out for desolation :

As some lone bird without a mate,
My weary heart is desolate ;
I look around and cannot trace
One friendly smile or welcome face,
And even in crowds am still alone.



2Q4 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

He sought relief in foreign trayel. Taking the page,
Robert Rushton, in his train, he said, " I like him, be-
cause, like myself, he seems a friendless animal." The
scornful review given to his juvenile " Hours of Idleness "
had already stung him to the production of a vigorous
satire, which had made him suddenly famous, the object
of attention from all quarters.

The centres of contrast or sets of poles in his mind
furnished by the opposite ingredients of his nature and
experience, acquired still greater power when, returning
home, he published the first two cantos of " Childe Har-
old." His reputation and popularity rose to an extreme
height. He became the most observed and courted of
all observers. Then followed, in swift shocks of succes-
sion, the envy of mortified rivals, the hatred of jealous
inferiors, the sneers of incompetent critics, the attacks of
the religionists whose convictions both his precepts and
his practice offended, his marriage, and the separation of
his wife from him. The outbreak of odium, obloquy,
calumny, horror which came upon him, in suddenness
and intensity and extent surpasses belief. It would have
overwhelmed any one whose pride was less colossal,
whose strength less obstinate, whose resources less rich,
than his. Moore says, " Such an outcry was raised
against Lord Byron as in no case of private life perhaps
was ever before witnessed." Bigots and the galled en-
viers of his success gave vent to their dislike of him in
all sorts of libels, hints, and innuendoes ; and good people
who believed him the foe of morality and religion, swelled
the current with dark interpretations and reports. He
was cut in the street, and excluded from all but the few-
est houses. His acquaintances deserted him.; of all
the obsequious crowd only half a dozen friends stood by
him. His previous recluseness and cynicism took on a
sullener hue. His isolation from the average fellowships
of life was carried to its climax. He left his country,
never more to return until brought with sword and laurel
on his bier.

Adieu, adieu ! My native shore
Fades e'er the w ers blue.



BYRON. 295

But the tempest of hate, slander, and depreciation was
beating behind him, and chased him with every post. A
poem published at that time referred to him thus :

Wisely he seeks some yet untrodden shore,

For those who know him less may prize him more.

And in a rhyming pamphlet, addressed to him, these
lines occur :

Shunned by the wise, admired by fools alone,
The good shall mourn thee, and the Muse disown.

This to the author of the " Hebrew Melodies," " Man-
fred," and the " Prophecy of Dante," the object of the
admiring homage of a Shelley and a Goethe, the electric
shaker of his age ! A writer in Blackwood called Venice
" the lurking-place of his selfish and polluted exile." In-
sult and injury alight on a spirit like that of Byron as a
whirlwind on the waters. Sinful and faulty as he was, he
deserved not a tithe of the penalty inflicted. Few can
know how sincere and how fearful were his sufferings. It
was only the gigantic power of his personality which en-
abled him to surmount the convulsing experiences heaped
on him. He said : " I felt that if what was whispered
and muttered and murmured was true, I was unfit for
England ; if false, England was unfit for me. I with-
drew ; but this' was not enough. In other countries, in
Switzerland, in the shadow of the Alps, and by the blue
depth of the lakes, I was pursued and breathed upon by
the same blight." How painfully he felt every fresh hurt
appears from the pains he took to avoid them. For five
years in his exile he never once looked into an English
newspaper. Those unsympathetic critics who sneer at
Byron for breaking his heart in public once a month, and
making melodramatic capital out of his woes, are unjust
to him. They do not feel the fearful severity of his trial ;
do not see that it belonged to his tenacious, associative,
creative genius to accumulate magnifying materials around
every seated pang, and that a God gave to him, as to
Goethe, power to find some relief from his sufferings by
what he suffered. His self-agony was no fiction



296 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

which he played with to catch attention, but a fact which
he had to deal with as best he could. It became the cen-
tral string of his lyre and tone of his voice. He is to be
pitied for it, not scorned. Those literary critics who rid-
icule Petrarch, Rousseau, Byron, for making an exhibition
of their personal sorrows, implying that they themselves
have similar or severer trials of wrongs, noble griefs and
loneliness, only they are too great and modest to expose
them to the public, these critics seem not to be con-
scious that they reveal in double refinement the very trait
they complacently condemn, the same egotism raised to
the third power. Byron virtually says : " O world ! I am
most unhappy. I will bear my undeserved fate with de-
fiant fortitude. Look on my grief with sympathy, on my
heroism with admiration ! " His critic virtually says, half
to the public, half in self-pampering soliloquy : " The
afflictions proper to exalted genius have fallen on me too ;
but the compensating triumphs of exalted genius, its
strong curative reticence, are also mine still more. I can-
not stoop to expose the secrets of my soul to the vulgar
world. I leave them to the insight of kindred greatness."
The latter pride, which repels sympathy, is more aggra-
vated and less amiable than the former, which seeks sym-
pathy.

So absorbing and acute were the melancholy and
wretchedness of Byron, that it is rather a wonder, as he
said, that he did not, in some of their crises, burst a blood-
vessel or blow out his brains. He writes in his private
journal one day : " O God ! I shall go mad " ; relieving
his anguish with the words of Lear. With his nature,
after what he had gone through, the habit of an exagger-
ating and revengeful recollection of his wrongs and mis-
eries was inevitable. His feeling towards those who were
instrumental in his domestic ruin, desertion, and banish-
ment, was fiendish. His letter after the suicide of Rom-
illy is absolutely diabolical. " Do you suppose," he saysj
" that I have forgotten or forgiven the deliberate desola-
tion piled upon me when I stood alone upon my hearth
with my household gods shivered around me?' It has
comparatively swallowed up in me every other feeling



BYRON. 297

and I am only a spectator upon earth till a tenfold oppor-
tunity offers." The workings of this habit in generating
unhappiness were as pernicious as its moral quality was
bad. Yet he has undoubtedly expressed it with poetical
extravagance, for he was essentially generous, though not
religiously forgiving. A truer reflection of him is seen in
the verse,

Here 's a sigh to those who love me,

And a smile to those who hate ;
And, whatever sky 's above me,
Here 's a heart for every fate.

He had a diseased sensitiveness to affronts, and could
not endure being looked down upon. In his unhappy
departure from his country, he spread the distempered
feeling of hostility over all his countrymen, and shunned
them with a tremulous revulsion poorly coated with arro-
gance. "Rome is pestilent with English." " I abhor the
nation, and the nation me." " In two or three years this
tribe of wretches will be swept home again, and the Con
tinent will be roomy and agreeable." " As to the estima-
tion of the English, let them calculate what it is wor'h
before they insult me with their insolent condescension."
The isolating and embittering influences of Byron's quar-
rel with his country, and of his long exile, were envenomed
by his habits of life and by the character of many of his
associates. Plunging deeply into dissipation, spending
much time in company with persons of depraved tastes,



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 24 of 35)