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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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loose principles, and bad experience, his irregularities
preyed on both his health and his heart, familiarized him
with the baser and sadder phases of human life and hu-
man nature, and tended strongly to make him sick of
man and weary of existence. VVe have his own mature
testimony as to dissipation, that

It is a sad thing, and not only tramples

On our fresh feelings, but as being participated

With all kinds of incorrigible samples

Of frail humanity must make us selfish,

And shut our souls up in us like a shellfish.

In melancholy answer to the question why he played,
drank, rode, wrote, he said : " To make some hour less
13*



298 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

dreary." " I have had a devilish deal of tear and wear
of mind and body in my time." " As I grow older, the
indifference, not to life, but to the stimuli of life, in
creases." " My heart is as gray as my hair."

Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
Count o'er thy days from anguish free.

And know, whatever thou hast been,
'T is something better not to be.

' " Selfishness is always the substratum of our damnable
clay." He was alienated and set apart from the conven-
tional sympathies of society by his contemptuous rejection
of the theological beliefs of his time, not less than by his
reckless mode of life. The hue and cry against him was
greatly swelled by the angry votaries of the creed he re-
pudiated. The puissance of independent reason was a
chief current in the inspiration of power by which he
stood against the world and shaped his enduring verse.

But among the slaves of vice, in the revels of abandoned
indulgence, in the academy of mockery and scoffing, he
could never be at home and at peace. He was an eagle,
not a buzzard. Still his smitten lyre vibrates,

Though gay companions o'er the bowl
Dispel awhile the sense of ill ;
Though pleasure fires the maddening soul,
The heart the heart is lonely still.

He longed for sympathy in his best thoughts and feelings ;
he wanted sincere love and praise ; but his pride, stung by
frequent repulses, would not let him simply own the want.
He gave it indirect expression in his dark lamentations :

The fire which on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle :

and perverse expression in proud assertions of self-suffic-
ing solitude :

I stood and stand alone, remembered or forgot.

In an eloquent letter he dedicated the fourth canto of
Childe Harold to his friend Hobhouse, "to relieve a



BYRON. 299

heart which has not elsewhere, or lately, been so much
accustomed to the encounter of good-will as to withstand
the shock firmly." Despite his sport and sarcasm he was
earnest at bottom, and his heart was ever flying to his
head. He said,

Though hymned by every harp, unless, within,
Your heart joins chorus, fame is but a din.

Though Byron had fits of disgust and anger with the
world of mankind, he was never a settled misanthrope.
He was of too rich and high an order for chronic malig-
nity. Those appearances and expressions thought to
imply the contrary of this are sometimes poetic extrava-
gances, and always rest on grounds quite distinct from a
deliberate hate of his kind. It is true that he says, with
cool literality, " The more I see of men the less I like
them " : true, that he sings in fervid verse,

We have had our reward and it is here ;
That we can yet feel gladdened by the sun,
And reap from eafth, sea, joy almost as clear
As if there were no man to trouble what is clear.

These, however, are vents of his bubbling resentments,
not of his deepest tendencies and sentiments. He loved
other things more, rather than man less. His love of
solitude was glorious, not sullen. He used it not to
fabricate plots of vengeance, but for creations of beauty
and emotional reveries. He asks and answers,

Why do they call me misanthrope ? Because
They hate me, not I them.

Misanthropes are not liberals in politics, nor profuse in
relieving misery with their money. Byron, notwithstand-
ing his rank, was a republican, a deadly hater of every
form of despotism, a martyr to Greek liberty, and always
munificently kind in helping the distressed. It was in
indignant vexation at the restoration of the Bourbons that
he dashed in his journal, " To be sure I have long de-
spised myself and man, but I never spat in the face of my
species before." Undoubtedly he had an undue amount



300 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

of anger and contempt, the result of his flaming sensi-
bility, no sign of stagnant affection. His thrilling flesh,
electric blood, thrilling nerves, must perforce render him
impatient of obtuseness and affectation and incompetency.
He demanded action in others on the height of his own.
" I remember at Chamouni, in the very eyes of Mont
Blanc, hearing an Englishwoman exclaim to her party,
' Did you ever see anything more rural ? ' As if it was
Highgate or Hampstead. ' Rural ! ' quotha ? Rocks,
pines, torrents, glaciers, clouds, and summits of eternal
snow far above them and 'rural' !"

Byron loved to be alone because he keenly resented
the hurts and hostilities he had experienced, and because
he shrank in all his better moods from the comparatively
ignorant, frivolous, and insensible average of society. He
said that " the reason why he disliked society was that the
follies and passions of others excited the evil qualities of
his own nature." When alone, he put on his royal pre-
rogatives, and rose along the blue wilderness of intermi-
nable air, to coast the crystal worlds of infinity, and sound
the mysterious treasures of truth and beauty with the pal-
pitating doubt and terror in which he delighted. The
overwhelming mind that produced " Cain " must have
loved to retire apart with its forces, which strike stars into
chaos and mould chaos into stars ; its thoughts, which com-
press immensity into a point and expand a point into im-
mensity ; its events, which are rare in time though frequent
in eternity ; its vision of God

On his vast and solitary throne
Creating worlds to make eternity
Less burdensome to his immense existence
And unparticipated solitude.

Well indeed might he say that could he have kept his
spirit to such flights he had been happy ; but in the
restraints of human dwellings he became a thing of worn
and weary restlessness. It was his last redemptive re-
source to keep his mind in frequent hours free from the
dominion of worldly intercourse, and find or make

A life within himself, to breathe without mankind.



BYRON. 301

He loved loneliness because in it he possessed the un-
trammelled enjoyment of his own powers, and particularly
because he could indulge the delicious and unfathomable
tenderness of his ideal affections. It is impossible to
read the various poems he addressed to his sister Au
gusta, especially that wondrous autobiographic piece
written at Diodati in his twenty-eighth year, and not be
drawn to him with a mingled yearning of love, pity, and
admiration.

O that thou wert but with me ! But I grow
The fool of my own wishes, and forget*
The solitude which I have vaunted so,
Has lost its praise in this but one regret

Soured as he was on the surface, the depths remained
sweet, and his misanthropy was only lip-deep. One day
seeing a kid vainly trying to get over a fence and piteous-
ly bleating, he dismounted, and with much pains helped
it over. He loved little children, as the savage and de-
praved do not. And he was incapable of ingratitude

The heart must

Leap kindly back to kindness, though disgust
Hath weaned it from all wordlings : thus he felt.

The quiet sail of his boat on Lake Leman was as a
noiseless wing to waft him from distraction. Surely a
gentle and noble heart speaks in the wish :

O that the desert were my dwelling-place,
With one fair spirit for my minister,
That I might all forget the human race,
And, hating no one, love but only her !

His shrinking from ungenial fellowship in the higher
moments of his consciousness, his thirst for the restora-
tive nutrition of solitude, and his magnanimous recoil
from the detestable acridity of experience, are all finely
shown in the following lines :

There is too much of man here, to look through
\Vith a fit mind the might which I behold ;
But soon in me shall loneliness r enew



302 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

Thoughts hid but not less cherished than of old,

Ere mingling with the herd had penned me in their fold.

To fly from need not be to hate mankind ;

All are not fit with them to stir and toil.

With all his pride and power Byron lacked the com-
placency which is the base of happiness. He was at war
with himself, torn between contending energies. He was
not his own friend. Milton, with his interior unity and
peace, reverenced and loved himself with an august
steadiness. He was his own friend in calm and uniform
companionship. But Byron, seeing much within to honor
and much to condemn, much to applaud and much to
deplore, rather admired and pitied, than reverenced and
loved, himself- His interior division and perturbation
were full of unhappiness. Half dust, half deity, he alter-
nately lauded and loathed himself, now haughtily skirring
extinguished worlds and gazing on eternity, now sensible
of grovelling wants and littleness. At one moment, he
sonorously cries,

I may stand alone,
But would not change my free thoughts for a throne ;

at another, he mourns that he was ever born, and medi-
tates suicide. Such scorn and dislike as he had for his
kind were a reflection of his scorn and dislike for him-
self.

Fain would I fly the haunts of men,

I seek to shun, not hate mankind :

My breast requires the sullen glen

Whose gloom may suit a darkened mind.

He bore a melancholy bosom and was of a moody tex-
ture from his earliest day, believing himself predestined
to woes. " I never could keep alive even a dog that I
liked or that liked me," he wrote, when the Countess
Guiccioli fell sick. His peculiar trials confirmee this
fatal proclivity. Once, in the streets of Venice, ,vith
Moore, late at night, he saw a poor destitute creature
moaning in pain ; he gave her money and soothing words ;
when she rose up, and, walking before him, mocked the
sidling motion his lameness gave his gait. He passed on
without a word. To appreciate his sufferings we must



BYRON. 303

understand his exquisite susceptibility, together with the
noble impulses native to his soul. " Tell me that Walter
Scott is better. I would not have him ill for the world,"
he wrote to Murray. The gorgeous and solemn elo-
quence of his Monody on Sheridan is the expression of
a generous and mighty heart. His valet in Ravenna saw
him kneel on the pavement before the tomb of Dante,
and weep. His emotions were so violent on seeing a
representation of Alfieri's Mirra in the theatre at Bologna,
that he was seriously indisposed for several days from the
effects of " the convulsions, the agony of reluctant tears,
and the choking shudder." With such a temperament, a
nature so at variance in itself, and sent through a dire
ordeal, it is not strange that at times he thought

Too long and darkly, till his brain became,
In its own eddy boiling and o'erwrought,
A whirling gulf of phantasy and flame.

There was also in Byron an element of perversity, the
result of his injured pride pouring from above upon the
teeming tenderness' below. The obscure working of
these two elements in combination gave him a perverse
liking to invert the demands of others, baffle their expec-
tations, and appear worse than he was. He liked to sur-
round himself with mystery, even with dread, for the sake
of the curiosity it provoked. He sought to blacken him-
self beyond the truth, for two reasons. First, it distin-
guished him from other men, who wish to seem better
than they are ; he would seem worse than he was : it was
the implicit satire in which he clothed his scorn of hypoc-
risy. Secondly, it was a comfort to him, it sustained him
in his own eyes, to react from other people's unjust esti
mate of him to his own knowledge of the truth. Giving
fifty guineas to an unfortunate Venetian, when asked
what he had done, he would say : " I told him to go
about his business"; and then take pleasure in turning
from the mistaken verdict of "cruel " to the approval of
his own conscience.

In practice Byron longed for the esteem and love of
his fellows, loved and praised the richness of the world.



304 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

In experience he was wretched, in consequence of the
discord of his faculties and aims : because he had not
attained to inner unity. In theory, desiring to reconcile
the incongruity, and justify himself, he asked, Why am
I so unhappy? The answer he gave was, Because men
are bad, and the world is poor. How much sounder the
aphorism of the strong, wise Goethe :

Wouldst lead a happy life on earth ?

Thou must, then, clothe the world with worth !

Byron would have outgrown his unhappiness if he had
resolutely labored with clear purpose to suppress his too
sharp and constant consciousness of himself and of his
distracted relationships. A pampered and tyrannical idea
of self, or a despised and scourged idea of self, is irrec-
oncilable with happiness. An objective treatment of
self in the light of truth, as any other object is treated,
will gradually adjust it so that the truth itself will be
agreeable to it and attune it to a firm concord. He did
not live long enough to work himself clear of the fecu-
lence of his will, the slag of his passion, and become a
pure intelligence, a serene and joyous force. So mightily
endowed was he it seems a few years more must have
brought him the religious victory all the supreme masters
have won. He would have conquered the lesson that
detachment, self-renunciation, is the only path for the
morbid and moody individual into the free, glad, healthy
life of nature and humanity.

That fiery breast is cold now, that titanic spirit at rest.
It is well. If his was the pain, be the moral ours.



BLANCO WHITE.

AN impressive exemplification of the cruel treatment
and isolation consequent on an abandonment of conven-
tional opinions and usages in obedience to personal con-
victions of truth, is seen in the life of that beautiful type
of Christian character, the tender-hearted, self-sacrificing
and heroically truthful Joseph Blanco White. Born in



BLANCO WHITE. 305

Spain, reared a Catholic, his conscientious inquiries led
him to become successively after he had taken up his
abode in England an Episcopalian, a Unitarian, a free
theist ; and, as the penalty of his disinterested search for
truth and adherence to his conclusions, he died, in the
purest spirit of martyrdom, poor, obscure, sadly solitary.
As could not but be the case in such a country as Eng-
land, a few noble friends loved him as he deserved to be
loved, and never forsook him. One of them has given
us the story of his life, a precious legacy for the spirits
who are pure enough, lofty and devoted enough, to appre-
ciate it.

A friend whom nature had exempted from doubt on
subjects which habit and feeling had sanctioned to him,
once found Blanco White " bathed in tears, lamenting
that his faith had vanished without the least hope of re-
covering it." The constitution of his mind made it im-
possible for him to stop inquiry, and he was often torn
with pain on discovering that his fancied belief of doc-
trines had really arisen from sympathy with persons
whom he loved, and whose esteem he could not preserve
without subscribing their creed. After hearing how sore
his Episcopalian friends were because he had found him-
self obliged to leave their church, he writes in his jour
nal : "I have taken, as usual, a walk in the cemetery.
Sitting, very tired, among the tombs, the following thought
occurred to me. He who deceives, injures mankind ; by
not separating myself from the Church of England, I
should deceive ; therefore, by not separating, I should
injure mankind. Kind and excellent friends seem to
take a delight in saying to me that I have given a mortal
stab to my usefulness. Secret feeling does not allow
them to perceive that what leads them to say so is
the desire of giving me a stab ; for I have already
taken a decided step, and that observation can have
no effect but that of adding to my sufferings. Do
they think that I have acted according to my conscience,
or against it ? The latter is inconceivable ; but if I have
acted according to the dictates of my conscience, do they
wish I had acted against them ? Do they wish that the



306 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

stab should be given my conscience instead of my useful-
ness ? '' A year and a half later he wrote, " The violence
of party feeling and the selfish worldliness prominent
around, make me shrink more and more from all contact
with society. I feel that I must wait for death in this
perfect moral solitude, without a single human being near
me to whom I may look up for that help and sympathy
which old men that have walked on the beaten paths of
life expect when their dissolution approaches." On at-
tending the funeral of a clergyman, he says : " I could
not prevent a tear from rolling down when the coffin was
lowered. There is, indeed, much of my sensibility
which is nervous ; yet a mind so stored with baffled af-
fections and regrets as mine, may be excused for its weak-
ness. My efforts to suppress external marks of feeling
are very great, but not equal to the object. My tear,
however, was not for the deceased personally, with whom
I was not at all intimate. It was for humanity, suffering,
struggling, aspiring, daily perishing and renewed humani-
ty. It is not death that moves me ; but the contempla-
tion of the rough path and the darkened mental atmos-
phere which the human passions and interests, disguised
as religion, oblige us to tread and cross on our way to the
grave." After this touching glimpse into the depths of
his soul, it is piteous to read such expressions in his jour-
nal as follow : " I felt so oppressed by solitude in the
afternoon, that I desired Margaret to sit in the room,
that I might see a human being. My solitude in this
world (I do not mean the absence of company) increases
in a most melancholy degree. Intellectual convictions,
at least with me, are powerful in the regulation of con-
duct, but very weak in regard to the feelings." What af-
fecting pathos and nobleness of spirit mingle in this epit-
ome of his life, written by him in the album of one of
his dearest friends !

Reader, thou look'st upon a barren page :

The blighting hand of pain, the snows of age,

Have quenched the spark that might have made it glow.

Long has the writer wandered here below,

Not friendless, but alone. For the foul hand

Of Superstition snapped every band



LEOPARDI. 307

That knit him to his kindred : then he fled ;

But after him the hideous monster sped

In various shapes, and raised a stirring cry :

" That villain will not act a pious lie. "

Men, women, stare, discuss, but all insist,

" The man must be a shocking Atheist."

Brother or sister,- whatsoe'er thou art !

Couldst thou but see the fang that gnaws my heart,

Thou wouldst forgive this transient gush of scorn,

Wouldst shed a tear, in pity wouldst thou mourn

For one who, spite the wrongs that lacerate

His weary soul, has never learned to hate.

Much later he said, " How vehemently I long to be in
the world of the departed ! " And again, " My bodily
sufferings are dreadful, and the misery produced by my
solitude is not to be described. But trusting in God's
Spirit within me, I await my dissolution without fear.
Into thy hands, O Eternal Lord of life, of love, of virtue,
I commend my spirit." And then at last, the glad hour,
so long waited for, came ; and that divine soul sped to its
infinite release, no longer to be an exile for truth's sake,
to pine for love no more, never again to know what it is
to be lonely.

LEOPARDI.

PERHAPS no one of all the men of genius who have lived
in recent times has had so lonely a soul and led so lone-
ly a life as Leopardi, the Italian philologist, thinker, and
poet, whose name is growing into fame, as his character
and fate are becoming known and winning more of love
and' pity. His intellect, imagination, and heart alike were
remarkable for their scope and fervor. He dared to
think without checks, and to accept as truth whatever he
saw as such. Consequently he rejected the common
notions prevalent around him, and was pointed at as a
sceptic. He loved his country with a burning patriotism ;
her bondage and torpor, and the supine degradation of
her children, alternately aroused his indignation and op-
pressed him with the deepest sadness. His sense of his
own powers was high, enkindling a grand ambition which
his unfortunate circumstances combined to irritate, thwart



308 SKETCHES OF LONELY CHARACTERS.

and baffle. " Mediocrity frightens me," he says, " my
wish is to love, and become great by genius and study."
His intense susceptibility to beauty, his impassioned and
exacting sympathy, created in him the deepest necessity
for love ; but his deformity, poverty, and sickness, pre-
vented the fulfilment of this master desire. Opposed by
a hostile fate within and without, disappointed at every
turn, without health of body or peace of mind, accept-
ing in its direst extent that philosophy of despair which
denies God, Providence, and Immortality ; surrounded
for the most part by tyrannical bigots and ignorant boors,
possessed by an inexpressible melancholy, alleviated only
by the activities of his own genius and the occasional
attentions of one or two friends and correspondents,
the unhappy Leopardi lived in the deepest and saddest of
solitudes. Knowing how great his intellectuality and
his sensibility were, it makes one's heart ache to read his
recorded wish that he might become a bird, in order, for
a little season, to experience their happiness and peace.
He has partially described the hopeless monotony of
his life, in the -dilapidated old town of Recanati, in his
poem, " La Vita Solitaria." In the poem on the " Recol-
lections of Youth," he paints the dismal and trying lone-
liness of his maturity with painful power :

Condemned to waste and pass my prime

In this wild native village, amid a race

Unlearned and dull, to whom fair Wisdom's name,

And Knowledge, like the names of strangers sound,

An argument of laughter and of jest ;

They hated me and fled me. Not that they

Were envious ; of no greater destiny

They held me than themselves ; but that I bore

Esteem for my own being in my heart,

Though ne'er to man disclosed by any sign.

Here passed my years, recluse and desolate,

Without or love or life. Bitter and harsh

Among the unkindly multitude I grew.

Here was I robbed of pity and of trust,

And, studying the poor herd, became of men

A scorner most disdainful. Ah, at times

My thoughts to you go back, O hopes, to you,

Blessed imaginations of my youth !

When I regard my life, so mean, and poor,



LEOPARDI. 309

And mournful, and that death alone is all
To which so much of hope has brought my days,
I feel my heart stand still, and know not how
To be consoled for such a destiny.

The soul of Leopardi was too powerful surpassingly
affectionate and terribly disappointed as he was in life
to permit him usually to express his misanthropy, his grief
and wretchedness, either in sentimental sighs or in wails of
despair. His dark views and unhappy feelings vented them-
selves rather in forms of smiling irony, philosophic satire,
and a quiet humor, wherein tender melancholy and bitter
force of thought are equally mixed. His writings are
marked by classic finish and repose. The manly courage
and fortitude that breathe in them are not less obvious than
the plaintiveness not lackadaisical, but heroic which
betrays how constant and deep his pain was. The cause
of his spiritual isolation and misery was not merely his
rare genius and earnestness, absorbing thought and study,
not merely his profound unbelief, not merely his yearning
and regurgitating affection, but also his chronic ill-health
and nervous exhaustion. Nearly all his life he was the
victim of depressing physical disease. He says, " It ap-
pears to me that weariness is of the nature of air, which
fills all the space intervening between material things, and
all the voids contained in them. When anything is re-
moved and the room is not filled by another thing,
weariness takes its place immediately. Thus all the
interstices of human life between the pleasures and mis-
fortunes are filled up with weariness."



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 25 of 35)