William Rounseville Alger.

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

. (page 26 of 35)
Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 26 of 35)
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From the bleaker climate and more inhospitable society
of Recanati, Leopardi wandered to Florence, Bologna,
Rome, and lastly to Naples. Here he died in the arms
of his good and dear friend Ranieri. He had written in
his fine poem of " Love and Death," " the two sweet
lords, friends to the human race, to whom fate gave
being together," at the close of this poem he had said,
"Lovely Death! bow to the power of unaccustomed
prayers, and shut my sad eyes to the light. Calm, alone,
I await the time when I shall sleep on thy virgin breast."

Rarely has death been more welcome to a mortal,


rarely has one lived capable of a keener or vaster happi-
ness, had his fellow-creatures but come up to the standard
his genius exacted, and answered his cravings. In the
suburbs of Naples, in the little church of San Vitale,
stands the monument reared by the loving friend and
biographer on whose bosom " he gave up his soul with
an inetfable and angelic smile." The traveller who lin-
gers to read the inscription, traced by the pen of Giober-
ti, draws a deep sigh, and hopes that the great hapless
spirit whose clayey part sleeps there, is now, in a higher
form, under fairer conditions, enjoying the harmony and
love he so vainly longed for here.


THE author of the essay on " Decision of Character,'
John Foster, was always distinguished for his separatenesa
of life and soul. His capacious, earnest, sombre, ex-
tremely sensitive and tenacious cast of mind unfitted him
to herd with society. The greater his need the less his
fitness. Contrasting himself with a lady whose " habit
was so settled to solitude that she often felt the occasional
hour spent with some other human beings tedious and
teasing," he says : " Why is this being that looks at me
and talks, whose bosom is warm, whose nature and wants
resemble my own, more to me than all the inanimate ob-
jects on earth and all the stars of heaven ? Delightful
necessity of my nature ! But to what a world of disap-
pointments and vexations is this social feeling liable, and
how few are made happy by it in any such degree as I
picture to myself and long for ! " Expressing his sympa-
thy with his friend Mrs. Mant, who had complained of
feeling desolate and solitary among uncongenial neighbors,
he says : " Shall you be sorry that . your mind is too
thoughtful and too religious to suit their society ? Could
you be willing to humble yourself to a complacent agree-
ment with their levity or their oddity ? You ought to feel
your superiority, and dismiss the anxious wish for a com-
panionship which you cannot purchase but by descending


to a level where you would never feel happy if you did
descend to it." After spending an hour with a handsome
but ignorant and unsocial woman and a cat, Foster said
he felt he could more easily make society of the cat than
of the woman. He characterized fashionable worldlings,
the hardened habitues of society, as "people who wor-
ship Indifference and are proud of their religion." One
of his sharpest and saddest aphorisms is this : " We are
interested only about self or about those who form a part
of our self-interest. Beyond all other extravagances of
folly is that of expecting or wishing to live in a great
number of hearts." It was but natural that he should, as
he did, fall back on himself, nature, and God, and spend
the time in solitude, revolving the sombre and massive
meditations out of which his writings grew.


WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING is one of the most ex-
alted and influential characters of modern time. He is
a character as distinctly American as Washington, and
worthy to be compared with him. For, if less command-
ingly conspicuous and imposing, he is far finer, sweeter,
more spiritual, ideal, and religious. The average multi-
tude of mankind live, by mechanical habit, on tradition.
There are two classes of great men whose mission is by
their original power and fire to redeem common men from
their deathly passivity, and inspire them to newness of
living. First, the creative minds who audaciously cast
off the bonds of old authority, break through the limits
of routine, and lay bare unheard-of regions of life. Sec-
ond, those less endowed, but equally inspired natures,
who, staying for the greater part by the traditions and
authorities honored in their time, cannot abide anything
lifelessly formal, but must vitalize all they touch; repudi-
ating torpid conformity, making the old as good as new
by stripping off its bandages and breathing a soul under
its ribs of death. Channing belonged rather to this latter
class, though not excluded from the other one. His was


more the greatness' of balanced faculties, sincerity, pa-
tience, earnestness, consecration, than that startling great-
ness which, goaded to unparalleled deeds by a strange
fire shut up in its bones, despises trembling prudence and
leaps into the unknown to pluck its prizes.

Channing was great by the translucency of his large
and lofty mind, and by the permeating morality of his
character. No mechanical conformity could satisfy him.
He must see for himself, and vitalize all his views. He
sought with patience, by many-sided comparisons and
tests, with the aid of the minds around him, to understand
subjects justly. He fought as a divine champion to drive
from his own soul the conceit, ignorance, delusion, dead
traditionality of opinion he saw infesting ordinary souls,
and always to live as far as possible at first hand, in gen-
uine perception, faith, and love. His sincerity and ear-
nestness fused his powers in every expression, so that he
acted as a unit flowing with irresistible fervor and momen-
tum. No accompaniments of his utterance created any
obstacle to its effect : his impression was therefore inte-
gral, without those contradictions and jerks which take so
much away from the influence of many speakers. The
pillars of his being went down to the basis of primal
truths, and rested, naked, alive, electric, on the moral
foundations of things, in contact with the original sources
of inspiration. Thus, although he was not a great scholar,
nor a discoverer of any important thoughts or methods,
he had great originality of character. The intensely sus-
tained action of his faculties lent to the best thoughts and
sentiments which he derived from his time new fire and
importance, and gave a fresh impulse towards their do-
minion in the breasts of others. If he did not with pen-
etrative intellect uncover new principles or provinces, his
inspired contemplation made the commonplace burn unto
the kindling of souls indifferent before. He is at this
moment a creative moral influence, breathing in the liter-
ature and life of America. He is also at this moment,
through translations of his works, a high ethical, educa-
tional, liberalizing influence in France, Germany, and


Channing was impressively separated throughout his
life from the bulk of those around him by the manifold
superiority of his soul, the greater quickness and richness
of his sensibility, the greater vitality and breadth of his
.reason, the greater keenness and gravity of his conscience,
the greater force and constancy of his aspiration after in-
ternal harmony and public usefulness. In early youth
he was much given to lonely rambles, secret self-commu-
nion, romantic reveries, "seeking in unreal worlds what
the actual world could not give." " Much of my time,"
he writes, " is thrown away in pursuing the phantoms of a
disordered imagination. Musing wears away both my
body and my mind. I walk without attending to the dis-
tance." He suffered severely from home-sickness. Re-
calling it long after he said : " I remember how my throat
seemed full, and food was tasteless, and the solitude
which I fled to was utter loneliness."

When he was eighteen, brooding over enthusiastic
dreams at once glorious and sad, he wrote to his dear
classmate Shaw, " I am sensible that my happy days are
passed, and I can only weep for them. My walks now
are solitary ; no friendly voice to cheer me, no congenial
soul to make a partner of my joy or sorrow. I am, in-
deed, in the midst of my family, with the best of mothers,
brothers, and sisters. But alas ! I have no friend." Soon
after this expression he went as a tutor to Richmond in
Virginia. Here is a glimpse of his experience, given in
a letter to Shaw written at the time. " I have a retired
room for my study, a lonely plain to walk in. I often
look towards the North with a sigh, and think of the
scenes I have left behind me. But I remember that cruel
necessity has driven me from home, and wipe away the
tear which the painful recollection has wrung from ni)
eyes. O heaven ! what a wretch should I be, how weari-
some would existence be, had I not learned to depend
on myself for enjoyment. Society becomes more and
more insipid. I am tired of the fashionable nonsense
which dins my ear on every side, and am driven to my
book and pen for relief. Nature or education has given
this bent to my mind, and I esteem it as the richest bless-


ing Heaven ever sent me. I am independent of the
world." Despite this brave rally, however, his isolation,
absorption, stern abstemiousness, and over-toil, often de-
pressed his spirits ; and when, on a Christmas day, he
found himself too meanly clad to join the gay party in
another part of the mansion, he felt a bitter blow of heart-

Forty-three years afterwards, he thus reverted to those
hard, yet most fruitful days : " I lived alone, too poor to
buy books, spending my days and nights in an outbuild-
ing, with no one beneath my roof except during the hours
of school. There I toiled as I have never done since.
With not a human being to whom I could communicate
my deepest thoughts and feelings, I passed through intel-
lectual and moral conflicts so absorbing as often to banish
sleep and to destroy almost wholly the power of diges-
tion. I was worn wellnigh to a skeleton. Yet I look
back on those days and nights of loneliness and frequent
gloom with thankfulness. If I ever struggled with my
whole soul for purity, truth, and goodness, it was there.
There, amidst sore trials, the great question, I trust, was
settled within me, whether I would obey the higher or
lower principles of my nature, whether I would be the
victim of passion, or the free child and servant of God.
It is an interesting recollection that this great conflict
was going on within me, and my mind receiving its im-
pulse towards the perfect, without a thought or suspicion
of one person around me as to what I was experiencing."

When twenty-seven years of age, four years after his
ordination, he wrote to one of his friends : "I have a
strong propensity to lead the life of a recluse and a book-
worm ; and perhaps, if I were able to study all the time,
I should neglect the active duties of my profession. My
life is very tranquil. I will not mingle with the conten-
tions of the world. Angry politicians and theologians are
raging around me, but I try not to hear." Dewey, after
living with Channing in his family, in his mature age,
when he had acquired a great fame, has thus described
him : " He stood alone. I found him embosomed in
reverence and affection, and yet living in a singular iso-


latijn. No being was ever more simple, unpretending,
and kindly-natured than he ; and yet no such being,
surely, was ever so inaccessible. Not that he was proud,
but that he was venerated as something out of the earth-
ly sphere." In his sixtieth year, Channing said : " I try
in solitude to keep up my interest in my fellow-creatures ;
and my happiness, when alone, is found in labors for their
improvement." And he wrote to a young friend, only a
few weeks before his death : " At the end of life, I see
that I have lived too much by myself. I wish you more
courage, cordiality, and real union with your race." Yet
he who said this was a most celebrated preacher and
writer, with wealth, an extensive correspondence, a high
social position, and crowds of admirers. Even in the
midst of an upgazing world, a mind of unusual strength,
tenderness, earnestness and consecration, is likely to be

With the prostration and pain of chronic ill-health,
Channing had a nervous system in which ideas distrib-
uted thrills of emotion with as much energy as in others
objects distribute shocks of sensation. While others
were passionately absorbed in the pursuit of money and
outward rank, or slothful ly abandoned to pleasure and
ease, he was heroically studying to know the truth, exam-
ining all sorts of opinions to sift out the false and effete,
retain the real and vital. Others were generally content
to tread a lifeless routine of conventionality and self-
ignorance ; he toiled with burning devotion to advance
steadily towards perfection, and to set before others the
methods of such a progress, both by example and by pre-
cept. With reference to this end he strove with unwea-
ried patience to understand himself, human nature, the
good and ill of human life, the laws of duty, as they are,
neither fanatically exaggerating the defects and misery,
nor idolatrously heightening the gifts and deserts, that
met his gaze.

Besides the distance resulting from these traits, he was
further separated by the misunderstanding and opposition
he experienced from unworthy judges of his character.
His immense self-respect, his deliberate setting of hia


own conscientious conviction above every other authc r-
ity, the firmness with which he fell back on his own
perceptions and feelings, the sincerity with which he
recognized the voice of God in the sovereign ideas and
sentiments of his soul, constraining him to express them
and serve them, made his personality not less odious to
some than fascinating to others. The least worthy among
his associates, failing to distinguish from an ignoble ego-
tism his grand esteem for himself as an accredited repre-
sentative of the supreme interests of truth and humanity,
were offended at his saying so much of his " mission," his
" great thoughts," his " sacred ideas." The enemies, pro-
voked by the high-toned boldness with which he rebuked
the sins and wrongs he recognized, assailed him with
anonymous letters, with outrageous imputations of bad
motives. And when he poured forth in inspired strains
the fulness of his soul on the godlike worth of human
nature, and the future glory of human destinies, he was
laughed at as a wild dreamer. " These ideas are treated,"
he remonstrates, " as a kind of spiritual romance ; and
the teacher who really expects men to see in themselves
and one another the children of God, is smiled at as a
visionary. The reception of this plainest truth of Chris-
tianity would revolutionize society, and create relations
among men not dreamed of at the present day. A union
would spring up, compared with which our present friend-
ships would seem estrangements. Men would know the
import of the word Brother." Yet, notwithstanding the
combined force of these influences to chill, alienate, and
depress, he grew ever calmer and happier in his faith in
men, and love of nature, and enjoyment of life, and said '
his last year was the dearest of all he had known.

With the isolating characteristics by which he was
marked, characteristics which have led so many superior
souls to scornful withdrawal and bitter wretchedness, it is
an important inquiry how Channing managed to keep
himself interested and happy. In the first place, he early
formed the blessed habit of meditating on the divine
aspects of nature, man, and society, in preference to dwell-
ing on their dark and distressful aspects. The glory of


the attributes of God, the inspiration of disinterestedness,
the privilege of existing in a universe of progressive order
and beauty, the blissful freedom and grandeur of self-
sacrifice, the vision of a perfect society yet to be realized
on earth, the boundless possibilities in the destiny of the
soul, an assimilating communion with such themes as
these fed the fountains of his life always with strength,
and often with rapture. At one time he was so wrought
up by his convictions of the dignity of human nature and
(he promises of universal good, that, as he afterwards
described the experience to a friend, " I longed to die,
feeling as if heaven alone could give room for the ex-
ercise of such emotions ; but when I found I must live,
I cast about to do something worthy of these great

That he suffered much from lack of satisfying fellow-
ship, cannot be concealed. Hear his own confession, as
romantic as though written by the fiery enthusiast of Lake
Leman, instead of by a Puritan of cold New England :
" My whole life has been a struggle with my feelings. I
walk and muse till I can walk no longer. I sit down with
Goldsmith or Rogers in my hand, and shed tears at
what ? At fictitious misery. Ask those with whom I
have lived and they will tell you that I am a stoic. But
I only smothered a fire which will one day consume me.
I sigh for tranquil happiness ; but still continue sanguine,
ardent, inconstant. One reason why I now dislike the
rapture and the depression which I formerly encouraged,
is probably this : I find none to share them with me."
Again, he writes : "I often want faith in the sympathy
of individuals with whom I converse, and shrink from
expressing the truth, lest it should meet no response.
This I am trying to overcome." We cannot help suspect-
ing that his own isolation quickened his sympathetic per-
ception of instances of solitude, when we find him, during
his voyage to Europe, noting in his journal : " The sight
of the sea-bird struck me with its loneliness. I thought
of its spending its night on the ocean. But I remembered
that it had no home to forget."

Channing, with all the sickness, pain, ideal sorrow, ex-


treme sensitiveness and intellectuality, which have led a
host of gifted men to misanthropy and despair, never
became conceited or sour, but won the victory because
he paid the price of the victory in perseveringly observ-
ing its conditions. He kept a holy watch over his own
tendencies, and adjusted them to the sober standards of
virtue. He was, in his own words, " too wise to waste
in idle lamentations over deficiencies the energy which
should be used in removing them." How weighty in
moral wisdom and valor is the following passage : "I
can remember the days when I gloried in the moments
of rapture, when I loved to shroud myself in the gloom
of melancholy. But I have grown wiser as I have grown
older. I now wish to do good in the world, and must
throw away these ridiculous ecstasies, and form myself
to habits of piety and benevolence. The other day I
handed to a lady a sonnet of Southey's, which had wrung
tears from me. ' It is pretty,' said she, with a smile.
' Pretty ! ' echoed I, as 1 looked at her. ' Pretty ! ' I
went home. As I grew composed I could not help re-
flecting that the lady who had made this answer was uni-
versally esteemed for her benevolence. I knew that she
was goodness itself; but still she wanted feeling. And
what is feeling ? I blushed to find, when I thought more
on the subject, that the mind was just as passive in that
state which I called ' feeling' as when it received any im-
pressions of sense. One consequence immediately struck
me ; that there was no moral merit in possessing feeling,
and, of course, no crime in wanting it."

The growing depth and serenity of Channing's happi-
ness were the reward of his wisdom and virtue both in
relation to society and to himself. The great standard
of association ready to link itself with every state of con-
sciousness that arose in him, was the divine set of prin-
ciples inwrought by God with the structure of humanity
and destined at last to harmonize all things with them-
selves. This was an unfailing spring of comfort and
power. He says, referring to this mode of thought, " I
feel a noble enthusiasm spreading through my frame ;
every nerve is strung, every muscle is laboring ; my


bosom pants with a great, half-conceived and indescrib-
able sentiment ; I seem inspired with a surrounding
deity." He associated the idea of the race with the
person of the individual, saw the essence and glory of
the whole in each of the parts. He felt this with such
extraordinary vividness, spoke and wrote it with such an
iterated eloquence of sincerity, as really to diffuse around
him a new impulse to the philanthropy of the age ; as
high a moral benefit, as pure a religious service, as can
be rendered to men by a man. This is the noble and
healthy opposite of the habit exemplified by such morbid
characters as Pascal, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, whose
trains of meditations always fly to the dark ideas of the
wickedness, weakness, wretchedness of our nature and
state, and thus cause each successive thought to deposit a
new layer of melancholy.

Channing illustrates another felicitous contrast to the
habit of these unhappy men, in his treatment and regard
of himself. No one can rationally expect other men to
think as much of him, estimate him as highly, love him
as warmly, as he desires to be thought of, estimated, and
loved. Each one is too much occupied at home, has not
time or force enough, even if he had inclination, to do
this. Each can give nearly all to the whole ; the whole
could not, without universal destruction, give more than a
little to each. Accordingly those whose happiness de-
pends on their seeing themselves reflected in the minds
of others, in lights sufficiently flattering to minister to
their vanity and ambition, must be, as a general rule,
prevailingly unhappy. He alone can have a stable and
increasing happiness, who, trying faithfully to do his duty,
is content with the approval of God and his own con-
science, by the intrinsic standards of what is right and
good. All men who, like Petrarch, Rousseau, Byron,
sensitively refer to their self-reflections in the judgments
of others, are miserable ; for their pride topples, their
complacency is destroyed by stinging disappointments,
either real or fanciful. But men of the Dante,Jhe Fene-
lon, or the Wordsworth stamp, who esteem themselves,
not indirectly through the figures they make, in other peo


pie's imaginations, but directly by the divine authorities to
which they bow, the sublime ideals to which they are loyal,
the boundless and everlasting good which they appreciate,
are possessed of an immovable content. Channing was
of these. He was devoted, whether in company or alone,
not to pampering, but to perfecting, himself. On this base
his self-respect stood firmly. " The true tone of virtue,"
he says, " is the tone of conscious superiority, calm, ex-
pressive of unaffected dignity, strong in itself, and there-
fore not disturbed by clamors." " My own opinion of
what I publish is not at all affected by the general recep-
tion it meets with ; but if no souls are reached, there is
cause of distrust." " I like to know the evil that is said
of me, because much of it may be traced to misapprehen-
sion, and because sometimes part of it has a foundation
in real defects of character, and may be used lor self-
knowledge and self-reform." From all painful wrongs,
injurious reports, sympathetic woes, he had delicious re-
treats and cures in his Christ-like ideas, sentiments, and
efforts. He says in one of his own choice sentences,
sweet and high, " We visionaries, as we are called, have
this privilege from living in the air, that the harsh sounds
from the earth make only a slight impression on the ear."
To lose self-respect is to touch the bottom at the same
time of degradation and of misery. He who is upheld
by a sound self-respect may be calm and happy even in
the midst of a thousand trials.

Channing was a lonely man, but he wisely shunned
most of the evils and nobly gained all the benefits of
solitude. Laboring to perfect himself, he disinterestedly
served his fellow-men, resolutely sought truth, and humbly
worshipped God. In this manner he neutralized misery
and was happy to the end, exerting a noble influence and
setting a redemptive example, an influence and example
which the expansion of his pure fame promises to diffuse
and perpetuate. He is one of the few men who make us
mend our idea of man.


Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 26 of 35)