William Rounseville Alger.

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

. (page 27 of 35)
Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 27 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


ONE of the bravest confessors of our age was the
noble English preacher, Frederick William Robertson.
Although his eloquence brought him much publicity, and
his charming qualities of character made him warmly
beloved by many friends, and his extreme fidelity to his
professional duties kept him busy both in his library and
with people, he lived, as to the inner man, in a trying
solitude. The rare tenderness of his spirit, the uncom-
mon capacity and earnestness of his mind, his heroic
loyalty in the pursuit of truth, his extraordinary breadth
of perception and catholicity of temper, removed him
quite out of the range of vulgar natures, and made him
an object of suspicion and hate to partisans and bigots.
He paid in sorrowful irritation and suffering the penalty
of his exquisite sensitiveness and his unflinching courage.
What a glimpse the following sentence opens into his life :
" I am sometimes tempted to doubt whether any one who
tries to open people's eyes in science, politics, or religion
is to be reckoned as a martyr or a fool. The cross ? Or
the cap and bells?"

When in Switzerland he wrote home to his wife, "I
cannot tell you how the love of solitude has grown upon
me. I can enjoy these mountains, with their sombre
pine-woods and their wild sights and sounds, only when
I am alone." At another time, with a noble depth of
pathos and of thought, he writes : " I am alone, lonelier
than ever, sympathized with by none, because I sympathize
too much with all. But the All sympathizes with me. A
sublime feeling of a Presence comes upon me at times,
which makes inward solitariness a trifle to talk about." Yet,
despite such divine compensation, to such a soul a loving
society, and not a compulsory solitude, was the genuine
atmosphere of enjoyment. He said, " Sympathy is too
exquisitely dear to me to resist the temptation of expect-
ing it ; and then I could bite my tongue with vexation for
having babbled out truths too sincere and childlike to be
intelligible. But as soon as the fit of misanthropy is
14* u


passed, that absurd human heart with which I live, trusts
and confides again. Yet, yet, say what I will, when
any one soothes me with the semblance of sympathy, I
cannot for the life of me help baring my whole bosom in
giatitude and trust."

It was the too natural sequel of such extreme fondness
that, after repeated experiences of unfairness and unkind-
ness, from natures so far inferior as to be incapable of
appreciating and responding to him in his own kind, he
should, in final revulsion of pain, say : " I am resolved
now to act, and feel, and think, alone." It is doubly
melancholy to remember the cruel wrong he suffered
when we recall the revelation of its painfulness which
he left on record. "Unless a man," he says, "has a
skin like a rhinoceros, and a heart like a stone-fruit, it is
no easy thing to work alone. The bad feelings of pride
or vanity get as little to feed them in such a struggle as
the better ones of sympathy and charity. Elijah, stern
and iron as he was, should be a warning to any common
man to expect that many a day he will have to sit under
his juniper-tree in despondency and bitter sense of iso-
lation and uselessness."

Robertson was a man of the extremest refinement and
purity of heart. In the most vivid sense of the phrase,
he was a soldier of Christ. His loyalties and reverences
were surpassingly quick and deep. He was a true incar-
nation of chivalry ; his elastic vigor of nerve making his
steps spurn the earth as he walked, his inspired imagi-
nation spreading over all the moral interests of humanity a
web of associations sensitive to pleasure and pain through
its whole extent. His noble courage, both physical and
moral, was as supreme as his consecration. Whenever
he spoke of battle his lips quivered, his eyes flashed, his
voice shook. A soldier's son, he was rocked and cradled
amidst military sights and sounds ; and, to the last, as he
himself said, he could not.see a review without being im-
pressed to tears, nor look on the evolutions of cavalry
without a choking sensation. He turned with loathing
from the crooked policies, petty reticences, clinging scan-
dals, and bigoted denunciations of Evangelical and Tract-


anan controversies, of High and Low Church parties, and,
flinging off their constraint, with a sense of measureless
relief, wished " to die sword in hand against a French in-

He was unhappy. The loss of health, the development
of a morbid sensitiveness, together with his experience of
the ignobleness of many men, the deceitfulness, envious
hate and vulgarity forced on his notice, made him un-
happy. Had he been less pure and holy, had he been
meaner and colder, he would not have suffered as he did.
The essence of chivalry, the honor of the true soldier,
existed in him with extraordinary power and keenness.
Chivalry is Hie ordering of conduct and the judging of
ourselves by the highest standards of duty and sentiment
reflected by our imagination in the minds of others. We
act and estimate our acts, when we are truly chivalrous,
not in the direct light of our own conscience alone, but
by the most disinterested code of moral right and beauty,
which we conceive as enthroned in the minds of our fellow
men. Ideally subjecting himself to this exalted tribu-
nal, Robertson found judgments continually pronounced,
whose foul selfishness on the one side, whose cruel injus-
tice on the other, disgusted and distressed him. One of
his constitutional traits was a habit of self-depreciation.
He underestimated himself and his deserts. This was
owing to the strength of his perception of the standards
of perfection, the models of success, and to the sharpness
of his feeling of his shortcomings when tried by these.
Superiority to the averages of attainment gives common
natures an assured self-complacency that makes them

To a fine and lofty soul the failure to reach what it
aspires to is constantly depressing, and when such a soul
looks down on the inferior averages, the superiority to
them which would elate vulgar aspirants only stings it
with double shame. It looks up to its baffling ideal, and
despairs ; looks down on the degraded contentment, and
loathes. Such a soul was that of Robertson. He was
high-spirited, with an immense self-respect, yet modest,
sensitive, easily depressed. He always regarded the ten-


dency to sink back in a self-complacent peace on a feeling
of superiority to the moral exactions of public opinion
as the worst temptation of the Devil. He resisted this
temptation as he would a profanation of the very shrine
of conscience, the deadliest contamination of the soul.
This is the key which explains, in a manner perfectly
consistent with his sweet sincerity of Christian charity,
those violent reactions and expressions which seem at
first glance to be almost bitterly misanthropic, his dis-
like of popularity, his abhorrence of the reputation of
being a popular preacher, his resentful condemnation of
some styles of English orthodoxy. "Would to God I
were not a mere pepper-cruet, to give a relish to the
palates of the Brightonians ! " " The popular religion
represents only the female element in the national mind,
at once devotional, slanderous, timid, gossiping, narrow,
shrieking, and. prudish."

In spite of such apparent self-reliance and severity,
the strength and genuine catholicity of his sympathies
made him solitary, made him feel a pining lack of the co-
operative esteem and the kindred aspirations of others.
" Friendly looks and kind deeds," he says, " stir into
health that sour, rancid film of misanthropy apt to co-
agulate on the stream of our inward life if we live in
heart apart from our fellow-creatures." He knew many
and many an hour of painful humility, loneliness, and
melancholy. Alas ! like so many gallant and spotless
souls before, while he lived he was persecuted, his ex-
perience embittered, and his days shortened by misrepre-
sentation, contumely, and hardship. He died under a
cloud of excruciating pain, but with a clear conscience
and triumphant trust. After his death came a harvest
of admiration, grateful love, and fruitful influence.


THE Life of Chopin, by his friend Liszt, is a work oi
rare interest, as an example of a nob^e friendship, a? an
acute and powerful psychological portraiture of an <jx


traordimvy genius, and as a revelation of that wonderful
world of emotion in which the souls of great musicians
live. The intense fineness and ardor of Chopin's imag-
ination, the violence of his feelings, his sickly and irri-
table constitution, his exiled lot, his secretive pride, his
subtle originality of mind and sentiment, the lofty ear-
nestness of his aims, and his fastidious purity, made his
experience one of bitter contrasts, unhappy and lonely.
Sheathed in manners of kind and tranquil courtesy, which
covered his convulsive soul as slopes of verdure and vine
cover a volcano, he moved among men separate from
them, reading the secrets of all, never baring his own.

He veiled his sufferings under the impenetrable calm-
ness of a proud resignation that scorned either to utter
complaints or to make demands. He strictly excluded
from conversation all subjects relating to himself, care-
fully keeping others in the circle of their own interests
lest they should intrude into his. He was apparently so
free from self-occupation that people thought him absorb-
ingly interested in them. Accordingly, he gave much
pleasure but awakened little curiosity. " His personality
remained intact, unapproachable under the polished sur-
face on which it was impossible to gain footing." Ex-
cluded by his infirm health from the ordinary arena,
where " a few bees with many wasps expend their strength
in useless buzzing, he built a secluded cell for himself,
apart from all noisy and frequented ways." He never
suffered the world to suspect the secret convulsions that
agitated him, never unveiled the shudder caused by the
contact of more positive and reckless individualities with
his own. His caustic perception caught the ridiculous
both on the surface and in the depth, and he could easily
hide within or repel without whatever he wished to hide
or repel, by gay mystification or satirical raillery. No
ennui annoyed him, because he expected no interest. Yet
this unsuspected absence of his soul from the outward
scene, this dense concealment of his real life, arose not
from any shallow apathy or poverty of being, but in truth
from the haughty royalty of his wants, the inconceivable
susceptibility of his soul to hurts.


"He constantly reminded us," Liszt says, "of a convol-
vulus balancing its heaven-colored cup on an incredibly
slight stem, the tissue of which is so like vapor that the
slightest contact wounds and tears the misty corolla."
Conscious of the uselessness of his vivid indignation and
vexation, and too jealous of the mysteries of his emo-
tions to betray them, he sought strength in isolation and
self-control, and, "by dint of constant effort, subjected
his sensibilities, in spite of their tormenting acuteness, to
the rule of what ought to be, rather than of what is."
Shrinking from the world and the crowd, with the mystic
richness of his fancy, and a bleeding sensitiveness of for-
lorn feeling, he had one charmed resource, music. " In
his compositions he collected, like tears in a lachrymatory,
the memories of his youth, the passions and dreams of
his country, the affections of his heart, the mysteries
of his desires, the secrets of his sorrows." " What the
pious never say except on their knees, in communion with
God, he said in his palpitating compositions, uttering in
the language of tones those mysteries of emotion which
man is permitted to understand without words, because
no words can utter them. He was a tone-poet. He
seemed to live upon music, the moody food of imagina-
tion. All the elegiac tenderness, passionate coquetry,
martial heroism, and profound melancholy of the Polish
nationality, echoed from his soul, breathe in his strains.

He knew that he could not warm and move " the mul-
titude, which is like a sea of lead." The public intimi-
dated and paralyzed him. But his magic performance
electrified the select audiences to whom he revealed the
secrets his delicate genius had caught from " those re-
served yet impassioned hearts which resemble that plant
so full of burning life that its flowers are always sur-
rounded by a subtle and inflammable gas." Liszt com-
pares the ineffably poetic fascination of Chopin's playing
to the perfume of the Ethiopian calla, which refuses to
diffuse its aroma in the breath of crowds, whose heavy air
can retain only the strong odor of the tuberose, the in-
cense of burning resin. His friendly biographer thinks
his abnegation of popular applause veiled an internal


wound. He was perfectly aware of his own superiority ;
it did not receive sufficient reverberation to assure him
that he was appreciated.

A gnawing discontent, scarcely understood by himself,
secretly undermined him. "The which he was
justly entitled not reaching him in mass, isolated com-
mendations wounded him. This was evident from the
polished phrases with which he shook such commenda-
tions off, like troublesome dust," making it clear that he
preferred to be left undisturbed in the enjoyment of his
solitary feelings. " The joys, the consolations which the
creations of true art awaken in the weary, suffering,
believing hearts to whom they are dedicated, are des-
tined to be borne into far countries and distant years
by the sacred works of Chopin. He could not labor to
attract auditors and to please them at whatever sacrifice."
He aimed to leave a celestial and eternal echo of the
emotions of his soul. " What are the fading bouquets
of an hour to those whose brows claim the laurel of im-
mortality?" If he could not have from men all he de
served and wanted, he would have nothing from them,
nothing except love and kindness from his chosen friends.
He would build his hopes in God, wreak his soul in art,
and leave his fame to time.

Repeatedly, Chopin seemed for months to be in a dying
state, when he would rally, as by some surprising volition.
In such ethereal natures imagination is almost omnipo-
tent, and through its fixed ideas, its magnetic centres of
association, works miracles. Twelve years before his
death he started for Italy in such a condition that the
hotel-keepers demanded pay for the bed and mattress
that he used, that they might be burned. Yet the winter
that he then spent on the Island of Majorca, under the
ministrations of natural beauty and a sleepless love,
wrought on him with a strange efficacy of restoration.
His biographer becomes a poet in describing this en-
chanted oasis in the existence of the Polish composer.
"In this solitude, shaded by groves of oranges, and sur-
rounded by the blue waves of the Mediterranean, he
breathed that air for which natures unsuited to the world


and never feeling themselves happy in it long with such a
painful homesickness ; that air which may be found every-
where, if we can find the sympathetic souls to breathe it
with us, and which is to be met nowhere without them,
the air of the land of our dreams, of the country of the
ideal." The story of this bewitching residence is described
by Madame Sand in " Lucre^ia Floriani," with all the
empassioned gorgeousness of her art : she herself is La
Floriani ; Chopin is Prince Karol, and Liszt is Count

At length, after a fatal rupture of affection, an agony
worse than death, by a lingering decline not fuller of pain
and sadness than of beauty and majesty, the long tragedy
of life drew to a close ; the lacerating conflict of the outer
and the inner life, so successfully shrouded under that de-
meanor of tranquil politeness, was to find relief. The
noblest of his Polish countrymen, the loveliest of his
countrywomen, idolatrous friends, were unremitting in
their attentions. One evening near his end, at sunset,
he saw the beautiful Countess Potocka, draped in white,
weeping, at the foot of his bed. " Sing," he murmured.
Amidst the hushed group of friends, the rays of the set-
ting sun streaming upon them, she sang with her own ex-
quisite sweetness the famous canticle to the Virgin which
once saved the life of Stradella. " How beautiful it is !
My God, how beautiful ! " sighed the dying artist. None
of those who approached the dying Chopin " could tear
themselves from the spectacle of this great and gifted
soul in his hours of mortal anguish." Whispering "Who
is near me," he was told, Gutman, the favorite pupil
who had watched by him with romantic devotion. He
bent his head to kiss the faithful hand, and died in this
act of love.

They buried the room in flowers. The serene loveli-
ness of youth, so long dimmed by grief and pain, came
back, and he lay there smiling, as if asleep in a garden
of roses. At the farewell service in the Madeleine Church,
his own Funeral March and the Requiem of Mozart were
performed. Lablache, who had sung the supernatural Tuba
Mirum of this Requiem at the burial of Beethoven, twenty


two years before, now sang it again. In the cemetery of
Pere la Chaise, under a chaste tomb surmounted by his
own marble likeness, between the monuments of Bellini
and Cherubini, where he had asked to be laid, sleeps the
hapless musician, whose weird and solemn strains are
worthy to carry his name into future ages as long as men
shall continue to contemplate the mysterious changes of
time and the mute entrance of eternity.


IF any American deserves to stand as a representative of
the experience of recluseness, Thoreau is the man. His
fellow-feelings and alliances with men were few and feeble ;
his disgusts and aversions many, as well as strongly pro-
nounced. All his life he was distinguished for his aloof-
ness, austere self-communion, long and lonely walks. He
was separated from ordinary persons in grain and habits,
by the poetic sincerity of his passion for natural objects
and phenomena. As a student and lover of the material
world he is a genuine apostle of solitude, despite the taints
ofaffectation, inconsistency, and morbidity which his writ-
ings betray. At twenty-eight, on the shore of a lonely pond,
he built a hut in which he lived entirely by himself for
over two years. And, after he returned to his father's
house in the village, he was for the chief part of the time
nearly as much alone as he had been in his hermitage by
"Walden water. The closeness of his cleaving to the land-
scape cannot be questioned : "I dream of looking abroad,
summer and winter, with free gaze, from some mountain
side, nature looking into nature, with such easy sympathy
as the blue-eyed grass in the meadow looks in the face of
the sky." When he describes natural scenes, his hear''
lends a sweet charm to the pages he pens : " Paddling up
the river to Fair-Haven Pond, as the sun went down, I
saw a solitary boatman disporting on the smooth lake.
The falling dews seemed to strain and purify the air, and
I was soothed with an infinite stillness. I got the world,
as it were, by the nape of the neck, and held it under, in


the tide of its own events, till it was drowned ; and then
I let it go down stream like a dead dog. Vast, hollow
chambers of silence stretched away on every side ; and
my being expanded in proportion, and filled them."

In his little forest-house, Thoreau had three chairs,
"one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."
" My nearest neighbor is a mile distant. It is as solitary
where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or
Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun
and moon and stars ; and a little world all to myself."
" At night, there was never a traveller passed my door,
more than if I were the first or last man." " We are
wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some re-
mote and more celestial corner of the system, behind
the constellation of Cassiopea's Chair, far from noise and
disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its
site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned,
part of the universe." " I love to be alone. I never found
the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
In this last sentence we catch a tone from the diseased
or disproportioned side of the writer. He was unhealthy
and unjust in all his thoughts on society ; underrating the
value, overrating the dangers, of intercourse with men.
But his thoughts on retirement, the still study and love
of nature, though frequently exaggerated, are uniformly
sound. He has a most catholic toleration, a wholesome
and triumphant enjoyment, of every natural object, from
star to skunk-cabbage. He says, with tonic eloquence,
" Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to
a vulgar sadness : while I enjoy the friendship of the sea-
sons, I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me."
But the moment he turns to contemplate his fellow-men,
all his geniality leaves him, he grows bigoted, contemp-
tuous, almost inhuman : " The names of men are of course
as cheap and meaningless as Bose and Tray, the names
of dogs. I will not allow mere names to make distinc-
tions for me, but still see men in herds." The cynicism
and the sophistry are equal. His scorn constantly ex-
hales : "The Irishman eiects his sty, and gets drunk, and
jabbers more and more under my eaves ; and I am re-


sponsible for all that filth and folly. I find it very un-
profitable to have much to do with men. Emerson says
that his life is so unprofitable and shabby for the most
part, that he is driven to all sorts of resources, and, among
the rest, to men. I have seen more men than usual, lately ;
and, well as I was acquainted with one, I am surprised to
find what vulgar fellows they are. They do a little busi-
ness each day, to pay their board ; then they congregate
in sitting-rooms, and feebly fabulate and paddle in the
social slush ; and, when I think that they have sufficiently
relaxed, and am prepared to see them steal away to their
shrines, they go unashamed to their beds, and take on a
new layer of sloth." Once in a while he gives a saner
voice out of a fonder mood : " It is not that we love to
be alone, but that we love to soar ; and, when we soar,
the company grows thinner and thinner, till there is none
at all." But the conceited and misanthropic fit quickly
comes back : " Would I not rather be a cedar post, which
lasts twenty-five years, than the farmer that set it ; or he
that preaches to that farmer ? " " The whole enterprise
of this nation is totally devoid of interest to me. There
is nothing in it which one should lay down his life for,
nor even his gloves. What aims more lofty have they
than the prairie-dogs ? "

This poisonous sleet of scorn, blowing manward, is
partly an exaggerated rhetoric ; partly, the revenge he
takes on men for not being what he wants them to be ;
partly, an expression of his unappreciated soul reacting
in defensive contempt, to keep him from sinking below
his own estimate of his deserts. ' It is curious to note the
contradictions his inner uneasiness begets. Now he says,
" In what concerns you much, do not think you have com-
panions ; know that you are alone in the world." Then
he writes to one of his correspondents, " I wish I could
have the benefit of your criticism ; it would be a rare help
to me." The following sentence has a cheerful surface, but
a sad bottom : " I have lately got back to that glorious
society, called solitude, where we meet our friends con-
tinually, and can imagine the outside world also to be
peopled." At one moment, he says, " I have never felt


lonesome, or the least oppressed by a sense of solitude ;
but once ; and then I was conscious of a slight insanity
in my mood." At another moment he says, " Ah ! what
foreign countries there are, stretching away on every side
from every human being with whom you have no sym-
pathy ! Their humanity affects one as simply monstrous.
When I sit in the parlors and kitchens of some with whom
my business brings me I was going to say in contact,
I feel a sort of awe, and am as forlorn as if I were cast away
on a desolate shore. I think of Riley's narrative, and his
sufferings." That his alienation from society was mere

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 27 of 35)