William Rounseville Alger.

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

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bitter than sweet, less the result of constitutional superi-
ority than of dissatisfied experience, is significantly indi-
cated, when we find him saying, at twenty-five, " I seem
to have dodged all my days with one or two persons, and
lived upon expectation"; at thirty-five, " I thank you again
and again for attending to me"; and at forty-five, "I was
particularly gratified when one of my friends said, ' I wish
you would write another book, write it for me.' He is
actually more familiar with what I have written than I
am myself."

The truth is, his self-estimate and ambition were inor-
dinate ; his willingness to pay the price of their out-
ward gratification, a negative quantity. Their exorbitant
demands absorbed him ; but he had not those powerful
charms and signs which would draw from others a corre-
spondent valuation of him and attention to him. Accord-
ingly, he shut his real self in a cell of secrecy, and re-
treated from men whose discordant returns repelled, to
natural objects whose accordant repose seemed accept-
ingly to confirm and return, the required estimate im-
posed on them. The key of his life is the fact that it
was devoted to the art of an interior aggrandizement of
himself. The three chief tricks in this art are, first, a
direct self-enhancement, by a boundless pampering of
egotism ; secondly, an indirect self-enhancement, by a
scornful depreciation of others ; thirdly, an imaginative
magnifying of every trifle related to self, by associating
with it a colossal idea of the self. It is difficult to open
many pages in the written record of Thoreau without


oeing confronted with examples of these three tricks.
He is constantly, with all his boastful stoicism, feeling
himself, reflecting himself, fondling himself, reverberating
himself, exalting himself, incapable of escaping or forget-
ting himself. He is never contented with things until
they are wound through, and made to echo himself; and
this is the very mark of spiritual disturbance. " When I
detect," he says, " a beauty in any of the recesses of na-
ture, I am reminded, by the serene and retired spirit in
which it requires to be contemplated, of the inexpressi-
ble privacy of a life." ' In the holiest and silentest nook
his fancy conjures the spectre of himself, and an ideal
din from society for contrast. He says of his own pur-
suits, " The unchallenged bravery which these studies
imply is far more impressive than the trumpeted valor of
the warrior." When he sees a mountain he sings :

Wachuset, who, like me,

Standest alone without society,

Upholding heaven, holding down earth,

Thy pastime from thy birth,

Not steadied by the one, nor leaning on the other,

May I approve myself thy worthy brother !

This self-exaggeration peers out even through the dis-
guise of humor and of satire : " I am not afraid of praise,
for I have practised it on myself. The stars and I
belong to a mutual-admiration society." " I do not pro-
pose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily
as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost."
" The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
But he, he is victorious, sufficing, royal. At all events
he will be unlike other people. " I am a mere arena for
thoughts and feelings, a slight film, or dash of vapor, so
faint an entity, and make so slight an impression, that no-
body can find the traces of me." " I am something to
him that made me, undoubtedly, but not much to any
other that he has made." " Many are concerned to know
vho built the monuments of the East and West. For
my part, I should like to know who, in those days, did
not build them, who were above such trifling." " For
my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I am


sure that I never read any memorable news in a news-
paper." This refrain of opposition between the general
thoughts and feelings of mankind and his own, recurs
until it becomes comical, and we look for it. He refused
invitations to dine out, saying, " They make their pride
in making their dinner cost much ; I make my pride in
making my dinner cost little." One is irresistibly re-
minded of Plato's retort, when Diogenes said, " See how
I tread on the pride of Plato/' " Yes, with greater

But he more than asserts his difference ; he explicitly
proclaims his superiority : " Sometimes when I compare
myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored
by the gods than they." " When I realize the greatness
of the part I am unconsciously acting, it seems as if there
were none in history to match it." Speaking of the scarlet
oaks, he acids with Italics : "These are my china-asters, my
late garden-flowers ; it costs me nothing for a gardener."
The unlikeness of genius to mediocrity is a fact, but not a
fact of that relative momentousness entitling it to mo-
nopolize attention. He makes a great ado about his ab-
sorbing occupation ; his sacred engagements with himself;
his consequent inability to do anything for others, or to
meet those who wished to see him. In the light of this
obtrusive trait the egotistic character of many passages
like the following becomes emphatic : " Only think, for
a moment, of a man about his affairs ! How we should
respect him ! How glorious he would appear ! A man
about his business would be the cynosure of all eyes."
He evidently had the jaundice of desiring men to think
as well of him as he thought of himself; and, when they
would not, he ran into the woods. But he could not es-
cape thus, since he carried them still in his mind.

His quotations are not often beautiful or valuable, but
appear to be made as bids for curiosity or admiration, or
to produce some other sharp effect ; as they are almost
invariably strange, bizarre, or absurd: culled from ob
scure corners, Damodara, lamblichus, the Vishnu Purana,
or some such out-of-the-way source. He seems to take
oddity for originality, extravagant singularity for depth


and force. His pages are profusely peppered with pun-
gent paradoxes and exaggerations, a straining for sen-
sation, not in keeping with his pretence of sufficing repose
and greatness: "Why should I feel lonely? is not our
planet in the Milky Way?" "All that men have said or
are, is a very faint rumor ; and it is not worth their while
to remember or refer to that." He exemplifies, to an
extent truly astonishing, the great vice of the spiritual
hermit ; the beJittling, because he dislikes them, of things
ordinarily considered important ; and the aggrandizing,
because he likes them, of things usually regarded as in-
significant. His eccentricities are uncorrected by colli-
sion with the eccentricities of others, and his petted
idiosyncrasies spurn at the average standards of sanity
and usage. Grandeur, dissociated from him, dwindles
into pettiness ; pettiness, linked with his immense ego,
dilates into grandeur. In his conceited separation he
mistakes a crotchet for a consecration. If a worm crosses
his path, and he stops to watch its crawl, it is greater than
an interview with the Duke of Wellington.

It is the wise observation of Lavater, that whoever
makes too much or too little of himself has a false meas
ure for everything. Few persons have cherished a more
preposterous idea of self than Thoreau, or been more per-
sistently ridden by the enormity. This false standard of
valuation vitiates every moral measurement he makes.
He describes a battle of red and black ants before his
wood-pile at Walden, as if it were more important than
Marathon or Gettysburg. His faculties were vast, and his
time inexpressibly precious : this struggle of the pismires
occupied his faculties and time ; therefore this struggle of
the pismires must be an inexpressibly great matter. A
trifle, plus his ego, was immense ; an immensity, minus
his ego, was a trifle. Is it a haughty conceit or a noble
loftiness that makes him say, " When you knock at the
Celestial City, ask to see God, none of the servants " ?
He says, " Mine is a sugar to sweeten sugar with : if you
will listen to me, I will sweeten your whole life." Again,
" I would put forth sublime thoughts daily, as the plant
puts forth leaves." And yet again, " I shall be a ber.e-


factor if I conquer some realms from the night, if I
add to the domains of poetry." After such manifestos,
we expect much. We do not find so much as we natu-
rally expect.

He was rather an independent and obstinate thinker
than a powerful or rich one. His works, taken in their
whole range, instead of being fertile in ideas, are marked
by speculative sterility. " He was one of those men," a
friendly but honest critic says, " who, from conceit or dis-
appointment, inflict upon themselves a seclusion which
reduces them at last, after nibbling everything within
reach of their tether, to simple rumination and incessant
returns of the same cud to the tongue." This unsympa-
thetic temper is betrayed in a multitude of such sentences
as this : " O ye that would have the cocoanut wrong side
outwards ! when next I weep I will let you know." Tho-
reau is not the true type of a great man, a genuine master
of life, because he does not reflect greatness and joy over
men and life, but upholds his idea of his own greatness
and mastership by making the characters and lives of
others little and mean. Those who, like Wordsworth and
Channing, reverse this process, are the true masters and
models. A feeling of superiority to others, with love and
honor for them, is the ground of complacency and a con-
dition of chronic happiness. A feeling of superiority to
others, with alienation from them and hate for them, is
the sure condition of perturbations and unhappiness.

Many a humble and loving author who has nestled
amongst his fellow-men and not boasted, has contributed
far more to brace and enrich the characters and sweeten
the lives of his readers than the ill-balanced and unsatis-
fied hermit of Concord, part cynic, part stoic, who strove
to compensate himself with nature and solitude for what
he could not wring from men and society. The extrava-
gant estimate he put on solitude may serve as a corrective
of the extravagant estimate put on society by our hives
of citizens. His monstrous preference of savagedoin to
civilization may usefully influence us to appreciate natural
unsophisticatedness more highly, and conventionality more
lowly. As a teacher, this is nearly the extent of his nar-


row mission. Lowell, in a careful article, written after
reading all the published works of Thoreau, says of him :
" He seems to us to have been a man with so high a con-
ceit of himself, that he accepted without questioning,
and insisted on our accepting, his defects and weaknesses
of character, as virtues and powers peculiar to himself.
Was he indolent, he finds none of the activities which
attract or employ the rest of mankind worthy of him.
Was he wanting in the qualities that make success, it
is success that is contemptible, and not himself that lacks
persistency and purpose. Was he poor, money was an
unmixed evil. Did his life seem a selfish one, he
condemns doing good, as one of the weakest of super-

In relation to the intellectual and moral influence of
solitude, the example of Thoreau, with all the alleviating
wisdom, courage, and tenderness confessedly in it, is
chiefly valuable as an illustration of the evils of a want
of sympathy with the community. Yet there is often a
deep justice, a grandly tonic breath of self-reliance, in his
exhortations. How sound and admirable the following
passage : " If you seek the warmth of affection from a
similar motive to that from which cats and dogs and
slothful persons hug the fire, because your temperature is
low through sloth, you are on the downward road. Better
the cold affection of the sun, reflected from fields of ice
and snow, or his warmth in some still wintry dell. Warm
your body by healthful exercise, not by cowering over a
stove. Warm your spirit by performing independently
noble deeds, not by ignobly seeking the sympathy of your
fellows who are no better than yoi "self."

Though convinced of the justice of this sketch, the
writer feels rebuked, as if it wen. not kind enough, when
he remembers the pleasure he has had in many of the
pages of Thoreau, and the affecting scene of his funeral
on that beautiful summer day in the dreamy town of
Concord. There was uncommon love in him, but it felt
itself repulsed, and, too proud to beg or moan, it put on
stoicism and wore it until the mask became the face.
His opinionative stiffness and contempt were his hurt self-


respect protecting itself against the conventionalities and
scorns of those who despised what he revered and revered
what he despised. His interior life, with the relations
of thoughts and things, was intensely tender and true,
however sorely ajar he may have been with persons and
with the ideas of persons. If he was sour, it was on a
store of sweetness ; if sad, on a fund of gladness.

While we walked in procession up to the church, though
the bell tolled the forty-four years he had numbered, we
could not deem that he was dead whose ideas and senti-
ments were so vivid in our souls. As the fading image
of pathetic clay lay before us, strewn with wild flowers
and forest sprigs, thoughts of its former occupant seemed
blent with all the local landscapes. We still recall with
emotion the tributary words so fitly spoken by friendly
and illustrious lips. The hands of friends reverently
lowered the body of the lonely poet into the bosom of
the earth, on the pleasant hillside of his native village,
whose prospects will long wait to unfurl themselves to
Another observer so competent to discriminate their fea-
tures and so attuned to their moods. And now that it is
too late for any further boon amidst his darling haunts

There will yet his mother yield

A pillow in her greenest field,

Nor the June flowers scorn to cover

The clay of their departed lover.


MAURICE DE GUERIN, born in Southern France, in 1810,
of an ancient and noble but impoverished family, was
graced with such personal gifts as to attract extreme in-
terest from his associates, and endowed with literary tal-
ents which have gained him an enviable fame by the few
exquisite works bequeathed when he died, at the early
age of twenty-nine. His sister Eugenie, and his friends,
Trebutien, La Morvonnais, Marzan, Sainte-Beuve, George
Sand, and others, have secured the publication of his brief
compositions, drawn attention to their singular charm, and


paid tributes to his memory not soon to be forgotten.
Nothing of the kind can be more interesting than the
peculiarities of constitution and experience which made
the character of this gifted young man so shy and lonely,
his career so unhappy, his death so pathetic, the image
of him left behind so strangely attractive and sad.

At twelve, the tender boy, " poor bird exiled from his
native turrets," went to Toulouse to study at a seminary
there ; afterwards to the College Stanislas in Paris. At
a later period, he returned home, and tarried in the midst
of domestic love and the stillest seclusion. But, inwardly
wounded, unhappy, uncertain, he was drawn in heart and
fancy alternately to a brilliant career in the world, and to
the mystic life of a religious retreat. The following strik-
ing passage is a transcript from his own soul ; " Which is
the true God ? The God of cities, or the God of deserts ?
To which to go ? Long-cherished tastes, impulses of the
heart, accidents of life, decide the choice. The man of
cities laughs at the strange dreams of the eremites : these,
on the other hand, exult at their separation, at finding
themselves, like the islands of the great ocean, far from
continents, and bathed by unknown waves. The most to
be pitied are those who, flung between these two, stretch
their arms first to the one, then to the other." The last
sentence describes his own state for a long time. He
at length came under the influence of the renowned
Lamennais, whose disciples he joined at La Chenaie.
Amidst the wild scenery of Brittany, with a group of
enthusiastic young men of genius and devotion, under
the eye of the fascinating master whose combination of
Catholicism and Democracy, whose electric words, whose
conflict and subsequent rupture with the papacy, caused
such a sensation in that day ; whose soul was so torn,
and whose end so tragic, Maurice remained for nine
months. But he was made for a poet rather than for a
devotee. The attraction of nature and letters overpow-
ered that of faith and the cloister. And one day, with
deep emotion, he said farewell to his venerated master,
parted from his beloved comrades, and heard the gates
of the little paradise of La Chenaie shut behind him.


He paused on his way to Paris at the romantic home
of his friend La Morvonnais. " Behold how good Prov-
idence is to me ! For fear the sudden transition from the
softly-tempered air of religious solitude to the torrid zone
of the world would try my soul too severely, it has drawn
me from my sanctuary into a house raised on the bordet
of the two regions, where, without being in solitude, one
still does not belong to the world ; a house whose win-
dows open, on the one side upon the plain covered with
the tumult of men, on the other upon the desert where
the servants of God are singing ; there upon the ocean,
here upon the woods." He went to the capital in which
the ambition, intellect, and pleasure of the world are con-
centrated. His religious interest died down. He drank
the cup which the senses are offered in that wondrous be-
wilderment of prizes, perils, delights, agonies, the fo-
cus of the luxuries and excitements of the earth. A hard
struggle with obscurity and poverty, interspersed with
ominous illness, with a few visits to dear Cayla, followed
by his happy marriage, crowned in less than a year by his
death, and the bitter-sweet story of his outer life was

Guerin was one of those natures gifted with vast
powers of intuition and sentiment, but small powers of
organization and execution, who exceedingly interest
others, but are unable to be sufficiently interested them-
selves, and therefore early become the victims of depres-
sion, weariness, sickness, and death. His nervous sys-
tem was of that ethereal and ravenous temperament,
which, not able to appropriate accordant and adequate
nutriment from without, preys upon itself. Preternatu-
rally sensitive to ideal hurts and helps, he nursed those
delicious sadnesses which devour vitality while they feed
sentiment. He felt his thoughts and emotions as though
they were material pictures, solid objects passing through
his imagination all alive, conscious atoms swimming in
the bosom of the soul. Consequently, matters of the
inner life which would be to others only trifling impres-
sions were colossal portents to him, electrifying blisses
or overwhelming agonies. He seemed to possess marvel-


lous modes of intellection and emotion of his own, sweet-
er and vaguer than are known by common mortals ; " an
intoxication of delicious monotony and languor ; a half
sleep, empty of thought, yet full of enchanting dreams
of beautiful things." Too rich to be insensible to the
wealth and loveliness of the universe, too poor to be able
to grasp and fix the divine shapes in solid forms of art, he
was torn between aspiration and weakness, will and want.
Few souls ever turned so lucid a mirror to the phenome-
na of nature, or were so intensely conscious of what oc-
curred within them, as his. Musing on a fearful tem-
pest, he said, " Strange and admirable, these moments of
sublime agitation joined with profound reverie, wherein
the soul and nature, arrayed in all their grandeur, lift
themselves face to face." At times, he said, he could
hear at the bottom of his being faint murmurs marking
the return of life from afar. " These rustling rumors are
produced by my thoughts, which, rising out of their dolo-
rous torpor, make a light agitation of timid joy, and be-
gin conversations full of memories and hopes." What
a delicate revelation of his poetic softness of soul in this
sentiment, " Happy who sits on the top of the mountain,
and sees the lion bound and roar across the plain, with
no traveller or gazelle passing near ! "

He was fascinating both by demonstrativeness and by
reticence, his frankness and his mystery. His father said
that "in childhood his soul was often seen on his lips
ready to fly." His writings show a spiritual unveiling,
wonderful in quality and quantity. Yet he says, " That
which every man of a certain choice nature guards with
the greatest vigilance, is the secret of his soul and of the
closest habits of his thoughts. I love this god Harpoc-
rates, his finger on his lip." And Sainte-Beuve says,
" He loved only on the surface, and before the first cur-
tain of his soul : the depth, something behind, remained
mysterious and reserved." He was unlike those about
him, and the strange difference drew them, while it es-
tranged him. The superlative tenderness of his spirit
was a weakness that disqualified him for happiness among
the coarse, noisy natures of the commonalty, and made


him in all things shrink from the vulgar, and yearn to the
select ; detest the commonplace, and adore the sublime.
He said the reading of Chateaubriand's Rene dissolved
his soul like a rain-storm. He complained greatly of the
loss in society of all simple and primitive tastes, the
sophistication and destruction of the naive virgin senti-
ments of the soul. Feeling himself solitary, excommu-
nicated, diffident, and embarrassed, he often regarded the
intrepidity and effrontery of more audacious though in-
ferior men, his associates, with admiration, and almost
envy : they, on the other hand, recognized his rare gifts,
plied him with compliments, urged him forward, rallied
him with jests on his shrinking self-depreciation and fear.
He wrote in his journal, " To me it is insupportable to
appear other before men than one is before God. My
severest punishment at this instant is the extravagant es-
timate formed of me by some beautiful souls." Again :
" I lose half of my soul in losing solitude. I enter the
world with a secret horror." Going into Paris, " trem-
bling and shivering as a. scared deer," distrustful of him-
self, and afraid of men, he prays, " My God ! close my
eyes ; keep me from the sight of the multitude, the view
of whom raises in me thoughts so bitter, so discouraging.
Let me traverse the crowd, deaf to the noise, inaccessi-
ble to the impressions which crush me as I pass through
it. Place before my eyes, instead, a vision of something
I love, a field, a vale, a moor, Le Cayla, Le Val, an
image of some object of nature."

The isolation and unhappiness of this poor youth were
unspeakably piteous. At eighteen, he speaks of being
" possessed by an inveterate melancholy, and fed on a
sad diet of regrets and miseries." It is obvious that he
was never a misanthrope or an indifferentist, but painfully
concerned about his fellow-men. He had an absorbing
ambition in combination with a haunting sense of a lack
of the organic strength and perseverance necessary to
sustain the tremendous labors which alone could ever
purchase the proud attainments he coveted. This am-
bition, and this conviction of defect, kept him making
comparisons, personal, artistic, critical ; and constantly


lowered him in his own eyes, distressed him and preyed
on him. In one of his moods of keen self-scrutiny, he
isks, " Why am I so depressed by the sight of mediocre
productions ? Is it a dolorous pity for that saddest of all
spectacles, powerless vanity ? Or is it conscience, and
return upon myself? " His own halting works and futile
efforts, set against the models of the great masters and
the standards of perfection which his imagination re-
vealed, were a contrast too sharp for his peace ; and, in
the annihilation of complacency, he laid his face in the
dust with bitter sorrow. In a youthful letter to his con-
fessor, he writes, " Poverty and sorrow are hereditary in
my family : the most of my ancestors died in misfortune.
I believe this has had an influence on my character.
Why should not the sentiment of unhappiness communi-
cate itself with the blood, when we see fathers transmitting

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 28 of 35)