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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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pered farewell, as on a wave sweeping him far up the
heavenly beach, but leaving us behind to struggle alone
in the dark flood.

The removal of customary objects of love, hope, and
care, the blasting of a cherished enterprise, the decay
of a once inspiring faith, around which our thoughts
danced in melodious measure "and the currents of our
emotions ran merrily, causes a revulsion, leaves behind
a wretched emptiness and a more wretched fulness, with
no joining channel between, which compose the very sub-
stance and anguish of lonesome sorrow. Such an expe-
rience is a natural consequence of a great defeat, flinging
the deep permanent shadow of disappointment athwart



ratf SOLi'iUDE OF GRIEF. 4!

the landscape of after-life. It is difficult to conceive of
a denser internal solitude than that which might enwrap
a defeated general, a captive king or queen, borne in tri-
umph over the Appian Way, through a fluctuating ocean
of Romans. Paulus yEmilius, five days before enjoying
the most brilliant triumph Rome had ever seen, lost one
of his two younger sons ; and three days after the tri-
umph he lost the other. He was borne like a god in his
car, through miles of glittering and shouting humanity,
amidst endless throngs of captives and chariots loaded
with spoils, his heart breaking within him. Past
glory and bliss set in an exile's memory against present
shame and woe, personal loss and sorrow contrasted with
public gain and exultation, is the very separation of sep-
aration. Such an image of loneliness, hard to surpass,
is presented in Keats's picture of old Kronos, the father
of the gods, dethroned and banished by the rebellious
young Zeus ;

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Sate gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone.

What an eloquent image of grief, and what a tragic pic-
ture of loneliness, is the prophet Jeremiah, with white
beard and broken harp, sitting on the ruins of Jerusalem,
when the heathen had ravaged the city of his idolatry,
and the darling hope of his life was blasted ! When out
of this bereft and forsaken lot a voice of lamentation is
heard, whose articulations are sobs, no wonder they sound
to the vulgar revellers of the world as the accents of a
strange tongue which they cannot understand. No won-
der, either, that the delicate and profound children of
misfortune and sadness should shrink from exposing their
afflictions to the superficial heirs of success and gayety,
but should rather flee into retirement, there to ease their
pangs with tears, and with exercises of trust and prayer
charm their souls into the embrace of nature and God.
Here we reach the loneliness of the closet, where no
echo of the roistering crew or the toiling crowd pene-
trates ; a retreat sacred to sad memory, healing thought,
and pious rites. I have seen, in an Alpine pass, a slow



42 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

deep-tinted mist wind itself around the cruel crags, splin-
tered peaks which stood like so many horrid tusks goring
the sky, wind itself around them till they seemed
couches soft enough for angels to furl their wings to re-
pose on. So, in its patient religious loneliness, does the
rich sensibility of genius gather beautiful associations
around the lacerating points and passes of grief, robbing
them of their harshness.

But besides the solitude shed around the afflicted by
their inward grief, they seek seclusion on account of the
exquisite state of their sensibilities, freshly torn and una-
ble to encounter the miscellaneous exposures of society.
The grieved heart, like the wounded deer, retreats into
solitude to bleed. Sometimes it is cruel, ah ! sometimes
it is kind, to leave the unhappy alone with his unhappi-
ness. The subject of a severe sorrow, the fibres of his
spirit rent from their habituated clingings, shrinking in
self-defence from every coarse contact, courts the secrecy
of his chamber, of lonely walks, or wraps himself in the
protection of an unnoticing absorption. The mind
bruised by the blows of calamity, the tendrils of its
affections hanging lacerated, is so susceptible in its sore-
ness that it cannot bear, even in thought, the collisions
of the careless. To its exacerbated tenderness every
breath is a shock, every touch torture. Under these cir-
cumstances the instinctive safeguard is the shelter of
silent loneliness. It has well been said, " Solitude is the
country of the unhappy." On the death of his darling
daughter Cicero fled from Rome to a still retreat whence
he wrote to his friend Atticus : " Nothing can be more
delightful than this solitude, nothing more charming
than this country place, the neighboring shore, and the
view of the sea. In the lonely island of Astura, on the
shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea, no human being disturbs
me ; and when early in the morning I retire to the leafy
recesses of some thick and wild wood, I do not leave it
till the evening. Next to my Atticus nothing is so dear
to me as solitude, in which I hold communion with phi-
losophy, although often interrupted by my tears." That
social usage which gives the afflicted an investiture em



THE SOLITUDE OF GRIEF. 43

blematic of their grief, happily seconds this instinct by
enabling them, in a degree, to carry their solitude with
them, even through street and market, in a mute appeal
to all considerate observers for a softened behavior in
their presence. Mourners, sphered by their dark garb in
a sacred and touching solitude, glide through the crowd,
shielded from whatever is unseemly, no sharp sound reach-
ing them save as muffled and blunted, everything frolic-
some or boisterous growing reverently sober as they
approach. Before the van of the army of grief the rude
cold waves of the world of mirth and harshness divide,
as if invisibly struck by a wand, and let the silent ranks
pass, untouched, between.

Not only, however, is the afflicted sufferer made lonely
by the deprivation of the cherished objects of fruition
whose loss grieves him. And not only does the shrinking
of his hurt feelings from every frequented scene to court
the curative calm and balm of silence and repose make
him feel solitary. There is still another element of de-
sertedness and pain in the case ; namely this. Any kind
or degree of experience which others cannot enter into
with us leaves us alone. And it is the very characteristic
of a keen and massive grief that it takes its subjects into
depths where the untried are unwilling to follow. Thus
is it that

Misery doth part
The flux of company.

The mother whose only child has been borne across the
shadowed threshold into the mysterious Nevermore, miss-
ing with unspeakable woe the darling nestler, as she be-
thinks her that the bright eyes are darkened, the sweet
voice hushed, the soft lips closed and cold forever, in her
convulsive desolateness feels as if all were gone : and,
since nobody else can quite feel so, she is alone.

Alone ! that worn out word,
So idly spoken, and so coldly heard :
Yet all that poets sing, and grief hath known
Of hope laid waste, knells in that word, ALONE !

In the glowing imagination of one person rises a goal



44 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

decked with a fragrant garland : in the pensive memory
of another stands a perpetual bier. How can there be
any assuasive communion between those whose states and
impulses are so opposed ? The widow of Herder, on the
anniversary of his death wrote to their dear common
friend, Jean Paul Richter : "I am alone to-day,- and in
the other world. It is the second of May." Could any
Babylonian be expected to enter into the feelings of the
expatriated Israelites when, weeping, they hung their
harps on the willows by the banks of Babel, and declared
themselves unable to sing the songs of the Lord in a
strange land ? The Siberian exile journeying over the
homeless plateau, wrapped in sables, on his huge snow-
shoes plodding wearily through the petrifying desolation,
thinking of home, encounters no one capable of repro-
ducing his emotions and reflecting them to him in reliev-
ing sympathy. Nor is the patriot, banished to fairer
lands, welcomed into the hospitable circles of a gentler
clime than his own, much less lonesome. For it is not
the absolute, but it is the relative, what is possessed or
missed in his consciousness, that makes man blithe or mel-
ancholy. In meeting the great agonies of experience
there must be solitude. For the commonalty of mankind
and the average hours of life are alien from the transcend-
ent touches of woe, incompetent to feel fitly for their
victims. There every soul that reaches knows its own
bitterness, and strangers intermeddle not. The wife,
robbed of the intimate companion of her existence, on
whom she leaned, with whom she associated every joy and
sorrow, hope and fear, clad in black, bending in monu-
mental memory by the thought of him with tears and
sighs, lonely as the weeping willow that droops over a
tomb, her voice mournful as the breeze that complains in
its branches at midnight, feels the whisper of frivolous
tongues as an intolerable burden, the presence of a throng
as a degradation and an insult. The tender Robertson,
on the death of a young daughter, wrote to one of his
friends : "I have just returned from putting my little
beautiful one myself into her grave, after a last look at her
placid countenance lying in her coffin. It was by starlight,



THE SOLITUDE OF GRIEF. 45

with only the sexton present ; but it was more congenial to
my heart to bury her so than in the midst of a crowd, in the
glaring daylight, with a service gabbled over her." He
does not use the word gabbled in any disrespect to the
service, but as a vent for his intense feeling of the sacri-
lege publicity would be to the holiness of his grief.

With the exception of rapturous love, there is no sym-
pathy in the world so intense and profound as that be-
tween those who have known the same griefs. One of
the chief services the highest souls render to lower ones
is to reveal to these their own sorrows, not experienced
in bleak and bitter nakedness, but associated with nobler
strengths, comforts, and supports. What a divinely sol-
acing music is mixed with the griefs of humanity, as their
echoes come back from the solitary heart of Jesus !
There is a Church of Grief whose members deeply and
tenderly know each other. A great element of power in
the bond between the afflicted Christian and the Saviour
is their fellowship in suffering. " He was tried in all
points like as we are." The penitent, in grief and guilt,
filled with devotional awe, lonely amidst the worshippers
that crowd the cathedral, sees the lonely face of Christ
lifted on the crucifix, and his heart leaps towards it with
a spasm of worshipping sympathy.

A person of great gifts but with a wearied mind and
a wounded heart, profoundly convinced of the vanity of
worldly honors and pleasures, and of the calming efficacy
of divine contemplations, resolved to enter on a monastic
life by joining the Port Royalists, and on doing so, laid
the following poem on the altar of their retreat.

O ye dark forests, in whose sombre shades

Night finds a noonday lair,
Silence a sacred refuge ! to your glades

A stranger worn with care
And weary of life's jostle, would repair.
He asks no medicine for his fond heart's pain;
He breaks your stillness with no piercing cry ;

He comes not to complain,

He only comes to die.

To die among the busy haunts of men
Were to betray his woe ;



4.6 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

But here these woods and this sequestered glen

No trace of suffering show.

Here would he die that none his love may know.
Ye need not dread his weeping, tears are vain ;
Here let him perish and unheeded lie ;

He comes not to complain,

He only comes to die.

Many poor hearts, long struggling in bitter forlornness
between thwarted aspirations and dissatisfying reali-
ties, at last break, and go down, unpitied, unnoticed.
Sometimes, borne out into the wilderness of grief without
a comrade to stanch our wounds, we are tempted to say.
There is no other gulf so wide and cold as that which
flows between heart and heart. Would you gain deliver-
ance from this grievous loneliness ? Seek it not, as so
many do, by lulling those importunate longings to rest in
the dismal shade of oblivion. Neither seek to escape by
a wilful avoidance of them in the rush and clamor of ex-
ternals. These are artificial expedients, temporary and
violent, and must ever prove, at last, in the deepest truth,
unwholesome and calamitous. The normal and divine
procedure is not to suppress nor to elude grief, but to
confront, cure, and improve it ; transforming it into some-
thing higher, and passing on to purer substance and
sweeter blessing in its assimilated and transfigured might.
So shall we hereafter retrace in our successive sorrows
the seasonal stages of our growth, and look back on our
wounds converted into ornaments. So shall we cast off
sufferings, hardships, misfortunes, and suspend them
along the ascending way of life, to be used as rounds and
steps for climbing into more magnanimous comprehen-
sion, firmer tenderness, loftier being. Then the blows of
time and fate will leave on our souls not disfiguring scars
but inserted buds, inoculating us to bear diviner fruit
The loneliness of an overwhelmed grief, as destitute of
religious faith as of human sympathy, is like that which

Broods

In winter nights o'er frost-bound solitudes,
Darkness, and ice, and stillness, all in one ;
A silence without life, a withering without sun.
But o'er that silence, when, at night's full noon,
Through breathless cloud, shimmers the glorious moon,



THE SOLITUDE OF LOVE. 47

the pale illumination of the frozen forest is like the beau-
tifying light shed on sorrow by religious belief and re-
solve.

The Solitude of Love.

VERY different from the forlorn retirement of grief, but
sometimes almost as exclusive in its kind, is the solitude
of love. That contrasts with this as the loneliness of
the closet with the loneliness of the grove. There, is
the oppression of an imprisoning limit ; here, the free-
dom of abounding impulse ; but in both alike, an isolat-
ing quality, a consecrating intensity, an insuperable
repugnance to the indiscriminate intercourse of the
world. In both, when at their height, the desire to be
alone is so keen that the subject of the experience feels
the presence of a single person to be equivalent to the
presence of a multitude. Then, as Ovid said, Nos duo
turba sum us.

Shall I whisper aloud,
That we two make a crowd ?

With all unwontedly earnest love mingles an obscure fore-
boding of wreck and loss, bereavement and agony, to
come. On its upper surface affection admits acquaint-
ances, to see their smiles, and to hear their words re-
echoed ; but in this lower deep, where the wonderful
omens move, it excludes curiosity, and even sympathy,
and broods alone with its unsharable bliss or its strange
presentiments of ill. Whether so rich a boon is felt to
be unsuited to the conditions of earth, too fair to last,
sure to provoke some envious power to blast it, I know
not. But truly so it is, that the finer any experience of
love becomes in our human relations, the more surely it
is haunted by a formless fear, dispensing, where it pre-
vails, an air of solitude, a lonesome misgiving, like that
derived from the undefined Fate which fills the back-
ground of a Greek tragedy.

There is a bitter loneliness resulting from the absence
and need of love, as well as a sweet loneliness resulting



4 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

fiom the presence of it. Few have felt this more sharply
than Charlotte Bronte ; and she has described it :
" Sometimes when I wake in the morning, and know that
Solitude, Remembrance, and Longing are to be almost my
sole companions all day through, that at night I shall
go to bed with them, that they will long keep me sleep-
less, that next morning I shall wake to them again,
I have a heavy heart of it." Charles Lamb, the exquis-
ite affectionateness of whose nature, with his poverty and
many bitter trials, made him especially susceptible of
such an experience, shows us a glimpse of his sufferings
from it in the poem he addressed to his friend Lloyd,
when the latter sought him out in London, " alone, ob-
scure, without a friend, a cheerless, solitary thing." He
says :

For this a gleam of random joy

Hath flushed my unaccustomed cheek ;

And, with an o'ercharged bursting heart,
I ieel the thoughts I cannot speak.

O, sweet are all the Muses' lays,
And sweet the charm of matin bird ;

'T was long since these estranged ears
The sweeter voice of friend had heard.

George MacDonald, referring to an English traveller
among the Swiss mountains, who snobbishly regarded all
but himself as intruders, well says : " Was there not
plenty of room upon those wastes for him and them ? Love
will provide a solitude in the crowd ; and dislike will fill
the desert itself with unpleasant forms."

Jesus is the supreme example of that loneliness which
is felt as a consequence of the greatness of the love with-
in and the smallness of the love without. " The foxes,"
he sighed, "have holes, and the birds of the air have
nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his
head." And when the Pharisee, at whose table he dined,
complained of the toleration he showed for the sinful
woman, what a world of lonely and sorrowing tenderness
is unveiled in his reply, " Simon, thou gavest me no
kiss ; but this woman hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are
forgiven : for she loved much."



THE SOLITUDE OF LOVE. 49

Vivid and profound love shrinks from communicating
its confidences, lest injury be done them, lest their hallow-
edness be profaned. Their delicacy is too ethereal for a
rough hand ; their vestal bloom is too holy for unconse-
crated spectators. Grief, in its soreness, allows only the
tender themes that are wonted and soothing to touch
its hurt fibres ; love, in its scrupulous sacredness, permits
only the trusted and adored object to come near and read
its confessions. The priest alone can be admitted to the
shrine. Numa felt not lonely in his cave, but when he
returned among the citizens. Interviews with any sacred
Egeria tend to unfit us for ordinary fellowships. The
dedicated privacy of a pure and modest heart cannot
expose its shaded secrets to vulgar lookers. The more
pertinaciously they explore, the more bashfully it shrinks
and veils. It can calmly brook no eye save that of God
and the elected one. Therefore, around this most choice
and sensitive experience there ever spreads a kind of
solitude. It is true that the experience resulting from
an access of fervent affection often has another aspect.
Its expansiveness makes it many times seem emphatically
social. " The heart, enlarged by its new sympathy with
one, grows bountiful to all." Nevertheless the phase of
the experience here insisted on is true too. Love affects
not the dusty highway, but the woodland path. It retires
to brood over its thick-clustering and honeyed thoughts.
The maiden, with the picture of her lover, runs not into
the crowd to gaze on it, but wanders into some umbra-
geous nook, where imagination may feed on itself, nor
fear rebuke from the ring-dove balancing on yonder
bough, or betrayal from that brook, the babbling tongue
of the glen.

Solitude is not only the sanctuary, it is also the nur-
sery, of sentiment ; where, brooding over itself in quiet,
and sympathetically brooding over whatsoever is friendly
to it, it grows deeper, and draws around itself an ever-
enlarging mass of nutritious associations. Petrarch, the
high Laureate of this feeling, sings :

From hill to hill I roam, from thought to thought,
With Love my guide ; the beaten path I fly,

3 &



50 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

For there in vain the tranquil life is sought.

If 'mid the waste well forth a lonely rill,

Or deep embosomed a low valley lie,

In its calm shade my trembling heart is still ;

And there, if Love so will,

I smile, or weep, or fondly hope, or fear.

That which is true of sentiment in general is true of a
just and genuine piety in particular. It is the shallow
that is garrulous, the deep is silent. The name of
Christ, the idea of Deity, the sense of eternity, the antici-
pation of heaven, the mysteries of sin and regeneration,
are things too solemn and sublime to be bandied from
mouth to mouth in technical debates and conventional
conferences. Cleaving to the marrow of life, to the
dividing asunder of spirit and flesh, they fitly appropriate
to themselves the most select and awful moments of med-
itation, the most secret and sanctified moods of affection,
when not a taint of passion befouls the heart, and the
fewest vestiges of earth linger on the mind. It is an
impressive fact that the subject of a religious conversion,
in the freshness of his experience, instinctively shrinks
from the world, seeks seclusion on some pilgrimage, or in
some convent. The ideas of God, purity, judgment, the
feelings of remorse, sanctification, joy, which have come
ir f o his soul with such revolutionizing power, are too
stupendous for gossip. They withdraw him. He knows
by instinct that he can maintain himself at their height
only in solitude. The Christian convert flies to the mon-
astery, to feed and hedge his faith with a guardian ritual ;
the Buddhist devotee betakes him to a sanctuary of the
contemplative Buddha, to muse and aspire ; the Brah-
manical ascetic journeys on, over hill and plain, his alms
dish in one hand, his staff in the other, alone, silent,
buried in a thought. Who that has any appreciation of
divine things, of what is becoming, can bear to drag these
innermost sanctities into the light, where a thousand dis-
cordant scrutinizers are gazing and listening, eager to
handle and to criticise ? No soul, save a hard and nar-
row one, can be otherwise than full of lonely awe when
confionting that thought of God before which the globe



THE SOLITUDE OF LOVE. 51

I's but a bubble, and the sky a shadow. Plotinus defined
the fruition of piety as " a flight of the alone to the
Alone." We always think of the oracles of the gods as
dropping in grove and grotto, not in street and stadium.
Lenau wrote to his friend, Anastasius Griin, from the
summit of the Alps, " Solitude is the mother of God in
man." When Jesus would pray he " went apart into a
mountain." Even to his dearest disciples, and that at a
time when the need of sympathy was sorest, he said,
"Tarry ye here while I go and pray yonder."

Few persons have genius and soul enough to experi-
ence the highest religious emotions at first hand. The
most can but poorly simulate and echo them, or copy
their forms and attitudes at a distance. Thus the gigantic
personalities, in whose tremendous powers and passions
the chief religious experiences and rites now current first
originated, come to be reproduced in dwarfed proportions
and faded hues, as though the motions of a figure whose
colossal bulk filled the space between earth and heaven
were seen reflected in diminishing mirrors as the postur-
ings of a puppet. To mirror livingly and originally the
transcendent realities and relations from whose corre-
spondences in consciousness the primal religious emo-
tions are born, requires a depth and translucency of
sensibility not possessed by one man out of a million.
The mighty objects and truths which create religion by
surpassing and baffling our powers, which engender in
our ignorance and weakness the dread sense of depend-
ence, wonder, and aspiration, refuse to reflect them-
selves in the shallow and turbid pools which poorer souls
furnish. Religion, therefore, is essentially lonely and not
social. The common notion to the contrary is a vulgar
fallacy ; a fallacy, however, almost unavoidable from the
intimate association of sociality with religious phenom-
ena. The true and pure religious emotions are essen-
tially solitary, and love only loneliness ; but the awe,
mystery, helplessness, connected with them terrify us and
force us to seek fellowship in our experience of them, as
a relief and reassurance. It will always be found that
for the exercise of their ultimate religious feelings the



52 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

highest, greatest, deepest souls irresistibly seek solitude,
unspeakably enjoy it, and shrink from society at such
times with insuperable repugnance. But to the multi-
tude the direct and solitary contemplation of their rela-
tions with the unknown and the infinite is too awful ; it
must be shared, diluted, relieved by organic fellowships



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 3 of 35)