William Rounseville Alger.

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

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and poetic associations.

There are topics appropriate for speech, which nat-
urally find utterance in address or conversation ; there
are other topics meet but for private contemplation and
ordering, which find fit expression only in soliloquy.
This subject has been treated with admirable precision
and grace in two discourses on " The Sphere of Silence,"
by an English divine. They are to be found in that series
of wonderful discourses by James Martineau, entitled
" Endeavours After the Christian Life." * The naked
verities of religion dwell in the last penetralia of our
being where no mortal communion can reach. The
knowledge and love of them must ever be a recluse ex-
perience, because their grandeur is so great as to monop-
olize the attention it secures, and because their modesty
is such that they die away at the first proposal of exhi-
bition or flattery. They will bestow their fellowship and
reveal their forms in the dark mirror of the mental holy
of holies, only when every wind of the world is whist,
and a silence as of the primordial solitude reigns through-
out the spaces of the soul. For experiences celestially
fine and sensitive as these, public comparison, giddy
talk, any sort of notoriety, is desecration. To strew
pearls before the unclean who will turn and rend you for
it, is an outrage on all that is fit ; those of swinish char-
acter, having no taste for adorning themselves, but only a
greed for coarse food, must be expected to turn angrily
on the inconsiderate man who disappoints with indigest-
ible jewelry their appetite for corn. A drunkard dis-
paraging or eulogizing temperance, a harlot descanting

* Each one of these most beautiful and most valuable discouises
is a key to some important compartment of human experience. He
who really masters them carries thenceforth a precious bunch of the
keys of life.


on the nature of virtue, or an epicure discussing the
worth of denial and heroism, is an odious spectacle.
The highest instincts of the soul demand moral con-
gruity. Who could endure to pour the weird strains of
Mendelssohn's Dream amidst the rattling of the square
and the mart ? Who would not rather hide the pictures
of Perugino forever than display them on the walls of a
slaughter-house ? There are pure and holy women who
never expose their charms or share their delights with
the world, as there are lakes that, on the untrodden tops
of mountains, like eyes of the earth, look only up to
heaven. Every virgin solitude is perfumed with the
Divine presence, and balsamic for mental bruises. Di-
vinely drawn, the soul flees thither to be the guest of
God, and Silence is the sentinel of their interview. A
retired and self-guarded life of devotion to nature is like
a priestly life of temple-worship ; as a German woman
of genius has said, " When the boy Ion steps before the
portals, and signs to the flying storks not to defile the
roof, when he sprinkles the threshold with sparkling water,
and cleans and decorates the halls, I feel in this solitary
occupation a lofty mission which I must reverence. Ah,
I too would be a youth, to fetch water in the fresh morn-
ing, while all yet slumber, to polish the marble pillars
and bathe the statues, to cleanse everything from dust
until it glistens in the gloaming; and then, when the
work is done, to rest my hot brow on the cool marble,
rest the bosom that palpitates with emotion at the beauty
which breaks into the temple with the dawn."

There is a suitableness of person, of scene and season,
required for the unveiling of the secrets, and the con-
templation of the treasures, of affection. Refined and
thoughtful must be the person, not harsh and reckless ;
the scene and season, not obtrusive and noisy, but re-
tired and still. Whatever reeks and roars with the rush-
ing world, shocks and defiles. Pure and pensive solitude
is the setting that woos the living pictures. Nor is there
any one wholly destitute of this lonely companionship
of love, this saddening wealth of joy. The veriest wretch
in the world has some dear memory, some beautiful long-


ing, some guarded ideal, so fondly prized that he loves
to set apart secret moments for pilgrimages to its inner
sanctuary, there to worship, perhaps to weep, where no
eye can see and no ear can hear. So even the most su
perficial votary of fashion, the most inconsiderate retailer
of petty scandals, has her times of uncompanionable re-
flection, unfathomable emotion and desire. Occasionally
this is found to be true in cases where it would have been
least suspected, so carefully had it been concealed.
Reckless critics often make the crudest misjudgments
here. Not unfrequently those thirsting most for love
shrink most from notice. Obscurity is their shield.

What can be so melancholy as to have sacred experi-
ences, which ache for expression and sympathy, and not
dare to expose them for fear of repulse or ridicule? It
is more melancholy not to have them. The glorious, sad
solitude of one devoted to the highest ends, who can find
no comrades, who roams the streets at night, weeping,
longing for some one to walk and talk with him, to aspire
and work with him, is more to be admired than to be
pitied. The weeping is indeed a weakness, but it ex-
presses a strength. To call such an one an egotist or a
sentimental fool, to laugh or sneer at his pain, is a wicked
heartlessness, however often it is done. The wealth of a
soul is measured by how much it can feel ; its poverty, by
how little. God hands gifts to some, whispers them to
others. In the former the divine charm is followed by
immediate popular recognition : in the latter it is usually
hidden for a long time from all except the deep-souled
and deep-seeing few. It is not improbable that the truest
saints have never been heard of:

Too divinely great
For Fame to sully them with state,

they have modestly offered themselves up to the UNI-
VERSAL in seclusion and silence.

There is an hour, the transition between day and night,
celebrated by the poets, with Dante at their head, which
fine souls in all ages have felt as the votive season of
sentiment, pensive twilight, the dim-tinted habitation


of solitude and sacredness, hailed with mountain-horns
and hymns, bells and prayers, while Nature herself, half
steeped in roseate hues, half mantled in shadow, seems
to be tenderly musing.

Soft hour which wakes the wish and melts the heart
Of those who sail the seas, on the first day
When they from their sweet friends are torn apart;
Or fills with love the pilgrim on his way,
As the far bell of vesper makes him start,
Seeming to weep the dying day's decay.

It is the favorite hour of all poetic lovers who have ever
consecrated it to their beloved, love they what they may;
when they retreat by themselves from " the thick solitudes
called social," to indulge and nourish their master-senti-
ment ; when sensitive genius keeps tryst with its idolized
ideal, the betrothed keep tryst together, and saints keep
tryst with the spirit of devotion and their God.

The Solitude of Occtipatlon.

PURSUING our subject a step further, we come to a sep-
arated experience, resulting neither from the injured sensi-
bility of grief, nor from the enshrined devoted ness of
love, but from lack of room for forms of extra fellowship.
It is the solitude of an absorbing occupation. Whatever
fills the capacity of the soul, of course, for the time, ex-
cludes everything else ; and there thus results an apparent
singleness and separation. Augustine, struggling in the
crisis of his conversion, in the chamber of his friend
Alypius, says, "I was alone even in his presence.'
This principle is the key to one of the marked varieties
of the isolation in human life. A man with a great mis-
sion, an intense passion for some definite object, is there-
by set apart from the common crowd of associates whose
free impulses are ready to respond to every random ap-
peal. He has no loose energies to spare in reaction on
stray chances or incoherent claims : his whole soul is
g'.ven to the one aim and its accompaniments. Some-
times an illusion, fastening in the mind, appropriates the


thoughts and passions as its food, and makes the man its
servant Others laugh at his absurdity, or turn carelessly
from him as an oddity. Elated with his error, fondling
his idol, he heeds not their scorn or their neglect. Lost
in his idiosyncratic joy or anxiety, hugging his peculiar
purpose to his breast, he drifts through the frigid wilder-
ness of society, as essentially alone as a sailor lashed to
a spar on the ocean.

Dante was made lean for many years by the exactions
of his supreme poem. Devouring his time, thought, feel-
ing, soul, in his wanderings and poverty, it made him
passing solitary among men, and kept him stern, sad, and
serene on a wondrous fund of tenderness and vehemence.
Ceaselessly quarrying at the rock of eternal flame and
fame, he conquered daily peace. If not thus absorbed
how his mighty heart must have gnawed itself, and the
insect swarm of care, hate, and sorrow have stung him

Who could be more distinctively by himself than Co-
lumbus, made a lonely visionary by a sublime dream
which he had determined to embody in a visible demon-
stration of fact before the world. Equally solitary in his
soul and in his design, whether pacing the strand, buried
in thought, or reasoning with the monks of Salamanca,
his scheme absorbed him, his originality set him on a
pedestal above the heads of living men, among the illus-
trious pioneers of history, of whom he claimed lineage,
with whom he felt his place and sympathy to be.

Every first-rate mechanician or inventor who has cre-
ated astonishing machines, has been remarkable for his
absolute abstraction from outward things, and his intense
interior absorotion during the incubation of his projects.
All discords oz schemers of the highest order, all in-
tense idealists and workers, are in this manner taken
possession of by their destined vocation. And thence-
forth they know nothing else. Conversing with theii
thoughts, toiling at their plans, devising methods, or im
agining the results of success, they walk up and down,
deaf to every foreign solicitation and to every impedi
ment. Come what will their task engrosses them, their


fate cries out, and all else must give way. Such men are
essentially alone ; though it is an unresting, contentful
isolation, unlike the vacant, asking isolation of unab-
sorbed men. Its proper type is the loneliness of a water-
fall in the bosom of unreclaimed nature ; or the loneli-
ness of a beehive in a hollow oak in the heart of the
untrodden forest.

We must not overlook, however, the wide difference
between a solitude felt as such in pain and pining, which
implies unappropriated powers, and is a condition of
misery, and the solitude which is unconscious, wherein
the soul is self-sufficing, its occupation leaving nothing
unsupplied for the time, no wish for external sympathy or
help. The latter is one of the happiest forms of life, in
spite of its somewhat withdrawn and melancholy aspect.
Apart from social interchanges, it may appear dreary and
monotonous ; but it is not so. Mendelssohn was re-
peatedly known to wander through crowds, with abstract-
ed face, soliloquizing strains of music to himself, lost, in
this improvisation, to all about him. On writing the last
sentence of his " Decline and Fall of the Roman Em-
pire," Gibbon looked up at Mont Blanc, and drew a deep
sigh. " The sudden departure of his cherished and ac-
customed toil, left him, as the death of a dear friend
would, sad and solitary."

In fact, for solid happiness and peace, there are none
more favored than those blessed with a master-passion
and a monopolizing work. In the congenial employment
thus secured, the earnestness of their faculties is called
out and dedicated. They thus find for themselves and
in themselves an independent interest, dignity, and con-
tent, together with exemption from most of the vexatious
temptations by which those are beset whose enjoyment
rests on precarious contingencies beyond their own
power. An enthusiastic ornithologist, like Audubon or
Wilson, roaming through trackless forests and prairies
beyond the outermost haunts of civilization, busy now
with rifle and knife, now with brush and palette, lover of
nature, lover of beauty, lover of solitude, lover of his
chosen pursuits, what matchless health and cheer and


delight and peace are his ! Palissy the potter, clad in
rags, starving, burning his last chair as fuel for his experi-
ments, his haggard wife and children almost fancying
him insane, was by no means the unhappiest of men.
Inspired by a splendid hope, already clutching the prize,
he wist not of hunger or of sneers ; thrills of rare bliss
visited his breast, and bankers and cardinals might well
have envied him. When we think of the astronomer in
his secluded tower, in the gloom, hour by hour turning
his glass on the unbreathing heaven, peering into the
nebulous oceans, or following the solemn wanderers;
when we notice the lamp of some poor student, burning
in his window, his shadow falling on the tattered curtain
where he sits with book and pen, night after night, " out-
watching the Bear and Thrice-great Hermes," we may
fancy that he leads a tedious and depressing life. Ah,
no. The august fellowship of eternal laws, the thought
of God, the spirits of the great dead, kindling ideas and
hopes, the lineaments of supersensual beauty, glorious
plans of human improvement, dispel his weariness,
cheer every drooping faculty, illumine the bleak cham-
ber, and make it populous with presences of grandeui
and joy. The solitude is unreal, for he is absorbingly
busy. He is alone, but not lonely.

When with a great company one listens to fascinat-
ing music, gradually the spell begins to work ; little by
little the soft wild melody penetrates the affections,
the subtle harmony steals into the inmost cells of the
brain, winds in honeyed coils around every thought, until
consciousness is saturated with the charm. We forget
all. Distraction ceases, variety is gone. Spectators,
chandeliers, theatre, disappear. The world recedes and
vanishes. The soul is ravished away, captive to a strain,
lost in bewilderment of bliss, its entire being concentra-
ted in a listening act ; and we are able to believe the old
legend of the saint who, caught up into paradise by over-
hearing the song of the Blest, on awakening from his
entrancement found that a thousand years had passed
while he was hearkening. Such is the solitude of ab-
sorption, when it touches its climax. He is wise who


endeavors to know something of its elevation and bless-
edness by giving his soul to those supernal realities
which are worthy to take his absolute allegiance, and
swallow him up. Though such an one lives in solitude,
the solitude itself is inexpressibly sociable.

The Solitude of Selfishness.

TURNING to still another province of the subject, we
Qnd a less congenial topic awaiting us. There is a re-
pulsive species of loneliness very different in its origin
and nature from the forms thus far portrayed. It may
be designated the solitude of meanness or guilt. Of all
the unfelluwshipping styles of life this is the bleakest
and the mobt unamiable. In fact, the other moods of
segregate experience, however sad or painful they may
be, are not ignoble nor pernicious. But the persons who
here come under notice, with their ominous habits of
aloofness, are marked by gloomy or narrow and des-
picable qualities which cause them to be disliked and
shunned. To enjoy company we must be able to trust
each other, frankly unbosom ourselves, think similar
thoughts, feel accordant emotions, blend hearts in unre-
served surrender to common influences. The action and
reaction of souls in the same manner and on the same
objects, is the fruition of friendship, the experience
of harmonized states of consciousness sympathetically
awakened and sympathetically changing. But this is
comparatively the prerogative of the virtuous, the tender,
the disinterested. In proportion as any one is morose
and hateful his cold or jealous vileness cuts him off from
the happiness of genuine fellowship. Wherever he may
be he is alone. To be destitute of sympathy is the very
solitude of solitude, no matter what the circumstances.
whether from the window of a diligence you look with
aching heart on a village merry-making, or pause, risen
above the clouds, a solitary wanderer, amid the glacial
sea, gazing in horror on iis dumb desolation. And if
absence of sympathy be the essence of loneliness, who


so lonely as the cold earthlings who form the various
embodiments of selfishness, who take no interest in oth-
ers except to make use of them, giving no impulsive love,
asking none. The heartless, it is certain, cannot perform
the functions nor enjoy the satisfactions of heart. They
may not know the difference themselves, their very im-
poverishment securing them immunity from the pangs of
baffled affection, so that they do not suffer from conscious
and painful isolation. Only the loving pine for love.
The most unsympathetic, obviously, will care least for
society. But the repulsive solitude in which the inca-
pacity of their mutilated natures imprisons them, pre-
serves one of its aspects of penalty in undiminished
reality. If they are not aware of the negative, to lan-
guish under its deprivations, neither can they possess the
positive, to thrill with its bestowments. Such an one
dwells unconsciously chained in a movable prison which
he carries around him wherever he goes, which hopelessly
shuts the sweetest boons of existence from access to his
soul ; and though that prison is invisible to him, every
other eye discerns it. Thus the miser, whose sordid love
of money receives all other feelings into its sea-like pas-
sion, who withdraws every fibre of his soul from friend
and foe, from truth and beauty, to cling exclusively around
his yellow heaps, isolated within his squalid show of rags
and penury, when he retires to gloat secretly over his
hoards, does not himself feel lonely ; but to those who
regard him he seems profoundly so. They see him, the
abject outcast, as an unclean waif tossed into the sewer
of society from the gutter of civilization. They give him
a glance of contemptuous pity in passing, somewhat as
they would fling a bone to a starving dog. Is not such
a life a horrible loneliness ? Outwardly viewed, it is a
fearful solitude ; although inwardly it may swarm with
an obscene activity of greed and complacency.

There is, then, an experience carried on within itself,
quite aloof from the joyous companionship of life, not
for lack of time and space for social interchange, but
from want of the personal material and conditions. This
is the solitude of a heartless or wicked breast. A man


locked up in a shrivelled and frigid self-hood, with no
living currents of faith and love between him and his
fellow-creatures, is as much alone amidst a Parisian holi-
day, surrounded by a bedecked and huzzaing world of
humanity, as the traveller who loses his way, benighted
in the centre of a Polish forest, and, in the drifted snow,
leans against a tree, starving and freezing, while the dis-
tant yell of wolves is borne to his ears.

A Greek philosopher, referring to two opposite kinds
of loneliness, experienced from antithetical causes, said
that he who loved solitude must be either a god or a
beast. He only stated the truth a little extravagantly.
Man is made for society and brotherhood. He who is
content to dwell alone, then, without society or brother-
hood, is on a plane of endowment and desire either supe-
rior or inferior to that of common humanity, approximates
the level either of a divinity or of a brute. In other
words, solitude may be approached by ascent or by de-
scent. There is the separation of the throne, and there
is the separation of the sty. Man may soar into experi-
ences too exalted and complex for easy communication
with comrades of the earth, too sublime and holy to be
vulgarized in plebeian speech, the solitude of a god.
Man may sink into experiences too poor and base to bear
articulation, too secret and selfish to be capable of sym-
pathy, the solitude of a beast. Thus one maybe alone
because he is above, or because he is beneath, the con-
ditions of satisfactory companionship with his neighbors.
While these two are alike in being isolated, the distinc-
tion between them traverses the entire distance from the
august to the despicable. The sentiment of the lonely
which invests the self-seeker in his plot differs from that
which surrounds the poet in his dream as the solitude of
the buzzard, picking his prey in the glen, differs from the
solitude of the sun, burning in the zenith.

The legitimate effect of sin, of everything that serves
private interest to the injury of the universal interest, is
to sunder and segregate. Evil bristles with negative
polarity, and would disintegrate the society in which it
prevails. On the other hand, the power of virtue leads


its subjects to commune, clasp, coalesce. The fox, tin
hawk, the leopard, from their selfish dispositions, are
solitary ; they shun a company that they may the better
pounce on their prey, and glut their appetite. But the
bees live in swarms, the friendly swallows fly in flocks
and build their nests in contiguity. Brave impulses and
magnanimous sentiments, every moral or religious affec-
tion, all qualities loyally allied to principles that subor-
dinate individual whims to the general good, are attrac-
tive, have a public regard, yearn spontaneously outward
to love and be loved, to bless and be blessed. They
draw men into groups, set the nerves of relationship vi-
brating, fill the channels of mutual life with invitation
and energy. This is the instinctive tendency of all rich
and gentle hearts, unless, as sometimes unhappily occurs,
tragic rebuffs, failures and sufferings teach them to ?ct
otherwise in self-defence. But ignoble passions, cruel
indulgence, all the suspicious and hateful characteristics
of selfishness, which would gratify the lawless craving of
the individual at the expense of the solemn and perma-
nent weal of the whole, naturally creep into secrecy,
and, repulsively electrized with fear and malignity, walk
apart there.

An intense feeling of solitude is produced in a man of
dark designs when his confederates turn against him and
desert him. In the revulsion from busy associates and
elated hopes to isolation, overthrow and despair, he must
feel a fearful loneliness. Wallenstein, betrayed by Gallas,
Piccolomini, Altringer, and nearly all the rest in whom
he had confided, standing solitary, overwhelmed, yet up-
right, amidst the ruins of his guilty projects, furnishes an
impressive instance. The superstitious dreams with which
he had linked his destiny to the stars, nursing his vast and
sombre ambition with astrological prognostics, only served
then to make his solitude more gigantic.

The fittest emblem of the solitude of a completely
selfish man moving about in society, is the loneliness of
an iceberg drifting amidst the crowds of waves, now
feebly glimmering with moonbeams, now shattering the
tempest on its breast, finally, honeycombed with rotten-


ness, toppling over and swallowed in the maw of the
maelstrom its own plunging makes. There are several
classes of persons who, as exiled from the open and
genial fellowship of life, are alone, even when, from their
egotistic absorption or their hardened indifference, they
are not lonesome. The cynic, who admires and enjoys
nothing, despises and censures everything, eager, morose,
his milk . of human kindness turned sour ; the misan-
thrope, whose blood has been turned into gall by decep-
tion or disease, a malevolent villain, whose first impulse
is to hate and avoid every one he meets, or to blast
them with his scorn ; the proud, haughtily holding their
heads aloft, snuffing the incense of their own conceit,
unable to stoop to the sweet offices of meek humanity,
fancying the earth too base for their feet, and other men
only good enough to be their servants ; the mean, all
whose experiences sneak in dark by-ways, too cowardly
to face the sun and the loving eyes of men, unable to

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 4 of 35)