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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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rise to the level of a generous sentiment, a noble enthu-
siasm, a momentary self-forgetfulness ; such as these,
destitute of the essential conditions of friendship, must
be deprived of all the best fruitions of human society.
The world and life must be to them comparatively what
they were to the leper of the Middle Age. This abomi-
nated outcast, clad in a coarse gray gown reaching from
head to foot, with the hood drawn over the face, went
about carrying in his hand an enormous rattle, called
Saint Lazarus's rattle, whose frightful sound warned every
human being to keep at a distance ; he was thus banished
from his fellow men by a cordon of disease and horror
drawn around him, which drove every one before it as he
advanced.

The tiger, in his awful strength and voracity, when he
forays in the trembling haunt of antelopes, .is not more
alone than the tyrant, wrapped in the pomps of power as
in robes of ice, shaking a nation with his murderous nod,
having a taster for every dish lest it be poisoned, wearing
a secret shirt of mail lest some assassin reach him. The
abandoned devotee of debauchery, giving full swing to
depraved propensities, now rioting in excommunicate



64 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

gratifications with sickening gusto, now shuddering with
nameless horrors and anguish, lurking in hidden retreats,
like Tiberius at Capri, exists in a hideous solitude. The
criminal is drearily alone ; temptation, struggle, guilt, re-
morse, despair, are the loneliest of experiences. Evil
seduces and assails, is embraced or vanquished, singly
and in private. Secretly and alone are we all led up into
the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

No one can be so unspeakably alone as the possessor
of a foul and dreadful secret which turns nature into a
listening confessional, and the disclosure of which he
feels would instantly discharge the thunderbolts of doom.
The prisoner of a guilty past, aching for communication,
yet shrinking from it with terror, dying for sympathy, yet
not daring to seek it, dwells in the most terrible of all
solitudes. The memory of his crime, charged with dire
bodements, fastened inextricably to his soul, he feels
as a victim bound to the stake, a distant girdle of faggots
burning towards him. Though agonizing for deliverance,
he fears to accept it : for, appalling as his loneliness is,
how can he bear society, when he knows that, at any in-
stant, the fatal secret sunk in the depths of his conscious-
ness may slip the shot from its shroud and bolt on his
horrified gaze !

There are things, as we thus see, too mean and bad to
be voluntarily disclosed, too wicked and terrible for a
trustful communion ; the fears they engender, the shocks
they would impart, and the dangers they threaten, keep
their subjects apart and taciturn in the suspicious and
sinister seclusion of an inner secrecy. The wickedest
man in the world is the most completely alone, in the ety-
mological sense of the word, that is, all one, sundered
fron these virtuous and blessed junctions with others
which properly make each man a part of the whole of
humanity.



1HE SOLITUDE OF GENIUS. 65



The Solitude of Genius.

THE extreme of experience just described is the lone-
liness of the leprous. On the other hand there are souls
occupied with matters so exaltedly noble and sensitive as
to be generally incommunicable. This extreme is the
loneliness of the laurelled. This class of men are lonely
not because they do not dare, or cannot bear, or do not
wish, the most intimate companionship. They are lonely
because their states of consciousness are so swift and fine,
their height of soul and range of life so vast and ardu-
ous, that their associates are unable to appreciate them.
This brings us to the saddest and sublimest part of our
theme, the solitude of genius. The lark rises against
the rosy ceiling of day, far beyond the emulation of
ground-birds ; and genius soars into heaven in its wor-
shipping joyousness until no earth-bound spirit can fol-
low. The scale of its experience, in both directions
equally, joy and sorrow, surpasses that of common
persons.

Chords that vibrate sweetest pleasuie
Thrill the deepest notes of woe.

All men of unusual mass and height of character wear
a sombre hue of purpose which repels familiarity. " The
love of retirement," Johnson impressively remarks, " has
in all ages adhered closely to those minds which have
been most enlarged by knowledge or elevated by wis-
dom. They have found themselves unable to pursue the
race of life without frequent respirations of intermediate
solitude. There is scarcely any man, eminent for extent
of capacity or greatness of exploits, that has not left be-
hind him some memorials of lonely wisdom and silent
dignity."

Every one conspicuous above his fellows in endow-
ments is made solitary in that degree, unless his gifts, by
ministering to their gratification, bring him into social
relations with them and win him their applause. Even
then the solace he finds is usually obtained by turning



66 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

the ordinary side of his nature into view and action, veil
ing or suspending the peculiar endowment in which he so
far surpasses others as to be an insulated unique. Medi-
ocrity need not search for sympathizers ; they swarm.
Originality may seek widely and long, but in vain, for
the equal love it desires. Originality is understood slow-
ly and with difficulty, easily gains notice, less easily com-
mands disciples, but most easily provokes dislike and
creates foes, then itself revolts into disguise and seclu-
sion, and only with the utmost labor and infrequency
succeeds in discovering or making an adequate friend-
ship. Extraordinary minds are painfully alone in the
world because their actions cannot elicit harmonized re-
actions from the ordinary minds by which they are sur-
rounded. And the latter are trained into satisfying con-
formity with the former only in such rare instances and
with such pains, because that educational process requires
a tenacity, a patient affectionateness, which the ordinary
mind is not supplied with. The soul touched by God is
separate. Prophets are lonely ; Elijah, fed by ravens
beside his secret cave and stream, - fed with meat in
whose strength he travelled forty days unto Mount Ho-
reb, we cannot think of as a social man. Paul, after his
miraculous conversion and commission, says, " I con-
ferred not with flesh and blood " ; he withdrew into
Arabia for a long season of meditation and spiritual
training. It is reported of Jesus himself, that he oft
" withdrew into the wilderness and prayed." What a
lonely and strengthening time of it Luther had in Wart-
burg castle on the edge of the dark Thuringian forest ;
and Loyola in the sepulchral cavern of Manresa, on the
banks of the limpid Cardinero ! Great teachers too, as
well as prophets, are lonely ; there are so few prepared
to understand them and give them welcoming response.
" The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness com-
prehendeth it not."

Genius is alone both as to the world it constitutes and
AS to the world in which it moves. Souls of coarse fibre
and mean store cannot responsively reproduce the deli-
cacy and wealth of its inner experiences ; neither can



THE SOLITUDE OF GENIUS. 67

they see the supernatural glory of its outer visions. For
genius beholds without, the wonders it first feels within.
To its perception, in imaginative grief, the ocean is a uni-
verse of tears- murmuring human woes. In its moods of
abounding love and serenity every material object is an
emblematic voice, a window o'f spirit, a divinized hiero-
glyph. When the two friends, Beaumont and De Toc-
queville, were floating together at evening in a boat on
one of the great lakes of the western continent, the latter
says the moon stood in the edge of the sky " like a
transparent door opening into another world." Such an
expression would be unmeaning or distressing to a mere
proser. Soft, rich, capacious genius, looking with eyes
of inquiring tenderness into every soul it meets, and see-
ing nothing there correspondent with what is deepest and
dearest in itself, is repelled into solitude. Then in pa-
thetic disappointment, with rebounding and ebullient faith,
it laves the void with the copious overflow of its emotions,
until that void, filled with immortal spirits, with heaven
and God, reflects upon the yearning giver and recipient
wonderful answers of beauty and love. And so a divine
peace is won, and solitude becomes more sufficing than
society. When the young Michael Angelo went to Rome
and began to study and labor there, he wrote home,
" I have no friends ; I need none." The huge "confusion
of the life of the metropolis only penetrated like a distant
murmur " the solitude in which he dwelt and toiled, with
little sympathy from other men, though with much admi-
ration. His chief happiness was in absorbing work, and
in the visions of that ideal realm where he walked as
king.

The famous platonizing English divine, Henry More,
was lonely among the earthlings and partisans of his
time. His ideality, learning, and earnest love removed
him in spirit to a planetary distance from his worldly-
minded neighbors, whom he characterized as " parrot-
' like prattlers boasting their wonderfull insight to holy
truth, when as they have indeed scarce licked the outside
of the glasse wherein it lies." He was wont to think
" the angels looked on this troubled stream of the perish-



68 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

ing generations of men to as little purpose almost as idle
boys do on dancing blebs and bubbles in the water."
Knowing how truly catholic and genial he was, we recog-
nize with a personal regret what the experience must
have been which caused him to sing,

Cut off from men and all this world,
In Lethe's lonesome ditch I 'in hurled ;
Sad solitude 's my irksome bliss.

There belongs to such natures as that of poor David
Gray, the Scottish poet, at least for a time, the experience
of a piteous, half-frightened loneliness. Intensely con-
scious of his own difference from those around him, but
with his feeling of superiority not sufficiently powerful
and pronounced to give him peace, he hungers for love
and admiration from them to assure him that this differ-
ence is not a weakness or a delusion, but is the stamp
of genius. This eagerness to be noticed and praised in
order that he may not fall into despair and betray his
mission, is often repulsive to poor observers, and wins
him aversion, perhaps hate and ridicule. He should in
such a case not droop with distrust and grief, but gird
himself with noble convictions ; comfort himself not with
disdain but with benignity, perceiving that^the truly great
can be appreciated only by their mental kindred. Had
an ignorant shepherd, and a Plato, in climbing the Cau-
casus, come upon Prometheus, what different estimates
and emotions would have arisen in their respective souls
as they saw there the worn form of the august sufferer
nailed to the wintry mountain wall ! Each man can judge
of other men only in the light and with the aid of the
data he carries in himself.

The chamois browses by himself on the blue cliffs of the
sky because his food is in that high haunt, and because he
; s so shy of his foes. Is it not something the same with
the rare specimens of humanity? The most exalted con-
templations are the nourishment of their life, and they are
wonderfully sensitive to the hostile influences that threat-
en them on the low level of the crowd. Accordingly they
shrink from the elbows and sneers of the vulgar, climb



THE SOLITUDE OF GENIUS. 69

out of the stifling vapors of the valley, feel the exhila-
rating attraction of the free empyrean. The higher they
ascend the fewer are able to accompany them, and the
bleaker grows the desolation, until at last all are left
behind, and the glorious isolation that invests them is
like the cold loneliness that surrounds the sunset-head
of Monte Rosa. The penalty affixed to supremely
equipped souls is that they must often be thus left alone
on the cloudy eminence of their greatness, amidst the
lightnings and the stars of the canopy, commanding the
sovereign prospects indeed, but sighing for the warm
breath of the vale and the friendly embraces of men. A
naturalist, caught in a terrible tempest on Mount Etna,
at the height of ten thousand feet, spent twenty-four
hours there in a cavern, amidst the awful uproar, feeling
quite certain that in all Europe not another human being
passed that night in the same stratum of air. Many a
deep and bold thinker often deems himself the exclusive
occupant of some stratum of new ideas and emotions.
Though frequently a mistake, the supposition is undoubt-
edly sometimes well founded. When Amerigo Vespucci
saw the Southern Cross it was a baseless boast he made,
declaring that he now " looked on the four stars never
seen till then by any save the first human pair." In the
boundless regions of speculative thought there still are
innumerable solitudes, but very few virgin solitudes. It
is usually but a vain conceit that prompts us to believe
that we are standing in view of a mental prospect no
mortal imagination has before seen. Few, indeed, are
the positions in the intelligible universe open to man,
which have not been occupied and commanded by the
minds of Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Leibnitz, Kant,
and Goethe. When Belzoni, with great labor, had pene
trated the rocky sepulchre of Setei-Menephthah to its
inmost secret, he found he was not the first who had
made a violent entrance thither ; for the sarcophagus
was broken and the mummy gone. Exceedingly rare
are the discoverers of solitudes, either in the material oi
the spiritual world, of whom it can be truly said,

They were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.



70 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

Those grandeurs of the material and of the intellect-
ual universe which overpower our self-sufficiency are the
favorite subjects of contemplation with the grandest
souls. And whatever object of nature or of thought is
so vast as to impress us with a sense of our own littleness
and evanescence, makes us feel lonely. What a desolate
sense of isolation comes over a stranger in a strange
land when he feels the poor atom, self, sheerly contrasted
with the vast cold mass of all humanity beside ! The
nightly illumination of the houses and streets of London
consumes fifty million cubic feet of gas, representing
three thousand tons of coal. Yet this light, sufficing as
it does for two millions of persons, is in the awful cone
of night but as a glowworm flying in the valley of the
Mississippi. The solitude of the sky when not a bird
flies, not a cloud floats, through its eternal dome, is not
deeper or sublimer than that of the mind of a Coperni-
cus or a Malebranche. How can they come down to
mix in the conflict of jabbering mediocrities ?

The fine deep soul of Weber, out of which came
Der Freischutz, Oberon, and many another weird and
tender strain, often felt a dismal loneliness in the
crowd. His insulating unlikeness from the average of
men, in his truest moments, was dreary. When, after
fourteen careful rehearsals, he had brought out Beetho-
ven's Fidelio, at Berlin, and it was received with cold
indifference, he exclaimed in indignation, " They could
not understand the greatness of this music. Vulgar folly
would suit them far better. It is enough to drive one
mad." Over and over after the mention in his diary of
the fashionable parties he attended in the aristocratic
mansions of Prague, he adds the despairing exclama-
tions : " Alas ! Ah me ! O God ! " He writes : " Bohe-
mia has become for me a mere hospital of all intellect.
There are so many miserable souls in the world ! I can-
not but feel that I unconsciously withdraw myself more
and more from my fellow men." On parting with his
beloved . friends, Alexander Von Dusch and Gottfried
Weber, at twenty-four, he wrote in his diary : " Shall I
ever again find in the world friends so dear and men so



THE SOLITUDE OF GENIUS. 71

true ? " Sixteen years later, when near his death, he
wrote on the same page, " No ! "

Almost every great man addicted to contemplation,
and of literary habit, has left on record some expression
of his loneliness. Erasmus, while residing in the Uni-
versity of Cambridge as a lecturer on Greek and Theol-
ogy, writes to his friend Ammonius, under date Novem-
ber 28th, 1515, "Here is one unbroken solitude. Many
have left for fear of the plague ; and yet when they are
all here the solitude is much worse." Shakespeare,
whose unparalleled sensitiveness and vastness of sensi-
bility seem to have enabled him to embrace the con-
scious substance of almost every form of experience
ever presented to man, who has so livingly painted
the imaginative solitude of Prospero, the metaphysical
solitude of Hamlet, the piteous solitude of Timon, the
savage solitude of Apemantus, and the loathsome soli-
tude of Caliban, in one of his Sonnets speaks in his
own person of a time

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries.

Lessing, after the death of his wife, wrote to Claudius,
" I must begin once more to go on my way alone. I have
not a single friend to whom I can confide my whole be-
ing. I am too proud to own that I am unhappy ; I shut
my teeth, and let the bark drift. Enough that I do not
turn it over with my own hands."

The separate conditions of mental loneliness are joined
and concentrated in the case of genius. A personality
exceptionally emphasized, sensibility chronically as ex-
quisite as that of others is temporarily made by bereav-
ing afflictions or blissful boons, an absorbing activity in
the line of its special vocation, all these belong to
genius ; and therefore it must be largely solitary. Genius
is average humanity raised to a higher power, and is dis-
tinguished from its neighbors as the king is distinguished
from his courtiers by the dais and the crown. Every
great passion, sublime purpose, singular pursuit, or un-



72 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

equalled susceptibility, naturally tends to isolate its sub-
ject and make him pine with baffled longings.

Furthermore, the fact that genius, by its realizing imag-
ination and appropriating sympathy, naturally shares in
all the events and experiences of which the signs are
brought to its knowledge, as keenly as the ordinary soul
feels its own personal concerns, makes it liable to extreme
distress in the wrongs and woes of the world. Hence
often arises a strong temptation to retreat into some re-
mote solitude to escape the harassing pressure of this
ideal contact with the great miseries of the public battle
of life. Cowper expresses the feeling well :

O for a lodge in some vast wilderness,

Some boundless contiguity of shade,

Where rumor of oppression and deceit,

Of unsuccessful or successful war,

Might never reach me more ! My ear is pained,

My soul is sick, with every day's report

Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.

There are, concealed in the undesecrate shrine of inno-
cence, a thousand matters too modest and too holy to
suffer themselves to be laid bare to the gaze of hardened
men. There are, in and about the virgin soul of genius,
a thousand delicious fragilities of thought and sentiment,
which, like the dewy gossamer shown on a rosebush at
sunrise, if you try to lift and convey them, are torn, dis-
solve, and vanish from your grasp. Such a soul must
crave seclusion from the jar and friction of life, sweet
opportunities for musing and aspiration. " Quiet is the
element of wisdom ; the calmest man is the wisest. For
the mind is a coral-stone, around which thoughts cluster
silently in stillness, but are scared away by tumult."
Some persons are so crude and heavy that it requires
ponderous masses of power to disturb the stolid poise of
their attractions ; others are as alive to imponderable in-
fluences as electrometers. Between such a great gulf is
fixed. A fine interior nature, exuberant with affection
and fancy, set in a world of capricious external hurriers,
frigid mockers, ever eluding his embrace, is as lonely as
an Alpine flower nestled in the crevice of a crag and
blooming there on the edge of the glacier.



THE SOLITUDE OF GENIUS. 73

The man whose heart is such a sensitive plant that
every cloud which floats remotely above it causes its
petals to close, what adequate communion can he have
with the herds of jokers, the noise of whose mirth in-
trudes on the silence of his prayers ? He feels more at
home on the margin of a lonely stream than in the
thoroughfares of the metropolis. The bell of a seques-
tered convent is much more congenial to him than the
hum of a reception-room. No wonder rich and delicate
natures protect themselves by retreating ; they suffer less
cruelly from their melancholy desertedness than from
the lacerations of ungenial society. An awkward, coarse
companion disturbs the reveries that hang in live sus-
pense on the altitudes of their minds, as rudely as when,
floating in a canoe at midnight on a forest-girt pond,
the idiotic laugh of the loon suddenly breaks the spell,
dispersing the solemn hush of wood and lake. It is
natural enough, that, after such an experience, loneliness
should be, for a while, preferred to company. Solitude
is the refuge of the sensitive.

It is a necessity for genius to feel, in a certain sense, a
complacent aloofness and superiority to the herd of the
world, in order to sustain itself at its own proper height.
Among the two hundred thousand men who rose up when
Virgil entered the Roman Theatre, there was but one
Varius competent to correct the ^Eneid. Knowing the
thoughtlessness and fickleness of the folly-swayed mass
of the people, if the great man did not cherish a keen
conviction of his own greater elevation, insight, and no-
bleness, he would soon cease to be a great man. Thus
Goethe wrote in his old age, " I was first uncomfortable to
men by my error, then by my earnestness : so, do what I
would, I was alone." So Adam Smith sa : d, " The mob of
mankind are admirers and worshippers of wealth and sta-
tion." So Bishop Butler said, " Whole communities may
be insane as well as individuals." So Spinoza, pitching
his tent as on an Ararat in the desert of disdain, from the
incomparable loftiness and scope of his intellectual hori-
zon, looked down on the undiscriminating and incompe-
tent multitudes of men with a quiet and pitying contempt



74 THE SOLITUDES OF MAN.

This was full of solace and strength for him. Without it
he would have died of heart-break and despair. His dis-
tance from the grovelling victims of ignorance, delusion,
and hate, measured his nearness to God ; and he was sup-
ported. There was no unkindness in his mood ; it is re-
moved by a whole moral world from everything like vin-
dictive spleen. Madame Swetchine was very free from
pride and the spirit of contempt ; yet she writes from
Paris to a friend : " My God, the pitiable thing the con-
versation of these assemblies is ! It was the first of the
year ; nonsense, silliness, gossip, frivolity, were in all their
freshness. It is indeed well to repose through the sum-
mer, away from what is called the grand world, a taste for
which is the greatest misfortune that can happen to mind
and heart." A complacent reaction from the vices and
pettiness of the crowd upon the superior nobleness of their
own loyalty, powers, and pursuits, is the unfailing internal
support of the truly great

God forbid that the highest should hate or insult the
lowest And it is not their true nature to do so. They
yearn pityingly over their farthest inferiors. Yet it is vain
to attempt to hide the prodigious disparity between them.
And when those beneath force this disparity on the notice
of those above, by assuming superiority, it is not to be
wondered at if the latter experience a shock of revulsion.
The accusers of Socrates arrogated to themselves a highey
virtue and wisdom than his. Undoubtedly his conscious-
ness of the relative moral height between them and him-
self was a godlike consolation to him. The sublime
courage and calmness with which he claimed from his
judges, instead of death, a support by the city as a public
benefactor, show that he was perfectly aware of the im-
mense moral distance between Socrates and Anytus, Me-
litus, and Lycon. In every case of martyrdom, perhaps
the cruellest feature is the self-assumed superiority implied
by the judges in the very fact of condemning their victim :



Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 5 of 35)