William Rounseville Alger.

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

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his greatest support, on the contrary, must come from the
conviction of their injustice in putting him to death, and
of his own worth in standing loyally by his duty. There
is a surpassing heroism, there must be a deep pain, and


there certainly is a terrible loneliness in singly confront-
ing, as so many noble men have done, an infuriated mob,
to stem its wrath, stay its folly, avert its vengeance, even
at the cost of falling a prey to its headless and horrid
passion. Who can dwell on such an example without a
pang of pity and a thrill of grateful admiration. Surely
no one can recall, without profound and indignant pain,
how the horde of soldiery, inflamed with hatred for the
blameless Ulpian, the immortal jurisconsult and states-
man of Rome, broke into the palace of Severus and killed
the great unspotted lawyer before the faces of the empe-
ror and his mother. Who can read of the good Priest-
ley, driven " by the madness of riot from the town which
he adorned by his virtues, his philosophy, and his fame,"
without a mingling of sorrow for the confused crowd and
of homage for the clear individual ? Coleridge paints the
scene :

Patriot and saint and sage,
Him full of years from his loved native land,
Statesmen blood-stained and priests idolatrous,
By dark lies maddening the blind multitude,
Drove with vain hate. Calm, pitying, he retired,
And mused expectant on the coming years.

When we think of Alexander Hamilton, hooted and
stoned in the streets of New York, in what relief his
beautiful form stands out against the howling mass of ig-
norance and ferocity below ! But should we undertake
to make a list of the wronged and hated benefactors of
the world, the exiled or martyred guides and exemplars
of our race, up to the crucifixion of the Saviour, there
would be no end to the tearful tale. The crowning moral
of the narrative would be the inspired sentiment sighed
from the summit of Calvary, " Father, forgive them, for
they know not what they do."

But since man was made for society, it is not good for
him, no matter how great he is, to be always alone. If
he is doomed to be so his lot must be full of sad wishes.
There are wounds the world cannot balm, wants no outer
success can satisfy, though to poor and cold natures these
sharpest of griefs are never known. It is the soft-hearted


who are heavy-hearted. The loftiest mind may shelter
the most, but it must be the least sheltered. There is no
desertion like that of a soul sublimely incongruous with
its mates and with the conditions of its time and place.
The choicest hearts are the ones most likely to know the
experiences of disappointment and cruelty in all their
wasting bitterness. Such hearts there are, which, once
misunderstood and aggrieved, never dare to confide again.
In the mournful isolatedness of their balked yet unap
neasable longings, well may they exclaim,

Come, Death, and match thy quiet gloom

With being's darkling strife ;
Come, set beside the lonely tomb,

The solitude of life !

Generally speaking, the man of genius is a lonely man,
not only from the greatness of his endowments, the
height at which he lives, and the absorbing action of
his faculties, but also from his scorn of conventionali-
ties. Sneers at conventionality, sneers rising from
failure to see its inevitableness and use, are cheap.
Conventionality is the unavoidable expression of social
averages. But it must be naturally irksome to the man
of genius, who belongs outside of the average. How
can he be otherwise than solitary when he sits on the
great white throne of imagination, gazing at the panoram-
ic phenomena of the creation in the light of transcenden-
tal philosophies, till from before his face earth and heaven
flee away, and no place is found for them ? Impatient of
custom, contemptuous of fashionable decrees, he must
frequently be a banished man. The epicures, the butter-
flies, the selfish plotters, and all such, cannot understand
him ; and to be mentally baffled is painful. He sets an
example they cannot follow ; and to feel inferiority is
painful. His ideas and beliefs are strange to them,
apparently inconsistent with the familiar ideas and beliefs
with which they identify their welfare, perhaps their salva-
tion ; and what is unintelligible and is supposed danger-
ous, is feared. Accordingly they desire to rid themselves
of his presence. The great man acts from spontaneity ;


society acts from habit, and is intolerant of original ac-
tion, because it makes such exorbitant demands. To act
conventionally costs little ; to act from fresh impulse re-
quires a large supply of power. Fashion always aims to
live with the least expenditure of force ; genius is always
seeking outlets for its overflowing force. Consequently
luxurious society is the natural enemy of genius, and, as
far as it can, exiles it into solitude.

The most ignoble men still more than average men
hate the superiors whom they are unable to appreciate.
Their thwarted mental reactions generate spite and wrath.
Disappointed of the husks for which they look, they
furiously trample the pearls they know not what to do
with, and bite at the odious hands that flung them.
True, this is only one phase, the darker side, of the
facts. Multitudes of men are full of reverential devo-
tion for their superiors. Nevertheless the reality of this
darker side is fearful. The treatment of great men by
the world in all ages exemplifies the mysterious law of
vicarious redemption, confirms the words which Jesus
spoke out of his own experience : " Behold I send unto
you prophets and wise men and scribes ; and some of
them ye shall kill and crucify, and some of them ye shall
scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to

Columbus writes, in the letter to Ferdinand and Isa-
bella describing his fourth voyage, " For seven years
was I at your royal court, where every one to whom the
enterprise was mentioned treated it as ridiculous ; but
now there is not a man, down to the very tailors, who
does not beg to be allowed to become a discoverer. It
is right to give God his due, and to receive that which
belongs to one's self. This is a just sentiment and pro-
ceeds from just feelings. The lands in this part of the
world, which, by the Divine Will, I have placed under
your royal sovereignty, are richer and more extensive
than those of any other Christian power ; and yet, while
I was waiting for ships to convey me in safety, and with
a heart full of joy, to your royal presence, victoriously to
announce the news of the gold that I had discovered, I


was arrested and thrown, with my two brothers, loadea
with irons, into a ship, stripped, and very ill treated,
without being allowed any appeal to justice. I was
twenty-eight years old when I came into the service of
your Highnesses, and now I have not a hair upon me
that is not gray ; my body is infirm, and all that was left
to me, as well as to my brothers, has been taken away
and sold, even to the frock that I wore. The honest de-
votedness that I have ever shown to the service of your
Majesties, and the so unmerited outrage with which it
has been repaid, will not allow my soul to keep sileftce,
however much I may wish it I implore your Highnesses
to forgive my complaints. Hitherto I have wept over
others ; may Heaven now have mercy upon me, and may
the earth weep for me ! Solitary in my trouble, sick,
in daily expectation of death, surrounded by millions
of hostile savages full of cruelty, and thus separated
from the blessed sacraments of our Holy Church, how
will my soul be forgotten if it be'separated from the body
in this foreign land ? Weep for me, whoever has charity,
truth and justice ! I humbly beseech your Highnesses,
that, if it please God to rescue me from this place, you
will graciously sanction my pilgrimage to Rome and
other holy places."

A majority of the noblest geniuses who have conferred
the greatest benefits on mankind, have been spit upon 01
gnashed at and banned by the dominant class of their
contemporaries. Prophets, discoverers, inventors, mar-
tyrs, illustrious company gathered from many times and
countries, and associated in one fellowship of sublime
genius, heroic devotion, and tragic fate, history has
nothing left of equal pathos to reveal when it has shown us
these men, dreaded, despised, persecuted, outcast, dying,
appealing to after generations to do them the justice so
cruelly denied in their own. Nor has posterity proved
recreant to the holy trust. They are revered and cele-
brated now with an enthusiasm in strange contrast with
the obloquy they suffered when alive. And to enter into
sympathy with them is an inexpressible comfort to those
who in later times are called to a kindred experience. As


Heine says, " An equally great man sees his predecessors
far more significantly than others can. From a single
spark of the traces of their earthly glory he recognizer
their most secret act ; from a single word left behind he
penetrates every fold of their hearts ; and thus the great
men of all times live in a mystical brotherhood. Across
long centuries they bow to each other, and gaze on each
other with significant glances, and their eyes meet over
the graves of buried races whom they have thrust aside
between, and they understand and love each other." It
is delightful to notice the geniality with which, in his
Cosmos, the grand old Humboldt recognizes his great pre-
decessors in the enterprise of surveying the universe as a
whole, Strabo, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, Hipparchus, Ga-
len, Aristotle, Lucretius, the elder Pliny, Albertus, Roger
Bacon, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and the rest, with
what joy and piety he signalizes, from a height like their
own, these intellectual peaks looming in clouds and stars
athwart the historic table-land of science. The picture,
in the New Testament, of Jesus on the Mount of Trans-
figuration in converse with Moses and Elias, is a beauti-
ful symbol of the fellowship of the highest kindred spirits
in all ages.

The consciousness of thinking and feeling in unison
with a multitude, of believing doctrines and observing
rites in common with the great majority of our brethren,
yields to sympathetic genius an invisible, peace-giving
fellowship which causes an indescribable pleasantness to
breathe in the air, an infinite friendliness to saturate the
landscape. To abandon all the dear familiar beliefs and
associations in which one grew up, in allegiance to reason
to go exploringly forwards into the obscure future to find
some better substitutes, more divinely real and solid, is
to be, at least temporarily, like one who advances into
a cave in a mountain side ; the sight of the green fields,
the light of the sun, the sound of the waterfall, the bleat
of the goats, and the songs of the herdsmen, all becoming
fainter and fainter, until he is lost in darkness and silence.
It is impossible that severe pangs should not be involved
when conscience sternly orders a sensitive and clinging


soul to renounce prevalent creeds, to cast off current
prejudices and usages, to leave popular favor, estranged,
behind, and accept newly revealed and persecuted truth
with its austere duties. It is to undergo a coronation of
hate and agony, and, carrying a crucifix within the bosom,
journey on a lonesome way of dolor, publicly shrouded
in scorn, secretly transfigured with the smile of God.
The loneliest of all mortals are the pioneers of new prin-
ciples and policies, new faiths and feelings ; for they
alone have none on earth with whom they can hold
brotherhood of soul. Having emerged from the beliefs
in which they were educated, thrown away habituated
reliances, trusting themselves to original perception as
they advance into the unknown, out of which new reve-
lations are breaking on them, their solitude is sometimes
as appalling as the experience of one who for the first
time rides on a locomotive across a midnight prairie,
where, through the level gloom, he seems just plunging
off the world into banks of stars.

The bigotry of those whose opinions he rejected has
succeeded in attaching an unjust odium to the name of
David Hume, who was a man of remarkable goodness
of heart and life. He was endowed with a mind of
wonderful acuteness and strength, exceedingly suggestive
and stimulative in its working on other minds. His place
in the history of philosophy is of epochal importance.
Kant ascribes his own original work, of such immense
moment, to the impulse directly imparted to him by
Hume. One of the results of his unsettling inquiries,
his idealistic speculations, has been thus impressively
depicted by himself. " I am affrighted and confounded
with that forlorn solitude in which I am placed in my
philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth mon-
ster, who, not being able to mingle and unite in society,
has been expelled all human commerce, and left utterly
abandoned and disconsolate. Fain would I run into the
crowd for shelter and warmth, but- I cannot prevail with
myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others
to join me, in order_ to make a company apart, but no
one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance,


and dreads that storm which beats upon me from every
side. I have exposed myself to the enmity of all meta-
physicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theo-
logians ; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer ?
When I look abroad, I foresee on every side dispute,
contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I
turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and igno-
rance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict ,
me ; though such is my weakness that I feel all my opin-
ions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by
the approbation of others."

What other experience can be so forsaken and grand
as the loneliness of the man who has outgrown the opin-
ions of his age, surveyed all the realms of knowledge
and theory thus far achieved, traversed the constellated
wastes of spiritual space to the outermost verge of
thought, where he confronts the scintillating abyss of
mystery, leaves contemporary humanity behind, pitches
his tent a hundred leagues ahead of his nearest peer,
and lives there, striving to conquer fresh realms for the
occupation of posterity ? He may be happy even in that
forlorn station if he preserves a noble heart of kindness
to his kind, and a spirit of self-surrendering trust in God.
Such a man needs not recognition by official diplomas.
Load him with conventional honors, he would lay the
trinkets aside, and retire into himself to commune with
his true dignity. He is an emperor, himself his empire.
He will not in his self-sufficingness forget the dependence
of feebler natures, nor cease to yearn over them in their
wants and sorrows. Though isolated from the people by
his intellectual transcendency, he will be joined with
them by his affections and services ; as the snow-capped
summit of Dhawalaghiri commerces with the sky in inac-
cessible solitude, while his gushing streams and his slopes
of bloom wed him with the plains. Should the lofty
thinker lose his confidence in reason and truth, and give
way to a fundamental distrust, as the tendencies are
often so terrible in him to do, becoming a misanthrope
and an atheist, his experience maybe compared with
the fate of that aeronaut who ascended into the congeal-
4* F


ing space until he suffocated from the thinness of the air,
and his frozen form, borne in the fragile car, floated about
at the will of the atmospheric currents in the cold un-
sounding vastitude, under the dark sky-vault, the earth
shrunk into a great ball below.

The Solitude of Death.

IN this attempt to describe the loneliness of human life
in its various kinds and relations, one more specification
remains, the solitude of death. However filled with
the strife and the gayety of bustling throngs- the life of the
toiling citizen, the queen of fashion, or the popular states-
man may be, there is one passage of intense isolation
which none can escape.

A lonely hour is on its way to each,

To all ; for death knows no companionship.

The approach of a mortal towards the bourn of his earthly
destiny is a pilgrimage in which all that composes his ex-
ternal company successively falls away ; and as he reaches
the brink of the mystery, the last friend shrinks back and
leaves him singly to the universal Parent. Ought we not
often to be alone with God in anticipation of the hour
when He alone will be with us ?

Death invests every man with a solemn sphere of soli-
tude, the patriarch amidst his tribe, the victim on the
rack, the felon on the gibbet, the gladiator in the arena,
the martyr in the flame, the saint on his pallet, smiling at
the uplifted cross. Yet there are different densities of
loneliness in the experience, between the departures from
the sobs and clasped hands of loving families, the cold
isolation of suicides, and the horrible desertedness of
such fates as those of the forsaken Roman emperors,
Tiberius, Caligula, Domitian, Nero and Vitellius, extin-
guished in the darkness of murder and ashes. Despite
the disparities, however, there is a fundamental identity in
the last moment. In every case, to die is to break, one
after another, the ties that bind us to persons and things,


and, retreating into utter seclusion, migrate, silent and
.separate, to the ultimate secret of the universe. Who-
ever contemplatively envelopes himself in that boundless
mystery, the idea of death, feels as one who, lost on some
strange heath, is wrapped in a night without a taper or a
star. All clews lost in the gloom, his unshared individu-
ality revolves within itself in appalled wonderment, an
atom cut loose from social laws and plunging through im-
mensity. Think of it beforehand, or not think of it, all
must at last come to this. Noisy and crowded as our
walks are, social and garrulous as our life is, every human
being has at least three moments of incommunicable sep-
aration. As the Hindu says, " Alone man is born ; alone
he dies ; alone he goes up to judgment."

The sentiment of loneliness pervades everything asso-
ciated with death. The monarch, watched by attendants,
never free from obsequious company, is touched at last
by the wand of dissolution. His palace dwindles to a
coffin, his empire narrows to a grave. How quickly
slaves and courtiers, soldiers and people, shrink away
and leave him to be forever alone ! Terrible lessons are
taught by the sight of a tyrant in the hands of death.
Who can gaze on such a spectacle and retain cruel am-
bition in his heart ? The imagination demands a certain
isolation and solemnity as the fit accompaniment of every
picture of death. A fop, like Brummel, lying dead in his
garret, affects us with a melancholy incongruity. Meant
to flutter in the sunshine of fashion, he is a dismal sight in
the grim storm and tragedy of mortality, a belated but-
terfly frozen on a leaf. Much more becoming was the
funeral environment of the old Norse sea-king. Death-
struck, he seated himself on the deck of his ship, had her
set on fire and launched before the gale. His sword in
his hand, his white hair streaming, he vanished from sight,
and, perishing in this gallant pyre, was " buried at once in
the solitude of the sea and of the sky."

Graves are solitary, however thickly they lie together.
There is no other lonesomeness in nature so deep as that
which broods over the tombs of men and nations. The
visitor who pauses in the huge catacombs of Thebes


stuffed with death, the hollowed hills so heaped with
stacks of bandaged humanity that they are but thinly
masked mountains of mummies, feels for a time as if he
were the survivor of a world. Go to one of the skeleton
kingdoms of the East. Pitch your tent beneath the palms.
Gaze around on the scene of ruin where once a nation of
heroes sunk into their urns, and where, in a subsequent
age, the dust of those heroes, spilt from their shattered
urns, was blown about the desert, and it will only be
natural if the Spirit of Desolation sighs through your soul
a lament as mystic as that of the summer-breeze soughing
through the pines laden with tales from a primeval antiq-
uity. Ponder on the fate of your race from its unknown
beginning till now, see the procession of the innumer-
able generations of the dead steadily defiling into the
grave, and the whole earth is a funeral barrow.

Not only is there a solitude in death itself as experi-
enced by the dying, and an air of solitude around all the
places and mementos of death ; there is an unparalleled
loneliness created by death in the lot and feeling of him
who, enduring loss after loss, grows old in an ever-widen-
ing circle of missings and estrangement. " To a man,"
Dr. Johnson said, " who has survived all the companions
of his youth, this full-peopled world is a dismal solitude."
A heart-breaking sense of desertion must be felt by the
last member of a decayed family, his ancestral castle dis-
mantled, the proud crest bowed, the escutcheon dimmed
with poverty and shame, the familiar glories of hearth and
song become a tradition. It is more impressive still to
imagine the loneliness of the last representative of a once
puissant race who ruled hill and glen, but whose, tents and
banners have faded from the landscape, and whose weap-
ons moulder in the dust. The Indian chief returns from
far to stand in the light of the setting sun on the burial-
mound of his fathers ; he muses there in mournful taci-
turnity till the white man's step is heard, then glides into
the woods, adding to the twilight forest one shado\v more.

There is a deep loneliness too in all the preparatory
steps and approaches to death. Who can fitly describe
the solitude of extreme age ? The feeling of desertedness


and separation of an old man, who has survived all his
contemporaries, survived the copiousness and fire of his
own heart, this is loneliness indeed. And we are all
relatively old, have outlived many dear comrades and
dreams, out-grown many darling hopes and plans. When
we think of our school-days ; when, even in middle age,
we recall the fair and guileless companions whose eyes,
that looked all the tenderness of romance into ours, are
dust now, whose feet, that once sprang with ours in elas-
tic joy over hillock and stream, now lie bound and still,
many a bolt of lonesome sorrow pierces the heart. By-
ron, old while he was yet young, asks, on hearing of thft
death of one of his early friends,

What is the worst of woes that wait on age ?
What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow ?

And then he answers, with the startling emphasis that
belonged to his intense and suffering genius,

To view each loved one blotted from life's page,
And be alone on earth, as I am now.

The Wandering Jew, cursed with earthly immortality, see-
ing generation after generation disappear from the scene
of his pilgrimage, whatever he clasped to his breast imme-
diately dropping into dust upon it, was forever alone, his
yearning agony itself an awful solitude wherever he went.
Who lives too long in this world of evanescent things
must, perforce, in some degree, taste that dreary expe-

There is, occasionally experienced by many in their
early years, an enchanted solitude, in which ecstasy ab-
sorbs them and makes them oblivious of everything but
itself: this is rarely known after youth has ended, except
by natural poets, romantic souls, remaining ever young.

When youth, the dream, departs,
It takes something from our hearts,
And it never comes again.

In dismal contrast with this there is a disenchanted soli-
tude, in which all the genial aspects of society are hidden,


every generous illusion destroyed, and existence left a
haggard waste. Such is that cynical condition in which
some men find themselves in the closing period of life,
tyrannical, irritable, with the temper of a hyena.

In extreme age, when the last friend has gone, and the
last hope of earth ceased to charm, the old man, deserted
and doleful, stands on the dull plain strewn with the
wrecks of youth, like a despairing mourner in a grave-
yard, where the moonshine lies on the motionless scene,
and excited fancy turns every tombstone into a ghost,
and takes every shadow for an omen. And he looks

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 6 of 35)