The solitudes of nature and of man
The Solitude of Occupation
PURSUING our subject a step further, we come to a separated experience, resulting neither from the injured sensibility of grief, nor from the enshrined devotedness 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, excludes 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 mission, 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 appeal. He has no loose energies to spare in reaction on stray chances or incoherent claims : his whole soul is given to the one aim and its accompaniments.
Sometimes 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 wilderness 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, feeling, 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 mad !
Who could be more distinctively by himself than Columbus, made a lonely visionary by a sublime dream which he had determined to embody in a visible demonstration 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 illustrious 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 created astonishing machines, has been remarkable for his absolute abstraction from outward things, and his intense interior absorption during the incubation of his projects. All discoverers or schemers of the highest order, all intense idealists and workers, are in this manner taken possession of by their destined vocation.
And thenceforth they know nothing else. Conversing with their thoughts, toiling at their plans, devising methods, or imagining the results of success, they walk up and down, deaf to every foreign solicitation and to every impediment. 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 unabsorbed men. Its proper type is the loneliness of a water fall in the bosom of unreclaimed nature ; or the loneliness 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 repeatedly known to wander through crowds, with abstracted 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 Empire, Gibbon looked up at Mont Blanc, and drew a deep sigh.
“The sudden departure of his cherished and accustomed 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 content, 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 experiments, - 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 chamber, and make it populous with presences of grandeur 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 fascinating 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 concentrated 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 absorption, when it touches its climax. He is wise who endeavors to know something of its elevation and blessedness 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."