[This is taken from A.K.H. Boyd's Recreations of a Country Parson.]
Let me look back, this New Year’s time, over nine years. Let me try to revive again the pervading atmosphere of the days when I used to live entirely alone. All days crush up into very little in the perspective. The months and years which were long as they passed over, are but a hand-breadth in remembrance. Five or ten years may be packed away into a very little corner in your mind; and in the case of a man brought up from childhood in a large family, who spends no more than three or four years alone before he again sees a household beginning to surround him, I think those lonely years seem especially short in the retrospect. Yet possibly in these he may have done some of the best work of his life; and possibly none, of all the years he has seen, have produced so great an impression on his character and on his temperament. And the impression left may be most diverse in nature. I have known a man remarkably gentle, kind, and sympathetic; always anxious to say a pleasant and encouraging word; discerning by a wonderful intuition whenever he had presented a view or made a remark that had caused pain to the most sensitive, and eager to efface the painful feeling; and I have thought that in all this I could trace the result of his having lived entirely alone for many years. I have known a man insufferably arrogant, conceited, and self-opinionated; another morbidly suspicious and ever nervously anxious; another conspicuously devoid of common Sense; and in each of these I have thought I could trace the result of a lonely life. But indeed it depends so entirely on the nature of the material subjected to the mill what the result turned off shall be, that it is hard to say of any human being what shall be the effect produced upon his character by almost any discipline you can think of. And a solitary life may make a man either thoughtful or vacant, either humble or conceited, either sympathetic or selfish, either frank or shrinkingly shy.
Great numbers of educated people in this country live solitary lives. And by a solitary life I do not mean a life in a remote district of country with hardly a neighbor near, but with your house well filled and noisy with, children’s voices. By a solitary life I mean a life in which, day after day and week after week, you rise in the morning in a silent dwelling, in which, save servants, there are none but yourself; in which you sit down to breakfast by yourself, perhaps set yourself to your day’s work all alone, then dine by yourself, and spend the evening by yourself. Barristers living in chambers in some cases do this; young lads living in lodgings, young clergymen in country parsonages, old bachelors in handsome town houses and beautiful country mansions, old maids in quiet streets of country towns, old ladies once the centre of cheerful families, but whose husband and children are gone—even dukes in palaces and castles, amid a lonely splendor which must, one would think, seem dreary and ghastly. But you know, my reader, we sympathize the most completely with that which we have ourselves experienced. And when I hear people talk of a solitary life, the picture called up before me is that of a young man who has always lived as one of a household considerable in numbers, who gets a living in the Church, and who, having no sister to keep house for him, goes to it to live quite alone. How many of my friends have done precisely that! Was it not a curious mode of life? A thing is not made commonplace to your own feeling by the fact that hundreds or thousands of human beings have experienced the very same. And although fifty Smiths have done it (all very clever fellows), and fifty Robinsons have done it (all very commonplace and ordinary fellows), one does not feel a bit the less interest in recurring to that experience which, hackneyed as it may be, is to you of greater interest than all other experience, in that it is your own. Draw up a thousand men in a row, all dressed in the same dark-green uniform of the riflemen; and I do not think that their number, or their likeness to one another, will cause any but the most unthinking to forget that each is an individual man as much as if he stood alone in the desert; that each has his own ties, cares, and character, and that possibly each, like to all the rest as he may appear to others, is to several hearts, or perhaps to one only, the one man of all mankind.
Most clergymen whom I have known divide their day very much in the same fashion. After breakfast they go into their study and write their sermon for two or three hours; then they go out and visit their sick or make other calls of duty for several hours. If they have a large parish, they probably came to it with the resolution that before dinner they should always have an hour’s smart walk at least; but they soon find that duty encroaches on that hour, and finally eats it entirely up, and their duty calls are continued till it is time to return home to dinner. Don’t you remember, my friend, how short a time that lonely meal lasted, and how very far from jovial the feast was? As for me, that I might rest my eyes from reading between dinner and tea (a thing much to be desired in the case of every scholar), I hardly ever, failed, save for a few weeks of midwinter, to go out in the twilight and have a walk—a solitary and very slow walk. My hours, you see, were highly unfashionable. I walked from half-past five to half-past six: that was my after-dinner walk. It was always the same. It looks somewhat dismal to recall. Do you ever find, in looking back at some great trial or mortification you have passed through, that you are pitying yourself as if you were another person?
I do not mean to say that those walks were a trial. On the contrary, they were always an enjoyment—a subdued quiet enjoyment, as are the enjoyments of solitary folk. Still, now looking back, it seems to me as if I were watching some one else going out in the cold February twilight, and walking from half-past five to half-past six. I think I see a human being, wearing a very thick and rough great-coat, got for these walks, and never worn on any other occasion, walking very slowly, bearing an extremely thick oak walking-stick (I have it yet) by the shore of the bleak gray sea. Only on the beach did I ever bear that stick; and by many touches of the sand it gradually wore down till it became too short for use. I see the human being issuing from the door of a little parsonage (not the one where there are magnificent beeches and rich evergreens and climbing roses), and always waiting at the door for him there was a friendly dog, a terrier, with very short legs and a very long back, and shaggy to that degree that at a cursory glance it was difficult to decide which was his head and which his tail. Ah, poor old dog, you are grown very stiff and lazy now, and time has not mellowed your temper. Even then it was somewhat doubtful. Not that you ever offered to bite me; but it was most unlucky, and it looked most invidious, that occasion when you rushed out of the gate and severely tore the garments of the dissenting minister! But he was a worthy man: and I trust that he never supposed that upon that day you acted by my instigation. You were very active then; and so few faces did you see (though a considerable town was within a few hundred yards), that the appearance of one made you rush about and bark tremendously. Cross a field, pass through a hedgerow of very scrubby and stunted trees, cross a railway by a path on the level, go on by a dirty track on its further side; and you come upon the sea-shore. It is a level, sandy beach; and for a mile or two inland the ground is level, and the soil ungenial. There are sandy downs, thinly covered with coarse grass. Trees will hardly grow; the few trees there are, are cut down by the salt winds from the Atlantic. The land view, in a raw twilight of early spring, is dreary beyond description; but looking across the sea, there is a magnificent view of mountain peaks. And if you turn in another direction, and look along the shore, you will see a fine hill rising from the sea and running inland, at whose base there flows a beautiful river, which pilgrims come hundreds of miles to visit. How often, O sandy beach, have these feet walked slowly along you! And in these years of such walks, I did not meet or see in all six human beings. A good many years have passed since I saw that dismal beach last; I dare say it would look very strange now. The only excitement of those walks consisted in sending the dog into the sea, and in making him run after stones. How tremendously he ran; what tiger-like bounds he made, as he overtook the missile! Just such walks, my friends, many of you have taken. Homines estis. And then you have walked into your dwelling again, walked into your study, had tea in solitude, spent the evening alone in reading and writing. You have got on in life, let it be hoped; but you remember well the aspect and arrangement of the room; you remember where stood tables, chairs, candles; you remember the pattern of the grate, often vacantly studied. I think every one must look back with great interest upon such days. Life was in great measure before you, what you might do with it. For anything you knew then, you might be a great genius; whereas if the world, even ten years later, has not yet recognized you as a great genius, it is all but certain that it never will recognize you as such at all. And through those long winter evenings, often prolonged far into the night, not only did you muse on many problems, social, philosophical, and religious, but you pictured out, I dare say, your future life, and thought of many things which you hoped to do and to be.
A very subdued mood of thought and feeling, I think, creeps gradually over a man living such a solitary life. I mean a man who has been accustomed to a house with many inmates. There is something odd in the look of an apartment in which hardly a word is ever spoken. If you speak while by yourself, it is in a very low tone; and though you may smile, I don’t think any sane man could often laugh heartily while by himself. Think of a life in which, while at home, there is no talking and no laughing. Why, one distinctive characteristic of rational man is cut off when laughing ceases. Man is the only living creature that laughs with the sense of enjoyment. I have heard, indeed, of the laughing hyena; but my information respecting it is mainly drawn from Shakespeare, who was rather a great philosopher and poet than a great naturalist. ‘I will laugh like a hyen,’ says that great man; and as these words are spoken as a threat, I apprehend the laughter in question is of an unpleasant and unmirthful character. But to return from such deep thoughts, let it be repeated, that the entire mood of the solitary man is likely to be a sobered and subdued one. Even if hopeful and content, he will never be in high spirits. The highest degree in the scale he will ever reach, may be that of quiet lightheartedness; and that will come seldom. Jollity, or exhilaration, is entirely a social thing. I do not believe that even Sydney Smith could have got into one of his rollicking veins when alone. He enjoyed his own jokes, and laughed at them with extraordinary zest; but he enjoyed them because he thought others were enjoying them too. Why, you would be terrified that your friend’s mind was going, if before entering his room you heard such a peal of merriment from within, as would seem a most natural thing were two or three cheerful companions together. And gradually that chastened, subdued stage comes, in which a man can sit for half an hour before the fire as motionless as marble; even a man who in the society of others is in ceaseless movement.
It is an odd feeling, when you find that you yourself, once the most restless of living creatures, have come to this. I dare say Robinson Crusoe often sat for two or three hours together in his cave, without stirring hand or foot. The vital principle grows weak when isolated. You must have a number of embers together to make a warm fire; separate them, and they will soon go out and grow cold. And even so, to have brisk, conscious, vigorous life, you must have a number of lives together. They keep each other warm. They encourage and support each other. I dare say the solitary man, sitting at the close of a long evening by his lonely fireside, has sometimes felt as though the flame of life had sunk so low that a very little thing would be enough to put it out altogether. From the motionless limbs, from the unstrung hands, it seemed as though vitality had ebbed away, and barely kept its home in the feeble heart. At such a time some sudden blow, some not very violent shock, would suffice to quench the spark for ever. Reading the accounts in the newspapers of the cold, hunger, and misery which our poor soldiers suffered in the Crimea, have you not thought at such a time that a hundredth part of that would have been enough to extinguish you? Have you not wondered at the tenacity of material life, and at the desperate grasp with which even the most wretched cling to it? Is it worth the beggar’s while, in the snow-storm, to struggle on through the drifting heaps towards the town eight miles off, where he may find a morsel of food to half-appease his hunger, and a stone stair to sleep in during the night? Have not you thought, in hours when you were conscious of that shrinking of life into its smallest compass—that retirement of it from the confines of its territory, of which we have been thinking—that in that beggar’s place you would keep up the fight no longer, but creep into some quiet corner, and there lay yourself down and sleep away into forgetfulness? I do not say that the feeling is to be approved, or that it can in any degree bear being reasoned upon; but I ask such readers as have led solitary lives, whether they have not sometimes felt it? It is but the subdued feeling which comes of loneliness carried out to its last development. It is the highest degree of that influence which manifests itself in slow steps, in subdued tones of voice, in motionless musings beside the fire.
Another consequence of a lonely life in the case of many men, is an extreme sensitiveness to impressions from external nature. In the absence of other companions of a more energetic character, the scenes amid which you live produce an effect on you which they would fail to produce if you were surrounded by human friends. It is the rule in nature, that the stronger impression makes you unconscious of the weaker. If you had charged with the Six Hundred, you would not have remarked during the charge that one of your sleeves was too tight. Perhaps in your boyhood, a companion of a turn at once thoughtful and jocular, offered to pull a hair out of your head without your feeling it. And this he accomplished, by taking hold of the doomed hair, and then giving you a knock on the head that brought tears to your eyes. For, in the more vivid sensation of that knock you never felt the little twitch of the hair as it quitted its hold. Yes, the stronger impression makes you unaware of the weaker. And the impression produced either upon thought or feeling by outward scenes, is so much weaker than that produced by the companionship of our kind, that in the presence of the latter influence, the former remains unfelt, even by men upon whom it would tell powerfully in the absence of another. And so it is upon the lonely man that skies and mountains, woods and fields and rivers, tell with their full effect; it is to him that they become a part of life; it is in him that they make the inner shade or sunshine, and originate and direct the processes of the intellect. You go out to take a walk with a friend: you get into a conversation that interests and engrosses you. And thus engrossed, you hardly remark the hedges between which you walk, or the soft outline of distant summer hills. After the first half-mile, you are proof against the influence of the dull December sky, or the still October woods. But when you go out for your solitary walk, unless your mind be very much preoccupied indeed, your feeling and mood are at the will of external nature. And after a few hundred yards, unless the matter which was in your mind at starting be of a very worrying and painful character, you begin gradually to take your tone from the sky above you, and the ground on which you tread. You hear the birds, which, walking with a sympathetic companion, you would never have noticed. You feel the whole spirit of the scene, whether cheerful or gloomy, gently pervading you, and sinking into your heart. I do not know how far all this, continued through months or years of comparative loneliness, may permanently affect character; we can stand a great deal of kneading without being lastingly affected, either for better or worse; but there can be no question at all, that in a solitary life nature rises into a real companion, producing upon our present mood a real effect. As more articulate and louder voices die away upon our ear, we begin to hear the whisper of trees, the murmur of brooks, the song of birds, with a distinctness and a meaning not known before.
The influence of nature on most minds is likely to be a healthful one; still, it is not desirable to allow that influence to become too strong. And there is a further influence which is felt in a solitary life, which ought never to be permitted to gain the upper hand. I mean the influence of our own mental moods. It is not expedient to lead too subjective a life. We look at all things, doubtless, through our own atmosphere; our eyes, to a great extent, make the world they see. And no doubt, too, it is the sunshine within the breast that has most power to brighten; and the thing that can do most to darken is the shadow there. Still, it is not fit that these mental moods should be permitted to arise mainly through the mind’s own working. It is not fit that a man should watch his mental moods as he marks the weather; and be always chronicling that on such a day and such another he was in high or low spirits, he was kindly-disposed or snappish, as the case may be. The more stirring influence of intercourse with others, renders men comparatively heedless of the ups and downs of their own feelings; change of scenes and faces, conversation, business engagements, may make the day a lively or a depressed one, though they rose at morning with a tendency to just the opposite thing. But the solitary man is apt to look too much inward; and to attach undue importance to the fancies and emotions which arise spontaneously within his own breast; many of them in great measure the result of material causes. And as it is not a healthy thing for a man to be always feeling his pulse, and fearing that it shows something amiss; it is not a healthy thing to follow the analogous course as regards our immaterial health and development. And I cannot but regard those religious biographies which we sometimes read, in which worthy people of little strength of character record particularly from day to day all the shifting moods and fancies of their minds as regards their religious concerns, as calculated to do a great deal of mischief. It is founded upon a quite mistaken notion of the spirit of true Christianity, that a human being should be ever watching the play of his mind, as one might watch the rise and fall of the barometer; and recording phases of thought and feeling which it is easy to see are in some cases, and in some degree, at least, the result of change of temperature, of dyspepsia, of deranged circulation of the blood, as though these were the unquestionable effects of spiritual influence, either supernal or infernal. Let us try, in the matter of these most solemn of all interests, to look more to great truths and facts which exist quite independently of the impression they may for the time produce upon us; and less to our own fanciful or morbid frames and feelings.
It cannot be denied that, in some respects, most men are better men alone than in the society of their fellows. They are kinder-hearted; more thoughtful; more pious. I have heard a man say that he always acted and felt a great deal more under the influence of religious principle while living in a house all by himself for weeks and months, than he did when the house was filled by a family. Of course this is not saying much for the steadfastness of a man’s Christian principle. It is as much as to say that he feels less likely to go wrong when he is not tempted to go wrong. It is as though you said in praise of a horse, that he never shies when there is nothing to shy at. No doubt, when there are no little vexatious realities to worry you, you will not be worried by them. And little vexatious realities are doubtless a trial of temper and of principle. Living alone, your nerves are not jarred by discordant voices; you are to a great degree free from annoying interruptions; and if you be of an orderly turn of mind, you are not put about by seeing things around you in untidy confusion. You do not find leaves torn out of books; nor carpets strewn with fragments of biscuits; nor mantelpieces getting heaped with accumulated rubbish. Sawdust, escaped from maimed dolls, is never sprinkled upon your table-covers; nor ink poured over your sermons; nor leaves from these compositions cut up for patterns for dolls’ dresses. There is an audible quiet which pervades the house, which is favorable to thought. The first evenings, indeed, which you spent alone in it, were almost awful for their stillness; but that sort of nervous feeling soon wears off. And then you have no more than the quiet in which the mind’s best work must be done, in the case of average men.
And there can be little doubt, that when you gird up the mind, and put it to its utmost stretch, it is best that you should be alone. Even when the studious man comes to have a wife and children, he finds it needful that he should have his chamber to which he may retire when he is to grapple with his task of head-work; and he finds it needful, as a general rule, to suffer no one to enter that chamber while he is at work. It is not without meaning that this solitary chamber is called a study: the word reminds us that hard mental labor must generally be gone through when we are alone. Any interruption by others breaks the train of thought; and the broken end may never be caught again. You remember how Maturin, the dramatist, when he felt himself getting into the full tide of composition, used to stick a wafer on his forehead, to signify to any member of his family who might enter his room, that he must not on any account be spoken to. You remember the significant arrangement of Sir Walter’s library, or rather study, at Abbotsford; it contained one chair, and no more. Yes, the mind’s best work, at the rate of writing, must be done alone. At the speed of talking, the case is otherwise. The presence of others will then stimulate the mind to do its best; I mean to do the best it can do at that rate of speed. Talking with a clever man, on a subject which interests you, your mind sometimes produces material which is (for you) so good, that you are truly surprised at it. And a barrister, addressing a judge or a jury, has to do hard mental work, to keep all his wits awake, to strain his intellect to the top of its bent, in the presence of many; but, at the rate of speed at which he does this, he does it all the better for their presence. So with an extempore preacher. The eager attention of some hundreds of his fellow-creatures spurs him on (if he be mentally and physically in good trim) to do perhaps the very best he ever does. I have heard more than two or three clergymen who preach extempore (that is, who trust to the moment for the words entirely, for the illustration mainly, and for the thought in some degree), declare that they have sometimes felt quite astonished at the fluency with which they were able to express their thoughts, and at the freshness and fullness with which thoughts crowded upon them, while actually addressing a great assemblage of people. Of course, such extemporaneous speaking is an uncertain thing. It is a hit or a miss. A little physical or mental derangement, and the extempore speaker gets on lamely enough; he flounders, stammers, perhaps breaks down entirely. But still, I hold that though the extempore speaker may think and say that his mind often produces extempore the best material it ever produces, it is in truth only the best material which it can produce at the rate of speaking: and though the freshly manufactured article, warm from the mind that makes it, may interest and impress at the moment, we all know how loose, wordy, and unsymmetrical such a composition always is: and it is unquestionable that the very best product of the human soul must be turned off, not at the rate of speaking, but at the much slower rate of writing: yes, and oftentimes of writing with many pauses between the sentences, and long musing over individual phrases and words. Could Mr. Tennyson have spoken off in half-an-hour any one of the Idylls of the King Could he have said in three minutes any one of the sections of In Memoriam? And I am not thinking of the mechanical difficulty of composition in verse: I am thinking of the simple product in thought. Could Bacon have extemporized at the pace of talking, one of his Essays? Or does not Ben Jonson sum up just those characteristics which extempore composition (even the best) entirely wants, when he tells us of Bacon that ‘no man ever wrote more neatly, more expressively; nor suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in that he uttered?’ I take it for granted, that the highest human composition is that which embodies most thought, experience, and feeling; and that must be produced slowly and alone.
And if a man’s whole heart be in his work, whether it be to write a book, or to paint a picture, or to produce a poem, he will be content to make his life such as may tend to make him do his work best, even though that mode of life should not be the pleasantest in itself. He may gay to himself, I would rather be a great poet than a very cheerful and happy man; and if to lend a very retired and lonely life be the likeliest discipline to make me a great poet, I shall submit to that discipline. You must pay a price in labor and self-denial to accomplish any great end. When Milton resolved to write something ‘which men should not willingly let die,’ he knew what it would cost him. It was to be ‘by labor and intent study, which I take to be my portion in this life.’ When Mr. Dickens wrote one of his Christmas Books, he shut himself up for six weeks to do it; he ‘put his whole heart into it, and came out again looking as haggard as a murderer.’ There is a substratum of philosophic truth in Professor Aytoun’s brilliant burlesque of Firmilian. That gentleman wanted to be a poet. And being persuaded that the only way to successfully describe tragic and awful feelings was to have actually felt them, he got into all kinds of scrapes of set purpose, that he might know what were the actual sensations of people in like circumstances. Wishing to know what are the emotions of a murderer, he goes and kills somebody. He finds, indeed, that feelings sought experimentally prove not to be the genuine article: still, you see the spirit of the true artist, content to make any sacrifice to attain perfection in his art. The highest excellence, indeed, in some one department of human exertion is not consistent with decent goodness in all: you dwarf the remaining faculties when you develop one to abnormal size and strength. Thus have men been great preachers, but uncommonly neglectful parents. Thus have men been great statesmen, but omitted to pay their tradesmen’s bills. Thus men have been great moral and social reformers, whose own lives stood much in need of moral and social reformation. I should judge from a portrait I have seen of Mr. Thomas Sayers, the champion of England, that this eminent individual has attended to his physical to the neglect of his intellectual development. His face appeared deficient in intelligence, though his body seemed abundant in muscle. And possibly it is better to seek to develop the entire nature—intellectual, moral, and physical-than to push one part of it into a prominence that stunts and kills the rest. It is better to be a complete man than to be essentially a poet, a statesman, a prize-fighter. It is better that a tree should be fairly grown all round, than that it should send out one tremendous branch to the south, and have only rotten twigs in every other direction; better, even though that tremendous branch should be the very biggest that ever was seen. Such an inordinate growth in a single direction is truly morbid. It reminds one of the geese whose livers go to form that regal dainty, the pate de foie gras. By subjecting a goose to a certain manner of life, you dwarf its legs, wings, and general muscular development; but you make its liver grow as large as itself. I have known human beings who practiced on their mental powers a precisely analogous discipline. The power of calculating in figures, of writing poetry, of chess-playing, of preaching sermons, was tremendous; but all their other faculties were like the legs and wings of the fattening goose.
Let us try to be entire human beings, round and complete; and if we wish to be so, it is best not to live too much alone. The best that is in man’s nature taken as a whole is brought out by the society of his kind. In one or two respects he may be better in solitude, but not as the complete man. And more especially a good deal of the society of little children is much to be desired. You will be the better for having them about you, for listening to their stories, and watching their ways. They will sometimes interrupt you at your work, indeed, but their effect upon your moral development will be more valuable by a great deal than the pages you might have written in the time you spent with them. Read over the following verses, which are among the latest written by Longfellow. I do not expect that men who have no children of their own will appreciate them duly; but they seem to me among the most pleasing and touching which that pleasing poet ever wrote. Miserable solitary beings, see what improving and softening influences you miss!
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall-stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret,
O’er the arms and back of my chair:
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old moustache as I am
Is not a match for you all?
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeons,
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
What shall be said as to the effect which a solitary life will produce upon a man’s estimate of himself? Shall it lead him to fancy himself a man of very great importance? Or shall it tend to make him underrate himself, and allow inferior men of superior impudence to take the wall of him? Possibly we have all seen each effect follow from a too lonely mode of life. Each may follow naturally enough. Perhaps it is natural to imagine your mental stature to be higher than it is, when you have no one near with whom you may compare yourself. It no doubt tends to take down a human being from his self-conceit, to find himself no more than one of a large circle, no member of which is disposed to pay any special regard to his judgment, or in any way to yield him precedence. And the young man who has come in his solitary dwelling to think that he is no ordinary mortal, has that nonsense taken out of him when he goes back to spend some days in his father’s house among a lot of brothers of nearly his own age, who are generally the very last of the race to believe in any man. But sometimes the opposite effect comes of the lonely life. You grow anxious, nervous, and timid; you lose confidence in yourself, in the absence of any who may back up your failing sense of your own importance. You would like to shrink into a corner, and to slip quietly through life unnoticed. And all this without affectation, without the least latent feeling that perhaps you are not so very insignificant after all. Yet, even where men have come well to understand how infinitely little they are as regards the estimation of mankind, you will find them, if they live alone, cherishing some vain fancy that some few people, some distant friends, are sometimes thinking of them. You will find them arranging their papers, as though fancying that surely somebody would like some day to see them; and marshalling their sermons, as though in the vague notion that at some future time mortals would be found weak enough to read them. It is one of the things slowly learnt by repeated lessons and lengthening experience, that nobody minds very much about you, my reader. You remember the sensitive test which Dr. Johnson suggested as to the depth of one mortal’s feeling for another. How does it affect his appetite? Multitudes in London, he said, professed themselves extremely distressed at the hanging of Dr. Dodd; but how many on the morning he was hung took a materially worse breakfast than usual? Solitary dreamer, fancying that your distant friends feel deep interest in your goings-on, how many of them are there who would abridge their dinner if the black-edged note arrived by post which will some day chronicle the last fact in your worldly history?
You get, living alone, into little particular ways of your own. You know how, walking along a crowded street, you cannot keep a straight line: at every step you have to yield a little to right or left to avoid the passers by. This is no great trouble: you do it almost unconsciously, and your journey is not appreciably lengthened. Even so, living in a family, walking along the path of life in the same track with many more, you find it needful scores of times each day to give up your own fancies and wishes and ways, in deference to those of others. You cannot divide the day in that precise fashion which you would yourself like best. You must, in deciding what shall be the dinner-hour, regard what will suit others as well as you. You cannot sit always just in the corner or in the chair you would prefer. Sometimes you must tell your children a story when you are weary, or busy; but you cannot find it in your heart to cast a shadow of disappointment on the eager little faces that come and ask you. You have to stop writing many a time, in the middle of a sentence, to open your study door at the request of a little voice outside; and to admit a little visitor who can give no more definite reason for her visit than that she has come to see you, and tell you she has been a good girl. And all this is well for you It breaks in hour by hour upon your native selfishness. And it costs you not the slightest effort to give up your own wish to that of your child. Even if to middle age you retain the innocent taste for sweetmeats, would you not have infinitely greater pleasure in seeing your little boy or girl eating up the contents of your parcel, than in eating them yourself? It is to me a thoroughly disgusting sight to see, as we sometimes do, the wife and children of a family kept in constant terror of the selfish bashaw at the head of the house, and ever on the watch to yield in every petty matter to his whims and fancies. Sometimes, where he is a hard-wrought and anxious man, whose hard work earns his children’s bread, and whose life is their sole stay, it is needful that he should be deferred to in many things, lest the overtasked brain and overstrained nervous system should break down or grow unequal to their task. But I am not thinking of such cases. I mean cases in which the head of the family is a great fat, bullying, selfish scoundrel; who devours sullenly the choice dishes at dinner, and walks into all the fruit at dessert, while his wife looks on in silence, and the awe-stricken children dare not hint that they would like a little of what the brutal hound is devouring. I mean cases in which the contemptible dog is extremely well dressed, while his wife and children’s attire is thin and bare; in which he liberally tosses about his money in the billiard-room, and goes off in autumn for a tour on the Continent by himself, leaving them to the joyless routine of their unvaried life. It is sad to see the sudden hush that falls upon the little things when he enters the house; how their sports are cut short, and they try to steal away from the room. Would that I were the Emperor of Russia, and such a man my subject! Should not he taste the knout? Should not I make him howl? That would be his suitable punishment: for he will never feel what worthier mortals would regard as the heavier penalty by far, the utter absence of confidence or real affection between him and his children when they grow up. He will not mind that there never was a day when the toddling creatures set up a shout of delight at his entrance, and rushed at him and scaled him and searched in his pockets, and pulled him about; nor that the day will never come when, growing into men and women, they will come to him for sympathy and guidance in their little trials and perplexities. Oh, woeful to think that there are parents, held in general estimation too, to whom their children would no more think of going for kindly sympathy, than they would think of going to Nova Scotia for warmth!
But this is an excursus: I would that my hand were wielding a stout horsewhip rather than a pen! Let me return to the point of deviation, and say that a human being, if he be true-hearted, by living in a family, insensibly and constantly is gently turned from his own stiff track; and goes through life sinuously, so to speak. But the lonely man settles into his own little ways. He is like the man who walks through the desert without a soul to elbow him for miles. He fixes his own hours; he sits in his own corner, in his peculiar chair; he arranges the lamp where it best suits himself that it should stand; he reads his newspaper when he pleases, for no one else wants to see it; he orders from the club the books that suit his own taste. And all this quite fitly: like the Duke of Argyle’s attacks upon Lord Derby, these things please himself, and do harm to nobody. It is not selfishness not to consult the wishes of other people, if there be no other people whose wishes you can consult. And, though with great suffering to himself, I believe that many a kind-hearted, precise old bachelor, stiffened into his own ways through thirty solitary years would yet make an effort to give them up, if he fancied that to yield a little from them was needful to the comfort of others. He would give up the corner by the fire in which he Las sat through the life of a generation: he would resign to another the peg on which his hat has hung through that long time. Still, all this would cost a painful effort; and one need hardly repeat the common-place, that if people intend ever to get married, it is expedient that they should do so before they have settled too rigidly into their own ways.
It is a very touching thing, I think, to turn over the repositories of a lonely man after he is dead. You come upon so many indications of all his little ways and arrangements. In the case of men who have been the heads of large families, this work is done by those who have been most nearly connected with them, and who knew their ways before; and such men, trained hourly to yield their own wishes in things small and great, have comparatively few of those little peculiar ways in which so much of their individuality seems to make its touching appeal to us after they are gone. But lonely men not merely have very many little arrangements of their own, but have a particular reserve in exhibiting these: there is a strong sensitiveness about them: you know how they would have shrunk in life from allowing any one to turn over their papers, or even to look into the arrangements of their wardrobe and their linen-press. I remember once, after the sudden death of a reserved old gentleman, being one of two or three who went over all his repositories. The other people who did so with me were hard-headed lawyers, and did not seem to mind much; but I remember that it appeared to me a most touching sight we saw. All the little ways into which he had grown in forty lonely years; all those details about his property (a very large one), which in life he had kept entirely to himself—all these we saw. I remember, lying on the top of the documents contained in an iron chest, a little scrap of paper, the back of an ancient letter, on which was written a note of the amount of all his wealth. There you saw at once a secret which in life he would have confided to no one. I remember the precise arrangement of all the little piles of papers, so neatly tied up in separate parcels. I remember the pocket-handkerchiefs, of several different kinds, each set wrapped up by itself in a piece of paper. It was curious to think that he had counted and sorted those, handkerchiefs; and now he was so far away. What a contrast, the little cares of many little matters like that, and the solemn realities of the unseen world! I would not on any account have looked over these things alone. I should have had an awe-stricken expectation that I should be interrupted. I should have expected a sudden tap on the shoulder, and to be asked what I was doing there. And doubtless, in many such cases, when the repositories of the dead are first looked into by strangers, some one far away would be present, if such things could be.
Solitary men, of the class which I have in my mind, are generally very hard-wrought men, and are kept too busy to allow very much time for reverie. Still, there is some. There are evening hours after the task is done, when you sit by the fire, or walk up and down your study, and think that you are missing a great deal in this lonely life; and that much more might be made of your stay in this world, while its best years are passing over. You think that there are many pleasant people in the world, people whom you would like to know, and who might like you if they knew you. But you and they have never met; and if you go on in this solitary fashion, you and they never will meet. No doubt here is your comfortable room; there is the blazing fire and the mellow lamp and the warmly-curtained windows; and pervading the silent chamber, there is the softened murmur of the not distant sea. The backs of your books look out at you like old friends; and after you are married, you won’t be able to afford to buy so many. Still, you recall the cheerful society in which you have often spent such hours, and you think it might be well if you were not so completely cut off from it. You fancy you hear the hum of lively conversation, such as gently exhilarates the mind without tasking it; and again you think what a loss it is to live where you hardly ever hear music, whether good or bad. You think of the awkward shyness and embarrassment of manner which grows upon a man who is hardly ever called to join in general conversation. Yes, He knew our nature best who said that it is not good that man should be alone. We lean to our kind. There is indeed a solitariness which is the condition of an individual soul’s being, which no association with others can do away; but there is no reason why we should add to that burden of personality which the Bishop of Oxford, in one of his most striking sermons, has shown to be truly ‘an awful gift.’ And say, youthful recluse (I don’t mean you, middle-aged bachelor, I mean really young men of five or six and twenty), have you not sometimes, sitting by the fireside in the evening, looked at the opposite easy chair in the ruddy glow, and imagined that easy chair occupied by a gentle companion—one who would bring out into double strength all that is good in you—one who would sympathize with you and encourage you in all your work—one who would think you much wiser, cleverer, handsomer, and better than any mortal has ever yet thought you—the Angel in the House, in short, to use the strong expression of Mr. Coventry Patmore? Probably you have imagined all that: possibly you have in some degree realized it all. If not, in all likelihood the fault lies chiefly with yourself.
It must be a dismal thing for a solitary man to be taken ill: I mean so seriously ill as to be confined to bed, yet not so dangerously ill as to make some relation or friend come at all sacrifices to be with you. The writer speaks merely from logical considerations: happily he never experienced the case. But one can see that in that lonely life, there can be none of those pleasant circumstances which make days in bed, when acute pain is over, or the dangerous turning-point of disease is happily past, as quietly enjoyable days as any man is ever likely to know. No one should ever be seriously ill (if he can help it) unless he be one of a considerable household. Even then, indeed, it will be advisable to be ill as seldom as may be. But to a person who when well is very hard-worked, and a good deal worried, what restful days those are of which we are thinking! You have such a feeling of peace and quietness. There you lie, in lazy luxury, when you are suffering merely the weakness of a serious illness, but the pain and danger are past. All your wants are so thoughtfully and kindly anticipated. It is a very delightful sensation to lift your head from the pillow, and instantly to find yourself giddy and blind from loss of blood, and just drop your head down again. It is not a question, even for the most uneasily exacting conscience, whether you are to work or not: it is plain you cannot. There is no difficulty on that score. And then you are weakened to that degree that nothing worries you. Things going wrong or remaining neglected about the garden or the stable, which would have annoyed you when well, cannot touch you here. All you want is to lie still and rest. Everything is still. You faintly hear the door-bell ring; and though you live in a quiet country house where that phenomenon rarely occurs, you feel not the least curiosity to know who is there. You can look for a long time quite contentedly at the glow of the fire on the curtains and on the ceiling. You feel no anxiety about the coming in of the post; but when your letters and newspapers arrive, you luxuriously read them, a very little at a time, and you soon forget all you have read. You turn over and fall asleep for a while; then you read a little more. Your reviving appetite makes simple food a source of real enjoyment. The children come in, and tell you wonderful stories of all that has happened since you were ill. They are a little subdued at first, but soon grow noisy as usual; and their noise does not in the least disturb you. You hear it as though it were miles off. After days and nights of great pain, you understand the blessing of ease and rest: you are disposed to be pleased with everything, and everybody wants to please you. The day passes away, and the evening darkness comes before you are aware. Everything is strange, and everything is soothing and pleasant. The only disadvantage is, that you grow so fond of lying in bed, that you shrink extremely from the prospect of ever getting up again.
Having arrived at this point, at 10:45 on this Friday evening, I gathered up all the pages which have been written, and carried them to the fireside, and sitting there, I read them over; and I confess, that on the whole, it struck me that the present essay was somewhat heavy. A severe critic might possibly say that it was stupid. I fancied it would have been rather good when it was sketched out; but it has not come up to expectation. However, it is as good as I could make it; and I trust the next essay may be better. It is a chance, you see, what the quality of any composition shall be. Give me a handle to turn, and I should undertake upon every day to turn it equally well. But in the working of the mental machine, the same pressure of steam, the same exertion of will, the same strain of what powers you have, will not always produce the same result. And if you, reader, feel some disappointment at looking at a new work by an old friend, and finding it not up to the mark you expected, think how much greater his disappointment must have been as the texture rolled out from the loom, and he felt it was not what he had wished. Here, to-night, the room and the house are as still as in my remembrance of the Solitary Days which are gone. But they will not be still to-morrow morning; and they are so now because sleep has hushed two little voices, and stayed the ceaseless movements of four little pattering feet. May those Solitary Days never return. They are well enough when the great look-out is onward; but, oh! how dreary such days must be to the old man whose main prospect is of the past! I cannot imagine a lot more completely beyond all earthly consolation, than that of a man from whom wife and children have been taken away, and who lives now alone in the dwelling once gladdened by their presence, but now haunted by their memory. Let us humbly pray, my reader, that such a lot may never be yours or mine.
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