23 August 2013

A Strangely Vivid Understanding of Other Ages

Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Intellectual Life (London: Macmillan, 1887), pp. 327-328:
It is a traditional habit of mankind to see only the disadvantages of solitude, without considering its compensations; but there are great compensations, some of the greatest being negative. The lonely man is lord of his own hours and of his own purse; his days are long and unbroken, he escapes from every form of ostentation, and may live quite simply and sincerely in great calm breadths of leisure. I knew one who passed his summers in the heart of a vast forest, in a common thatched cottage with furniture of common deal, and for this retreat he quitted very gladly a rich fine house in the city. He wore nothing but old clothes, read only a few old books, without the least regard to the opinions of the learned, and did not take in a newspaper. On the wall of his habitation he inscribed with a piece of charcoal a quotation from De Sénancour to this effect: “In the world a man lives in his own age; in solitude, in all the ages.” I observed in him the effects of a lonely life, and he greatly aided my observations by frankly communicating his experiences. That solitude had become inexpressibly dear to him, but he admitted one evil consequence of it, which was an increasing unfitness for ordinary society, though he cherished a few tried friendships, and was grateful to those who loved him and could enter into his humor. He had acquired a horror of towns and crowds, not from nervousness, but because he felt imprisoned and impeded in his thinking, which needed the depths of the forest, the venerable trees, the communication with primæval nature, from which he drew a mysterious yet necessary nourishment for the peculiar activity of his mind. I found that his case answered very exactly to the sentence he quoted from De Sénancour; he lived less in his own age than others do, but he had a fine compensation in a strangely vivid understanding of other ages. Like De Sénancour, he had a strong sense of the transitoriness of what is transitory, and a passionate preference for all that the human mind conceives to be relatively or absolutely permanent. This trait was very observable in his talk about the peoples of antiquity, and in the delight he took in dwelling rather upon everything which they had in common with ourselves than on those differences which are more obvious to the modern spirit. His temper was grave and earnest, but unfailingly cheerful, and entirely free from any tendency to bitterness. The habits of his life would have been most unfavorable to the development of a man of business, of a statesman, of a leader in practical enterprise, but they were certainly not unfavorable to the growth of a tranquil and comprehensive intellect, capable of “just judgment and high-hearted patriotism.” He had not the spirit of the newspapers, he did not live intensely in the present, but he had the spirit which has animated great poets, and saints, and sages, and far-seeing teachers of humanity. Not in vain had he lived alone with Nature, not in vain had he watched in solemn twilights and witnessed many a dawn. There is, there is a strength that comes to us in solitude from that shadowy, awful Presence that frivolous crowds repel!