Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Solitude.

We possess, among our own native treasures, two treatises on this subject, composed with no ordinary talent, and not their least value consists in one being an apology for solitude, while the other combats that prevailing passion of the studious. Zimmerman’s popular work is overloaded with commonplace; the garrulity of eloquence. The two treatises now noticed may be compared to the highly-finished gems, whose figure may be more finely designed, and whose strokes may be more delicate in the smaller space they occupy than the ponderous block of marble hewed out by the German chiseller.

Sir George Mackenzie, a polite writer, and a most eloquent pleader, published, in 1665, a moral essay, preferring Solitude to public employment. The eloquence of his style was well suited to the dignity of his subject; the advocates for solitude have always prevailed over those for active life, because there is something sublime in those feelings which would retire from the circle of indolent triflers, or depraved geniuses. The tract of Mackenzie was ingeniously answered by the elegant taste of John Evelyn in 1667. Mackenzie, though he wrote in favour of solitude, passed a very active life, first as a pleader, and afterwards as a judge; that he was an eloquent writer, and an eloquent critic, we have the authority of Dryden, who says, that till he was acquainted with that noble wit of Scotland, Sir George Mackenzie, he had not known the beautiful turn of words and thoughts in poetry, which Sir George had explained and exemplified to him in conversation. As a judge, and king’s advocate, will not the barbarous customs of the age defend his name? He is most hideously painted forth by the dark pencil of a poetical Spagnoletti (Grahame), in his poem on “The Birds of Scotland.” Sir George lived in the age of rebellion, and used torture: we must entirely put aside his political, to attend to his literary character. Blair has quoted his pleadings as a model of eloquence, and Grahame is unjust to the fame of Mackenzie, when he alludes to his “half-forgotten name.” In 1689, he retired to Oxford, to indulge the luxuries of study in the Bodleian Library, and to practise that solitude which so delighted him in theory; but three years afterwards he fixed himself in London. Evelyn, who wrote in favour of public employment being preferable to solitude, passed his days in the tranquillity of his studies, and wrote against the habits which he himself most loved. By this it may appear, that that of which we have the least experience ourselves, will ever be what appears most delightful! Alas! everything in life seems to have in it the nature of a bubble of air, and, when touched, we find nothing but emptiness in our hand. It is certain that the most eloquent writers in favour of solitude have left behind them too many memorials of their unhappy feelings, when they indulged this passion to excess; and some ancient has justly said, that none but a god, or a savage, can suffer this exile from human nature.

The following extracts from Sir George Mackenzie’s tract on Solitude are eloquent and impressive, and merit to be rescued from that oblivion which surrounds many writers, whose genius has not been effaced, but concealed, by the transient crowd of their posterity:—

I have admired to see persons of virtue and humour long much to be in the city, where, when they come they found nor sought for no other divertissement than to visit one another; and there to do nothing else than to make legs, view others habit, talk of the weather, or some such pitiful subject, and it may be, if they made a farther inroad upon any other affair, they did so pick one another, that it afforded them matter of eternal quarrel; for what was at first but an indifferent subject, is by interest adopted into the number of our quarrels. — What pleasure can be received by talking of new fashions, buying and selling of lands, advancement or ruin of favourites, victories or defeats of strange princes, which is the ordinary subject of ordinary conversation? — Most desire to frequent their superiors, and these men must either suffer their raillery, or must not be suffered to continue in their society; if we converse with them who speak with more address than ourselves, then we repine equally at our own dulness, and envy the acuteness that accomplishes the speaker; or, if we converse with duller animals than ourselves, then we are weary to draw the yoke alone, and fret at our being in ill company; but if chance blows us in amongst our equals, then we are so at guard to catch all advantages, and so interested in point d’honneur, that it rather cruciates than recreates us. How many make themselves cheap by these occasions, whom we had valued highly if they had frequented us less! And how many frequent persons who laugh at that simplicity which the addresser admires in himself as wit, and yet both recreate themselves with double laughters!

In solitude, he addresses his friend:—“My dear Celador, enter into your own breast, and there survey the several operations of your own soul, the progress of your passions, the strugglings of your appetite, the wanderings of your fancy, and ye will find, I assure you, more variety in that one piece than there is to be learned in all the courts of Christendom. Represent to yourself the last age, all the actions and interests in it, how much this person was infatuated with zeal, that person with lust; how much one pursued honour, and another riches; and in the next thought draw that scene, and represent them all turned to dust and ashes!”

I cannot close this subject without the addition of some anecdotes, which may be useful. A man of letters finds solitude necessary, and for him solitude has its pleasures and its conveniences; but we shall find that it also has a hundred things to be dreaded.

Solitude is indispensable for literary pursuits. No considerable work has yet been composed, but its author, like an ancient magician, retired first to the grove or the closet, to invocate his spirits. Every production of genius must be the production of enthusiasm. When the youth sighs and languishes, and feels himself among crowds in an irksome solitude — that is the moment to fly into seclusion and meditation. Where can he indulge but in solitude the fine romances of his soul? where but in solitude can he occupy himself in useful dreams by night, and, when the morning rises, fly without interruption to his unfinished labours? Retirement to the frivolous is a vast desert, to the man of genius it is the enchanted garden of Armida.

Cicero was uneasy amidst applauding Rome, and he has designated his numerous works by the titles of his various villas, where they were composed. Voltaire had talents, and a taste for society, yet he not only withdrew by intervals, but at one period of his life passed five years in the most secret seclusion and fervent studies. Montesquieu quitted the brilliant circles of Paris for his books, his meditations, and for his immortal work, and was ridiculed by the gay triflers he relinquished. Harrington, to compose his Oceana, severed himself from the society of his friends, and was so wrapped in abstraction, that he was pitied as a lunatic. Descartes, inflamed by genius, abruptly breaks off all his friendly connexions, hires an obscure house in an unfrequented corner at Paris, and applies himself to study during two years unknown to his acquaintance. Adam Smith, after the publication of his first work, throws himself into a retirement that lasted ten years; even Hume rallied him for separating himself from the world; but the great political inquirer satisfied the world, and his friends, by his great work on the Wealth of Nations.

But this solitude, at first a necessity, and then a pleasure, at length is not borne without repining. I will call for a witness a great genius, and he shall speak himself. Gibbon says, “I feel, and shall continue to feel, that domestic solitude, however it may be alleviated by the world, by study, and even by friendship, is a comfortless state, which will grow more painful as I descend in the vale of years.” And afterwards he writes to a friend, “Your visit has only served to remind me that man, however amused and occupied in his closet, was not made to live alone.”

I must therefore now sketch a different picture of literary solitude than some sanguine and youthful minds conceive.

Even the sublimest of men, Milton, who is not apt to vent complaints, appears to have felt this irksome period of life. In the preface to Smectymnuus, he says, “It is but justice, not to defraud of due esteem the wearisome labours and studious watchings, wherein I have spent and tired out almost a whole youth.”

Solitude in a later period of life, or rather the neglect which awaits the solitary man, is felt with acuter sensibility. Cowley, that enthusiast for rural seclusion, in his retirement calls himself “The melancholy Cowley.” Mason has truly transferred the same epithet to Gray. Bead in his letters the history of solitude. We lament the loss of Cowley’s correspondence, through the mistaken notion of Sprat; he assuredly had painted the sorrows of his heart. But Shenstone has filled his pages with the cries of an amiable being whose soul bleeds in the dead oblivion of solitude. Listen to his melancholy expressions:—“Now I am come from a visit, every little uneasiness is sufficient to introduce my whole train of melancholy considerations, and to make me utterly dissatisfied with the life I now lead, and the life I foresee I shall lead. I am angry, and envious, and dejected, and frantic, and disregard all present things, as becomes a madman to do. I am infinitely pleased (though it is a gloomy joy) with the application of Dr. Swift’s complaint, that he is forced to die in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.” Let the lover of solitude muse on its picture throughout the year, in the following stanza by the same poet:—

Tedious again to curse the drizzling day,

Again to trace the wintry tracks of snow!

Or, soothed by vernal airs, again survey

The self-same hawthorns bud, and cowslips blow!

Swift’s letters paint in terrifying colours a picture of solitude, and at length his despair closed with idiotism. The amiable Gresset could not sport with the brilliant wings of his butterfly muse, without dropping some querulous expression on the solitude of genius. In his “Epistle to his Muse,” he exquisitely paints the situation of men of genius:

—— Je les vois, victimes du génie,

Au foible prix d’un éclat passager,

Vivre isolés, sans jouir de la vie!

And afterwards he adds,

Vingt ans d’ennuis, pour quelques jours de gloire!

I conclude with one more anecdote on solitude, which may amuse. When Menage, attacked by some, and abandoned by others, was seized by a fit of the spleen, he retreated into the country, and gave up his famous Mercuriales; those Wednesdays when the literati assembled at his house, to praise up or cry down one another, as is usual with the literary populace. Menage expected to find that tranquillity in the country which he had frequently described in his verses; but as he was only a poetical plagiarist, it is not strange that our pastoral writer was greatly disappointed. Some country rogues having killed his pigeons, they gave him more vexation than his critics. He hastened his return to Paris. “It is better,” he observed, “since we are born to suffer, to feel only reasonable sorrows.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37