John Burroughs: Solitude

The following text reprints "Solitude" which is Section 5 of Chapter 8, "Brief Essays" of John Burrough's book Indoor Studies, published by Houghton-Mifflin (Boston), 1895 in "The Writings of John Burroughs." Burroughs (1837-1921) was an American naturalist and essayist, credited as an early source in the environmental movement.


Emerson says, "Now and then a man exquisitely made can live alone, and must; but coop up most men and you undo them." Solitude tries a man in a way society does not; it throws him upon his own resources, and if these resources be meager, if the ground he occupies in and of himself be poor and narrow, he will have a sorry time of it.

Hence we readily attribute some extra virtue to those persons who voluntarily embrace solitude, who live alone in the country or in the woods, or in the mountains, and find life sweet. We know they cannot live without converse, without society of some sort, and we credit them with the power of invoking it from themselves, or else of finding more companionship with dumb things than ordinary mortals.

In any case they give evidence of resources which all do not possess. If not "exquisitely made," hermits generally have a fine streak in them, which preserves them in solitude. If a man wants to get away from himself or from a guilty conscience he does not retreat into the country, he flees to the town. If he is empty, the town will fill him; if he is idle, the town will amuse him; if he is vain, here is a field for his vanity; if he is ambitious, here are dupes waiting to be played upon; but if he is an honest man, here he will have a struggle to preserve his integrity.

The rapid growth of cities in our time has its dark side. Every man who has a demon to flee from, a vice to indulge, an itching for notoriety to allay, money to squander, or a dream of sudden wealth to cherish, flees to the city, and, as most persons have one or the other of these things, the city outstrips the country.

It is thought that the more a man is civilized, the more his tastes are refined, the more he will crave city life and the more benefit he will get from it. But this may be questioned. It is not, as a rule, a refined taste that takes men to cities, but a craving for a vain superficial elegance, the pride of dress, of equipage, of fashion, of fast living, and the shams and follies of the world. The more simple and refined taste loves the seriousness and sobriety of the country.

People find country life dull because they are empty and frivolous; having only themselves on their hands, they can extract no entertainment from such a subject. How can a man profitably commune with himself if the self is small and frivolous and unworthy? He will not go to his own garden for fruit if there be only thorns there.

The finest spirits are not gregarious; they do not love a crowd. Crows and wolves go in flocks and packs, but the eagle and the lion are solitary in their habits.

Solitude is not for the young; the young have no thoughts or experience, but only unsatisfied desires; it is for the middle-aged and the old, for a man when he has ripened and wants time to mellow his thoughts. A man who retires into solitude must have a capital of thought and experience to live upon, or his soul will perish of want. This capital must be reinvested in the things about him, or it will not suffice. Either as a farmer or as a student and lover of nature, or as both, can he live as it were on the interest of his stored-up wisdom.

"There are things that never show themselves till you are alone," said an old recluse in Mexico to an American traveler who had claimed the hospitality of his hut; "but if you once make up your mind that there is no harm in them, you find out that they are pretty good company."

The old recluse knew what he was saying. Things do show themselves when one is alone; they emerge on all sides; they come in troops from all points of the compass, and one is only master of the situation when he can make good company of them. How your misdeeds find you out! The still small voice of conscience, which you could not hear amid the roar of the town, makes itself heard now; all the past beleaguers you, -- whether with an army of angels or of demons, depends upon what your past has been.

The old recluse above referred to, the traveler found living in a hut alone in the mountains. He had lived there many years, with no companionship but his dogs. An Irishman by birth, he had tried many parts of the world, and seen many phases of life, and had at last found his place in the solitude of the Mexican mountains. He had learned the art of dreaming with his eyes open, which is the charm of solitude. A man who cannot dream with his eyes open had better not court solitude.

Such an old dreamer was found the other day by some railroad surveyors on a mountain in North Carolina. He had lived there in his hut for fifty years. He, too, had for companion a dog. If Thoreau had made friends with a dog to share his bed and board in his retreat by Walden Pond, one would have had more faith in his sincerity. The dog would have been the seal and authentication of his retreat. A man who has no heart for a dog, -- how can he have a heart for Nature herself?

For many reasons women seldom voluntarily face solitude, but in my boyhood I knew an aged widow who lived all alone on her little farm, in her little brown house, for many years. She kept five or six cows, which she took care of herself winter and summer. She hired her hay gathered, her wood cut, and that was all. She was a gentle and pious little woman, and her house was as neat as a pin.

But think of those long years of solitary life; the nights, the mornings, the meals, the Sundays, the week days, and no sound but what you made yourself! How intimately acquainted with one's self one must become in such a life! If one's self was not a pretty good fellow, how cordially one would learn to dislike his company!

One Sunday, as my people were passing the house on their way to church, they saw her washing. "Hello, Aunt Debby! don't you know it is Sunday?" Behold the consternation of the old dame! She had lost her reckoning, and had kept Sabbath on Saturday. The last time I passed that way I saw only a little grassy mound where Aunt Debby's house used to stand.

The poet of solitude is Wordsworth. What a sense of the privacy of fields and woods there is over all his poetry; what stillness, what lonesome dells, what sounds of distant waterfalls! How fondly he lingers upon the simple objects of nature, upon rural scenes and events, and how perpetually he returns upon his own heart! His companionship with hills and trees and rocks and shepherds does not relieve, but rather sets off, his loneliness. He is encompassed with solitude wherever he goes:

In November days,
When vapors rolling down the valley make
A lonely scene more lonesome; among woods
At noon; and mid the calm of summer nights,
When by the margin of the trembling lake,
Beneath the gloomy hills, I homeward went In solitude.
and has the same sweet and fruitful fellowship with nature and with his own heart. In his "A Poet's Epitaph" he has drawn his own portrait:

He is retired as noontide dew,
Or fountain in a noonday grove;
And you must love him; ere to you
He will seem worthy of your love.

The outward shows of sky and earth,
Of hill and valley, he has viewed;
And impulses of deeper birth
Have come to him in solitude.

In common things that round us lie
Some random truths he can impart, --
The harvest of a quiet eye
That broods and sleeps on his own heart.

Wordsworth was solitary because of his profound seriousness, and because great thoughts or deep emotions always create a solitude of their own. What is communing with nature but communing with ourselves? Nature gives back our thoughts and feelings, as we see our faces reflected in a pool. Wordsworth found himself whenever he walked; all nature was Wordsworthian. Another man of equal profundity and sympathy finds nature stamped with his image.

Wordsworth felt akin to all solitary things; he is drawn by every recluse and wanderer; he loves to contemplate beggars, and dwellers or watchers in secluded dells, and to sing the praises of "The Solitary Reaper." A solitary flower, a solitary scene of almost any kind, never failed to move him. What a charm of seclusion in the poem beginning:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills.
Or in this other:

I heard a thousand blended notes
While in a grove I sat reclined
In that sweet mood where pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

Or again in this immortal song:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways,
Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye;
Fair as a star when only one Is shining in the sky.

Before Wordsworth, solitude had a lover and poet in Abraham Cowley. Through nearly all his essays there runs a desire to escape from the world, and to be alone with nature and with his own thoughts. And who has better expressed this desire and the satisfaction which its fulfillment brings? He longed for the country as an exile longs for home. He says to Evelyn that he had never had any other desire so strong and so like to covetousness as the one he had always had, namely, to be master at last of a small house and a large garden, with very moderate conveniences joined to them, and there to dedicate the remainder of his life only to the culture of them and to the study of nature.

He says: "As far as my memory can return back into my past life, before I knew or was capable of guessing what the world or the glories or business of it were, the natural affections of my soul gave me a secret bent of aversion from them." When he was a boy at school he was wont to leave his play-fellows, and walk alone into the fields. How charmingly he praises "Obscurity," and how pungently he sets forth the "Dangers of an honest man in much company! "

He knew well the virtues which solitude necessitated and implied.

The truth of the matter is, that neither he who is a fop in the world is a fit man to be alone; nor he who has set his heart much upon the world, though he have never so much understanding: so that solitude can be well fitted and sit right but upon a very few persons. They must have enough knowledge of the world to see the vanity of it, and enough virtue to despise all vanity; if the mind be possessed with any lust or passion, a man had better be in a fair than in a wood alone.

But, after all has been said about the solitude of nature, that is the best solitude that comes clothed in the human form -- your friend, your other self, who leaves you alone, yet cheers you; who peoples your house or your field and wood with tender remembrances; who stands between your yearning heart and the great outward void that you try in vain to warm and fill; who in his own person and spirit clothes for you, and endows with tangible form, all the attractions and subtle relations and meanings that draw you to the woods and fields. What the brooks and the trees and the birds said so faintly and vaguely, he speaks with warmth and directness. Indeed, your friend complements and completes your solitude, and you experience its charm without its desolation. I cannot, therefore, agree with Marvell that

Two paradises are in one,
To live in paradise alone.

I should want at least my friend to share it with me.