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The Solitude of Childhood

As nothing which is impassioned escapes the eye of poetry, neither has this escaped it—that there is, or may be, through solitude, ‘sublime attractions of the grave.’ But even poetry has not perceived that these attractions may arise for a child. Not, indeed, a passion for the grave as the grave—from that a child revolts; but a passion for the grave as the portal through which it may recover some heavenly countenance, mother or sister, that has vanished. Through solitude this passion may be exalted into a frenzy like a nympholepsy. At first, when in childhood we find ourselves torn away from the lips that we could hang on for ever, we throw out our arms in vain struggles to snatch at them, and pull them back again. But when we have felt for a time how hopeless is that effort, and that they cannot come to us, we desist from that struggle, and next we whisper to our hearts. Might not we go to them?

Such in principle and origin was the famous Dulce Domum1 of the English schoolboy. Such is the Heimweh (home-sickness) of the German and Swiss soldier in foreign service. Such is the passion of the Calenture. Doubtless, reader, you have seen it described. The poor sailor is in tropical latitudes; deep, breathless calms have prevailed for weeks. Fever and delirium are upon him. Suddenly from his restless hammock he starts up he will fret no longer in darkness; he ascends upon deck. How motionless are the deeps! How vast—how sweet are these shining zaarrahs of water! He gazes, and slowly under the blazing scenery of his brain the scenery of his eye unsettles. The waters are swallowed up; the seas have disappeared. Green fields appear, a silent dell, and a pastoral cottage. Two faces appear—are at the door—sweet female faces, and behold they beckon him. ‘Come to us!’ they seem to say. The picture rises to his wearied brain like a sanctus from the choir of a cathedral, and in the twinkling of an eye, stung to madness by the cravings of his heart, the man is overboard. He is gone—he is lost for this world; but if he missed the arms of the lovely women—wife and sister—whom he sought, assuredly he has settled into arms that are mightier and not less indulgent.

I, young as I was, had one feeling not learned from books, and that could not have been learned from books, the deepest of all that connect themselves with natural scenery. It is the feeling which in ‘The Hart-leap Well’ of Wordsworth, in his ‘Danish Boy,’ and other exquisite poems is brought out, viz., the breathless, mysterious, Pan-like silence that haunts the noon-day. If there were winds abroad, then I was roused myself into sympathetic tumults. But if this dead silence haunted the air, then the peace which was in nature echoed another peace which lay in graves, and I fell into a sick languishing for things which a voice from heaven seemed to say ‘cannot be granted.’

There is a German superstition, which eight or ten years after I read,of the Erl-king and his daughter. The daughter had power to tempt infants away into the invisible world; but it is, as the reader understands, by collusion with some infirmity of sick desire for such worlds in the infant itself.

‘Who is that rides through the forest so fast?’

It is a knight who carries his infant upon his saddle-bow. The Erl-king’s daughter rides by his side; and, in words audible only when she means them to be heard, she says:

‘If thou wilt, dear baby, with me go away,
We will see a fine show, we will play a fine play.’

That sounds lovely to my ears. Oh yes, that collusion with dim sleeping infancy is lovely to me; but I was too advanced in intellect to have been tempted by such temptations. Still there was a perilous attraction for me in worlds that slept and rested; and if the Erl-king’s daughter had revealed herself to my perceptions, there was one ‘show’ that she might have promised which would have wiled me away with her into the dimmest depths of the mightiest and remotest forests.


1 The story and the verses are, or used to be, well known. A schoolboy, forbidden to return home at the holidays, is suspected to have written the lyrical Latin verses upon the rapture of returning home, and to have breathed out his life in the anguish of thus reviving the images which for him were never to be realized. . . . The reader must not fancy any flaw in the Latin title. It is elliptic; revisire being understood, or some similar word.