Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
In the Isle of St. Peter
By Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
From the Fifth of the ‘Rêveries’

I FOUND my existence so charming, and led a life so agreeable to my humor, that I resolved here to end my days. My only source of disquiet was whether I should be allowed to carry my project out. In the midst of the presentiments that disturbed me, I would fain have had them make a perpetual prison of my refuge, to confine me in it for all the rest of my life. I longed for them to cut off all chance and all hope of leaving it; to forbid my holding any communication with the mainland, so that knowing nothing of what was going on in the world, I might have forgotten the world’s existence, and people might have forgotten mine too. They suffered me to pass only two months in the island, but I could have passed two years, two centuries, and all eternity, without a moment’s weariness; though I had not, with my companion, any other society than that of the steward, his wife, and their servants. They were in truth honest souls and nothing more, but that was just what I wanted…. Carried thither in a violent hurry, alone and without a thing, I afterwards sent for my housekeeper, my books, and my scanty possessions,—of which I had the delight of unpacking nothing,—leaving my boxes and chests just as they had come, and dwelling in the house where I counted on ending my days exactly as if it were an inn whence I must set forth on the morrow. All things went so well, just as they were, that to think of ordering them better were to spoil them. One of my greatest joys was to leave my books fastened up in their boxes, and to be without even a case for writing. When any luckless letter forced me to take up a pen for an answer, I grumblingly borrowed the steward’s inkstand, and hurried to give it back to him with all the haste I could, in the vain hope that I should never have need of the loan any more. Instead of meddling with those weary quires and reams and piles of old books, I filled my chamber with flowers and grasses; for I was then in my first fervor for botany. Having given up employment that would be a task to me, I needed one that would be an amusement, nor cause me more pains than a sluggard might choose to take.  1
  I undertook to make the ‘Flora Petrinsularis’; and to describe every single plant on the island, in detail enough to occupy me for the rest of my days. In consequence of this fine scheme, every morning after breakfast, which we all took in company, I used to go with a magnifying-glass in my hand, and my ‘Systema Naturæ’ under my arm, to visit some district of the island. I had divided it for that purpose into small squares, meaning to go through them one after another in each season of the year. At the end of two or three hours I used to return laden with an ample harvest,—a provision for amusing myself after dinner indoors, in case of rain. I spent the rest of the morning in going with the steward, his wife, and Theresa, to see the laborers and the harvesting, and I generally set to work along with them: many a time when people from Berne came to see me, they found me perched on a high tree, with a bag fastened round my waist; I kept filling it with fruit, and then let it down to the ground with a rope. The exercise I had taken in the morning, and the good-humor that always comes from exercise, made the repose of dinner vastly pleasant to me. But if dinner was kept up too long, and fine weather invited me forth, I could not wait; but was speedily off to throw myself all alone into a boat, which, when the water was smooth enough, I used to pull out to the middle of the lake. There, stretched at full length in the boat’s bottom, with my eyes turned up to the sky, I let myself float slowly hither and thither as the water listed, sometimes for hours together; plunged in a thousand confused delicious musings, which, though they had no fixed nor constant object, were not the less on that account a hundred times dearer to me than all that I had found sweetest in what they call the pleasures of life. Often warned by the going down of the sun that it was time to return, I found myself so far from the island that I was forced to row with all my might to get in before it was pitch dark. At other times, instead of losing myself in the midst of the waters, I had a fancy to coast along the green shores of the island, where the clear waters and cool shadows tempted me to bathe.  2
  But one of my most frequent expeditions was from the larger island to the less: there I disembarked and spent my afternoon,—sometimes in mimic rambles among wild elders, persicaries, willows, and shrubs of every species; sometimes settling myself on the top of a sandy knoll, covered with turf, wild thyme, flowers, even sainfoin and trefoil that had most likely been sown there in old days, making excellent quarters for rabbits. They might multiply in peace without either fearing anything or harming anything. I spoke of this to the steward. He at once had male and female rabbits brought from Neuchâtel, and we went in high state—his wife, one of his sisters, Theresa, and I—to settle them in the little islet. The foundation of our colony was a feast-day. The pilot of the Argonauts was not prouder than I, as I bore my company and the rabbits in triumph from our island to the smaller one….  3
  When the lake was too rough for me to sail, I spent my afternoon in going up and down the island, gathering plants to right and left; seating myself now in smiling lonely nooks to dream at my ease, now on little terraces and knolls, to follow with my eyes the superb and ravishing prospect of the lake and its shores, crowned on one side by the neighboring hills, and on the other melting into rich and fertile plains up to the feet of the pale-blue mountains on their far-off edge.  4
  As evening drew on, I used to come down from the high ground, and sit on the beach at the water’s brink in some hidden sheltering-place. There the murmur of the waves and their agitation charmed all my senses, and drove every other movement away from my soul: they plunged it into delicious dreamings, in which I was often surprised by night. The flux and reflux of the water, its ceaseless stir, swelling and falling at intervals, striking on ear and sight, made up for the internal movements which my musings extinguished; they were enough to give me delight in mere existence, without taking any trouble of thinking. From time to time arose some passing thought of the instability of the things of this world, of which the face of the waters offered an image: but such light impressions were swiftly effaced in the uniformity of the ceaseless motion, which rocked me as in a cradle; it held me with such fascination that even when called at the hour and by the signal appointed, I could not tear myself away without summoning all my force.  5
  After supper, when the evening was fine, we used to go all together for a saunter on the terrace, to breathe the freshness of the air from the lake. We sat down in the arbor,—laughing, chatting, or singing some old song,—and then we went home to bed, well pleased with the day, and only craving another that should be exactly like it on the morrow….  6
  All is a continual flux upon the earth. Nothing in it keeps a form constant and determinate; our affections—fastening on external things—necessarily change and pass just as they do. Ever in front of us or behind us, they recall the past that is gone, or anticipate a future that in many a case is destined never to be. There is nothing solid to which the heart can fix itself. Here we have little more than a pleasure that comes and passes away; as for the happiness that endures, I cannot tell if it be so much as known among men. There is hardly in the midst of our liveliest delights a single instant when the heart could tell us with real truth, “I would this instant might last forever.” And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state that all the time leaves the heart unquiet and void,—that makes us regret something gone, or still long for something to come?  7
  But if there is a state in which the soul finds a situation solid enough to comport with perfect repose, and with the expansion of its whole faculty, without need of calling back the past or pressing on towards the future; where time is nothing for it, and the present has no ending; with no mark for its own duration, and without a trace of succession; without a single other sense of privation or delight, of pleasure or pain, of desire or apprehension, than this single sense of existence,—so long as such a state endures, he who finds himself in it may talk of bliss, not with a poor, relative, and imperfect happiness such as people find in the pleasures of life, but with a happiness full, perfect, and sufficing, that leaves in the soul no conscious unfilled void. Such a state was many a day mine in my solitary musings in the isle of St. Peter, either lying in my boat as it floated on the water, or seated on the banks of the broad lake, or in other places than the little isle,—on the brink of some broad stream, or a rivulet murmuring over a gravel bed.  8
  What is it that one enjoys in a situation like this? Nothing outside of one’s self, nothing except one’s self and one’s own existence…. But most men, tossed as they are by unceasing passion, have little knowledge of such a state: they taste it imperfectly for a few moments, and then retain no more than an obscure confused idea of it, that is too weak to let them feel its charm. It would not even be good, in the present constitution of things, that in their eagerness for these gentle ecstasies, they should fall into a disgust for the active life in which their duty is prescribed to them by needs that are ever on the increase. But a wretch cut off from human society, who can do nothing here below that is useful and good either for himself or for other people, may in such a state find for all lost human felicities many recompenses, of which neither fortune nor men can ever rob him.  9
  ’Tis true that these recompenses cannot be felt by all souls, nor in all situations. The heart must be in peace, nor any passion come to trouble its calm. There must be in the surrounding objects neither absolute repose nor excess of agitation; but a uniform and moderated movement, without shock, without interval. With no movement, life is only a lethargy. If the movement be unequal or too strong, it awakes us; by recalling us to the objects around, it destroys the charm of our musing, and plucks us from within ourselves, instantly to throw us back under the yoke of fortune and man, in a moment to restore us to all the consciousness of misery. Absolute stillness inclines one to gloom. It offers an image of death: then the help of a cheerful imagination is necessary, and presents itself naturally enough to those whom Heaven has endowed with such a gift. The movement which does not come from without then stirs within us. The repose is less complete, it is true; but it is also more agreeable when light and gentle ideas, without agitating the depths of the soul, only softly skim the surface. This sort of musing we may taste whenever there is tranquillity about us; and I have thought that in the Bastile, and even in a dungeon where no object struck my sight, I could have dreamed away many a thrice pleasurable day.  10
  But it must be said that all this came better and more happily in a fruitful and lonely island, where nothing presented itself to me save smiling pictures, where nothing recalled saddening memories, where the fellowship of the few dwellers there was gentle and obliging, without being exciting enough to busy me incessantly; where, in short, I was free to surrender myself all day long to the promptings of my taste or to the most luxurious indolence…. As I came out from a long and most sweet musing fit, seeing myself surrounded by verdure and flowers and birds, and letting my eyes wander far over romantic shores that fringed a wide expanse of water bright as crystal, I fitted all these attractive objects into my dreams; and when at last I slowly recovered myself, and recognized what was about me, I could not mark the point that cut off dream from reality, so equally did all things unite to endear to me the lonely retired life I led in this happy spot! Why can that life not come back to me again? Why can I not go finish my days in the beloved island, never to quit it, never again to see in it one dweller from the mainland, to bring back to me the memory of all the woes of every sort that they have delighted in heaping on my head for all these long years?… Freed from the earthly passions engendered by the tumult of social life, my soul would many a time lift itself above this atmosphere, and commune beforehand with the heavenly intelligences, into whose number it trusts to be ere long taken.  11

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