Covid-19 is forcing many people into states of isolation which they find difficult to bear. People find themselves cut off from the outside world, locked into a frightening situation that is beyond their control. Our most populous cities have become a breeding ground for loneliness. Others, though, seem to be rising to the challenge, drawing on inner resources of fortitude and even optimism that they might not otherwise have known they possessed.
Solitude can create deep mental anguish through the agonies of loneliness; or, on the contrary, it can provide a refreshing respite from the overbearing burden of modern life. “The World Is Too Much With Us”, wrote William Wordsworth in a sonnet (XXXIII, pub. 1807) with that title. As he saw it, more than two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution was constructing a barrier between men and the natural world. “Getting and spending”, we are “out of tune” with Nature and have “given our hearts away”, he complained. Although this is probably not a passion which would resonate with keen shoppers currently enduring home-bound lockdown, it might well strike a chord with some – those, especially, who have taken opportunities to escape to the country, or whose dearest wish is to get away from the maddening, infected crowds.
Loneliness, lack of freedom, being alone, solitude – all closely-related expressions, but by no means interchangeable. In Wordsworth’s huge body of poetical works we find numerous descriptions of different characters, real or imaginary, having to deal with solitude in different ways and in different settings. Conversely, one is also struck by Wordsworth’s joy in communing with Nature, on his own, away from other people. Whether he himself would have thrived in a lockdown seems very unlikely, not only because he would have been kept from meeting family members and friends: I think he would have most sorely missed the freedom to roam the fields and hills. His personal experiences of solitude were more revelatory than frustrating. Living in the inspirational Lake District and on the moors, he benefited from the kind of freedom many modern holiday-makers would seek out with great enthusiasm. On the other hand, seeing other much less fortunate individuals scratching a living in rural isolation often provided vicarious experiences which often, in that moment, became the mainspring of his creative urge. Life could be tough, even for those living in idyllic surroundings.
His kindred spirit and writing companion for some years, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, shared many of Wordsworth’s passions. In June 1797, a brief lockdown came Coleridge’s way, following an accident which prevented him from joining some visiting friends during the whole time of their stay. His poem, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, seems to speak for them both in describing his sense of loss in being confined to his garden:
“Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness!”
On the other hand, he suggests, being locked in has its compensations, in making us vow to appreciate freedom much more once it is returned to us:
” … sometimes
‘Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share”.
Yes, and I think eventually we will all appreciate freedom of movement much more, if and when this deadly plague is itself locked down.
The imaginative power which solitude held for Wordsworth owed a great deal to his childhood experiences. In Book II of “The Prelude” (the first part of a planned gigantic work called “The Recluse”, which he was never to complete), he describes his habit of getting up early, while at Hawkshead, and walking round to Esthwaite Water before school,
” … when the Vale,
Yet slumbering, lay in utter solitude …
Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in the mind”.
He would walk alone, “under the quiet stars”, or stand beneath a rock as the sky darkened, listening to “notes that are the ghostly language of the earth”. “Thence”, he writes, “did I drink the visionary power”. Some of his most visionary impressions came to him when he was alone on the moors at night, setting ‘springes’ to catch woodcocks, or plundering birds nests, or while he was boating on Ullswater. He came to learn, “to feel, perhaps too much, the self-sufficing power of Solitude”.
He describes his sense of awareness of the power, over the mind, of Nature, in an early passage in “The Prelude”, Book I. He recollects the sights which he had seen during a boating expedition, and describes the effect of such sights on his imagination:
” … after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Or sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams”.
Wordsworth’s abiding interest in Nature, coupled with a consciousness of the significance for him of solitude, led him to combine the themes in much of his poetry. From a young age, it helped develop in him a sensibility attuned to the place of Man in Nature, something that can speak to us even during this period, as we find ourselves “cabined, cribbed, confined” (to borrow from the Scottish play) in ways we find uncomfortably alien. No doubt Wordsworth would have us re-assess our obsessions with “getting and spending” and rather opt for the simple life, seeking fulfilment not on websites, in department stores and trawling through supermarkets, but in the hills and valleys; and companionship not in city streets, bars and restaurants, but in the natural world in all its forms.
“The Old Cumberland Beggar”, written in 1797 (publ. 1800, in the collection “Poems Referring To The Period of Old Age”), describes a meeting with “a solitary Man”, while the poet was walking through a village in that county:
” … In the sun, …
Surrounded by those wild unpeopled hills,
He sat, and ate his food in solitude”.
The beggar’s solitude, and independence, is described by Wordsworth as though the old man were a living incarnation of the spirit of Nature, as it infuses a similar imaginative power into the poet’s works. The beggar is not to be scorned:
“Like the dry remnant of a garden-flower
Whose seeds are shed …”,
merely because his life is a simple one or because he is of a lowly social rank. He is rather to act as a “binding” influence on the people of the village:
“Still let him prompt the unlettered villagers
To tender offices and pensive thoughts”.
The beggar assumes a rare dignity in Wordsworth’s eyes:
“Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
Gives the last human interest to his heart”,
and the poem ends with a wish that the old man may have around him “the pleasant melody of woodland birds”. It is apparent , even in a fairly early poem such as this, that Wordsworth had formed the opinion that mankind could commune with “Eternity and God” through such experiences – that he could be redeemed through Nature’s influences.
It may not be so surprising that a poet living in a sparsely-populated part of the country should meet with various facets of solitude; but what is worth noting is the fact that Wordsworth’s imagination seems to have been particularly fertile in such a setting. Vivid memories laid down in natural surroundings became a well-spring for future creativity. As Wordsworth famously wrote in his manifesto-like Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” collection:
“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Wordsworth wasn’t anti-social. He enjoyed the company of other students while at St John’s College, Cambridge, between 1787 and 1791, for instance:
Friendships, acquaintances were welcome all,
We sauntered, played, or rioted; we talked
Unprofitable talk at morning hours”.
He travelled extensively on the continent and also to London. Whilst in France, including time he spent there during the Revolution, he made many close friendships in locations such as Paris, Blois and Orleans. But his thoughts frequently wandered back to his experiences in rural surroundings. The ethos of urban life, with its hustle and bustle, jarred with the idyllic scenes that were the stable backdrop to his everyday thoughts. For him, life in the city often brought out the worst in people, as he wrote whilst on a visit to London in 1802:
“Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power”.
(from Sonnet XIV, London, 1802, publ. 1807)
The solitude might be real, as in the case of “The Solitary Reaper” (a “Highland Lass” – “Alone she cuts and binds the grain,/ And sings a melancholy strain;/ O listen! for the Vale profound,/ Is overflowing with the sound”); or a product of the imagination, as in “Tintern Abbey”, where the poet is paying a return visit to a lonely place:
“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration”.
As someone who grew up in a (comparatively) rural setting, I know that feeling. The sense of alienation one can endure when living alone in a big city is at the same time both heightened and assuaged by memories of being in more tranquil surroundings.
The solitary figure recurs throughout his poetry. Wordsworth makes great use of the contrast between a sight or sound, perhaps made by a lone human figure or a bird or animal, and a still, silent background. Such images are to be found in Book IV of “The Prelude”: a hermit in the wilderness, a solitary watchman in a lighthouse, the sudden appearance of someone along a lonely road, are vivid images which have a direct appeal to the imagination:
“How gracious, how benign is Solitude”, he writes;
“How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre”.
Most of the story-form poems which Wordsworth wrote have as their “human centre” some actual event in his life, and a story told to him as a child by his “step-dame”, Anne Tyson of Hawkshead, inspired both the account of shepherds in Book VIII of “The Prelude” and the very moving pastoral poem “Michael”. Evidently Wordsworth had been very affected by the original tale:
” … It was the first
Of those domestic tales that spake to me
Of shepherds …”
The deep impression it made on the young Wordsworth is highlighted by a passage in “The Prelude”, in which he refers to the shepherd as a genius:
“I felt his presence in his own domain
As of a lord and master, or a power,
Or genius, under Nature, under God,
Presiding; and severest solitude
Had more commanding looks when he was there”.
The poem “Michael, A Pastoral Poem” is in the true sense of the word pastoral in that its subject is common life, rather than the poet’s own moods and themes. Michael, an old shepherd “of unusual strength”, living in a place of “utter solitude”, works hard every day, supported by his loving wife Isabel, to bring up their son, Luke. Ultimately a tragedy, it is the kind of tale that would have gripped early eighteenth century readers, a poem meant to be recited aloud, I think, with simple vocabulary arranged in flowing iambic pentameters. Towards the end, Luke helps his father make a stone sheepfold. In a way this simple enclosure symbolizes the way Michael, through sheer hard work, makes the most of a life which is terribly constricted, albeit in such beautiful surroundings. But all Michael’s work comes to naught. Luke is given the opportunity to escape from the privations which had trapped his parents and heads for the big city. It doesn’t end well. Actually, Wordsworth is not as concerned with the downfall of the son so much as its effect on his aged father, who remains locked into a life of hardship, albeit hitherto rich in spiritual rewards. At the climax, Wordsworth allows the facts to speak for themselves:
” Luke began
To slacken in his duty; and, at length,
He in the dissolute city gave himself
To evil courses: ignominy and shame
Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
To seek a hiding place beyond the seas”
The pity of onlookers for a lonely, betrayed old man is the element which provides all that is necessary for an understanding of his feelings:
” … ‘Tis not forgotten yet
The pity which was then in every heart
For the Old Man – and ’tis believ’d by all
That many and many a day he thither went,
And never lifted up a single stone”.
Feelings of a lack of freedom are nothing new or unusual. Hopefully the necessities of enduring lockdown in a pandemic are temporary. But Wordsworth relates documentary, narrative poems like Michael to work allegorically and timelessly, enabling any reader to compare their own situation with those of others who have lived lives (to use modern parlance) ‘on the edge’.
Another poem based on actual events is “Resolution and Independence“, or, as it is more familiarly known, “The Leech Gatherer”. Wordsworth had noted: “I met this old man a few hundred yards from my cottage; and the account of him is taken down from his own mouth”. Coleridge, by the way, criticizes the poem in “Biographia Literaria”, Chapter XXII, as showing Wordsworth’s “inconstancy of style”, noting his “sudden and unprepared transitions from lines or sentences of peculiar felicity (at all events striking and original) to a style not only unimpassioned but undistinguished”. It was in deference to Coleridge’s judgment that in the later editions Stanza IX was cancelled.
Wordsworth drew upon only the external details of the old man. It’s obvious from the poem that he was forcibly struck by the man’s “fortitude and patient cheer”, but the description of the meeting, contained in his sister Dorothy‘s “Journal”, is wildly different from the situation described in the poem: the story, and the thoughts on poverty, death and insanity which arise from it, are all products of Wordsworth’s imagination. The poem begins with a picture of his own journey across a moor, with vivid descriptions of natural beauty. Wordsworth is quite joyous as the poem opens, but becomes depressed, for no other reason than the fact that he begins to wonder if ” … there may come another day to me,/ Solitude, pain of heart, distress and poverty”.
The contrast between his own melancholy and the cheerfulness of Nature is impressive, but is surpassed by the sudden appearance, by the side of the pool, of the leech-gatherer – he looked
“Like a Sea-beast crawl’d forth, which on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself”.
When Wordsworth speaks to him, “a flash of mild surprise” breaks from “the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes”. The poet is inwardly moved by the leech-gatherer’s story of hardship and patience, and sees the old man with his mind’s eye:
“About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently”.
Coleridge quoted this passage, in the “Biographia Literaria”, as one which justified Wordsworth’s claim, in “Elegiac Stanzas suggested by a picture of Peele Castle” (1805), that poets:
” … add the gleam,
The light that never was on sea or land.
The consecration and the poet’s dream”.
The imaginative description and moral force of this presentation of resolution in solitude must place the poem very highly among Wordsworth’s poems as a whole.
The effects of solitude and a natural environment are also dealt with in “The Excursion”. The poem signals, however, a distinct decline in Wordsworth’s poetical powers, which lapse had been noticeable since 1807, and was to become more pronounced from 1815. “The Excursion” was written as the second part of the proposed three-part, vast philosophical poem, the title of which, “The Recluse”, may again be indicative of Wordsworth’s faith in the powers of the imagination in solitude. “The Excursion” appeared in 1814, mystifying his public, as “The Prelude”, intended as the first part of the longer work, was still to be published. Though it lacks the glamour, the emotive power, and the sense of structure of “The Prelude”, its rural descriptions possess all the attributes of Wordsworth’s best nature poetry. Coleridge found the poem “especialy characteristic of the author. There is scarce a defect or excellence in his writings of which it would not present a specimen. But it would be unjust not to repeat that this defect is only occasional” (“Biographia Literaria”, ch XXII).
There are many references in “The Excursion” to what Wordsworth had called, in “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, “the bliss of solitude”. The description of the situation of ‘The Wanderer’, of Book I, is an example:
” … Thus informed,
He had small need of books; for many a tale
Traditionary round the mountain hung,
And many a legend, peopling the dark woods,
Nourished Imagination in her growth,
And gave the Mind that apprehensive power
By which she is made quick to recognize
The moral properties and scope of things”.
Wordsworth’s interest in children, and childhood, gives us another insight into the significance of solitude for his poetic work. It was his recollection of his own early days which prompted this interest. He had been entranced by natural beauty, as I’ve already noted, in his school days, the scenes having impressed themselves upon his mind in no ordinary way. Retrospectively, they had “the charm of visionary things”. For this reason, Wordsworth was fascinated in later life by the children he knew best: Edward Montagu, his own children, and Hartley Coleridge (right). He noticed that they were given to periods of happy self-absorption in musing or play, when they seemed utterly remote from the active world of ordinary human beings. Writing in 1811 about his three-year-old daughter, Catharine, he says:
” … this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society”,
and this theme was frequently taken up elsewhere.
As John Jones points out, in “The Egotistical Sublime – a history of Wordsworth’s imagination“, the unifying factor in Wordsworth’s use of the theme of solitude is the fact that all his solitary figures have “a primordial quality by virtue of which … [they] … stand anterior, in time or in logic, to a divorce in human understanding”. That is to say, their very “being” is comment enough: they stand, in life, as a poetic comment on enduring qualities such as fortitude, loneliness and independence. Their simplicity is a key to their value as symbols. Wordsworth commented, on an earlier version of “Resolution and Independence”:
“A person reading this poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controuled, expecting almost something spiritual or supernatural – What is brought forward? “A lonely place, a Pond” “by which an old man was, far from all house or home” – not stood, not sat, but “was” – the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible”.
Wordsworth’s solitary figures are drawn with illustrations from all modes of being, all solitary walks of life and, apparently, with little reference to time. “The Old Cumberland Beggar” seems no older than he did when Wordsworth met him: his solitude is less temporal than spatial, and in that sense still speaks to us now.
The concept of the solitary as encompassing many modes of being is illustrated in “The Excursion”, where the person described had an eye
” … that, under brows
Shaggy and grey, had meanings which it brought
From years of youth; which, like a Being made
Of many Beings, he had wondrous skill
To blend with knowledge of the years to come,
Human, or such as lie beyond the grave”.
The triumph of the solitary figure, suggests Jones, is that he understands that “only the permanent can change”. Such figures are believable in embodying higher spiritual aspirations, rather than in having amusing characteristics. Wordsworth’s primary concern is not with externals: nonetheless, his “recollection in tranquility” of a figure in a landscape would invariably provide images which worked through appearances, these being sustained, concrete descriptions; ideas, abstractions and significances were the more potent for being attached to such imagery.
The importance of solitude, then, in the poetry of Wordsworth, derives from its powerful effect on his imagination, especially during his early life, and, in the poetry itself, is the element which transforms a figure who walks alone into a figure embodying certain unchanging human values. The significance of the natural environment is particularly noticeable in bringing the transformational power of loneliness into a larger perspective. Wordsworth’s imagination was deeply affected by the “Souls of lonely places” and “the sleep that is among the lonely hills”. As he writes in “A Poet’s Epitaph”:
“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”.
Wordsworth offers us a stimulating perspective. He prompts us to re-assess our values and reject the unnaturalness of a lifestyle founded on artificialities. He brings into crystal clear focus the spiritual benefits of being more alive to the beauties of the natural environment. Acknowledging that life’s course can be beset with hardships, loneliness and tragedies, he urges us to confront these challenges with strength, optimism and fortitude.
Such advice is as valuable today as it ever was.
Image credits: Anne Tyson’s cottage – FFNick, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
All others – public domain