The Poetry of Loneliness, Part 1

In this era of ever-escalating communication, hardly anyone is truly alone anymore. Or at least no one has to be, thanks to all the gadgets too numerous and obvious to mention. If we are never alone, at least virtually speaking, it must follow that fewer people experience the long, deep ache of loneliness. When those unmistakable and unpleasant feelings start to creep in, there is always the rabbit hole of the internet to fall into. There is always a text message to send or receive. There is always Facebook. The electronic stimulation eventually gives way to exhaustion, which has the power to supplant if not eradicate loneliness.

But is loneliness such a bad thing? For the deeply reflective, for the spiritual seekers among us, I think not. Loneliness has inspired so many poems. Even if a novice poet’s poem about loneliness is not particularly good, it is still evidence of a soul exploring the tender edges of humanity and a mind reaching for self-knowledge. And poets, more than writers in any other genre, must know themselves well if they are to write poems that matter and last. Deep self-knowledge seems to me less essential for novelists and playwrights and journalists, who are by necessity social beings. They need to mingle and take notes and observe the way people talk and interact. Poets, however, mingle at their peril. To write anything of value, the poet hunkers down, unwatched and undistractable. Though not necessarily monastic or isolated from the workaday world, the poet does not spurn loneliness and may even see it as a gift.

William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” beautifully illustrates this point. The opening stanza presents loneliness as a problem to be solved:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The cloud-like poet recognizes the animated daffodils—a “host” of them—as spiritual companions. They seem to have been waiting for him to come along and witness their ecstatic dancing. Together they create a joyous scene. In the third stanza Wordsworth declares, “A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company.” His loneliness has left him, or so it briefly seems.

Rather than insisting on a sudden and not entirely convincing reversal of moods, the poet plunges deeper into his contemplative soul. He goes on to recall how “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought.” These lines reveal not a man cured of loneliness but rather a camera-like mind storing up image upon image. The payoff—the “wealth”—comes in the final stanza as the speaker revels in his fruitful loneliness:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

The lovely closing image cannot be achieved, or truly felt, without the lines leading up to it. The poem finds beauty and meaning not just in the memory of the flowers but in “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude.” Thus attuned to his own imaginative powers, the poet can wander metaphorically without ever getting up from bed. A poem that begins in loneliness thus ends there as well, though the final stanza posits a transcendent loneliness that no one—no poet, at least—would ever want to quell or disregard.

The transcendent and quotidian states of loneliness may be compared to Coleridge’s notions of imagination and fancy. For Coleridge, imagination conjures all that is distinctive, dazzling, and new, while fancy is inherently derivative, a compilation of familiar parts. Similarly, one might say that in a poem of transcendent loneliness, the condition empowers and vitalizes the speaker, and the resulting poem—Wordsworth’s, for instance— is not about being lonely; it is a performance of loneliness in all its glory. The art form and the lonely condition cannot be teased apart; one cannot tell where the pensive, inward eye ends and the daffodils begin. The poem of quotidian or ordinary loneliness, by contrast, is the labored product of a mind whose inward eye is clouded by threadbare notions of what loneliness looks like. Such a poem has not tapped into a pure reservoir of creative power, and it is not one with its subject matter.

Poetic loneliness flowered anew in the modernist era. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an obvious example, but it is, upon close inspection, one of aspirational rather than truly transcendent loneliness. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is a little too eager, a little too engaged and engaging, to be fruitfully lonely. One gets the feeling nothing could keep him away from those parties where the women talk of Michelangelo. To his credit, he seems to know that his will to socialize is his downfall: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Then, perhaps, he could have found the meaning and sustenance that have thus far eluded him in life. Going further, he proclaims near the end of the poem, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. // I do not think that they will sing to me.” He has placed his loneliness in a mythic realm, but one wonders whether it belongs there. Our doubts about the authenticity of his loneliness may grow even greater as the poem winds down: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us and we drown.” It is a stunning finish yet not entirely earned. This is someone, after all, who has just been fretting over his hairline and his ability to eat a peach. Are we now to believe that he is anything other than an erudite poseur to the thorny crown of loneliness?

Still, the strenuous aspirations of this self-described “attendant lord” show where Eliot was headed. The old man in “Gerontion” is more convincingly lonely than Prufrock, and we gape in awe at The Waste Land because it is a real love song—a host of love songs, one might say—to loneliness in all its grandeur and despair. In the beginning of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead,” one of many unidentified speakers remarks, “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” From this opening salvo of loneliness we move on to the second stanza and its plaintive cry: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” The question is strange, valid, too urgent to be merely rhetorical. It is the voice of loneliness: deep, lucid, and profound throughout the poem. In the fifth and final section, “What the Thunder said,” we hear this: “In this decayed hole among the mountains / In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing / Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel / There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.” Perhaps a pervasive, global loneliness is a form of thunder, an eruption of feeling that is both completely circumstantial and tied to all other forces but also, weirdly, a thing apart, untethered and distinct from the workaday world.

Every English major knows that before he settled on The Waste Land as his masterpiece’s title, Eliot considered the alternate title He Do the Police in Different Voices, after a line from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. But a more precise gloss would be He Do Loneliness in Different Voices. The poem is about unanswered, and unanswerable, human need. The poem’s ghostlike voices don’t seem to come from anywhere in particular or be directed to anyone specifically, yet they reach us on some subliminal, almost subcutaneous, level. They get under our skin precisely because they aren’t interested in us or even in themselves. These are not the voices of lonely people; the voices are loneliness.

Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is a jewel of transcendent loneliness. So, in their own way, are many of William Carlos Williams’s Imagist poems. “The Red Wheelbarrow” shimmers with loneliness; so does “The Great Figure.” These are not sad poems; neither is The Waste Land. And “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” does not trace a straight, daffodil-strewn line from sad to happy. What all of these poems have in common is a distilled, ineluctable power borne from human suffering yet not in thrall to it. Each poem’s strength comes from its immutably lonely core.

Coming fairly soon: The Poetry of Loneliness, Part 2 (Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, and Adrienne Rich)