Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Does Being Alone Equal Solitude?

Lord Byron wrote a poem that presents an unconventional view of solitude; the poem is conveniently called "Solitude":


To sit on rocks, to muse o'er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest's shady scene,
Where things that own not man's dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o'er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, 'tis but to hold
Converse with Nature's charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world's tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

I like the simple organization of the poem. Stanza one explains what solitude isn't. One may read the poem as an implicit disagreement with Wordsworth, one of Byron's contemporaries. Wordsworth did, in fact, celebrate the kind of solitude in which one is alone "in nature." Indeed, Wordsworth believed that such solitude brought out the best in him and others. Wordsworth would probably not take issue with the idea of "conversing" with nature--not literally talking to a tree, maybe, but allowing one's consciousness, for lack of a better term, to be influenced subtly by nature. Ironically, Byron, very much an urban, cosmopolitan creature, thinks of genuine solitude as a condition of being alone in a crowd, which seems to be a paradox and brings to mind one of Yogi Berra's dry comments: "Ah, nobody likes to go to that restaurant anymore; it's too crowded!"

So stanza two presents the second "thesis": real solitude occurs when you are in the midst of a crowd.

Certainly it's easy to grasp Byron's implied rhetorical question: Is there a greater feeling of "aloneness" than that of feeling all alone amongst a crowd of strangers? And the crowd, according to Byron, is composed of "the flattered, followed, sought and sued." That phrase might well apply to Hollywood these days.

Perhaps Byron has highlighted what is chiefly a semantic distinction. Perhaps his "solitude" is someone else's "loneliness," and it is true that you (or you and another person) can feel a sense of belonging--of not being lonely or isolated--when you are "in nature." --Maybe not literally in nature, but, say, staying in an isolated cabin in the hills. Here's a poem that contemplates that circumstance:

Cabin in Snow

Outside a cabin in snow,
we are, and hear our, breathing here.
And wind in pines shucks

itself through sound like snakes
slipping through their summer skins.
And it is easy out here. And out

here it is easy to admire
an image-aided concept
of cabins in snow. And

it is easy inside a cabin
now to believe in an Idea
of Winter, for notions of snow

furnish our true cabin,
consciousness—which, fragile amidst
oblivion’s drifts, stays sturdy against howling.

--Hans Ostrom

In other words, I think one's mind can feel quite occupied and connected when one is alone, and I certainly agree with Byron that it's possible to feel isolated and lonely in a crowd, especially a crowd that seems to be a "shock of men." What a great phrase. We might bring it up to date by writing "shock of humans" or "shock of people" (and thereby ruin the rhyme--oops), but a crowd can "shock" one even if it isn't doing something shocking, even if it isn't a mob. And sometimes, I think, a person can be quite comfortable walking in a crowded city, but maybe the person turns a corner and for some reason sees the crowd differently and is shocked by a sense of the sheer mass of people.

The converse of Byron's thesis can be true as well, of course; a hermit who has chosen to be contentedly alone might wake up one morning and feel terribly lonely, and a person in a crowd may feel quite connected to others in the crowd.

"Minions of splendour shrinking from distress." That's an intriguing line from Byron's two-part poem. If I were to associate something with the line, it might be the scene of manic shoppers at a mall in December. They do seem to be in servitude to brights lights, much noise, and lots of stuff to buy--hyper-consumerism; and maybe they are shopping so as to shrink from distress. Who knows? Such a scene can be distressing, however. In spite of custom and relentless advertising, I wouldn't be completely shocked if, one year, almost everyone stayed home and thought, "How about if we don't go out and buy a bunch of stuff this year. Let's stay home!" Such a massive, collective sigh of relief one would hear! "You mean I don't have to shopping?"
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