Reflections on Wordsworth and Solitude

Tuesday 7 April marks the 250th anniversary since the birth of William Wordsworth. In our current climate of self-isolation, I found it interesting to return to an essay I wrote as an undergraduate about solitude in his poems…

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But therefore come in the end despondency and madness

(William Wordsworth)

‘Resolution and Independence’ is at odds with the Romantic image of the solitary genius figure because Wordsworth conceives of ‘poets’ in plural terms, illustrated by the collective pronoun ‘we’ in these lines.

The assertion that ‘therefore come in the end despondency and madness’ suggests a shared poetic experience, and reflects Wordsworth’s anxieties about his own and other poets’ futures – which is also a major theme in the poem, Home at Grasmere.

These lines suggest that there is something inherently isolating about the condition of being a poet, whilst also suggesting a collaborative brotherhood of ‘we poets’, at odds with the Romantic poet who communes with nature and no one else.

Lucy Newlyn has considered the ways in which Wordsworth was influenced by his sister, Dorothy, and the Grasmere and Alfoxden journals reveal a collectivism of experience and inspiration between her, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

I believe that there are two definitions of ‘solitude’ which embody this ambivalence between community and isolation, and would apply these concepts to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s verse – from the collaborative Lyrical Ballads (1798), Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Mariner (1798) and Kubla Khan (1816), as well as Wordsworth’s only play, The Borderers (1797).

Contrary to the Romantic notion of the ‘solitary genius’, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s imaginations rarely conceive of a pure state of isolation – their solitary, rustic figures are either on the border between separateness and community, or their solitariness is conceived in terms that bring the community into view.

On the one hand, ‘solitude’ can be defined as ‘the state of being or living alone; loneliness, seclusion, solitariness (of persons) [OED, Sense 1a]. This definition conceives of solitude as a condition of isolation thus it has more in common with the pessimistic tone of thereof come in the end despondency and madness’ than it does the plural collectivity and view of community connoted by ‘we poets’.

We can see this idea of solitude in the State of Newton from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Prelude (began in 1798, but not published until 1850: ‘The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone’. The Romantic genius figure is framed as an explorer through ‘strange seas of thought’, inviting comparison to Gothic exploratory figures such as Captain Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

Another solitary figure who exists in this state of debilitating solitude is the Mute, who cannot communicate with others and thus, even though he may well still be part of the community of ‘we poets’, experiences ‘loneliness’.

But Wordsworth and Coleridge’s solitary figures are counterbalanced by the Burkean belief in the necessity of communities (that is, when they function as they should). This validity of collective living is articulated in Home at Grasmere, with the lines ‘Society is here: / The true community, the noblest Frame / Of many into one incorporate’ (818-820).

Here, another definition of ‘solitude’ is useful because the plurality of the definition creates a sense of collectivity: ‘Loneliness (of places); remoteness from habitations; absence of life or stir’ [OED, Sense 2]. The plural nouns ‘places’ and ‘habitations’ are terms which bring the community into view. The description appended to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’ similarly conceives of this ‘solitary man’ (24, 44) whose as ‘has no companion’ (45) as at once part of, and paradoxically, also separate to the community:

The Class of Beggars to which the old man here described belongs will probably soon be extinct. It consisted of poor, and mostly old and infirm persons, who confined themselves to a stated round in their neighbourhood, and had certain fixed days, on which, at different houses, they regularly received charity, sometimes in money, but mostly in provisions.

Whilst ‘extinct’ connotes singularity – because in order to reproduce you need more than one – the rest of this passage conceives of these figures who ‘sate and eat’ their food ‘in solitude’ (15) in plural terms: the nouns ‘beggars’ and ‘persons’ are plural, and Wordsworth refers to them with the collective third person pronoun, ‘they’. Their existence has a fixed structure; they are regularly fed on certain ‘days’ at certain ‘houses’. Although they are solitary, rustic figures, occasionally their lives overlap with the community, which they are framed as belonging to with the possessive pronoun ‘their’ in ‘their neighbourhood’.

Wordsworth’s solitaries frequently come in pairs, as is the case in Brothers. In this poem, the poet is concerned with two brothers, one of which has been travelling and now returns ‘to his paternal home’ (66). They are ‘brother Shepherds on their native hills’ (72) who are ‘the last of all their race’ (73). Like the Cumberland Beggar, they are a pair who face extinction but whose plural existence provides comfort to the other in the present moment.

Even the truly solitary hermit figure in ‘Tintern Abbey’ is described in terms which invoke the collective: ‘Of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire / The hermit sits alone’ (23). The nouns ‘cave’ and ‘fire’ have connotations of the dawn of man, and although the hermit’s state of living is being defined in simplistic, savage terms of bare necessity, this image of the Bronze Age conjures images of mankind as a collective, homogenous body to which the hermit belongs – whether he wants to or not.

Is there ever such thing as true solitariness? In The Borderers, Wordsworth is, according to John Jones, ‘inspired by the bleakness of Lear’, reflecting the notion that in the end ‘thereof come despondency and madness’. The character of Marmaduke seems to suggest that even in death, man is never truly alone:

The wounded deer retires to solitude

And dies in solitude: all things but men

All die in solitude

The line ‘all die in solitude’ creates collectivism out of an experience of loneliness, like Sense 2 of ‘solitude’. The fact this line is end-stopped suggests life ends in solitude, whilst also creating a sense of the abruptness of death. Nature, such as the ‘wounded deer’ may die alone but men – a collective noun – do not. These examples combine to illustrate that Wordsworth’s idea of the state of being a poet is, paradoxically, at once a part of and apart from the rest of the human community.

Wordsworth’s solitary figures are often quiet, or mute (such as the excisions made to ‘Old Man Travelling’, which mean his character is ‘insensibly subdued / to settled quiet’). If, like ‘Lucy Gray’ they sing a ‘solitary song’ it is not sung to anyone; the ‘classical nature solitary’ (Jones’ term) ‘whistles in the wind’ – she lives out her life in isolation and is only heard if people venture into the hills to hear her song.

In contrast, Coleridge’s poetic solitaries have to externalise; in ‘Dejection: an Ode’ the ‘Mad Lutanist’ ‘Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song’ (106), and has a ‘scream of agony’ (97). His tortured condition combines with the fact that the Ancient Mariner is compelled to repeatedly tell his tale to others, such as the Wedding Guest. The description of these figures, with the eponymous Mariner’s ‘long grey beard’ and ‘glittering eye’ (I, 3), who is feared by the Wedding Guest ‘I fear thee, Ancyent Marinere!’ (IV, 217), and the ‘flashing Eyes’ and ‘floating Hair’’ of the poetic figure at the end of Kubla Khan certainly evoke the ‘despondency and madness’ which Wordsworth suggests are inherent to the condition of the poet.

Like Wordsworth’s solitaries, these figures are not quite in line with the sense of ‘solitude’ as a quality of ‘loneliness, seclusion, solitariness’ (Sense 1a). Rather, they are compelled to seek out others and externalise – whether that is a shrill, blood-curdling scream or the fantastical, ethereal tale of the Mariner. Romantic poetry, then, always has the community in view.

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