Solitude has always had an ambivalent status: the capacity to enjoy being alone can make sociability bearable, but those predisposed to solitude are often viewed with suspicion or pity.
Drawing on a wide array of literary and historical sources, David Vincent explores how people have conducted themselves in the absence of company over the last three centuries. He argues that the ambivalent nature of solitude became a prominent concern in the modern era. For intellectuals in the romantic age, solitude gave respite to citizens living in ever more complex modern societies. But while the search for solitude was seen as a symptom of modern life, it was also viewed as a dangerous pathology: a perceived renunciation of the world, which could lead to psychological disorder and anti-social behaviour.
Vincent explores the successive attempts of religious authorities and political institutions to manage solitude, taking readers from the monastery to the prisoner's cell, and explains how western society's increasing secularism, urbanization and prosperity led to the development of new solitary pastimes at the same time as it made traditional forms of solitary communion, with God and with a pristine nature, impossible. At the dawn of the digital age, solitude has taken on new meanings, as physical isolation and intense sociability have become possible as never before. With the advent of a so-called loneliness epidemic, a proper historical understanding of the natural human desire to disengage from the world is more important than ever.
The first full-length account of its subject, A History of Solitude will appeal to a wide general readership.
David Vincent is Professor Emeritus and former Pro Vice Chancellor at The Open University.
SOLITUDE, I'LL WALK WITH THEE
Clare, Keats, and Solitude
In the spring of 1820, John Clare discussed his poem 'Solitude' with John Keats. They were unable to meet face to face. Clare had for the first time in his life travelled to London earlier in the year at the invitation of his publisher, John Taylor. He was anxious to meet Keats, who shared his literary manager, but in the event Keats was too unwell to attend the dinner arranged by Taylor. Clare was back home in Helpston by the time Keats's health temporarily improved, and to his great regret he was never to meet a man whom he greatly admired both as a poet and as 'a brother wanderer in the rough road of life & as one whose eye picks now & then a wild flower to cheer his solitary way'.1 After Keats's death in Rome in February 1821, Clare wrote a sonnet in his memory.
As with all the material that was published in The Village Minstrel the following year, Clare's 'Solitude' was the product of toil. He explained to a correspondent early in 1820 that it 'was written by scraps last summer in all the bustle of hard labour',2 and he looked forward to Keats's judgement. In the absence of a direct encounter, Taylor managed an epistolary conversation between his two young poets.3 He showed the three-hundred-line poem to Keats and relayed his comments by letter, to which Clare responded. Taylor reported that Keats liked 'Solitude' but had reservations about the balance of the poem: 'When I read Solitude to [Keats] he observed that the Description too much prevailed over the Sentiment. - But never mind that - it is a good Fault - and besides you know I must have something to cut out, or "Othello's Occupation's gone" as the Play says.'4 Keats's response reflected his more general view of Clare's work. In a further letter later in the year Taylor wrote to Clare that 'I think he wishes to say to you that your Images from Nature are too much introduced without being called for by a particular Sentiment.'5
It is not difficult to understand Keats's reaction. The poem's invocation of its topic appeared to be trying to rewrite 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' from the perspective of Thomas Gray's 'plowman':
Now as even's warning bell
Rings the day's departing knell,
Leaving me from labour free,
Solitude, I'll walk with thee6
It took off into an extensive description of the life in the fields around Clare's home, deploying his precise observation of nature and his evocative local vocabulary:
And the little chumbling mouse
Gnarls the dead weed for her house,
While the plough's unfeeling share
Lays full many a dwelling bare7
From time to time Clare devoted a few more lines to his ostensible subject before returning to what Keats characterized as 'Description'.8 The references to solitude borrowed from the long-standing characterizations of the oppressive urban world which the poet sought to escape. James Thomson's The Seasons, a profound influence on Clare as on every other working-class reader and writer of the early nineteenth century, wrote of 'these iron times / These dregs of life'.9 It was a theme echoed by Peter Courtier, whose long poem 'The Pleasures of Solitude' enjoyed a success at the turn of the century: ''Tis sweet, escaping from the throng's turmoil, / To breathe the cooling freshness of the grove.'10 In turn Clare found the most obvious rhyme for his topic: 'O thou soothing Solitude, / From the vain and from the rude.'11 Solitude appeared to be a necessary summit for every aspiring poet to ascend, and in his concern to be taken seriously by established writers and their audience, it was one he could not ignore.
There is, however, another way of reading the poem, which brings the component parts into a single frame, notwithstanding the occasional descent into routine 'Sentiment'. The opening lines defined the topic as a process of movement: 'Solitude, I'll walk with thee.' The emotion was at once an external presence that accompanied Clare and a product of ambulatory observation. As with so much of his poetry, the narrative both described and was made possible by the writer walking along the paths around his home. Sometimes the journey itself constituted the subject. In his Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Clare described the beginning of his life as a poet. On his way to work he climbed over the wall of Burghley Park to read a book out of sight of his censorious neighbours:
the Scenery around me was uncommonly beautiful at that time of the year and what with reading the book and beholding the beautys of artful nature in the park I got into a strain of descriptive rhyming on my journey home this was 'the morning walk' the first thing I commited to paper I afterwards wrote the evening walk and several descriptions of Local Spots in the fields which I had frequented for Pootys, flowers, or Nests in my early childhood.12
On other occasions the intense observations of the natural world arose from successive encounters as he proceeded around his deeply familiar but constantly surprising landscape. It was a bounded world. There were four visits to London at the height of his fame, and the confused, desperate attempt to walk home after the final move to the asylum in Essex, but otherwise his explorations were within a few miles of Helpston, as would be the case with any farm labourer of the period.13 Some used public highways, but most perambulations were along tracks known only to the villagers and leading to destinations which had meaning only for the local population.14 Clare's intense consciousness of the value of footpaths and the freedom to use them was at the centre of his bitter critique of enclosures. He wrote in the titular poem of The Village Minstrel:
There once were lanes in nature's freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound, -
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fix'd his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who cross'd the ground15
This is a chapter about walking as both a location of solitude and a means by which solitude was given form and meaning. The nineteenth century was the last great era of pedestrian travel. For most people in most locations, everyday movement was conducted on foot. Only the well-to-do made regular use of a horse, and only the seriously wealthy secluded themselves within their own carriage. The great communications revolution of the period, the steam train, displaced the stage-coach, but few of those who had previously walked long distances could regularly afford to purchase tickets. Although urban transport systems in the second half of the century began to offer alternatives to walking to work, the trains in and out of the main towns and cities also served to enlarge the possibilities of recreational walking, making accessible local beauty spots as well as more distant and wilder destinations. Not until the arrival of the bicycle and motor vehicles was the sovereignty of the footstep challenged.
Walking was the simplest means of escaping company, especially from the overcrowded domestic interiors of the period. As with other forms of solitude, there were fluid boundaries between solitary and social practice, with few forms of pedestrian locomotion exclusively private or necessarily collective. In general terms, as the next section will discuss, the poorer the pedestrian the more likely it was that their solitude was forced rather than chosen, particularly in respect of their work experience. Walking was the most ordinary and least considered of tasks and recreations, and at the same time an intensely literary experience. Clare was sharply aware of the conversations he was having with his textual predecessors and contemporaries, and over the succeeding century walkers took books with them to read in secluded locations and in turn contributed to the diversifying literature of pedestrian exercise. The speed of movement on foot was ideally suited to reflection on both the natural and the man-made environment. It offered the combination of a constantly changing perspective and a capacity to bring into focus what was discovered and seen. The undistracted, mobile gaze permitted immersion without capture whether the walker was exploring fields and woods, or pacing the streets of the rapidly expanding urban communities. Pedestrian solitude was at once physical and constructed. The middle-class trampers who will be considered in the third part of this chapter found solitude in a countryside that was teeming with agricultural labourers, and the urban explorers saw isolated pedestrians who were in practice attracted to the towns and cities because of the greater choice they offered in modes of association. Over the course of the century, as the final section will discuss, rail transport opened up new opportunities for extreme personal endeavour, where solitude was not so much a matter of physical company as individual risk-taking in the last unspoiled spaces of God's creation.
The Crusoe of His Lonely...