‘Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine.’ So wrote French novelist Honoré de Balzac.
For me, this quotation perfectly encapsulates the difficulty of our time in lockdown. We may appreciate the simpler, quieter life, but at the same time we ache to share the time with those we care about.
It will come as no surprise to you that usually I am a person who is quite happy in her own company. That is, after all, an essential quality for a writer: we seek out a quiet space where the words will flow.
For me, there is a pull to be amid nature – to walk in the woods carpeted by bluebells, along the beach by the lapping waves. I am most centred and inspired away from the hustle and bustle, in my own ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Here is the poem of that title, by William Butler Yeats (1888).
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Beautiful, don’t you think? It is one of my favourite poems. But recently, I have been thinking: it is just not enough to ‘live alone in the bee-loud glade’. This solitude is tinged with sadness, because it is not meeting all our needs. We need to be able to step away from the glade at times and visit with other people. We need other people.
I am reminded of another poem of English literature, this one written by John Donne back in the 17th century. It is from the Devotions.
No Man Is an Island
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
How does this poem make you feel? I confess, it brings a tear to my eye as I think of all the tolling bells over these past weeks and months. But it brings me a sense of strength, too, as I remember that ‘I am involved in mankind’.
Even though we may not be able to be with people right now, we can absolutely be involved with them – we needn’t be an island, but can be a piece of the continent. We have plenty of tools for communication, from Skype to Facebook, email to the good old-fashioned phone call. We can connect with others through culture: through movies and art and books (because ‘We read to know we’re not alone’). And of course there is a wealth of content online that can ease our loneliness.
Like this article, I hope.
And speaking of hope, I will leave you with the comforting words of poet Emily Dickinson:
Hope is the thing with feathers
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Keep reaching out, dear reader, and keep hoping.