In an article by Raymond D. Havens titled “Solitude and the Neoclassicists,” reviewed in Hermitary, the author notes that the dry rationalist British writers of the 18th century had a deep loathing of solitude and anything or anyone interested or attracted to solitude. The author traces the attitude to anti-clericalism (solitude being identified with monks), Enlightenment enthusiasm, and a disdain for religious thought. They narrowly defined solitude as retirement at best, sloth and dissipation at worst, and held a deep aversion to being alone.
For British attitudes more sympathetic to solitude, therefore, one must turn to the eras just before and just after the 18th century. Thus the poet Alexander Pope composed “Ode to Solitude” in 1700, just before the rationalist era took hold, and John Keats composed “O, Solitude!” in 1816. Interestingly, while we may think that reflections on solitude are the provenance of age and maturity, Pope composed his poem at 12 years of age, and Keats when he was 21. For both poets, the poems were their first effort. Pope understands the nature of solitude as withdrawal and anonymity. Keats, a sociable and gregarious youth, saw solitude perfected by sharing it with a like-minded companion.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
“Ode to Solitude”
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
John Keats (1795-1821)
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,-—
Nature’s observatory whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.