Romanticism and solitude

Romanticism objects to Enlightenment reason not for what reason does but for what it does not. What reason does not do is to take into account the emotions, sentiments, subjectivity, imagination, and insight.

In the tenuous medieval synthesis of reason and revelation, reason was not the robust empiricism of the Enlightenment but a simple logic inspired by Aristotle and fit to function as the handmaid of theology. Revelation as the content of theory defined the parameters of reason and provided objects of emotion and devotion in a neatly closed system.

For early modern thinkers, this too comfortable relationship would not do given the discovery of science and the economic and political changes sweeping Europe. What shattered the medieval synthesis was reason as empiricism, no longer the docile tool of theology. Except that at the same time it was emptied of the human element for the cerebral and the political, docile now in a different way — to power and authority.

The Romantics sought to reinstate the subjective element previously addressed by Revelation and to direct it to more “reasonable” objects, namely those that transcended empiricism. This transcendence would shun the aura of authority and control previously projected by Revelation and its institutional guardians: Church and State. Thus, a new revelation.

For the Romantics, the most urgent issue facing the self — especially with the demise of faith — is Death. To resolve the stark meaning of Death’s presence was far more pressing than the empirical status of scientific or technological objects. The social pace of the ascendancy of scientific and technological interests in society was only wrecking the self, and Romanticism was acutely aware of social forces. The reconfiguration of these material forces allied against the individual but now bereft of faith accentuated the pall of Death. Keats writes:

When I have fears that I may cease to be …


My spirit is too weak — mortality
weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die …

Further, Shelley, burdened by the world (“the sphere of our sorrow”) is tempted to speculate “how wonderful is Death” because it liberates.

The perception of Death is the beginning of solitude. Solitude is the renunciation of what is now perceived as impermanent and injurious. Solitude is the true condition of each consciousness, each individual.

The search that follows insight is a search for what endures, for what abides, not for any given entity. Thus Keats speaks of the nightingale (in “Ode to a Nightingale”) as “not born for death.” Ultimately, nature itself, unencumbered by contrivance and the intervention of human beings, is the source of revealed values or principles, a universal of Romantic thinking.

But more intriguing, perhaps, is how solitude is part of the Romantic pattern. Part of this pattern is the manifestations of solitude in nature, the solitary places of nature: forest, seas, remotenesses. This characteristic solitude of places extends to objects in those places: flowers, rivers, shores, storms, stars — all partake of solitude by their stolid presence, their deep silence, their quiet conformity to an ineffable pattern.

Human emotions evoke the characteristics of natural objects and nature’s patterns when they are authentic, meaning that they conform to nature. They are more true than whatever reason evokes. Solitude is a key element in this panoply of feelings and emotions and lends them strength and virtue. They are not the products of the social world, which is manipulated and made false. They can tap the soul’s depths because they well up from solitude, as do the objects of nature.

Thus in his last sonnet, Keats identifies the “bright Star” as “Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,” an image of solitude embracing principles of nature. In his “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Lord Byron draws out these themes in a magnificent summary familiar to many readers (stanza 178):

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can never express, yet cannot all conceal.

Here is a Romantic credo best understood from the perspective of solitude, shutting away society, cold empiricism, and mythic revelation to perceive as the deepest sentiment perceives. Solitude is the naturalness of perception — attentive, conscious, fully engaged in what is real, not contrived.

Yet it is Byron’s preceding stanza of the poem that encapsulates the convergence of insight into what he makes to be a “Spirit.” The stanza is weaker because it projects an artifice in this “Spirit,” but it is rightly placed before stanza 178 above as the progression from the desire to concretize Nature to the recognition of the purity of full emotion. Here is stanza 177, which precedes the above stanza quoted.

Oh! that the Desert were my dwelling place,
With one fair Spirit for my minister,
That I might all forget the human race,
And, hating no one, love but only her!
Ye Elements! — in whose ennobling stir
I feel myself exalted — can ye not
Accord me such a being? Do I err
In deeming such inhabit many a spot?
Though with them to converse can rarely be our lot.

The impulse to seek solitude arises from the sorrow of human society. The Spirit is not the old socially and culturally biased god but a refreshing, inspiring and benevolent guardian of eremitism. Note how the “Elements,” the confluence of nature, are charged to create this “Spirit.”

Yet even this wonderful being is but a summary projection, a useful, consoling poetic artifice. The emotions and the intuition sense that nature is an intelligent whole, a benevolent guardian of what is true — that the “Elements” ought to comprise Nature as parts would a whole.

The Romantic poets (and only a few English poets are mentioned here) are the first to perceive that our work, a solitary work, is to pursue our insight into the ineffable, to align our sentiments with nature’s, to “mingle with the Universe, and feel what I can never express, yet cannot all conceal.”