If someone were to describe me as a child, words like “bookish, dreamer, shy, and solitary” would probably be among the most frequently used. Later, as I grew older, the word “introvert” was applied to me (for some the word “offish” was bandied about). It’s true that, no matter what word is used to describe me, the company I most often prefer is solitude’s.
Whenever I’m in social settings, I feel as if something is being taken from me and, by the time the party or gathering is over, I am depleted, used up, and spent. I often retreat off by myself: either to take a walk, read a book, meditate, or simply to ponder and wonder. Some may find this selfish, I simply find it as necessary. As a child, two of my favorite places to be were either in the woods or my room. I could spend hours just walking in nature or in my bedroom building kingdoms out of blocks or drawing or imagining or reading books. Both felt like they were my own little worlds and they were the whole universe to me. School, on the other hand, was dull, overwhelming and tedious. Even there, I too often retreated into my imagination.
Certainly I could understand the Brontë sisters, with their brother, creating a fictional country, Gondal, that was all their own. It was made of four kingdoms (one for each child, I would guess): Gondal, Angora, Exina and Alcona. It started out as a childish game created by Emily and Anne (and was picked up by Charlotte and Branwell) but is one that they may have continued their entire lives. It is not surprising that Emily would be one to create such a fictional world, as she was one of the most solitary of the family. As a girl, she developed her imagination around the natural world she observed. She was a keen observer of the sky, animals, birds, plants, rocks and water. She filled her imaginary world with these and medieval and romantic figures such as kings, princes and princesses, knights, rebels, traitors as well as castles, cathedrals, and forest battles. Emily was even described by her sister Charlotte as “a solitude loving raven, no gentle dove.” Charlotte would go on to write, “She found in the bleak solitude of the moors many and clear delights, and not the least and best-loved was liberty. … Liberty was the breath of Emily’s nostrils; without it she perished.” More than any of the other siblings, Emily loved to commune with herself in her surroundings, wandering the moors with only her thoughts and imagination for her company.
While Charlotte had always been my favorite (due heavily to Jane Eyre and Villette), when I read more about Emily, she became the one I identified with because she loved her solitude. Like Emily, I loved to wander and imagine in the woods behind our house. That setting often showed up in my writings and drawings, as I created my own world filled with kingdoms of different parts of the woods, each ruled by a different animal.
Solitude was necessary as air or food to me. My creativity and imagination thrived in solitude. Without being able to me on my own, I found myself irritable and unpleasant, if not just plain exhausted.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, in an interview, was asked what his advice for young people was and he answered:
“I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.”
Spend time alone. He is promoting a healthy solitude, not loneliness.
One of the most solitary figures that comes to mind is Henry David Thoreau. “I love to be alone. I have never found a companion,” he wrote, “that was so companionable as solitude.” Thoreau was a man who spent a great deal of his time walking in nature, by himself with his thoughts. Want to see what an introvert Thoreau was simply read this passage from his Journal, “I thrive best on solitude. If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected. It dissipates my days, and often it takes me another week to get over it.” Thoreau was a man who deeply believed in the need for cultivating solitude, that it was not only a spiritual discipline but one necessary to his creativity and well-being. Is it any wonder that his work is among those I most cherish and relate to?
One of Thoreau’s contemporaries, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was described thus: “Never lived a man to whom ordinary contact with his fellows was more impossible, and the mysterious solitude in which his fictitious characters move is a mere shadow of his own imperial loneliness of soul.” His writing is filled with solitary characters, in fact, he wrote the main character in his first published novel, Fanshawe, as “He had seemed, to others and to himself, a solitary being, upon whom the hopes and fears of ordinary men were ineffectual.” Hawthorne was a solitary man who preferred his own company to that of other men; in fact, he found that crowds made him lonelier than if he were by himself. One can hear this lament in Hawthorne asking, “What would a man do, if he were compelled to live always in the sultry heat of society, and could never bathe himself in cool solitude?”
His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was always attempting to get Hawthorne involved and out into society, but found his friend pathologically shy and stayed silent during such gatherings where he tended to stay in a corner, away and alone from others.
When he married, Hawthorne chose Sophia Peabody, who was herself, in many ways reclusive. Their marriage was a long and happy one. In a letter to Sophia, he wrote, “Solitude gives you that break to reflect, to contemplate, to assimilate and much more; you understand yourself better.” And she heartily and readily agreed. They were a portrait of what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described of the perfect relationship, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” Rilke, on the other hand, would never experience that.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke viewed solitude as a safeguard for his creativity and held tightly to it throughout his life. His writings and correspondence are filled with his intense need for greater and greater solitude. Though greatly admired throughout all of Europe, Rilke was a loner, wander and social-misfit. “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone,” he once wrote. In one of his most well-known works, Letters to a Young Poet, he wrote:
“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
His mentor, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, was also a solitary man. Rilke even described him this way, “Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps more solitary.”
One cannot think upon or write about solitude without mentioning Emily Dickinson. Other than for her poetry, Dickinson is most often associated with her reclusiveness. In one of her poems, she writes:
There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —
Emily Dickinson is not describing loneliness, but solitude. She had a profounder sense of solitude than most as viewing “self as company.” It was in her solitary nature that she was able to make the space and time to write her poems so prodigiously (1,775 of them by the time she died at the age of 55). What sparked her solitary designs? As a child she already had developed an intensely personal private world that she believed no one else could share in or comprehend fully.
The Soul’s Superior instants
Occur to Her – alone –
When friend – and Earth’s occasion
Have infinite withdrawn –
Or She – Herself – ascended
To too remote a Height
For lower recognition
Than Her Omnipotent . . .
“The Soul’s Superior instants” are Emily’s own inner exalted experiences that she believes can only occur when she is alone and is “infinite withdrawn.” She only knows peace and harmony when she is in her own company. It is there and there alone that she can create her poems. And when she need interaction with the outside world, it was still on her conditions and terms, because she did so through letter writing. Her correspondence was her connection to others. As she wrote in one of her most famous poems, “The soul selects her own society, / Then shuts the door; / On her divine majority / Obtrude no more.”
Her world was her room and the natural world found in her garden.
In her solitude, Emily Dickinson wrote some of the most beautiful, profound poetry ever written. “I would paint a portrait which would bring tears,” she writes, “had I a canvas for it, and the scene should be – solitude, and the figures – solitude – and the lights and shades, each a solitude.”
These are but a few of the solitary figures who have needed solitude to create within, as well as to find nourishment for their souls and for their very selves. They understood that solitude was not a place of loneliness but one where one can find richness and depth, healing and beauty. They were not alone in solitude but were in their favorite company: their own thoughts. The world opened and expanded to them when they were solitary. Some of the greatest minds were introverts who needed solitude to focus, think and create (Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and J.K. Rowling to name a few).
As Mary Oliver writes, “Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”
Solitude is a necessary space for someone like me to retreat into for recovery from an often overwhelming world, whose voices I can distance myself from. Solitude allows me to think, to be, to imagine. In solitude I can be in the whole-heartedness of creation and concentration. It is a place where I am invisible to distraction and can focus my attention, once again, to the grace that abounds in the natural world and in language of books or in the silence of being alone.