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The Poetry of Solitude

1 April, 2012 0 Comments

Lyle Dunne interviews Professor Barry Spurr of the University of Sydney on the “Poetry of Solitude”.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Many readers will be familiar with these lines from William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (although the key line was apparently contributed by his wife.)

Barry Spurr was appointed in 2010 to the Personal Chair in Poetry and Poetics at the University of Sydney – the first such chair in Australia.

Professor Spurr has previously written on the religious sensibility of TS Eliot (Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity, 2010), and has published two books on Marian poetry (The Virgin Blest: The Virgin Mary In English Poetry, 2007, and The World Shall Come to Walsingham: The Blessed Virgin Mary in English Poetry, 2011). He is presently working on a book on representations of solitude in poetry, from the early modern period to today.  On a related subject, in November 2011 he delivered his inaugural lecture, entitled The Bliss of Solitude, at Sydney University.

Shortly afterward, he gave the interview below. However we have held over publication until the full lecture was available on line, which it now is, as a podcast.

(Scroll down to November; click on “play” – or download, which will allow you to rewind, fast-forward etc. You may find, like me – particularly if you’re of the technophilic generations – that you’ll want to be able to rewind and savour particular phrases. The lecture proper begins about 18 minutes in, after an introduction by the Hon Michael Kirby. Incidentally when I downloaded it, it emerged as “D O3 Practical Contemporary Kingdom Living”, for some reason.)

The lecture, you will find, traverses effortlessly the history of poetry in English – effortlessly not only in the sense that the speaker clearly has a thorough grasp of his material, but in the way he wears his learning lightly, so that he is never less than entertaining, and the subject matter proceeds at a sufficiently brisk pace to preclude the possibility of boredom. He ranges widely across issues of the theological and social significance of solitude, and the at first contrary idea of couples-in-solitude, with illustrations from the history of poetry in English, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve in the Authorised Version, and later revisiting it via Milton and Marvell.

In the works of Gerard Manly Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, Spurr considers the relationship between the yearning for human companionship, and the sense of spiritual desolation, and goes on to examine the difference between loneliness and solitude, returning by way of illustration to Wordworth’s Daffodils.

He notes the different response to solitude from male and female poets (the latter viewing it more positively as something to be sought or desired; the former as something to be endured, almost in the nature of a “necessary evil”, or at least as a challenge to be overcome).

In the course of this journey, solitude is presented as a legitimate choice – and human responses to it as more than just making a virtue of necessity.

Spurr devotes considerable attention to Donne’s work: we are introduced to his satire contrasting the two aspects of his self, the introvert and the extrovert, showing the ambivalence of many toward solitude – but with the sense that the solitary represented the higher calling.

In Milton we see enforced solitude, personal and political, turned to spiritual advantage, solitude as a necessary precondition to solitary meditation – but we also see death as the ultimate solitude.

Yeats, we hear, presents the solitary as an inspiration, a “light-giver” to others, whereas Gray, and, much later, Larkin present solitary as a detached observer of the human condition – or even a voyeur.

Gray’s Elegy features, of course, along with Larkin’s Churchgoing – and its idea of solitude as pleasure, allowing another revisiting of Wordsworth with the Larkin line:

“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”

Woolf and Joyce, Spurr says, “privileged times to oneself for special insight”.

From Eliot, the subject of an earlier book by Spurr, we have the “time and place of solitude where three dreams [of past, present and future] cross”, and the arresting metaphor of time “momentarily annihilated at the still-point of the turning world”. The wisdom that is derived, in Spurr’s words, “comes only through the willingness to surrender to solitude, stillness and silence”.

This leads in to a closing sequence, “worth the price of admission” in itself, on the role of the poet in leading us toward wisdom in a world of chatter and noise.

It is the role of the poet to “remind us of what is profound and enduring in human life” – at a time when, in the words of Susan Sonntag, “To defend seriousness in the modern world is an adversial act” – yet one, Spurr claims convincingly, that has never been more necessary.

“To defend seriousness in the modern world is an adversial act”                                                                                                                           – Susan Sonntag

Solitude, we are told, is necessary for the composition of poetry, but also for the appreciation We must submit to what the poem has to say – and “nurture the virtue of humility”. The role of the teacher is particularly important in alerting to nuances of meaning where historical and biographical context is necessary.

The lecture ends with contemporary Sydney poet Judith Beveridge’s Orb Spider, illustrating the self-sufficiency and self-fulfilment of solitude, a “poem about poetry” and the process of creating it – for those who would prefer to read it for themselves, it’s available here.

This talk is not, of course, a work of Christian apologetics. It is something less – and in another sense, something more. Although delivered to a secular audience, it is a testament to the relationship between the poetic and the spiritual.
As you’ll see from the interview below, there is no complete answer to the question of whether “solitude” is a spiritual or a psychological concept, because the questions that arise in the human psyche and the answers provided by Christian spirituality are complementary by design.

Thus Western culture and its literary canon is pervaded by Christian symbolism, and one can no more understand Western literature without an understanding of its theological underpinnings than one can make sense of a visit to an Italian art gallery without a working knowledge of scripture and the lives of the saints.

Longtime readers of Oriens will be familiar with John Senior’s “Integrated Humanities” program which ran at the University of Kansas from the 1960s to the 1980s, and the fact that, although there was no explicit proselytization, a thorough grounding in the development of Western literary culture seemed mysteriously to lead to a disturbingly (to parents, and perhaps the university, which ultimately cancelled the program) large number of conversions to Catholicism.

In a similar way, this talk suggests that more can sometimes be achieved by asking the right questions than by providing even the best-expressed answers.


Oriens: Your talk is entitled The Bliss of Solitude, which indicates that you regard solitude as a strong positive  – but you’ve observed that solitude is rare, indeed increasingly seen as pathological, in Western society.  Are we missing out on something important here? Can the poetry of solitude provide a kind of substitute for the direct experience of solitude?

 Spurr: Solitude, along with silence and stillness – my three ‘s’ words! – and I might add, seriousness (Susan Sontag has said that to defend seriousness in modern Western societies is an ‘adversarial act’) – are at a discount today, in what T.S. Eliot presciently described, 70 years ago, as our ‘twittering world’. Literature in general and poetry in particular call us to contemplate the serious matters of human existence, and the value of solitude for that contemplation (and for emotional, intellectual and spiritual renewal) is investigated and celebrated by many poets, in different ages and circumstances, male and female, Christian and not. So that is what I am focusing on in this lecture and the future book which will proceed from it.

Oriens: Are inhabitants of the modern West still capable of appreciating the poetry of solitude, or has it become a foreign language?

Spurr: They can be led into that appreciation, but it is increasingly difficult as scientific studies have shown that people’s attention spans have decreased markedly in the modern world. In a recent address, the Pope referred to the idea that an ‘anthropological mutation’ is taking place whereby people are incapable of being still and concentrating in silence on anything for any period of time. This is bad news, indeed, for poetry reading and appreciation – as, also, for prayer and self-examination – but the good news is that people are becoming aware of it. That may lead to an active desire to recover and cultivate the experience of silence, stillness, solitude.

Oriens:  Solitude, where deliberately sought, is often viewed as having a religious or spiritual dimension. Is this what makes “the poetry of solitude” different, or is it primarily about the effect of writing in or indeed about solitude?

Spurr: Yes, the poetry of solitude usually has at least a quasi-religious quality. My title, ‘The Bliss of Solitude’, is from Wordsworth’s poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’. Wordsworth was not an orthodox Christian at that point in his life, although he became more so later on, but the experience described is certainly of a spiritual kind. As it also is in Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Church Going’, although Larkin himself was at best an agnostic. Of course, orthodox Christian poets of Catholic persuasion, like T.S. Eliot, present the experience of solitude more strongly within Christian doctrinal ideas. Eliot saw such moments as Incarnational.

Oriens:  Does the impact of solitude primarily affect the subject matter – making it for example more reflective rather than observational – or does it carry through to the forms and techniques as well?

Spurr: This is what I am currently investigating. It certainly has an impact on subject-choice – negatively as well as positively. Both Tennyson and Hopkins write very powerfully about their sense of desolation in solitude, cut off from human and divine love (in In Memoriam and the ‘terrible’ sonnets, respectively). The extent to which it makes an impact on technique and form is less clear.

Oriens:  Is the poetry of solitude still being written, or is this the study of a lost art? Who would you regard as the most important practitioners?

Spurr: Yes, such poetry is still being written: contemporary Australian poet, Judith Beveridge, has a beautiful poem, ‘Orb Spider’, about the creative power of solitary activity. I am reading it in my lecture. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that poetry of solitude is encountered more often in the past when solitude was valued more highly and experienced more often. Our modern world is as terrified of solitude as it is of being out of a relationship (however unsatisfactory and unfulfilling) and alone. Celibacy, they say, is the new taboo.

Oriens:  Australia has a healthy culture of poetry, but – perhaps not so much the poetry of reflection, of introspection. Does any Australian poetry classify as? poetry of solitude?

Spurr:  I’ve mentioned Judy Beveridge. Kevin Hart is another great Australian poet of contemplation and we find such subjects in many Australian poets’ writing, but especially those with a religious tradition behind them and/or informing their poetry.

Oriens:  Does the poetry of solitude for you represent an aspiration, an ideal state?

Spurr: As a literary commentator and scholar I find this kind of poetry intellectually, emotionally and spiritually very satisfying and enriching, and often challenging and confronting, and I strive to share it.

Oriens: Having recently been appointed as Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Sydney University, do you consider you’ll have much time for solitude – or poetry?

Spurr: The professorship is really a continuation of what I have been doing for many years, in teaching and research, at the University and in the wider scholarly world – although, of course, it gives it a more elevated pubic profile. So I will go on championing poetry to all who have ears to hear it.

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