By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The poet’s life is often viewed as a lonely one – starving in garrets, pining away for lost loves, moping about the streets of the city looking for Baudelaire-style inspiration – so it should come as little surprise that there have been many classic poems written about solitude and loneliness. Here are ten of our favourite poems about isolation and being alone.
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29.
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
One of the most famous sonnets written by Shakespeare, this one contains the line ‘I all alone beweep my outcast state’, thus casting the poet as both solitary and shunned. But there is hope for him as he reflects on the love of the Fair Youth with whom he appears (in the sequence as it unfolds) to be in a burgeoning relationship …
2. Alexander Pope, ‘Ode on 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 …
So begins this poem written in 1700; the most remarkable thing about this poem is that Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote it when he was just 12 years old! A paean to the simple life and a world of peace and quiet, ‘Ode on Solitude’ was an extraordinarily precocious poem by a poet who would go on to define the poetic tastes of the first half of the eighteenth century. This poem was written just as that century was dawning, in 1700.
3. William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze …
We could have chosen a number of Wordsworth poems about solitude here, such as ‘The Solitary Reaper’, but we can’t resist those daffodils.
In this famous poem, the daffodils lift the poet’s spirits when he is feeling a little lost or thoughtful, and fill his heart with pleasure – but we should bear in mind that Wordsworth begins his journey by wandering in a ‘lonely’ fashion (though in reality, the walking trip which inspired the poem was taken with his sister, Dorothy), with the daffodils serving to remind the poet of his kinship with the world of nature in the ‘bliss of solitude’.
4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’.
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told …
There’s a story behind this poem: during the summer of 1797, Coleridge’s wife ‘accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me during the whole time of C[harles] Lamb’s stay’. As a result, Coleridge was forced to stay behind at home while his friends went for a walk across the Quantocks.
He chose to sit under the lime-tree in his friend Thomas Poole’s garden, and this moment of solitude occasioned one of Coleridge’s most famous poems. We have offered an analysis of this poem here.
5. John Keats, ‘To Solitude’.
O solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings …
Keats begins this early sonnet, written when he was just 19 years old, by talking, almost paradoxically, of dwelling with solitude. Keats says that if he must be alone, he would rather be on his own in pleasant surroundings rather than in a city populated by ‘murky buildings’. Spoken like a true Romantic!
6. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Alone’.
Like Keats’s sonnet ‘To Solitude’, this poem was written when the poet was still very young – in Poe’s case, only 21. The sentiment is, indeed, something that many of us can relate to from our teenage years and youth:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone …
7. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Loneliness One Dare Not Sound’.
The Loneliness One dare not sound—
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size—
The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see—
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny—
So begins this evocative poem about loneliness. Dickinson (1830-86) wrote powerfully about loneliness and solitude, and perhaps nowhere more movingly than here, in this poem about a loneliness so profound that we can’t even bring ourselves to confront it for fear of being overwhelmed. This loneliness is ‘The Horror not to be surveyed — / But skirted in the Dark — / With Consciousness suspended — / And Being under Lock’.
8. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Solitude’.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own …
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) has often been ridiculed – she features in Nicholas T. Parsons’ The Joy of Bad Verse – but even her detractors have to admit that ‘Solitude’ succeeds, and certainly remains successful as a piece of poetry about solitude. Anthony Burgess memorably rewrote the poem’s opening two lines as ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.’
9. A. E. Housman, ‘In My Own Shire, If I Was Sad’.
Yonder, lightening other loads,
The seasons range the country roads,
But here in London streets I ken
No such helpmates, only men;
And these are not in plight to bear,
If they would, another’s care.
They have enough as ’tis: I see
In many an eye that measures me
The mortal sickness of a mind
Too unhappy to be kind …
One of the 63 poems that make up Housman’s most famous volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896), this poem written in rhyming couplets is about the change the ‘Shropshire lad’ feels when he moves from his rural home to the bustling metropolis of London. Suddenly, he is surrounded by a sea of people, none of them cares for him – he is in a city of millions of souls, but has never felt more alone.
10. Philip Larkin, ‘Vers de Société’.
‘Funny how hard it is to be alone’, muses Larkin in this poem, which is ‘anti-social’ in the most literal sense. Yet although the poet begins by rejecting party invitations, preferring his own company, his knowledge of the beckoning grave makes him reconsider…
Continue to explore classic poetry with these short poems about death and dying, these poems about hair, and these erotic and sensual poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.