Loneliness and alienation are both common themes of literature down the ages, whether it’s the Anglo-Saxon seafarers and wanderers lamenting the passing of their lives, and perhaps a whole way of life, or protagonists of modern novels filled with existential angst and a sense of being cut off from the rest of mankind.
Poets, novelists, philosophers: they all feature here in our list of some of the best, and best-known, quotations about loneliness, alienation, and isolation from one’s fellow human beings. They all tell us something slightly different about the meaning of alienation. Is it always a bad thing to be cut off from other people? How should we cope with being lonely?
‘No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics).
Widely regarded as Aristotle’s most famous work on ethics or morals, the Nicomachean Ethics is full of sensible advice about how to lead a good life. In this quotation, the famous ancient Greek philosopher reminds us that we are social beings who could not do without our fellow humans, no matter what other good things we might have in our lives.
‘Who knows what true loneliness is – not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion’ (Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes).
Although it’s not one of his best-known novels, Under Western Eyes (1911) is classic mid-period Conrad (1883-1924). The idea of the ‘naked terror’ of ‘true loneliness’ is a powerful one, as is Conrad’s insight that we have to shield ourselves from the true horror of complete alienation if we are to survive, mentally and emotionally.
‘There was my craving to be liked – so strong and nervous that never could I open myself friendly to another. The terror of failure in an effort so important made me shrink from trying; besides, there was the standard; for intimacy seemed shameful unless the other could make the perfect reply, in the same language, after the same method, for the same reasons’ (T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom).
These lines about wanting to be liked, from the First World War hero known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, clearly struck a chord with the poet A. E. Housman, who wrote, in the margins of his copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, ‘This is me.’
‘At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others – poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner – young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby).
There are many quotations attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald online, but not all of them can be traced back to things he actually wrote. The above quotation about the loneliness and alienation of the modern city is found in his most famous work, however: the 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.
‘Anonymity represents for many people a liberating even more than a threatening phenomenon’ (Harvey Cox, The Secular City).
This quotation is taken from Cox’s 1965 book about the decline of religion in the West and the rise of urbanisation. Some people hate to be a faceless and nameless person in the crowd, one among millions, while others enjoy blending into the throng, finding a strange kind of freedom in being an unknown.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills’ (William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’).
Perhaps no list of classic quotations about loneliness would be complete without these famous opening lines from Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils poem’, as it’s commonly known. The poem was first published in 1807 and begins:
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 …
Curiously, Wordsworth starts out feeling ‘lonely’ but by the end of the poem he’s praising ‘the bliss of solitude’, because the memory of the daffodils dancing makes him feel a kinship with nature.
‘By keeping men off, you keep them on’ (John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera).
A witty quotation from the early eighteenth-century wit, John Gay, whose Beggar’s Opera is his best-known work.
‘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’ (Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Alone’).
Few American writers of the nineteenth century wrote better about loners and alienated men than Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). In this poem, he reflects on how alone he has been throughout his early life.
‘Loneliness is bred of a mind that has grown earthbound. For the spirit has its homeland, which is the realm of the meaning of things’ (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands).
Although he’s now best-remembered for his children’s story The Little Prince, which remains one of the bestselling books of all time, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote other things. The Wisdom of the Sands was a posthumous collection which dwells upon the importance of maintaining and preserving civilisation.
‘To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness’ (Erich Fromm, Man for Himself).
This is taken from Fromm’s 1947 work Man for Himself, subtitled An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. Like Aristotle more than two millennia before him, Fromm argues that we are social beings who must risk grief and hurt in order to experience happiness as well. Indeed, grief is guaranteed; but it’s the price we pay for knowing happiness.
‘If a man makes me keep my distance, the comfort is, he keeps his at the same time’ (Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects).
Like Gay, Swift was an eighteenth-century wit, and here he pithily reminds us that sometimes, being alienated from one’s fellow man can be a good thing.
‘The Loneliness One dare not sound’ (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.
‘For an impenetrable shield, stand inside yourself’ (Henry David Thoreau, Journal).
This quotation comes from Thoreau’s journal entry of 27 June 1840.
‘Everything intercepts us from ourselves’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals).
This quotation, written by another great figure of New England literature and philosophy, is from 1833.
‘The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us’ (Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Virginibus Puerisque’).
We’ll conclude this pick of some of the best quotations about loneliness with this line from the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), best-known for novels like Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but also a fine essayist.