On My Own

On My Own

This week’s poems are chosen for all those who, like me, are finding they are spending even more time alone than they usually do. I confess that six months of enforced solitude and social separation have proven to be trying, and I expect the next six months of dark and cold days to be even more difficult. As someone who has to take extra care, I have had to avoid many gatherings and quizzes that I would normally have loved to attend. I have had to keep my distance when I would have preferred to join in, and that’s made me feel quite isolated, but better safe than sorry (or dead).

I am glad to be able to get out for a walk around the village twice a day and it makes my day to be able to greet familiar faces, to stop and talk, or just to acknowledge and be acknowledged. I have become acquainted with many more villagers than I knew before, and I look forward to next spring and summer in the optimistic belief that we will be able to relax some of the precautions that currently inhibit our enjoyment of the company of others, and that the village fete next year will be a record-breaking success!

Ella Wheeler Wilcox begins this week’s solo with “Solitude”, then John Clare eloquently expands on his feelings of isolation and desire for seclusion in “I Am”; finally William Wordsworth tells us of an inconspicuous maiden in his second Lucy poem, ”She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways”.

A poem that I would love to have chosen for this week is “Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams, which I encountered when listening to Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast. It reminds us that one can be alone (and happy) even in the midst of friends and family, just as Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning” shows us a man whose efforts to escape terrible loneliness were mistaken by his friends.

Another example that I immediately think of when I consider loneliness is the haunting song “On My Own” from Les Miserables, which is sung by Eponine when she realises that the man she loves so much will never love her in the same way:

I love him
But when the night is over
He is gone
The river’s just a river
Without him
The world around me changes
The trees are bare and everywhere
The streets are full of strangers

On My Own, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer

Also redolent of loneliness is the Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby” with its tale of the woman who lingers in the church and sits in a window waiting for an unnamed and perhaps non-existent visitor, and the priest who pursues his vocation in silence and solitude, and who eventually buries poor Eleanor and is the only attendee of her funeral. As the chorus says;

All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Eleanor Rigby, by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast has restarted (I hadn’t realised) and has covered Liz Berry’s Black Country poems about the, Cathy Park Hong’s macabre Western poetry, and Tadeusz Dabrowski’s Polish poetry. I look forward to hearing Frank Skinner’s thoughts and being introduced to these new (to me) poets and their work. The latest edition of the podcast is relevant to one of this week’s poems, so I will discuss it later.


Poem 88. Solitude

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850—1919)
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.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.
Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.
Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

The opening lines of this poem are, I think, quite well-known, and the rest of it deserves to be.

Each quartet of lines contrasts something positive with something negative. Wilcox suggests that many will share the good times with you but won’t be so easy to find when things turn sour.

The first stanza starts by comparing laughing to weeping and personifies the earth, likening it to someone who is full of troubles and needs to borrow some happiness. The second part contrasts singing and sighing, reminding us that a loud and jolly shout rouses echoes, but gloomy muttering has little or no effect.

The second stanza continues the sequence, and the first part seems to me to echo the first part of the first stanza: though the poet speaks of people here, the same idea is expressed: “they want full measure of all your pleasure/but they do not need your woe” is very like “the sad old earth must borrow its mirth/but has trouble enough of its own”. The second part says that people will flock to a happy person, but will desert a mourner, and then there’s a lovely phrase: “There are none to decline your nectared wine/But alone you must drink life’s gall”, meaning that plenty will join you in a drink of sweet wine, but they won’t stay for the bitterness of life’s worst moments.

The last stanza completes the poem by comparing banqueting and fasting and the likely numbers to attend each. It emphasises that although we may “succeed and give”, we all die alone, and then the last pair of metaphors tells us that although crowds of people can fit into the “halls of pleasure”, but the “aisles of pain” must be traversed on our own.

Ella Wilcox apparently wrote this poem after a train journey to attend a Governor’s ball in Madison, Wisconsin, during which she encountered and tried to help a grieving widow. By the time Wilcox reached the ball, she found it difficult to rejoice in the festivities. Looking at herself in the mirror, she thought of the contrast between the gaiety of the ball and the depression of the widow and wrote the opening lines of Solitude immediately. She sent the poem to the New York Sun and was paid $5 for it which, considering the popularity of the lines, seems very cheap.

Poem 89. I Am

Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

John Clare (1793—1864)
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

This is a very introspective poem, exploring the poet’s inner feelings of solitude and desertion. The first stanza examines the feelings of worthlessness and superfluity that attack us all in our blackest moments. The consciousness of isolation leads the poet to consume his own sorrows, bottling them up instead of letting them go as they swirl around him in a multitude (they “rise and vanish in oblivious host”) and he likens their coming and going to the shadows cast by the frenzied subject of suffocation: in this case, it is love that is being stifled.

He lives, even though his propensity for love is slowly smothering under the weight of his cares, but he feels like an insubstantial cloud of gas in a nightmarish sea of contempt; he lives in a neutral half-world of grey where rejoicing is as absent as vitality. In this terrible landscape, “the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems”—everything he cares for or loves is broken apart, and even the people he loves seem distant and foreign to him.

He wants only to escape this dreadful existence, to flee to a kind of Garden of Eden and return to a state of innocence under the stars where he can finally be at peace with his God.

This is so powerful. The vision that Clare paints with words is really very distressing in a way, and it is unsurprising to discover that this poem was written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he was committed in 1841 following a prolonged period of mental illness of varying severity. He spent the remaining three years of his life there, dying of a stroke at the age of 71. As noted in Wikipedia, there is an irony in the repetition of the assertion, “I am”, since Clare believed himself at various times to be Shakespeare or Lord Byron. The poem is known as Clare’s “last lines” and is the best known of his works.


Poem 90. Lucy II: She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

William Wordsworth (1770—1850)
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

This is one of five poems Wordsworth wrote about Lucy, an idealised English country girl who dies young, and is usually placed second in the sequence. It is short, but like so many short poems, it glitters with invention and beautiful imagery.

Lucy is a beautiful young girl, “Fair as a star, when only one/Is shining in the sky” but lives in obscurity in a rural area, perhaps Derbyshire, Yorkshire or Westmorland (each of which has a River Dove). Wordsworth likens her to a delicate violet that is overshadowed by a stone and invisible to all but the poet. The last stanza describes her lonely death: rather like Eleanor Rigby, she dies and is buried inconspicuously, and only the poet seems to have noted and grieved her passing.

Wordsworth wrote this poem using the simplest language he could, to suggest the simplicity and innocence of his subject. Nobody has managed to identify Lucy as a single person—Wordsworth never explained her origin and it is thought that Lucy was a personification of his muse, or that the poems express his love for his sister Dorothy and his fear lest she die.

The latest edition of Frank Skinner’s Poetry Podcast covers this poem in some detail and is worth listening to for another view.

Neil Hannon, the creative mind behind The Divine Comedy, adapted the Lucy poems for the Liberation album, combining lines from several of the poems to create a really lovely musical version called, appropriately enough, “Lucy”.