Poetry and solitude

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson



Solitude is sometimes sought after to find peace of mind after becoming disillusioned or to forget our pain. Whether they be Chinese poets Tao Qian 陶潜 and Wang Wei 王维, Japanese artist-monk Fūgai Ekun, German biologist Haeckel and writers Goethe and Thoreau, “forced” or willful solitude resembles more of a nature retreat than a secluded niche in a city dwelling.  To those who may feel the burden of loneliness and regard it as “deadly banishment”, Thoreau’s words may help to alleviate it. As only poets do, he reminds us that the Sun, the Moon, and the starry night are lonely souls too. 

I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. What company has that lonely lake, I pray? And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters. The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there sometimes appear to be two, but one is a mock sun... I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house

Henry David Thoreau

It may well be that we do not submit to being alone and wish to identify ourselves with our surroundings. So let’s remember that we are no more lonely than survivor trees in a city made with concrete and cement. No more lonely than a nautilus swimming in the Pacific Ocean, whose lineage has been able to survive throughout millions of years of environmental changes. No more lonely than an island surrounded by an empty body of water.  No more lonely than our tiny blue planet watched over by the Moon. No more lonely than the rings of Saturn made of orbiting particles of ice and dust and currently tilted towards Earth.  No more lonely than the Sun stripped of its siblings. No more lonely than galaxies separated by the intergalactic medium. No more lonely than the flickering black hole GSN 069 swallowing mass from a star captured into its orbit. No more lonely than the asteroid named Ka‘epaoka‘awela, one of the high-inclination Centaurs whose origin is foreign. Based on simulations of its evolution, the retrograde co-orbital asteroid was probably an early capture from the interstellar medium. We are no more lonely than free-floating objects in interstellar space like Oumuamua and the interstellar comet 21/Borisov which had crossed over to our side of the galaxy.


NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley); CC BY 4.0

NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley); CC BY 4.0

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me

Blaise Pascal


We wonder whether the Universe, too, is alone the same way mankind is, and reflect on the uniqueness of life in the emptiness of the Universe. It is not being alone in the Universe that makes us feel uneasy but what comes with it: silence, distances, darkness, and voids, including the largest supervoid -- 1.8 billion light-years wide -- in the Eridanus Constellation. Our limited physical abilities make it so that we can’t hear the sound of gravitational waves with a naked ear and we can’t see beyond the brightest stars with a naked eye. We can’t cross either cosmic distances that separate us from the closest star. Those circumstances emphasize the significance of the Earth-bound nature of human existence


As humans are drawn together, so too is matter. It tends to coalesce into nebulae, galaxies, clusters, and filaments as if particles of matter could not bear to have anything to do with the expanding emptiness around. Would we be alone if we lived on one of the seven planets of the Trappist-1 system,  free to hop from one planet to the next?  Could there be poets living on one of them who would describe a lake like a planet’s eye with fluviatile trees for slender eyelashes and wooded hills and cliffs for overhanging brows?  Is there such a lake or a crater left by one of them? Is there somewhere else in the Universe a poet seating next to a pond sending echoes to the Universe? Would we be alone if Everett’s many-worlds image would mean that the splitting “worlds” must be regarded as distinct objects? When tackling the whys and hows of the tragic sense of loneliness, the feeling of isolation from each other and from the rest of the Universe, are our emotions in the way or is our level of reasoning insufficient to dispel that illusion as much as it is with the illusion of time?  


But the intergalactic medium is not empty. It is just different, filled with dust, gas, low-density plasma, and floating debris from cataclysmic battles. Waters surrounding an island are not empty either. They are just different, filled with aquatic animals and plants.  There is no solitude when billions of raindrops wash over us, when winds blow through billions of leaves, when birds are chirping in symphony and when memories are flowing through our head.  What matters is not whether we are alone but what function each one of us has and our relationship with the rest of the Universe. Solitary comets are carriers of organic material and prebiotic chemicals. 21/Borisov reportedly contains significantly more CO than H2O gas, with abundances of at least 173%, more than three times higher than previously measured for any comet in the inner solar system.


 Loneliness is sometimes a burden for the one who hears a different drummer, who, even if in vain, wishes to see beyond illusions, find the meaning of life, and define the art of being. And it may be that I would rather be a passing comet than a grain in tightly packed sand dunes on Titan or a particle in the Orion Molecular Cloud. Solitude is a necessary time that allows me to attend to my inner child who once was captivated by an illustrated book on Copernicus and a French translation of Daode Jing 道德经. 



... a fool sees a familiar face in the eccentricity of a comet not bound by the normalcy of life on a planet orbiting the Sun.

Catherine Toulsaly

To go into solitude”, Emerson writes, “a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society”. “But if a man would be alone,” he adds, “let him look at the stars”.  So let’s touch the stars for a moment even if it is with our eyes closed. Let's not become Lamartine for whom nature beauties became vain objects devoid of all charm and grace to the point that he didn't feel anything in common with the Earth. Let’s not carry in our heart a soul so indifferent that it can not be moved. Let’s not lament the past with a “reverted eye” or “stand on tiptoe to foresee the future”. 


The white-throated sparrow left a week ago, signaling the coming of warmer days. Its captivating tone is replaced by the beautiful call of the song sparrow. Dozens of white oak sprouts have grown over time where century-old oak trees used to spread their arms before they became casualties of ozone pollution. The ruby-throated hummingbird will return soon as I, too, will go back to Glenstone at the foot of the three stone houses to hear the stream burbling and listen to the Universe breathe.

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