Word of the Day: SOLITARY

Word of the Day: SOLITARY

We finished in class today the greatest poem ever written in English:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

I told the students that those lines could make a good claim to win the laurels for most stupendous finale in the history of poetry. To my mind, and from my experience of poetry (and I confess that I don’t know about epic poems from the far east), they stand alongside the end of the Divine Comedy and The Faerie Queene. If I had to choose among the three, just on the basis of How the Poem Ends, the prize would go to my man Edmund Spenser. Yet I’ll bet that not more than one American university in twenty has a course on Spenser these days.

The word that troubles me in that passage, the word that makes it seem as if Adam and Eve are walking out of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance world and into the modern world, our world, is SOLITARY. Maybe it shouldn’t trouble me, because after all there aren’t any other people around who would accompany the primeval pair, and yet in the archangel Michael’s long discourse with Adam, revealing the history of man to come, we find again and again the SOLITARY man standing bravely against wickedness and especially the pride and ambition of earthly rulers, and not the SOCIETY of believers, the community, the Church. That really does mark the difference between medieval man and modern man. Put it this way: in Middle English, NEIGHBORHOOD described not a geographical fiction, but a VIRTUE correlative with BROTHERHOOD: the virtue of being a really good neighbor, of being the kind of person that other people like to live near.

One of my students remarked that that kind of SOLITARINESS is implied in the Declaration of Independence, which suggests that the purpose of life is the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, and since everybody’s got different tastes, the pursuit must needs be SOLITARY, in principle divorced from other people’s pursuits. I replied that Jefferson was classically trained and would not be, as man is now, fooled into thinking that you could attain happiness without virtue, and of course virtue implies a life in society. Yet the point was well taken. We agreed that you can hardly have a Miltonic conversation with modern man about Liberty and “right reason,” and making thralls of ourselves by vice, and allowing inordinate passions to usurp the rule within us, as in an internecine war. That is because modern man believes that Liberty is what a teenager would recognize: I get to do what I wanna do, waah! So it goes. The most admirable feature of certain SOLITARY modern men is self-reliant independence of thought and moral conviction, such as characterized Thoreau, that “hair shirt of a man.” The least admirable feature is the vastly more common slouch who doesn’t give a damn about what his vices do to the society wherein he lives — and who then expects Jabba the State to puke up some benefits for his sake. Or her sake; and it is interesting to note that Milton has Adam and Eve leave Eden hand in hand, while contemporary Adams and Eves are busy taking one another to court and blaming one another for everything bad in the world.

SOLITUDE isn’t necessarily a bad thing: “And solitude is often best society,” says Adam when he is considering Eve’s suggestion, on that fateful morning, that they should work separately. Lucretius looks with a mild eye upon the lives of pre-civilized men, who learned music from listening to wind in the reeds, in “places of sunlit SOLITUDE and peace.” But man is ultimately not made for SOLITUDE, or for a way of life that is predicated upon it. The word comes from the Latin, by way of the adjective SOLUS, ALONE. My source relates SOLUS to the ancient reflexive pronoun and prefix, what then shows up in Latin as SE, also pronoun and prefix: to SECLUDE is to SHUT yourSELF apart. The SOLITARY life, in practice or — as is to be found everywhere now — in principle, is like the life of the Cyclops in the Odyssey: “And every family ignores its neighbors.”

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