“The dizzying spread of… COVID-19, as well as the ensuing social distancing restrictions and public health interventions, have contributed to an epidemic of another sort: loneliness,” according to Yellowlees Douglas in a Psychiatry Advisor article.
The concepts of isolation, solitude and loneliness are certainly having their moment these days. We’ve been hearing these words on a daily basis for many months now, typically within the context of public health warnings related to physical and emotional health. Isolation—which is getting more than its share of attention—is actually a very useful construct because it keeps someone who is sick or has tested positive for COVID-19 without symptoms away from others. Solitude is the state of seclusion one may experience during such isolation; and it is feared that far too many people in isolation are suffering intense feelings of loneliness.
The language of loneliness has become ubiquitous, and while it’s easy to blur loneliness, isolation and solitude together and gloss over their meanings, they’re no less meaningful to the human condition. So let’s take a closer look at them through a more creative lens, exploring both their darker connotations as well as their advantages, as perceived by poets, philosophers and artists.
(derivatives include isolate, isolating, isolated)
From the Latin word insula, which means island, isolation or isolate is the act of physically or theoretically separating somebody or something (or oneself), as in an isolation ward. Isolation can be geographical or conceptual; it also means the state of being separate. It’s the process or fact of isolating or being isolated. Scientists commonly isolate substances or microorganisms to study them in their purest states. As an adjective, isolated means alone.
(derivatives include solitary, solitariness, solitudinous)
Solitude comes from the Latin word solitudinem, which means loneliness. In modern English, it means the state or quality of being alone or remote from others—often evoking a sense of choice. Although solitude is commonly believed to cause the feeling of loneliness, that’s not necessarily true for everyone.
American writer, journalist, and professor Jeanne Marie Laskas perhaps differentiates isolation from solitude best:
Isolation is aloneness that feels forced upon you, like a punishment. Solitude is aloneness you choose and embrace. I think great things can come out of solitude, out of going to a place where all is quiet except the beating of your heart.
(derivatives include lone, alone, lonely, lonesome, loner)
Loneliness is the mental/emotional effect of isolation or solitude, or at least the perception of being alone.
In “The History of Loneliness,” published in the New Yorker magazine, writer Jill Lepore posits, “Loneliness is grief, distended…. We hunger for intimacy. We wither without it…. Before modern times, very few human beings lived alone. Slowly, beginning not much more than a century ago, that changed. In the United States, more than one in four people now lives alone…. You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together, which makes lockdowns, sheltering in place, that much harder to bear. Loneliness, it seems unnecessary to say, is terrible for your health.”
While many fear the language of loneliness, ironically, artists and writers often embrace it.
In its recently published collection of poems about loneliness and solitude, the Poetry Foundation points out that “Poetry’s relationship to solitude is paradoxical: while many poets savor the isolation needed to write their best work, the finished product will ideally create connection, or even community.”
Paradoxical is an accurate way to describe society’s approach to these concepts through the ages—for while public health experts and psychologists decry loneliness and social isolation as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (see “The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors”)—poets and other creatives often yearn for isolation and solitude. Indeed, their language is the language of loneliness.
Loneliness is a vast and varied theme woven throughout literature, spanning the ages, from the Bible to Shakespeare to Dickens to Dickinson.
Popular culture has embraced the solitary figure. Archetypes such as the cowboy, the Lone Ranger, the lone wolf and the visionary are among those both celebrated and reviled.
Novelist Robert Williams selects the “Top 10 loners in fiction” in The Guardian. His list includes Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations; Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss; and Meursault in The Outsider by Albert Camus.
William Wordsworth’s classic poem, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is perhaps “the quintessential English Romantic poem,” according to Oliver Tearle in this short analysis. Wordsworth celebrates “the bliss of solitude”:
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.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
In “The Sound of One Fork,” American poet, educator, activist and essayist Minnie Bruce Pratt observes:
I can hear the random clink of one fork
against a plate. The woman next door is eating supper
Her small metallic sound persists, as quiet almost
as the windless silence, persists like the steady
random click of a redbird cracking a few
more seeds before the sun gets too low.
It’s not uncommon to understand the language of loneliness, especially these days of quarantines and lockdowns, but there are ways to avoid feeling lonely. If you find yourself in isolation, seek out moments of solitude through meditation, yoga or reading. If you feel lonely, don’t let it prevent you from making real connections. Go for a walk to connect with nature, play a musical instrument to connect with an audience vicariously or take advantage of technology to connect with friends and family members on a video call. It’s not the same as face-to-face get-togethers, but sometimes it can be far better than being alone.
The Language of Loneliness: A Quiz
Take this quiz to find out what your current level of loneliness means and to learn more about how you can alleviate feelings of loneliness.
- Poetry Foundation – Poems about Loneliness and Solitude
- The Clinical Advisor — Pandemic Contributes to Major Increase in Isolation, Loneliness Among Older Adults
- National Poll On Healthy Aging — Loneliness Among Older Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Psychiatry Advisor — The Costs of Social Isolation: Loneliness and COVID-19
- The New Yorker — The History of Loneliness
- Oxford Academic — The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors
- The Guardian — The top 10 loners in fiction
- Interesting Literature — A Short Analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’
- Poetry Foundation – The Sound of One Fork