Ode to Solitude

Photograph of Igor Stravinsky by Irving Penn. New York, April 22, 1948

Photograph of Igor Stravinsky by Irving Penn. New York, April 22, 1948

A single man, like myself, confronts solitude every day as patient friend or relentless enemy, as cure or ailment, as mountain vista or obscure cave. The 20th century Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, experienced these binaries in his own life. Without solidarity, solitude is unbearable, as Neruda said about his foreign service in Rangoon, Burma: “Solitude, in this case, was not a formula for building up a writing mood but something as hard as a prison wall; you could smash your head against the wall and nobody came, no matter how you screamed or wept.” With solidarity, however, solitude is not only bearable but even productive, as he said in 1971 Nobel Prize lecture:

There arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

My single Savior exhibits a harmonious dialectic of solitude and solidarity. Take Matthew 14, for example. After hearing the devastating news of John the Baptist’s murder, Jesus withdraws “in a boat to a desolate place.” When he returns to the shore, “a great crowd” awaits. He enters that crowd with compassion, healing the sick and feeding the poor. Exhausted from service, he ascends to “the mountain by himself to pray.” On and on, Jesus moves away from the crowd and toward the crowd, experiencing the vitality of being alone and being together.

Falling short of this harmonious dialectic of solitude and solidarity, fallen human beings either sink into an “insurmountable solitude” or cup their ears to hear an elevating song. The question is whether we will be soloists, who sing a “sorrowful song” of self-expression, or choristers, who learn the lyrics of “a new song” that has been put in our mouths – “a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:3).

Ode to Solitude
by Pablo Neruda

O solitude, beautiful
word: crab-
grass
grows between your syllables!
But you are only a pale
word, fool’s
gold
and counterfeit coin!
I painted solitude in literary
strokes,
dressed it in a tie
I had copied from a book,
and the shirt
of sleep.
But
I first really saw it when I was by myself.
I’d never seen an animal
quite like it:
it looks like
a hairy spider
or the flies
that hover over dung,
and its camel paws have
suckers like a deep-sea snake.
It stinks like a warehouse piled high
with brown hides of rats and seals
that have been rotting forever.
Solitude, I want you
to stop
lying through the mouths of books.
Consider the brooding young poet:
he’s looking for a black marble slab
to seduce
the sleeping señorita; in your honor he erects
a simple statue
that he’ll forget
the morning of his wedding.
But
in the half-light of those early years
we boys stumble across her
and take her for a black goddess
shipped from distant islands.
We play with her torso and pledge
the perfect reverence of childhood.
As for the creativity
of solitude: it’s a lie.
Seeds don’t live
singly underneath the soil:
it takes hordes of them to insure
the deep harmony of our lives,
and water is but the transparent mother
of invisible submarine choirs.

The desert
is the earth’s solitude, and mankind’s
solitude
is sterile
like the desert. The same
hours, nights and days
wrap the whole planet
in their cloak –
but they leave nothing in the desert.
Solitude does not accept seeds.

A ship on the sea
isn’t the only image of its beauty.
It flies over the water like a dove,
end product
of wondrous collaborations
between fires and stokers,
navigators and stars,
men’s arms and flags in congregation,
shared loves and destinies.

In its search for self-expression
music sought out
the choir’s coral hardness.
It was written
not by a single man
but by a whole score
of musical relations.

And this word
which I poise here suspended on a branch,
this song that yearns
solely for the solitude of your lips
to repeat it –
the air inscribes it at my side, lives
that were lived long before me.
And you, who are reading my ode:
We’ve never met, and yet it’s your hands
that wrote these lines, with mine.

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