Raymond D. Havens: "Solitude and the Neoclassicists" in ELH, A Journal of English Literary History, v. 21, no. 4, December. 1954. p. 251-273.
By "neoclassicists," the author refers to 18th-century British writers. Havens acknowledges the prominent place of solitude in French and German counterparts of the era, but here describes the different mood in Great Britain. "Extroverts and strikingly social in the main, urban and urbane, devoted to clubs and coffee houses," British literati held no esteem for solitude. Havens quotes diverse writers to illustrate the overall mood of the era:
A character in William Godwin's 1805 novel Fleetwood: "I hear people talk of the raptures of solitude ... they are pretenders ... There is a principle in the heart of man which demands the society of his like."
David Hume, philosopher: "A perfect solitude is perhaps the greatest punishment we can suffer."
Edmund Burke, political thinker: "Absolute and entire solitude ... is as great a positive pain as can almost be conceived."
William Cowper, poet: "Solitude, however some may rave, / Seeming a sanctuary proves a grave. / A sepulchre, in which the living lie, / Where all good qualities grow sick and die."
Samuel Johnson, speaking of "drony solitude and useless retirement," added: "The solitary mortal is certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad ..."
What theses writers had in common is a latent anti-clericalism, a remnant animosity towards monasticism, and an identification of solitude with sloth, idleness, dissipation, and what the writers generally call "retirement," that is, retirement to country quiet and solitude seen as shirking of duty and abandonment of friends and society. Their attitude was not merely an inheritance of Protestantism but a secular and rationalist one with an abiding faith in reason and society. Johnson goes so far as to consider his contemporaries a "higher order of men" who ought to consider themselves
appointed the guardians of mankind: they are placed in an evil world, to exhibit public examples of good life, and may be said, when they withdraw to solitude, to desert the station which Providence assigned them.
Yet, while every major writer of the period addresses solitude in this vein, whether in a poem, essay, or treatise, Havens rightly notes the less than rigorous neoclassicists' identification of solitude with retirement, a solitude consisting of "no more than a quiet life in the country with a few friends and books."
Here the model is ancient Rome, where the favorite poets of the era (Horace and Virgil) echo the neoclassicists' desire for a lost Golden Age, an era of prosperity, quiet, aristocraic ascendency, and the absence of pressing duty. In fact, aristocrats of the 18th century often retired a while to their country homes, where difficult road conditions hampered communication but offered a respite from business, politics, and social obligations. Havens identifies their logical weakness: the scathing criticisms of monkish solitude, sloth, and idleness was in fact a defense against their own predilection to country retirements and avoidance of social duty.
Their craving for solitude, as far as they were sincere and not merely day dreaming, arose principally from timidity, idleness, and sloth. In their fear of life they glorified moderation until it meant the castration of all dynamics of action.
The author finds several poems -- Joseph Warton's "The Enthusiast," John Ogilvie's "Solitude," and James Grainger's "Solitude" -- that reveal some of this inconsistency, where art and aristocratic fineries substitute for nature and reality. Yet the breached sympathy with solitude, portrayed as a maiden within the recesses of a natural setting, has the air of "day dreaming, of escape from routine into a never never land of idealized nature" that is far from the insight of French writers like Rousseau, and does not even presage the atmosphere of the romantic genre.
On the continent, Rousseau was a firm advocate of solitude and seclusion. Almost as popular in Germany and in France and England due to translations was J. G. Zimmermann. Zimmermann counseled against total seclusion but championed the creative and aesthetic uses of short periods of solitude.
Rousseau's strong influence may have eventually eroded the British moralisms against solitude. They grudgingly moved to a reluctant coexistence with nature compatible with their rationalism. As Haven pointedly states:
For centuries solitude has been important to man: the need of it or the fear of it; but no modern period has talked more about it or contributed less to the understanding of it than the so-called "Age of Reason."
The rationalists were reticent to express their feelings -- if not incapable of doing so. Dryden, Johnson, and Fielding, argues Havens, did perceive what Whitman, Pound, Joyce, and Gide also saw but did not care or dare to write of it.
The neoclassicists were in dread of solitude as loneliness. Throughout their writings they celebrate society and conviviality. If they retreat to the country their hearts remain in town. Not unexpectedly, no trace of religiosity is to be found in their writings. But no trace of feeling for country or rural vistas genuinely attracts them, either, still less suggests a philosophical frame of mind like that of the future Thoreau, what Havens calls perception of the "ministry" of solitude and short reflective retreats. The rationalists do not perceive the deeper context of solitude nor the aloneness of human beings, the product of deeper introspection.
Not until the 19th century does this process of introspection, prompted by romanticism, come to pass among British literati. As Havens concludes:
"I love all waste and solitary places," said Shelley, and we, like him, have turned to such places, finding beauty and delight in the ocean, its barren, sandy shores, the desert and the mountains, from which in the main the eighteenth-century shrank.