Insights 2011: Questioning the stigma of poetic solitude

10 November 2011

Professor Barry Spurr will discuss the poetry of solitude and loneliness, which he believes has become stigmatised and rare in modern society.
Professor Barry Spurr will discuss the poetry of solitude and loneliness, which he believes has become stigmatised and rare in modern society.

...that inward eye
That is the bliss of solitude.

William Wordsworth

Barry Spurr, the University of Sydney's Professor of Poetry and Poetics, will discuss the poetry of solitude and loneliness at an Insights lecture inaugurating his chair on 10 November.

Professor Spurr, from the Department of English, believes that spending time alone, cut off from any social contact, has become both rare and stigmatised in modern society.

"Western society's current distrust of solitude borders on the pathological, but poets give us a more nuanced image of it - both its terrors and its possibilities. For poets, writing in English through the centuries, solitude is one of the great themes, an experience to be confronted, interrogated and, sometimes, celebrated.

"For the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, in his lyric I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, the joy of solitude is celebrated in terms of remembered communion with nature.

"For a different take on solitude, there is Emily Dickinson, also writing in the 19th century, who regularly wrote about it in terms of separation from love and community. In her poem, I had been hungry all the years, she describes this isolation in gastronomic terms, but she recognises that being solitary has become an intrinsic part of her nature and she embraces it:

The plenty hurt me, 't was so new,-
Myself felt ill and odd...
...Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside widows,
The entering takes away.

The 20th-century poet Phillip Larkin observes in his poem Wants, that beyond all of the demands of social and sexual life, there is the 'wish to be alone':

However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flag-staff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

"This certainly challenges contemporary ideas that being alone is one of the worst fates that can befall a human being."

There is an abundance of poetry dealing with solitude and it expresses poets' own lives, their ideological convictions and their historical contexts, says Professor Spurr.

"I have spent many years researching TS Eliot and, for him, 'the still point of the turning world', when one is communing with oneself and the divine, is a moment, however fleeting, of superlative insight into the meaning of human existence. He argues that human beings should always be receptive to such epiphanies.

"This is a rich field of enquiry, touching on several essential aspects of the way human beings have lived in the past and are living in the present, as mediated in the most powerful and moving form of language-use, the poem."

Barry Spurr was appointed to the University of Sydney's Department of English in 1976. He has concentrated his teaching, research and extensive publication on poetry, and is a leading authority on the life and work of TS Eliot.

Professor Spurr was made a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators in 2007 and, in 2011, he was appointed to Australia's first professorial chair in poetry and poetics. He is currently engaged in interdisciplinary research for the University's newly established Human Animal Research Network and for the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence project for the History of the Emotions.

To read the introduction by the Hon. Michael Kirby please click here

Please note that this lecture is fully booked.

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Contact: Verity Leatherdale

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