One drear November day, in the English Faculty Library with laptop open before me and screen perpetually blank, books piled to either side waiting to be opened, I stood up and wandered over to the shelves – for each (wo)man procrastinates the thing (s)he loves. It was in so doing that I came across what has become one of the most important poems to me, matched only by T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets and Emily Brontë’s collected works; the text, Vita Sackville-West’s 1938 book-length poem, Solitude. Amounting to 56 pages of iambic pentameter, the poem is as soothing as it is poignant, as beautiful as it is understated, and its overriding sense, although obscured in its ambiguous ending, is of light in a darkening world.
“Now to my little death the pestering clock / Beckons, – but who would sleep when he might wake?” begins Sackville-West’s gentle yet penetrating exploration of what it means to be in oneself, by oneself. Her use of the adverb “[n]ow” draws the reader immediately into the poem’s distinct time, which characterises it as much as it serves as its background; a night that untangles as a thread across the pages, as, in darkness, she succeeds in finding her “private, personal shape”. As the night goes on, so the poem tunnels deeper into the self, “the alien language of the day forgotten / That we as foreigners were forced to learn”. Sackville-West presents the self as a native of the night, inhabiting the days only awkwardly, an interloper barely managing to maintain its disguise. With the coming of the night her “little self to nothingness/ Dwindles”. As the trappings of society slip away, the self finds its truest expression and seems to flow across the page. The “alien language” becomes gender, as Sackville West; the ever-shifting subject of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending biography Orlando; emerges “unvexed, unsexed, and unperplexed”. Thus, for Sackville-West, the solitude of the night becomes radical and liberating; “[o]nly with nightfall could I stand apart / And view the shaping pattern of my way”.
Sackville-West’s poetry is spellbinding, and its power in the poem’s beginning lies in how it enacts the very healing it describes, for, in reading, the reader, like Sackville-West’s speaker, is most likely alone. After a day spent fraught with socialising “[s]hreds of [the reader’s] self, that others took and wove / Into themselves, till [the reader] had ceased to be”, are returned. The redress of reading is enacted as it is relayed on the page, and the “daily scars” Sackville-West speaks of, the scars we all know; feelings of being over socialised, overworked, and anxious; slip gently away between the lines of verse.
This is not to say that the poem is purely one of pain absolved and questions answered. Often will Sackville-West lament how she is “forced [-] to live, feel, suffer”, often will she acknowledge the very necessity of pain, “since pain holds beauty in a fiery ring”, and often will she question God, “[w]hy, why and endless why again”. Indeed, faith in the poem sits as an uneasy thing, as Sackville-West declares herself “Christian in all but name” (italics my own), and demands of God answers to the eternal unknowns – why there should be evil, why we should suffer so. The poem does not follow the trajectory one might expect of it. It is as we go on, as the Solitude deepens and so our sense of herself, that uncertainties present themselves and despair rears its head, rather than that they are resolved. By the end of the poem the opening lines are turned on their head; “but who would wake when he might sleep?”, she asks. The reader must ask, has she given up, or has she simply and finally succumbed to sleep, that “little death” so scorned at the poem’s beginning? Is this a journey to be traversed night upon night as she fights the pull of sleep over and over and the end of each day to come, or is this her journey’s end, her final Odyssey into herself, and then into nothing at all?
At the time of the poem’s publication war loomed as a heavy gnarled cloud over the continent, closing in, threatening with each day to shut out more, then all, light, and the reader might be forgiven for “choos[ing] night not day for his eternal round”, to “sleep in forgetfulness” rather than face the horrors to come. Yet the poem ends on a question, as if whether to give up or not remains a choice on the part of the reader. The earlier part of the poem sees Sackville-West, in being by herself, humbling herself, declaring; “When I must die, I’ll drop as the leaf, / Raising no piteous yelp of desolation, / No tardy plea of unrehearsed belief”. Is this a noble relinquishing of human vanity, of the very stubbornness that breeds war, or is this simply Sackville-West giving in? Is this a faithful act or a faithless one? The poem itself is never sure, and neither, I imagine, was Vita. But for all this uncertainty, and for the poem’s uneasy trajectory, the beauty, the urgency of the verse shines through; shines, not violently, but passionately; and we are, in the pleasure of reading, “Happy for once, illusion though it be. / Hoping for sunlight on the other side”.
Thus, Sackville-West’s poem, which seems at first a case of gentle redress, but develops into something more challenging and more profound, finds a light in the darkness of the solitary night; hope, if obscure, of “sunlight to come”. It is the tale of every soul that wanders the earth, often overwhelmed, often alien even to itself. In these words, both the uplifting and the uncertain, the solitary self emerges to the reader once more, steps forward and truly sees the world, for all its beauty and pain:
“The night I love is Death, shared mystery.
Only in this deep darkness can I see
Luminous gleamings of a wider porch.”