The opening words of Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem, breathing in as a barely felt but well-needed touch in a quiet moment, are “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden.” In English, we know that line from Matthew 5:4 as “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” Those who need solace shall have it.
Pearl Andelson, in 1921, wrote a short poem called “Solace”:
Knock at my pane
With your finger-tips,
I do take solace in the sounds of drops on a window when I am within, whether in mourning or just at night. Solace is the tapping rain that knocks at our pain; it is a sound like the word solace itself, starting and ending with soft “s” and caressing lightly in the middle with light “l.”
Solace, most often for us now, refers to comfort in a time of loss. If it is not the loss of a loved one, it is at least the loss of money or status or a sports championship: “Leafs fans can take solace in the fact that…” But solace is always available for those who are not soulless. And we can find at least a quantum of solace in many things, some quiet, some loud, some peaceful, some violent, some ascetic, some hedonistic.
We may believe that solace is solitary: perhaps some noble aloneness, perhaps even solipsism, that existential solecism that takes solace in a schism with existence. But solace is not solitude, it is consolation. It may be taken in the company of others, whether loved for a lifetime or for a moment:
Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning:
let us solace ourselves with loves.
That’s Proverbs 7:18, though the author does not approve of the sentiment. Some find others too free; one person’s solace is another insult or insolite. John Barbour’s 1375 poem The Bruce declares,
Fredome all solace to man giffis:
He levys at es that frely levys.
which translates to
Freedom all solace to man gives:
He lives at ease that freely lives.
But, as Laurie Anderson sings, “Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it.” A bit of chosen restriction can be comforting, or why else would anyone write poetry instead of prose? William Wordsworth knew in 1807:
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
Why else would I take pictures with film instead of digital? Why submit myself to the arbitrary rules of Scrabble when I could just weave worlds of words at will?
Do board games or role-playing games or wanton frivolities seem too ludicrous, too mundane or inane, to give solace? Does solace seem best suited by soul-elevating scenes and literature, such things as sell pretty posters? Take comfort in the fact that you can also take comfort in the fatuous. Never doubt that we may find solace in the silly.
Look, I will show you. This word solace, this single sun that is both the highest and lowest card in the deck – sol ace – and that will so lace itself into our hearts as to bind us to others or pull us from them, comes from Latin solatium, which derives from solari, ‘comfort, console, soothe, ease’. Solari is unrelated to solus ‘one, alone, only’; it traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root, conjectured as *sōlh₂, that also grew into a Germanic root that became modern German selig, ‘blessed’ – as in “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,” the opening of Brahms’s requiem. The same root also became Old English sælig ‘happy, blessed’, which, through a diverting course of semantic evolution, became modern English silly.
So let us also be silly, as it gives us solace and blessing.