On Being Sullen

Having been told that I often seem sullen, I decided to look up the word and find out a little more about it. It’s a derivative of the Latin solus, as are English words like “solitary,” “solitude,” “solo” and “sole.”

Sullen doesn’t always just mean morose, though that is the sense in which we most often use it these days; and I am pretty certain that was the sense in which the word was directed at me. It’s associated with mourning — “sullen black,” in the words of a remorseful Bolingbroke at the end of Richard II, just after he announces the gloomy fate of Exton: “With Cain go wander through shades of night,/ And never show thy head by day nor light.” The sullen mood takes us well to the east of sunlit Eden, and seems often to arise from a sense of having been wronged, or at least a sense that things have gone terribly wrong.

So in some twentieth-century English translations of the Book of Kings, Ahab retires in chapter 21 to his palace in Samaria and, “sullen and angry,” takes to his bed and refuses to eat: Ahab had tried to negotiate a land swap, but “Naboth the Jezreelite had said, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.’” (Ahab’s wife Jezebel will soon fix that.)

Wycliffe makes Ahab dyspeptic (“having indignation, and gnashing on the word which Naboth of Jezreel had spoken to him”), but if we are not going with “sullen” we should prefer the King James rendering of the Hebrew adjective (sr or sar) here as “heavy,” and remember that “sullen” can connote heaviness. The sullen person carries a weight, or is likely to sink or feel weighed down, like the bride in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. “The sullen passage of thy weary steps” is the apt phrase. (That’s Richard II again.) He or she can be obstinate, stubborn and unyielding as well. So can sullen animals. Daniel Defoe writes of a bull that is “sullen, untractable [sic], and outrageous,” and in the 17th century we find a horse described as “sullen” and in need of the spur.

But the story about “sullen” that interests me most begins in the 14th century. That’s when we first find “sullen” applied to those who deliberately keep to themselves – “a soleyn by hymself” (as a line in Piers Plowman has it) — because they are averse to society or disinclined to be social. This sullen character is a melancholic, the predecessor of the early modern misanthrope — and maybe a remote ancestor of Henry David Thoreau or a great-great-great uncle of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. I’m not going to try to put the whole family tree together here, but I think it’s fascinating to consider the emergence of this solitary figure and follow his adventures in the modern period.

It’s also worth noting that here we have the most radical use of the word “sullen,” in the sense that it connects us with the word’s roots in the condition of solitude or going solo.

This sullen one separates himself from the madding crowd, or withdraws far into himself. Even in a crowd, he can sink into his sulk. Of course, deliberately keeping to oneself and withdrawing into solitude can carry a cost. The 19th century critic George Bancroft wrote disapprovingly of Byron and other romantic poets who through “sullen misanthropy” had divorced themselves from “the haunts of man” and squandered their gifts; and in another post I’ve written about the pain that Zarathustra feels as he takes leave of his friends and returns to his mountain haunt at the behest of his mistress, The Stillest Hour. The recognition that a sullen disposition can be painful or damaging is hardly unique to the 19th century: even in the medieval poem Richard the Redeless we find logic splitters that are “so soleyne and sad of her wittis” that they can’t reach conclusions.

Sullen withdrawal and the solitude it can bring is not, however, just a way of absenting oneself, and it’s not always confounding. Maybe that’s obvious, but how often do we appreciate the illuminations that gloom can bring? A sullen turn of mind is a special kind of about-face, away from sociability and cheery outward show — to face oneself. The sullen figure (at least the one who interests me most) takes his solitary way, not just out of Eden or the haunts of men, but into himself and into the human interior.

To be sullen in this sense is not just to play solo, but to play with solitude itself. So Dr. Johnson thought the epithet “sullen” could not be applied to the trumpet, but he never heard Chet Baker. Ingmar Bergman writes in his autobiography that as a child he was “considered sullen and too sensitive”; but in his mature years, as Dorthe Nors notes in a recent essay, he became a master of disciplined solitude. “In my solitude,” Bergman writes, “I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity” — and for Nors that excess, that overflowing of humanity, is the wellspring of artistic creativity. It is not just self-imposed exile, but an encounter.

5 thoughts on “On Being Sullen

  1. PK Read

    Thank you for this post, Louis. I always liked the word sullen because it sounds like what it is, a heavy first syllable step into a quiet space of a barely there second syllable. Saying it makes one look sullen, as well. It is a complete word.


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