J.A. Froude on the Coming of Modernity

James Anthony Froude (1818–1894) was an English historian whose work has been somewhat neglected in our time.  This excerpt demonstrates his power as a writer and his respect for past ages – something rather rare in the Victorian era:

A change was coming upon the world, the meaning and direction of which even still is hidden from us, a change from era to era. The paths trodden by the footsteps of ages were broken up; old things were passing away, and the faith and the life of ten centuries were dissolving like a dream. Chivalry was dying; the abbey and the castle were soon to crumble into ruins; and all the forms, desires, beliefs, convictions of the old world were passing way, never to return. A new continent had risen up beyond the western sea. The floor of heaven, inlaid with stars, had sunk back into an infinite abyss of immeasurable space; and the firm earth itself unfixed from its foundations, was seen to be but a small atom in the awful vastness of the universe. In the fabric of habit in which they had so laboriously built for themselves, mankind were to remain no longer.

“And now it all gone – like an unsubstantial pageant faded; and between us and the old English there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge. They cannot come to us, and our imagination can but feebly penetrate to them. Only among the aisles of the cathedral, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive; and perhaps in the sound of church bells, that peculiar creation of medieval age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world.”

SOURCE: J.A. Froude, History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 12 volumes (revised edition, 1893).

Bunyips and the World of Cryptozoology

The great thing about life is that you can discover something new every day.  Today I discovered cryptids.  Rather, I should say that I discovered the word, not what it signifies. For what it signifies is certain strange animals – Bigfoot, the Yowie, the Bunyip – and these are by no means new. Everyone has heard of them. As you might have guessed, there is now a special discipline called cryptozoology (there may be a uni degree to be had here, I must check it out) and lots of people with time on their hands but not much on their minds call themselves cryptozoologists. The main habitat of the cryptozoologists seems to be the world- wide web.

Cryptids are a species of strange natural phenomena awaiting full scientific description and the whole delicious experience for the cryptozoologists and students of the paranormal is in putting forward theories of explanation. In fact, a good working description of a cryptid would be of an animal that is often seen but never captured or quantified in any way.  Alternatively, you could think of cryptids in Aristotelian terms as ‘potentiality without actuality’ or, as the Schoolmen might put it, materia signata non quantitate.

The cryptids, of course, are not a modern phenomenon.  They have been around for millennia.  If you want a good account of early cryptifauna (if I may drop a neologism here) then you cannot go past Aelian’s On the Characteristics of Animals.  He wrote his treatise circa 200 AD and, in addition to straightforward descriptions of quite ordinary animals, there are some very interesting cryptids.  In fact, Aelian was a sort of forerunner to Ripley’s Believe it or Not and his book is a marvellous read. He has a very good account of fly fishing by the way and it appears that, in this sport, nothing much has changed over the last two thousand years.

Of all the ancient cryptifauna, my personal favourite is the halcyon bird.  In fact this bird, mentioned by both Pliny and Aelian, is a small kingfisher.  What makes the ancient halcyon something of a cryptid though is the early description of its nesting habits.  The bird was reputed to nest on the ocean during a period of calm weather around the winter solstice.  Here is Pliny’s description:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called ‘the kingfisher days’, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily.  They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it.  Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed …  They lay five eggs.

What is intriguing is Pliny’s very full description of the nest.  It has an authentic ring about it.  Our Sacred Kingfisher used to be called Halcyon sancta after the fabled bird mentioned by Pliny and Aelian, but the taxonomists changed it some years ago.  The account of the nesting habits has given us the term ‘halcyon days’ as describing calm and settled times. The origin of halcyon is in Greek mythology. Alcyone [Halcyon] was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, [See –ix] drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she too drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “halcyon days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs.  Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.  This is why both species of bird were commonly supposed to fly together. In Australia, our Azure Kingfisher used to be called Ceyx azurea but I think the taxonomists changed that too. You cannot really blame them though.  If they did not keep changing species names they would be out of a job. Anyway, it’s a pity we no longer have Halcyon because the link to mythology is lost. There were other connections too.  For instance, the original Greek account of the bird led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.

But do not be fooled into thinking that belief in cryptids has waned since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.  On the contrary, it is flourishing as never before.  It seems that as the ability of modern science to ‘explain’ the natural world around us increases, so too does our need for the inexplicable.  To put it another way, a world in which everything is ‘explained’ and familiarised becomes very boring, and people cast about for an experience of ‘strangeness’.

The other thing to notice about modern belief in this sort of stuff is the seemingly inverse relationship between education and credulity.  That is to say, as universal education has become a reality and university degrees for all is just around the corner, irrational beliefs seem to flourish as never before.  Think of witchcraft, for instance.  Recent television shows like Bewitched, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch were hugely popular and I’m told that covens are springing up all over the place.  Then there are the old comic book heroes – Batman, Superman, etc. – now turning up in serious movies for adults.

I suspect that if you studied the matter closely, you would find that nearly every country has its own endemic cryptifauna.  North America has Bigfoot.  In the Himalayas they have the Yeti. Australia is particularly well endowed because in addition to the yowie and the bunyip, we have the black panther, sometimes simply referred to as the ‘giant cat’. Again, there remains the last lingering hope for rediscovery of the thylacine in Tasmania and this animal has actually taken on the status of a cryptid.  Recent discussion of the possibility of ‘reconstituting’ the animal (so to speak) via genetic engineering technology only serves to add to interest in the beast.

Without question, the black panther or giant cat is now the most keenly discussed cryptid in Australia.  The poor old bunyip is only a memory, kept alive by a few ‘older Australians’ (there are no elderly folk these days) of the sort that wear peaked caps, sit on park benches, and menace passers-by with their walking sticks and other prosthetic devices.  The demise of the bunyip is particularly sad, made all the more so by the fact that its heritage is a very ancient one.  The Aborigines knew the bunyip long before Europeans came.  For a time after European settlement, the animal was an important part of our folk history.   John Shaw Nielson has a beautiful little reference to the Bunyip in the final stanza of The Sundowner:

Mid the dry leaves and silvery bark

Often at nightfall he will park

Close to a homeless creek, and hear

The Bunyip paddling in the dark.

 

I read somewhere that the boffins have recently decided that the bunyip of Aboriginal legend is merely the common seal which sometimes makes its way far inland along the waterways.  I’m not sure that I would trust this explanation.  Think what would happen if the platypus had remained undiscovered until just yesterday and you or I phoned up the boffins with a description of what we had seen. They would immediately send around a padded van with a couple of muscular gentleman to assist us to the nearest mental health facility.

 

But the Bunyip is a has-been. The cryptids of the moment are the giant cats. Of course, some of them have been around for a while too. The Tantanoola tiger, for instance, must be getting a bit grey around the chops now.  Perhaps he (or she) found a mate and brought up a family because these animals definitely seem to be on the increase. And not just down Tantanoola way.  The big cats are turning up all over the continent in increasing numbers.  I have even come across reports of giant cats with offspring in tow. The story of their origin is almost as well known as the Book of Genesis.  While there are some variant accounts, the main explanations lie with either the escape of a circus panther in the dim past, or of a straying Armed Forces mascot which fled its masters and ‘went bush’. The US Air Force (here during WW2) is commonly held responsible and, in this case, the animal in question is termed a cougar or mountain lion.

 

The way in which these animals operate is somewhat akin to the old ‘spontaneous generation’ theory. There is one important difference though. Our remote ancestors supposed that you needed the right conditions to generate say, mice – plenty of food and a nice pile of rubbish in the corner. With the giant cats though, the question of habitat suitability seems not to arise.  In my part of the world (north-central Victoria) for instance, the big cats show up in some pretty harsh bushland. It’s the type of country where even the lizards always carry a cut lunch and all the crows are just skin and bone. And yet, these very large felids, each requiring a kilo or more of good tucker daily, can live and breed quite happily.  What is even more remarkable, they can do so without leaving any hard evidence behind except the odd, indistinct footprint.

 

And so, typically, there is a single sighting reported in the local paper, followed in the matter of days by a whole rash of such events.  Sometimes, photos of indistinct footprints accompany the news items.  Invariably, the cats turn up when other news is scarce.  I can speak with some authority here because, as a former government zoologist, I was often approached by reporters and ‘cryptozoologists’ in search of a ‘scientific comment’.  Sadly, my comments rarely impressed and the enquirers moved on to that much more reliable and reasonable commentator, Mr A. Spokesman.

 

When we move away from the animal kingdom to the much more general area of ‘paranormal happenings’ the situation is somewhat more complex.  In Australia, at any rate, paranormal events seem to be on the wane.  It is decades since I’ve read of a flying saucer abduction or of crop circles.  However, judging by the volume of overseas material on the net, I’d say that paranormal happenings are in quite a healthy state in many countries.  Sadly, one of the victims of the situation in Australia is the Min Min Light(s).  You rarely hear of it these days, even though its credentials are far better than those of the Panthers.  To make matters worse, the boffins now think they have explained the phenomenon and this will mean that another venerable Australian legend, dating back to pre-European settlement, will become a mere fact and lose all its intrigue.  The people up Boulia way in central Queensland will be hit the hardest. Not long ago, they set up a ‘multimedia experience’, the Min Min Encounter, at considerable expense.

Apparently, it’s all down to refraction of light (vehicle headlights usually) from layers of air at different temperatures. ‘A cold, dense layer of air next to the ground carries light far over the horizon to a distant observer without the usual dissipation and radiation, to produce a vivid mirage that baffles and enchants because of its unfamiliar optical properties’. According to Pettigrew, who has reproduced the phenomenon using car headlights and observers at some distance, the unusual terrain of the Channel Country ‘makes the favourable atmospheric conditions more likely, while its isolation increase the impact of a single light source since the observer knows that it cannot be produced locally but sees it apparently there in front’.

I have to say that, as a result of this, I have lost interest in the Min Min Lights. Nothing so quickly reduces us to boredom than the recapitulation of solved mysteries.  Take the moon, for instance. There was a time when the very sight of it moved us in the most extraordinary ways – it was something at the same time totally familiar yet totally alien, totally beyond knowledge.  Nowadays, such a sight is likely to bring to the inward eye the vision of space junk strewn across some stony plain.  One expects to see empty Coke bottles and McDonald’s wrappers.

I used to enjoy listening to old timers recount their own experiences of the Min Min Lights and offer their own explanation (I know people from the outback who had seen it).  The explanation I liked most had the phenomenon down to owls!  This has been investigated to some extent, and it’s not as silly as you might think. Many years ago an article on this subject appeared in a journal called Australian Raptor Studies. Apparently, there have been many overseas reports – how reliable I know not – of luminosity in Barn Owls, the cause of which is unknown.  A common theory is that the owls roost in tree hollows where luminous bacteria or fungi grow. The birds are (supposedly) accidentally contaminated with this material and hence ‘glow’ at night.  There are those old timers who swear that the birds light themselves up deliberately to attract insects.  It’s a nice theory, but I’m afraid that Professor Pettigrew has blown it apart.  Or has he?  If it’s all down to the refraction of man-made lights (as he supposes) how come the sightings date back to well before the time of the motor car and the electric light?  It’s difficult to believe that firesticks, kero lamps, or candles could produce light of a sufficient intensity.  Despite this, Pettigrew’s explanation seems to be pretty generally accepted.  I note that even Pravda ran the story, so it must be true.

I think that we have probably not heard the end of this matter, nor of flying saucers, crop circles, giant cats, and alien abductions. Which is probably just as well.  Try to imagine yourself as a media reporter faced with the task of producing interesting copy each day!  In times of peace, economic prosperity, and relative social calm, what do you write about!  There comes a time when even the leadership blues in the Labour/Liberal Party die down for a period and the younger Royals take a break from their scandal-making activities. There are times when even pop stars behave like rational human beings.  It’s then that the cryptids come in handy. Everything under Heaven has its purpose.

If You Seek Their Monument….

Remembering the dead is one of the central attributes of what we call ‘Tradition’.  Indeed, as Chesterton tells us, tradition implies that sort of democracy in which the dead are given a vote.  Remembrance of the dead is a feature of nearly every human society but, historically, it has taken on special significance in the west where belief in the immortality of the individual soul gave it a distinct prominence. Commemoration of the saints, for instance, continues in some Christian traditions to this day, by way of feast days. But, for the great bulk of past humanity in the Christian West, the chief aid to remembrance has been the funerary monument or inscription.

‘In lapidary inscriptions’ said Dr Johnston, ‘no man is under oath’. This is a wise reflection, for few of us wish to speak ill of the dead. I have yet to come across a tombstone whose inscription reads ‘here lays the remains of an evil man’ or something similar.  One of the most famous lapidary inscriptions is that incised upon the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London – Si monumentum requiris circumspice.  This translates as ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’. It is, of course, a very fitting inscription because Sir Christopher Wren designed the Cathedral. It is this idea of kindling a remembrance of some person(s) via general surroundings which I find particularly moving. And no more so than when the surroundings are natural, not human-made.

Landscape as monument

We naturally think of a monument as a work of human hands: a statue, an inscribed tombstone, a public facility such as a sports oval, etc., but perhaps the greatest monuments to those who have gone before us are not to be found in ‘storied urn or animated bust’, as Gray’s Elegy has it, but in nature itself. Here, I am not thinking of large geographic areas, but rather of smaller features of landscape. Naming countries, provinces, or the sites of cities or townships after deceased persons is no guarantee that their memory will be honoured.  Few Victorians wake up each day and think of Queen Victoria and few Sydneysiders pay their respects to Viscount Sydney.  But when we come down to much more specific natural features, the association with past humans is much more obvious and impresses itself upon us to a far greater degree.  Anzac Cove is an obvious example but, of course, it is a monument to many thousands of dead soldiers, not just one person or one family.

It is in these natural sites that the association between the person(s) and the landscape is most intensely felt.  Think, for instance of Dr Johnston’s famous remark upon Iona – the ‘Isle of Columba’: ‘That man is little to be envied … whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona’.  Or, to take an even more impressive example, think of that rugged rock, rising sheer from the wild Atlantic off the Irish coast which is known as Skellig Michael – Michael’s Rock.  Here, the very inhospitality of the surroundings – the jagged rocks, the lashing seas, the furious winds and screaming seabirds – evoke the ideal of the Christian monastic lifestyle and lead us directly to the contemplation of the lives of the early monks and of what it means to believe that famous Gospel passage – ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’. A visit to Skellig Michael may not remind us specifically of St. Michael, but it will certainly remind us of those who dedicated the island to him and lived their austere lives in pursuit of an ideal.

But in all the examples I have given above, none has any guarantee of permanency. Just as the Soviets changed St Petersburg into Leningrad (now reversed, thankfully), some future human society, wholly antagonistic to Christianity, may call Skellig Michael something else altogether. And, as Shelley’s Ozymandias attests, even the greatest of human-made monuments finally decay and are forgotten.  Those that have managed to survive from remotest antiquity more often remind us of human folly rather than of human virtue.  Again, it is Dr. Johnston who strikes exactly the right note when he considers the Pyramids to be ‘a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyment’.

I can think of only one ‘natural’ monument to the dead which is permanent (inasmuch as anything in this world can be) and it is a most unusual monument indeed.  And it will require some introduction.

If you travel the back country roads in almost any part of southern Australia you will invariably come across ruined or abandoned homesteads.  As the nature of agriculture and pastoralism has changed, along with the nature of the markets for primary produce, the amount of land needed to support a farm family has increased markedly. As a result, much amalgamation has occurred, one family now farming an area that may have once supported four or five such families. Concurrent with this has been an increasing trend for present-day farming families to reside in larger country towns, commuting out to the farm each day. This, in part, explains the presence of so many abandoned homesteads.

Those of the more recent past or those built of brick or stone may still be recognisable as dwellings but the site of many earlier homesteads, constructed predominantly from wood, can now only be discerned by a pile of chimney stones or a few scattered bricks.  Indeed, on some sites, even these have gradually been covered by soil or vegetation.  But, in nearly all cases, one legacy from the past always remains.  I am referring to certain hardy and perennial garden plants such as daffodils, jonquils, and lilies, still growing on old garden sites.

An everlasting monument

Each year, in spring, the site of thousands of otherwise unrecognisable homestead sites once again become visible to human eyes, marked out by clusters of flowers.  Indeed, on some sites the vegetative markers are always visible – the leafy extravagance of the agapanthus.  I know of some sites where this annual process of renewal has continued for at least 150 years. Old men have told me that their fathers knew these sites as ruins when they were boys.  The flower testimony, if we may call it that, has survived livestock grazing and the grazing of rabbits and kangaroos, droughts, fires, locust plagues and every conceivable adversity.

We think immediately, when we see such a sight, of some pioneering housewife, now utterly forgotten in the annals of history.  Those flower bulbs or tubers, transported by dray or wagon from distant parts, were a link – perhaps the only enduring link – with a wider civilisation.  They were a tangible reminder, in the midst of the lonely Australian bush, of what the term ‘culture’ meant to a non-Aboriginal Australian.  They evoked memories of loved ones, of childhood, or of distant lands.  They were a statement, too, of the fact that the beauty of nature could be further magnified by human hands.

For us, though, the sight of these flowers evokes other emotions. It is unfashionable now to praise the early pioneers because of some assumed connection between their coming and the demise of the Aborigines.  But, of course, most of these small farmers came after the squatting era and at a time when the Aborigines were already in decline.  And these early settler families, perhaps just as much as those Aboriginal families who had roamed the land before them, are now utterly forgotten, their lives, their labours, and their names unknown.  Perhaps some mouldering tombstone at the local cemetery may record their life and death, but the connection to a particular home site has now been lost.  All that we have, to remind us of the ‘unknown settler’ are those nodding daffodils in spring or the unexpected splash of green leaves as the agapanthus defies the drought-stricken landscape around it.  The sight may cause us to recall those sentiments expressed in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village or in Gray’s Elegy.

These abandoned sites will not be recorded by the National Trust or any other heritage organisation. Those ageing locals who may have had some knowledge concerning earlier homestead sites are now disappearing one by one and their knowledge dies with them. A few sites may be recorded in local histories but many reach back beyond the available historical resources.

But amidst all these sad reflections on the brevity of human life, the flowers remind us of something far more uplifting.  There is an incurable optimism in the human condition and it is echoed in the annual extravagance of the daffodil and jonquil and lily. ‘Full many a flower’, the poet tells us ‘is born to waste its sweetness on the desert air’. But it is not wasted, even if no human eyes are there to experience it.  From the time of Plato and perhaps earlier our tradition has held that Beauty has an existence outside of the human mind.  The pioneering housewife, tending her little garden in the vastness of the Australian bush, may not have recognised this explicitly, but it is implicit in her actions.  That sentiment, however vague in her mind, finds its realisation each spring in a thousand lonely bush paddocks. Each year, the initial actions of that long dead housewife and mother, in planting and tending her flowers, is commemorated by the plants themselves. In the case of the agapanthus, it is especially fitting that its name derives from the Greek and the literal meaning is ‘love-flower’.

And when the last vestiges of that colossal statue of Ozymandias dissolve forever into the desert sands, those homestead flowers will still produce their seasonal testament.

The Rise and Fall of the Garden Hermit

Johann Baptist Theobald Schmitt: Eremit in Flotbeck.

I first came across the idea of the ornamental or garden hermit in one of Peter Simple’s columns in the Daily Telegraph. Peter Simple was the alias of Michael Wharton and his column, which ran for many decades, was a hugely popular satirical site with a list of characters notable both for their evocative names and their particular social and political pathologies. There was a literary critic called Julian Birdbath, a motoring enthusiast called J. Bonington Jagworth, an orchestra conductor called Sir Jim Gastropodi (who discovered several new Mahler symphonies including The Insufferable and The Interminable), and a psychoanalyst called Dr Heinz Kiosk. Amongst this marvellous cast of characters was one R.S. Viswaswami, a naked Indian hermit or sadhu employed by the Stretchford Council to inhabit its hermitage on an island in Stretchford Park Lake.

I had always assumed that the ornamental hermit was simply a product of Wharton’s immensely fertile imagination.  It is not so!  Recently, I was given a copy of Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics (Penguin Books, 1971) and there I found a marvellous essay entitled ‘Ancients and Ornamental Hermits’. Such hermits were, indeed, real, and Sitwell provides examples:

The Hon. Charles Hamilton, whose estate was at Pains’ Hall, near Cobham, Surrey, and who lived in the reign of King George II, was one of these admirers of singularity and silence and, having advertised for a hermit, he built a retreat for this ornamental but retiring person on a steep mound in his estate. …

According to Sitwell, the ‘position statement’ for the job was quite detailed and, to receive the promised remuneration of seven hundred pounds the successful applicant was required

… to continue in the hermitage seven years where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails …

It seems that the successful applicant only lasted three weeks! I wonder why?

In more recent times, there has been an authoritative account of garden hermits by Gordon Campbell entitled The Hermit in the Garden: from Imperial Rome to the Garden Gnome (OUP, 2013). Like me, Campbell’s imagination was fired after he read Edith Sitwell’s account, and so he set out to examine the phenomenon in more detail. There is such a thing as an over-exhaustive account and I have to say that Campbell’s book falls into this category. Nonetheless, it makes fascinating reading and the author is to be commended for his incredible literary detective work. The problem that Campbell has is paucity of well- documented cases contrasted with an abundance of anecdotal evidence. This forces him to consider a huge volume of peripheral information and the reader finds it difficult to keep up with a huge cast of characters – much like a Russian novel!

What clearly emerges, though, is the fact that the ornamental hermit was very much a product of the 18th C or, more precisely, the Georgian era.  There were earlier hermitages, both in England and on the Continent, but they were occupied by genuine hermits or, in some cases, were merely places of retreat for their rich owners. Only in the 18C, it seems, did some of the more wealthy and eccentric landowners consider the idea of hiring ‘fake’ hermits.

Of course, real hermits in the Western Tradition, and not the ornamental type, date back to the late Roman Empire. Amongst the earliest and most famous were the Desert Fathers and I direct the interested reader to a very famous and sympathetic account by Helen Waddell (The Desert Fathers, ).  But, the age of the true hermit came to an end with the Reformation although in the Catholic tradition, hermit-like monks continue to this day (e.g. Carthusians).

Many of the 18th C hermitages described by Campbell were either devoid of ‘hermits’ or were furnished merely with props – dummies dressed as hermits.  In some cases, automata were employed, with the dummy having limited movement via mechanical contrivances. As Campbell points out, this was the age of automata and he gives the quaint example of Jacques de Vaucanson’s defecating duck of 1739 (which was driven by a clockwork mechanism).  But even those hermitages devoid of real or dummy hermits were usually furnished with objects serving as memento mori – reminders of human mortality.  There might be a human skull on a table or even a ruined tomb in the hermitage yard. Often, the particular fit-out of the hermitage was such as to give the impression that the resident hermit had just stepped out to stretch his legs – an open book on the table, eating utensils, etc.

Campbell supposes that the whole phenomenon of the hermitage in this phase of English history was associated with a curious longing or enjoyment of melancholia. It was most certainly not a genuinely religious sentiment which moved rich landholders to construct their hermitages. The enjoyment of the melancholic state is difficult for us to understand but it has something to do with an intense longing for something (we know not what), where the very longing itself is a sort of pleasurable experience. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis gives this description of such longing:

…it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.

Perhaps the best example of attempts used to achieve such pensive sadness (and the one used by Campbell) is Milton’s poem, Il Penseroso.  Here are the last ten lines:

And may at last my weary age

Find out the peaceful hermitage,

The hairy gown and mossy cell,

Where I may sit and rightly spell

Of every star that Heav’n doth shew,

And every herb that sips the dew;

Till old experience do attain

To something like prophetic strain.

These pleasures, Melancholy, give,

And I with thee will choose to live.

But, of course, our estate owners wanted to induce such a feeling in a more tangible way and, along with their secluded hermitages, they often had miniature replicas of ruined temples, and moss-covered monuments.

The phenomenon of the ornamental hermit was relatively short lived.  Campbell suggests that growing abolitionist sentiment in England spilt over into other areas, and the idea of keeping someone (even if paid) for display purposes lost favour.  It was regarded as a sort of semi-slavery. Thereafter, the hermitages remained, but without their human occupants.  Eventually, the hermitage became little more than a garden feature – a species of the Folly, perhaps.

It is impossible to get a good understanding of the hermitage phenomenon without considering the whole landscape gardening scheme itself. This, after all, was the era of Capability Brown, of the Arcadian urge, and of an extraordinary interest in large-scale gardening. If you superimpose upon this, the philosophy of Rousseau, then you begin to get a glimmer of some sort of “back to nature” urge which prevailed in tandem with the quest for melancholia. Many of the hermitages were deliberately built in the rustic style and were called ‘root houses’.  They might consist wholly or partly of interwoven tree roots, bound together with wire and provided with doors and windows. Campbell suggests an allusion to an imagined ‘Adam’s House’ in Eden (after the Fall, one imagines the root house would have leaked badly, suffered from white rot, and attracted rats).

Today, we still see faint traces of the whole ‘garden hermit’ phenomenon in the garden gnome or similar figure. Why do people put concrete or pottery gnomes in their garden?  Perhaps it is an attempt to capture some sort of genius loci, the spirit of the place, and to invest the garden with some sort of quasi-spiritual dimension. The same might be said of concrete cherubs, angels and even impish figures. How often, too, do we see concrete or clay tablets bearing poems about being ‘close to God’ in a garden or similar?

But in the end, as it seems to me, the whole phenomenon of the garden hermitage and its attenuated modern alternatives, can be put down to a loss of the true spiritual dimension, not just in human nature, but in all nature. One can see, in the mad eccentricities of the Georgian landowners, a futile attempt to attain some sort of spiritual dimension in their lives.  As C.S. Lewis was to discover in his own life, the experience of melancholia that they sort, the longing for something, was a real quest with a real telos, or end.  But it was not the garden and the hermitage which they needed to tend and cultivate, but their own spiritual lives.  In the century after Georgian landholders had constructed their hermitages, Matthew Arnold correctly diagnosed their pathology:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

(Dover Beach)

And Arnold himself, no less that his Georgian forebears, felt the anguish. He correctly diagnosed its cause but could not accept the one thing that was able to assuage the longing.