T.S. Eliot and the Modern Condition

It is now almost one hundred years since T.S. Eliot began work on his most famous poem, The Waste Land. The completed poem was not published until 1922 after earlier revisions to the draft, many of them suggested by Ezra Pound.  Most critics agree that this poem was one of the most important poems of the twentieth century and I know of no poetic production of the last two decades to measure up to it.

Millions of words have been written about the poem and its setting. It has given rise to books, myriad scholarly essays and, no doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of PhD dissertations.  And yet today, the work is probably known to relatively few people (in comparison to say, 50 years ago).  Eliot is out of fashion, having been declared a misogynist, anti-Semitic, etc.  In fact, let’s be honest and admit that all Western literature is out of fashion.  If you need any proof, just consider the howls of indignation when Sydney University recently proposed a “Western Traditions” course.

Eliot was a modernist in poetic style – that is to say, he believed that it was no longer possible to produce poetry in the accustomed earlier styles because these could not reflect the realities of the present day. Europe had just been torn apart by the First War – a war of mechanised killing which claimed over 10 million lives on the Wester Front alone. Eliot was, by this time, living in London, and what he saw about him in the lives of ordinary citizens was hardly conducive to heroic or romantic poetry.  Indeed, one might say it was not conducive to any poetry. Eliot was a realist who wanted to depict nothing less than the whole of his civilisation as he saw it– its public places and its private lives. And so, most of his early poetry is bleak and forbidding. And yet there is another side to these early poems which redeems them, as it were. And it makes them hugely relevant to our own position today when the outlook is perhaps even bleaker than it was in Eliot’s day.

In the first place, Eliot was a poet of precision and power.  By this I mean that his knowledge and use of the English language was such that each word, each phrase or sentence, is honed to a razor edge. The language is made to carry an almost intolerable load of meaning.  When I read The Waste Land for the first time, it seemed to be just a jumble of words and images, thrown together in a haphazard way.  And yet, I found certain phrases sticking indelibly in the mind. Even the evocations of decay and hopelessness, everywhere evident in the poem, had a sort of stark beauty.  The poem seems to act on the unconscious mind  in a powerful way.  You cannot forget its images and its echoes. This is a mark of great poetry.

We should not suppose that the various images presented to us in The Waste Land “stand for” something other than themselves. His images are real and his meanings are direct.  When, for instance, we read the phrase “Unreal city” – an exclamation called out by the sight of crowds of people streaming across London Bridge and avoiding each other – Eliot means what he says.  London is indeed “unreal’ in that it has lost contact with some higher reality. Some months ago I reviewed a book which had the title “Freedom from Reality”. It concerned the self-destructive potential of the modern notion of freedom – a freedom solely occupied with the senses and, as such, crippling the traditional and proper notion of freedom as a liberation from the restrictions imposed by the senses.  This is precisely the metaphysical sense that Eliot uses.

And yet, it is dangerous to assume that the poem must have some hidden meaning which the reader needs to uncover.  As I have indicated above, the first-time reader is usually perplexed by the work and is moved to ask “What is it about? What is its meaning”? To which, the most appropriate answer might be; “the poem is only problematical if you persist in looking for a meaning. Why not just read it for the sounds and images contained”? And that is a perfectly proper thing to do with a poem. And yet we seem to be drawn irresistibly to the need for some underlying meaning to ‘explain’  the work. I have now watched many video lectures on the work, given by prominent Eliot scholars. Most of them make exactly the point I have made above – don’t look for some overarching explanation.  And then, of course, they spend the next hour or so doing just that!  We cannot help ourselves, and maybe that is part of the genius of the work.

That, then, will be my excuse for what follows below.

The poem may perhaps be explained by an analogy. Let us speculate that the worst had happened and the recent Notre Dame fire had indeed caused the great rose windows to fall into a thousand broken shards, so that the scenes they had depicted now lay broken and scattered.  What story do they present to us now?  Nothing but unconnected fragments laying about the ruins.  This is what Eliot conveys to us in his poem – the unconnected, twisted ruins of what was once called Christendom. And so the other point to make about the poem is simply this.  It might be a bleak and forbidding picture (or series of unconnected images) that is conveyed to us, but it is only made so by reference to some other and higher standard or aspiration.  That is to say, we only see the depth of the decay because we – and Eliot – have some intimation of a better and more proper mode of existence for a human life. In short, the Real.

And indeed, Eliot gives us hints of this higher mode of life right throughout the poem.  Those who know their English literature will pick up references to earlier and famous works in the Western Canon – works by Dante, Homer, St. Augustine, and so on. I am no literature academic, but I might just mention once such reference made by Eliot and show just how he uses it to depict the depth of our decay. 

In the third section of The Waste Land, the famous “Fire Sermon”, we get this opening description of the Thames in London:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

Here, in the repeated phrase, “Sweet Thames, run softly” Eliot is referencing a famous poem, Prothalamion, by Edmund Spenser (16C).  Spenser wrote the verse in honour of the double marriage of ‘Ladie Elizabeth and Ladie Katherine Somerset’. The setting for the poem is the Thames, and we get this beautiful description:

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. 

Each stanza of the poem ends with the refrain: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.

The contrast with the Thames of Eliot’s time could not be more stark and, of course, Eliot’s borrowing of the phrase “Sweet Thames run softly” is the last twist of the knife. He puts in the rubbish and pollution of the present world and takes it away again, leaving only the waste land of the title. Later in ‘The Fire Sermon’ we get these two lines:

The river sweats

Oil and tar.

Here, in just six words, is a powerful evocation of foul pollution. The word ‘sweats’, in particular, carries enormous weight.

But, for all this negativity, we need to remember that by naming this section of the poem “The Fire Sermon”, Eliot is referencing a sermon from the Pali Canon where the Buddha preaches liberation from suffering through detachment from the senses. There is, then, a spiritual agenda at work in Eliot’s poem, and in later poems from Eliot, it becomes more and more apparent. In fact, in his “Notes” accompanying the poem, he tells us that his reference to the Buddha and a later reference to St Augustine (“To Carthage then I came”) are connected: “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident”.

And now we get to the nub of the matter – the underlying drive or motivation which compels Eliot to write as he does.  He might begin as a modernist poet, but he most assuredly does not end as one – not, at least, in the common understanding of the term ‘modernist’.  Eliot did not repudiate the past but, rather, looked for ways in which he might properly live in his own age and attempt to come to terms with it. His was, at bottom, a spiritual quest:  how does one live spiritually in such an age? It is the question facing all of us. To the Bloomsbury crowd and to other secular intellectuals of his age, Eliot came to be seen as almost a traitor to their cause.  He had become, in their eyes, part of the Conservative establishment. But the truth is that Eliot was involved in a great spiritual crisis of his own.

It was not possible for Eliot to simply dismiss the “big questions” concerning life.  He had to face them squarely. He could not accept that life was essentially meaningless – a Darwinian struggle of sophisticated and self-assembled molecules – but neither was it easy for such a brilliant mind to submit blindly to Faith. But indecision was not an option. The consequences of indecision in this matter are starkly laid out for us in his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is a rather pathetic figure who desperately wants to be in the company of ladies but cannot summon the courage to make the first move.  At a deeper level the poem gnaws at all of us:

Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse

Many commentators on the life of Eliot will tell you that he “converted” to Anglo-Catholicism, perhaps implying an earlier atheism or agnosticism. This is not true because he was born into  a rather strict Unitarian family in the USA  and, as far as I am aware, never really abandoned belief in God. But, for him, the Unitarianism of his parents and their circle was too arid, too much of “this world” (too comfortable, perhaps), and seemed to lack a deep spiritual underpinning.  Meaningful ritual, the sacraments, and the general notion of withdrawal from the world of the senses were all of importance to Eliot and this drew him to Anglo-Catholicism – a ‘movement’ within Anglicanism rather than some separate religious entity.

What particularly concerned Eliot was the sense that we are creatures of time and, therefore, cannot escape its restrictions. Time is the necessary precondition for our salvation. And this brings us to the last and perhaps greatest of his poems, the Four Quartets.  Here at last, we see Eliot contemplating what he called “the Dance”, and how we might come to reflect upon it:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Here, at ‘the still point’, is the Holy Spirit, hovering over all things and imparting harmony to the cosmos. What then, as creatures of time, should be our response?

            … You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

The poem ends with an affirmation not just of hope, but of certainty, repeating a phrase from Julian of Norwich in the late 13th century:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

In his book Dove Descending, the well-known Eliot scholar, Professor Thomas Howard, says of the Four Quartets: “In my own view, this sequence of four poems represents the pinnacle of Eliot’s whole work. Four Quartets stands as Eliot’s valedictory to the modern world. I would place it, along with Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” and Mozart’s Requiem, as a major edifice in the history of the Christian West.”

For those readers unfamiliar with Eliot’s poetry, perhaps the best introduction is not by reading, but by listening.  True enough, Eliot arranges his verses for  visual effect as well as other kinds, but the sound of the poem is, perhaps, more important. And for first time readers, getting the sound of the poem can be difficult. My own introduction here was via the reading of Eliot’s major poems by Sir Alec Guinness.  Here, for the first time, the various ‘voices’ in The Waste Land came to life for me. I had earlier listened to part of Eliot’s own reading, but found it rather remote and uninteresting (this was a deliberate ploy by Eliot – he wanted the listener to do all the work here).  Guinness reads with obvious sympathy and an understanding of the underlying themes. He himself converted to Catholicism and, like Eliot, did so without any great “Damascus Road” experience. As he said: “There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things.”

Just so! All manner of things shall be well.

‘Sequence Literature’ and Tradition

I use the term ‘sequence literature’ to denote two different types of literary output. The first and most obvious is that literature which is published in instalments such that one long narrative or argument is published in a sequential manner.  Usually, with this type of literature, one must have some idea of the content of past instalments to understand the current one. Perhaps the most famous example in this genre are some of the original fictional works of Charles Dickens which were published in this manner.

There is a second class of sequence literature where a particular work, though offering a complete account in itself, draws heavily on some earlier work such that a full understanding or appreciation of the work would require some familiarity with the predecessor upon which draws. This short essay is concerned with this second class of ‘sequence literature’. An example that springs to mind here is the well-known short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled The Celestial Railway.  The plot of this story and, indeed, the names of many of its characters, relies heavily on knowledge of another famous work, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are many other famous examples in this genre, one of the more obvious being the relationship between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, one could argue that a reading of Virgil’s Aeneid greatly benefits from a prior acquaintance with Homer’s Odyssey.

If one reflects further on this second ‘class’ of literature, then it becomes obvious that the general idea can be expanded greatly to cover all of the important literature of the past. That is to say, a full appreciation of any work of literature would require knowledge of all predecessor works in the same category. For, only then can the reader really assess the true value or import of the work under scrutiny. To come to any work, especially any current work, without such a background is akin, in a fashion, to listening to a single episode of Blue Hills, without having a knowledge of previous episodes.

This, in part, was the argument made by T.S. Eliot in a famous essay, published in 1921 (in The Sacred Wood).  Such background knowledge, Eliot said

cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Here, of course, Eliot was concerned mainly with poetry and with the producer of poetry, but the idea has much wider application. It can apply equally well to the reader, to the writer’s audience. I can give a good example from my own and very limited history as a reader of literature.  As a young schoolboy, I was introduced to the famous poem by Tennyson, Ulysses. There were a couple of lines in that poem which I found immensely appealing and memorable, but I had no idea of their full meaning:

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: …

I had a vague impression of a rainy day at sea and a vague sense of what might be meant by the words ‘scudding’ and ‘vext’. Only decades later, after having read the Odyssey and having some additional notion of the relationship between the various stellar constellations and their influence on earthly affairs, did any real understanding of Tennyson’s poem come to me.

Let me take another example from the area of philosophy.  I am not familiar with the content of modern university courses in this area of study but I suspect that there will be a substantial bias towards modern empiricist philosophy and very little at all on earlier philosophy. Perhaps a lecture or two on Plato and Aristotle, a mention of Descartes and a dismissive nod towards Aquinas and Augustine. After all, philosophy is now only a minor discipline in most universities – in order to follow the money, you must concentrate on STEM courses. But, in order to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of any of the more modern philosophies, one really needs a good grounding in the whole history of philosophy. The example I will use here is the work of Etienne Gilson. In his book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Gilson surveyed almost eight centuries of philosophical thought from Peter Abelard to Karl Marx and found one consistent theme: whenever philosophers use the techniques of disciplines other than philosophy to investigate philosophical questions, they inevitably fall into error and their theories are eventually abandoned or severely modified.  Thus, Abelard had recourse to logic alone, whilst Descartes employed mathematics and geometry.  With Kant, it was what Gilson calls ‘physicism’ and with Comte and his followers, ‘sociologism’.  These observations led Gilson to erect several ‘laws’ or principles pertaining to the philosophical method:

  • Philosophy always buries its undertakers.  By this he means that each new theory, hailed as the ‘solution’ to philosophical problems – i.e. the death of philosophy – is regularly attended by its later revival in some newer scheme which, in its turn, is superseded, and so on.  I recall reading, I think in Ben Rogers’ biography of A.J. Ayer, that Ayer himself, after publication of Language, Truth and Logic, had (only half-jokingly) talked of ‘the end of philosophy’.
  • By his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal.  By this, Gilson means that the failure of philosophical schemes invariably relates to their abandonment of basic metaphysical principles natural to human thought.  Discussing Hume and Kant, he puts this principle in perspective this way:

“Hume had destroyed both metaphysics and science {Humean scepticism}; in order to save science, Kant decided to sacrifice metaphysics.  Now it is the upshot of the Kantian experiment that, if metaphysics is arbitrary knowledge, science also is arbitrary knowledge; hence it follows that our belief in the objective validity of science itself stands or falls with our belief in the objective validity of metaphysics.  The new question then is no longer, why is metaphysics a necessary illusion, but rather: Why is metaphysics necessary, and how is it that it has given rise to so many illusions?”

Gilson answers this last question by developing a series of arguments leading to conclusions which comprise the remainder of his ‘laws’ or principles:

  • Metaphysics is the knowledge gathered by a naturally transcendent reason in its search for the first principles, or first causes, of what is given in sensible experience.
  • As metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.
  • The failures of metaphysicians flow from their unguarded use of a principle of unity present in the human mind.
  • Since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics
  • All failures of metaphysics should be traced to the fact that the first principle of human knowledge has been either overlooked or misused by the metaphysicians.

Moving back now to the relationship between literature and the Tradition, T.T. Eliot explains just how some new work is related to the past and becomes incorporated as it were, in that past:  

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity…

  The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

Bird Talk

Do birds sing, or do they just ‘vocalize’? To put it another way, can birds feel happy or sad and express such feelings by the sounds they make, or is it all down to instinctive behaviour? I suspect that animal behavior experts would opt for the latter.  Birds call, they say, because they wish to attract mates or defend a territory or keep in touch with the rest of their flock.

That’s the sort of world we live in now.  Magpies do not carol in the mornings because they are happy to see the sun rise.  It’s simply a vocalisation to reinforce territorial rights.  And kookaburras do not signal the end of the day to all the other creatures by giving their last laugh just at that moment when dusk turns to darkness.  They, again, are simply letting neighbouring kookaburras know who is in control of the local territory.  Creatures respond to external stimuli, or hormones, under a strict system of genetic coding. It’s the territorial imperative or the selfish gene as popularised by Robert Ardrey and Richard Dawkins, although to be fair, Descartes started the whole idea of the mechanical animal hundreds of years earlier. Animals are just glorified CD players where you shove in DNA instead of a disc.  Faced with this sort of bleakness, you can sympathize with Wordsworth:

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. – Great God!  I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

And Wordsworth is right. We have progressively isolated ourselves from the rest of the natural world.  Even as little as fifty years ago, we had a far closer relationship to the natural world than we do today.  And that’s despite all sorts of recent proclamations such as ‘ecologically sustainable development’, ‘maintenance of biodiversity’, ‘clean and green’ and all those other modern mantras.

Let me give you an example.  Most Bendigonians will have travelled through the district of Sutton Grange at some stage.  It lies just south of Bendigo and not far from Mount Alexandra.  For the locals, the most significant piece of history associated with Sutton Grange revolves about a particular schoolteacher at the little granite school, Albert Cox. He taught at the school from 1920 until 1961. As far as I am aware, this record has been topped by only one other Victorian schoolteacher.   Mind you, in other trades the service records can be far more impressive.  There is a story about a local man up here who started at an engineering works when he was fifteen and was given his gold watch and heavy handshake fifty years later.  Angry at his forced retirement, he began his farewell address with these words: ‘Had I known that this bloody job was only temporary, I would never have taken it in the first place’.

But it was not just his length of service at the little school that made Cox a remarkable schoolteacher.  It was what he taught his students.  In addition to the ‘three R’s’, the children learned a great deal of natural history, because Albert Cox was himself a keen amateur naturalist.  Each day, the children were encouraged to make a note of what birds or other animal and plant life they had seen on the way to school.  These observations were then written into the Observations Book, under the careful eye of the teacher. Records were entered into this book from 1926 through until 1960, with a break during the War years only.  The following entry, made by Cox himself, tells its own story of the man’s love of the natural world about him and, more especially, of the way he saw the relationship between wild creatures and humans:

On the morning of the 26th September, 1951 the thrush that had been for such a long period a friend of all at the Sutton Grange School was found dead beside the residence garden.  This bird was well over thirty years old and had nested around the school residence all these years, many seasons being spent in an old billy hanging under the verandah.  The bird had died of old age, being found lying with an insect still in its beak.  It died in the middle of the nesting season leaving a mate to hatch out, and rear a family.

Here was a man recording the death of an old friend. This friend and close neighbour had died at work.  It had performed its duty as a parent right to the very last.  The whole thing is intensely anthropomorphic and modern animal behaviour experts would scoff at it.

Have you ever wondered why Sir David Attenborough speaks in a whisper when he is describing the lives of creatures?  It’s because he is on the outside looking in and it is almost embarrassing.  He is a bit like a voyeur peeping through the keyhole.  And you will note, if you listen to his commentary carefully, that everything is down to scientific principles of behaviourism and genetics.  All is neatly packaged as cause and effect. His animals are glorified machines to be marveled at like the intricate, jeweled workings of a Swiss watch. Granted, there is some sense of wonder, but that wonder is built on the complexity of things, not simply on the existence of things.  Even Disney’s outrageously contrived world of nature was better.  His animals in the early TV nature shows, all decent, God-fearing American citizens circa 1960, at least had some sense of not being pre-programmed.

It’s almost as if the Fall of Man is still going on.  Christians tend to read the account of the Fall in Genesis as an historical event.  But part of it may not be.  One of the consequences of the Fall was a destruction of that harmony which previously existed between humans and all other life on earth.  Perhaps the process of estrangement is a long-term business and we are not at the end of it yet.   When you examine history, that proposition certainly seems to carry some weight.

Since we started this discussion with a quotation concerning a dead thrush, let us stick to the world of birds and to the history of their interactions with humans.  There is a name for that interaction. It is called birdlore.

For us in the West, the place to start is the Greece of Homer’s time.  Anything earlier is mere conjecture and anything later runs a poor second to the richness of Homer’s descriptions.  For him, birds are not only closely associated with humans, certain of them are also particular favourites of the gods. The scene at Calypso’s cave will suffice to make the point:

The cave was sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses, which was the roosting place of wide-winged birds, horned owls and falcons and cormorants with long tongues, birds of the coast, whose business takes them down to the sea.  … It was indeed a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight.

There is something of a parallel here with the situation for the Aranda Aborigines in Central Australia, early last century.  In their account of the Aranda (formerly known as Arunta), Balwyn Spencer and F.J. Gillen indicate that the sacred sites where the Spirit Ancestors live (the Ertnatulunga) are a haven for all sorts of wild animals, including birds. Spencer and Gillen would want us to believe that the birds and animals cluster around the sacred sites because they are not hunted at or near those spots. The Aranda would regard this as ridiculous.  The birds and animals are there simply because the sites are sacred – richness of fauna is one of the manifestations of sacrality.

But, going back to ancient Greece, the most important relation between birds and humans is one of language.  Humans who can understand the language of birds are seers. The birds have important things to tell us.  Indeed, one of the Greek words for divination is oionopolia or ornithomanteia – ‘bird language’ or augury.     Both Pliny the Elder and Aelian tell us that that the seers or augurs are not just skilled at interpreting the language or the actions of birds, they are also skilled in natural history.  So, for instance, Aelian says:

I have heard that some people practice divination by birds and devote themselves to their study and scrutinize their flight and quarters of the sky where they appear.  And seers like Teiresias, Polydamas, Polyeidus, Theoclymenus and many another are celebrated for their knowledge of this art …. . (On the Animals VIII.5).

Now, before you dismiss augury as so much nonsense, it pays to remember that this and other forms of divination were of the utmost importance to both the Greek and the Roman Empires at the height of their respective powers.  For instance, Pliny gives us this account of the importance of poultry in Imperial Rome:

These are the birds that give the Most-Favourable Omens; these birds daily control our officers of state, and shut or open to them their own homes; these send forward or hold back the Roman rods of office and order or forbid battle formation, being the auspices of all our victories won all over the world; these hold supreme empire over the empire of the world, being as acceptable to the gods with even their inward parts and vitals as are the costliest victims. (Natural History.  Book X. xxiv. 49)

But we should not suppose that divination of this sort was regarded as some species of magic or that it was necessarily divinely inspired.  Pausanias’ (2nd C. AD) view of Greek religious practice is that of a ‘moderate realist’.  That is to say, his criteria for what to believe and what not to believe concerning these matters certainly involved a notion of religious faith, but they largely involved human observation and human reason:

This poetry [that of Iophon of Knossos on Amphiaraos, the famous seer] of his had an intoxicating attraction to common people, but in fact apart from those who suffered Apollonian madness none of the soothsayers in antiquity was a prophet; they were good at exegesis of dreams, the diagnosis of flights of birds, the scrying of holy entrails.

Pausanias clearly believes that true prophesy is very limited and he makes a clear distinction between inspiration and exegesis. For him, there is no ‘magic’ or divine intervention in the case of augury – it is simply a matter of correct diagnosis. I should mention in passing that Pausanias himself was a great bird lover.  In his old age he took to bird watching and travelled far and wide to catch sight of different species.  No doubt, he kept a bird list like any modern ornithologist.

Mind you, in order to make the correct diagnosis, you need to understand the birds and the granting of that power is a much trickier business for us to understand.  For one thing, in ancient Greece, that power seems to have been often mediated by snakes!  The famous seer Melampus saved the young of two dead snakes. Later, when he was asleep, these young snakes licked his ears. When he awoke, he found he could understand the language of birds.  Snakes also licked the ears of Kassandra and Helenos, giving them the power of the seer.

In other cases, the gift of understanding birds seems to come by direct association with the gods.  Thus, Parnassos, the inventor of divination by birds, had the nymph Kleodora for his mother and Poseidon as his father.  Likewise, Teiresias was the son of the nymph Chariklo, and Phineus, another blind seer, was also the son of Poseidon.  One could quote many other examples from the ancient literature.

But why should birds be important as bringers of knowledge?  Part of the answer may have to do with their ancestry.  In ancient Greek mythology, birds often begin as humans transformed by gods. Perhaps the most famous example is Alcyone.  She was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she 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. Pliny gives us a detailed account:

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. (Pliny, Natural History, X.xlv.90-91)

Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.  As far as I can ascertain, taxonomists still recognize both the genus Halcyon and the genus Ceyx amongst our kingfishers. In Australia, bird books still list Ceyx azureus as the Azure Kingfisher but our Sacred Kingfisher is no longer in the genus Halycon. In ancient times members of the two genera were commonly thought to fly together.  The story of Alcyone led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.  Perhaps we can take this as proof that birds continue to inspire us!

This early Greek notion of the human origin of many bird species has close parallels in other cultures.  The totemic spirit ancestors of the Aborigines, for instance, were often bird-men. In their study of the Aranda of central Australia, Spencer and Gillen report that the spirit ancestors are so intimately associated with plants and animals, the name of which they bear, that an Alcheringa (Dreamtime or primordial time) man of say, the Emu totem, may be spoken of either as a man-emu or emu-man.  One can begin to understand from this, just how close was the relationship between the Australian Aborigines and the world of nature around them.

By the time we get to Plato (circa 400 BCE), city folk are already losing interest in the bush and its denizens. As far as we know from Plato’s account, Socrates only went voluntarily outside the city wall on one occasion and even then, it was not to admire the birds (Phaedrus).  He seemed a lot more interested in a young boy (interestingly, Sixty Minutes has not followed up on this case). When he is asked about the spirits of nature, he gives this reply:

Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.  And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me …….  I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.

But, of course, Plato is by no means divorced from the world of birds.  Indeed, he supposes that the noblest of human souls can be re-incarnated in birds whereas less deserving souls will choose lower animals.

When we move into the Christian era, we can still find evidence of a close relationship between humans and birds.  Consider, for example, the enormous popularity of the medieval “Bestiary” (and the closely related “Aviary”).  These were collections of lore in animal allegory which serve to illustrate Christian ideas in a simple way such that they might have appeal (to those lower orders of the Church and the laity) where heavy theological treatises would not.  The common ancestor of these medieval bestiaries is thought to be the Physiologus – a text which may date back as early as the 2nd century AD and whose author is unknown. Here, each animal is given a chapter in which its physical and behavioral characteristics (real and imagined) are presented and moralized for a Christian audience.  The later bestiaries of the medieval period follow this model, often drawing from a wide range of sources including the Bible itself, Aristotle, Pliny, and other Greek and Roman authors of antiquity.

That these works were designed to give moral instruction to the unlettered is made abundantly clear in the Prologue to Book One of Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (circa 1150) where he says:

Desiring to fulfill your wishes, dearest friend, I decided to paint the dove … and by a picture to instruct the minds of simple folk, so that what the intellect of the simple folk could scarcely comprehend with the mind’s eye, it might at least discern with the physical eye; and what their hearing could scarcely perceive, their sight might do so.  I wished not only to paint the dove physically, but also to outline it verbally, so that by the text, I may represent a picture; for instance, whom the simplicity of the picture would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so.

In the Aviarium, some thirty bird species are presented and, for each, certain biological information is used to draw an analogy to the proper conduct of a Christian life.  Thus, for instance, part of the entry for ‘The Goose’ reads:

There are two varieties of geese, that is to say, the tame and the wild.  The wild ones fly aloft and in an order, and denote those who, far from worldly affairs, preserve an order of righteous living.  The domestic ones, however, live in villages; they cry out frequently; they tear at themselves with their beaks.  They signify those who, even though they love the monastery, have time nevertheless for loquaciousness and slander.

Whether these moralizing allegories had the effect of giving heightened respect for animals is a difficult question.  Certainly, many of the species chosen were farm animals, routinely slaughtered for food. It is difficult to imagine, however, that such a reverse anthropomorphism did not lead to some special consideration for the species involved.  When the medieval peasants saw in the great Cathedral or Church, an image of the Pelican (representing Christ – the Pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood), it is hard to imagine that they could not have some lingering association when the real Pelican was sighted on the lake.

In another sense, we know that the sort of associations given in these moralizing accounts went deeper than mere allegory.  Even in this writer’s memory of living in a small rural community in Victoria, it was considered improper (bringing bad luck at the very least) to destroy the nests of Swallows, even when such nests on house walls caused a good deal of fouling with faecal remains.  For a more powerful example, we need look no further than Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, where the killing of an Albatross has truly terrifying consequences.  Nor is this mere poetic fancy.  In Melville’s Moby Dick, the author gives us (in a footnote) his actual experience on first sighting an Albatross at close quarters:

 I remember the first Albatross I ever saw. … I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime.  At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark.  Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it.  Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress.  Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. … I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then.

What Melville attempts to express here is an experience of the Numinous – what Professor Rudolph Otto calls the ganz andere – the “totally other”.  We should not suppose that such experiences came only with Enlightenment learning or Romanticism.  It is much more likely that close encounters with living, wild animals have evoked these sorts of responses from time immemorial.

Not long ago, I read of a new report on the state of the environment in Australia.  The outlook is not good.  It is forecast that, by the end of this Century, Australia may have lost about half of the species of birds known to occur at the time of European settlement.  No doubt, all sorts of valid scientific reasons will be put forward in support of this bleak forecast.  Equally, the sorts of solutions proposed will be scientific solutions – ecosystem rehabilitation, and the like.  I cannot help but wonder, though, whether the first requirement might simply be a return to that earlier sense of awe that we had for the feathered world. Birds were not just sophisticated bio-mechanical machines whose behaviour was genetically controlled. In my youth, the Black-faced Cuckoo Shrike was called the “Summer Bird”, because when it appeared, you knew that summer had set in. Its appearance was a matter of good fortune, not of blind mechanical necessity.  Likewise, the Pallid Cuckoo was the welcome harbinger of spring. It need not have come. Indeed, spring need not have come. And birds sang (these days they only vocalize) because they were happy or sad, or grateful, not because of some theory of B.F. Skinner or E.O. Wilson. Like the ancient Greeks, we did feel that birds had something to tell us.  I suspect that, until we get back to such an understanding, none of the proposed scientific solutions will encourage the birds to return.

Henry Vaughan and his Poetry

Incised in stone above the west door of the little Gothic church at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, is the following inscription:

In the yeare 1653

When all things Sacred were throughout ye nation

Either demolisht or profaned

Sir Robert Shirley, Barronet,

Founded this church;

Whose singular praise it is,

To have done the best things in ye worst times,


Hoped them in the most callamitous

The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.

We are told that Sir Robert Shirley, a Royalist, had refused to assist Cromwell.  He was sent to the Tower and died there, aged twenty-seven.  These were strife-torn times.  The Civil War had ended in victory for the Parliamentarian cause in 1646 and the Monarchy did not return until 1660.  It was during those same strife-torn times that Henry Vaughan ‘The Silurist’ wrote his most memorable poetry and it might be said of him, also, that he ‘done the best things in the worst times’.  Vaughan, a Welshman, was born in Breconshire at Newton-upon-Usk in 1621 and died in 1695, not far from his birthplace. The Civil War was to have a very important influence on both the man and his poetry.

Today, Vaughan is chiefly remembered as one of the so-called ‘metaphysical poets’ of the 17th C. The other important members of the group are Donne, Crashaw, Cowley, Herbert, Marvell, and Traherne.  The term ‘metaphysical’ seems to have been invented by John Dryden but was made famous by Dr Johnson who first used it to describe a type of poetry employing unusual and paradoxical images, relying on intellectual wit and upon learned imagery and subtle argument. For Johnson, it was meant as a pejorative term:

Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found. [Lives of the Poets: Cowley]

Such a judgement from an 18th C critic is hardly surprising.  In an age that placed all of its hope on human reason and Baconian science, the highly imaginative poetry of the preceding century was largely dismissed as a ‘conceit’[1].  Indeed, even in Henry Vaughan’s own times, allegorical habits of mind were being replaced by more realistic ones (Bacon published his Novum Organum the year before Henry Vaughan was born) and, in this sense, Vaughan’s poetry looks back towards the Middle Ages rather than to his own times.  Fortunately both literary tastes and philosophical opinions were to change again in later times.  In the early 20th.C, both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were to discover deep affinities with the ’metaphysicals’ and today, their poetry is well represented in most anthologies of English verse.  In was in his essay on the metaphysical poets [1921] that Eliot made his now famous suggestion of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ that marked the end of what we might call the metaphysical style.  The basis of this style, Eliot thought, was the poet’s ability to constantly amalgamate disparate experiences to form new wholes.  The metaphysical poet ‘possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  It is with Milton and Dryden – those giants of the 17th Century – Eliot suggests, that we see this ‘dissociation of sensibility’ come to the fore and to manifest itself in the work of later poets such as Collins, Gray, Goldsmith and the great Dr Johnson himself. The language of these poets may have become more refined, but (so Eliot thought) the feeling had become more crude.

As so it was that, after more than two centuries of virtual obscurity, the poetry of Henry Vaughan came to be valued again.  Between 1679 and 1847, there was no new edition of Vaughan although one of his poems had been anthologized as early as 1803. But, if influential modern critics like Eliot and Pound had some hand in restoring the fortunes of the ‘metaphysicals’, so much more so did the Zeitgeist – by the time Eliot died (1965) the bankruptcy of positivism was clearly in evidence. Given that Edmund Blunden had written on Vaughan in 1927 and Siegfried Sassoon had visited Vaughan’s grave and penned a sonnet on that visit in 1928, we might regard these poets as early prophets who, in the wake of the Great War, perhaps foresaw a re-emergence of interest in the imaginative and allegorical as a sort of counter reaction to the Slough of Despond which had developed out of the hell of Flanders.  One might see the emergence of a wider and more general interest in Blake’s poetry in the same light, although W.B.Yeats and Edwin Ellis first edited Blake’s work in 1891-3.

Insofar as the poet himself is concerned, as distinct from the poetry, we owe the resurrection of Henry Vaughan in large part to two grand ladies of literary leanings, the Misses Louise Guiney and Gwenllian Morgan. Miss Morgan was a ‘local’, so to speak, and lived most of her long life in Breconshire, dying there in 1939 in her 88th year.  The daughter of a local pastor, she was a keen historian and intensely interested in Vaughan. She was also the first woman in Wales to serve the office of mayor.  Miss Guiney, by contrast, was an American Catholic, with no close connection to Wales.  She was, nonetheless, an ardent Anglophile, with a particular love for the Royalist poets and a sympathy for the Royalist cause.[2] Morgan and Guiney gathered together what scant information we have today concerning the life of Henry Vaughan. Unfortunately, both these ladies died before they were able to publish their biography of Vaughan.  That task was taken up by F.E. Hutchinson, an Anglican Divine and onetime chaplain of Kings College, who published his account (heavily reliant on Morgan & Guiney’s researches) in 1947.[3]  One other biography has appeared since then, that of Stevie Davies in 1995.[4]  Her account, though, introduces no new material and is largely concerned with a personal appreciation of the poet.

It is perhaps something of a blessing that we know relatively little about Vaughan the man for this has largely spared us those usual, weighty volumes where the minutiae of daily life is drawn into interminable discussion regarding ‘influences’ on poetic production.  We have no images of him, no descriptions of his personality and only a fairly sketchy record of his time on this earth.  Even so, I note that Stevie Davies has a whole chapter (‘The Crucible of Twinship’) where an elaborate superstructure of critical analysis and comment rests on the scant knowledge we have of the relationship between Henry Vaughan and his twin brother, Thomas.

Of Vaughan’s early life we know virtually nothing save that he and his twin brother were taught at a nearby school by one Matthew Herbert, an Anglican clergyman.  Later, Henry Vaughan may have attended Oxford University although the records establish only that his twin brother did.  Whatever the case, he certainly went to London and seems to have studied law for a period.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned home and there, for a short time, was secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, chief justice of the sessions.  We know that Vaughan was married to Catherine Wise by 1646 and that the couple had four children.  Catherine appears to have died very young, almost certainly within a decade of the marriage. Vaughan married again, probably around 1655. His second wife, Elizabeth, was his former wife’s sister and she too, bore him four children.

The question whether Henry Vaughan bore arms in the Civil War has been much discussed.  Hutchinson is of the view that Henry did take up arms for the Royalists but Vaughan’s first modern editor, H.F. Lyte (1847) took an opposite view.  Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the Royalists, together with the death of his younger brother, William (in 1648), had a profound effect on Vaughan. This is evidenced by the sudden change in both the nature and the quality of the poetry he wrote.

As to his profession in later adult life, there are indications that he may have been a doctor but little evidence of any training in this field.  In a letter to John Aubrey in 1673, Vaughan talks about his brother, Thomas, and then says: ‘My profession also is physic which I have practised now for many years with good success …’. Earlier (1640s), Vaughan was probably employed as a secretary to Judge Lloyd (and soon after, Hutchinson surmises, as a soldier).

With this brief biography serving as a sort of introduction, we turn now to the poetry.  His first volume of poetry, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished, was published in 1646.  A second volume, entitled Olor Iscanus (Swan of the Usk) appears to have been completed by 1647, but was not published until 1651. It is in this second volume that Vaughan gives himself the title of ‘Silurist’ – a reference to the ancient tribe, the Silures, which inhabited the south-east of Wales and which was mentioned by Tacitus as having caused the invading Romans a good deal of trouble. I assume that the Silures also gave us the geological term ‘Silurian’.

Of the bulk of these early poems, perhaps the less said the better.  They are largely very conventional, secular poems, often imitating earlier poets such as Habington or Randolph.  I think it fair to say that if Vaughan’s reputation rested on these alone, he would be largely forgotten today.  The first volume includes a number of love poems, almost all of which are addressed to Amoret, a sort of generic title for the female subject.  Here, Vaughan follows earlier poets such as Lovelace, Browne, Lodge and Waller.  Nonetheless, some of the poetry is memorable.  Here, for instance, is a little vignette of the London of Vaughan’s student days:

Should we go now a wandering, we should meet

With catchpoles, whores, & carts in every street:

Now when each narrow lane, each nook & cave,

Sign-posts, & shop-doors, pimp for every knave,

When riotous sinful plush, and tell-tale spurs

Walk Fleet street, & the Strand, when the soft stirs

Of bawdy, ruffled silks, turn night to day;

And the loud whip, and coach scolds all the way;

When lusts of all sorts, and each itchy blood

From the Tower-wharf to Cymbeline, and Lud,

Hunts for a mate, and the tired footman reels

‘Twixt chair-men, torches, & the hackney wheels...

A Rhapsody (lines 35-46)

Here is a picture of the seamier side of London, with that sort of eye for all the sordid detail which we might expect of Hogarth or Dickens.  The phrases ‘riotous sinful plush’ and bawdy, ruffled silks’ are particularly well contrived.

The second volume of Vaughan’s poetry is somewhat more adventuresome and treats a wide range of themes.  It includes translations of Ovid, Ausonius, Boethius and Casimir.  Looking at the index in Alan Rudrum’s splendidly annotated edition of Vaughan’s poems[5], one cannot help but notice how the lengthy titles, often overweighed with effusive praise of their respective human subjects, contrast with the short, pithy titles of the later religious poetry (and, indeed, many of the religious poems are untitled).  Thus we find, for instance:

To the Truly Noble, and Most Excellently Accomplished, the Lord Kildare Digby


An Elegy on the Death of Mr R.W. Slain in the Late Unfortunate Differences at Rowton Heath, near Chester, 1645

One has the impression that the poem has, in each case, occasioned less literary effort than the title!  For my own part, when I read these titles I cannot help but compare them to the equally ponderous titles so beloved of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their paintings.  My second example from Vaughan, for instance, bears comparison with Holman Hunt:

Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions.

But, perhaps in Olor Iscanus, we should particularly note Vaughan’s choice in translating Ovid, Ausonius, Boethius and Casimir.  If, as some commentators suspect, Vaughan translated his selections in the order given here, then we see a gradual progression towards more serious philosophical and religious themes.  Casimir (Mathias Casimir Sarbiewski) was a Polish Jesuit whose poetry often addressed religious themes.   We might also expect that, in his reading of Ausonius, Vaughan would have learned of Paulinus of Nola at this time.  Later (1654), Vaughan was to publish a rather free translation of the Life of Paulinus (from Rosweyde).

As I foreshadowed earlier in this essay, the events associated with the Civil War, combined with the death of his younger brother were to have a profound effect on Vaughan and his poetry.  Other commentators have also suggested that Vaughan himself may have endured some serious illness at about this time and that such illness brought the fact of human mortality sharply into focus.  As Dr. Johnson once said, ‘the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates the mind’!   Irrespective of which of these influences assumed the most importance in the mind of the poet, what we see in the poems of his 1650 edition, titled  Silex Scintillans, is a virtual transformation.   Even if Vaughan’s earlier acquaintance with the work of Casimir (and, perhaps, other and earlier Christian writers) is taken into account, there is nothing to prepare the reader for what F.E. Hutchinson calls the ‘heightened feeling and majestic utterance’ that we get in so many of the poems of Silex scintillans.

From the lovesick, young gallant who pens his rather conventional, foppish, and formulaic verses to Amoret, we come to this:

I saw Eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright,

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years

Driven by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.

(The World)

Hutchinson is in no two minds about what has happened to the poet.  He refers to it as a conversion.  This, I think, is a little too dramatic.  There can be no question regarding the sudden new direction in Vaughan’s poetry, but he was always a believing Christian.  He was not converted to Christianity, but simply lifted to a higher plane of spiritual understanding.  This is very obvious when one considers the subject matter of his religious poetry.  Alan Rudrum’s notes to the Silex Scintillans poems run to well over 100 pages of tight text. The vast majority of the references are biblical ones, some quite obscure, and we can only conclude that Vaughan had a prodigious knowledge of the bible.  Such knowledge does not come abruptly with conversion but is the fruit of years and years of reading.   The raw materials were surely latent in Vaughan and, as he himself says in his introduction to the first Silex Scintillans volume, what ignited his poetic imagination was the divine flash of the Spirit on a reluctant and hardened heart:

You have attempted many times, I admit, to capture me without injury, and your voice, haunting me, has endeavored without words to make me heedful.  A more divine breath has entreated me with its gentle action and admonished me in vain with its holy murmur.  I was flint – deaf and silent ……..   You draw nearer and break that mass which is my rocky heart, and that which was formerly stone is now made flesh.  See how it is torn, its fragments at last setting your heavens alight ……… [6]

These fiery sparks from the heart constitute the best of Vaughan’s poetry.  In poem after poem of the Silex Scintillans collections (1650 and 1655), we have that direct evidence of a man who:

…. felt through all this fleshly dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

(The Retreat)

A few short extracts may serve to give something of the flavour for those who are not familiar with Vaughan’s poetry:

When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys

Active as light, and calm without all noise

Shined on my soul, I felt through all my powers

Such a rich air of sweets, as evening showers

Fanned by a gentle gale convey and breathe

On some parched bank, crowned with a flowery wreath;

Odours, and myrrh, and balm in one rich flood

(Mount of Olives, II)


They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit ling’ring here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast

Like stars upon some gloomy grove,

Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,

After the sun’s remove.

(‘They are all gone into the world of light!’)


My soul, there is a country

Far beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

All skillful in the wars,

There, above noise, and danger

Sweet peace sits crowned with smiles,

And one born in a manger

Commands the beauteous files


The themes treated by Vaughan in these poems have been the subject of much scholarly questioning over the last eighty years or so.  To what extent was Vaughan influenced by the Hermetic Philosophy?  To what extent was he influenced by Platonism?  Was Vaughan a true mystic and, if so, did he follow the via negativa or the via positiva?  Was Vaughan a true ‘nature poet’ in the sense of being a precursor to the English Romantic poets?   Here, I cannot attempt to deal in any detail with all of these ‘problems’ which the critics see in Vaughan’s religious poetry.  However, a few general comments might help to resolve some of these supposed difficulties or, at least, put them into some sort of perspective.

In the first place, it is absolutely clear that Henry Vaughan is a Christian traditionalist in his religious outlook.  This is not to suppose that he does not bring in ideas from the Platonists and Neoplatonists, or from Hermeticism, but rather, that he assimilates such ideas within a thoroughly traditional, Christian framework.  If Vaughan’s Christianity appears a little ‘unorthodox’, it is perhaps because he is a man out of his time – his religion often tends to look back toward what he saw as more primitive but purer expressions of Christianity.  We need to remember that the Civil War cast Vaughan adrift from his traditional church environment and he was forced to find his own expression of Christianity.  In so doing, he borrowed freely from many traditions, both within pre-Civil War Anglicanism and further afield.  The religious poetry of George Herbert, for instance, was to exert an enormous influence upon Vaughan and he freely acknowledges his debt to Herbert in some of his poems.

With regard to Platonic influences, many possible correlates present themselves in the poetry.  The first is the theme of childhood.   In what is probably Vaughan’s most famous poem, The Retreat, he begins:

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my Angel-infancy.

Here is the clear notion, not only of childhood innocence, but also of childhood understanding and acceptance of the spiritual realm. This theme appears in many of Vaughan’s poems.  It is tempting to suppose that Vaughan alludes to the Platonic notion of anamnesis and pre-existence and, indeed, that may have been an influence upon him.  We ought to remember, though, that Vaughan was a man who knew his bible backwards and it is more likely that he had in mind that injunction in Matthew 18.3:   ‘Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (KJV).

Another clear debt to Platonism comes from Vaughan’s notion of a cosmos of spheres or rings with ordered motion and we tend to immediately associate this with Plato.  One peculiarity of Vaughan in this respect is his association of ordered motion with silence.  Time after time we get that notion of the profound beauty of silence.  When he saw eternity (The World, I) it was:

All calm, as it was bright

Of the stars (The Constellation), he says:

Fair, ordered lights (whose motion without noise

Resembles those true joys …

And, perhaps his most beautiful depiction of the Platonic Beauty (Mount of Olives II):

When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys

Active as light, and calm without all noise

There are, of course, other echoes of Platonism or Neo-Platonism in Vaughan’s poetry but, very often, they have come down to him from that earlier Christian tradition drawing upon the Augustinian world-picture.  The idea of this world as an imperfect image of the real world leads naturally to the concept of contemptus mundi, implicit in Augustine and so evident in much of Vaughan’s work.  Indeed, Vaughan’s translation of the De Contemptu Mundi of St. Eucherius of Lyon (5th C) is, as far as this writer is aware, the only English translation of the work.  But it would be wrong to suppose that Vaughan or, for that matter, Augustine, regarded matter as evil or deprecated the created order.  Quite the reverse in  Vaughan’s case.  He saw all plants and animals as responding to the Divine and even lifeless stones paid a sort of tribute to their Maker (‘By some hid sense their Maker gave’).

Vaughan’s association with the Hermetic philosophy is based upon certain direct evidence in the poems themselves as well as the fact that his twin brother, Thomas,  delved into alchemy and was well acquainted with the writings attributed to ‘Thrice-Great Hermes’.  In his published work, Thomas also quotes from Paracelsus, Robert Fludd and Cornelius Agrippa.  Nonetheless, Thomas saw himself as ‘neither Papist nor Sectary but a true, resolute Protestant in the best sense of the Church of England’.  Despite these assertions by Thomas, his writings on alchemy do suggest a more erratic and headstrong approach to the subject matter than his brother, Henry who, as Hutchinson says:

passed the Hermetic ideas and terms so integrally into the common language of Christian tradition that they do not disconcert the reader; they are not resented as the technical terms of an unfamiliar way of expressing his conviction of the ‘commerce’ between heaven and earth.

Other authors, though, believe that Hermetic influences are much more important in Henry Vaughan’s work than that assumed by a simple borrowing of Hermetic terms to illustrate or ‘flesh out’ an otherwise conventional, Christian understanding.  Miss Elizabeth Holmes devoted a whole book to the subject and it has been discussed by many other commentators.[7]  And yet, Vaughan’s supposed Hermeticism is very difficult to pin down. It appears as only scattered references throughout the corpus of his work and, in the end, one tends to agree with Ross Garner who says (of Vaughan’s supposed Hermeticism):

Vaughan does not make out of God a scientific principle, an adjunct of matter by which it may be governed.  He takes explanations of the physical universe of which he is aware and uses them parabolically to adumbrate Christian doctrine.[8]

And so, while we may come across references to Hermetic terms such as signatures, rays, beams, sympathies, magnets, and so on, these are terms which Vaughan assimilates effortlessly into his Christianity..

For all that, the words that crop up most frequently in Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans poems are biblical words – shoots, buds, dew, doves, stones, roses, light, to mention but a few of his favourite themes.  There can be little doubt that Vaughan’s main source is the bible and that other influences are secondary by comparison. But the word white, so often used by Vaughan as an epithet for that he holds in high regard (e.g. ‘white, celestial thought’ in The Retreat)), is probably not of biblical origin and deserves special mention.  Hutchinson points out that the Welsh counterpart, gwyn signifies not only white but fair, happy, holy, blessed.  ‘There is’, he says ‘no more frequent epithet in Welsh poetry’.  As an example, he goes on to point out that the Welsh word for Paradise is gwynfyd – literally ‘white world’.

The question of Vaughan’s mysticism is also problematical.  Very often, you will see Vaughan (and Traherne for that matter) described in anthologies of English poetry as ‘a Seventeenth century mystic’  It’s not that easy, for there are mystics and mystics.  If we are talking of a person who has achieved a full unity with the Divine – a man, as it were, living wholly in another world – then Vaughan was not a mystic.  For one thing, there are practical considerations which are not lost on Stevie Davies in her account of Vaughan’s life.  She wonders (and so do I) how someone with eight children by two marriages manages to get enough ‘quiet time’ to meditate at all!  Most of Vaughan’s important religious poetry was written before he was thirty-five years old and between his twenty-fifth and thirty-fifth year, four children were born into the Vaughan household. The house would have been a fairly lively place, certainly no eremite’s cell.  Moreover, either as a secretary or a doctor, we assume that Vaughan had to earn a crust.  Mind you, J.S. Bach was in the same boat, but I note that no less a critic than H.C. Robbins-Landon has described him as being ‘in many respects a genuine mystic’.[9]

More likely, I think, is Ross Garner’s appraisal.  In discussing one of Vaughan’s better known ‘mystical’ poems, The Night, he supposes that what characterises Vaughan’s religious experience is that of a longing for mystical union, not its achievement. And yet, when we read his great religious poems, is it not the case that we, ourselves, feel as if Vaughan has achieved some sort of mystical union.  That this should be so is the mark of great poetry.  Now, it is interesting to note that T.S. Eliot supposes Vaughan to be a ‘minor religious poet’ precisely because his poetry is the product of  ‘a special religious awareness, which may exist without the general awareness which we expect of the major poet’.[10]  In other words, Vaughan’s poetry is simply ‘devotional poetry’ –like say, Helen Steiner Rice. But this is surely not true!  Some of his religious poetry is of this type no doubt and Hutchison refers to certain of it as ‘plodding couplets of conventional piety’.  But most is far more universal in its appeal.  Vaughan, of all people, is a generalist, not a specialist. He lived at a time when the particular symbols and practices associated with his form of Anglicanism were shattered by the Civil War. As Kathleen Raine reminds us: ‘Iconoclastic Protestantism largely destroyed, in England, the images which always had been, and must normally be, the natural language of spiritual knowledge’.[11]  For this reason, if for no other, he was inclined to draw his inspiration from wider sources and, most especially, from the natural world around him. But Vaughan’s nature was not Wordsworth’s nature.  It was at the same time a reflection of the Divine and a veil, obscuring the Divine. Vaughan, I think, would have agreed with William Blake – ‘Mr Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is not to be found in Nature’.

It is true that there are many enigmas in Vaughan’s poetry, but I suspect these are of our making, not his. Vaughan can appear to hold the things of this earth in contempt, yet regard them as hierophantic.  At some times, his poetry hints at an immanent spirituality, at others, a transcendent spirituality. His poetry can appear very simple yet, upon closer study, it reflects all of the complexities inherent in the Christian tradition.  But it is the mark of a truly imaginative spirit that such contraries can be held together without conflict.  Vaughan’s best poetry transcends such concerns and draws upon a world of the imagination which is outside time and outside history.  No one has put it better than Raine:

Those who look to a timeless world are least likely to fall into archaisms of style, for the world of imagination is outside history altogether.  Pope, Dryden and Auden are dated in a way that Dante, Milton, Coleridge, and Yeats, even when these embody in their imaginative world themes from history, can never be.[12]

I think I would be tempted to add to these two lists given by Raine.  To the first list of Pope, Dryden and Auden, I would add Eliot.  To the second list, I would add Vaughan.  The Waste Land may well reflect a modern, fragmented mind at the end of its tether and it may well be the best poem of the last hundred years (as some think it is).  But it can only have meaning in an age as terrible as ours.  Vaughan’s best poems, on the other hand, are outside the context of history and they supply an intellectual nourishment of real substance, not the sort of literary Bovril so lauded by many modern critics. They are, in all truth ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’.



(This essay first appeared in Connor Court Quarterly, No. 7, 2013)


[1] The word did not yet bear its current meaning (though it was on its way to doing so).  It still bore its older meaning of ‘concept’. Used pejoratively, it meant a poetry of clever ideas.

[2] Such intensity of feeling some 250 years later may seem a little odd, but is by no means unique.  I am indebted to John Julius Norwich for the following pieces which appeared consecutively in the In Memoriam column of The Times in London On 3rd Sept., 1969

OLIVER CROMWELL, 25th April, 1599 – 3rd September 1658.  Lord Protector, 1653-1658.  Statesman, General and Ruler.

‘Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered’.  Psalm 68, verse i.

In honoured remembrance.

CROMWELL. – To the eternal condemnation of Oliver, Seditionist, Traitor, Regicide, Racialist, proto-Fascist and blasphemous Bigot.  God save England from his like. – Hugo Ball.



[3] Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation. Oxford Univ. Press. London. 1947.  260pp

[4] Henry Vaughan.  Seren (Poetry Wales Press), Border Lines Series. Bridgend, Wales, 1995.  213pp.

[5] Henry Vaughan.  The Complete Poems.   Penguin Books, London.  1983 Revised Edition. 718pp.  All extracts of poems quoted in this essay come from Rudrum’s Edition.

[6] Here I use part of the translation by Alan Rudrum of Vaughan’s Latin original.

[7] Henry Vaughan and the Hermetic Philosophy.  Oxford, 1932.

[8] Henry Vaughan: Experience and the Tradition.  Univ. Chicago Press, 1959.

[9] Handel and his World.  Flamingo (Harper Collins), London 1992 pg. 285

[10] ‘Religion and Literature’ in:  T.S. Eliot. Selected Essays.  Faber & Faber. 1972 (3rd edit).

[11] Defending Ancient Springs.  Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.  Pg.118

[12] Defending Ancient Springs.  Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.  Pg 122

Lament for the Makaris

The title of this piece is borrowed from a famous poem of the same title written by William Dunbar (1459-1630). The poem, in the Scots dialect, laments the passing of famous poets (makars or makaris) and, more generally, the fact of human mortality. Part of the attractiveness of the poem is the archaic language, but the subject matter, too, is something that is never far from our own experiences and, therefore, of interest to us. Below is an extract, with my rough translation (parts only) into modern English;

I that in heill was and glaidness                       I that was healthy and glad

Am trublit now with great seikness       Am troubled now with great sickness

And feblit with infirmitie:—                    And weakened by infirmity

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.                The fear of death disturbs me


Our plesance heir is all vain glory,                 Our presence here

  This fals world is but transitory,                    This false world

The flesh is brukle, the Feynd is slee:—     The flesh is weak, the Devil is sly

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.                         The fear of death disturbs me


The state of man does change and vary,

Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,     … now happy, now sad

 Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—                       Now dancing merrily …

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.


No state in Erd heir standis sicker;                  No state on earth here stands sicker

As with the wynd wavis the wicker                   As with the wind waving the reed

So wavis this world’s vanitie:—                          So waves this world’s vanity

Timor Mortis conturbat me.


Unto the Deid gois all Estatis,                         Uno death go all classes

Princis, Prelattis, and Potestatis,                     Princes, Prelates, Potentates

Baith rich and poor of all degre:—                  Both …

    Timor Mortis conturbat me

This brings us to a very interesting question: why does sad poetry or sad music attract us? After all, we strive to be happy and Aristotle tells us that happiness is our one true telos or goal. Sad songs or music or poetry seems to be a feature of most cultures, but it is particularly evident in Gaelic cultures. Recall all of those sad songs of Thomas More (written, alas, for a mainly English Music Hall audience).  How often have I seen grown men weep as they listened to these songs! And how right was Chesterton when he said of the Gaels “For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry/And all their songs are sad”.

It is difficult to find an answer to the question posed above, but there is certainly something in the very process of longing for better things that appeals to us. No-one has put the business better than C.S. Lewis.  In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts certain boyhood experiences where he is stricken by an intense longing and then attempts to explain the feeling:

For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; 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. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

In the course of his own Life, Lewis was eventually drawn to what he considered to be the ultimate source of those childhood experiences and they then took on a wholly new character. They were, in some strange way, an expression of joy. As he says himself, at the end of his book:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem.’ Not, of course, that I don’t often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.

Perhaps, then, this is why we listen to sad songs or read sad poetry. In Platonic terms, it is the operation of the intellect, seeking out its true home.

As a poetic form, the lament is very ancient, probably as old as human history, for it is part of the human condition to experience the gulf between human aspiration and human achievement.  One very famous example comes to us from the Old Testament, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel). But, let me end with a particularly beautiful lament – one which seeks to implicate not just the writer himself, but the whole world of matter. It is reminiscent of those famous words of St Paul in Romans 8: For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body (KJV).  The writer in the translated extract given below was a student of the ancient poet, Bion of Smyrna (circa 100BC). The lovely word, waly, an exclamation of grief, is now lost to our language.

Cry me waly upon him, you glades of the woods, and waly, sweet Dorian water; you rivers, weep I pray you for the lovely and delightful Bion. Lament you now, good orchards; gentle groves, make you your moan; be your breathing clusters, ye flowers, dishevelled for grief. Pray roses, now be your redness sorrow, and yours sorrow, windflowers; speak now thy writing, dear flower-de-luce, loud let thy blossoms babble ay; the beautiful musician is dead. …

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.

The Language of Despair

For the thousands of city workers who routinely travel in from the suburbs by train the view from the carriage window is of little moment.  Such people will usually have a newspaper or book to occupy their minds.  The scenery, for the most part, consists of rusting tin fences, brick walls, weed-infested banks, and all the accumulated debris of a mechanical civilisation.  What you look at from the train window is the backside of a civilisation – the bared and ugly buttocks of an industrial society.  And those images of squalor never seem to change much.  The rusting signal boxes, the newspapers caught up in the rank vegetation, the piles of slowly-decaying iron, were all there when I was a child.  There is something timeless about suburban railway-line squalor.  Even those faded signs on the walls advertising “Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills” have survived several generations of travellers.  Likewise with some of the slogans:  “Don’t Get Yanked Into War” is still faintly visible on the brick wall, fifty years after I first saw it as a youngster.  Some might say that this particular slogan has maintained its relevance, the message outliving the medium!

Few people would find anything uplifting in such sights.  One who did was the late Michael Wharton, better known as Peter Simple, that eccentric columnist for the Sunday Telegraph in Britain.  During the 1970s) he wrote a little piece in his column regarding the conservation of suburban railway line squalor:

They are miniature wildernesses, places that men have made, certainly, but places which have the pathos of all things that have once been used but are now neglected and abandoned: tangled garden-plots, rusting springs, shattered bricks, shards, books sodden by the rain and, blistered by the sun, lumps of newspaper that no one will ever read again.

The train, held up by signals, slows down in the summer heat; the wondering eye looks through the glass into those suburban jungles and finds there, as in childhood, a mysterious poetry.  Who knows what strange flowers – moly, nepenthes – may grow among that unloved, grimy undergrowth?

Perhaps it is as well this has not occurred to the official mind.  Wouldn’t it wish to institutionalise this sense of wonder, to incorporate it into its official system: tidy up almost all the eyesores in its own image but leave, for recreational purposes, a few Protected Areas of Designated Suburban Railway Squalor?

This is marvellously rendered and the images are instantly familiar to us.  What Wharton does not mention is the sort of unnatural rankness of the vegetation.  The weeds seem to reach absurd heights.  It brings to mind a terrible image mentioned by Leszek Kolakowski in one of his books:

I was told that near a Nazi extermination camp, where the soil was superbly fertilized with the ashes of unaccountable cremated bodies of the victims, the cabbage grew so rapidly that it had no time to form a head and produced instead a stem with separate leaves; apparently it was not edible.

In this age of ecological sensitivity, I doubt that Peter Simple’s view would find many adherents.  And yet, there is one group of people (if one could really call them a group) which does have some real emotional connection with such railway squalor.  These are the graffiti producers.  In fact, when I supposed above that the environs of the suburban rail lines exhibited a sort of timeless character, the one exception would have to be the graffiti.  I speak here not of the scrawled political slogans or the dribbling obscenities (Peter Simple very tastefully described the subject matter of this latter category as “advice on human reproductive processes”).  Nor am I concerned with those outpourings of puppy love that one sees painted on hoardings or carved into trees and park benches, arrowed hearts with “Trevor loves Laura” or similar. Such little inscriptions are probably as old as writing itself. I have read somewhere that crude inscriptions have been found on the inner sides of certain pyramid stones presumably left by the citizens or their corvées. One of them reads: ‘the Pharaoh must be mad’!   I am concerned, rather, with those strange hieroglyphics which fall in a sort of no-mans-land between recognisable written characters and formless doodling, or between modern art and wholly randomised angular forms. Some of us, of course, would make no distinction between modern art and wholly randomised forms, but opinions differ on this matter and I refuse to be drawn into an argument. Whatever the case, the graffito producer of the latter categories – a sort of post literate language- seems to be a new development in the ancient ecosystem of the railway wilderness.  Here is a shining example of Darwinian evolution at work.

The more astute observer – a sort of railway siding ecologist – will be able to discern many other characteristics of this mode of human communication.  In the first place, one can quite properly speak of a demography of graffiti. Its presence and abundance is demonstrably correlated with urban wastelands such as rail corridors.  Furthermore, within its total range or territory, one can speak of trends in abundance or density.  It works something like this:  As you travel in from the most outer of the suburbs, the density of graffiti on available substrates (walls, tin fences, billboards, etc.) gradually increases until a maximum is reached in those industrial suburbs ringing the inner city. Thereafter, as one approaches the city centre itself, the density of graffiti tends to diminish.

One other characteristic in the demography of graffiti is clearly discernable.  Within its general habitat, a definite dominance hierarchy prevails.  The most favoured sites – large walls or fences in full view of the travelling public- tend to exhibit the most highly developed forms of the product.  These are often works on a massive scale, full of intricate detail and, usually, many-coloured.  Less favoured sites such as metal signal boxes, car bodies, posts, and small billboards, are colonised by more primitive forms of the work, often no more than a single scrawl made (one supposes) with a single movement of the hand.  A comparison with biological colonisation is not at all out of place. The most complex and well-developed species occupy the most fertile niches whilst the lowest-order colonisers are pushed to the marginal habitats.

We need to differentiate, too, between what I will call, for want of better terms, scriptorial graffiti and pictorial graffiti.   The former is related to written text, the latter is not.  There is, of course, a gradation from one to the other so that strict categorisation is not always possible.  As a rule though, the pictorial form is on a larger scale, occupies the better niches, and is usually multicoloured.  Moreover, the pictorial graffiti often shows signs of real artistic ability.  The colours are well chosen and well blended. The work shows some evidence of overall concept and of planning.  Remembering that these larger pictorial works are probably executed under the cover of darkness and in some haste (lest the offenders be observed and apprehended), we have to grudgingly admit that production in such circumstances requires real talent.

There are, in fact, several problems with the use of the ‘word ‘graffiti’ to cover such a range of defacing techniques.  In the first place, the origin of the word is from the Italian graffio – ‘a scratch’, and is this somewhat inappropriate for the larger, pictorial works. Again, the word graffiti is, strictly speaking, a plural noun in Italian and its singular is graffito.  However we now tend to use the word as a mass noun with a singular verb.  To add to the confusion, many people now regard pictorial graffiti as an art form, thereby blurring the distinction between art and vandalism.  Mind you, I would be the first to admit that some of the more complex graffiti designs are infinitely preferable to much of the rubbish that hangs in galleries of modern art.

We now come to the most difficult question of all.  Does an individual work of graffito have any meaning?  Let us leave aside, for the moment, the question of why it was produced.  Can it be read or deciphered in such a way as to deliver a common understanding to all who study it?  On first appraisal, that seems a silly notion.  The stuff seems to be simply some sort of doodling by minds which have no other purpose than to deface or to establish some sort of territorial conquest- “see that there; I did that”. One thinks of those Viking raiders of old who, having sacked some little village, were often wont to carve a rune or two on some imposing local monument.

And yet, I still have some lingering doubts.  Is it not the case that, when you look at scriptorial graffiti, certain shapes or certain strange hieroglyphs seem to show up wherever you go.  Sometimes, those strange scrawls seem maddeningly close to an English or Greek or Cyrillic character and yet, not quite the thing.  They are not quite intelligible, but yet not really to be classified as random movements of a marking pen or a paint brush.  A possibility begins to form in your mind.  Could those strange hieroglyphs really constitute some form of primitive written language?  If that were the case, then it would have to be some sort of unconscious action – a case of the writer being simply an unwitting intermediary allowing the unconscious mind to express itself. We must suppose it to be unconscious since to do otherwise would be to postulate some sort of underground “school” in graffiti, where the language is taught.

Now I am well aware of certain types of graffiti which are partially or fully legible to ordinary folk like us.  Recently, looking out from a train window over a vast demolition site, I saw a message scrawled on a single remaining brick wall.  It read “Power to the lonely”. In other cases, the letters are simply deformed English characters which probably could be recognised with a bit of practice.  Indeed, there are helpful sites on the World Wide Web which instruct the young criminal on how to produce such deformed letters with a single stroke of the spray can or marking pen.  These letters are not what I have in mind.  I am thinking, rather, of markings which cannot be associated with any recognisable characters in any language and yet seem to be reproduced, as the same shapes, in different places at different times.  It is a case of something “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken” as Shakespeare tells us in one of his sonnets.

I suppose we have a sort of precedent for graffiti as unconscious language in that strange case of William Butler Yeats and the “automatic writing” of his wife, which led to the publication of A Vision in 1926.  More pertinent, perhaps, is that scholarly work on cultural ethnology and mythology, Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (Nonpareil Books – D.R. Godine, New Hampshire, 1977).  Here the authors present some very interesting data on the unconscious transmission of certain universal elements of myth.   Meaning can be transmitted without understanding.  We have that on the good authority of Aristotle who defined an esoteric doctrine as one which is learned long before it is understood.

Here then is a golden opportunity for all those young and budding students of language and ethnology padding about the Groves of Academus. Get yourself a research grant to travel around the world, photographing graffiti.  When you get back home, compare all of your material and look for some common symbols.  If you are successful then, without doubt, you will achieve a status comparable to that of Sir James Frazer.  You will have discovered a new language and a new, universal tribe. You may even be able to translate this language.  The world will be your oyster. Mind you, I could be years behind the running with this suggestion.  Some American museum of modern art has probably commissioned such a study and, even while I write this, distinguished academic journals are probably moderating an intense debate in the “correspondence” columns.  After all, Peter Simple did briefly mention a rather shadowy figure called “The Master of Paddington” whose works in graffiti are avidly sought by just such museums.

But let us leave aside such matters of intrinsic meaning, interesting though they are. How is one to interpret all this graffiti stuff in terms of human behaviour?  I am not a psychologist or sociobiologist, but I do have a theory.  I propose that the occurrence and relative abundance of what  will call “traditional” or “old fashioned” graffiti is simply a direct and tangible manifestation of human anxiety, human frustration, and of a sense of hopelessness.  It is, in short, a sort of index of spiritual sickness.  I omit here the larger and more complex examples of graffiti “art” where the ‘artist’ might well be able to admire his or her own production and, indeed, entertain the idea that others might enjoy it too.  What I am referring to her is that graffiti which simply defaces without doing anything else.  I am aware that many scholarly papers have been written about the motivations associated with graffiti vandalism – protest, notoriety, challenge, and so on.  Many of these studies also suggest that the phenomenon is not limited to any particular social grouping but most seem to agree that the ‘traditional’ form is produced predominantly by young males.  This is apparently not the case with ‘stencilling” where young girls are often involved too.

In any age, it is reasonable to assume that the particular Weltanschauung expresses itself in different ways at different levels in society.  Our own age is characterized by a worldview which is actually a negation of that very concept.  There is no worldview, no meaning outside biological determinism, which might explain our existence.  Amongst the intellectuals this is characterized by the flight from metaphysics.  Reality is what you wish to make it in your particular ‘language game’. So it was that Nietzsche, the harbinger of the age of unreason, exhorted the Übermensch to throw of the shackles of reason and the slave mentality of religion to proclaim the individual will as supreme master. That’s fine if you have the wherewithal to maintain such a philosophy and still earn a quid and enjoy life. Nietzsche, it is true, went mad in the end but other apostles of meaninglessness, Freud for example, enjoyed huge success.  In our own time, Richard Rorty has made a very successful public lecture career promoting the idea that we should embrace meaninglessness as a way of ‘letting the fly out of the flybottle’ to quote Wittgenstein.

But philosophies, or should I say anti-philosophies, have a way of percolating downwards and they will invariably manifest themselves at other levels in society where they cannot be sustained. For some teenagers in industrial suburbia perhaps the hopelessness of a life without meaning expresses itself in the diseased art-form of graffiti. Maybe when human creativity is stifled in this way the artistic desire burns on but, finding itself thwarted at every natural opening, finally expresses itself in the diseased form of graffiti.  The crippled intellect, deformed by the blight of meaninglessness, slouches out under the cover of darkness to relieve itself in this manner.  It is a sort of defecation of the intellect.  This explanation may not apply to the larger, pictorial forms of graffiti whose production is associated with a quite separate and well-defined sub-culture.  But more of that shortly.

And so, getting back to my proposal for a world-wide study of graffiti script, there seems little doubt as to what those strange hieroglyphs will say if someone is fortunate enough to break to code.  It will be something like those penultimate words from the Cross – Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabactani – a cry of anguish from the heart.  But, unlike the Golgotha cry which led to a triumph of the spirit, the anguish of the graffiti producer remains unanswered by the thousands of commuters who glide past it every day, their minds firmly fixed on the Dow Jones Index or the latest Mills and Boon romance.  The traditional type of graffiti is not a species of art, nor a merely destructive by-product of a criminal mind.  It is a cry for help.

Now, as I have already indicated, this sort of explanation might do for the sorts of graffiti that I observed along suburban railway lines in former times.  But things have changed in the graffiti scene over the last two decades.  There is a new breed of graffiti and it is not necessarily produced by sick people.  It is more commonly produced by hip people.   According to numerous official reports on the problem, one type of graffiti has come to dominate the practice over the past twenty years.  This is the graffiti which “forms an integral part of an entrenched sub-culture called Hip Hop”.  It is difficult to give a brief summary of what Hip Hop entails.  One element consists of the “performance” of certain types of music where human voices talk over the beat of the music or where elaborate sound mixing is used to produce “stuttering” or “scratching effects.  This, then, is a sort of auditory, dithyrambic, graffiti.  Another element is break dancing where the participants engage in vigorous athletic movements and whose exponents, I am told, include Michael Jackson – an ‘apostasy of the dance’ perhaps, to misquote Wagner.  But “Spraycan Art” or “Writing”, (which is how these folk quaintly refer to graffiti), is also part of the Hip Hop culture.

The interesting thing about the Hip Hop scene is its mimicry of religion.  The three elements, dance, music and art are precisely what one finds in a huge range of tribal religions. In many cases, there is also some form of initiation and some type of ‘ordeal’ to be undergone.  Mircea Eliade, that renowned historian of religion, has suggested that even in wholly desacralised societies like our own, we carry within us a large stock of camouflaged religious myths and degenerated rituals.  The unconscious has a religious aura because its structure and contents are the result of immemorial existential situations.  For Eliade, every existential crisis once again puts into question both the reality of the world and human presence in the world and the crisis is ‘religious’ because “on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one”.

And so, what we are dealing with in the Hip Hop scene is no longer the sad product of tortured minds.  It is a well-organised counter-culture with sophisticated web sites.  “Folios” or collections of “railway carriage art” can be found at such sites.  The cult also has its own specialist language and I have in front of me a glossary of common terms used by the Hip Hop people. Some examples:

Throw-up:        A name painted quickly with one layer of spray paint

Bomb:              Prolific painting or marking with ink

Writer:             A practitioner of the art of graffiti

Tag:                 A writer’s signature with marker or spray paint

Public style:     Graffiti lettering which is legible to the general public

Hit:                  To tag up any surface with paint or ink

Kill:                 To hit or bomb excessively


The New South Wales Graffiti Information Service, which I consulted on the internet, also provides some information under the heading “Graffiti and Art”.  There is here an interesting sentence which goes; “It has been said that the only difference between vandalism and art may be permission”.  That is a fertile topic for another essay but I’m afraid I could not muster the necessary restraint to deal with such a statement in a cool, dispassionate and wholly objective manner.  Suffice to say that I can think of interesting and parallel analogies from other spheres of human activity:  “The only difference between suicide and murder is permission” or “The only difference between charity and robbery is permission”.  And so on.

What’s to be done about graffiti?  According to some published estimates, it costs Australia somewhere between $50 million and $100 million annually.  Like every other problem confronting us at the moment, the usual response from the authorities is to call for “public education” or “awareness programs” or “youth counselling”.  Certain concrete measures are being taken by some Councils and businesses.  Walls can be painted with special anti-graffiti paints or cleaned with special solvents.  But I cannot see this working for too long.  When sufficient walls, fences, etc. have been painted with anti-graffiti paint the “free market economy” will come into effect and certain paint companies will be able to exploit a new niche market opportunity by supplying anti-anti-graffiti paint to the Hip Hop client.  We don’t want any of this restrictive trade stuff.

Perhaps the way to solve the graffiti problem is to normalise it.  I note that some suburban schools have already moved in this direction by allowing large “murals” to be painted on school walls, fences, etc.  But we need to take it much further.  Promote it as a healthy leisure-time activity and provide suitable sites (at market rates per square metre) by way of blank billboards.  These “art sites” could be pre-sold to the client with a standard caveat so that any problems of pre-emptive strikes by freeloading Hip-Hoppers are the buyer’s responsibility.  Courses on graffiti composition, graffiti interpretation etc. could be offered at university level.  The new “privatised” sections of the major universities could very well turn a shilling or two here by joining forces with paint companies, billboard construction companies, etc.  Once all this happens, the whole scene will slowly lose its attraction.  We have a precedent in the case of faded jeans.  It was once de rigueur for the young rebel to wear tattered and faded jeans, preferably with large rips, etc.  Then, of course, the fashion companies lobbed on to this new market and soon everyone was wearing faded designer jeans. The young rebels gave up in disgust and began wearing baseball caps back the front. But this too, will no doubt be ‘normalised’.  And so, on it goes – a very material form of dialectical materialism.

Earlier in this essay, I made the assumption that graffiti of the unintelligible type is a relatively recent development.  That, of course, may not be true.  We must at least entertain the possibility that such a mode of expression – a protest or an attempted relief from intellectual despair – may be as old as human history.  We have an account in the ancient literature of the shipwrecked Aristippus and his men being swept up onto the Rhodian Shore. They have no idea where they are, and they are gripped by that fear associated with all unknown places – “here there be tygers”.  Then, in the sand, they see markings – unintelligible but clearly of human origin.  And so Aristippus delivered up a line which has now become a commonplace in the history books: “Let us be of good hope, for indeed, I see the traces of men”. I sometimes imagine that what he saw was an early example of graffiti.  Perhaps some outcast from the nearby city, some youth recently made jobless as a result of a new shipment of slave labour, had scrawled his frustration and sense of hopelessness upon the sand.  The New Testament, too, contains that famous incident where Jesus, having posed an awkward question to those who were about to stone the adulterous woman, bends down and writes in the sand.  Was he writing down the sins of the stone-throwers or was it just indecipherable doodling while he waited for an answer?  And, of course, I need to mention that famous incident of graffiti production given in Daniel in his account of Belshazzar’s Feast – Mene mene, tekel upharshin.  Well, it wasn’t really graffiti but it was rather difficult to interpret.  Could we not say that today’s writing on the wall is no less prophetic than that mentioned by Daniel?

Even more shocking thoughts come to mind.  Readers of this essay will no doubt recall a number of recent television programs dealing with the development of Homo sapiens.  It started with Jacob Bronowski and Sir Kenneth Clark, but then everyone else jumped on the bandwagon.  Certain cave paintings from whatever lithic period are given as evidence of our “coming of age’ as it were. We think immediately of Chauvet and Lascaux.  This interest in art, they suppose, really marks out the beginnings for civilised humankind.  I think you know what I am about to say, so I’ll just set the scene for you.   It is a starlight night sometime in the Neolithic era. The tribal elders are up on the hill with the young initiates.  They stand between two great rocks placed there in the dim past by their ancestors to mark the positions of the setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.  The lesson in astrogeography is about to begin and the chief teacher points to a constellation of stars we know as Ursa Major.  Tomorrow afternoon, it will be basic geometry.  Down below, meanwhile, two spotty-faced youths recently ejected from the class for sub-standard work, creep into a storage cave under the cover of darkness.  One holds aloft a sputtering torch.  The other carries a crude pot, possibly made from a Pterodactyl skull.  It contains red ochre and some lumps of charcoal.  They are clearly up to no good.  All this time, they are stuttering out some sort of litany but the words are unintelligible and appear to be repeated after the fashion of a record player stuck in the one groove.  Make of it what you will!

William Blake and Gender Studies

Jorge Louis Borges once wrote a little piece of fiction entitled On Exactitude in Science, where the story line pointed to an inverse relationship between scientific exactitude and utility. The fictional example was that of a map-making guild in some long-departed empire where, as the author supposed, the science improved by such rapid strides that a map was eventually produced to the scale of a mile to a mile. Its users, however, found it to be somewhat cumbersome and it was eventually abandoned.

In many modern departments of human knowledge, I want to propose quite the reverse sort of relationship between knowledge and utility. That is to say, the less we know about a particular entity, the greater is our certitude concerning its origins and its nature and, concomitantly, the more useful this lack of data becomes. By way of example, consider all those documentaries on television giving us, at long last, the ‘facts’ concerning such matters as the origin of the universe, the origins of life, how the Pyramids were built, and so on. How incredibly useful have these grand explanations been to the media programmers and producers! This phenomenon is by no means restricted to scientific knowledge. In almost every other department of modern knowledge, the same relationship seems to hold, viz. the fewer facts we have, the more detailed and final are our explanations. Indeed, if anything, the business is much further advanced in the humanities than in the sciences.  I have chosen, for the remainder of this essay, to give just one example from the former category, that of interpreting the life and artistic output of William Blake.

You will find Blake quoted with approval by Californian hippies, by advanced churchmen, by mad anarchists, by sober conservatives, and most especially, by militant feminists. Add to this a veritable army of Freudians and Jungians (especially the latter) with their deep, psychological insights and, inevitably, the gender studies crowd. In fact, modern commentaries on Blake have been almost entirely taken over by the gender studies crowd. Gender studies is where it is at.

And yet, we have very little detailed knowledge of Blake’s life. He was largely ignored or dismissed in his own lifetime. Nearly all our primary data comes from Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, first published in 1863. Blake had already been dead for forty years by this time, and largely forgotten. If he was remembered it was usually as ‘mad Blake’.

Anyone who has read Gilchrist’s Blake will realize that the compilers relied heavily on the reminiscences of others – the recollections of those of Blake’s friends still alive in the 1850s. If we add to Gilchrist’s Blake, any new information contained in Crabb Robinson’s Reminiscences, and in Geoffrey Keynes’ carefully collected Letters of William Blake and The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, we pretty much exhaust the primary records. It is the totality of these meagre gleanings which has provided the raw materials for a veritable Blake industry today. Of course it is not so much the facts concerning Blake and his life that provide grist for the mill but, rather, the content of the poetry and prose produced by the man. Here, the term ‘poetic licence’ takes on an entirely new meaning, and all of those strange visionary utterances that Blake gives us are  subjected to the most bizarre and fantastic interpretations, far outstripping the sometimes weird and incomprehensible productions of the original author. This is only possible, of course, because we know so little of what Blake said and did outside of his artistic productions and his largely business-like letters to friends and benefactors. When he did attempt to give some sort of exegesis regarding his symbolism, one has to say that it was rarely clear enough to give some unequivocal explanation.

Despite all this, it is the case that there is in Blake’s work some special quality which draws us to him. He will always be popular with people of a certain sensitivity. There is incredible beauty in some of the poetry, mixed with that childlike simplicity we more often associate with the great saints of the Church. There is also that prophetic edge to his work which, however strangely it may be presented, impresses itself upon us. We can understand why he railed against Bacon, Hume and Locke because, deep down, we know that their philosophies fail to assuage our spiritual hunger.

Among the first to adopt Blake as a true prophet was that super-aesthete of the Victorian era, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Christian-hater, promoter of sexual licence, and the Mr Naughty of his era, Swinburne found in Blake’s poetry a sort of apologia for his own views. Swinburne’s analysis of Blake, in fact, could well be regarded as the primogenitor of the modern plague of ‘gendered’ or ‘sexual’ analyses of Blake. Of course, not all Blake scholars of the last century or so have been of this mould. When Yeats and Ellis published their Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical in 1893, Yeats remonstrated with the earlier biographers and interpreters for having neglected the spiritual symbolism in Blake. But Yeats, too, had a tendency to regard all natural impulses as good, just like Swinburne. There are other Blake commentators who seek to place the artist firmly within an older tradition, but not necessarily the Christian tradition. Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) was such a one. For Raine, who published Blake and Tradition in 1969, Blake was the disciple of an Ur-religion – a timeless religion which, though set in a sort of Christianity, was in fact much wider in its scope and incorporated elements of Neo-Platonism and Greek Mystery Religions.

Many other Blake commentaries date from roughly the same time period as Raine, and operate within the same general framework  of sober scholarship ­– David Erdman’s William Blake: Prophet Against Empire (1954), Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), and S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary (1965). All of these, it may be said, are scholarly works with a particular interest in Blake’s use of symbols, his sources, and so on. Of course, they differ in their approach to Blake.  Erdman, for instance, concentrates on the social and political aspects of Blake’s work, whilst Damon is much more interested in Blake’s use of symbols, his allusions to Scripture, etc.

Despite all their shortcomings, most of the earlier commentaries on Blake (before his appropriation by the gender studies mob) shared at least one common belief. They did believe that Blake was a mystic, however differently they might have applied that term. But to say that Blake was a mystic raises two very large questions. Firstly, mysticism itself is one of the most abused words in our language, and we ought to clear what we mean when we employ the word. No-one has put it better than Evelyn Underhill in her Mysticism (1911), the standard work in this area:

Mysticism … has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every type of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics.

… Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.

Of particular importance in the above quotation is the term “theological formula” because the true mystic always operates within some religious tradition. There is no unmediated transcendental order.

The second difficulty relates to the incommunicability of the mystical experience. If Blake was a mystic, then he cannot properly communicate his visions to others because it is the unvarying mark of the true mystic that he or she is unable, in the final analysis, to convey their experiences in mere words. Of necessity, they are forced back to incomplete analogies and inadequate metaphors.

Now, when you read Underhill’s account of mysticism, it is clear that the principal concern of the mystic is to reveal or reflect the experience of union with the Divine, and that expression is almost always in terms of love. Invariably, the analogy used is the human love between a man and a woman.  As Underhill says:

It was natural and inevitable that the imagery of human love and marriage should have seemed to the mystic the best of all images of his own “fulfillment of life”; his soul’s surrender, first to the call, finally to the embrace of Perfect Love.  It lay ready to hand; it was understood of all men …

A great deal of the imagery in Blake revolves around this notion of a union made in love, and let us immediately add that Blake’s use of this imagery often takes him outside the bounds of that moral order traditionally associated with human sexuality. You have two alternatives to explain these excursions. The first, and traditional explanation is that Blake is simply using the imagery in much the same way as it has been used by the saints and mystics of the Church. We need to recall that Blake is striving, however inadequately, to represent the human body as Platonic Form or ‘Divine Idea’. That is to say, Blake strives to give us, in pictures or words, that intellectual idea by means of which we recognise ‘man-ness’ and ‘woman-ness’. If he tends to emphasise male musculature or the voluptuous curves of the female form, it is purely for this reason. It is the same with all of his imagery. As Chesterton says, Blake is an artist “of the solid line” whose images are super-real – there is no hint of vague impressionism in Blake.

But, of course, few would accept that explanation today. The second alternative is the one taken by most modern scholars of the ‘gender’ school – to regard Blake as a pioneer of the sexual revolution and to relate his poetry directly to those sorts of sexual images which present themselves to what Underhill calls “the prurient imagination”. And so we come to that vast army of modern Blake scholars, all rendering his output in terms of ‘gender analysis’, and luxuriating upon his images of male and female in much the same way as a pervert gazes on a clothesline of women’s underwear. Coventry Patmore once wrote of such people that “they often feed the swine of their lusts with the pearls of their perception; they look on the bared splendours of Purity with eyes of the untransfigured passions …”

Here, I must confess that my background reading has been limited. My shortfall here is not due to any laziness or desire to block out any views of Blake which I find contrary to my own.  Rather, it is one of sheer revulsion. Reading this stuff is a sort of literary coprophagy. This literature, as it seems to me, is entirely destructive and will have a malign influence on all who read it, especially young people.

In 1982, in a much-cited essay entitled “Dangerous Blake”, W.J.T. Mitchell supposed that the ‘old’ way of reading Blake – the way of Yeats, Raine, Frye, Erdman, etc. – might soon change. The assumption of a deep symbolism, of a real spirituality was, perhaps, a bit too sober and too ‘religious’ for the new-look humanities departments. He prophesied that “we are about to rediscover the dangerous Blake, the angry, flawed Blake, the crank … the sexist, the madman … the tyrannical husband …” etc. Perhaps there was a danger that, unless things were cranked up a little, the whole Blake studies scenario would run out of energy. More likely, I think, was the growing unpalatability of a Blake who showed real evidence of traditional religious belief (however unorthodox). A new-look Blake was needed. Well, regrettably, that prophecy of Mitchell’s came true with a vengeance.

The business seems to have kicked off with some of the earlier feminists who actually predated Mitchell’s piece, and may well have influenced him. In 1973, one Irene Tayler published an essay entitled “The Woman Scaly”. It begins by reproducing a little epigram from Blake’s note book:

A Woman scaly & a Man all Hairy

Is such a Match as he who dares

Will find the Woman’s Scales scrape off the Man’s Hairs.

Not really Blake at his best, but as the barber says in The Man from Ironbark, “’Twas just a little harmless joke, a trifle overdone”. Not so for Ms Tayler. The “hairy youth” is “a spirit of rejuvenating energy and revolution” whose dominion heralds the return of Adam into Paradise. The ‘woman scaly”, so we learn, is an obstacle to this end, producing henpecked husbands, oppressed peoples, and a fallen humanity. Her scales place her in company with the devil, and fishiness (scales–get it!) means that her home is the sea. Are you still with me?

As you might have predicted, certain other feminists took issue with Ms Tayler, and a rash of published material appeared. These ‘studies’ then gradually condensed around the newly emerging gender studies industry. Since then, the output has been prodigious. Let me allude to just a few titles: Blake and Homosexuality, Christopher Hobson (2000), William Blake and the Body, Tristanne Connelly (2002), William Blake and Gender, Magnus Anskarsjo (2006), William Blake and the Daughters of Albion, Helen Bruder (2007) [feminist analysis]. Here, I must not forget a particularly choice example, Why Mrs Blake Cried, by Marsha Schuchard (2006). She cried, you see, because of Blake’s desire to take concubines in sanctified sex, along the lines of the Patriarch Abraham (Blake was a bit early for Brigham Young). Just to bring you up to date, I should add a new title to this oeuvre, Sexy Blake, (2013), edited by the same Connelly and Bruder mentioned in my list above.

As I say above, my reading of this stuff has been limited but I did force myself to read one such volume, Magnus Anskarjo’s Blake and Religion, 2009. I had, of course, hoped to find there some treatment of Blake’s rather idiosyncratic treatment of Christianity. Not much of that I’m afraid.  Instead we get the sort of exegesis you might expect from people who are hell bent on finding, in every line of Blake, sexual imagery of the grossest kind. Even Swinburne was not guilty of this sort of thing.  I don’t wish to offend the sensitive natures of my readers with the earthy details, but I do need to show you just how far these people will go in pursuit of their mad obsessions. Many readers who admire Blake’s poetry will remember these lines:

 The sword sung on the barren heath

The sickle in the fruitful field

The sword he sung a song of death

But could not make the sickle yield.

Now, all you ignoramuses who are under the impression that this is Blake’s innocent re-modelling of the “swords into ploughshares” idea (Isaiah 2:3-4) or something similar, need to read Anskarjo. “The sword”, he tells us, “denotes the penis, and the sickle the vagina”. He goes on: “This piece is loaded with sexual frustration and unfulfilled desire; in spite of strong efforts the speaker is not allowed to make love with his fancied object”.


Reading Anskarjo, you immediately see what so excites the diseased imagination of these later Blake interpreters (I refuse to use the word scholar). A couple of decades ago it was discovered that Blake’s mother had earlier connections with the Moravian Church. Now the Moravian Church is a very old Protestant Church which came to England in the 18th C. For a short time in its history, a minority of its disciples held rather strange views on human sexuality, and these have been eagerly pounced on by the Blake gender studies crowd. Before this, they managed to get some mileage out of Swedenborgianism, but the Moravians offered a far more fertile (no pun intended) hunting ground. The possibility that Blake himself might have been influenced by the more extreme views of some of the Moravians opens enormous vistas of eroticism and uninhibited sexual activity. What a boon!

There are two ways of viewing the love between a man and a woman – spiritually and carnally.  The great theologians of the Western tradition managed a synthesis of these two aspects – the spiritual and the physical – which elevated the relationship to the sacramental level. The gender studies crowd are determined to destroy this image and to drag human sexuality down to the level of rutting animals. As you might imagine, nearly all the purveyors of this stuff are university lecturers and their mad theories are being force-fed into young people at that very time when the latter are most vulnerable. Millstones and deep water come to mind.

We have not seen the end of the modern Blake industry. There are many books yet to be written –Randy Blake, Transexual Blake, Blake and the Phallus, Blake and Satanism etc. Indeed, by the time you read this, some of them WILL have been published. Sooner or later, someone will discover that Blake had a dog, or cat, or pet sheep, and then you may expect even worse. When Blake spoke of “dark, satanic mills” perhaps he was delivering a prophecy and a judgement concerning the modern university. If you, like me, enjoy Blake’s poetry, then this stuff is likely to provoke a mood of helpless anger, for nothing much can be done to stem the tide. But then, perhaps it is simply enough to feel a sense of sorrow –

For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing

And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King.

Hawthorne’s Haunted Chamber

When in his middle age Nathaniel Hawthorne had become recognized at last for his two full-length romances[1], The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he began to dream an old dream from many years before. In this dream he was still at college, or back at school, where he had been for what seemed a terribly long time while his contemporaries had all left and moved on. It was as if he were arrested in time. And in this dream, he would meet his fellow school-mates or college contemporaries in the street, and he would feel ashamed. At this point the dream would end.

He himself attributed the dream to a phase in his life when, after graduating from Bowdoin College at the age of 21, he returned to his birthplace at Salem, Massachusetts with a vague intention of writing something – stories perhaps – while working in the office of a stage-coach line owned by his maternal uncles, and maybe travelling one day to distant countries. But it seemed to him, as it must have seemed to others, that he had done none of these things, and that he had achieved nothing. The work in his uncles’ office was indefinitely deferred. He never did get to travel overseas until much later. And such writing as he did seemed to him deeply disappointing. He had a juvenile novel called Fanshawe published anonymously, at his own expense, and then recalled as many copies as he could get hold of and burned them. (He became as clear-headed a critic of his own work as anyone has been since.) He wrote sketches and tales, but could not get a publisher interested in putting out a collection of them. He burned the manuscript of another prospective book, and finally seems to have given up hope of publication in book form altogether, settling for piecemeal publication in magazines and Christmas annuals, neither of which paid very well. Moreover, the annuals printed contributions anonymously, so that he could not even acquire a reputation by which to get published more substantially.

He lived with his widowed mother and his two sisters on the third floor of the house owned by one of the uncles, for a period that turned out to be twelve years. His immediate family had been left without means when his father, a ship’s captain, like his father before him, and his father before him, had died of yellow fever in Surinam when he was four years old. Thereafter, the family had to turn to the support of his mother’s family, the Mannings, who were another ancient Massachusetts family like the Hawthornes, but rather more prosperous. It was his Manning uncles who had paid for his education, which consisted of very little of schooling, but did include a college education at Bowdoin, at the time a small new college up in the woods of Maine.

During those years in the Manning house in Salem he began to read, among the annals of the earliest years of settlement in New England, the deeds of his earliest Hawthorne ancestors, brave and stern Puritans as they were – even cruelly so, as it seemed to him.[2] This is as much as to say, the history of the American nation was also, in its earliest beginnings, his own family’s direct history – a family now in long decline, and reduced in his own generation to a condition of dependency. Most of the tales that he wrote are set in New England, either in the 18th century, in the years before the Revolutionary War, as for example “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, or a hundred years earlier still, as for example “Young Goodman Brown,” which must be set in the period somewhere about the year 1690, just before the communal madness of the notorious Witch Trials. Others such as the ‘Endicott’ stories (“Endicott and the Red Cross;” “The Maypole of Merry Mount”) reach back further still, to the primeval forest of New England, when the first marks that the Puritans made on the North American continent were still raw scars.

Henry Longfellow, a classmate at Bowdoin, and already on the way to becoming the most loved poet in the nation, wrote him a letter in commendation of his first book to be published, Twice-Told Tales (1837). In it, he alluded to Hawthorne’s “lark’s nest” (as he called it) in Salem. “More like an owl’s nest,” Hawthorne wrote in reply; and like the owl, he seldom ventured abroad till after dark:

By some witchcraft or other— for I really cannot assign any reasonable why and wherefore— I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.  Since we last met— which, I remember, was in Sawtell’s room… —ever since that time, I have secluded myself from society; and yet I never meant any such thing, nor dreamed what sort of life I was going to lead. I have made a captive of myself and put me in a dungeon, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out— and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out.

His sense of bemusement is moving. Yet the accounts that he gives of himself do not quite correspond to the observations of others – just as they overlook certain qualities in himself, perhaps because he takes them for granted. With Hawthorne, it is difficult to know where fact stops and imagination begins, as, in the tales, it is difficult to know where the natural daylight world ends and the twilight supernatural world begins, in stories such as “Young Goodman Brown”, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, and “The Wives of the Dead.” But his years in Salem were not quite so secluded as he says, neither within the Manning house, where he was in the company of his sisters and their visitors, nor outside of it, where he frequented the Salem bookstore that stocked the latest novels and enjoyed the company of his Salem friends of the Democratic Party. There would seem also to have been flirtations, and in one case a near-duel over a young woman. And in summer he would ride the stage coaches that his uncles owned, all over New England. Some of his friends later would speak of the silences in his company. These silences un-nerved Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was his neighbour – but then Emerson was already a noted orator. And even Emerson would say that there was no unease in Hawthorne’s silences.  Much later in life he was appointed to the post of American consul in Liverpool, the principle British port to the Americas. The post was a responsible one, and among other things required of him social as well as administrative skills. He never looked forward to the speeches and the social occasions required of him, and even had to prime himself in order to face them. But just as significant of the man was his complete sufficiency for whatever the position required. The appointment had been a political one, the gift of a college friend who had become President of the nation, but it was a notably successful one.

During the period of his long engagement to his future wife (a long engagement made necessary by their lack of the means), he wrote in a letter:

Here sits thy husband [to be] in his old accustomed chamber, where he     used to sit in years gone by, before his soul became acquainted with thine. Here     I have written many tales— many that have been burned to ashes— many that     doubtless deserved the same fate. This deserves to be called a haunted chamber;  for thousands upon thousands of visions have appeared to me in it; and some few     of them have become visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he  ought to make great mention of this chamber in his memoirs, because so much of  my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed;  and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent; and here

I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes          wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at     all— at least, till I were in my grave. And sometimes (for I had no wife then to keep    my heart warm) it seemed as if I were already in the grave… But oftener I was happy—at least as happy as I then knew how to be, or was aware of the possibility of  being.  By and by, the world found me out in my lonely chamber, and called me forth— not, indeed, with a loud roar of acclamation, but rather with a still, small  voice; and forth I went, but found nothing in the world that I thought preferable  to my old solitude, till at length a certain Dove was revealed to me….

The ‘Dove’ of course is Sophia herself. I note that the playfulness with which he refers to her and himself, here in this letter, but he does not back away either from the tenderness of feeling or the nobility of the love that she has opened up for them both. Hawthorne is a writer who meditates his subject; he turns it around and looks at it from different sides. Here, he is coolly aware of himself in that room as a slightly funny, slightly sad spectacle, waiting for the world to hear of him, but coolly aware of the danger of self-pity or self-justification also. In that room he did burn some of his stories, as we have seen. But others of them were tales such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” which, though published later, were written there during those twelve years of seclusion, and doing – so he says – nothing much but read, and sit, and then go walking, and they are tales beyond compare. The qualities of the letter to his wife, above, are qualities that he was able to bring to bear on the strange inner states of the characters in his stories: sympathetic, but ever watchful, even of himself. He says that this room in his uncle’s house was his ‘haunted chamber.’ Well yes, perhaps it would have seemed so when it was the place where in his imagination he had penetrated into so many haunted souls, Goodman Brown’s; Reuben Bourne’s, (“Roger Malvin’s Burial”) – even young Robin’s, in “My Kinsman Major Molineux,” or Margaret and Anne’s in “The Wives of the Dead.” (As for Wakefield’s ‘soul,’ in the story of that name, one does not quite know what to say; but whatever it is, he has penetrated it – a sort of condition of soullessness.) It is in Hawthorne’s measure of greatness to understand the paradoxes of the human soul, his own included; and to understand in his own soul that it is possible even a ‘haunted’ state might just be a form of happiness as well.

Hawthorne died in 1864, with the Civil War still continuing, sickened by the supporters of both sides, and by a war which perhaps contributed to a sense of the futility of the last romances that he had been trying to finish.

According to the note that Emerson made in his journal, the Rev. Clarke, who conducted the funeral service said in his address: “Hawthorne had done more justice than any other to the shades of life, shown a sympathy with the crime in our nature, and, like Jesus, was the friend of sinners.” His remarks are no doubt appropriate to the occasion. But they are also seriously worth pondering. What are we to make of the word “crime”, in the phrase “the crime in our nature”?

[1]  Hawthorne called his full-length stories romances, as distinct from novels.

[2]  An ancestor had been one of the hanging judges at the Salem Witch Trials.

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.