Frontispiece illustration from The Prose Works of Rev. R. S. Hawker, William Blackwood and Sons, 1894
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Robert Stephen Hawker was born on 3 December 1803 at 6 Norley Street, Plymouth, Devon, and baptised four weeks later at the church of St Andrew with St Luke, Stoke Damerel. He was the first of nine children of Jacob Stephen Hawker, a surgeon who later took Holy Orders, and Jane Elizabeth Drewitt. When Robert was about ten years old his father moved to take up a position as curate at Altarnun in Cornwall, leaving his eldest child in the care of his grandparents, and in later life Robert described his grandmother as ‘my first and latest friend as a boy’. His grandfather, Reverend Robert Hawker, vicar of Charles Church and a formidable Calvinistic preacher and writer, also played an important part in his upbringing.
A high-spirited youth, he ran away from several preparatory schools. His habit of playing practical jokes, both at home in Plymouth and during holidays with his parents, who by this time had moved to Stratton, also got him into a considerable amount of trouble. For a time he was a boarder at Liskeard Grammar School but although he showed early signs of literary promise he seemed once again to be unable to settle. At the age of sixteen he left school and worked briefly for a solicitor in Plymouth but decided against the law as a profession. His aunt, Mary Hodson, paid for him to attend Cheltenham Grammar School where he applied himself more successfully to his studies and determined to become a clergyman.
Hawker published his first book of poems, Tendrils, in 1821, under the pseudonym of ‘Reuben’. The book featured several of the visionary themes which would reoccur in his later writings and clearly showed his interest in superstitions and legends, and his passionate love of nature. Maintaining his decision to become a clergyman he continued his education at Cheltenham Grammar School, as well as reading widely.
In 1823 he was admitted into Pembroke College, Oxford, and on 6 November of the same year he married Charlotte Eliza Rawleigh I’ans. Charlotte, the second of four daughters of Colonel Wrey I’ans of Whitstone, Cornwall, was over twenty years older than her new husband, but by all accounts the couple proved a good match and the marriage was a happy one. As a married undergraduate he was obliged to transfer from Pembroke to Magdalen Hall, where the couple were joined by two of Charlotte’s sisters and he acquired the nickname of ‘the man with three wives’.
In 1825, ‘under a stag-horned oak in Sir Beville’s walk in Stowe Wood’ he composed the work for which he has since become best known, the Trelawny ballad, ‘Song of the Western Men’, and two years later he won the Oxford Newdigate Poetry Prize for his poem ‘Pompeii’. He was awarded a BA degree at Oxford in 1828.
Little is known about Hawker’s life during the years between his graduation from Oxford and his installation as vicar of Morwenstow, but it was during this period that he wrote some of his finest poetry. He was made deacon in 1829 and ordained priest in 1831, and served as curate in the remote village of North Tamerton, living in a cottage surrounded by ancient burial mounds, some of which he excavated.
His move to Morwenstow took place in 1835 and for the remaining forty years of his life his parish provided him with both a home and a source of inspiration for his writings. In the early years of his incumbency he applied himself with vigour to the task of restoration and reconstruction, building a new vicarage, a much-needed bridge near the mouth of the Coombe Valley and a school. In 1842 he experienced the first major shipwreck since his appointment as vicar, when the Caledonia was driven on to the rocks below Sharpnose Point with the loss of eight lives. The wrecks of the Phoenix in January 1843 and the Alonzo in October of the same year brought more burials but he used some of the timbers to build a hut on the cliffs which served him for the rest of his time in Morwenstow as both a watch place and a retreat. This hut is now in the care of the National Trust and can still be visited today by walkers on the South West Coast Path.
In February 1863 his first wife, Charlotte, died at the age of eighty. Hawker was desolate without her and his health suffered badly, but during the following months he was able to compose and publish what is generally regarded as his greatest work, The Quest of the Sangraal.
In October 1863 the Reverend Valentine, a vicar from Yorkshire, came to stay in Morwenstow parish, bringing with him a young Polish governess to care for his children. After some initial hesitation, Pauline Anne Kuczynski quickly grew attached to the sixty-year-old poet, and on 21 December 1864 at Holy Trinity Church, Paddington, she became his second wife. The couple’s three daughters, Morwenna, Rosalind and Juliot, were a source of both pride and anxiety to Hawker; his health was declining and the family’s financial circumstances were a constant concern. His attempts to provide an additional income through his writing proved largely unsuccessful and his sense of discouragement and exclusion from the world of literary reputations grew more and more burdensome.
Hawker’s poor state of health began to interfere with his ability to perform his duties and in April 1875 he installed a curate to take over the care of the parish. The Vicarage was temporarily given up to the newcomers and in June the family set off to stay with relations at Boscastle. Soon after their arrival Hawker’s brother became seriously ill; unable to continue as guests or to return home they moved on again to Plymouth and took lodgings at 9 Lockyer Street.
Although plans seem to have been made for a return to Morwenstow Hawker’s condition deteriorated rapidly over the next three months, leaving him too ill to travel. He was received into the Roman Catholic church on 14 August and died the following morning. His body was not returned to his parish and he was buried instead in Plymouth Cemetery on August 18 1875. Around the base of the cross erected on his tomb were inscribed the words spoken by Arthur in The Quest of the Sangraal : ‘I would not be forgotten in this land’.
© Angela Williams 2010
Brendon, Piers. Hawker of Morwenstow: Portrait of a Victorian Eccentric. Pimlico, 2002.
Byles, C. E. The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker (sometime Vicar of Morwenstow). John Lane: The Bodley Head, 1905.
Hutton, Patrick. I Would Not Be Forgotten: The Life and Work of Robert Stephen Hawker. Tabb House, 2004.