Robert Stephen Hawker

On the Death of a Poet Priest by F. G. Lee

Not where th’ Atlantic sighs upon the shore
Of the most sacred station of a saint;-
Not where uprises Ocean’s ceaseless plaint
Or swells its fury to tempestuous roar;
Not near God’s acre, which he loved so well,
Where sunbeams creep athwart Morwenna’s shrine,
Where Sacrament is shed, and signs divine
Speak of a time when seas shall no more swell;
But near the confines of his boyhood’s home,
(Now work is done and stormy skies grow black,
Changes too rude; more dangerous the track;)
Came the short summons of his Master, “Come,
O faithful servant blest.” That Garden grows
Heaven-sunned the Mystic Sharon’s blood-red Rose.

So, on the day when Blessed Mary slept,
But lived, by grace encircling Her to stand
In golden vesture, Queen at God’s Right Hand,
Her client likewise closed his eyes. Friends wept,
Because of separation round his bed;
Then joyed, with deepening thankfulness, that he
Should pass the waves of Earth’s sore-troubled sea
With pleading mother’s smile above him shed.
Fret not. Our Inn, the Church, hath rooms diverse:
He passed from one to another here. Then on
Where angel-guardians, sheltering, wait to guide
God’s servants to the Valley’s other side,
Scaring all demons, smit with eternal curse
To their dark lairs. Soon upward towards God’s throne.

Good Jesus, mercy.  Mary help.  That way
Most surely brightens to a perfect day.

*  *  *  *  *

This poem appears on pages 645-46  of The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker, edited by C. E. Byles. Dr. Frederick George Lee was the author of Memorials of the Late Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker, M. A., the second biography of Hawker to be published. Piers Brendon, in his book Hawker of Morwenstow: Portrait of a Victorian Eccentric, compares Lee’s biography with that of the notoriously unreliable work by Sabine Baring-Gould and comments that Lee ‘did nothing to present [Hawker] in a more realistic light. Indeed, he added a mythical accretion of his own’.

In his Preface to The Life and Letters, C. E. Byles includes a biographical footnote on Lee: ‘Dr. Lee was, like Hawker, a man of original stamp and strong personality. Born in 1832, he won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford in 1854. From 1859 to 1864 he lived at Aberdeen, where he founded the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. In 1867 he became Vicar of All Saints, Lambeth, and worked there for thirty-two years. He died in 1902. He was a man of many-sided interests, poet, antiquary, controversialist, in politics a High Tory, and a prolific writer on ecclesiastical subjects. He was one of the founders of the Asociation for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, the English Church Union, and the Order of Corporate Re-Union, and was said to have been one of three Bishops mysteriously consecrated at sea in connection with the last-named body. About a month before his death he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.’

A Google search shows that Lee’s Order of Corporate Reunion still has some supporters, and also provides the promising information that a collection of his papers in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University includes ‘a bound volume which appears to be a scrapbook that Lee maintained on the subject of nudity in art’.

Despite Dr Lee’s oddities (and his awful poem) he clearly provided Hawker’s widow, Pauline, with some much-needed support and comfort in the wretched weeks after her husband’s death. Byles quotes a letter that he wrote to her, dated 25 August, 1875, which reads:

‘You may perhaps know me by name as one who had the high privilege of your husband’s friendship for a quarter of a century. Every scrap of letter he wrote me I have from the first carefully preserved. His death gave me a severe shock. I lived in hope of seeing him again. I should be deeply grateful if you would give me a line with regard to his end. There was no single clergyman in the Church of England for whom I had a deeper or heartier reverence, and I pray God that we may meet in a better world. With every respectful sympathy for you and an apology for this intrusion…’

Pauline’s reply, in which she thanks him for the poem, and which begins, ‘In a position such as mine is now, when so many are ready to cast a stone at one to whom they were not worthy to hold a candle…’ is touching. Mythical accretions aside, it’s a relief to think that the second published account of her husband’s life may have provided some compensation for the hurt caused to her by Baring-Gould’s hasty and inaccurate memoir.

– The full text of Dr. Lee’s biography of Hawker is available to read online at the Open Library.