Robert Stephen Hawker

Hawker of Morwenstow: an essay by J. Ashcroft Noble

Hawker - Sonnet in Engalnd 1

The Sonnet in England and Other Essays. John Lane, 1896.

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I looked forward to owning this book – assuming from the title that it was an assessment of Hawker’s writings – and since it doesn’t appear to be available elsewhere online I was initially planning to type up the complete text. It turns out that a large part of the essay is a lazy re-hash of the Sabine Baring-Gould biography, which, despite its many faults, sparkles with wit and humanity by comparison. I can’t bear to wade through all of it and anyway it’s far too long to fit here, so I’ve settled for a couple of representative extracts.

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‘Had this page been printed a quarter of a century ago and been glanced at curiously by, say, a thousand people, it is safe to conjecture that 999 of them would certainly have asked ‘Who was Hawker?’ and unless they were West countrymen might possibly have added the further question, ‘Where is Morwenstow?’ During his life-time Robert Stephen Hawker might almost have been classed among the obscure: during the eighteen years which have elapsed since his death, the little group of lovers has grown into a crowd; and in the mind’s eye of every member of it the fascinatingly picturesque figure of the poet-priest is always seen standing out vividly against the wild background of iron crags which give a frontier to his Cornish sea-board parish. For the man Hawker oblivion has so far scattered her poppies in vain, and as long as he is remembered the place whose only fame is his will be familiar and beloved. He will always be Hawker of Morwenstow.

‘Like another interesting person who in death gained the recognition denied him in life – the late John Sterling – Hawker has had two biographers of greater contemporary note than himself. Mr Baring-Gould and Dr F. G. Lee have both given us a record of his ways and works, and each biography has its special notes of interest; but as the latter  deals mainly with Hawker the ecclesiastic the former presents by far the most vivid and realisable portrait. Robert Stephen Hawker was born at Stoke Damerel on 3rd December 1804 [this is incorrect: Hawker was born in Plymouth on 03/12/1803] and was the son of Mr J. S. Hawker, a medical man practising in Plymouth who afterwards took orders, and became first curate, then vicar, of Stratton in Cornwall. The boy’s paternal grandfather was the well-known Dr Hawker, incumbent of Charles Church, Plymouth, author of the once popular devotional work Morning and Evening Portions, and of the still popular hymn beginning, ‘Lord dismiss us with Thy blessing,’ which is in many collections attributed to other authors, poor Dr Hawker being thus robbed of what is now his sole title-deed to fame. The boy Robert had been committed to the educational care of his grandfather; and being, as ill-luck would have it, ignorant of the fact that the hymn was a tribal fetish and therefore tabu, had the audacity to inform the author that it was ‘crude and flat,’ and to produce a composition of his own on similar lines which he blandly declared to be an ‘improved version.’ Such a critic at the hearth was not to be tolerated by any Doctor of Divinity; and as the too daring boy contracted a habit of practical joking, of which his grandfather’s feminine admirers were the victims, his sojourn at Plymouth was not prolonged. At home, however, he played tricks more fantastic than ever, and after a brief and brilliant career as a not unpopular village Ishmael was despatched to the Grammar School of Cheltenham where he studied fitfully, read voraciously, and wrote many quires of verse, the visible outcome of this last occupation being a little volume of poems entitled ‘Tendrils, by Reuben.’ The booklet was not remarkable in any way, and not even interesting save as another illustration of the fact that even in the work of unmistakably original poets imitativeness precedes individuality. From Cheltenham Hawker passed to Pembroke College, Oxford, but he had been in residence only a year when his father, now a poor curate, had to tell his son that for want of means his university career must come to an end. The young man, however, determined that the means should be forthcoming; and he had recourse to an expedient so original in conception that no novelist careful of his reputation for verisimilitude would dare to make artistic use of it. Some few miles from Stratton lived the four Misses I’ans who had jointly inherited a fair estate and who possessed also separate incomes of £200 apiece. One of these ladies, Miss Charlotte I’ans, was at this time forty-one years of age, or one year older than Hawker’s mother – she had been his godmother and had taught him his letters, and as soon as the young student learned his father’s decision he resolved that this mature lady should become his wife. With characteristic impetuosity he did not wait to think twice; he did not wait even to put on his hat; but ran bare-headed from Stratton to Bude; reached his destination hot and blown, and made his astounding proposal. Almost stranger than the offer itself was its instantaneous acceptance. ‘The heart of Miss I’ans,’ writes Mr Baring-Gould, ‘was taken by storm’; in November 1824 [sic] when Hawker was twenty years of age, the curiously assorted pair were married; and till parted by death many years afterwards lived a life of idyllic happiness and unfailing mutual love and devotion. The young husband now pursued his studies at Magdalen Hall, taking care at the same time to preserve mental flexibility by sportive recreations like unto those by which he had won fame in boyhood. Memorable among these was his triumphant appeal to the superstitious credulity of the simple-minded natives of Bude where he and his wife spent the long vacation. On a moonlight night of the July of 1825 or 1826 he swam or rowed out to a rock at some little distance from the shore, adorned himself with a flowing wig of seaweed, enveloped his naked legs in an oilskin wrapper, and sitting on the rock in this imperfect but aesthetic costume flashed the moonbeams about from a hand mirror, and sang aloud until he had attracted the attention of some passers-by who ran into Bude declaring themselves the discoverers of a genuine mermaid.’

(Pages 182 – 186)

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The essay becomes more interesting once the biographical section is over and Noble finally turns his attention to the poetry; here are the last few pages.

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‘One of his poems, a fragment containing some of his finest work, has for its title The Quest of the Sangraal, and it is interesting to notice how Hawker’s treatment of the theme differs from that of Lord Tennyson. The latter regards the quest as a mystical representation of the morbid excitement which is one of the symptoms of spiritual decay, and accordingly the king, who symbolises the perfect sanity of the soul cannot but regard it with sad foreboding; while to the former it is a real and grand culmination of spiritual vitality, and ‘Arthur, the son of Uter and the Night,’ is the first to raise the cry,-

‘Ho: for the Sangraal vanished vase of God.’

‘Even had The Quest been completed it would certainly have possessed less of artistic finish than the Laureate’s Holy Grail, but, mere fragment as it is, it is infinitely richer in that fervour of feeling only generated by impassioned vision of  a vividly apprehended reality. And this is a typical specimen of Hawker’s work in the field of legend. Any story which satisfied his imagination and harmonised with his faith carried its own evidence with it, and stood in no need of the gross external proof demanded by an age which knows more of historic criticism than of ‘the witness of the Spirit.’ Matthew Arnold, in many a musical wail has complained that we cannot sing such songs as were sung of old because we have lost the beliefs which possessed the older singers. Robert Stephen Hawker certainly did not labour under this disqualification. His was the hunger and thirst for the unknown an illimitable which inspired Tertullian’s celebrated certum quia impossibile est, – a saying which one feels must have been as spiritually fascinating to Hawker as it was intellectually attractive to Sir Thomas Browne.

‘In the border region – the region in which things of sense still remain, but are seen through a luminous mist of spiritual symbolism and association – Hawker was peculiarly at home. He never went on a deliberate search after hidden meanings or morals as do the mechanically-minded mystics, to whom every object in nature and in religious art is an arbitrary hieroglyph, with no fluidity of significance or multiplicity of suggestion. His mind worked instinctively; he felt before he saw; and indicated with the indescribable truth of emotion rather than with the outlined precision of thought, the unseen spiritual vesture with which things seen are clothed, and by which they are glorified. There is no more characteristic illustration of this special sensibility and activity than the sonnet entitled ‘The Vine,’ the theme of which was supplied by what was to him a never-failing source of suggestion, the church of his forty years’ ministry.

Hearken: There is in old Morwenna’s shrine,
A lonely sanctuary of the Saxon days,
Reared by the Severn sea for prayer and praise,
Amid the carved work of the roof, a vine.
Its root is where the eastern sunbeams fall
First in the chancel, then along the wall
Slowly it travels on, a leafy line,
With here and there a cluster, and anon
More and more grapes, until the growth hath gone
Through arch and aisle. Hearken: and hear the sign.
See at the altar side the steadfast root:
mark well the branches, count the summer fruit:
So let a meek and faithful heart be thine,
And gather from that tree a parable divine.

‘The kind of work represented here must be enjoyed for its beauty, tenderness, and spiritual fervour; but it is often somewhat lacking in healthy virility, and it is therefore needful to emphasise the statement that Hawker was essentially a manly poet. His sympathy with the ascetic life, and a cloistral tendency of imagination which, if not inborn, became at an early age habitual, never dulled the quickness of his feeling for the simpler human emotions to which, in so many of his poems he has given beautiful and adequate expression, without ever laying himself open to the charge often, and not always unjustly, brought against Wordsworth of having suffered the prosaic accidents of his subjects to overpower – so far, at least, as immediate impression was concerned – their really poetic essentials. Nor did his mystical pre-possessions ever blunt his enjoyment of the merely sensuous side of Nature; and the pleasure he derived from the sonorous break of a mighty wave upon an opposing cliff, the strong flight of a solitary sea-fowl, or the rustling of a mountain stream through a narrow valley to the sea, had as much of the flesh and blood quality which belongs to the typical sportsman, as of the more contemplative delight which is the possession of a poet with an eye for things behind this show’.

‘It is indeed not unfitting that the force which inevitably belongs to any last word should be given to the expression of a conviction that half, or more than half, of the charm of Hawker’s verse is to be found in it’s rich humanity. It is verse through which warm blood circulates, in which a strong pulse beats – verse which moves us as we are moved by a human voice of tenderness in time of sorrow, by the ringing accent of courage in time of fear. There have been finer lyrics than ‘Queen Gwennivar’s Round,’ finer sonnets than ‘Pater vester pascit illa,’ finer ballads – though not many of them – than ‘The Silent Tower of Bottreau’; but there are few poems of any rank which find a way home to us more immediately than they.’

(Pages 207 – 211)

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James Ashcroft Noble (1844-1896) was a journalist and poet. He spent much of his working life in the north west of England but was nationally known and widely respected as an essayist and critic. He published in The Yellow Book and helped to found the Liberal journal the New Age. He also gave encouragement to the young Edward Thomas and Thomas later married Noble’s daughter, Helen.

– Kedrun Laurie has written an interesting article on Noble – the PDF file can be accessed at The Yellow Nineties Online.

– Noble’s Verses of a Prose Writer, and Morality in English Fiction are available to read online at the Open Library.

– Read the title essay, The Sonnet in England at the Sonnet Central website.

Text © Angela Williams 2011