Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Patron Saint of Struggling Authors

More Thoughts on the Life and Times of Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker

Last week, I mused on the pranks and practices of Robert Stephen Hawker, the Vicar of Morwenstow, in Cornwall, from 1834 to 1875.

From Hawker's antics early in life, one could be forgiven for thinking he was a hopeless jester or worse, a clown. In fact, some sloppy pseudo-biographical articles slant their content in such a way to suggest the whole Mermaid phase (see previous post) occurred while Hawker was a vicar, instead of during his student years. ::sigh::

Hawker was more complex than that.

He loathed the traditional black vestments the clergy wore. When he became a vicar, he refused to dress "like an undertaker," choosing instead to assemble his own unique outfit -- each element signifying his beliefs. 

For instance: he wore a blue fisherman's jersey with red stitching in the side, symbolizing Jesus' call to His followers to be "fishers of men," with a constant reminder of the soldier's spear that caused Christ's final wound.

He also believed he could communicate with spirits, both divine and demonic, which explains why he declared the long brown cassock he wore was "the exact hue" of both Mary's and Jesus' hair.

Sometimes he wore a "flamboyant fez" instead of his typical wide-brimmed hat. (I can find no record of what the fez was supposed to denote. Still: Hawker thought fezzes were cool...)

The Vicar hated black so much that after his death, mourners honored his wishes and wore purple during his funeral.

Hawker's generosity for others often caused hardship for his own family. He routinely dipped into the family finances to feed and clothe poorer members of his community. 

The Hawkers' generosity extended to their parish infrastructure. They built a bridge over a deadly river crossing. And they built a school and restored the 13th-century "Well of St. John," all at their own expense.

Hawker was also a conflicted creative soul. 

On the one hand, he craved quiet time alone. To facilitate that, he built what is now known as "Hawker's Hut," a tiny turf-topped structure with a stable door, tucked into the hillside, facing the sea. He assembled it out of driftwood and wood salvaged from shipwrecks. Today, it remains the smallest property on the National Trust.

He and Charlotte would go together to the hut to pray and meditate. He also spent many hours there alone, smoking opium or writing.

It is clear that he relished the solitude. However, he also recognized that his remote village was, in some ways, a cross to bear.

A passionate accomplished, prolific writer, he enjoyed little acclaim or recognition, though his work sold well. In 1824 he wrote "The Song of the Western Men," or "Trelawney," which was published anonymously in 1826 and which -- to this day -- is considered the unofficial Cornish National Anthem. (Credit Charles Dickens who, years later, told the world about "Trelawney's" authorship.)

In 1848, Alfred, Lord Tennyson visited Morwenstow. He and Hawker hit it off, connected by their mutual love of poetry and obsession with Arthurian legends (the Hawkers had honeymooned at Tintagel, associated with King Arthur since the 12th century). But Tennyson went back to the world of letters and publishing, while the vicar remained on the northern coast. 

Hawker desperately wanted to be known as a writer. He remembered the days of university, when his writing won awards. Lonely, keenly aware of the rapid passage of time, he blamed both his isolated location and gatekeepers in the publishing world for his inability to break in. 

One heartbreaking journal entry includes these words: 

"I have lived on among these faraway rocks, unprofited, unpraised, and unknown."

Every manuscript of his had sold, but "to no advantage of mine."

"And here I am at the close of my days," he wrote, "unnoted, unknown, and – worst of all – unpaid."

In another entry, he lamented his place "here among the rocks" as well as not having any publishing connections:

"I never had friends [in publishing]. In my whole struggle into manuscript, I hardly remember a word of encouragement."

{Ami's note: Brother, I feel ya.}

When his wife Charlotte died in February, 1863, Hawker was more alone than ever. He was 60 years old, widowed and childless. 

Still wrestling with both his talent and his purpose, he plunged into deep depression, wishing to create something that would outlast him. 

For the next few months, he wrote, furiously channeling his grief into a creative outlet. The result was "The Quest of the Sangraal," a Cornish-themed poetic exploration of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. 

Published in 1864, the poem met with both critical and public approval. Even Tennyson praised the work saying, "Hawker has beaten me on my own grounds."

At the end of 1863, 60-year old Hawker met the 20-year old Pauline Anne Kuczynski, a governess. Though she initially considered him "slightly cracked," the two fell in love and married a year later.

They had three children before Hawker died at the age of 72.

But even in death, he colored outside the lines. 

An Anglican priest his entire adult life, Hawker converted to Catholicism the day before he died -- causing a country-wide uproar as people accused Pauline of undue influence. The conspiracy theories and general religious outrage lasted for years.

So ends the tale of the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker, eccentric, talented, mystic, poet. A prankster, an animal lover, faithful husband, and natty dresser. Publishing anonymously, then craving recognition. Simultaneously embracing and eschewing solitude. Sometimes he used controlled chemicals for temporary escape. Sometimes he wallowed in self-pity. Sometimes he heard angels. And finally, memorably, he accomplished a bona-fide publishing miracle. For these and other reasons, I consider him a contender for Patron Saint of Struggling Authors.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Unsung Story of the Sinful Cat and the Victorian Priest Who was Once a Mermaid

Thoughts on the Life and Times of Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker



The mermaid perched on a rock in Bude Bay, wailing songs with unintelligible words. In the mid-1820’s, people did then what people do now: they stopped and stared at the screeching spectacle. A small crowd gathered, pointing and gossiping until the creature splashed into the water.


The next night the mermaid returned. And the next. And the next.


With each successive night, the crowds grew as news of the wondrous being spread. People came from nearby towns to see the sight. Many of them brought their telescopes, through which they could see the mermaid emitting brilliant flashes of light and combing its long hair of seaweed as it sang.


For weeks, the mermaid was a regular attraction – until one day a local farmer, angry at the crowds and the nightly circus, brought out his shotgun and fired at the singer.


With a lusty rendition of “God Save the King,” the mermaid splashed into the water for the last time.


The musical mermaid was Robert Stephen Hawker, a university student with a penchant for practical jokes. Hawker would strip naked and swim to a rock away from shore. A waterproof cloth wrapped around his legs provided his “tail.” A seaweed wig completed the ensemble. If the moon were near full, a small handheld mirror held at the correct angle provided flashes of moonlight.


Predictably, the local population was enthralled.


Robert Stephen Hawker was born at the end of 1804 to a poor British doctor, the first of 12 children. 


From a very young age, he developed a reputation as a prankster. 


He once painted zebra stripes and cut the mane off the local doctor's horse -- then called for the doctor in a fake emergency, ensuring that many would see his handiwork.


Young Harker became convinced that two spinster sisters had their sights set on his grandfather, with whom he was living. 


He played a series of pranks on them that escalated to sending an undertaker to measure them for their coffins, ordering freshly dug graves in St. Andrew’s cemetery, and sending a hearse to take them to their eternal rest. Though this was too much for the old women, who left town and never returned, Harker’s pranks also succeeded in getting himself kicked out of his grandfather’s house. 

From an early age, Hawker enjoyed writing poems and stories. He published his first book of poetry in 1821, when he was 17.


Hawker's father was a doctor who became a curate. With so many children, the family could not afford to send Robert to Oxford university. So in 1824, when Robert learned he would have to leave school, the boy ran from Stratton to Bude (a distance of several miles), to the home of Miss Charlotte I’Ans, his godmother, who had an annuity of 200 pounds. 


He proposed to Charlotte, who at 41, was a year older than his mother. They married in November, when Robert was 20. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one. They remained together, devoted to each other, until Charlotte's death.

When Hawker became a vicar, he and Charlotte moved to the tiny hamlet of Morwenstow, in north Cornwall, where he served from 1834 to 1875 (more on the later years of his Vicar-ship in the next post).


Hawker was the first resident vicar in over a century. He called the members of his parish “a mixed multitude of smugglers, wreckers, and dissenters of various hue.” He especially used the “dissenters of various hue” to describe the Methodists in his parish. He strongly disapproved of the Methodist religion, sneering at their lack of a priest or confession, calling their beliefs “salvation made easy.”


(How I would have loved to have debated the concepts of "salvation made easy" vs. salvation made difficult with the man. I suspect we both may have found some enlightenment.)

His mention of "smugglers" and "wreckers" wasn't hyperbolic. Many ships foundered and sank in the rocky northern waters. Until Hawker's arrival, the townspeople rejoiced at such disasters, looting the ships and often dispatching of surviving sailors in order to keep the spoils for themselves.

Hawker ended the looting. He insisted on helping shipwrecked sailors and provided a Christian burial for scores of souls who drowned off the Cornish coast.

Hawker loved animals. 


He had a pet pig and a pet stag who followed him everywhere. He especially loved cats. Though few humans came to hear his sermons (often, Charlotte was the sole person in the congregation), his 10 cats regularly attended services. 


However, when the vicar saw one cat catch a mouse one Sunday, he immediately excommunicated it! History is unclear whether or not the cat ever saw the error of its ways and confessed its sins, or whether the vicar offered it absolution.



Saturday, May 01, 2021

The Curious Case of the Poet's Missing Heart

 or: Thomas Hardy, Eat Your Heart Out

(Note from Ami: It's been *forever* since I've blogged. I've spent much of the past year thinking about how to update / streamline / organize MuseInks. But it seemed like such an overwhelming chore that I just shelved it for a later date. [I mean, seriously, there are over 15 years of posts here.] 

In the meantime, I've had some fun playing around with some cartoon ideas. You can see them on my Daze of Noah blog. In the past year, I've been playing around some with sketching, scribbling, and illustrated journals. Are they "good?" Nope. I have no illusions about my artistic ability. But I find the exercise incredibly fulfilling, so I thought I'd use this space to share some of them.)

I only recently learned about the wild and woolly demise of Thomas Hardy, beloved Victorian English writer. 

Hardy lived over 100 years ago and wrote books you've actually heard of, like "The Return of the Native," "Far From the Madding Crowd," "The Mayor of Casterbridge," and "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." You may have even read some of them. 

He was also a poet, writing over 1,000 poems that were published during his lifetime, in addition to "The Dynasts," a massive, epic, nineteen-act play in verse featuring speculative fiction elements set against the Napoleonic Wars. The piece was so sweeping in its scope that it was never performed. Hardy himself called it "the longest English drama in existence." 

So when Hardy passed away in January, 1928, it only made sense that England's elite would wish to honor him by burying his remains in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. However his wife balked at the idea. He had so loved the area around Dorset that she wanted him to be buried at home.

A compromise was soon reached. Hardy's heart would be removed and buried in Dorset. The rest of him would be cremated and his ashes placed in Westminster Abbey.

A doctor removed Hardy's heart, placing it in a biscuit tin (cookie box) for safekeeping, and the rest of the body was taken to Westminster. The next day, however, before the heart was interred, Hardy's beloved cat, Cobby, discovered the tin and ate the heart.


When Cobby died, he was buried in Dorset, in a grave marked "Here Lies the Heart of Thomas Hardy." (Here history gets a tiny bit foggy -- because there is nothing to suggest that fluffy Cobby died of natural causes. I strongly suspect that Hardy's heart was kitteh's last meal.)