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.


Colltales said...

Muselinks, you've made me feel absolutely transfixed about the story of R.S.Hawker. There's so much I can relate to it or find utterly poignant, intriguing, humane about his life and cares. Still, in the end, he won his quest for being known and praised. It doesn't matter to him now, of course, but it does offer solace to the many who identify with his saga. Thanks for this. Cheers

colltales said...

Muselinks, I'm absolutely transfixed about what you write about R.S.Hawker. There's so much I can relate to it or find utterly poignant, intriguing, humane about his life and cares. Still, in the end, he won his quest for being known and praised. It doesn't matter to him now, of course, but it does offer solace to the many who identify with his story. Thanks for this. Cheers

Colltales said...

And of course, I've misspelled the name of your blog and published a comment twice... sorry

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks for taking the time to post. I'm glad you are as intrigued by Rev. Hawker as I. The more I learned about him, the more he fascinated me. If you identify with his story, as I do, may you continue to find comfort in his experience as you press on and accomplish your own publishing miracles! Cheers!