The Ornamental Hermit

I

IN many a sequestered covert or leafy dell, among the gardens or plantations of gentlemen of a poetic turn, there once stood a rustic hut, in Queen Anne Gothic perhaps, or a grotto, walled with pebbles and bits of looking-glass, or a cave that presented a savage contrast to the decorous landscape about it. Such was an ‘ornamental hermitage’ and in it lived an ‘ornamental hermit.’ Horace Walpole and ‘Christopher North’ and various anonymous writers in the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Book of Days, Notes and Queries, have left records of such curious constructions, and John Timbs, in his English Eccentrics, talks entertainingly of them at some length.

The Honorable Charles Hamilton, for example, in the reign of George II, built on his estate of Pain’s Hill, in Surrey, a hermitage of ‘contorted logs and roots of trees,’ and advertised for a hermit to occupy it. His conditions of tenure were that the occupant should live there for seven years. ‘He should be provided with a Bible, optical-glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his time-piece, water for his beverage, food from the house; but should never exchange a word with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, must never cut his beard or nails, never stray beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas.’ The only person who attempted to win the prize stayed, I regret to record, barely three weeks.

Walpole, commenting on Mr. Hamilton’s experiment, remarks that ‘it is almost comic to set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in,’ apparently overlooking the fact that Mr. Hamilton’s little plan did not have that purpose in view. The gentlemen who indulged the sentimental fancy of erecting hermitages had no idea whatever of occupying them themselves. They counted upon living the eremitical life solely by proxy. That proxies were not wanting is proved by occasional advertisements in the Couriers and Chronicles of the time, announcing that ‘a young man who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit is willing to engage with a nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one’ — or words to that effect. And Christopher North tells of an acquaintance who had sat for fourteen years in a cave on the grounds of Lord Hill’s father, ‘with an hour-glass in his hand, and a beard belonging to an old goat, from sunrise to sunset, with orders to accept no half-crowns from visitors, but to behave like Giordano Bruno.’

Such a hermit his employer looked upon as merely a sort of stage property, a final ‘Gothic’ touch to a ‘romantic’ garden. So little was it necessary that the hermit should really be a melancholy or devotional solitary, in fact, that some charitable gentlemen substituted for a living occupant a stuffed dummy, who, visible through window or doorway, was seated at a table reading a mediæval folio, with hourglass and skull near at hand and lanthorn or candle diffusing a properly poetic twilight.

It is pleasant to picture the proprietor guiding his guests through the winding paths of his garden, pointing out here an artificial cascade, there a consciously constructed vista; snipping a rose for a lady, a pink for a gentleman; reclining with them upon a marble seat before a figure of Ceres or Pomona; or pausing to read aloud an inscription by Shenstone or Cowley; and to come at last to an open glade, with a rustic cell in the middle, through the window of which a venerable figure could be discerned, symbol of contemplation, in the habiliments of a primitive age as far as possible removed from the fashionable. All about floated butterflies and bees, birds hopped quietly, branches sighed in the breezes; a shallow runnel tinkled behind, a moss-grown path meandered before; and, clustered in the dappled sunlight of the clearing, fine ladies and gentlemen, in canary yellow and plum color, ogled and tittered. Many a witticism, many a satirical reflection, no doubt was dropped, and perhaps an occasional couplet of impromptu. But no doubt, too, the worldlings sometimes felt a little shiver, some slight wave of that graveyard melancholy, musically or austerely sung by Gray and Warton, Blair and Young; and they turned away hurriedly to the sun-bathed terraces, which to unimaginative minds were less suggestive of vicissitude and mortality.

I wish I knew what was said on such occasions. I should like to know what the ladies and gentlemen thought. I should be specially pleased to learn what the ornamental hermit (supposing he was a man of intelligence) wrote in his diary (supposing he kept one — and who did not, in the eighteenth century?). But of course I shall never know, for no record remains.

II

I cannot prove, therefore, that the institution of ornamental hermits had any results, good or bad, and it is possible that it meant no more in the life of the people than a Gainsborough hat or a clouded cane. Nevertheless, I like to think it had its values. Indeed, I am inclined to advocate its revival and to suggest that proprietors of extensive gardens and estates might well find a place in them for a little hermitage or grotto, in which anyone who wished it might be accommodated with a dwelling place for some weeks or months, free from intrusion and from the worry of rents and bills.

I should not object to the provision of steam heat and running water, hot and cold, so long as the pipes were carefully concealed; but I should rigidly exclude telephone, phonograph, and radio. The occupant might make his own music, if he was so gifted, but, if not, should be content with the melodies of breezes, brooks, and birds. He might have a few books, but they should be written by eminent philosophers, poets, and divines; and for the most part he should spend his time reading in the Book of Nature.

I would have him able to look forth from his windows, east, west, north, south, so that he might behold the advancing banners of the dawn, the retreating panoply of the evening; the arrival of the snow on the one hand, and of the flowers on the other. One window should by preference frame a tree, a second a statue, a third a waterfall, and a fourth a main-traveled road; and overhead there should be a skylight through which, as he lay abed, he might contemplate the heavens which declare the glory of God. I should not care if his meals were brought to him, though I prefer that he should prepare them with his own hand. I would have him cultivate some art or craft, so simple that the brain might be free while the body was occupied with the rhythms of work, the hand learn to know the feel of stuff or matter while the brain ranged in the realm of the transcendental.

The hermit’s confinement should be purely voluntary, but he should contract to stay at least three months. For it would probably take him a month to learn to be alone, a month to learn to sit still, and a month to learn to be happy alone and sitting still. If in three months he found that he could not be happy, he should be free to depart, and in no event should he be permitted to abide more than a year. The Romans had a motto that ‘a man who can be happy alone must be either a beast or a god.’ If this is true, we do not wish to harbor beasts, and it is best that gods should circulate among men. But it could do no man harm, if he had in him any impulse toward poetry or philosophy, to be alone, quiet, and contemplative during the four seasons of one year out of a lifetime. Such a year might well be substituted for the last year of college. Indeed, it would do most men good to catch them, pop them into a hermitage, shut them in, and make them stay there, under discreet surveillance, for forty days at the least. If, within that time, they showed symptoms of incipient lunacy, they should be incontinently freed and dismissed with a blessing. Such men are obviously motor-minded, or simply shallow, and should be permitted to seek out their native courses, of living gregariously, minding other people’s business, driving fast motor cars, or, at best, building something. But so long as a man resigned himself to solitude, however sourly, he should be given full opportunity to learn how to look happily out of a window or through the skylight or otherwise occupy himself within the conditions imposed.

For there can be no doubt that most men run through life and the world without ever really looking at anything — anything, that is, more important and natural than a machine, a hand at bridge or poker, a golf ball, a suit of clothes, or a beefsteak. Women have the great advantage over men that they really do at some time in their lives look at something important, and that is a baby. But men, unless they are artists, poets, or scientists, appear hardly ever to contemplate anything natural long enough to see it. Once or twice, in their youth, when they are in love, they look at a sweetheart, but, if we are to believe proverbs, never see her as she is. Some men, who profess neither poetry, art, nor science, really look at dogs or horses, and a few at birds or flowers, and these are generally good men. But for the rest, nature might as well not exist at all, and they might as profitably live in a world without colors, forms, or objects.

If I were asked what good it would do a man to sit in a hermitage and look at a tree or a mountain for three months or a year, I should be at a loss to tell precisely. It might, of course, do him no good at all. The mystic says, however, that ‘a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees’; and I suspect that we shall never learn what it is the wise man sees unless we try to find out by long looking. If at the end of our contemplation we still see exactly what we saw at first, we shall at least have measured our intelligence, imagination, feeling, or whatever it is that distinguishes a wise man from a fool. But I really think that we shall have gained some wisdom.

What this wisdom is I shall try to tell.

III

I am a little mystical, or, if you like, superstitious, in such matters, holding, beyond argument, that the old myth of Antæus was true of fundamentals. I think that some mysterious rapport exists between man and nature, some invisible vinculum that those can feel ‘who meddle not with strife, or avarice, or ever-anxious care.’ I can vaguely understand what a mystic means when he says that, as he sits with his back against a pine tree or a mountain, something runs out of it into him. I know that we cannot at present prove his statement. Perhaps something runs out of him into it, or perhaps nothing runs either way. But what matter? He thinks that something happens, and that it does him good; and, to date, science has not provided instruments to prove or disprove his theory. It really does n’t matter. For the point is that, until science is able to prove that poet and mystic are either the victims of autohypnosis or plain prevaricators, we shall never know nature as poet and mystic know it, unless we give ourselves the same chance that they give themselves. And their method, old as the race, is to contemplate nature in quietness, with an open and active mind, for long periods of hospitable regard; or, as one of them puts it, ‘with a wise passiveness.’ Such persons are perhaps the only genuine nature lovers.

It is curious that most people grow quite indignant if one suspects that they do not love nature. ‘ I am a great nature lover,’ they say, and no doubt mean it; but they could never fool a poet. He knows that most of what passes as love of nature is something else. At times it is pure fake, though unconscious, or is mere social imitation. Sometimes it is love of art, or of the spectacular and sensational. Sometimes it is soft as mush, and sometimes as hard as nails. And often enough it is but another name for animal spirits.

Now it is questionable whether those who know nature best can love her all the time. There are moods, of course, in which we can honestly say that we love her — when she is gracious and clean and sunny. Anyone can love a genial meadow in summer, with white clouds, blue skies, daisies, and bobolinks, unless he happens to reflect that all living things there are engaged in an incessant, internecine warfare for survival. It requires a robust lover to remain faithful then, or to love nature in a swamp, a desert, or a jungle. For she is an exasperating mistress, —

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, —

and very hard on sentimentalists.

With some people ‘love of nature’ is really love of art. They are interested only in her pictures, and appreciate her mainly in terms of Corot, Monet, Turner. No one need object to their taste, but nature enjoyed as an art gallery is quite another thing from nature enjoyed in the raw. Some pretend to love her because to do so is a mark of ‘culture,’ and they prate of her beauties because others do. Consign them to a period of natural living and they are miserable. Others proclaim their love by traveling to look at Niagara, the Grand Canyon, the Jungfrau, and ‘oh-ing’ and ‘ah-ing’ over them, but seeing nothing on a country road worth looking at. They are the sort of people for whom exploiters prepare descriptive pamphlets, charge admission, construct board walks, rustic stairs, and seats at coigns of vantage from which to look at the sights at ease. Some who ‘love nature’ are most happy when shooting at her, turning her woods and fields into a shambles, a massacre of her innocents. These are the hard fraternity. The soft are those who love nature as long as she smiles and who affect to ignore the fact that sometimes she can be terrible.

Perhaps the soft lovers are worst. I have been suspicious of Richard Jefferies, who certainly passes for a nature lover of the first rank, ever since I first read the following: ‘The swallows perch and sing just over the muddy water. A sow lies in the mire. But the sweet swallows sing on softly: they do not see the wallowing animal, the mud, the brown water; they see only the sunshine, the golden buttercups, and the blue sky of summer. This is the true way to look at this beautiful earth.’ Something about this infuriates me unreasonably. It is full of fallacies of logic, but its worst fallacy is of feeling. I want to make a speech in support of the sow; to sneer at the ‘sweet’ swallows; to shout that ‘this is the falsest way to look at this earth, which is beautiful, to be sure, but can be ugly as sin, or at least as ugly as a beautiful woman who makes faces.’

For I believe that any love of nature worthy of the name must be staunch enough to embrace the sow and the mud and the brown water. It must not sentimentally ascribe to the swallows a determination to look at buttercups and not at pigs. They are really looking for mosquitoes.

Such falsity currently passes for poetry, and I think that that is what I resent more than anything else about it. Loving swallows and despising pigs is not poetry: it is mere finicking vulgarity; for one is as poetic as the other, can we but see it. The swallow is more graceful, but quite as greedy; the pig cannot fly, but it has an honest love of earth. There is probably a parable in the conjunction of the two, but it is not the one Jefferies read there.

IV

Perhaps the greatest parable that nature offers us is that in the last analysis nothing is any more remarkable than anything else. There comes a moment in the life of every thinking person when he first reads this truth in her book. It is really the beginning of metaphysics — maybe of wisdom. But one seems likely to make this discovery only when alone; and that is why I advocate the revival of the eremitical life.

For the mass of men, that is wonderful which is novel and ingenious — the submarine, the flying machine, the radio, television. And of course they are right. The trouble is that few ever perceive that such inventions are less mysterious than the brain that conceived them and guided the hand that fashioned them.

Someone has said that philosophy begins at the end of my finger, the idea being that the ground of all metaphysics is the question of how impressions of matter are conveyed to a thinking mind. Our thinking is therefore naïve until we can say, —

I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the narrowest hinge of my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And a mouse is a miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

Our hermit will have an entire year to look at the cosy, familiar things which he has never had time to look at, and has therefore taken for granted. All one needs to hear the tongues in trees, to read the books in brooks, is the leisure, the opportunity, and the receptive mind; but these small voices are drowned in the roar of civilization, which also makes man preoccupied, pragmatic, and conceited. I would have him ponder an hour on a mullein stalk, a day on a robin, a week on a waterfall, a month on a mountain. I would have him discover that the tiniest cascade in his brook is no different, except in size, from Niagara or Zambezi; that the same forces went to cut a channel as wide as his hand that went to gouge the canyon of the Colorado. Look at them through a telescope, and they may be quite as impressive. I should like to have him realize that to an ant a sod of timothy may be as awful as to him would be the forests of the Amazon. And I should be very glad if he came to realize that the humblest vista of unspoiled nature may become in time as beautiful and as mysterious as the grandest panorama seen from a mountain peak. This is what the poets have been telling us ever since Orpheus, and yet it is what every man has to discover for himself.

And who knows what unconscious influence our solitaries may shed, seen as they would be by passers-by, sitting quietly and happily in their cells. The light of some ornamental hermit’s candle shining out through snowflakes on a winter night, as he outwatched the Bear, might in time come to be a beacon toward which hurried men and women would look, at first with derision, in time with envy, and at last with comprehension. Things have come to such a pass that most of us cannot sit happy an hour alone and unoccupied. Faced by so much time, we are uncomfortable and restive. I suspect that we are afraid. For the one thing the modern fears more than anything else is, apparently, his own thoughts. But if we should see a part of our population living merry as crickets, without machinery, alone and unafraid, we might in time cease to be frighted by thoughts from which we now flee, seeking refuge in machinery — the radio, the telephone, the moving picture, the motor car. Nearly everything of consequence ever done in the world was first thought out in solitude, and every great man has spent his forty days in the wilderness. I suppose it is the only successful way, not only to catch the true proportions of life, but to trace the general outlines of things.

I once took a very little girl to the Zoo to look at an elephant. I ushered her into the elephant house, stopped before the elephant, who was standing with his side to us, and awaited results. There were none.

‘Well,’ I said at last, ‘what do you think of him?’

‘Can’t see him,’she replied.

‘Can’t see him,’I exclaimed, ‘when he’s standing right there in front of you?’

She peered earnestly where I pointed, but in vain. ‘Can’t see him, can’t see him, can’t SEE him! ’ she wailed.

And so I set to work to wrestle with this peculiar infant, tracing the geography of the elephant, pointing out his trunk and tail, describing his ears and legs, indicating his color. At last she drew a deep breath of comprehension and relief. ‘Oh, is that the elephunt?’ she said. ‘ I thought that was the wall!' She had up to that time seen elephants only in pictures, and her eyes were focused for a four-inch dimension. Her inability to see an elephant was very amusing. But she was in no essential different, I suppose, from us older folk. We are all surrounded by elephants which we can’t see. It takes time to see one.