ePub The Vicar Of Morwenstow ePub

by Sabine Baring-Gould

Baring-Gould describes his biography of Robert Hawker as a "gossiping book", and its rambling text is almost as much a Cornish miscellany as an account of the remarkable and eccentric Anglican cleric and poet. The vicar himself is frequently left behind in diverting accounts of shipwrecks and wreckers (the term seems to include scavengers as well as those who deliberately lured ships to their doom), folk beliefs and superstitions, and observations about the level of subsistence and education in the most remote villages.

However, Hawker is too large a character to disappear from view for long. The vicar comes across as forceful and kind, but at times irascible and bigoted, railing against Methodists and other dissenters. He was, though, also good humoured, and he enjoyed jokes and pranks – the book is littered with amusing anecdotes and witty put-downs. Early in his career, he took to wearing a yellow poncho, explaining "that he was invested in the habit of St. Padarn and St. Teilo".

The book is also a personal reminiscence: Baring-Gould met Hawker on occasion and corresponded with him. Hawker had a fascination with his village's Saint, Morwenna, and the two men argued over her historical details. Baring-Gould, of course, was the author of a multi-volume Lives of the Saints; but his scholarship could never shake Hawker's sense of special insight derived from a mystical affinity with Morwenna. The book's long excursus on the subject is perhaps Baring-Gould's way of getting the last word in, shortly after his subject's death.

Hawker's religious views, as Baring-Gould relates them, were mystical or even primitive:
Mr. Hawker turned his eyes far more towards the Eastern Church than towards Rome. His mind was fired by Mr. Collins-Trelawney's Perranzabuloe, or the Lost Church Found, the fourth edition of which appeared in 1839. It was an account of the ancient British chapel and cell of St. Piran, which had been swallowed up by the sands, but which was exhumed, and the bones of the saint, some ancient crosses, and early rude sculpture found. The author of the book drew a picture of the ancient British Church independent of Rome, having its own local peculiarities with regard to the observance of Easter, and the tonsure, etc., and argued that this church, which held aloof from St. Augustine, was of Oriental origin.

When Dr. J. Mason Neale's History of the Holy Eastern Church came out, he was intensely interested in it; and his Oriental fever reached its climax, and manifested itself in the adoption of a pink brimless hat, after the Eastern type. This Eastern craze also probably induced him, when he adopted a vestment, to put on a cope for the celebration of the Holy Communion; that vestment being used by the Armenian Church for the Divine Mysteries, whereas it is never so used in the Roman Church.

However, this was not just a scholarly or intellectual perspective on faith:
Whenever he came across any one with a peculiar eyeball, sometimes bright and clear, and at others covered with a filmy gauze, or a double pupil, ringed twice or a larger eye on the left than on the right side, he would hold the thumb, fore and middle fingers in a peculiar manner, so as to ward off the evil effect of the eye.

He had been descanting one day on the blight which such an eye could cast, when his companion said:

"Really, Mr. Hawker, you do not believe such rubbish as this in the nineteenth century."

He turned round and said gravely: "I do not pretend to be wiser than the Word of God. I find that the evil eye is reckoned along with 'blasphemy, pride and foolishness,' as things that defile a man."

He also believed that an elderly woman in his village was a witch, who was able to harm his pigs; he apparently adopted a pseudo-scientific theory about "a spiritual element in the atmosphere". Such views became more unbalanced as he aged, and came under the influence of opium as a respite from sciatica.

Baring-Gould's stress on Hawker as an eastern mystic seems to have been written as a counterweight to the rather unexpected climax to Hawker's life. Just before he died, and after a lifetime of championing the Anglican Church, Hawker apparently converted to Roman Catholicism. Baring-Gould is dismissive of the episode, and suggests that if this were indeed the case, it must have been due to the vicar no longer being in sound mind. Either way, his death was followed by a Requiem Mass in Plymouth's Roman Catholic Cathedral. Perhaps his second wife had something do with it, being the young daughter of a Polish noble who had fallen on hard times; yet Baring-Gould writes, without explaining further, that she was not "received into the Roman Catholic communion till after [Hawker's] death".

Hawker comes across as a solitary and somewhat isolated figure, although his literary works led to some wider fame: his output included a ballad, The Song of the Western Men, which deceived Walter Scott and Macaulay into thinking it to be an antique work. At university, he encountered the Tractarians, but Baring-Gould mentions this detail only in passing, again to emphasise that Hawker didn't have anything much to do with Romeward sympathies: Pusey, according to Hawker, "never seemed simple in thought or speech; obscure and involved. He was the last in all that set — as I now look back and think — to have followers called by his name."

According to the author, Hawker "did not read the controversial literature of his day, or interest himself in the persons of the ecclesiastical movement in the Anglican communion." Yet the vicar apparently introduced the practice of the Harvest Festival into modern Anglicanism, which most of us probably assume has been around forever. Given this example of Hawker's influence on national religious life, the distant figure on a remote clifftop in Cornwall doesn't seem to be quite the full picture.

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