Winter 2005-6

FEATURE - George Wallace

THE CORNISH MYSTIC: Celebrating Robert Hawker,
The "Mad Vicar" Of Morwenstow

Americans who sit down to Thanksgiving dinner thinking that 'here we have a holiday of our own' complete with North American characters - Indians, Pilgrims, Blunderbusses and Turkeys - a holiday that hasn't been lifted whole cloth from the English, may be in for something of a shock.

While there is some merit to that belief, in fact England and Europe - like nearly all cultures - have their own versions of what amounts to a celebration of the harvest season. And the truth is, England has its own Harvest Festival, a reinvention created some 150 years ago.

But at least for Literary America, there will be some small comfort to be had in knowing that at least the Father of the English Harvest Festival tradition was a poet.

That figure was Robert Stephen Hawker.

Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875), was Vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall from 1834 until his death on August 1, 1875. Also referred to as "The Cornish Mystic," he was one of the most colorful eccentrics in English literary history. Not only did he invent Harvest Festival in England back in 1843, but he became widely known as a "Sea-booted, Opium-Smoking Vicar" of Morwenstow, Cornwall.

His interests were wide and he pursued them colorfully. He helped popularize Cornish tales of King Arthur and other folk stories. He wrote poems and short stories oddly reminiscent of American contemporary Edgar Allen Poe. He wrote dozens of ballads and ditties that were well known in their day. He helped rescue stranded sailors in the cutthroat sea-booty coves and harbors inhabited by smugglers, wreckers and no-gooders along the coast of Southwestern England. He insisted on Christian burial for those who could not be saved.

He was an avid mystic and believed in magic. He smoked opium. He befriended a pig. He excommunicated a cat.

He wrote the unofficial Cornish National Anthem.

Not bad for a man who had to marry a woman three times his age to pay his way through college.

Educated at Oxford, Robert Stephen Hawker was happily married twice to two very different women. When only twenty he married Charlotte I’Ans, a lady twenty years his senior. According to one account, she was something of a "Sugar Momma" to the young man - he could only pay his way through college by marrying a woman with a private income. Charlotte died in 1863, and the following year he married Pauline Kuczynski, daughter of a Polish exile - by many accounts a European countess, though it was necessary for her to work as a governess nearby.

Vicar Hawker was said to be quite a wit from the Anglican pulpit. His epithets about Methodism were dutifully cheered on by his parishioners (though he didn't spare them - Hawker described the bulk of his parishioners as "a mixed multitude of smugglers, wreckers and dissenters of various hues") are retold to this day.

A recent article in the Telegraph, a British newspaper, recounts some of the published stories about Hawker. Apocryphal or true, there are some beauties among them:

-He once swam out to a rock wearing seaweed wig and sat there wailing like a mermaid until a crowd arrived.
-He believed that the air was thick with invisible angels and demons .
-He claimed that he had a special relationship with St Morwenna, claiming she talked to him as he knelt praying.
-He liked to wear a pink fez and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket, which he claimed was what St Pardarn wore.
-The only black clothing he would wear were his socks.
-He believed in magic and had a recurring habit of smoking opium.
-He fashioned his Rectory, with a curious set of chimney pots on it, representing the towers of the churches where he served - including Tamerton, where he had been curate; Morwenstow, his other living of Wellcombe; plus that of Magdalen College, Oxford.
-He was followed around by his pet pig. It was a black pig named 'Gyp,' said to be well groomed washed and curry-combed.
-He talked to birds
-He invited nine cats into church - but excommunicated one of them when it caught a mouse one Sunday.
-He also kept two deer, Robin Hood and Maid Marion, until one of them trampeled a parishioner.
-For a number of years he refused to eat anything but clotted cream.

Some of Hawker's actions were more humanitarian then mad, of course, though the 'wreckers' of Morwenstow might not have appreciated them in the beginning.

For example, Hawker insisted that sailors drowned in shipwrecks near Morwenstow received a Christian burial, rather than being summarily buried on the beach where they were found. He organized burial parties, even if it took a bribe of free gin to get the locals to help. According to the Telegraph an 1876 biography describes the Vicar as "standing on the beach in a flapping claret-coloured coat, silver hair streaming in the wind, begging some reluctant lifeboat-men to save a wrecked crew while their wives shrieked at them to stay put."

And Hawker is credited with reintroducing the mediaeval custom of the Harvest Festival - on September 13, 1843, to be exact. That's the date which has been established from a note he wrote to the parishioners of Morwenstow stating thusly: "Brethren," wrote Hawker, "God has been very merciful to us this year, also. He hath filled our garners with increase, and satisfied our poor with bread. He opened his hand, and filled all things living with plenteousness. Let us offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving among such as keep Holy Day…"

Eccentricities aside, Hawker was an avid churchman, a profoundly engaged local scholar, and a prolific writer of prose and poetry.

Hawker would sit writing his poems in a small cliffside hut he had constructed of driftwood overlooking the Atlantic. (The hut is now preserved by the National Trust and stands about a mile from the impressive Church he ministered at; visitors can still sit inside and ponder the view).

Although he published a number of short collections of verse, including Tendrils (1821), Records of the Western Shore (1832), and Echoes from Old Cornwall (1846), most of his poems were printed at Hawker's own expense as leaflets and distributed freely. Nonetheless, he began to gain notice from figures like Dickens and Tennyson, who visited him in 1848, and his reputation grew. Finally in 1869, at the age of sixty-six, Hawker saw his Cornish Ballads into print and he rose to some prominence.

First and foremost to many, Robert Stephen Hawkins was a balladeer. He certainly had a talent for the ditties of the era, as in this colorful example:


On, through the ground-sea, shove!
Light on the larboard bow!
There's a nine-knot breeze above,
And a sucking tide below.

Hush! for the beacon fails,
The skulking gauger's by;
Down with your studding-sails,
Let jib and fore-sail fly!

Hurrah! for the light once more!
Point her for Shark's-nose Head;
Our friends can keep the shore;
Or the skulking gauger's dead!

On! through the ground-sea, shove!
Light on the Larboard bow!
There's a nine-knot breeze above
And a sucking tide below!

Hawker's mystic, folkloric and romantic urges were quite intense. He was nothing if not a Victorian with pronounced Romantic sensibilities, plumbing local myths and legends. In particular he delighted in elucidating Arthurian legend, as in The Quest of the San Graal, below, and other heroic tales that continued page after page with references to Guinevere, Arthur, Lancelot, and the rest of the Round Table.

Ho! for the Sangraal! vanish'd Vase of Heaven!
That held, like Christ's own heart, an hin of blood!
Ho! for the Sangraal! . . .
How the merry shout
Of reckless riders on their rushing steeds,
Smote the loose echo from the drowsy rock
Of grim Dundagel, thron'd along the sea!

An indication of the essentially regional Cornish character of this predeliction comes from Hawker's richly tapestried and romantic poem "The Doom Well Of St Madern," noted for giving miraculous cures (To this day people come and drink the waters in hope of a cure and leave 'votive rags' on the surrounding bushes);

"PLUNGE thy right hand in St. Madron's Spring,
If true to it's troth be the palm you bring;
But if a false sigil thy fingers bear,
Lay them the rather on the burning share"

Other saints received dutiful poetic attention from the Vicar, as in "The Cornish Fathers," from his 1846 book Echoes of Old Cornwall:

"They had their lodges in the wilderness,
Or built their cells beside the shadowy sea;
And there they dwelt with angels like a dream.
So they unclosed the volume of the Book,
And filled the fields of the Evangelist
With thoughts as sweet as flowers!"

Vicar Hawker also enjoyed telling ghost stories, such as "The Botathen Ghost," written in 1867, in a Victorian manner which distantly suggests Edgar A;;em Poe: "A singular infelicity...had befallen young Master Bligh, once the hopeful heir of his parents and of the lands of Botathen. Whereas he had been from childhood a blithe and merry boy, 'the gladness', like Isaac of old, of his father's age, he had suddenly and of late, become morose and silent -- nay, even austere and stern -- dwelling apart, always solemn, often in tears. The lad had at first repulsed all questions as to the origin of this great change, but of late he had yielded to the importune researches of his parents, and had disclosed the secret cause."

This resemblance might bear further study, if the poem "A Croon On Hennacliff" is any indication. While it is to be found in his 1860 collection, years after Poe wrote The Raven in 1845, it has not yet been established when he created it, and whether it was from an earlier volume published quite a bit more closely to the date of Poe's great poem.


Thus said the rushing raven,
Unto his hungry mate, --
"Ho! gossip! for Bude Haven:
There be corpses six or eight.

Cawk! cawk! the crew and skipper,
Are wallowing in the sea:
So there's a savoury supper
For my old dame and me."

"Cawk! gaffer! thou art dreaming,
The shore hath wreckers bold;
Would rend the yelling seamen,
From the clutching billows hold.

Cawk! cawk! they'd bound for booty
Into the dragon's den:
And shout, for `death or duty,'
If the prey were drowning men."

Loud laughed the listening surges,
At the guess our grandame gave:
You might call them Boanerges,
From the thunder of their wave.

And the mockery followed after
The sea-bird's jeering brood:
That filled the skies with laughter,
From Lundy Light to Bude.

"Cawk! cawk!" then said the raven
I am fourscore years and ten:
Yet never in Bude Haven,
Did I croak for rescued men.

They will save the Captain's girdle,
And shirt, if shirt there be:
But leave their blood to curdle,
For my old dame and me."

So said the rushing raven
Unto his hungry mate --
"Ho! gossip! for Bude Haven:
There be corpses six or eight.

Cawk! cawk! the crew and skipper,
Are wallowing in the sea:
O what a savoury supper,
For my old dame and me."

Perhaps most memorably, Hawker wrote a song about a Cornish hero, Jonathan Trelawney, which became the unoffical anthem of Cornwall. The poem recounts the story of Trelawney, born at Pelynt and a man who participated in the Duke of Monmouth's failed rebellion against James II in 1688, leading to seven bishops being imprisoned in the Tower of London. A trial ensued for the seven bishops, including Trelawney, and they were acquitted and freed.

Trelawney became Bishop of Exeter on the accession of William of Orange to the throne, and died in 1721 as Bishop of Winchester.

A century later, the tale was immortalized by Vicar Hawker.


A good sword and a trusty hand,
A merry heart and true!
King James's men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do.
And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawney die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

Chorus: And shall Trelawney live?
Or shall Trelawney die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

Out spake their Captain brave and bold:
A merry wight was he:-
'If London Tower were Michael's hold,
We'll set Trelawney free!
We'll cross the Tamar, land to land,
The Severn is no stay:
With 'one and all' and hand in hand,
And who shall bid us nay?


'And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth ye crowds all,
Here's men as good as you!
'Trelawney he's in keep and Hold:
Trelawney he may die:
But twenty thousand Cornish bold,
Will know the reason why!'


In the last decade of his life Vicar Hawker was troubled by money problems and increasing depression. He returned to his old habit of smoking opium, and according to accounts he predicted that it would not be long before he rested in Morwenstow churchyard. In fact Robert Stephen Hawker died and was buried in Plymouth - but not before pulling one last stunt - on his death bed, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

What then remains of the life and times of Robert S Hawkins?

The year after Hawker's death a book was written on him, a subject of some contention at the time. Published in 1876, it was entitled The Vicar of Morwenstow: A Life of Robert Stephen Hawker, M.A. (Sabine Baring-Gould,
London, King 1876, New York, T Whittaker 1876). That book is being uploaded into the worldwide web these days.

Also, and more recently, a newer biography (1975) has been written, penned by Piers Brendan, entitled "Hawker of Morwenstow: Portrait of a Victorian Eccentric."

Other signs of the Mad Vicar? There's that cliffside hut of his. There's the Cornish National Anthem.

But perhaps most profoundly, it may very well be his creation of English Thanksgiving that has become Vicar Hawker's most enduring legacy.




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