ARTICLE REVIEWS: HOUSE OF HERMITS

Lane Cooper: "The 'Forest Hermit' in Coleridge and Wordsworth" in Modern Language Notes, v. 124, no. 2, 1909, p. 33-36.

This article by the American literary scholar Lane Cooper (1875-1959) examines the concept of the hermit in the poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Their hermits are never palpable human characters, argues Cooper, but glimpsed as from afar or imagined by the musing poet. Hence the early romantic portrait of the hermit is artificial and conventional, an aesthetic concept not dependent upon a historical model. Coleridge and Wordsworth, as eminent representatives of romanticism, offer an evocation of the idealized hermit.

As Cooper points out, romanticism was concerned with the part versus the whole, the detail versus the field, the individual person versus society or state. Thus arises romanticism's idealization of "the solitary, the anchoret, the recluse ... the individual who withdraws from the social organism and tries to exist alone and for himself." The pursuit of solitude must be voluntary, but among poets the temptation to share the joy of solitude with readers through poetry is an inevitable paradox.

This article discusses the "forest hermit" of Coleridge's poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." A hermit appears at the poem's end. While on the coast, the hermit witnesses the accursed mariner about to suffer shipwreck.

This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with mariners
That come from a far country.

He kneels at morn and noon and eve --
He hath a cushion plump:
It is the moss that wholly hides
The rotted old oak-stump.

The skiff-boat neared: I heard them talk,
"Why this is strange, I trow!
Where are those lights so many and fair,
That signal made but now?"

"Strange, by my faith!" the Hermit said--
"And they answered not our cheer!
The planks looked warped! and see those sails,
How thin they are and sere!
I never saw aught like to them,
Unless perchance it were

"Brown skeletons of leaves that lag
My forest-brook along;
When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow,
And the owlet whoops to the wolf below,
That eats the she-wolf's young."

The hermit rows out to rescue any survivors. He recovers the mariner as the ship sinks. The mariner cries out:

"O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!"
The Hermit crossed his brow.
"Say quick," quoth he, "I bid thee say--
What manner of man art thou?"

The mariner then tells the hermit, who he has taken for a priest, the story of his experience at sea, his accursed state due to the killing of the albatross.

Cooper argues that the hermit here probably represents a real person known by Coleridge or Wordsworth, his collaborator -- a recluse of the woods here made to be a priest. There had been hermits in English literature before, and the forest hermit of "Rime" fits conforms to previous presentations of a "stereotyped figure." Indeed, Coleridge had used such a figure elsewhere in the Lyrical Ballads (which included "Rime") printed in 1798, and several years earlier in "Mad Monk" and perhaps in "The Three Graves" composed in 1797.

Wordsworth set the atmosphere of eremitism -- but not the hermit personality -- as early as 1792 in the "Prelude":

From earliest dialogues I slipped in thought,
And let remembrance steal to other times,
When, o'er those interwoven roots, moss-clad,
And smooth as marble or a waveless sea,
Some Hermit, from his cell forth-strayed, might pace
In sylvan meditation undisturbed.

Thus the hermit as he might be, if the poet really knew what a hermit is like as a person.

Wordsworth features a hermit-like character in "Descriptive Sketches" (1793), where the hermit, however, lives with his family -- a tentative and artificial character. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," strikes a more authentic sensibility, mixing images of nature with the suggested presence of a hermit:

wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by hi fire
The Hermit sits alone.

But still, the hermit is glimpsed from afar.

The intimations of a hermit's presence recur in Wordsworth's "Peter Bell," where the hero, coming upon a glade, wonders:

And is there no one dwelling here,
No hermit with his beads and glass?

Cooper argues that the hermit of the "Rime" emerged, collaboratively or otherwise, from such imaginings. That such hermits are quintessentially romantic -- and therefore artificial and conventional -- Cooper points out clearly.

In both poets, of course, the really curious thing about these holy men is the fact that they always dwell in the woods. They do not perch on pillars; they are not enamored of the heath or the sandy waste. They are lovers of shade, of ivy, moss, and oak. The are amateurs in the contemplation of foliage. ... I see no ground for imaging that ... any particular recluse of the Middle Ages underlies the general conception in Wordsworth and Coleridge.

But Mary Rotha Clay, in her famous 1913 Hermits and Anchorites of England, clearly confirmed the existence of forest hermits, as have scholars ever since. In fact, chapter 2 of Clay's book is titled "Forest and Hillside Hermits," though not unexpectedly, of course, elements of legend and hagiography are found in medieval accounts of hermits. So an imagined forest hermit, not to say an historical named hermit, is not to be dismissed.