"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

25 Aug 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 3


Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust


Another note now discovers itself—a passion for the Earth.  All these men had a passion for the Earth, an intense joy in the open air.  This feeling differs from the Nature-worship of poets like Wordsworth and Shelly.  It is less romantic, more realistic.  The attitude is not so much that of the devotee as that of the lover.  There is nothing mystical or abstract about it.  It is direct, personal, intimate.  I call it purposely a passion for the Earth rather than a passion for Nature, in order to distinguish it from the pronounced transcendentalism of the romantic poets.”  


Moralists are plentiful, scholars abound, but men in close, vital sympathy with the Earth, a sympathy that comprehends because it loves, and loves because it comprehends, are rare.  Let us make the most of them.” Arthur Rickett

Their affinity with the ‘natural’ world is one of the most recorded aspects of the vagabond (ancient and modern). Rickett distinguishes between the poetic appreciation of the beauties of nature—even though such were also present in many vagabond writers—and “an intellectual enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world”. This, he says, is most acutely demonstrated by the “deep and tender sympathy” for creation more characteristic of the Eastern than the Western mind, and one of the most powerful testimonies to this comes from Rickett’s chapter on Henry D. Thoreau. “He [Thoreau] observed as a naturalist, admired like a poet, loved with the fervour of a Buddhist; every faculty of his nature did homage to the Earth.” Rickett further emphasises Thoreau’s links to Buddhism as follows:

He was in sympathy with Eastern modes of regarding life; and the pantheistic tendency of his religious thought, especially his care and reverence for all forms of life, suggest the devout Buddhist. […] The tenderness of the Buddhist towards the lower creation is not due to sentimentalism, nor is it necessarily a sign of sensitiveness of feeling.” 

Rickett describes an extended trip Thoreau made with his brother John in 1839 to illustrate Thoreau’s, “practical powers to dissipate the absurd notion that he was a mere sentimentalist”, it was Thoreau’s touch of wildness, claims  Rickett, that made him a vagabond:

I am concerned to defend him from the criticism that he was a loveless, brooding kind of creature, more interested in birds and fishes than in his fellow-men.  For he was neither loveless nor brooding, and the characteristics that have proved most puzzling arose from the mingled strain in his nature of the Eastern quietist and the shrewd Western.” 

It should be acknowledged then, the degree to which both the ancient Cynics and more contemporary vagabond writers where influenced by Buddhism. Cynic links to Buddhism are evident from their philosophic stance that the key to happiness—or more accurately, the reduction suffering—can be achieved by mastering our desires: if one desires nothing, one lacks nothing. Trade links certainly existed between the Mediterranean and India during the hundred or so years before Cynicism formally emerged and Diogenes was reportedly born in 404 B.C, 79 years after the Buddha died in 483 B.C.

Digression on Animals as a Model for Humans to Live a ‘Natural’ Life

Rickett asks the following questions which I shall attempt to answer through the thoughts of the writers in his book, their vagabond predecessors, and also modern philosophers.  

Why should the elemental forces of Nature appeal so strongly to us?  Why does the dweller in the open air feel that an unseen bond of sympathy binds him to the lowest forms of sentient life?  Why is a St. Francis tender towards animals?  Why does a Thoreau take a joy in the company of the birds, the squirrels, and feel a sense of companionship in the very flowers?  Nay, more: what is it that gives a Jefferies this sense of communion?” 

To answer these questions then, it would be helpful to look at some of the wider philosophical arguments on the subject. The Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans all held to the belief that true human good lay in the healthy desires experienced by animals (and also that of children before being corrupted by teaching and discourse). The Cynics in particular turned to the habits of animals as a source of rhetoric for the most natural way to live. Diogenes' lifestyle, it is said, was inspired by watching a mouse running about: not looking for a place to lie down in, not afraid of the dark, not seeking any of the things which we consider to be dainties. His choice of a large earthenware wine vat as a mobile home is said to have been inspired by his observation of a snail, a simple lifestyle deliberately adopted to contrast to Western society’s obsession with luxury. 

The Colombian/American philosopher Luis Navia, proposes that Diogenes’ praise of animal nature and his self-characterisation as a dog can be interpreted as an ironic strategy, a kind of inverted and rhetorical allegory to expose, “the absurdity of human conduct when it resembles the behaviour of non-rational beings.” Navia’s interpretation of the Cynics’ use of animals in their teaching is not that animal life is preferable, nor that we should adopt animal life as a model for our own. Rather, we should follow, not deny, our own nature in the same way that animals follow theirs. Instead of following our nature, the Cynic Antisthenes claimed that most humans follow conventions. And it is only by divesting ourselves of the artificiality and superficiality with which we deny our true nature, that a happy and virtuous life can be attained: “We must deface the currency that has made us what we were not meant to be.”

Thoreau clearly shared the Cynics use of animal behaviour as a more helpful way of approaching human behaviour than the pretensions of humans: “Thoreau … was drawn towards them [animals] because he felt an affinity with them—an affinity more compelling in its attraction than the affinity of the average human person.” Thoreau was drawn towards animals, Rickett accepts, not because he detected any semblance to humankind in them but because they knew how to live in accordance with nature.

This theme is revisited in Rickett’s chapter on Richard Jefferies where that writer declares, “There is nothing human in any living Animal.  All Nature, the Universe as far as we see, is anti- or ultra-human outside, and has no concern with man.” But here Rickett challenges Jefferies: “why, if the Earth has no concern with man, should it soothe with its benison, and fire his being with such ecstatic rapture?  … [Jefferies] sense of happiness, his delight in the Earth, may no doubt afford him consolation, but it is an irrational comfort, an agreeable delusion.” Here Rickett ignores the distinction between the general therapeutic effects that nature has on human beings in general, and arguments used by the vagabond writers in his book that most humans have forgotten how to live a natural life in accordance with nature. End of animal digression.

To continue the general theme of the vagabond’s affinity with nature, I want to revisit some of the vagabond writers from by own book. In their case, this obsession with nature—while it remained a powerful force—was even less idealistic than that of the celebrity writers referred to by Rickett, whom in turn he describes as less sentimental about nature than the romantic poets. Morley Roberts, while addicted to nature, does not hold back from describing not only its boring aspects but its desolation. In his book, A Tramp’s Note-Book, he criticises those who sentimentalise nature and targets in particular the vainglory of adventurers who exalt the virtues of 'conquering' nature; elevating themselves vertically from the rest of the human herd, rather than exiling themselves horizontally (and anonymously), as does the tramp: 

very little above the snow-line is truly beautiful. It is often desolate, sometimes intolerably grand and savage, but lovely it is very rarely. It is perhaps against human nature to be there at all.”

Bart Kennedy is another tramp writer who shares negative observations concerning the so called beauty of nature: “to tell the truth, at that time the scenery impressed me but little. It was great and wild and finely coloured. But I had had enough mountain scenery to last me a lifetime.” Working hard in the middle of it for two months had probably knocked the poetry of it. “Neither will fine scenery impress a man when he's hungry, alone, tired, and wondering if he'll get out of it alive.” And Kennedy nearly did not come out of it alive. He gives an account of how, alone in the Rockies, he took stock of his life and decided to end it, unslinging his revolver and, “determined to take a rest for good and all.”  Having witnessed how men shot through the brain jump violently, then sink down with a look of peace on their face, he mapped out the scenario in his mind then placed the muzzle of his revolver under his right ear, “so as to get the base of the brain.”

But just as I put my finger on the trigger I began to think in a way I had never thought before. My whole life, and everything I had done in it, suddenly came up before my mind. Everything was so clear and vivid. I seemed to see things from many sides at once. This is the way that men think when they are drowning, I thought. And I brought down the muzzle of the revolver. But I intended to kill myself nevertheless. However, I'd try and analyse my feelings first. And I sat down on a log and wondered.”

Instead of pulling the trigger, Kennedy stood up and “cursed the earth and everything in it”, thinking to himself that one day, “the time would come when men of my breed—men from the gutter—would get even with it.” Once more he put the muzzle of the revolver against his head but in that moment something came over him, a feeling he was unable to name. “It wasn't fear; it wasn't remorse. I just wanted to live just wanted to live for no particular reason.”

Perhaps these honest accounts of the hostility of the natural world highlight another distinction between Rickett’s celebrity vagabond writers and the tramp writers in my own book; that for the former there was a greater element of choice supported perhaps by financial security. But I do not wish to leave the reader with the impression that the tramp writer’s relationship with nature always ended in disappointment, for the most part it was as indispensable as the air they breathed. That the natural world fuelled the tramp’s very existence is evident from the following passage from Dolly Kennedy Yancey (1869-1952) in her book The Tramp Woman (1909) where she expresses the sheer joy at being in the open air:

I would revel in life under a tent the whole summer through. I am a lover of nature, and even were I financially able to procure them, I would eschew some of the habiliments and gewgaws that are so desirable in polite society. … When I go back West I am going to throw myself down in a field, roll like a dog, and breath pure air. I crave freedom—freedom to grow, to think, to feel, to get out of life all that my God intended.”  

It would be hard to find a better example of the positive effects of nature on the tramp than that of Stephen Graham’s unforgettable poetic prose from A Tramp's Sketches:

I have learned to do without the town, without the great machine that provides man with a living. I have sucked in a thousand rains, and absorbed a thousand suns, lain on many thousand banks of the earth. I have walked at the foot of mountains along long green valleys, I have climbed great ranges and peeped over them, I have lived in barren and in fertile places, and my road-companion has been Nature herself.” 

He who sleeps under the stars is bathed in the elemental forces which in houses only creep to us through keyholes. I may say from experience that he who has slept out of doors every day for a month, nay even for a week, is at the end of that time a new man. He has entered into new relationship with the world in which he lives, and has allowed the gentle creative hands of Nature to re-shape his soul.”

Graham refers to tramps as “rebels against modern life” and “the first searchers for new life”, and notes that we could all benefit from a little more simplicity and “living in communion with Nature.” A theme repeated in The Gentle Art of Tramping:

You will discern that going tramping is at first an act of rebellion; only afterwards do you get free from rebelliousness as Nature sweetens your mind. Town makes men contentious; the country smoothes out their souls.” 

A Brief Note on Bohemianism -v- Vagabondage

Yet for all Graham's warnings about city life and endorsement of living close to nature, as with the Cynic, and for that matter the American hobo also, he is continually drawn back to urban surroundings. He is both fascinated and repelled by cities. Yes, he admits to getting bored with nature at times, but then he seems to get bored by any condition that could not sustain his desire for the extraordinary: 

It is true the wanderer often feels bored, even in beautiful places. I am bored some days every year, no matter where I spend them, and I shall always be. I get tired of this world and want another. That is a common feeling, if not often analysed.”

A clear difference between vagabondage and bohemianism there certainly is but I do not agree with some of Rickett’s descriptions of the bohemian as a lesser “superficial character” and a “a town-made imitation” of the vagabond (even if some undoubtedly were), and that the bohemian:

lacks the rough virility, the sturdy grit, which is the most attractive quality of the best Vagabond. … At heart the Bohemian is not really unconventional; he is not nomadic by instinct as is the Vagabond.” 

Rickett later continues on this theme as follows:

Far more pronounced in its neurotic character is Modern Bohemianism—as I prefer to call the ‘town Vagabond.’  The decadent movement in literature has produced many interesting artistic figures, but they lack the grit and the sanity of outlook which undoubtedly marks the Vagabond.” 

As I noted with regard to the ancient Cynics, in spite of their relationship to the natural world and their view of the unnaturalness of city life, it was in cities that they were most frequently encountered and in the most abject of circumstances. One only has to read Jean-Paul Clébert’s Paris Vagabond to appreciate the hardships and grit with which some city vagabonds suffered to maintain their own lifestyle. As noted above, many of the tramp writers in my own book were as drawn to city streets as they were to the wilderness, indeed, too much time in either seems to created a compulsion for a change of scenery as Rickett himself later acknowledges in his book:

Although a passion for the Earth is a prevalent note in the character of the literary Vagabond, yet while harking to the call of the country, he is by no means deaf to the call of the town.  With the exception of Thoreau, who seemed to have been insensible to any magic save that of the road and woodland, our literary Vagabonds have all felt and confessed to the spell of the city.” 

The title of Thomas Manning Page’s book, Bohemian Life; or The Autobiography of a Tramp (1884), sums up this dual lifestyle of many tramps. After an early life on the road tramping in the wilderness and hanging out in tramp jungles, Page spent several years as a struggling artist in Paris before returning to New York where he founded a “Bohemian Club” in the 1870s. The activities of this motley society, their buffoonery, feasting, and drunken poetry readings, has parallels with the Dadaists who were not to appear for a further 40 years. 

In their descriptions of city life, many of the tramp writers discussed in these posts also had something of the flâneur about them. Stephen Graham’s New York Nights (1927) and London Nights (1929) are wonderful examples of this genre of travel writing, one that puts modern ‘psychogeography’ in the shade; yet his tramps on foot in the Russian wilderness alone total some 5,000 miles. 

I will finish this section with the final paragraph of Rickett’s book—also his final word on Walt Whitman—as the passage summarises not only the vagabond writer’s passion for the natural world but its equally powerful effect on the reader:

In a feverish, restless age it is well to feel the presence of that large, passive, tolerant figure.  There is healing in the cool, firm touch of his hand; healing in the careless, easy self-confidence of his utterance.  He has spoken to us of ‘the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth.’  And he has done this with the rough outspokenness of the elements, with the splendid audacity of Nature herself.  Brawn, sun-tan, air-sweetness are things well worth the having, for they mean good health.  That is why we welcome the big, genial sanity of Walt Whitman, for he has about him the rankness and sweetness of the Earth.” 

Part 4 will discuss the vagabond's relationship to The Abject

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