"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

15 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 6

Return to Part 1  Introduction

Return to Part 2  Wanderlust

Return to Part 3 — Affinity with Nature

Return to Part 4 — The Abject

Return to Part 5 — The Lone and Lofty Perch of World Hating Introspection


These more eager, more adventurous spirits express for us the holiday mood of life. For they are young at heart, inasmuch as they have lived in the sunshine, and breathed in the fresh, untainted air.  They have indeed scattered “a new roughness and gladness” among men and women, for they have spoken to us of the simple magic of the Earth.” Rickett

From the mind of childhood there is more history and more philosophy to be fished up than from all the printed volumes in a library. The child is conscious of an interest, not in literature but in life.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Rickett’s observation that the vagabond is “young at heart” requires further analysis. A common theme in tramp literature is that the vagabond never loses their youthful innocence and has not been corrupted by the process of ‘education’. Jim Phelan has described the tramp as “a lost child”, Stephen Graham as “the boy who never grows old”, Morley Roberts declares, “my youth is not ended”, and Rickett notes the popular characterisation of Robert Louis Stevenson as “the eternal boy”. 

     Could it be that when the tramp or vagabond turn their back on the tyranny of man made rules and responsibilities and head for the horizon, that they are engaged in no more than a desperate attempt to hang on to the innocence of childhood? As Nietzsche observed, there is something that the child sees and hears that others do not, and that “something” is the most important thing of all. Roberts’, Tramp's Notebook, was published four years after Nietzsche’s death, and so it is entirely likely that he was influenced by that philosopher’s belief that real education is a far cry from the art of passing examinations, which, as Nietzsche claimed, “produce merely the savant or the official or the business man”.

     Roberts, along with both Phelan and Graham, believed that the world is a poorer place for having abandoned “old-fashioned habits of thought” and having allowed scientists to strip it of its magic. For Roberts’, education suppresses true knowledge and he describes his teachers as his jailers, whose only interest was the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and the passing of examinations. Bart Kennedy summarises all these arguments when he says that:

“… the fact is that men get more stupid as they grow older. The human being starts with a good bright mind. As everyone knows, children are famous for their straight and apt and acute way of viewing things. But the child's mind is soon, alas! dulled by the process that is called education. Schools and colleges and other brain-benumbing institutions kill the mother-wit that the human began with.”

Rickett claims that a characteristic attitude of the Vagabond, is an eager and insatiable curiosity towards life, “a good deal of the child’s eagerness to know how a thing happened, and who this is, and what that is.”  He talks about the impulse that gave Borrow his zest for travel in other countries and “the impulse that sent De Quincey wandering over the various roads of intellectual and emotional inquiry”, and so the natural inquisitiveness of childhood is also one of the driving forces behind wanderlust. But to return to the nature of childhood itself, when Rickett opens his chapter on George Borrow, he asks the question why we eagerly demand a story of our elders as soon as we can toddle, and why “once upon a time” can achieve what moral strictures are powerless to effect?

It is because to most of us the world of imagination is the world that matters.  We live in the “might be’s” and “peradventures.”  Fate may have cast our lot in prosaic places; have predetermined our lives on humdrum lines; but it cannot touch our dreams.  … Our bodies may traverse the same dismal streets day after day; but our minds rove luxuriantly through all the kingdoms of the earth. […] But there are dreams by sunlight and visions at noonday also.  Such dreams thrill us in another but no less unmistakable way, especially when the dreamer is a Scott, a William Morris, a Borrow.

Dreamers like Borrow, Rickett suggests, “are not content to see visions and dream dreams, their bodies must participate no less than their minds.” And so back to wanderlust again; hardships and privations will not deter the vagabond from setting forth in quest of the unknown and it is precisely the rare and the unexpected that drive their adventures and satisfy their desires. Below some characteristics of Rickett’s vagabond writers assist in opening up a more lengthy discussion on the Peter Pan syndrome:

Every Vagabond swaggers because he is an egotist more or less, and relishes keenly the life he has mapped out for himself.  But the swagger is of the harmless kind; it is not really offensive; it is a sort of childish exuberance that plays over the surface of his mind, without injuring it, the harmless vanity of one who having escaped from the schoolhouse of convention congratulates himself on his good luck.

In his discussion on Henry D. Thoreau, Rickett discusses that writer’s fondness for children which had the same roots as his fondness for birds or squirrels; something that also explained his lack of sociability towards fellow adults. In children he found something fresh, unsophisticated, and elemental, but this did not extend to any moral qualities:

A good deal of nonsense is talked about the purity and innocence of childhood.  Children are consequently brought up in a morbidly sentimental atmosphere that makes of them too quickly little prigs or little hypocrites. …  The innocence and purity of children is a middle-class convention.  None but the unreal sentimentalist really believes in it.  What attracts us most in children is naturalness and simplicity.  We note in them the frank predominance of the instinctive life, and they charm us in many ways just as young animals do.” 

Rickett maintains that it is this natural, simplistic and instinctive quality, “children who have the freshness and wildness of the woods about them”, that the vagabond relates to and seeks to emulate in their own life, in turn rejecting the civilised conventions adopted by their more conservative contemporaries.

Tramp writer Jim Phelan’s approach to the Peter Pan analogy is that, “a vagabond is really a lost child, who sometimes finds his mother—his mother being represented by a thousand women, in a thousand different towns.” The theme of Phelan’s “lost children”, whether searching for their home or their mothers, is returned to in the passage below from Tramping the Toby, where he shares Graham’s loss of a bygone age when old fashioned wisdom prevailed; the loss of childhood innocence clearly having parallels with the deprivation of earthly simplicity:

“people who live in the wild regions, shepherds and explorers and vagabonds, those who travel the lonely roads and know the dark silent places of the earth—those people have the old-fashioned habits of thought, and they believe in many things which the townspeople would call mere superstition ... and old fashioned and unscientific belief.

Why then, does the vagabond prefer an education outside of orthodox learning establishments like schools and universities. Like the ancient Cynics, the modern vagabond only trusts what is experienced directly through their own senses. Unlike the academic philosopher, the vagabond-philosopher is not interested in discovering why or how something is because such knowledge would destroy the magic and exotic nature of the phenomena or experience—rendering it mundane. Why should the vagabond care about the scientific discovery of how many sub-atomic neutrinos are emitted by the sun, it is enough simply to bask in its warmth; of course we find using a computer more convenient than writing on papyrus, but are our lives made any happier as a result? Is our writing any more potent? As with the ancient Cynics also, the vagabond-philosopher ‘lives’ their philosophy rather than preaching it. Childish curiosity, goes hand-in-hand with childish innocence, but also with wisdom. For the vagabond-philosopher, ‘civilisation’ represents the downfall of humanity, not its triumph, and in the following passage from Stephen Graham’s, A Tramp’s Sketches, we have the ultimate thesis on the wisdom of youth:

     “Old age, old age; I was an old, bearded, heavy-going, wrinkled tramp, leaning on a stout stick; my grey hairs blew about my old red ears in wisps. I stopped all passers-by upon the road, and chuckled over old jokes or detained them with garrulity. But no, not old; nor will the tramp ever be old, for he has in his bosom that by virtue of which, even in old age, he remains a boy. There is in him, like the spring buds among the withered leaves of autumn, one never-dying fountain of youth. He is the boy who never grows old.”

Morley Roberts also admits to a desire for perpetual youth when he states in his work, A Tramp’s Notebook, that, “without illusion one cannot write”, and that (and herein lies a perfectly expressed manifesto for the life of the professional tramp):

When the Queen of Illusion illudes no more youth is over.' [...] To do a little useful work (even though the useful may be a thousandth part of the useless) is the end of living. The only illusion worth keeping is that anything can be useful. So far my youth is not ended.”

The stupidity of adults absorbed through a process of maturation; not acquiring wisdom, but rather losing it through false learning, is a theme common to all vagabond writers. Humans are the most arrogant of animals, oblivious to the fact that in their attempts to understand the world and shape it to their will, they instead create the very chaos and disorder that they seek to control. At the core of the tramp's determination not to participate in the conceit that afflicts so many of their fellow humans, is a search for a simpler, more meaningful life. But don’t be fooled by the ragged appearance, something the modern vagabond-philosopher shares with their historical forebears like Diogenes of Sinope and Jesus of Nazareth, for behind it lurks a superior intellect. This again raises the question of who the real outcasts from humanity are; a theme picked up by Bart Kennedy in his book, Sailor Tramp (1918), and Stephen Graham in A Tramp’s Sketches (1913). Both of these vagabond-philosophers leave warnings for those who dismiss the tramp and hold him or her in contempt:

     “Tramps and outcasts. Be easy with them. For it may come to pass that they will be held up to honour as the brave rebels and pioneers, who guided men up the tortuous path of intelligence and happiness.” Bart Kennedy 

     “[The tramp] is necessarily a masked figure; he wears the disguise of one who has escaped, and also of one who is a conspirator. ... He is the walking hermit, the world-forsaker, but he is above all things a rebel and a prophet, and he stands in very distinct relation to the life of his time.” Stephen Graham

I want to finish this section on the Peter Pan Syndrome with an extended passage from Stephen Graham’s A Tramp’s Sketches because (aside from showcasing his phenomenal prose writing style) it also has clear links to the earlier sections on Wanderlust and the Lone and Lofty Perch. In the following passage Graham describes the “irreconcilables” as “lost children” or “kidnapped persons”, those who feel alien everywhere and search in vain for some corner of the world, or universe, that has not been plundered of it’s mystery: 

     “I sought them in towns and found them not, for the people … slumbered and slept. [...] We are many upon the world—we irreconcilables. We cry inconsolably like lost children [...] For perhaps we are kidnapped persons. Perhaps thrones lie vacant on some stars because we are hidden away here upon the earth. [...]  we irreconcilable ones; we stand upon many shores and strain our eyes to see into the unknown. We are upon a deserted island and have no boats to take us from star to star, not only upon a deserted island but upon a deserted universe, for even the stars are familiar; they are worlds not unlike our own. The whole universe is our world and it is all explained by the scientists, or is explicable. But beyond the universe, no scientist, not any of us, knows anything. On all shores of the universe washes the ocean of ignorance, the ocean of the inexplicable. We stand upon the confines of an explored world and gaze at many blank horizons. We yearn towards our natural home, the kingdom in which our spirits were begotten. We have rifled the world, and tumbled it upside-down, and run our fingers through all its treasures, yet have not come upon the charter of our birth.

Part 7 will discuss Fact or Fiction

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