"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

17 Oct 2022

Review of 'The Vagabond in Literature' by Arthur Rickett (1906), Part 8

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

Return to Part 6  Peter Pan Syndrome

Return to Part 7   Fact or Fiction


“In looking back upon these discursive comments on the Vagabond element in modern literature, one cannot help asking what is the resultant effect of the Vagabond temperament upon life and thought. … Yet the question sooner or later rises to our lips.  This Vagabond temperament—is its charm and attractiveness merely superficial?  I cannot think so.  I think that on the whole its effect upon our literature has been salutary and beneficial. Rickett

Rickett’s chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson provides particular insight into answering these questions. He refers to two aspects of Stevenson’s character which he describes as the controlling forces of that writer’s nature, the Romantic and the Artistic:

It may be thought that these twain have much in common; but it is not so.  In poetry the first gives us a Blake, a Shelley; the second a Keats, a Tennyson.  Variety, fresh points of view, these are the breath of life to the Romantic.  But for the Artist there is one constant, unchanging ideal.  The Romantic ventures out of sheer love of the venture, the other out of sheer love for some definite end in view.  It is not usual to find them coexisting as they did in Stevenson, and their dual existence gives an added piquancy and interest to his work.  It is the Vagabond Romantic in him that leads him into so many byways and secret places, that sends him airily dancing over the wide fields of literature; ever on the move, making no tabernacle for himself in any one grove.  And it is the Artist who gives that delicacy of finish, that exquisitive nicety of touch, to the veriest trifle that he essays. The matter may be beggarly, the manner is princely.


And thus it is that in the letters alone do we find the Vagabond temperament of Stevenson fully asserting itself. … He does not care a fig for order, or logical sequence, or congruity, or for striking a key of expression and keeping it, but becomes simply the most spontaneous and unstudied of human beings.  He will write with the most distinguished eloquence on one day, with simple good sense and good feeling on a second, with flat triviality on another, and with the most slashing, often ultra-colloquial vehemency on a fourth, or will vary through all these moods, and more, in one and the same letter.” 

In Stevenson we find the same vagabond characteristics as those other, less well known, tramp writers, both in his temperament and his writing. He responds to internal humours and desires, not to societal pressures and expectations. Rickett lists three characteristics that he finds in the vagabond temperament and these apply equally to those tramp writers discussed in my own study: 

(1) Restlessness—the wandering instinct; this expresses itself mentally as well as physically.  (2) A passion for the Earth—shown not only in the love of the open air, but in a delight in all manifestations of life.  (3) A constitutional reserve whereby the Vagabond, though rejoicing in the company of a few kindred souls, is put out of touch with the majority of men and women.” 

In Rickett’s chapter on Henry D. Thoreau, we get closer to precisely what it is that puts the vagabond out of touch ‘with the majority of men and women’, and this has more to do with a rejection of wider societies norms and values than it does a ‘constitutional reserve’. “May not Thoreau’s energetic rebukes of the evils of civilization have received an added zest from his instinctive repugnance to many of the civilized amenities valued by the majority?” 

A few days before his twenty-eighth birthday, Thoreau went to live alone in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Walden Pond, a mile from the nearest neighbour. Rickett informs us that Thoreau was exceptionally practical and skilled at everything “from making lead pencils to constructing a boat” to the extent that, “had he been so disposed he could doubtless have made a fortune”. We are also told that he supported himself by manual labour throughout his life. Thoreau’s writing is full of attacks on the evils of money-making and ‘civilisation’ in general. Yet Thoreau’s escape to Walden Pond was more than simply a negative response to wider society’s evils, an “escape from ordinary life”, he rather saw it as a positive lifestyle choice, a natural way of fitting himself into an ordinary life.

Rickett credits much of Thoreau’s lifestyle to his sympathy with the Native American and his knowledge of their ways, a characteristic shared with other vagabond writers: “The Indians were to Thoreau what the gypsies were to Borrow.  Appealing to certain spiritual affinities in the men’s natures, they revealed their own temperaments to them, enabling them to see the distinctiveness of their powers.” That certain vagabond writers were drawn to those who lived on the margins of mainstream society, and also embraced ‘foreign’ cultures that complemented their own nature, has been a recurring theme for over two and a half thousand years going back to the mythical vagabond Heracles (Hercules), questioning the very nature of ‘civilisation’ itself:

We talk of civilizing the Indians, but that is not the name for his improvement.  By the wary independence and aloofness of his dim forest-life he preserves his intercourse with his native gods, and is admitted from time to time to a rare and peculiar society with Nature. […]

If one could listen but for an instant to the chant of the Indian muse, we should understand why he will not exchange his savageness for civilization.  Nations are not whimsical.  Steel and blankets are strong temptations, but the Indian does well to continue Indian.” 

Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Rickett acknowledges that the life of the woods came naturally to Thoreau because he, “had a sufficient touch of wildness to be able to detach himself from the civilized man’s point of view.”  Thoreau passed by indifferently, Rickett says, the luxuries and aspirations that mean so much to those who embrace main stream society. As with the Cynic Crates, who created his own republic from his immediate friends and family and recognised that man made laws were at odds with the natural laws of human nature, so to did Thoreau maintain his own integrity, “through obedience to the laws of his own being” 

A historical example of the vagabond's tendency to find an existence with the marginalised of society was the Cynosarges (Park of the Agile Dog). The Cynosarges was a gymnasium and a temple to the worship of the proto-Cynic Hercules located just outside the walls of Athens. Traceable to the sixth century B.C., the Cynosarges was the only place where Athenian ‘bastards’ were permitted to worship and exercise. Bastards were defined by Athenian law as including anyone with an Athenian father but whose mother was a slave, a prostitute, or a foreigner, as well as those whose parents were not legally married citizens. Generally well assimilated into Athenian life, a law passed in the fifth century B.C. prohibited bastards from exercising in the gymnasiums. For some reason this law did not extend to the Cynosarges which thus became a regular gathering place, not only for official bastards, but also self-proclaimed bastards: “men and women who were or felt illegitimate and foreign everywhere, and who lived ill at ease within the established civic community”. 

The vagabond and cynic philosopher would have us live our philosophy, the knowledge and wisdom that comes from hard living, rather than from the books and teachings of so called ‘experts’. This is the essence of vagabondage, a reconnection to our natural surroundings, trusting only the knowledge that we receive through our own senses, as opposed to academic and scientific knowledge with it's belief in first principals and external absolutes—the mindset that has dominated Western thought for over two thousand years. 

These eight posts, prompted by Rickett's book, have provided the prototype for my book in progress in which I am exploring these same themes informed by a wider reading on the subjects.

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