Legendary hams

Samuel Johnson’s 1738 poem London opens with the narrator reacting to his chum departing the city & its vices, lamenting: “I praise the hermit, but regret the friend”. Among the several tings one might note about this poem, I’d be sure to include: dudes at the time loved themselves a dang hermit!

Exhibit A! “The… appointments and appurtenances which one might find on a wealthy estate are too numerous to discuss here, but suffice to say that eighteenth-century imaginations were fertile…. Looking through the nursery window one might see a pseudo hermitage installed on the estate for color and atmosphere. There might even be an actual hermit, hired to grace the estate with his dour presence. Some had stuffed hermits on their grounds.” (p. 107)

Exhibit B! The grandest of the sixty or seventy pleasure gardens of eighteenth-century London were Vauxhall and Ranelagh. “Vauxhall had a fairytale atmosphere which contrasted with the elegance of Ranelagh…. Vauxhall had a Chinese temple, hermit’s cottage, and smugglers’ cave, a lovers’ walk and musical bushes where an orchestra hidden underground played fairy music. (The musicians complained of damage to their instruments from the dampness.) There were also clockwork mechanisms, trompe l’oeil paintings, and very high prices for refreshments. The ham was legendary for its thinness.” (pp. 80-81)

Cribbed from Richard Schwartz, Daily Life in Johnson’s London (1983)


…or perhaps the strange fascination with the hermit was a holdover from the previous generation’s preoccupation with “heroic romance” (in which the hermit played a featured role). Cf. The Rambler, No. 4. Saturday, March 31, 1750. Third paragraph, my italics.

[The New Realistic Novel]

The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.

This kind of writing may be termed not improperly the comedy of romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the rules of comick poetry. Its province is to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder: it is therefore precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.

I remember a remark made by Scaliger upon Pontanus, that all his writings are filled with the same images; and that if you take from him his lilies and his roses, his satyrs and his dryads, he will have nothing left that can be called poetry. In like manner almost all the fictions of the last age will vanish, if you deprive them of a hermit and a wood, a battle and a shipwreck.


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