Sunday, 24 October 2021

The Norwood Hermit

Nothing Is being Suppressed: footnote

I spent a morning reading up about a story which appears in ‘Place’ (pp. 253-55 of the collected edition) and have to correct my (unpublished) account of it in ‘Nothing is being suppressed’. I had supposed that there was a link between Samuel Matthews taking firewood from a wood which had owners, and him being killed. But the text does not say that, and now that I have looked up various accounts of his life (and death in 1802) I see that there was no connection.
His life as a hermit living off odd gardening jobs is connected with the enclosure of common land near Norwood, which Fisher records a few pages earlier. But that was in 1806, after his death. Also, reading the sources (for what they are worth) shows that he was not living on a common, but in a wood owned by Dulwich College. The wood is still there.
The whole passage is hard to understand because Fisher directly reproduces Matthews’ conversation (from the printed sources) and Matthews had suffered an untoward cerebral event which had partly deprived him of the power of speech, or perhaps of the power of reason. I should say that the very strange language in this section is exact quotes from Matthews, usually ones found in the sources. However, people remembered tags and scraps… not entire conversations, and contexts. He obviously had difficulties (due to brain damage after an illness, the 1803 pamphlet tells us). People were struck by his speech. The informants knew that his speech was “incoherent and sometimes quite unintelligible” and then tried to reproduce stretches of it. The problem is obvious. “stars fight stars fight I see’um” may be a prophecy of war, based on star gazing. Or it may not. These are pioneering records and we would like to know a lot more about his aphasia, if that is what it was. I think the theme may be that dropping out of society changes your language, and that the language of Place (and other underground poems of the time) is mutated because it is written by people who do not believe in capitalism. Chris Torrance is mentioned on the page before the Matthews section starts… Torrance had a job as a solicitor's clerk in the Sixties but gave it up and dropped out to live in a cottage in the Neath Valley (off the road and without electricity or running water, anyway that is the description I was given, it is not a documentary!). So the theme is “dropping out”, however distant the examples are which Fisher juxtaposes. Matthews is recorded as having an uncanny power of predicting the weather, and the same story is recounted about Torrance. A small detail… the poem on page 252 describes remains of Palaeolithic date, in Britain, and in the Matthews section he mentions a “hunter”. The sources do not show Matthews was hunting for food so my guess is that this hunter is a stray from the Palaeolithic. Matthews is in touch with the past because he lives in the wilderness.

He was a hermit, but in a wood quite near London and certainly close to densely inhabited land, with villages. He lived on his wages as a gardener and ate mutton and bread; he was not someone living off the land five miles away from Charing Cross. He went to a pub called the French Horn and drank porter. I mention this because he was quite a celebrity and this is why there are numerous stories about him which made it into print. A vagrant would not normally have a pamphlet published about his life just after he died. Local historians went round the pubs collecting stories, or something quite like that. It was the era when the Noble Savage was fashionable, and members of the gentry came to visit him possibly because they saw him as a savage who was within easy reach of Dulwich. The sources say that he was given permission to live in the wood by the Master and Wardens of Dulwich College, and the dialogue between him and one of those wardens may have connected with patronage from the upper classes, rather than eviction.
Anyway, there is time for me to fix this before the book goes to be printed. For the sources, if you google "samuel matthews norwood" you will see several of them.

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