During the most recent lockdown, an invitation dropped into my email inbox: ‘Go into your inner room and close the (inner) door and God will reward you in secret’.
The words (slightly misquoted from Matthew 6.6.) were part of a ‘how-to’ article in the local parish magazine on contemplative prayer for Lent. The focus was on inner thought and sitting in silence in order to ‘consent to God’s presence and action within’.
I am not a Christian, so I was somewhat deaf to the full spiritual message. But the practice of withdrawing into a private space both physically and mentally is something I do every day in order to write.
When I write, I go into an inner room at the back of the house and shut the door. There’s a sign on the door made by my daughter. It reads: ‘Can’t talk; Writing’. Usually the sign is enough, but I can also lock the door if needs be, using a long metal key that releases a brass bolt with a satisfying thunk.
The room is part of a single-storey extension that clings to the outside north wall of the house, away from all comings and goings on the south side. Inside it is narrow, painted parrot-feather green and lined with a bulwark of books. My desk is next to a window, which looks out on an untidy, wooded part of the garden. There are no other houses in view. No one can see me sitting here: words that hold an echo of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, a poem that enjoys the lure of solitude, being away from the village and everything it stands for. Most of all, there is the privacy of being unwatched:
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The ground outside my room is higher than the floor within, making me feel earthed and secure, as a fox is earthed in its den. I am also reminded of earthing in an electrical sense; the way a live electrical circuit needs to be connected to the ground in order to discharge excess current and protect the user from fatal shock. When we had the wiring in this part of the house checked, the electrician said he had never seen a circuit where the earthing was so strong. It is because there are no real foundations here, only a bit of rubble-stone and then black clay.
Secrecy and the small, hidden space
Security, privacy and containment: three essential characteristics of a productive brooding spot. A few metres beyond my room, out of sight on the other side of a low wall, a wild duck broods on her nest by the pond. She has made a ledge of reeds and feathers beneath a clump of pendulous sedge. Her brown, striped plumage provides perfect camouflage as she cuddles down – no one saw her sitting there for nearly a fortnight. In that time she had scraped out a nest and laid 11 water-green eggs. She, and all the other birds breeding in the garden have sought safety and peace in concealment. Feelings of security are of course no guarantee of actual security. Three nights later and halfway through incubation, a fox came and took all her eggs. I think the predator was a vixen with cubs to feed.
The mallard’s need and mine for seclusion stem from the same instincts. As Alan Westin wrote in his essay ‘The Origins of Modern Claims to Privacy’:
‘Man likes to think that his desire for privacy is distinctively human, a function of his unique ethical, intellectual, and artistic needs. Yet studies of animal behaviour and social organization suggest that man’s need for privacy may well be rooted in his animal origins’.
Westin’s words were first published in 1967. But Gaston Bachelard had walked the same ground before Westin stumbled upon it. In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard has much to say about nests, and their concomitant, shells, as refuges for the imagination. In his chapter on nests he describes how the urge to withdraw brings physical as well as mental pleasure:
‘Physically, the creature endowed with a sense of refuge, huddles up to itself, takes to cover, hides away, lies snug, concealed. If we were to look among the wealth of our vocabulary for verbs that express the dynamics of retreat, we should find images based on animal movements of withdrawal, movements that are engraved in our muscles. How psychology would deepen if we could know the psychology of each muscle! And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man! … I shall then show that a human being likes to “withdraw into his corner,” and that it gives him physical pleasure to do so.’
This passage can be read as a subtle rebuttal to Milton’s famous dismissal of mental retreat in Areopagitica: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d and unbreath’d, that never sallies out’. Yet I feel uncomfortable discounting Milton’s fierce and incisive activism so easily. He was making a point against the censorship of books and the need for exposure to diverse ideas in forming judgment. He wrote Areopagitica in 1644, the year of the Battle of Marston Moor when the Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell defeated Charles I. In that time of social and religious ferment, Catholic concepts of public action as a means to salvation were being rejected for radical Puritanical ideas that placed a sharp emphasis on the individual’s interior, private relationship with God – we are back inside Matthew’s ‘inner room’ of private prayer.
Milton was no stranger to the hermit’s lamp, kept burning through long hours of solitary study. As a Parliamentarian and a Protestant he understood the idea of an inner space where a man might hope to address God. From 1652 onwards until his death in 1674, that place was perhaps made even more inescapable by blindness. Milton and Bachelard’s perspectives meet in Bachelard’s concept of the hermit in his hut as an individual alone yet cosmically connected. According to Bachelard:
‘The hermit is alone before God. His hut, therefore, is just the opposite of the monastery. And there radiates about his centralised solitude a universe of meditation and prayer, a universe outside the universe.’
Sacred space and imaginal power
What are the poetics of this closed, sacred space recommended by Matthew, known by Milton? To investigate, I went on a short journey, which might once have been called a pilgrimage, to the Shrine of St Wite.
The shrine in the church at Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset (my nearest village) is the only one of its kind to survive the Reformation. It contains the remains of a 9th-century woman who died leading the villagers in battle against marauding Danes. St Wite is associated with healing, water and sight and during medieval times, her tomb was a major place of pilgrimage. People still visit and pray for her intercession, leaving small tokens and prayer cards in the enclosures beneath her coffin, or at least they did before the pandemic closed the church and halted the physical practices associated with it. I wanted to see if this place, filled with more than a thousand years of prayer and introspection, would give me some clues.
I know the shrine well but have hardly visited it in the past year because the church has been locked. I could only visit during the one afternoon a week it opened ‘for private prayer’ – again that emphasis on being alone with God in what is now a (mostly) closed space.
A sign in the porch told me to wear a mask and sanitise my hands, the alcohol gel replacing what would once have been sin-cleansing holy water. With my breath and speech sufficiently sealed and my hands purified, I opened the heavy oak door and entered. There was no one else there, the air was cold and still and I had a definite sense that life was elsewhere. I was surprised to find it quite so sterile and deaf; this was not even the vas bene clausum, the well-sealed vessel, of the alchemists, where closure produces a refining reaction. Without the passage of people, religious or not, and their hopes, curiosity and hungers, the church was dead space. Containment had become constriction, solitude transmuted into isolation, cut off from the tides of life.
Shut in my mask and being careful not to touch anything, I walked to the shrine where the saint’s bones lie sealed inside a lead casket, within a coffin of pale, unpolished Purbeck limestone, tucked in the north transept. It had been cleared of the usual clutter of pleas and objects, except for a lone 10p piece.
I stood there and imagined the reliquary with the saint’s bones hidden inside the shrine, a true cista mystica, or sacred chest, that I have never seen and of which there are no photographs, and of the space within it, so dark and so emphatically inaccessible. I thought of Marvell, Milton’s most famous pupil, pleading with his mistress: ‘The grave’s a fine and private place / But none I think do there embrace’.
Dry bones in a dry box, oh so very dry, I thought. ‘Dry bones can harm no one’, Eliot wrote of the empty chapel in The Waste Land. Perhaps it was the dryness of bones, the deafness to the outside world, the limestone of the tomb and St Wite’s association with water that brought to mind another female entity enclosed and isolated, namely Alice Oswald’s ‘Roman water nymph made of bone’ in ‘Dunt: A poem for a dried-up river’, who spends:
year after year in a sealed glass case having lost the hearing of her surroundings she struggles to summon a river out of limestone
In this poem, after much beseeching, a ‘nearly dried-up woman’ arises, opens a church door and brings a ‘flood through five valleys’. I decided to follow the poet, open the church door and seek the saint outdoors in her natural element, water.
Legend says St Wite was a hermit living alone in a hut overlooking the sea. There is no trace of her dwelling place to be seen, only a spring called St Wite’s Well that flows out of the hillside and was revered for healing properties. The well is hidden in a fold of the field and you do not see it until you are nearly there. It is a modest place, a square of wooden post-and-rail fencing to keep the cattle out, a cast-iron National Trust sign and a pipe trickling clear water into a sunken stone trough.
As instructed in the Gospel of St Matthew, I went into the inner enclosure, shut the gate, and stood beside the well. I thought about how delineated and marked-off this space was in its multiple rectangular areas of field, fence and trough. What part of those divisions was special? Where did the holiness start and end? At the hedge boundary? The fence? The bankside? The trough? I gazed down into the well and I saw a small, irregular, white patch on the floor of the trough where the gentle force of water falling from the pipe blew it clean of debris. That space was empty because it was full – filled with continual movement. Interaction between objects created a space that was not directly about the water, the trough, or the pipe but arose from the relationship between them.
The ‘aliveness’ of this empty-but-full space contrasted with the void I had sensed in the church, where interaction had ceased because of lockdown. Without the thoughts and attentions of people, the objects in the church had somehow dried out and ‘died’. I am not implying that human interaction is essential for ‘aliveness’. It is needed in the church interior only because non-humans are largely excluded – the door has a screen to keep birds out, for example. Bats are tolerated (but not encouraged) because the law protects them. Insects, arachnids and rodents are cleaned away or poisoned.
New Animism takes a similar approach to the question of ‘aliveness’. It argues that there is no such thing as ‘nature’ separate from ‘culture’, only what Graham Harvey describes as ‘a diverse community of variously interrelating relations – some more intimate and more immediately present to us than others’. While this school of thought incorporates concepts central to the cosmology of many indigenous cultures, it is rooted in Romanticism.
If the shrine needs interaction and imagination in order for its presence to be reanimated, perhaps my visit, my writing about it, and you reading what I have written, is part of that reanimation; just as Oswald’s poem reactivates the parched Roman water nymph isolated in her museum case.
Inhabiting the landscape
On 29 April 1802 Dorothy Wordsworth lay down in a trench under a fence with her brother:
‘William heard me breathing & rustling now & then but we both lay still & unseen by one another – he thought that it would be as sweet thus to lie so in the grave, to hear the peaceful sounds of the earth & just to know that ones dear friends were near.’
Breathing and rustling with dear ones near – Dorothy sounds more as if she is nesting than lying in a grave. The impulse to burrow into the landscape and nest/shelter is a key constituent of Romantic sensibility across eras and artistic forms. In her brilliant book Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology & the British Landscape 1927-1955, Kitty Hauser identifies it as a prevalent motif in the work of British Neo-Romantic artists:
‘… the vulnerable body, and its quest for a home, is something of a leitmotif in Neo-Romantic art, finding simplified form in the sculpture of Henry Moore, for example, or in [John] Minton’s images, where the body seeks refuge in the landscape … ‘[Paul] Nash’s photographs from this period show an obsession with huts, shelters and makeshift dwellings’.
It was also widespread in literature of the same period, even in genres not traditionally associated with Romanticism. Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male, published in 1939, is often regarded as the first thriller, a forerunner of Deighton and Le Carré, but its underlying ethos is resolutely Romantic. It tells of how an unnamed protagonist fails in his attempt to assassinate Hitler and goes on the run, literally hunted to ground by a Nazi agent. He seeks refuge in rural Dorset, constructing an underground lair in a holloway on a hill above Whitchurch Canonicorum (home of St Wite, though the saint does not get a mention in this most secular of works). This is no peaceful, Wordsworthian reverie. A nerve-twisting encounter ensues, which the ‘hero’ survives because of his relationship to the life of the landscape he has buried himself within.
Hauser argues that the Neo-Romantic quest for a safe dwelling place was characteristic of those who, like Heidegger, experienced modernity as a form of homelessness. This was not a new development – a sense of dislocation from the modern world is an essential aspect of the Romantic mindset, whether modernity is represented by the Industrial Revolution, the technologies of war, or the 21st-century panic-scape of the coronavirus.
Dwelling in solitude
O solitude, my sweetest choice! Places devoted to the night, Remote from tumult and from noise, How ye my restless thoughts delight! O loneliness, my sweetest choice! O heav’ns! what content is mine
Romanticism extended, but did not invent, the idea of wisdom achieved through solitary withdrawal into the natural world. The haunting lament quoted above was written by Katherine Philips from an original by Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant and set to music by Henry Purcell in about 1685. Philips and Purcell were drawing on an established tradition of inwardness, where shadows and darkness are metaphors for a kind of restful freedom of mind. As the late 16th-century Neo-Platonist poet and playwright George Chapman wrote: ‘No pen can any thing eternall wright / That is not steept in humor of the Night’. William Wordsworth re-forged this idea two centuries later as ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, which he considered the origin of poetry, the ‘flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’.
While isolation brings exclusion, claustrophobia and even death, solitude opens an innermost door. Bachelard thinks introspection leads to a ‘universe outside the universe’, but surely it opens on a realm within the universe to an experience best described by William Blake in Auguries of Innocence when he wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’.
Years ago I wrote about solitude and isolation in a book called Islomania. It was about the desire for islands and how they can represent an escape into a shining, sea-girt paradise. Islomania found that the pleasure of islands largely resides in a sense of being separate but connected. The minute you set foot on an island it ceases to truly be one; your journey threads it to the mainland. At the same time, ‘you realise how body-bound you are, how stranded in the particular, on this island now, in this body’, which can bring a fierce sense of insularity and sometimes isolation.
Whatever external habitations we construct, our bodies are, finally, where we dwell. The pandemic has highlighted the indivisibility of the body from the world. As the self-styled ‘eco-crip’ poet Polly Atkin writes: ‘Everything we experience of the world we experience in and through and with our bodies. Our relationship with our body informs our relationship with the world’ (Magma 79)). Whether or not we have a religious belief, talk to God or, as Blake did, see spangled angels sitting in trees, we all have bodies. Ultimately it is our bodies where we find the island, the hermit’s hut, or Matthew’s inner room.
 In the King James 1611 version of the Bible, Matthew 6.6 is: ‘But thou when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy doore, pray to thy father which is in secret, and thy father which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.’
Atkin, P., (2021) ‘All the living I have left to do’: a disability poetics of dwelling in Magma 79
Bachelard, G. trans. Jolas, M., (1994) The Poetics of Space.
Harvey, G., (2019) ‘Animism and Ecology: Participating in the world community’ in The Ecological Citizen, vol. 3, pp.79-84.
Hauser, K., (2007) Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology & the British Landscape 1927-1955.
Oswald, A., (2016) Falling Awake.
Sara Hudston is a Dorset-based writer and photographer who focuses on the living world and spirit of place. She writes fictions and non-fiction and is a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Country Diary. https://sarahudston.co.uk
See also her short video piece on Edgewise: Two Hours On Dartmoor.
Text and images © Sara Hudston 2021.