Santayana's poem "A Hermit of Carmel" (1901)
George Santayana (1863-1952 ) was born in Spain, lived as a child in Boston, where he studied at academies and at Harvard College, taught philosophy at Harvard University, and then retired in his late forties to a life of travel and writing, living first in England, then France, and finally settling in Rome, where he died at the age of 89. Santayana's prolific works are chiefly philosophical books on naturalism, aesthetics, ethics, humanism, and reason. Occasionally he published poetry. "A Hermit of Carmel" appeared in 1901 in A Hermit of Carmel and Other Poems (New York: Scribner, 1901).
"A Hermit of Carmel" opens by setting a medieval scene and presenting the hermit's soliloquy.
SCENE. -- A ravine amid the slopes of Mount Carmel. On one side a hermitage, on the other a rustic cross. The sun is about to set in the sea, which fills the background.
HERMIT. Thou who wast tempted in the wilderness,
Guard me this night, for there are snares in sleep
That baffle watching. O poisoned, bitter life
Of doubt and longing! Were death possible,
Who would not choose it? But that dim estate
Might plunge my witless ghost in grosser matter
And in still closer meshes choke my life.
Yet thus to live is grievous agony,
When sleep and thirst, hunger and weariness,
And the sharp goads of thought-awakened lust
Torture the flesh, and inward doubt of all
Embitters with its lurking mockery
Virtue's sad victories. This wilderness
Whither I fly from the approach of men
Keeps not the devil out. The treacherous glens
Are full of imps, and ghosts in moonlit vesture
Startle the watches of the lidless night.
The giant forest, in my youth so fair,
Is now a den of demons; the hoarse sea
Is foul with monsters hungry for my soul;
The dark and pregnant soil, once innocent
Mother of flowers, reeks with venomous worms,
And sore temptation is in all the world.
The hermit hears a noise and hides inside his hut. A young knight on horseback approaches, and dismounts. The hermit can hear him praying softly and judges the knight safe to approach. The hermit exits the hut and hides to observe the knight but the knight spots him. They converse.
The knight is of humble origin, in the Holy Land for five years of service, after which his lord, the Baron of the Marches, who has lost his sons, has promised his daughter's hand to him -- and also his lands and castle and title. "Love is the hope, sweeter than faith in heaven, For which I toil in arms," says the knight.
The knight tells his story, about how in youth, his family was attacked by Huns (this throws off historical accuracy!). They flee, losing a brother Damian, never found. Upon hearing this, the hermit realizes that this knight is his brother, for the hermit is none other than Damian. He reflects to himself on this divinely-ordained coincidence, there on Mount Carmel:
Was not Mount Carmel, Lord, thy haunt of old
Where men went up to meet thee ? Show thy face.
The Apostles at Emmaus knew the Lord
When he broke bread. Blind heart, an angel comes
To sup with thee to-night. Misknow him not.
The ravens of Elijah, who were black,
Came from the Lord, and Raphael himself
Who led the lost Tobias by the hand
Was black beside this vision's loveliness.
Yea, by its glory pale the three bright strangers
That from the desert came to Abraham's tent
In figure of the blessed Trinity. --
The hermit tells the knight that he knew Damian, but cannot say anything of his whereabouts now. The knight solicits absolution from the hermit, assuming him to be a priest, but the hermit dismisses his supposed sins. As the knight must ride on, the hermit addresses him.
Kneel, thou happy stranger,
Kneel, for a vision comes into my heart
And I must prophesy. Thus saith the Lord :
"Thou shalt not know thy brother upon earth;
My will forbids. But thou shalt pass him by,
And as Saint Peter's shadow healed a man,
The passing of thee, by my grace and mercy,
Shall save thy brother's soul." This comfort take
And go thy ways.
Here ends the poem, which is followed by "The Knight's Return, a Sequel to A Hermit of Carmel."
In the second poem the knight, whose name is Palmerin, returns to his homeland and the welcome of Flerida, the daughter of his now deceased lord. This second poem is short and does not allude at all to the hermit or to Palmerin's brother Damian.
The thoughts of the hermit, accepting his solitary happiness, are paralleled by the happiness that Palmerin will find with Flerida.
Both poems are crafted pieces of antiquarianism, of aesthetic interest rather than containing interesting or original content. The motif of the hermit as runaway or exile is familiar. It is hard to see what could have been made by Santayana of what is clearly a tableau or mere impression, like a musical flourish or the corner of a grand canvas.