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W.H. Hudson

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

What we call ‘literary immortality’ is but the remembrance of a few, who in a little while will themselves be nameless dust. For the man never to be forgotten is, within some counted days, sunk in oblivion, and lesser men of the hour surpass his memory. Even for the greatest there must in the end be this forgetfulness. Can we, whose civilization even now shakes, perhaps to its final fall, be certain that the great men of Greece themselves will be reverenced by a flood of new conquerors from the uplands and plains of Asia, or Africa? And still we live relatively and cherish the belief that the only time that reckons is what we ourselves and our children can count upon. So it is hard for us to believe that such a man as W. H. Hudson, whose passion for life was so tremendous, should not for a long time share in that fragile form of immortality which is to be remembered by men.

It is now seven years since Hudson died. When we lost him he was seventeen years my senior. He is now no more than ten years older than I. It is strange to think, as even the frail may long survive the threats of life, that I might even learn to look upon him, who taught me so much, as a younger brother who indeed died young. For after all that is the truth. Hudson did die young. He had still the brain of a young and ardent naturalist and thinker, and a constitution which but for the illness that nearly, killed him as a boy, might have made him count the years of a full century. Some die early and yet go on living in blind futility. Some reproduce the thoughts of an ephemeral press and believe they think. Their interests are peculiarly personal: it is their narrowness which is death itself. But Hudson’s interests were almost universal. He taught not so much the brotherhood of man as the brotherhood of all living things founded on our blood relationship with all that lives. True that he never ran any such theory into the ground. He had his hates and resentments for he was essentially human. He could have fought savagely and to the point of cruelty against cruelty. He did not hate war if it was a fight for freedom and justice. He held that any people had its inalienable right to resent dictation. He wished to be free, and so far as man may be he was free; he had at least a free mind.

I wrote his biography and am not now greatly, dissatisfied with the portrait. My opportunities were unsurpassed during many years and perhaps because I never expected to get to know him he did at last in many ways disclose himself. So when rare gleams of illumination pierced the strange bright obscurity in which he loved to dwell, I was often amazed and sometimes smiled. It was not easy for me to write about him, for to write of Hudson was almost to write about myself. And still why should I not confess here, after seven years of wanting him, how much Hudson was to me? No longer have I any to whom I can take all I do or try to do. He was like a most wise and excellent elder brother to me, and sometimes I was like the son he had not, a son in whom he hoped. His appreciation, if it came, was like upland air: even his disapproval was never without sympathy or suggestion of amendment. I knew that my affection for him was returned, and his most unfounded criticism, since even the surest must miss the way, never hurt me.

Hudson was not a scientific man. He never professed to be. He was content to remain the observer, the friend, of birds and beasts and man himself when man was not vile or cruel. He lived therefore on the frontiers of science and lacked patience for that extended and intense reading which must be the lot of those who, at whatever price or by whatever gate, enter the kingdom of science. An adventurer in letters, he admired adventure in others, and chuckled when I, greatly daring as I know now, broke almost burglariously into that realm. It is now some sixteen years since I did so. I should never have ventured into that region if it had not been for Hudson. He used me to invent hypotheses for him and I recognized that he did so and took it as a compliment, and strove to satisfy him. To do that meant not merely reliance on my own imagination or general powers of fairly logical thinking. It meant much labour. Perhaps I may say here that long ago, even when I was a child, I took a deep interest in medicine and doctors and all things connected with life, though I did not even know such a word as biology existed. It is no doubt a very trivial thing to put down, but once, when not yet thirteen, I had some occasion at Bedford School for a short holiday and I went by myself veiy soberly and asked our doctor for a medical certificate. “Well, young fellow, and what do you want me to put down as your complaint?” asked the doctor with a cynical smile. “I think, sir, you might make it nervous debility,” I replied gravely. He looked at me, burst into laughter, slapped his thigh, and said, “By God, I will! I suppose you are going to be a doctor.” That, however, was not to be my fate, and it was twenty years later when Hudson pushed me across the broad borderland which lies between natural history and pure science.

Like a great many other invalids Hudson was not averse from discussing his life-long heart trouble and to satisfy, and to some extent reassure him I read up cardiology. Some years later I sent him to Sir James Mackenzie who was a great help to him. Sir James wrote to me about his heart condition, for by this time I had worked at his own invention, the polycardiograph, with a favourite student of his, now, alas, dead. In this way Hudson helped to make me into a kind of medico-biological student, a thing which had results in the end. He recognized the fact and took a peculiar paternal pride in my book, “Warfare in the Human Body,” which he could but partially understand, and he used to get doctors to read it, with varying results, and was accustomed to demand if they really understood it all, being immensely delighted if any of them found part of it difficult.

Every one interested in biology, knows that Hudson was a Lamarckian and those who are not may learn to their advantage, since biology comes so greatly to the front nowadays, that Lamarck held that some at least of the changes brought about in a functioning organism by the work it does, are inherited. Hudson had a mighty scorn of the Neo-Men-delian-Darwinians who utterly denied this. So once when I said to him, “I suppose I am a kind of Lamarckian,” he almost shouted, or rather piped shrilly, “Of course, of course, you are!” I have many good scientific friends who sometimes chuckle and as often look grim and sceptical in the face of heterodox speculations, but in any case are helpful even when they damn, rightly or wrongly, what is suggested, but I have all the same lost my father, my big brother, in the journey through the tangled hills and pathless plains of the animal world. Not always was he right and at times he was most obstinately wrong, and I often had occasion to groan when it was necessary to read much to convince him of a little.

Truly I own this is, to those who did not know him, mere chatter, and chatter largely about myself. But are not those who know a man mirrors or photographs in which to see him? They may as it were be mere negatives and unprintable at that, but we may so turn about a negative to the light that it becomes a positive. It is a pity that George Gissing left no sketch of Hudson. It was perhaps one day’s good deed when I brought them together, and as it were gave each a twist so that they came home to each other where they fitted. For two more unlike men never lived. Gissing shied away from the real life he strove to depict. That he depicted it as he did shows how he abhorred it, while Hudson drew the living world to him and wrapped himself in it as a garment, and could be as much a friend to a rat-catcher as to a king of men.

But both these men loved books and solitude: Gissing the ex-tremest solitudes that he knew, though he would have feared the loneliness of the pampa or prairie so dear to Hudson, and could not rest long in peace among those who lacked letters. Not always was it easy to fit a mood to Gissing’s mood, for Hudson and I loved speculation and speculation made Gissing peculiarly uneasy. He loathed philosophers and metaphysics, and the uneasy surprises of science shook his stability like an earthquake. He turned his back upon new things and needed an Augustan age for completion. And yet he and Hudson loved and admired each other, not in the way of an admiration society but with humour and without any loss or denial of criticism. So books may bring all apparent op-posites together as they chant the praises of the dead who may yet live for a little while.

Hudson was a ‘materialist’ and a mystic too. Though technically without belief he had many beliefs. But these were never held with any religious passion and he lacked, what Gissing in spite of his disbelief managed to retain, a theory of some sort of purpose in this universe of ours. But it was all the more a wonderful universe and he saw, much more clearly we can be assured than many bishops and dignitaries see, that a speck of matter was in every way as wonderful in itself as the sun or moon or stars. Hudson never attributed any of the faint glories of man to a soul. Without knowing it he was in many ways a follower of the path Spinoza knew. The body, the brain, could do all the body and the brain knew: there was no indignity in the flesh, no degradation in being flesh that passed in a few short hours into dull or sparkling dust. So he sat upon a tumulus and bade ancient men be his companions and strove to get their stories from them as though they still lived. For what he dreamed was for the time all that he saw. He had the mystic capacity, on which so much of truth and falsehood has been built, which made the world of every day sink away, from him. This came at some great hours. A flash of sunlight in the blue distances of the downs or the sight of many wild flowers took him where many saints have trodden. But he trod there without bleeding feet and came back to a sane and glorified world. What wonder that one should miss him! For these moments of exaltation were his very often and the wilder countryside might open them to him when alone. Only thrice in my own life has any hour come to me which gave me comprehension.

For him life seemed very brief. He feared the passage of time, the years that eat up a man and rob him of his powers and passions. To have instincts and no power of fulfilment was the misery he dreaded. His eighty years seemed but a short day. “I’d like to live a million years, yes, a million years 1” But his passion for life was a real passion for living. How much we hear now of this writer and that who, perhaps from the bed of a consumptive, shrieks for power and liberty. Folk talk of this as though it were a new doctrine and some make of it a plea for special license and debauchery. But who should care, save out of pity, for the shrieks of the weak and the unable? What right have they to exalt their incapacity of sane power into a so-called philosophy? It has been the unnamed philosophy of all strong men. And LIudson, though an invalid in one sense, never let that weakness destroy him. He warmed both hands before the fire of life with old Savage Landor. He did not cry aloud and pitifully with Jefferies for “life, more life.” Jefferies was then not a living but a dying man. He was avid and violent for what he might not have, for what he might not do. Often books that should be strong are but violent: we find that their writers were sick or weak. They must put into their work all their wishes for power and out of their weakness they overdo it. Others put the world away from them and concoct in bed a theory of final just despair. Some call the groans of Leopardi a philosophy. But who that denies life, or to whom life is denied, shall attain wisdom? Hudson, with sufficient weakness to take away the arrogance of strength from his mighty body, could have been truly a philosopher, if he had not known *hat life was more than any doctrine. His one great grief was that a disastrous youth, for all it gave him of a rare liberty, had yet robbed him of so much, of adventure, of the chances and extreme deliglit of exhausting labours and escapes from peril. It was this deprivation of activity that made him a lover of women. There can be adventures and disasters in love.

I have spoken of his strength. He never knew how great it was. In death he had the muscles and thews of some great old athlete, who even in age had preserved the frame and its equipment that made and marked him. And yet having these and the sense of latent power of a merely physical kind, though that is a great gift as strong men know, he recognized and indeed over-estimated the fragility, of his own life. If youth had left its dangers it had left also, from the mouth of physicians who then knew no better, suggestions of immediate possible death. This was impressed too deeply on him as a boy. He never rid himself of it. Time and again he wrote to me, “I never expected to live through the night.” So many have felt and yet have trampled down the years as he did. If he feared death, and he did necessarily fear it with that evil old sentence passed upon him, it was no common fear. I have heard the merest writer of foolish books, a man who had led, and could have led, no real man’s life, express such terror of death that he seemed to me insane. Lie would have been satisfied with the empty continuance of a reprieved murderer. But LIudson wanted all that his unused power ought to have given him. This sense of life’s fragility is very strange: it is symptomatic of some diseases. It takes away strong belief in to-morrow, it makes to-day most urgent. How can one blame Hudson for this fear? His capacity for enjoyment was that of a child and over and above that he embraced the universe. This is what the mysticism of such a man can give him. It was with him founded on none of the illusions of the mystics but on his fundamental unity with nature. In him were all the passions of Nature.

These are great gifts and the world might have been his if what we call the world had known the man among them. But when that initial disaster cut him away from the sources of power and profit that a normal childhood might have given, it condemned him to poverty, poverty prolonged, enforced and, till the end, uninterrupted. He might have said with Samuel Johnson that the world’s help came to him when he was indifferent and could not enjoy it, when he was solitary and could not impart it. Nothing but his native power of endurance put him through those years when even a short holiday in the country was a thing to scheme for, to hope for, and to take at last not only in the hazard but in the certainty that it must be paid for heavily in the gloom of the melancholy house in which he spent his last years and in which I, in the end, laid his limbs to rest.

Not since Hudson’s death have I been able to visit that decaying and smoke-stained part of London in which the song of birds was replaced for him by, the scream of locomotives and the roar of the town’s traffic. There is a great melancholy in a street that has lost its ancient status: it is like a man decayed and fallen among the thieves of opportunity. That house of his, of his faithful yet unfit wife, may now have clothed itself with paint and flowers. I have not seen it, and shall not. Not again shall I climb to the garret which for years was theirs, while aliens, who did not always pay their rent, sheltered under their roof in a lesser degree of poverty than those to whom the place belonged. Once it had been a successful boarding house, full of life at least, and not without gaiety, though at that time the Hud-sons lived in another house, also given over to enforced guests, where I first most strangely met him. That speculation failed: the difficulty of the task overcame his wife, and she who had first known him as a poor boarder, took shelter in what remained of her difficult property and strove with him for bare life. How came it that Hudson married? We may guess very easily. A poor guest married a kindly hostess then in some hazardous prosperity.

Hudson’s feeling of the intense fragility of personal life, whether for a man or some passing blossom, was of course alien to his type. Youthful health, as I have suggested, would have given him that sense of security which he for ever lacked. How much of the charming and yet irritating contradictions of his character arose from this initial antinomy it is hard to say. If he had but known that the doctors, prophesying his early death, had spoken without knowledge and with presumption natural but lamentable, he would have lived in greater freedom, even in poverty and stress. But perhaps his loss was the world’s gain. Yet what a price this native of the wilderness, this kingly fellow of the birds, paid to make us free of Nature from which he was so long and bitterly debarred. To sit in that dull eyry of Tower House and yet endeavour to translate himself in spirit to the wilds he knew and loved was a mighty strain on him. It was as strange to sit with him there as to sit with some prisoner in the Tower, or in the Bastille itself. And yet he remained strangely free, a man like a bird, a brother of all great humourists, a mystic and an atheist, a materialist and a seer, a boy and a prophet, as serious as death itself and as profound a humourist as ever wept in secret. His life, life mostly spent in a prison that need never have been his, was a sacrifice. By it we have advantaged, for it made him a deeper thinker. And yet for him to learn so late, so much too late, that he need never have deemed the life he loved hung on so slender a thread, was bitter. He knew he had been sacrificed to needless fears.

Those of us who have lived scantily and barely, sometimes in hunger and poverty and sometimes in such riotous plenty as may befall the hunter or the gambler with his own life, know certain hours when fame, riches and good report, success and all its accompaniments of honour and the pleasant speech of our nobler fellows, seem but dust, the dust and ashes of lost opportunities of action. So it was at times with Hudson. What mattered it that men spoke well of him? Ah, so Baedeker reports that some hotel is ‘well-spoken’ of I Hudson in the dust of Paddington remembered Patagonia, the wilderness that stretched down south to Tierra del Fuego and the wild island of the Horn. To have the wilderness of Westbourne Park for the Argentine pampa as he recalled it, or for the Banda Oriental with all its remembered magic, was to stray in the merest dust, dust that could not blow freely over a free wild. But the prisoners of the Bastille made friends with mice and spiders, and Hudson’s passion for human conversation survived in prison. As prisoners have carved names and words upon their walls so he wrote books. The passion for that life which is not life but literature took hold of him and he wrote. How often we may say that writing is a substitute for life, life as we would live it, life that has somehow missed us, or that we, by hesitation or enforced habit or a streak of cowardice, have missed for ever? Had fate been kind it is not novels that George Gissing would have written. Great writer as I think him and as he most essentially was, I wonder if Hudson would have written a line if he had not been so struck down by illness in his early youth as to be forced from the natural activities of a man in great new country into the wilderness which ended so lamentably in—Westbourne Park! An eagle in a cage made Hudson sick to see. What wonder? To many, of the meaner sort, writing, of the meaner kind, is, it may be, the best that they can do. If they make money they have the freedom of money. So some, who could not face an adventure, write boojcs of adventure, and run vicarious paper hazards in security. They, it may be, missed little, and they give little. Hudson missed, as he knew, very much indeed, but he gave much. As a real philosopher, not a metaphysical juggler with words who in the profound obscurity of his ignorance rationalizes his prejudices, his work should surpass in enduring influence a thousand works by pure verbalists who knew not life. For though his was not what it might have been he knew both life and men, and, forced into observation and deep thought, he came out of it yet alive with a humour at times almost Rabelaisian, with a belief which was purely human mysticism, with a disbelief that was serene atheism, and with indignation and pity.

As I have said I wrote his biography. I wrote it because no one else could, or so it seemed. Let me say that I was asked to do the book. If this had not been a fact it might never have been written, for it seemed to me a task beyond anyone. Maybe it was. Still it got itself done in a curious way, perhaps worth speaking of. Soon after Hudson’s death I ran the risk of death myself, upon ‘the table.’ An operation and an awful awakening from anaesthesia almost broke my nerve. I sat by the fire for three months and could not face the world. And I had promised to do Hudson’s life, or at least to paint some kind of portrait of him. While recovering slowly I relieved my incapacity for action by writing little scraps about him as they came to me. These were to be notes for his life. Sometimes they were a few lines, sometimes half a page of pencil script, and sometimes even several pages. As I wrote them, working now for a few minutes and sometimes for half an hour, I dropped them into a little portfolio. Scarcely a day of that three months of incapacity passed without some addition, or several additions. And all the time I dreaded the immense task, as it seemed to me, of the book itself. For what were these scraps to a real life of the man? But at last, coming up from Avernus into the more lucid air of normal life, I sorted out my poor little notes and put them in order and found, much to my amazement, that for all practical purposes the book was written. It needed but a few links, with a quietly, considered part here and there, to be more than I could have hoped. For what is the one great difficulty in writing such a book? I take it that it is the enforced deliberation necessary for the most part in doing work of this order.

It is very difficult not to consider, and perhaps to truckle to, what folk will think, what they will expect. Most people would say that a biography must surely be written to please and to conciliate. How happy was I then to find that what I had written for myself alone was all that I needed to do. What others thought was nothing, as it ought to be nothing. A man should speak his mind if he has one. And yet how hard it is sometimes not to kowtow to the mob, or to the unable critic who is the slave of his prejudices! We hate to give ourselves away and reticence may be literary ruin. So very joyfully I put my, mosaic into order and, when it was done, had the reward I might have looked for. The publisher who had commissioned the book took months to consider it, in the meantime refusing to see me, for he had his own notions of Hudson, drawn merely from a few talks with him and his knowledge of the man’s books. And gradually I learnt that a book written for myself was not the book for him. I had drawn Hudson as I had seen and known him for over forty years and I had not made him a Christian saint or given him to the world as a painted hero without sin or guile, a Sir Galahad of the woods and the wilderness. So what there was to do I did. I tore up the agreement and took the book to someone of a wider mind who made no bones about the truth, and taking the book on trust in the writer, found in it some satisfaction.

I said earlier that writing about Hudson meant often enough writing about myself. This may be a pity but it may also be an advantage. This little story of the way my portrait of him was done will, perhaps, help some to understand it and its difficulties. The unprejudiced, without Fundamentalist and other distracting and destructive principles or prejudices, will see I drew a man and put him on his feet. This was recognized by many critics both in England and in the United States. And yet when thinking of the great popularity that Hudson’s best work has had among the more intelligent American public, a popniarity largely due to what John Galsworthy said of “Green Mansions,” I have to own that I was somewhat surprised by the poor sale of my own book on the other side of the Atlantic. I am loath to believe that its truth stood in its way, and yet it must be owned that in ‘biography we are little accustomed to truth. Once I had occasion to remark that the ordinary biographer of men recently dead was ‘usually a hired liar with his tongue in his cheek.’ A casual inspection of a dozen biographies in two volumes, and perhaps in three, will confirm this view. Under the ponderous weight of a load of fiction and falsehood a public man sinks into the grave of oblivion and if, in the end, some one exhumes his body and tells the truth about his bones, there comes an outcry against such a discovery.

It may be that Hudson, if he could read this book, would smile. It was a passion with him not to be known. He liked to hide himself in a pleasant obscurity, and I can almost hear him saying that even those who knew him best knew him but little. He drew his own portrait, as he wished to be known, in all his books, especially in those of his great middle and end period, but those who think that was all may read and chuckle as they read “The Purple Land.” Possibly it will be hard to join together the young Hudson of this recklessly charming book with other works of his, but even when he wrote his best and biggest books, the imaginary blue-eyed Englishman of “The Purple Land” survived in him. We can’t get rid of our ancestors or of our own youth. The philosopher may be a humourist and the humourist a good lover. Hudson was all three and a man.

If he was humourous, and his humour is at times profound and pathetic, he could be and was as serious as any preacher. It is a pity that few who occupy, pulpits can preach so well the doctrine of love and charity for the dying world of wild birds and beasts. This is not a doctrine for which such will die or suffer or even work. How many sermons are preached yearly on hatred of cruelty for a thousand based on ‘divine vengeance,’ or on some proofless creed? How then could he accept war? He accepted conflict of every kind and his deep historic instincts forbade him to believe that there could be any swift or deep reversal of those human instincts which had led to battle through the hidden aeons of time during which man had grown to what we think maturity. He was no authority on mankind’s history; he would listen with reasonableness to those who were, but all he learnt of the skulls and bones of his prehistoric ancestry had taught him not so much of the conflicts in which man evolved as he learnt in a vision by a tumulus where those were buried who had, unknown centuries ago, invaded the shores of the island he loved. It might be a bitter prospect for the doctrinaires who dreamed of everlasting human peace, but he accepted all that the past taught him and could not lap the milk of idealism. And more than that, he felt the universal happy life of human quiet pictured in the dreams of a few good sober men was not merely impossible but actually as painful as it was impossible. For, if after a million years another order of man was to arise, an order who soaked their gentle souls in perpetual agreement, they were not his brethren. We may read in “Idle Days in Patagonia” his words upon the reward of the pioneer. The reward was struggle and a bright vision of victory which though never attained was glorious when the issue lay even between Man and Nature. And as the struggle of natural man against the untamed world was the pioneer’s real life, so the great and endless drama of the world lay in the struggles of man against man, in the rise and power and fall of race and race. What the end should be none could foretell. It might at last issue that a semi-castrate or etiolated tribe of man obeyed in settled and instinctive obedience the rigid laws of equal custom. Or again it might be that some great remaining races fought out their lives for dominance and found at last death and extinction for all mankind. Which picture would have appealed to Hudson is certain.

It may be that here I have added nothing to Hudson: nothing that may not be known to those who read him rightly. But others may say I have taken something away, rent perhaps his seer’s robe, disclosed him rather as a man like others, though powerful, than as a prophet or mere philanthropist. Perhaps, but education is not what we mostly think it. It is not instruction or addition. It is, for the greater and more useful part, the clarification of thought, the abstraction and destruction of acquired prejudice, a positive lessening of what we think we know so that we may begin to learn. Nothing is gained by regarding Hudson as a sacred figure, as some do. He was a big man who knew it, and though his bigness prevented in him any atrophy of human powers and instincts, it gave scope also for a charity and a kindness and thought for all the living world which too many great men have not possessed.

I am quite ready to see him robbed of the qualities of a ‘great good man,’ a peculiarly dreadful travesty of the most human personality, I ever knew, provided he is furnished, not only with some, but with all the qualities healthy wise men delight in. If he was more, and he was superabundantly more, it was that his great human qualities were knitted together in a most remarkable equality. In most men we miss much, there are gaps in their architecture, lacunae in their script. An evil fairy blotted their inheritance so that they lack some quality. There are good men without humour and humourists without charity, and kind men who act cruelly without knowing it, and wise men who are half fools, and philosophers without knowledge who jostle for precedence with instructed idiots incapable of philosophy. It may he saying much, but looking back on the years when LIudson was my friend I cannot find in him any particular failure. If all that was human interested him it was because he was sanely and soundly, human all round, and as he was perhaps the only man known to me of whom I can say as much, it is easy for me to put up with the imputation that I have made an ideal portrait of him and even to suffer such an accusation serenely.


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