By Melanie Keene
Born in Plymouth Dock in 1807, Robert Hunt’s local legacy has been both a mineralogical collection at the Camborne School of Mines (now part of Exeter University) and a selection of regional folklore, Popular Romances of the West of England. In pursuing a range of diverse interests, from biography to poetry to photography, chemistry to folklore to reviewing and lecturing, he pieced together a respectable scientific and literary career in the mid-nineteenth century, and by 1853 was being hailed as a ‘self-elevated’ and multi-faceted ‘talent’ by Men of the Time.
In his early years he grew up in Plymouth and Penzance, before moving to London as a surgical apprentice and then dispensary manager. An untimely tumble into the icy Thames whilst attempting to catch a glimpse of the Duke of York’s funeral procession in 1827 led to a lengthy illness and a lingering convalescence back home in his native south-west. Hunt took the opportunity to take a ten-month tour all over the neighbouring counties, collecting both the majority of tales in what would become Popular Romances, and also subscriptions from the Cornish gentry for his 1829 book of poetry, The Mount’s Bay. Named after the sweep of coastline that shelters St Michael’s Mount at the furthest extreme of the county, this verse collection hailed ‘the wild poetry of Nature’, whose ‘unawakened music’ could be felt in ‘desultory rambles’, and communicated in rhyming couplets. Heavily indebted to local hero Humphry Davy’s early writings (notably his own ode ‘On the Mount’s Bay’), and to the Romantic poets more generally (e.g. ‘Wide spread the scene but let us stray/Along the margin of the bay’), its contents were not, perhaps, the most immortal lines ever to be committed to paper (‘And then pursue my wanderings, o’er/ Scenes, from whose bosom time has tore/The shield of foliage’), but were a sincere and ambitious attempt to ‘impart’ a ‘kindred enthusiasm’ for nature’s ‘soul inspiring harmony’. The poems also contained allusions to fairies and legends, some of which were explained in accompanying footnotes.
Hunt’s Cornish quest was just one example of a burgeoning initiative to capture oral traditions and narratives that were seemingly in retreat, disappearing from a modernising world; Hunt claimed many had disappeared even in the years between his collection and publication of the tales. The stories and customs of various British regions were becoming a topic of key interest for the nascent scientific study of folklore, as Victorian Britain became fascinated with the fairies. In Popular Romances giants and mermaids, lost lands and fairy miners, demons, spectres, and animate rocks were brought together to demonstrate that the surrounding natural world was a source of living creatures and spirits, as well, of course, of stories themselves. The striking frontispiece to his work drawn by George Cruikshank, in which the Giant Bolster bestrides a six-mile gap between mountain-tops, gave form to a powerful force of nature, and emblematized the kind of impressive natural spirit that Hunt could conjure in his work. The introduction to Popular Romances betrays how close was the relationship between Hunt’s scientific researches into local mineralogy, his poetic coastal wanderings, and his collection of oral folklore: for him ‘every district in which there was a mine became familiar ground’. Many of these ‘superstitions’ and ‘tales’ from the ‘remarkable fairy mythology’ of Cornwall were in fact communicated to him by miners themselves, ‘resting in a level, after the toil of climbing from the depths of a mine’.
The relationship between practical work and poetical imagining would run throughout Hunt’s later writings, too. In the late 1840s, by which time he was working in London at the mining record office as part of Henry De la Beche’s Geological Survey, and producing the first of his celebrated mineral statistics, he published a lyrical meditation on The Poetry of Science. This book emphasised the relationships between the sciences, poetry, and philosophy, and between ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’. In Popular Romances Hunt would reflect on the continuing ‘power’ of the ‘poetical education of the people’, whose stories of ‘spiritual creations’ in ‘every hill and valley, every tree, shrub, and flower’ could have been dismissed as ‘wild dreams’. Similarly, in Poetry of Science, he detailed the ‘curious connection’ between tribal traditions and new scientific knowledge comparing, for instance, ‘the ichthyosaurus, and the plesiosaurus, and the pterodactylus’, to mythological ‘rude images of harpies, of dragons, and the griffins’. At several points, the book quite explicitly addressed the relationship between folkloric or fantastical explanations of natural processes, and their scientific equivalents, tracing a broad shift ‘from fable to fact’. However, Hunt warned against a ‘cheerless philosophy’ that ‘reduced’ the mind to a ‘mechanical condition’, ignoring the ‘beautiful spiritualizations’, such as aerial beings, genii, and sprites, that ‘earth’s first poets’ believed dwelled in trees and brooks and caverns. In fact, the new stories of science were, he claimed, superior on both grounds of accuracy but also of wonder: ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Those ‘spiritualizations’ were still there; through arduous, expert, hands-on investigation into the recesses of the surrounding world they could just more accurately be heard: ‘the mountains are not voiceless; they speak in a more convincing tone … the full, clear note of nature’. Indeed, for Charles Dickens, reviewing Poetry of Science, the new scientific stories afforded ‘ample compensation’ for the traditional narratives of ‘Gnomes and Genii’ they had chased out of the mine.
Robert Hunt’s dual legacy of fairies and miners lives on today in Devon and Cornwall; and can be reconciled by analysing his active conception of nature, his insistence on both poetic beauty and philosophical truth, and his combination of practical and literary experimentation, which were at the forefront of his work and piecemeal career. Hunt was one of a range of figures in nineteenth-century Britain who saw in the sciences a new insight into the mysteries of old. Previously expressed through fable and mysticism, such forces were now to be revealed through scientific philosophy and enquiry: the new romances of the sciences could arguably conjure the true spirits of nature.
- Alan Pearson, Robert Hunt (1807-87) (St Austell: Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, 1976).
- Brian Stableford, ‘Resisting Panthea’s Siren Song: Robert Hunt and the Poetry of Science’, Foundation (2002), reprinted in Jaunting on the Scoriac Tempests and Other Essays on Fantastic Literature (Borgo Press/Wildside Press: I.O. Evans Studies in the Philosophy of Criticism and Literature #44, 2009), 80-107.
A digital copy of the 1908 edition of “Popular romances of the west of England” is available via the Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org/details/popularromanceso00huntuoft.