The world can be a frightening place sometimes, but, as ‘The Hermit’ by Alan Paton suggests, hiding from oppression, injustice, and tyranny won’t fix the problem. In some cases, it can make us feel even worse.
While, at face value, ‘The Hermit’ is a very simple lyric poem, it uses a unique fusion of forms and irony to explore ideas such as privilege, peace, isolation, and goodwill. As a part of Alan Paton’s politically-charged poetic body, this poem questions whether one can ever escape the cruelty of the world — and whether escape is better than confrontation.
Explore The Hermit
In ‘The Hermit’ by Alan Paton, the first-person speaker attempts to isolate himself from the rest of the world. However, those sad and unfortunate souls who surround him constantly haunt him.
In stanza one of ‘The Hermit,’ the speaker explains that he is old and afraid, so he locks out the world from where he lives.
Despite the speaker’s barred doors, he still hears wretched people cry out in the rain. Occasionally, he even looks through the cracks in his door to see a mob of miserable people who constantly stand around his home, stretching out their arms to him.
However, the speaker wishes that someone could tell these people that he is deaf and blind or that he is dead. He is utterly desperate to get these people to leave him alone.
The speaker next explains that, sometimes, these poor people knock at his door, but he will never open it. He values his solitude and peace far too much to help anyone.
Speaker and Context
While the speaker of this poem is some unspecified hermit, Alan Paton’s role as the founder of the Liberal Party during the Apartheid movement in South Africa suggests that this poem is a metaphor. Through this lens, ‘The Hermit’ becomes a call for political activism.
Additionally, as one of Paton’s later publications, this poem may be about the poet’s experience as a retired activist.
When one assumes that the 1st-person speaker is a general representation of the poet and any person who chooses not to participate in politics, this poem transforms into a cry for political participation, protest, and change.
People like the hermit, while they can turn a blind eye to the pain, suffering, and racial discrimination of the Apartheid, cannot escape from the knowledge that they could be doing more.
Their non-participance may give them an illusion of “peace,” but the hermit’s life is not peaceful. Instead, the sounds and sight of the people suffering outside the hermit’s abode haunt him endlessly.
Under the poem’s logic, those who do not participate in human rights activism may try to ignore the inequality and suffering in the society around them. However, they can never be fully blind and deaf to the harsh reality that they could be doing more. Thus, with these thoughts and observations, any person who tries to ignore injustice to seek peace can never actually find peace.
Form and Structure
‘The Hermit’ By Alan Paton is an eight-verse poem consisting of quatrains.
This poem has a rhyme scheme of ABCB DEFE, which makes ‘The Hermit’ an example of an unbounded or ballad quatrain.
While the poem does not follow a strict meter, as a lyric poem inspired by the ballad form, it has a very distinct beat and rhythm. Most of the lines are between five and six syllables long. The irregular meter seems to favor anapests, as in “I am old and afraid.”
This unique structure gives the poem a lingering, slightly spooky feeling, as only some of the lines are resolved. Irregularities in the meter and rhyme leave every other line feeling at odds with the rest of the poem, just as the hermit is at odds with the rest of the world.
Likewise, with no real metrical or structural resolution, the hermit’s guilt and anger stay with the listener long after the poem is over. This indicates that, as long as the hermit stays locked up inside his home, he will never find peace.
Imagery is the most important device that Paton uses in this poem. The images and sounds that occur throughout the piece indicate that, while one can turn a blind eye to the world, it is impossible to escape it. Likewise, the images within the poem gradually reveal that the hermit is very similar to the “poor souls” he locks out of his home.
Paton uses both end rhyme and other forms of rhyme to keep the beat of the poem. For example, in lines five through six, “souls” and “cold” use vowel rhyme, tying these two words together through both meaning and sound.
Additionally, the poet uses direct address to ask the listener, “Who will drive them away, / Who will ease me my dread.” This rhetorical question to the listener highlights the hermit’s confusion and anxiety about his predicament, illustrating the state of worry and peacelessness in the hermit’s mind. These lines are also an excellent example of anaphora, the repetition of a word at the beginning of multiple lines.
The repetition of the lines “I am old, and afraid / Of the world outside” also makes them stand out in this poem, highlighting the speaker’s weariness, anxiety, and isolation. This extra stress on the speaker’s emotional state makes it clear to the listener that, as long as the hermit is locked up in his home, he will never find peace.
I have barred the doors
Of the place where I bide,
I am old and afraid
Of the world outside.
In stanza one of ‘The Hermit,’ the unspecified speaker introduces the listener to a scene where the titular hermit is standing behind bolted and barred doors. With this image, the poet generates a wealth of imagery in very few words, as it seems that the hermit is leaning against the wall in a small room while his home is under siege.
Here, in his room, the hermit speaks aloud to some unspecified person. While it is easy enough to determine that he is speaking to the listener, it seems more likely that this poem is the hermit’s prayer to god.
The hermit explains why his doors are locked, telling the listener that he is “old and afraid of the world outside.” Thus, right from the poem’s beginning, we know that the speaker is anxious and isolated because of his fear of the rest of the world. Through the hermit’s eyes, the world seems to be an overwhelmingly sad place.
How the poor souls cry
They shall call me in vain.
In stanza two, the speaker describes what it is like outside of his home. Out there, “poor souls cry / In the cold and the rain.” This description makes the world seem like a terrible place to be. The cold, rainy landscape seems to be a source of pain for all of the people who do not have a place to escape, highlighting the speaker’s privilege to have a place to hide from the rest of the world.
Despite the people’s cries and the spooky, cold atmosphere, the hermit has “blocked” his ears, just as he has locked his doors.
In line eight, the hermit gives away a critical detail. These people outside are not just crying. They “call” the speaker, begging for him to come out of his home. Here, it becomes clear that the hermit is important to the “poor souls” since he has the means to help them. After all, he has a home to hide in, and the other people do not.
Despite his privilege and the people calling out to him, the hermit says that their cries are “in vain,” or worthless. The hermit, then, is a stubborn old man who no longer wants to help people.
If I peer through the cracks
Patient as death.
In stanza three, the speaker explains that the “poor souls” outside his home never leave. The hermit occasionally peers “through the cracks” of his door and walls.
He is so nervous as he looks out that he abbreviates his sentence, using an ellipsis, or subtraction of a word, in the line “hardly daring draw breath.” By removing the ‘to’ from the word “draw,” the poet emphasizes how secretive and flustered the speaker is. In addition, this ellipsis creates alliteration, illustrating the speaker’s shallow, stifled breath.
As the hermit looks out from the cracks, he sees that the “poor souls” “are waiting there still / patient as death.”
This line creates the idea that the “poor souls” are ghosts, haunting the speaker, always standing outside his door, crying out to him. Like “death,” the souls are persistent, unavoidable, and ever-looming.
The listener may wonder, at this point, how the speaker can ever escape these “souls.” I mean, if he didn’t want an escape, why would he lock himself up in his house?
However, it seems that even the speaker is aware that he can’t ever push away his guilt for leaving behind all the people who need his help. Although he seems to want an escape from the rest of the world, his peaceful little abode is more like a haunted house full of regret, ghosts, and sadness.
While the hermit’s privilege can put a wall between him and the rest of the world, that doesn’t stop the rest of the world from trying to get into the speaker’s head.
The maimed and the sick
I could help them be whole.
In stanza four of ‘The Hermit,’ the speaker describes the “poor souls” that haunt him. These people are “maimed,” “sick,” and “tortured.” At this point in the poem, it becomes more clear that the speaker is haunted by the people who society has harmed. In keeping with Alan Paton’s political activism during Apartheid in South Africa, it seems that he may be discussing the people who have fallen victim to a corrupt and racist government.
These disadvantaged people look to the speaker for help, “arms outstretched.” Here, it seems that the hermit’s privilege is what could help the “poor souls,” but the speaker is unwilling to help them. He is too “old and afraid” of the injustices that have harmed these souls to lend them a hand.
No shaft of the sun
I am deaf, I am blind.
In stanza five, the speaker acknowledges that his isolation and hiding are not a positive thing.
While he has the ability to lock his doors, “no shaft of the sun” will find his hiding spot. Thus, there is no warmth or light in the hermit’s home. Instead, it is all darkness. In closing out the rest of the world, the hermit has also abandoned all of the good things that come with being around other people.
Additionally, the reference to the sun may imply that the hermit, by hiding away, will never become enlightened. While most hermits seek enlightenment and god through their isolation, the speaker’s intent to hide away from the world puts him in utter darkness.
In this stanza, the speaker also uses direct address, though it is difficult to tell who he is speaking to. While he may be speaking to the listener, he also might be addressing god. He tells this addressee to go “outside” of the hermitage and tell the souls that he is “deaf” and “blind.”
Now, we already know that this man is neither deaf or blind. He has just told us about how he hears the souls crying outside of his home and how he sees them with their arms outstretched.
This hermit has become so desperate as to lie to the poor, unfortunate souls outside, and he becomes a bit of a villain in doing so. Like Pontius Pilate, the hermit seems to just want to wash his hands of the rest of the world and leave everyone else to suffer. After all, he has a home all to himself.
Who will drive them away,
‘He is dead! he is dead!’?
In stanza six of ‘The Hermit,’ the hermit continues directly addressing the listener and god. He uses rhetorical questions to ask who will help him and get rid of the “poor souls” outside.
Note here that this hermit, in asking for help, is just like the poor, wretched ghosts that stand outside his door. He is, perhaps down on his knees, arms outstretched in prayer, calling out for someone, anyone, to get rid of the other people. Thus, by trying to shut out the rest of the world, the hermit has only increased his suffering.
In another cry of desperation, the hermit wishes someone could just tell the people outside, who he rudely calls “fools,” that he has died – another lie.
Sometimes they knock
Of the world outside.
In stanza seven, the speaker repeats himself as he explains how the poor “fools” outside his home “sometimes” knock at his door.
However, unlike in stanza one, the hermit’s home is no longer “the place where I bide.” It is now “the place where I hide.” Here, the speaker has become more aware of what his true goals are: to escape.
He next repeats his reasoning for wanting to hide away from injustice. He is just an old, retired man who is far too afraid of the rest of the world to go out and confront it.
This justification, while it has its merits, seems a little flimsy. If the “poor souls” are knocking on the hermit’s door, he really doesn’t even need to go outside to make a difference. He just needs to invite someone in.
Thus, by this stanza, the hermit’s facade as a poor old man has mostly faded. He has begged for help, just like to people outside his door, and yet, he will not help them. He has begged for someone to lie to them on his behalf. Additionally, he has called them “fools,” unwilling to recognize that he is no happier or better than them.
Do they think, do they dream
I will open the door?
Let the world in
And know peace no more?
In the final stanza, it becomes even more clear that the hermit is a total fool. He uses direct address and rhetorical questions again to ask the listener or god “Do they think, do they dream / I will open the door?”
Here, while the souls outside seem stubborn to keep knocking, the hermit doesn’t realize that he is just as stubborn and desperate as they are. Just as the people continually knock, the hermit continually refuses to open the door. The hermit then is unwilling to change, but he has found himself in a stalemate where no one is willing to compromise.
He continues asking his question, inquiring, “Let the world in / And know peace no more?” Here’s the real irony.
Does it really seem like the hermit is at peace in his locked-up home? He won’t even let the sunlight in; he is afraid, surrounded by wailing, sad people begging for help, and he is begging god for these people to go away. The hermit is desperate, anxious, and paranoid. He is, most assuredly, not at peace.
This tricky situation is likely a critical analysis of the behavior of privileged people during political crises. By attempting to hide from the world that a person lives in, they just introduce more issues. Confrontation and compromise, in this case, are the only way out.
The poem ‘The Hermit‘ by Alan Paton is about a man who locks himself away from the rest of the world out of fear. However, by locking out the poor, miserable people who need his help, the hermit has only made himself more dishonorable, sad, and anxious. This poem is a metaphor for how political inactivity just makes a bad situation worse.
The tone in ‘The Hermit‘ by Alan Paton is desperate, worried, sad, and frustrated. The speaker of the poem expresses his worry and frustration that no one will leave him alone, as he is haunted by the people who are suffering and ill outside of his home. Their constant crying and knocking frighten the speaker, who just wants to hide away.
The meaning of ‘The Hermit‘ by Alan Paton is that one can never hide from the world. Even if one locks out everything else, the guilt of abandoning those who need help and the thoughts of the rest of the world will always return. The only way to find peace is to help others and participate in the world.
The main theme of ‘The Hermit‘ by Alan Paton is isolation, though other themes such as goodwill, fear, stubbornness, and privilege reveal that the hermit’s isolation does not serve its purpose. As long as he locks out the rest of the world, the hermit will never find peace, as he is haunted by guilt from not helping the people who need him.
As a post-modern South African poem, ‘The Hermit’ is a good example of how all poetry is political, even if it does not explicitly discuss politics. By indirectly taking on issues related to Apartheid, this poem, unlike the titular hermit, was part of the South African people’s fight against racial discrimination and injustice.
Some other famous poetry produced by political poets in South Africa during the apartheid include:
- ‘Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang (A Person is a Person Because of Other People)’ by Jeremy Cronin – a free verse poem about communication told through the perspective of a South African prisoner kept in solitary confinement
- ‘Nothing’s Changed‘ by Tatamkhulu Afrika – a poem that portrays and picturizes the problems rampant in South Africa between whites and blacks.
- ‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga’ by Ingrid Jonker – a famous poem that Nelson Mandela read during his address at the opening of parliament in May of 1994.