This piece by Pamela Clemit was first published in the Idler, No. 48 (February 2016), 58-61:
Freedom of the Road: Walking with the Romantics
Travelling on foot had a subversive edge in the age of the French Revolution. The educated classes aspired to the slow life and took to the road. They wanted to step off the social ladder, to feel themselves on a level with labourers who were too poor to travel in any other way. Meditative walking fed the needs that bodily effort out of doors can satisfy in those not compelled to do it for a living.
The long walk to freedom
Walking is a gesture of freedom, both physical and intellectual. The sixteen-year-old Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to go for walks in the country outside Geneva. One evening he found the gates of the city locked so he could not return. Locked out, he decided to stay out. He abandoned the bondage of apprenticeship and set out on a lifetime of wandering and reflection. He spent much of his youth rambling in France and Italy. He later wrote: ‘When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to get my mind going.’ His last great work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), evokes ten random walks which inspired ‘flights of thought’ on life, nature, and the hypocrisy of society.
Others followed Rousseau’s lead. The itinerant philosopher John ‘Walking’ Stewart earned his nickname when he gave up his job with the East India Company and travelled on foot from Madras to the Persian Gulf, through North Africa and the Mediterranean nations to London, where he arrived in 1783. His plan was to trace the causes of human misery and how they might be remedied. In 1784 he set off again, covering the length and breadth of Europe on foot. Back in London, he adopted Armenian dress (like Rousseau before him) and paraded through the streets, stopping passers-by to engage them in conversation.
Communing with nature
Many of the English Romantic poets were great walkers, either from choice or necessity. William Wordsworth walked everywhere, and so did his sister Dorothy, because they had no money. They also walked for pleasure. Wordsworth rambled hundreds of miles in England and Wales, across the Channel, and all the way to Italy. He liked to compose his poetry out of doors, walking up and down on the same spot. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his closest friend, was a fellow wanderer. Wordsworth later remembered Coleridge’s arrival in his life at Racedown Lodge, Dorset, in 1797. He ‘did not keep to the high road, but leapt over a gate and bounded down the pathless field, by which he cut off an angle’. Coleridge had already walked some twenty miles that day.
Middle-class writers and artists responded to the outdoors with religious arousal. John Constable, the painter, wrote to his fiancée in May 1819:
Everything seems full of blossom of some kind and at every step I take, and on whatever subject I turn my eyes, that sublime expression of the Scriptures, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, seems as if uttered near me.
He told an audience in Hampstead in 1836: ‘The art of seeing nature is a thing almost as much to be acquired as the art of reading the Egyptian hieroglyphics.’ The transcendental experience was defined and propagated in a series of works, from the patient, detached observation of Gilbert White of Selborne, the parson-naturalist, to the inward communing with nature of the Lake poets.
Wandering country byways was also associated with social feeling. In 1793 the political reformer John Thelwall published The Peripatetic, a compendium of prose and verse. It promoted the virtues of ‘peripatetic habits’ and ‘rural life’ in contrast to the commercial wealth of cities. In The Prelude (1805), Wordsworth described the ‘lonely roads’ he travelled as ‘schools’ which provided him with a political education. His daily meetings with ‘vagrants’ and ‘strolling bedlamites’ gave him insight ‘into the depth of human souls, / Souls that appear to have no depth at all / To vulgar eyes’. The public road was a guide to the human heart.
The essayist Charles Lamb, born and bred in London, had no time for country living. He wrote to Wordsworth in 1801: ‘Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life.’ Lamb’s mind was fed by metropolitan walks. His attachment to the sights and sounds of London was just as intense as the poets’ response to nature:
The Lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen and customers, coaches, Wagons, play houses, all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden…. The wonder of these sights impells me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much Life.
William Godwin was another urban rambler. He remembered childhood excursions, in which he ‘made whole books’ as he walked, ‘books of imaginary institutions in education, and government, where all was to be faultless.’ When he moved to London to become a writer, he took daily walks from his lodgings in Chalton Street, Somers Town (between St Pancras and the Euston Road), to visit friends who lived in villages outside the city: Wimbledon, Clapham, Southwark. But he sat still long enough to write his anarchistic masterpiece, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793).
When he met Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived just round the corner, they walked out together. She looked forward to days when ‘we might vagabondize … in the country’. They married after she became pregnant, and he grew protective: ‘I think it not right, mama, that you should walk alone in the middle of the day. Will you indulge me in the pleasure of walking with you?’ Three months later she was dead, ten days after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. Godwin again became a solitary walker.
The philosophical walker
It is easy to imbue walking with a higher purpose. In The Enquirer (1797), a collection of essays, Godwin describes a walk from Temple Bar to Hyde Park Corner:
The dull man goes straight forward; he has so many furlongs to traverse. He observes if he meets any of his acquaintance; he enquires respecting their health and their family. He glances perhaps the shops as he passes; he admires the fashion of a buckle, and the metal of a tea-urn. If he experience any flights of fancy, they are of a short extent…. On the other hand the man of talent gives full scope to his imagination…. His whole soul is employed. He enters into nice calculations; he digests sagacious reasonings. In imagination he declaims or describes, impressed with the deepest sympathy, or elevated to the loftiest rapture…. He passes through a thousand imaginary scenes, tries his courage, tasks his ingenuity, and thus becomes gradually prepared to meet almost any of the many-coloured events of human life. He consults by the aid of memory the books he has read, and projects others for the future instruction and delight of mankind. If he observe the passengers, he reads their countenances, conjectures their past history, and forms a superficial notion of their wisdom or folly, their virtue or vice, their satisfaction or misery. If he observe the scenes that occur, it is with the eye of a connoisseur or an artist. Every object is capable of suggesting to him a volume of reflections. The time of these two persons in one respect resembles; it has brought them both to Hyde-Park-Corner. In almost every other respect it is dissimilar.
Godwin, who had earlier been a nonconformist minister, is preaching an eighteenth-century version of ‘mindfulness’. He saw opportunities for self-improvement in every aspect of daily life. An amble through the streets of London is a chance to enlarge the mind, to exercise the imagination, to resist torpor, to see, to feel, to hear. For the ‘man of talent’, even a walkabout cannot be wasted. He reads London street culture as if it were a book, giving rise to a volume of reflections.
‘Solvitur ambulando’ is the motto of the philosophical tramp: ‘(the problem) is solved by walking.’ Rousseau, Wordsworth, Lamb, and Godwin were less interested in destinations than in what happens on the way. They put us in a mind to lace up our walking shoes, to wander the same country lanes or city streets, to discover the freedom of the road.
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Image: John Constable, ‘The Vale of Dedham’ (1828).