ROMANTIC WRITING AND PEDESTRIAN TRAVEL
Macmillan 1997 0-333-65814-0 £45.00
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series 11, Spring 1998, pp 64-71)
If Rousseau could believe he had never existed so vividly, or been so much himself, as in the journeys he made on foot, De Quincey (for whom walking was no less a personal salvation) could quip: `the scandal of pedestrianism is in one respect more hopefully situated than that of scrofula...; it is not in any case written on your face.’ De Quincey couldn’t yet see that the face of walking was being marked anew in the Romantic era; and its uneasy blend of secular pilgrimage with jaunty vagabondage touched a raw nerve but seemed to answer a genuine need, one rapidly winning acceptance in only the space of two or three decades. The ambivalence of walking seems entirely Romantic: the figure threading his or her path through a newly strange landscape is on a par with Romanticism’s characteristic fragmenting of form or mixing of genre. Few Romantic themes are not touched by the characterful combination of walking to think and thinking the walk: relations between motion and stasis, exposure and shelter, desertion and return, social displacement and radical re-encounter--these are hardly marginal to any Romantic agenda. Yet however fundamental to the period itself, only in recent years has pedestrianism attracted attention on its own ground. Perhaps not so surprising if one considers the pitfalls of trying to isolate the role of walking amid such a varied and conflicting cultural terrain: any attempt may snag up against those fault-lines and wars of demarcation that perhaps provoked the relief of going on a walk in the first place!
That it is now more possible to give an account of walking may owe something to our contemporary preference for examining cultural features as though material entities, opening up a number of previously unnoticed lateral connections. Just because it isn’t clear
whether walking is situated on the high or low ground of the cultural map confers on it the status of useful probe, able to travel through different dimensions simultaneously. It is this as much as inherent interest that has alerted critics over the last few years, but at the same time it’s pleasurable to sense that what has been written emanates from people with a first-hand knowledge and love of walking. A breath of fresh air enters where private passion coincides with professional curiosity, to the benefit of both.
An attractive feature of Robin Jarvis’s book is its ready acknowledgement of the contributions of non-academic writers: the historian of travel and tourism was at work before the cultural analyst. His book shows evidence of painstaking research and his arguments are deeply pondered. This is both a strength and a limitation, as the topic of Romantic walking has become much more of a beaten track of late, and Jarvis appears constrained to tread warily at times. He has profited from recent work from Jeffrey Robinson, Roger Gilbert, John Elder and Anne Wallace, ruefully admitting how, whilst thinking his way through the subject, ‘others have belatedly initiated the scholarly debate.’ Jarvis betrays awkwardness at times over his own belated entry into a field slow to develop until so recently, and is particularly keen to keep Wallace’s powerful (but perhaps over-refined) thesis at bay (Walking, Literature and English Culture, 1993). This is a pity when Jarvis has more than enough resources of his own, and I do wonder whether he has allowed Wallace’s strong account of `excursive’ walking to skew his own argument too much towards walking as `travel’ (emphasized in the book’s title): a rich domain, certainly, but one in which the uniqueness of walking can sometimes be lost sight of. Though it is perhaps a sign of walking studies come of age when a book as revisionary as this can be possible. It is without doubt one of the most substantial treatments of the subject to appear to date. I only regret a little that Jarvis’s wide-ranging
bibliography finds no place for Miles Jebb’s Walkers (1986), the non-academic author who first caught my interest in walking’s history.
In his opening chapters Jarvis reviews the anatomy of late eighteenth-century pedestrianism, and its relation to the Picturesque on the one hand and contemporary modes of writing on the other. Despite a broad cultural materialism underlying the feat of considering walking and writing in one breath, the book shies from any deterministic explanation of why the walking tour came so much to the fore in the 1790’s. However concrete it was, it was also an idea and a way of connecting ideas, opening to a range of rhetorical uses. We are shown how a long walk frees the mind of a radical like Thelwall, but stimulates a flexibility no longer exclusively political, given a variegated sensibility no longer answering to any one single priority. It clearly was a way for the radical mind to remind itself that, social change was for the sake of well-being and not the other way round. Jarvis is unwilling to ascribe the rise of the walker solely to a `transport revolution’ from which walking might have benefited or reacted against.
Passenger travel was still slow and limited at this time, but something was in the air which prompted people to begin thinking about the means of travel as a value in itself. It’s very difficult for us now to recreate past sensations of comparative speeds, and Jarvis may underestimate the perception of significant differences at the time, but he is surely right to insist that walking signifies as such and is not a by-product of some other process. Above all, walking indicates an ambivalence of travel, albeit in a distinctive way, and Jarvis resists confining it to the `excursionary labour’ around local bounds Anne Wallace eloquently proposed in her powerful study. Walking, with its slowly moving envelope of perception and gradual exchange of limit for limit, has its own take on the Grand Tour (already in decline) and the rising habit of middle-class tourism. For Jarvis, walking
(whatever its chastening effect) moves essentially within the rising mobility of desire in the late eighteenth century.
The related issues of tourism and the Picturesque stimulate some lively perceptions, and Jarvis’s commitment to walking as gradualism precludes him from reducing aesthetic discovery to cultural convention, or at least not without there being some steps between. Some of the most daring pages of the book posit an alliance between the Picturesque and walking: whereas the former usually denotes a rule-bound, static consumption of landscapes with only the latter being credited with any spontaneity, Jarvis shows how both have to do with a rhetoric of irregularity and improvisation beyond the rectilinear. One could think of it as the Picturesque supplementing ideas of the beautiful and sublime, suggesting new values, much as walking straddles the dual necessities of motion and repose in a continuous habit of unresolved negotiation.
Wordsworth and Coleridge receive a chapter each, their peripatetic adventure lying at the heart of the book. For Wordsworth, Jarvis highlights early works like The Evening Walk, Descriptive Sketches, the Salisbury Plain poems and The Ruined Cottage, maintaining his bias away from Wallace to focus on wider-ranging or more fraught experiences of walking. The Wordsworthian peripatetic is marked by detours and displacements, and oscillates between wanderlust and domestic retirement. Jarvis is alive to the fact that both poles have their positive and negative connotations - the leisurely rambler encounters the socially idle itinerant, or a secure homestead at one place declines to a stagnant ruin in another. Throughout the 1790’s, and including The Prelude, the reconciliation which walking may arrive at is essentially provisional and short-lived, a momentary respite upon a journey which has to be upheld as `the journey-of-life’ by no let-up in walking itself. That Wordsworth’s poetry does imply this, but also resists it is clear enough in Home at Grasmere and later
versions of The Prelude. Jarvis confesses he finds the former poem less than entrancing and skirts it, but he does manage an interesting swerve from the slightly pious view of walking as pure successiveness when discussing Wordsworth’s love of pacing a terrace during poetic composition: he tells us the poet’s predilection for regular movement within a bounded place draws our attention to an `easily overlooked dimension of non-scandalous arrested motion’. The `halted traveller’ in untraumatic mode? A literal arrest would be deadly, of course, but here is distinctive movement as homeostatic flow rather than extra-mural progression. It’s a pity Jarvis doesn’t pursue his own insight a little further, as he doesn’t appear to be denying an excursive strain in Wordsworth’s poetry, but he does seek (ironically enough) to keep it in bounds. His reading of The Ruined Cottage is not so far from Wallace when he characterises the pedlar as one whose wanderings become naturalised by regular return together with the seasonal cycle. Only repeated walking away seems to reconcile human suffering in the face of natural beauty: this is the excursionary writ large, though what also comes along the road in return is the repeatable narration of Margaret’s wasting, renewable through further encounters. Is the pedlar a more reconciled but no more taciturn variant of the ancient mariner?
The Coleridge chapter is less burdened by the need to take interpretative avoiding action, and it gives us a confident account of Coleridge’s interruptive but intensely dynamic rhythm of moving through a landscape. The structure of a conversation poem is shown to emerge from refuge to prospect, enlarging its horizons before returning to the original point of refuge at the close—a pattern which sounds excursionary enough. Jarvis finds Coleridge’s poetics of walking in the 1790’s more radical than Wordsworth’s, and perhaps more explicitly one that has evolved out of a politics. Coleridge became fascinated with how the body in movement experiences the
world, which took him beyond picturesque visualisation towards a paratactic sense of passage, where particulars directly supervene on one another, and where writing adopts a rapid, notational form. Indeed, when Jarvis reports his finding that Coleridge’s highest output of blank verse coincides with the period in his life when he walked the most, I can’t help feeling that the verse of the conversation poems is the nearest poetic equivalent to the notebook manner in any case. Coleridge may have yearned for security, but he was also haunted by a contrary need for a `bottom wind’ coming from nowhere but `agitating the whole of me’.
This Romantic breeze is at once originless and originative, Jarvis observes, and one can speculate that Coleridge’s paradoxically mobile desire for a unitary space arises mainly at the horizon of those very moments of obstruction and duration by which the body registers a place. Such journeying moments at once intensify (and often narrow) the envelope of space but sense an infinity which seems to begin at uniquely local edges. Jarvis points to how the lack of obstruction in a terrain can induce in Coleridge fears of desertification or deficiency, together with a lure towards moral errancy. I relish Jarvis’s insight into This Lime-Tree Bower where, as the last rook crosses the circle of the sun, the poem’s whole method, he says, comes into view, modifying a logic of circular symbol to one of sequence, crossing the bounds between self and nature, past and future. All the same, the rook is projected as most visible to Lamb not just when traversing the sun’s disk but when seen within its outline. The rook’s flight is more extended than the sun’s orb, and only temporarily coincides with it, but that moment seems to be one in which sequence and symbol interact, where passage may be a greater cycle or where the source of light registers as a real ‘local’ feature along the way.
The book winds up with studies of Dorothy Wordsworth, Clare, Hazlitt and Hunt. Jarvis’s careful weighing of the question of gender
in Dorothy Wordsworth means the nub of the walking issue is slow in coming, but once there he is illuminating. He argues that walking functions as an escape from the domestic for Dorothy at times of crisis, though more frequently it links wilderness to habitation through plant-collecting or recording encounters with other foot-travellers. As a woman Dorothy can be as territorial as her brother, but along her own path, her walks recording a feeling for bounds in a non-possessive way, patterns of belonging rather than dominance from within which the sense of a sheltered space may emerge.
Clare belonged to a class for whom walking was a necessity but he too, Jarvis shows, could experience social marginalisation, given his enjoyment of walking as chiefly an escape from labour. I value Jarvis’s insight (indebted to Lawrence Buell) that John Barrell’s `sense of place’, a crucial concept to put us in touch with Clare’s world, is not inevitably ecological, since embedded interests of the insider may insulate the human from the non-human life which shares the same space. Of course, the human may always have been an `exotic’ within any habitat, and, as the book wryly notes, there may never have been any true natives. Though there is not so much radically new here (and we are not surprised to learn that Clare’s tortured journey of escape from the asylum cannot be regarded as excursive) Jarvis gives an excellent and richly informed account. I do find, though, that his point about Clare’s contingent and artefactual style (whereby narrative duplicates item for item the order of an actual walk) being as hard to achieve as the more vaunted rhetoric of unity-in-complexity of the other Romantics sounds like special pleading. Difficulty, surely, is not the point if it tempts us to over-read Clare, or load him with `virtues’ which were the outcome of a lack of cultural choice. That deprivation indeed creates a unique poet, but still calls for considerable critical sensitivity.
By the time Hazlitt and Hunt arc writing, they no longer bother to argue for walking’s right to exist, but can afford to be much more, or even, as with Keats, ironically urbane about the very status of rural excursion itself. Jarvis notes that for these second-generation Romantics, the issue was not whether to walk at all, but whether to walk alone or not, i.e. whether to walk or talk. One could add not the least thing these younger writers achieved was to talk up walking by elevating the gait or pedestrian manners of their elders to virtual allegorical status. And Hazlitt, Jarvis sees, remains caught in his own pedestrian conundrum, since if he does go out alone to engage his interior persona, which version of self does he take? There is an ideal self which delights in the strange and unvisited, but which proves unassimilable to ordinary social and domestic identity. And who can say which self derives most satisfaction from the simplicity of walking as such?
This is a committed book, researched in depth, and, so far as l can judge, highly accurate. It would serve as an excellent overall guide to the topic in the Romantic era, were not the arguments at times so nuanced that a knowledge of other work in the field has to be assumed in the reader. Not that Jarvis is not a reliable guide to fellow critics, but he rather lacks the gift of phrase-making himself. We don’t so often find the verve of Robinson, the poetry of Elder, or the subtle reflectiveness of Wallace, but we do have a book which enriches and widens the literature of walking, keeping the foot-traveller firmly on a par with other travellers. One genial pedestrian trait, not noted by Jarvis himself, may well be his generous attention to the insights of others, together with his quiet independence of unspectacular judgement.