Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century.
CONTEMPORARY English poets do not walk, they stumble: Ted Hughes in clay plough-land, Seamus Heaney in a richer, darker furrow. Walking is hard work. In the United States these things are ordered differently. We can easily call to mind poems by Williams, Creeley, Snyder, and Ammons in which walking is a valued and recreative experience. There is a book on the subject by Roger Gilbert: Walks in the World: Representation and Experience in Modern American Poetry (Princeton, 1991). And now we have Dr Wallace, another American scholar, to help us trace the experience of walking in English literature back to Bacon and Defoe and forward to Dickens and Hardy. It should be said at once that, in doing so, Dr Wallace has written an excellent book that presses far beyond what might appear to be the limitations of its subject A history of the representation of walking turns out to be a valuable contribution to wider aspects of the culture of the last three hundred years in England.
The topicality of the book, reviewed on a day when the government announced plans for the construction of a fourteen-lane motorway across the middle of Surrey, is dramatically evident in a quotation from the Excursion: |The foot-path faintly marked, the horse-track wild, And formidable length of plashy lane ... /Have vanished -- swallowed up by stately roads/Easy and bold...'etc. Every bosom returns an echo. And a fair proportion of those echoing bosoms will be speeding along that motorway not long after it has been built. How we have manoeuvred ourselves into this condition of mass hypocrisy, this simple compound of guilt and greed, is the question to which Dr Wallace tries to supply an answer. It turns out to be a more complicated matter than one might have supposed. She begins by explaining how the foot-path and the horse-track and the plashy lane came into existence in the first place. Then she shows why people used them and what other people thought about their using them; and then what happened to the path and the track and the lane between the time they were created and the time those stately roads were built over them, or replaced them some time after they had already given way to other methods of getting to and from the places they connected with one another. The development of the stately roads into motorways is not an uninterrupted process either. But the presence of Hardy as a terminus ad quem of the argument does not permit Dr Wallace to stray beyond the turnpike to the M4 where traffic glides with even more ceaseless intercourse than it did for Wordsworth's already despairing Wanderer.
Readers of pre-Romantic literature will know that walking was not always popular, any more than other dignified, more expensive, but not necessarily less energetic or more comfortable methods of travelling were. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, writers, readers, and eventually just about everybody have conspired to naturalize the representations of and precepts about walking that Wordsworth formulated in the Excursion and elsewhere. This is why Wordsworth occupies the central position in Dr Wallace's argument, and why her chapter on him is the longest and the most provocative in the book.
For Wallace, the most significant thing about Wordsworth's mature poetry is that in it he revived the near-defunct genre of eighteenth-century georgic poetry by substituting the peripatetic or excursive walker for the Virgilian husbandman or farmer/labourer as its human subject. Put like that, it does not strike me as a very convincing proposition. Common sense suggests too few comparisons between cultivating the land and walking over it. Experience of walking and gardening (a fair swap for georgic cultivation, given Wallace's strictures on Margaret's neglect of her garden in |The Ruined Cottage') fails to bring home to me any pronounced similarity between the two activities. And Wallace does put it precisely like that:|in the opening epitaphs of the Excursion', she says, |we see a full development of excursive walking as physical economy, as cultivation, as epitaphmaking, and as education -- in short, the extension of Virgilian georgic into Wordsworthian peripatetic.' This is the heart of her argument. If it fails to convince, we are still left with a very interesting book, full of useful information about the link between geographical and literary destinations, changing views of landscape, methods of describing movement in and between towns and countryside in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and many more issues relating to the literature of travel and the representation of travel in literature. But is she right about this central issue of the transformation of georgic through the incorporation in it of excursive walking as the image of a primary value?
It matters whether she is right, not only because of what it tells us about the development of a literary genre (a sterile preoccupation if divorced from matters of substance -- as the whole tenor of Wallace's book makes clear), but because of the bearing of her argument on the issue of how we have moved in the last two hundred years from guarded sympathy with the Wanderer's horror at the traffic penetrating the gloom of Britain's farthest glens to mixed feelings about the Twyford Down protesters, mixed feelings originating in that combination of guilt and greed I referred to earlier. This is still a live and controversial issue. So to understand its origins and trace its progress is to provide a real service, taking us beyond merely literary matters into wider reaches of cultural history and psychological speculation. It might also have the incidental effect of waking its readers up to the gravity of the crisis of the management of transport in late twentieth-century Britain.
And perhaps Dr Wallace is right. My own feelings about walking and farming and gardening and writing are what they are largely because of changes in the theory and practice of these activities that Wallace has documented so scrupulously in her book. Wordsworth's identification of walking and creative labour, and his incorporation of this in the renewed georgic mode, grew out of historical circumstance and issued into novel cultural practices which continue to influence our habits of thinking about these things.
The historical circumstances are identified with changes produced in personal economy and behaviour through the combination of the transport revolution and the speeding up of enclosure during the mid-eighteenth century and beyond. There is a lot of useful information about these matters in Wallace's book. Mainly it is produced by condensing what she has found in the work of recent social historians and illuminating it with references to contemporary accounts of journeys undertaken by such travellers as James Howell and Carl Philip Moritz, together with descriptions of travel in works of fiction like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. I was sorry there was not anything from Fielding -- a valuable source, I would have thought, for work on this subject. But Wallace makes up for this with some suggestive comments on long journeys by Dr Johnson and
short ones by some of Jane Austen's characters (Elizabeth Bennet's three-mile walk to Netherfield, and Mr Knightley's not using his carriage as often as became the owner of Donwell Abbey: Knightley turns out to be model peripatetic, with sensible attitudes to enclosure as well -- note his refusal to move the path to Langham where it would have cut through the home meadows).
In relating these social historical developments to changing views about walking, Wallace has been helped by recent contributions to the subject by Kim Taplin and Jeffrey Robinson. But for its bearing on modern cultural practice she has been less well served. On a number of occasions she refers to Roger Gilbert's Walks in the World, where a commentary on the walking topos in recent American poetry offers some guidance. However, it is guidance that tends to mislead the student of English responses to the subject during a slightly earlier period. This is because Gilbert's work shares what for Wallace is a common misapprehension that, from the beginning, the |walk poem' derives from a |universal human understanding of the walk as creative act and potential aesthetic object'. Wallace shows that this is an unhistorical appreciation both of walking and of poems about walking. On the contrary: before Wordsworth, because walking (and other methods of travelling, come to that) was a deeply unpopular and for the most part anti-social activity, scarcely anyone wrote about it as in any way creative or socially desirable. Certainly the actual physical activity, as distinct from the purpose it serves (getting to a destination), was not valued at all. So little was it valued, that it tended not to be described. And the views it facilitated tended to arrange themselves in still pictures before the eyes of a traveller conspicuously come to a standstill at the moment at which the scene is described. This is as true of Clare as it is of Johnson, but it is most typically true of Gilpin's picturesque descriptions derived from the use of a Claude glass or some other method of incorporating the unmoving and often varnished image in a tight, static frame for appreciation.
What might be called the Gilbert version of walking poetry comes into existence only with Wordsworth. He was the man who idealized walking, paradoxically by insisting both on its precise physical character and its function in keeping open pathways that had connected places with one another before the isolating and defamiliarizing process of enclosure had driven them apart. There is a wonderful account by John Taylor Coleridge of a ramble with Wordsworth through the Glenridding Walks, in which, being asked whether they were not trespassing on private property, Wordsworth replies |no; the walks had, indeed, been inclos'd, but he remembered them open to the public, and he always went through them when he chose'. So there does seem to be a case to be made out for the excursive walking poem as a device for linking georgic labour with a sort of radical-conservative programme of reaction against enclosure -- and by extension other, later utilitarian intrusions into the immemorial freedoms of the true-born Englishman. On the evidence of later nineteenth-century writing examined by Wallace, though, the advance beyond Wordsworth has been only fitfully successful, and frequently self-destructive. The great walkers of the mid-century and later -- Hazlitt, Burroughs, Leslie Stephen, and Thoreau (in America) -- all tend in one way or another to narrow, abstract, specialize, or ideologize the process of walking in their discursive texts. The great writers about walking -- Dickens and Hardy -- display a similar deflection from the Wordsworthian norm, though with fictionally powerful results. All of them in one way or another abstract the value of peripatetic from its historical causes, in Wallace's words by assimilating the Wordsworthian peripatetic's claims as normative expectations. And this usually issued in the walker's retreat into purely personal or aesthetic resolutions. How this happened is the subject of the last chapter of the book, and I was not entirely satisfied that all the links in the argument had been satisfactorily established here. But the treatment of individual authors is as interesting as ever, and I wonder if Dr Wallace has any plans to present us with a successor volume on the fortunes of walking and the excursive georgic poem in more recent years. I for one will look forward to an explanation of the American poets' peripatetic excursions, and their Anglo-Irish coevals' proclivity, instead, simply to get stuck in the mud.
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|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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