Damien Enright: Great writers took inspiration from walking

Damien Enright: Great writers took inspiration from walking
William Wordsworth

As landlords’ enclosures of villages and commonages during England’s industrial revolution drove landless countrymen into the maws of the poet William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”, a romantic nostalgia for the countryside began to grow.

The world of outdoors was to be cherished. Tours were the thing if you were rich, tours of the Quantock Hills, the Lake District, the Hebrides, tours of the mountains and moorlands at home and elsewhere in Europe.

Those who were too old or too overweight to walk travelled by coach, as did Samuel Johnson and his amanuensis Boswell in their famous Tour of the Hebrides.

This was, in fact, an early version of a culinary tour. Boswell’s famous journals catalogue the inns and hostelries where the rotund and dyspeptic Johnson put away what was available of the local fare, and Boswell notes, the Scots had whisky at breakfast.

George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) rode horseback across Europe; he had a club foot. Starting at Belgium and following the Rhine to Switzerland, he toured Italy, and settled at Ravenna and Pisa before travelling to Greece to join the forces fighting for independence from the Turks.

As a rich rake, Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” but as a poet he was one of the greatest of the Romantics, and as an idealist was brave and principled. He died of fever during the campaign in Greece.

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson

Those who could walk did so; and none so famously as the Romantic poets, William and Dorothy Wordsworth and their great friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge; they enjoyed walking tours of France and Italy together, particularly the Alps. They embodied the contention that walking is not only a workout for the body, but for the brain and the higher realms of the imagination.

Wordsworth, one of world literature’s greatest poets, and a personal exemplar whom I have quoted in these columns (“Heaven lies about us in our infancy, The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, Hath had elsewhere its setting. And cometh from afar...) was a magnificent walker. He walked daily, and walked miles, and tens of miles, often alone and muttering to himself, no doubt sounding out the rhythm of the lines with his footsteps.

Other impressive hikers have been Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, travel writer Leigh Fermor, the philosophers Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Perambulation may, indeed, aerate the mind.

Wordsworth (1770 -1850) was the champion of them all, not that it was a competition. For him, walking wasn’t a mode of travelling but of being.

Walking was a stimulant for his imagination. His poems were, literally, poetry in motion and he composed many of his greatest as he walked. His famous poem, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ — which we laughed at as schoolchildren — spoke of transcendental visions which, later, in the early 1960s, we tried to achieve, imitating his lines “when often on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood...” rather than by tramping over hill and dale.

George Byron. Picture: Getty
George Byron. Picture: Getty

It seems he went walking nearly every day of his long life. While a student, he hiked across France, Switzerland, northern Italy and Germany (4,000km) in one summer vacation. My generation hitch-hiked.

Thomas De Quincey (Diary of an English Opium Eater), a contemporary and admirer, wrote in a tongue-in-cheek essay entitled Wordsworth’s Legs: “His legs were pointedly condemned by all the female connoisseurs in legs that I ever heard lecture on that topic.

There was no absolute deformity about them; and undoubtedly they had been serviceable legs beyond the average standard of human requisition; for I calculate, upon good data, that with these identical legs Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles, a mode of exertion, which to him, stood in the stead of wine, spirits, and all other stimulants whatsoever to the animal spirits; to which he has been indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.”

De Quincey, a walker and formidable writer, sadly ended his life tramping the streets of Soho, London, a penniless addict searching for his soulmate, a street walker called Anne.

Dorothy Wordsworth wrote that on days of heavy rain, her brother, undaunted, would find the most sheltered spot and walk up and down, muttering his embryonic verses. She tried the same formula, including the muttering but, sadly, it never seemed to work for her.

Much as I admire the great poet, I cannot claim to emulate him. My legs may look better but my walking is, at best, desultory. Yes, when compiling my various walking guides I tramped tireless miles noting the features of natural and human history, but I cover less ground now. I let my fingers do the walking, perhaps...

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