on 22 August 2010
In this thorough and imaginative study Robin Jarvis discusses how the rise of pedestrian travel in the last two decades of the 18th century was reflected in the writings of key British Romantic writers, with a particular emphasis on Wordsworth and Coleridge.
At the end of the 18th century the practice of travelling for learning and enjoyment ("tourism") began to spread. The Grand Tour had been progressively downclassed towards people with more limited means than wealthy aristocrats. Also domestic touring came in vogue. Within that development a distinctive subculture of `pedestrianism' appears with middle class professionals eschewing safer choices for a mode of transport that was more risky and traditionally held in low esteem. The reasons for the rise of pedestrian travel are manifold: political anti-conformism, the opening up of the country to the spirit of rational enquiry, the ethos of pilgrimage, and the pursuit of aesthetic satisfactions in nature.
Early Romantic walkers were likely under the spell of all of these impulses which is reflected in the montage-like nature of a lot of the travel writing from those years. Jarvis dwells only briefly on the prose as his focus is on the poetry. I may be doing injustice to a complex and sprawling argument but it seems to me there are two key ways in which the pedestrian experience was embodied in the work of Wordsworth, Coleridge and others. First, there is the adoption of blank verse (the unrhymed pentameter) as the preferred metrical structure "because it was here that the muscular rhythms indigenous both to walking and poetry were brought into intuitive correspondence."
Second is a particular aesthetic sensibility which connects to the rise of picturesqueness at the end of the 18th century. Jarvis stresses the playful nature of a picturesque gaze that is constantly engaged in experimentation and re-envisioning (as a counterweight to its tendency to judge natural scenes against certain inflexible ideals derived from Italian landscape artists). This playfulness, argues Jarvis, performatively contaminates a lot of the poetry of those days, as is evident from a certain aesthetic roughness, a resisting of argumentative or visionary closure, a tendency to indulge in the freely mixing of "the materials of observation with the materials of learning and memory and the materials of invention." Just as the rhythmic qualities of blank verse suggest a powerful association with the regular alternation of right foot and left foot, so the improvisatory nature of the poetic narrative correlates with the sequential, disjointed texture of walking. Jarvis substantiates this by a detailed discussion of Wordsworth poems such as `An Evening Walk', `The Ruined Cottage', `Salisbury Plain' and parts of `The Prelude'. These observations also apply to Coleridge. As regards the use of blank verse, "there is, in fact, a remarkable caesura in Coleridge's poetic career that corresponds with the chronology of his life as an active walker: in the ten years of his wanderings he produced around twenty-five significant compositions in blank verse; after his return from Malta (...) I count only three finished poems in blank verse (...) the coincidence is striking." Also Coleridge's ability to tailor the composition according to the physical pattern provided by a place is revealed.
The focus is not exclusively on these two authors. There is a separate chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare. And a final discussion on `late Romantic voices', including Hazlitt, Keats and Hunt.
All in all I found it a rich and worthwhile read. Jarvis' prose is supple and engaging. However, it seems to me the book originated as a collection of loosely connected papers which the author subsequently integrated into a more encompassing argument. This explains why at times the argument comes across as rather uneven, with concepts or references suddenly popping into focus and disappearing as quickly, never to be mentioned again. A pity it is also that Jarvis restricts his focus to Britain only. It would have been fascinating to validate his insights with important contemporaneous German pedestrian poets such as Hölderlin and Kleist.
It is a pity that this book is so difficult to get hold of as the topic of pedestrianism is generating a broader interest. Rebecca Solnit put it on the map for a wider audience with her `Wanderlust'. In addition there is an emergent, sustainability-oriented intersection of different research areas - anthropology (see Tim Ingold's work), landscape theory and landscape urbanism, and critical theory - in which the practice of walking plays a pivotal role.