The Art Of Walking by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Away with the stupid adage about a man being
as old as his arteries! He is as old as his
calves–his garteries….

Meditations of Andrew McGill.

“There was fine walking on the hills in the direction of the sea.”

This heart-stirring statement, which I find in an account of the life of William and Dorothy Wordsworth when they inhabited a quiet cottage near Crewkerne in Dorset, reminds me how often the word “walking” occurs in any description of Wordsworth’s existence. De Quincey assures us that the poet’s props were very ill shapen–“they were pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs”–but none the less he was princeps arte ambulandi. Even had he lived to-day, when all our roads are barbarized by exploding gasoline vapours, I do not think Wordsworth would have flivvered. Of him the Opium Eater made the classic pronouncement: “I calculate that with these identical legs W. 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 alcohol and all other stimulants whatsoever to the animal spirits; to which, indeed, he was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.”

A book that says anything about walking has a ready passage to my inmost heart. The best books are always those that set down with “amorous precision” the satisfying details of human pilgrimage. How one sympathizes with poor Pepys in his outburst (April 30, 1663) about a gentleman who seems to have been “Always Taking the Joy Out of Life”:

Lord! what a stir Stankes makes, with his being crowded in the streets, and wearied in walking in London, and would not be wooed to go to a play, nor to Whitehall, or to see the lions, though he was carried in a coach. I never could have thought there had been upon earth a man so little curious in the world as he is.

Now your true walker is mightily “curious in the world,” and he goes upon his way zealous to sate himself with a thousand quaintnesses. When he writes a book he fills it full of food, drink, tobacco, the scent of sawmills on sunny afternoons, and arrivals at inns late at night. He writes what Mr. Mosher calls a book-a-bosom. Diaries and letters are often best of all because they abound in these matters. And because walking can never again be what it was–the motorcars will see to that–it is our duty to pay it greater reverence and honour.

Wordsworth and Coleridge come first to mind in any talk about walking. The first time they met was in 1797 when Coleridge tramped from Nether Stowey to Racedown (thirty miles in an air-line, and full forty by road) to make the acquaintance of William and Dorothy. That is practically from the Bristol Channel to the English ditto, a rousing stretch. It was Wordsworth’s pamphlet describing a walk across France to the Alps that spurred Coleridge on to this expedition. The trio became fast friends, and William and Dorothy moved to Alfoxden (near Nether Stowey) to enjoy the companionship. What one would give for some adequate account of their walks and talks together over the Quantocks. They planned a little walking trip into Devonshire that autumn (1797) and “The Ancient Mariner” was written in the hope of defraying the expenses of the adventure.

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De Quincey himself, who tells us so much jovial gossip about Wordsworth and Coleridge, was no mean pedestrian. He describes a forty-mile all-night walk from Bridgewater to Bristol, on the evening after first meeting Coleridge. He could not sleep after the intellectual excitement of the day, and through a summer night “divinely calm” he busied himself with meditation on the sad spectacle he had witnessed: a great mind hastening to decay.

I have always fancied that walking as a fine art was not much practised before the eighteenth century. We know from Ambassador Jusserand’s famous book how many wayfarers were on the roads in the fourteenth century, but none of these were abroad for the pleasures of moving meditation and scenery. We can gather from Mr. Tristram’s “Coaching Days and Coaching Ways” that the highroads were by no means safe for solitary travellers even so late as 1750. In “Joseph Andrews” (1742) whenever any of the characters proceed afoot they are almost certain to be held up. Mr. Isaac Walton, it is true, was a considerable rambler a century earlier than this, and in his Derbyshire hills must have passed many lonely gullies; but footpads were more likely to ambush the main roads. It would be a hardhearted bandit who would despoil the gentle angler of his basket of trouts. Goldsmith, too, was a lusty walker, and tramped it over the Continent for two years (1754-6) with little more baggage than a flute: he might have written “The Handy Guide for Beggars” long before Vachel Lindsay. But generally speaking, it is true that cross-country walks for the pure delight of rhythmically placing one foot before the other were rare before Wordsworth. I always think of him as one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy.

After Wordsworth they come thick and fast. Hazlitt, of course–have you paid the tax that R.L.S. imposes on all who have not read Hazlitt’s “On Going A Journey?” Then Keats: never was there more fruitful walk than the early morning stroll from Clerkenwell to the Poultry in October, 1816, that produced “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.” He must have set out early enough, for the manuscript of the sonnet was on Cowden Clarke’s table by breakfast time. And by the way, did you know that the copy of Chapman’s Homer which inspired it belonged to the financial editor of the Times? Never did financial editor live to better purpose!

There are many words of Keats that are a joyful viaticum for the walker: get these by rote in some membrane of memory:

The great Elements we know of are no mean comforters: the open sky sits upon our senses like a sapphire crown–the Air is our robe of state–the Earth is our throne, and the sea a mighty minstrel playing before it.

The Victorians were great walkers. Railways were but striplings; inns were at their prime. Hark to the great names in the walker’s Hall of Fame: Tennyson, FitzGerald, Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Kingsley, Meredith, Richard Jefferies. What walker can ever forget the day when he first read “The Story of My Heart?” In my case it was the 24th of August, 1912, on a train from London to Cambridge. Then there were George Borrow, Emily Bronte on her Yorkshire moors, and Leslie Stephen, one of the princes of the clan and founder of the famous Sunday Tramps of whom Meredith was one. Walt Whitman would have made a notable addition to that posse of philosophic walkers, save that I fear the garrulous half-baked old barbarian would have been disappointed that he could not dominate the conversation.

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There have been stout walkers in our own day. Mr. W.H. Davies (the Super-Tramp), G.M. Trevelyan, Hilaire Belloc, Edward Thomas who died on the field of honour in April, 1917, and Francis Ledwidge, who was killed in Flanders. Who can forget his noble words, “I have taken up arms for the fields along the Boyne, for the birds and the blue sky over them.” There is Walter Prichard Eaton, the Jefferies of our own Berkshires. One could extend the list almost without end. Sometimes it seems as though literature were a co-product of legs and head.

Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt were great city ramblers, followed in due course by Dickens, R.L.S., Edward Lucas, Holbrook Jackson, and Pearsall Smith. Mr. Thomas Burke is another, whose “Nights in Town” will delight the lover of the greatest of all cities. But urban wanderings, delicious as they are, are not quite what we mean by walking. On pavements one goes by fit and start, halting to see, to hear, and to speculate. In the country one captures the true ecstasy of the long, unbroken swing, the harmonious glow of mind and body, eyes fed, soul feasted, brain and muscle exercised alike.

Meredith is perhaps the Supreme Pontiff of modern country walkers: no soft lover of drowsy golden weather, but master of the stiffer breed who salute frost and lashing rain and roaring southwest wind, who leap to grapple with the dissolving riddles of destiny. February and March are his months:

For love we Earth then serve we all;
Her mystic secret then is ours:
We fall, or view our treasures fall,
Unclouded, as beholds her flowers.

Earth, from a night of frosty wreck,
Enrobed in morning’s mounted fire,
When lowly, with a broken neck,
The crocus lays her cheek to mire.

I suppose every walker collects a few precious books which form the bible of his chosen art. I have long been collecting a Walker’s Breviary of my own. It includes Stevenson’s “Walking Tours,” G.M. Trevelyan’s “Walking,” Leslie Stephen’s “In Praise of Walking,” shards and crystals from all the others I have mentioned. Michael Fairless, Vachel Lindsay, and Frank Sidgwick have place in it. On my private shelf stands “Journeys to Bagdad” by Mr. Charles Brooks, who has good pleasantry to utter on this topic; and a manly little volume, “Walking as Education,” by the Rev. A.N. Cooper, “the walking parson,” published in England in 1910. On that same shelf there will soon stand a volume of delicious essays by one of the most accomplished of American walkers, Mr. Robert Cortes Holliday, the American Belloc, whose “Walking Stick Papers” has beckoned to the eye of a far-seeing publisher. Mr. Holliday it is who has bravely stated why so few of the fair sex are able to participate in walking tours:

No one, though (this is the first article to be observed), should ever go a journey with any other than him with whom one walks arm in arm, in the evening, the twilight, and, talking (let us suppose) of men’s given names, agrees that if either should have a son he shall be named after the other. Walking in the gathering dusk, two and two, since the world began, there have always been young men who have thus to one another plighted their troth. If one is not still one of these, then, in the sense here used, journeys are over for him. What is left to him of life he may enjoy, but not journeys. Mention should be made in passing that some have been found so ignorant of the nature of journeys as to suppose that they might be taken in company with members, or a member, of the other sex. Now, one who writes of journeys would cheerfully be burned at the stake before he would knowingly underestimate women. But it must be confessed that it is another season in the life of man that they fill.

They are too personal for the high enjoyment of going a journey. They must forever be thinking about you or about themselves; with them everything in the world is somehow tangled up in these matters; and when you are with them (you cannot help it, or if you could they would not allow it) you must forever be thinking about them or yourself. Nothing on either side can be seen detached. They cannot rise to that philosophic plane of mind which is the very marrow of going a journey. One reason for this is that they can never escape from the idea of society: You are in their society, they are in yours; and the multitudinous personal ties which connect you all to that great order called society that you have for a period got away from physically are present. Like the business man who goes on a vacation from his business and takes his business habits along with him, so on a journey they would bring society along, and all sort of etiquette.

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He that goes a journey shakes off the trammels of the world; he has fled all impediments and inconveniences; he belongs, for the moment, to no time or place. He is neither rich nor poor, but in that which he thinks and sees. There is not such another Arcadia for this on earth as in going a journey. He that goes a journey escapes, for a breath of air, from all conventions; without which, though, of course, society would go to pot; and which are the very natural instinct of women.

Mr. Holliday has other goodly matter upon the philosophy and art of locomotion, and those who are wise and have a lively faith may be admitted to great and surpassing delights if they will here and now make memorandum to buy his book, which will soon be published.

Speaking of Vachel Lindsay, his “Handy Guide for Beggars” will bring an itch along the shanks of those who love shoe-leather and a knobbed stick. Vachel sets out for a walk in no mean and pettifogging spirit: he proceeds as an army with banners: he intends that the world shall know he is afoot: the Great Elian of Springfield is unleashed–let alewives and deacons tremble!

Ungenerous hosts have cozened Vachel by begging him to recite his poems at the beginning of each course, in the meantime getting on with their eating; but despite the naivete of his eagerness to sing, there is a plain and manly simplicity about Vachel that delights us all. We like to know that here is a poet who has wrestled with poverty, who never wrote a Class Day poem at Harvard, who has worn frayed collars or none at all, and who lets the barber shave the back of his neck. We like to know that he has tramped the ties in Georgia, harvested in Kansas, been fumigated in New Jersey, and lives contented in Illinois. Four weeks a year he lives as the darling of the cisalleghany Browning Societies, but he is always glad to get back to Springfield and resume his robes as the local Rabindranath. If he ever buys an automobile I am positive it will be a Ford. Here is homo americanus, one of ourselves, who never wore spats in his life.

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But even the plain man may see visions. Walking on crowded city streets at night, watching the lighted windows, delicatessen shops, peanut carts, bakeries, fish stalls, free lunch counters piled with crackers and saloon cheese, and minor poets struggling home with the Saturday night marketing–he feels the thrill of being one, or at least two-thirds, with this various, grotesque, pathetic, and surprising humanity. The sense of fellowship with every other walking biped, the full-blooded understanding that Whitman and O. Henry knew in brimming measure, comes by gulps and twinges to almost all. That is the essence of Lindsay’s feeling about life. He loves crowds, companionship, plenty of sirloin and onions, and seeing his name in print. He sings and celebrates the great symbols of our hodgepodge democracy: ice cream soda, electrical sky-signs, Sunday School picnics, the movies, Mark Twain. In the teeming ooze and ocean bottoms of our atlantic humanity he finds rich corals and rainbow shells, hospitality, reverence, love, and beauty.

This is the sentiment that makes a merry pedestrian, and Vachel has scrutineered and scuffled through a dozen states, lightening larders and puzzling the worldly. Afoot and penniless is his technique–“stopping when he had a mind to, singing when he felt inclined to”–and begging his meals and bed. I suppose he has had as many free meals as any American citizen; and, this is how he does it, copied from his little pamphlet used on many a road:


Being new verses by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, Springfield, Illinois, June, 1912, printed expressly as a substitute for money.

This book is to be used in exchange for the necessities of life on a tramp-journey from the author’s home town, through the West and back, during which he will observe the following rules:

(1) Keep away from the cities.

(2) Keep away from the railroads.

(3) Have nothing to do with money. Carry no baggage.

(4) Ask for dinner about quarter after eleven.

(5) Ask for supper, lodging, and breakfast about quarter of five.

(6) Travel alone.

(7) Be neat, truthful, civil, and on the square.

(8) Preach the Gospel of Beauty.

In order to carry out the last rule there will be three exceptions to the rule against baggage. (1) The author will carry a brief printed statement, called “The Gospel of Beauty.” (2) He will carry this book of rhymes for distribution. (3) Also he will carry a small portfolio with pictures, etc., chosen to give an outline of his view of the history of art, especially as it applies to America.

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Perhaps I have tarried too long over Vachel; but I have set down his theories of vagabonding because many walkers will find them interesting. “The Handy Guide for Beggars” will leave you footsore but better for the exercise. And when the fascinating story of American literature in this decade (1910-20) is finally written, there will be a happy and well-merited corner in it for a dusty but “neat, truthful, and civil” figure from Springfield, Illinois.

A good pipeful of prose to solace yourself withal, about sunset on a lonely road, is that passage on “Lying Awake at Night” to be found in “The Forest,” by Stewart Edward White. Major White is one of the best friends the open-air walker has, and don’t forget it!

The motors have done this for us at least, that as they have made the highways their own beyond dispute, walking will remain the mystic and private pleasure of the secret and humble few. For us the byways, the footpaths, and the pastures will be sanctified and sweet. Thank heaven there are still gentle souls uncorrupted by the victrola and the limousine. In our old trousers and our easy shoes, with pipe and stick, we can do our fifteen miles between lunch and dinner, and glorify the ways of God to man.

And sometimes, about two o’clock of an afternoon (these spells come most often about half an hour after lunch), the old angel of peregrination lifts himself up in me, and I yearn and wamble for a season afoot. When a blue air is moving keenly through bare boughs this angel is most vociferous. I gape wanly round the lofty citadel where I am pretending to earn the Monday afternoon envelope. The filing case, thermostat, card index, typewriter, automatic telephone: these ingenious anodynes avail me not. Even the visits of golden nymphs, sweet ambassadors of commerce, who rustle in and out of my room with memoranda, mail, manuscripts, aye, even these lightfoot figures fail to charm. And the mind goes out to the endless vistas of streets, roads, fields, and rivers that summon the wanderer with laughing voice. Somewhere a great wind is scouring the hillsides; and once upon a time a man set out along the Great North Road to walk to Royston in the rain….

Grant us, O Zeus! the tingling tremour of thigh and shank that comes of a dozen sturdy miles laid underheel. Grant us “fine walking on the hills in the direction of the sea”; or a winding road that tumbles down to some Cotswold village. Let an inn parlour lie behind red curtains, and a table be drawn toward the fire. Let there be a loin of cold beef, an elbow of yellow cheese, a tankard of dog’s nose. Then may we prop our Bacon’s Essays against the pewter and study those mellow words: “Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.” Haec studio, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.

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