Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
—from “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,
September 3, 1802” by William Wordsworth
The Romantic era calls forth images of glorious and primal nature, but we can sometimes forget the act that brings us there: walking. The period of Romanticism is one of willing foot travel, not merely because more modern modes of transport beyond horse and wagon didn’t yet exist (even the railways and steamboats arrive toward the end), but because contemporary culture viewed walking as healthy and entertaining. The act of a deliberate walk manifests a fundamental magic without which the enchantment of Romantic literature, art, and music might not exist.
Where the Enlightenment of the 18th century stressed the value of science and observation, the Romantics yearned for something less rational, more emotional, and grounded in life as experienced intuitively rather than analyzed. Walking, as a societal norm, even as part of a holiday trip, helped make this possible. The popular contemporary novelists, including Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, and Jane Austen, make walking a critical aspect of character and plot development, just as much as the Romantic poets make its inspirations central to their own works. Nature nurtures. And even in the city, as Wordsworth tells it, the unbound glory of the natural world can be seen, felt, imbibed.
And it works, because those walks were fundamental to daily life. They provided escape and oftentimes a more intimate companionship than one could find in the midst of a ball or in a full drawing room.
Jane Austen’s body of work, which has more and more come to be associated with Romanticism, illustrates just how much the pastime of walking affected daily life. In each of her novels, walking as a social norm is a crucial plot point. Indeed, sending Jane Bennet off on a horse to Netherfield for a visit is seen as highly unusual and provides a convenient way to ensure that she, sickened after being drenched in the rain on her ride, can stay at the elegant house long enough to cement the affections of Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.
Walking in inclement weather inevitably causes illness, and from the illness, as we also see in Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, an understanding inevitably arises. Yet in the world of Romanticism and walking—and romance and walking—the act of that movement takes on more character. Lizzy realizes her love for Darcy on a walking tour in the Lake District. Society ladies walk outdoors but also take “turns about the room” in large parlors for conversation, rather than sitting.
William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge, all great friends, were known to take tours on foot—so much so that it not only inspired their writing but inspired modern walking tours echoing their steps all over the Quantock Hills, the Cotswolds, and Exmoor and Dartmoor (both now national parks). From these rambles came works that include Lyrical Ballads and “Kubla Khan.” The natural world provided a definitive way of viewing both the here and now and eternity.
Years later, Byron and Shelley may have brought more extreme passion into their work, but no less walking and exploring as daily inspiration, whether in England, France, or Italy. The physical act of exploring a very palpable yet numinous world brought in a sense of its sensuality, of tangible flesh and life.
And the medieval and ancient heroes of the poets so often define their experiences by their explorations in nature, as we find with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Or look to the work of John Clare, with personifications both grown up and childlike of foxes, badgers, peasants, and flowers. William Blake takes his movement in the natural world to a more spiritual place in Songs of Innocence and of Experience: “Tyger, Tyger burning bright, / in the forest of the night; / what immortal hand or eye, / could frame thy fearful symmetry.” (Yes, it’s meant to be pronounced symme-TRY.)
How do we capture that spirit in our own lives? It’s different in a time that doesn’t prioritize walking unless you’re decked out in Lycra and have dumbbells in your hands. The answer is: We make ways, for more than just our fitness trackers. Walking offers health as a side benefit, but we need to rediscover the mental and emotional freedom familiar to the poet and novelists, to find the sensual and a way of seeing that transcends (because Romanticism is nothing if not transcendent) physicality. Walking provides a way of seeing clearly, whether in self-reflection or in the intimacy of companionship.
I have long been a walker. Walking is exploration for me, but also, like our predecessors in the Romantic movement, it has inspired me to art, and it makes me look at the world in a very different way. Not too long ago, I lived close to a long greenway where I could walk four or five miles at a time without pausing to think. A little river ran through it. I came here to walk with friends, to run with my dad’s Gordon setter, and just to work off the day’s stress and frustration. I would literally lose time, wandering along the path and noticing every bit of flora and fauna. I made friends with cardinal and crow alike. I watched ducks and robins bathing. I wandered off the path through the trees to the edges of the water and watched little waves break over the stones.
Once, in the midst of December after a good snowfall, rare in Tennessee, I heard bells in the distance and was stunned to see the only other human in the park coming toward me on a wheedled sleigh-like wagon pulled by a team of huskies. It was surreal, one of the most incredibly bewitching moments, as though time and space had just vanished. The rider waved his hat and laughed. I wandered on in wonder, surrounded by blue jays and cardinals that like the snow.
When I was doing this, I worked up my own system of divination, something I called squirrelomancy. (Apparently there’s a card in a popular game also called this, but I hadn’t heard of it.) It involved counting the number and varieties of fauna I saw on each walk and letting my imagination impose meaning:
“Three of bunnies, fertility, abundance, creativity unbound.” “Three of deer, in the trees, security, safe haven; one of tiny gold finches and one of little bluish finches, good things come in small packages; five of crows (yes, five), silver, by tradition; three of squirrels dashing around, rushing, the journey is a game; a park randomly bedecked with Christmas ornaments, midwinter magic.”
At my old house, acres of woods meant that I, along with my Norwegian Forest cat on his leash, could explore the ponds, hills, and roads to farms for hours. An old spring house, a lost deer’s antler, a clump of glorious mushrooms—those were magical touchstones. It didn’t matter what season, winter as much as spring.
These days, I live in suburbia, and I walk more often on sidewalks and between manicured magnolias than strong oaks and cedars in woods wild or cultivated. To find a wilder place is doable but requires driving. Still, in the age of Covid, any walk is good. My ex-farm field neighborhood preserved a small wood next to a rushing stream on a trail behind a group of townhouses, and it’s a frequent place for me to spy wildlife. A mile or so down one of the streets is a 150-year-old cemetery now falling into disrepair, but a secret and strange place nonetheless, even so close to the main road.
I bring a little old-fashioned spellcasting with me—gifts for the river, in the ancient tradition. And I make sure to listen to what the squirrels and their fellows tell me. I pick up the odd leaf, acorns (always in threes), branch of pokeberries or magnolia seed pods. (They smell heavenly.) They too are signs.
The walk is itself an enchantment, numinous if you just listen, feel, and truly aim to see.
by John Clare, 1842
In the cowslip pips I lie,
Hidden from the buzzing fly,
While green grass beneath me lies,
Pearled with dew like fishes’ eyes,
Here I lie, a clock-o’-clay,
Waiting for the time o’ day.
While the forest quakes surprise,
And the wild wind sobs and sighs,
My home rocks as like to fall,
On its pillar green and tall;
When the pattering rain drives by
Clock-o’-clay keeps warm and dry.
Day by day and night by night,
All the week I hide from sight;
In the cowslip pips I lie,
In the rain still warm and dry;
Day and night and night and day,
My home shakes in wind and showers,
Pale green pillar topped with flowers,
Bending at the wild wind’s breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;
Here I live, lone clock-o’-clay,
Watching for the time of day.
Red, black-spotted clock-o’-clay.