Studies of a Biographer/In Praise of Walking
IN PRAISE OF WALKING
As a man grows old, he is told by some moralists that he may find consolation for increasing infirmities in looking back upon a well-spent life. No doubt such a retrospect must be very agreeable, but the question must occur to many of us whether our life offers the necessary materials for self-complacency. What part of it, if any, has been well spent? To that I find it convenient to reply, for my own purposes, any part in which I thoroughly enjoyed myself. If it be proposed to add 'innocently,' I will not quarrel with the amendment. Perhaps, indeed, I may have a momentary regret for some pleasures which do not quite deserve that epithet, but the pleasure of which I am about to speak is obtrusively and pre-eminently innocent. Walking is among recreations what ploughing and fishing are among industrial labours: it is primitive and simple; it brings us into contact with mother earth and unsophisticated nature; it requires no elaborate apparatus and no extraneous excitement. It is fit even for poets and philosophers, and he who can thoroughly enjoy it must have at least some capacity for worshipping the 'cherub Contemplation.' He must be able to enjoy his own society without the factitious stimulants of the more violent physical recreations. I have always been a humble admirer of athletic excellence. I retain, in spite of much head-shaking from wise educationalists, my early veneration for the heroes of the river and the cricket-field. To me they have still the halo which surrounded them in the days when 'muscular Christianity' was first preached and the whole duty of man said to consist in fearing God and walking a thousand miles in a thousand hours. I rejoice unselfishly in these later days to see the stream of bicyclists restoring animation to deserted highroads or to watch even respected contemporaries renewing their youth in the absorbing delights of golf. While honouring all genuine delight in manly exercises, I regret only the occasional admixture of lower motives which may lead to its degeneration. Now it is one merit of walking that its real devotees are little exposed to such temptations. Of course there are such things as professional pedestrians making 'records' and seeking the applause of the mob. When I read of the immortal Captain Barclay performing his marvellous feats, I admire respectfully, but I fear that his motives included a greater admixture of vanity than of the emotions congenial to the higher intellect. The true walker is one to whom the pursuit is in itself delightful; who is not indeed priggish enough to be above a certain complacency in the physical prowess required for his pursuit, but to whom the muscular effort of the legs is subsidiary to the 'cerebration' stimulated by the effort; to the quiet musings and imaginings which arise most spontaneously as he walks, and generate the intellectual harmony which is the natural accompaniment to the monotonous tramp of his feet. The cyclist or the golf-player, I am told, can hold such intercourse with himself in the intervals of striking the ball or working his machine. But the true pedestrian loves walking because, so far from distracting his mind, it is favourable to the equable and abundant flow of tranquil and half-conscious meditation. Therefore I should be sorry if the pleasures of cycling or any other recreation tended to put out of fashion the habit of the good old walking-tour.
For my part, when I try to summon up remembrance of 'well-spent' moments, I find myself taking a kind of inverted view of the past; inverted, that is, so far as the accidental becomes the essential. If I turn over the intellectual album which memory is always compiling, I find that the most distinct pictures which it contains are those of old walks. Other memories of incomparably greater intrinsic value coalesce into wholes. They are more massive but less distinct. The memory of a friendship that has brightened one's whole life survives not as a series of incidents but as a general impression of the friend's characteristic qualities due to the superposition of innumerable forgotten pictures. I remember him, not the specific conversations by which he revealed himself. The memories of walks, on the other hand, are all localised and dated; they are hitched on to particular times and places; they spontaneously form a kind of calendar or connecting thread upon which other memories may be strung. As I look back, a long series of little vignettes presents itself, each representing a definite stage of my earthly pilgrimage summed up and embodied in a walk. Their background of scenery recalls places once familiar, and the thoughts associated with the places revives thoughts of the contemporary occupations. The labour of scribbling books happily leaves no distinct impression, and I would forget that it had ever been undergone; but the picture of some delightful ramble includes incidentally a reference to the nightmare of literary toil from which it relieved me. The author is but the accidental appendage of the tramp. My days are bound each to each not by 'natural piety' (or not, let me say, by natural piety alone) but by pedestrian enthusiasm. The memory of school days, if one may trust to the usual reminiscences, generally clusters round a flogging, or some solemn words from the spiritual teacher instilling the seed of a guiding principle of life. I remember a sermon or two rather ruefully; and I confess to memories of a flogging so unjust that I am even now stung by the thought of it. But what comes most spontaneously to my mind is the memory of certain strolls, 'out of bounds,' when I could forget the Latin grammar, and enjoy such a sense of the beauties of nature as is embodied for a child in a pond haunted by water-rats, or a field made romantic by threats of 'man-traps and spring-guns.' Then, after a crude fashion, one was becoming more or less of a reflecting and individual being, not a mere automaton set in movement by pedagogic machinery.
The day on which I was fully initiated into the mysteries is marked by a white stone. It was when I put on a knapsack and started from Heidelberg for a march through the Odenwald. Then I first knew the delightful sensation of independence and detachment enjoyed during a walking tour. Free from all bothers of railway time-tables and extraneous machinery, you trust to your own legs, stop when you please, diverge into any track that takes your fancy, and drop in upon some quaint variety of human life at every inn where you put up for the night. You share for the time the mood in which Borrow settled down in the dingle after escaping from his bondage in the publishers' London slums. You have no dignity to support, and the dress-coat of conventional life has dropped into oblivion, like the bundle from Christian's shoulders. You are in the world of Lavengro, and would be prepared to take tea with Miss Isopel Berners or with the Welsh preacher who thought that he had committed the unpardonable sin. Borrow, of course, took the life more seriously than the literary gentleman who is only escaping on ticket-of-leave from the prison-house of respectability, and is quite unequal to a personal conflict with 'blazing Bosville'—the flaming tinman. He is only dipping in the element where his model was thoroughly at home. I remember, indeed, one figure in that first walk which I associate with Benedict Moll, the strange treasure-seeker whom Borrow encountered in his Spanish rambles. My acquaintance was a mild German innkeeper, who sat beside me on a bench while I was trying to assimilate certain pancakes, the only dinner he could provide, still fearful in memory, but just attackable after a thirty-miles tramp. He confided to me that, poor as he was, he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion. He kept his machine upstairs, where it discharged the humble duty of supplying the place of a shoeblack; but he was about to go to London to offer it to a British capitalist. He looked wistfully at me as possibly a capitalist in (very deep) disguise, and I thought it wise to evade a full explanation. I have not been worthy to encounter many of such quaint incidents and characters as seem to have been normal in Borrow's experience; but the first walk, commonplace enough, remains distinct in my memory. I kept no journal, but I could still give the narrative day by day—the sights which I dutifully admired and the very state of my bootlaces. Walking tours thus rescue a bit of one's life from oblivion. They play in one's personal recollections the part of those historical passages in which Carlyle is an unequalled master; the little islands of light in the midst of the darkening gloom of the past, on which you distinguish the actors in some old drama actually alive and moving. The devotee of other athletic sports remembers special incidents: the occasion on which he hit a cricket-ball over the pavilion at Lord's, or the crab which he caught as his boat was shooting Barnes Bridge. But those are memories of exceptional moments of glory or the reverse, and apt to be tainted by vanity or the spirit of competition. The walks are the unobtrusive connecting thread of other memories, and yet each walk is a little drama in itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes, according to the requirements of Aristotle; and it is naturally interwoven with all the thoughts, the friendships, and the interests that form the staple of ordinary life.
Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season. All great men of letters have, therefore, been enthusiastic walkers (exceptions, of course, excepted). Shakespeare, besides being a sportsman, a lawyer, a divine, and so forth, conscientiously observed his own maxim, 'Jog on, jog on, the footpath way'; though a full proof of this could only be given in an octavo volume. Anyhow, he divined the connection between walking and a 'merry heart'; that is, of course, a cheerful acceptance of our position in the universe founded upon the deepest moral and philosophical principles. His friend, Ben Jonson, walked from London to Scotland. Another gentleman of the period (I forget his name) danced from London to Norwich. Tom Coryate hung up in his parish church the shoes in which he walked from Venice and then started to walk (with occasional lifts) to India. Contemporary walkers of more serious character might be quoted, such as the admirable Barclay, the famous Quaker apologist, from whom the great Captain Barclay inherited his prowess. Every one, too, must remember the incident in Walton's Life of Hooker. Walking from Oxford to Exeter, Hooker went to see his godfather, Bishop Jewel, at Salisbury. The bishop said that he would lend him 'a horse which hath carried me many a mile, and, I thank God, with much ease,' and 'presently delivered into his hands a walking staff with which he professed he had travelled through many parts of Germany.' He added ten groats and munificently promised ten groats more when Hooker should restore the 'horse.' When, in later days, Hooker once rode to London, he expressed more passion than that mild divine was ever known to show upon any other occasion against a friend who had dissuaded him from 'footing it.' The hack, it seems, 'trotted when he did not,' and discomposed the thoughts which had been soothed by the walking staff. His biographer must be counted, I fear, among those who do not enjoy walking without the incidental stimulus of sport. Yet the Compleat Angler and his friends start by a walk of twenty good miles before they take their 'morning draught.' Swift, perhaps, was the first person to show a full appreciation of the moral and physical advantages of walking. He preached constantly upon this text to Stella, and practised his own advice. It is true that his notions of a journey were somewhat limited. Ten miles a day was his regular allowance when he went from London to Holyhead, but then he spent time in lounging at wayside inns to enjoy the talk of the tramps and ostlers. The fact, though his biographers are rather scandalised, shows that he really appreciated one of the true charms of pedestrian expeditions. Wesley is generally credited with certain moral reforms, but one secret of his power is not always noticed. In his early expeditions he went on foot to save horse hire, and made the great discovery that twenty or thirty miles a day was a wholesome allowance for a healthy man. The fresh air and exercise put 'spirit into his sermons,' which could not be rivalled by the ordinary parson of the period, who too often passed his leisure lounging by his fireside. Fielding points the contrast. Trulliber, embodying the clerical somnolence of the day, never gets beyond his pig-sties, but the model Parson Adams steps out so vigorously that he distances the stage-coach, and disappears in the distance rapt in the congenial pleasures of walking and composing a sermon. Fielding, no doubt, shared his hero's taste, and that explains the contrast between his vigorous naturalism and the sentimentalism of Richardson, who was to be seen, as he tells us, 'stealing along from Hammersmith to Kensington with his eyes on the ground, propping his unsteady limbs with a stick.' Even the ponderous Johnson used to dissipate his early hypochondria by walking from Lichfield to Birmingham and back (thirty-two miles), and his later melancholy would have changed to a more cheerful view of life could he have kept up the practice in his beloved London streets. The literary movement at the end of the eighteenth century was obviously due in great part, if not mainly, to the renewed practice of walking. Wordsworth's poetical autobiography shows how every stage in his early mental development was connected with some walk in the Lakes. The sunrise which startled him on a walk after a night spent in dancing first set him apart as a 'dedicated spirit.' His walking tour in the Alps—then a novel performance—roused him to his first considerable poem. His chief performance is the record of an excursion on foot. He kept up the practice, and De Quincey calculates somewhere what multiple of the earth's circumference he had measured on his legs, assuming, it appears, that he averaged ten miles a day. De Quincey himself, we are told, slight and fragile as he was, was a good walker, and would run up a hill 'like a squirrel.' Opium-eating is not congenial to walking, yet even Coleridge, after beginning the habit, speaks of walking forty miles a day in Scotland, and, as we all know, the great manifesto of the new school of poetry, the Lyrical Ballads, was suggested by the famous walk with Wordsworth, when the first stanzas of the Ancient Mariner were composed. A remarkable illustration of the wholesome influence might be given from the cases of Scott and Byron. Scott, in spite of his lameness, delighted in walks of twenty and thirty miles a day, and in climbing crags, trusting to the strength of his arms to remedy the stumblings of his foot. The early strolls enabled him to saturate his mind with local traditions, and the passion for walking under difficulties showed the manly nature which has endeared him to three generations. Byron's lameness was too severe to admit of walking, and therefore all the unwholesome humours which would have been walked off in a good cross-country march accumulated in his brain and caused the defects, the morbid affectation and perverse misanthropy, which half ruined the achievement of the most masculine intellect of his time.
It is needless to accumulate examples of a doctrine which will no doubt be accepted as soon as it is announced. Walking is the best of panaceas for the morbid tendencies of authors. It is, I need only observe, as good for reasoners as for poets. The name of 'peripatetic' suggests the connection. Hobbes walked steadily up and down the hills in his patron's park when he was in his venerable old age. To the same practice may be justly ascribed the utilitarian philosophy. Old Jeremy Bentham kept himself up to his work for eighty years by his regular 'post-jentacular circumgyrations.' His chief disciple, James Mill, walked incessantly and preached as he walked. John Stuart Mill imbibed at once psychology, political economy, and a love of walks from his father. Walking was his one recreation; it saved him from becoming a mere smoke-dried pedant; and though he put forward the pretext of botanical researches, it helped him to perceive that man is something besides a mere logic machine. Mill's great rival as a spiritual guide, Carlyle, was a vigorous walker, and even in his latest years was a striking figure when performing his regular constitutionals in London. One of the vivid passages in the Reminiscences describes his walk with Irving from Glasgow to Drumclog. Here they sat on the 'brow of a peat hag, while far, far away to the westward, over our brown horizon, towered up white and visible at the many miles of distance a high irregular pyramid. Ailsa Craig we at once guessed, and thought of the seas and oceans over yonder.' The vision naturally led to a solemn conversation, which was an event in both lives. Neither Irving nor Carlyle himself feared any amount of walking in those days, it is added, and next day Carlyle took his longest walk, fifty-four miles. Carlyle is unsurpassable in his descriptions of scenery: from the pictures of mountains in Sartor Resartus to the battle-pieces in Frederick. Ruskin, himself a good walker, is more rhetorical but not so graphic; and it is self-evident that nothing educates an eye for the features of a landscape so well as the practice of measuring it by your own legs.
The great men, it is true, have not always acknowledged their debt to the genius, whoever he may be, who presides over pedestrian exercise. Indeed, they have inclined to ignore the true source of their impulse. Even when they speak of the beauties of nature, they would give us to understand that they might have been disembodied spirits, taking aerial flights among mountain solitudes, and independent of the physical machinery of legs and stomachs. When long ago the Alps cast their spell upon me, it was woven in a great degree by the eloquence of Modern Painters. I hoped to share Ruskin's ecstasies in a reverent worship of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The influence of any cult, however, depends upon the character of the worshipper, and I fear that in this case the charm operated rather perversely. It stimulated a passion for climbing which absorbed my energies and distracted me from the prophet's loftier teaching. I might have followed him from the mountains to picture-galleries, and spent among the stones of Venice hours which I devoted to attacking hitherto unascended peaks and so losing my last chance of becoming an art critic. I became a fair judge of an Alpine guide, but I do not even know how to make a judicious allusion to Botticelli or Tintoretto. I can't say that I feel the smallest remorse. I had a good time, and at least escaped one temptation to talking nonsense. It follows, however, that my passion for the mountains had something earthly in its composition. It is associated with memories of eating and drinking. It meant delightful comradeship with some of the best of friends; but our end, I admit, was not always of the most exalted or æsthetic strain. A certain difficulty results. I feel an uncomfortable diffidence. I hold that Alpine walks are the poetry of the pursuit; I could try to justify the opinion by relating some of the emotions suggested by the great scenic effects: the sunrise on the snow fields; the storm-clouds gathering under the great peaks; the high pasturages knee-deep in flowers; the torrents plunging through the 'cloven ravines,' and so forth. But the thing has been done before, better than I could hope to do it; and when I look back at those old passages in Modern Painters, and think of the enthusiasm which prompted to exuberant sentences of three or four hundred words, I am not only abashed by the thought of their unapproachable eloquence, but feel as though they conveyed a tacit reproach. You, they seem to say, are, after all, a poor prosaic creature, affecting a love of sublime scenery as a cloak for more grovelling motives. I could protest against this judgment, but it is better at present to omit the topic, even though it would give the strongest groundwork for my argument.
Perhaps, therefore, it is better to trust the case for walking to where the external stimulus of splendours and sublimities is not so overpowering. A philosophic historian divides the world into the regions where man is stronger than nature and the regions where nature is stronger than man. The true charm of walking is most unequivocally shown when it is obviously dependent upon the walker himself. I became an enthusiast in the Alps, but I have found almost equal pleasure in walks such as one described by Cowper, where the view from a summit is bounded, not by Alps or Apennines, but by 'a lofty quickset hedge.' Walking gives a charm to the most commonplace British scenery. A love of walking not only makes any English county tolerable but seems to make the charm inexhaustible. I know only two or three districts minutely, but the more familiar I have become with any one of them the more I have wished to return, to invent some new combination of old strolls or to inspect some hitherto unexplored nook. I love the English Lakes, and certainly not on account of associations. I cannot 'associate.' Much as I respect Wordsworth, I don't care to see the cottage in which he lived: it only suggests to me that anybody else might have lived there. There is an intrinsic charm about the Lake Country, and to me at least a music in the very names of Helvellyn and Skiddaw and Scawfell. But this may be due to the suggestion that it is a miniature of the Alps. I appeal, therefore, to the Fen Country, the country of which Alton Locke's farmer boasted that it had none of your 'darned ups and downs' and 'was as flat as his barn-door for forty miles on end.' I used to climb the range of the Gogmagogs, to see the tower of Ely, some sixteen miles across the dead level, and I boasted that every term I devised a new route for walking to the cathedral from Cambridge. Many of these routes led by the little public-house called 'Five Miles from Anywhere': which in my day was the Mecca to which a remarkable club, called—from the name of the village—the 'Upware Republic,' made periodic pilgrimages. What its members specifically did when they got there beyond consuming beer is unknown to me; but the charm was in the distance 'from anywhere'—a sense of solitude under the great canopy of the heavens, where, like emblems of infinity,
I have always loved walks in the Fens. In a steady march along one of the great dykes by the monotonous canal with the exuberant vegetation dozing in its stagnant waters, we were imbibing the spirit of the scenery. Our talk might be of senior wranglers or the University crew, but we felt the curious charm of the great flats. The absence, perhaps, of definite barriers makes you realise that you are on the surface of a planet rolling through free and boundless space. One queer figure comes back to me—a kind of scholar-gipsy of the fens. Certain peculiarities made it undesirable to trust him with cash, and his family used to support him by periodically paying his score at riverside publics. They allowed him to print certain poems, moreover, which he would impart when one met him on the towpath. In my boyhood, I remember, I used to fancy that the most delightful of all lives must be that of a bargee—enjoying a perpetual picnic. This gentleman seemed to have carried out the idea; and in the intervals of lectures, I could fancy that he had chosen the better part. His poems, alas! have long vanished from my memory, and I therefore cannot quote what would doubtless have given the essence of the local sentiment and invested such names as Wicken Fen or Swaffham Lode with associations equal to those of Arnold's Hincksey ridge and Fyfield elm.
Another set of walks may, perhaps, appeal to more general sympathy. The voice of the sea, we know, is as powerful as the voice of the mountains; and, to my taste, it is difficult to say whether the Land's End is not in itself a more impressive station than the top of Mont Blanc. The solitude of the frozen peaks suggests tombstones and death. The sea is always alive and at work. The hovering gulls and plunging gannets and the rollicking porpoises are animating symbols of a gallant struggle with wind and wave. Even the unassociative mind has a vague sense of the Armada and Hakluyt's heroes in the background. America and Australia are just over the way. 'Is not this a dull place?' asked some one of an old woman whose cottage was near to the Lizard lighthouse. 'No,' she replied, 'it is so "cosmopolitan."': That was a simple-minded way of expressing the charm suggested in Milton's wonderful phrase—
Where the great Vision of the guarded Mount
Looks towards Namancos and Bayona's hold.
She could mentally follow the great ships coming and going, and shake hands with people at the ends of the earth. The very sight of a fishing-boat, as painters seem to have found out, is a poem in itself. But is it not all written in Westward Ho! and in the Prose Idylls, in which Kingsley put his most genuine power? Of all walks that I have made, I can remember none more delightful than those round the south-western promontory. I have followed the coast at different times from the mouth of the Bristol Avon by the Land's End to the Isle of Wight, and I am only puzzled to decide which bay or cape is the most delightful. I only know that the most delightful was the more enjoyable when placed in its proper setting by a long walk. When you have made an early start, followed the coast-guard track on the slopes above the cliffs, struggled through the gold and purple carpeting of gorse and heather on the moors, dipped down into quaint little coves with a primitive fishing village, followed the blinding whiteness of the sands round a lonely bay, and at last emerged upon a headland where you can settle into a nook of the rocks, look down upon the glorious blue of the Atlantic waves breaking into foam on the granite, and see the distant sea-levels glimmering away till they blend imperceptibly into cloudland; then you can consume your modest sandwiches, light your pipe, and feel more virtuous and thoroughly at peace with the universe than it is easy even to conceive yourself elsewhere. I have fancied myself on such occasions to be a felicitous blend of poet and saint—which is an agreeable sensation. What I wish to point out, however, is that the sensation is confined to the walker. I respect the cyclist, as I have said; but he is enslaved by his machine: he has to follow the highroad, and can only come upon what points of view open to the commonplace tourist. He can see nothing of the retired scenery which may be close to him, and cannot have his mind brought into due harmony by the solitude and by the long succession of lovely bits of scenery which stand so coyly aside from public notice.
The cockney cyclist who wisely seeks to escape at intervals from the region 'where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,' suffers the same disadvantages. To me, for many years, it was a necessity of life to interpolate gulps of fresh air between the periods of inhaling London fogs. When once beyond the 'town' I looked out for notices that trespassers would be prosecuted. That gave a strong presumption that the trespass must have some attraction. The cyclist could only reflect that trespassing for him was not only forbidden but impossible. To me it was a reminder of the many delicious bits of walking which, even in the neighbourhood of London, await the man who has no superstitious reverence for legal rights. It is indeed surprising how many charming walks can be contrived by a judicious combination of a little trespassing with the rights of way happily preserved over so many commons and footpaths. London, it is true, goes on stretching its vast octopus arms farther into the country. Unlike the devouring dragon of Wantley, to whom 'houses and churches' were like 'geese and turkies,' it spreads houses and churches over the fields of our childhood. And yet, between the great lines of railway there are still fields not yet desecrated by advertisements of liver pills. It is a fact that within twenty miles of London two travellers recently asked their way at a lonely farmhouse; and that the mistress of the house, seeing that they were far from an inn, not only gave them a seat and luncheon, but positively refused to accept payment. That suggested an idyllic state of society which, it is true, one must not count upon discovering. Yet hospitality, the virtue of primitive regions, has not quite vanished, it would appear, even from this over-civilised region. The travellers, perhaps, had something specially attractive in their manners. In that or some not distant ramble they made time run back for a couple of centuries. They visited the quiet grave where Penn lies under the shadow of the old Friends' meeting-house, and came to the cottage where the seat on which Milton talked to Ellwood about Paradise Regained seems to be still waiting for his return; and climbed the hill to the queer monument which records how Captain Cook demonstrated the goodness of Providence by disproving the existence of a continent in the South Sea—(the argument is too obvious to require exposition); and then gazed reverently upon the obelisk, not far off, which marks the point at which George III. concluded a famous stag hunt. A little valley in the quiet chalk country of Buckinghamshire leads past these and other memorials, and the lover of historical associations, with the help of Thorne's Environs of London, may add indefinitely to the list. I don't object to an association when it presents itself spontaneously and unobtrusively. It should not be the avowed goal but the accidental addition to the interest of a walk; and it is then pleasant to think of one's ancestors as sharers in the pleasures. The region enclosed within a radius of thirty miles from Charing Cross has charms enough even for the least historical of minds. You can't hold a fire in your hand, according to a high authority, by thinking on the frosty Caucasus; but I can comfort myself now and then, when the fellow passengers who tread on my heels in London have put me out of temper, by thinking of Leith Hill. It only rises to the height of a thousand feet by help of the 'Folly' on the top, but you can see, says my authority, twelve counties from the tower; and, if certain legendary ordnance surveyors spoke the truth, distinguish the English Channel to the south, and Dunstable Hill, far beyond London, to the north. The Crystal Palace, too, as we are assured, 'sparkles like a diamond.' That is gratifying; but to me the panorama suggests a whole network of paths, which have been the scene of personally conducted expeditions, in which I displayed the skill on which I most pride myself—skill, I mean, in devising judicious geographical combinations, and especially of contriving admirable short cuts. The persistence of some companions in asserting that my short cuts might be the longest way round shows that the best of men are not free from jealousy. Mine, at any rate, led me and my friends through pleasant places innumerable. My favourite passage in Pilgrim's Progress—an allegory which could have occurred, by the way, to no one who was not both a good man and a good walker—was always that in which Christian and Hopeful leave the highroad to cross a stile into 'Bypath Meadow.' I should certainly have approved the plan. The path led them, it is true, into the castle of Giant Despair; but the law of trespass has become milder; and the incident really added that spice of adventure which is delightful to the genuine pilgrim. We defied Giant Despair; and if our walks were not quite so edifying as those of Christian and his friends, they add a pleasant strand to the thread of memory which joins the past years. Conversation, we are often told, like letter-writing, is a lost art. We live too much in crowds. But if ever men can converse pleasantly, it is when they are invigorated by a good march: when the reserve is lowered by the long familiarity of a common pursuit, or when, if bored, you can quietly drop behind, or perhaps increase the pace sufficiently to check the breath of the persistent argufier.
Nowhere, at least, have I found talk flow so freely and pleasantly as in a march through pleasant country. And yet there is also a peculiar charm in the solitary expedition when your interlocutor must be yourself. That may be enjoyed, perhaps even best enjoyed, in London streets themselves. I have read somewhere of a distinguished person who composed his writings during such perambulations, and the statement was supposed to prove his remarkable power of intellectual concentration. My own experience would tend to diminish the wonder. I hopelessly envy men who can think consecutively under conditions distracting to others—in a crowded meeting or in the midst of their children—for I am as sensitive as most people to distraction; but if I can think at all, I am not sure that the roar of the Strand is not a more favourable environment than the quiet of my own study. The mind—one must only judge from one's own—seems to me to be a singularly ill-constructed apparatus. Thoughts are slippery things. It is terribly hard to keep them in the track presented by logic. They jostle each other, and suddenly skip aside to make room for irrelevant and accidental neighbours; till the stream of thought, of which people talk, resembles rather such a railway journey as one makes in dreams, where at every few yards you are shunted on to the wrong line. Now, though a London street is full of distractions, they become so multitudinous that they neutralise each other. The whirl of conflicting impulses becomes a continuous current because it is so chaotic and determines a mood of sentiment if not a particular vein of reflection. Wordsworth describes the influence upon himself in a curious passage of his Prelude. He wandered through London as a raw country lad, seeing all the sights from Bartholomew Fair to St. Stephen's, and became a unit of the 'monstrous ant-hill in a too busy world.' Of course, according to his custom, he drew a moral, and a most excellent moral, from the bewildering complexity of his new surroundings. He learnt, it seems, to recognise the unity of man and to feel that the spirit of nature was upon him 'in London's vast domain' as well as on the mountains. That comes of being a philosophical poet with a turn for optimism. I will not try to interpret or to comment, for I am afraid that I have not shared the emotions which he expresses. A cockney, born and bred, takes surroundings for granted. The hubbub has ceased to distract him; he is like the people who were said to become deaf because they always lived within the roar of a waterfall: he realises the common saying that the deepest solitude is solitude in a crowd; he derives a certain stimulus from a vague sympathy with the active life around him, but each particular stimulus remains, as the phrase goes, 'below the threshold of consciousness.' To some such effect, till psychologists will give me a better theory, I attribute the fact that what I please to call my 'mind' seems to work more continuously and coherently in a street walk than elsewhere. This, indeed, may sound like a confession of cynicism. The man who should open his mind to the impressions naturally suggested by the 'monstrous ant-hill' would be in danger of becoming a philanthropist or a pessimist, of being overpowered by thoughts of gigantic problems, or of the impotence of the individual to solve them. Carlyle, if I remember rightly, took Emerson round London in order to convince his optimistic friend that the devil was still in full activity. The gates of hell might be found in every street. I remember how, when coming home from a country walk on a sweltering summer night, and seeing the squalid population turning out for a gasp of air in their only playground, the vast labyrinth of hideous lanes, I seemed to be in Thomson's City of Dreadful Night. Even the vanishing of quaint old nooks is painful when one's attention is aroused. There is a certain churchyard wall, which I pass sometimes, with an inscription to commemorate the benefactor who erected it 'to keep out the pigs.' I regret the pigs and the village green which they presumably imply. The heart, it may be urged, must be hardened not to be moved by many such texts for melancholy reflection. I will not argue the point. None of us can be always thinking over the riddle of the universe, and I confess that my mind is generally employed on much humbler topics. I do not defend my insensibility nor argue that London walks are the best. I only maintain that even in London, walking has a peculiar fascination. The top of an omnibus is an excellent place for meditation; but it has not, for me at least, that peculiar hypnotic influence which seems to be favourable to thinking, and to pleasant day-dreaming when locomotion is carried on by one's own muscles. The charm, however, is that even a walk in London often vaguely recalls better places and nobler forms of the exercise. Wordsworth's Susan hears a thrush at the corner of Wood Street, and straightway sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees,
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.
The gulls which seem lately to have found out the merits of London give to occasional Susans, I hope, a whiff of fresh sea-breezes. But, even without gulls or wood-pigeons, I can often find occasions in the heart of London for recalling the old memories, without any definable pretext; little pictures of scenery, sometimes assignable to no definable place, start up invested with a faint aroma of old friendly walks and solitary meditations and strenuous exercise, and I feel convinced that, if I am not a thorough scoundrel, I owe that relative excellence to the harmless monomania which so often took me, to appropriate Bunyan's phrase, from the amusements of Vanity Fair to the Delectable Mountains of pedestrianism.