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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Poets in Motion

During the final weeks of the eighteenth century, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy walked for four days across the Pennine Mountains of northern England, to the Lake District, where he had gone to school and they were returning to live. They were not the first to travel this sort of distance on foot, but they were the first to do so, not out of necessity, but simply for the pleasure of experiencing the landscape. Christopher Morley wrote in 1917, “I always think of him as one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy”. In 1794, Dorothy had written to her friend, Jane Pollard, of her “wonderful prowess in the walking way”, and then to her disapproving aunt that “I cannot pass unnoticed that part of your letter in which you speak of my ‘rambling about the country on foot’. So far from considering this as a matter of condemnation, I rather thought it would have given my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post chaise – but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings.”

This was an age when time did not yet equal money, and Thomas De Quincey, too, speaks of the saving in cost: “A journey of a hundred and eighty miles, as a pedestrian, would cost me nine or ten days; for which extent the mere amount of expenses at inns would more than defray the fare of the dearest carriage. To this there was no sound reply, except that corresponding expenses would arise, at any rate, on these nine or ten days, wherever I might be – in London, or on the road.” But, he concluded: “Happily the scandal of pedestrianism is in one respect more hopefully situated than that of scrofula or leprosy; it is not in any case written in your face.” De Quincey was a teenage runaway from Manchester, and was approaching near-starvation in London in 1802, so every penny counted.

Across the ocean, American “poet, pamphleteer, and performer”, Vachel Lindsay, earned his keep on his walking tours, by trading in poetry. An extract from one of his pamphlets used on the road:


Rhymes to be Traded for Bread

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 a quarter after eleven.
(5) Ask for supper, lodging, and breakfast about a 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.

Lindsay’s activity has been described as a sort of “poetry outreach program”. In “On the Road to Nowhere”, he asks: “Did you dare to make the songs / Vanquished workmen need?” And from the Prologue of “Rhymes to be Traded for Bread”: “Shelter and patient hearing, / These were their gifts to him, / … . The rich said ‘you are welcome.’ / Yea, even the rich were good. / … . The poor who had wandered too, / … . There dark mistrust was dead: / They loved his wizard stories, / They bought his rhymes with bread.” It is said that “chanting, jazz rhythms, and a preaching style characterized his public poetry readings”, and together with Langston Hughes he helped define the school of Jazz Poetry. Like a contemporary performance poet, he “persuaded the tired businessman to listen at last. But lo, my tiny reputation as a writer seemed wiped out by my new reputation as an entertainer”. And from “The Traveler-Heart”: “I would be one with the dark-bright night / When sparkling skies and the lightning wed – / Walking on with the vicious wind / By roads whence even the dogs have fled.”

Sadly, ground down by poverty and ill-health in the latter part of his life, Lindsay killed himself by drinking Lysol on December 5 1931.

The modern belief that walking, if not out of necessity or for exercise, like thinking, is ‘doing nothing’, is a dilemma. And this is another reason why people walk. In a society in which doing nothing is thought to be wasting time, we need to be seen to be filling it. Virginia Woolf set herself the task of going to buy a pencil in order to justify taking a walk, and American poet AR Ammons gives a new meaning to loafing, when he proposes a trip to buy the daily bread, but he comes to the conclusion that a walk is like a poem. In his essay, “A Poem is a Walk”, he writes: “I take the walk to be the externalization of an interior seeking … . Every walk is unreproducible, as is every poem. Even if you walk exactly the same route each time – as with a sonnet – the events along the route cannot be imagined to be the same from day to day, as the poet’s health, sight, his anticipations, moods, fears, thoughts cannot be the same.” The “provisional stability” of “clarity, order, meaning, structure [and] rationality” could be compared to the brief moments during walking when we have two feet on the ground.

If two walks are not the same, neither are any two walkers, whose bodies have their own “dialect”. “The pace at which a poet walks (and thinks),” continues Ammons, “his natural breath-length, the line he pursues, whether forthright and straight or weaving and meditative, his whole ‘air,’ whether of aimlessness or purpose – all these things and many more figure into the ‘physiology’ of the poem he writes”. And there is a “motion common to poems and walks. [It] may be lumbering, clipped, wavering, tripping, mechanical, dance-like, awkward, staggering, slow, etc. But the motion occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. It can’t be extracted and contemplated. It is nonreproducible and nonlogical. It can’t be translated into another body. There is only one way to know it and that is to enter into it.”

Essayist William Hazlitt described his experience of walking with the Romantics: “Coleridge’s manner is more full, animated, and varied; Wordsworth’s more equable, sustained, and internal. The one might be termed more dramatic, the other more lyrical. Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption.” Dorothy made a similar observation in a letter to a friend, when she wrote, “at present he is walking, and has been out of doors these two hours though it has rained heavily all the morning. In wet weather he takes out an umbrella, chuses the most sheltered spot, and there walks backwards and forwards and though the length of his walk be sometimes a quarter or half a mile, he is as fast bound within the chosen limits as if by prison walls. He generally composes his verses out of doors, and while he is so engaged he seldom knows how the time slips away, or hardly whether it is rain or fair”.

De Quincey observed that Wordsworth “was, on the whole, not a well-made man. His legs,” he said, “were pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs … . A sculptor would certainly have disapproved of their contour”. Nevertheless, Christopher Morley tells us, “the Opium Eater made the classic pronouncement” 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 alcohol and all other stimulants whatsoever to the animal spirits”. According to Thoreau, when a visitor asked to see Wordsworth’s study, his servant remarked: “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”

Two days after their first meeting in 1798, the 20-year-old Hazlitt accompanied Coleridge on a six mile walk. “In digressing, in dilating, in passing from subject to subject, he appeared to me to float in air, to slide on ice. I observed that he continually crossed me on the way by shifting from one side of the footpath to the other. This struck me as an odd movement; but I did not at that time connect it with any instability of purpose or involuntary change of principle, as I have done since. He seemed unable to keep on in a straight line”. Biographer Richard Holmes observed of Coleridge that he “attracted ardent, youthful, admirers, often at some crisis point in their lives, encouraging confessions and confidences; but he did not have the equanimity or emotional detachment to become a fatherly mentor or tranquil friend, until much later. Indeed one might suggest that part of Coleridge’s genius was for wholly disrupting the lives and expectations of most of those who came in close contact with him.”

Hazlitt recalled the first time he heard Coleridge preach: “I rose one morning before daylight, to walk ten miles in the mud … . Never the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one … .” But he wasn’t disappointed. “When I got there, the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done, Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text, ‘And he went up into the mountains to pray, HIMSELF, ALONE.’ As he gave out this text, his voice ‘rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes’, and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe.”

Ultimately, Hazlitt preferred walking alone. In his essay “On Going a Journey”, he wrote: “One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.” “My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage,” he wrote 25 years after his first encounter with Coleridge, “dark, obscure, with longings intimate and unsatisfied;  my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself,” he admits, “I owe to Coleridge.”

De Quincey, in his customary “jovial gossip” and inevitable digression, recalled walking with Hazlitt: “Twice, I think, or it might be three times, we walked for a few miles together: it was in London, late at night, and after leaving a party. Though depressed by the spectacle of a mind always in agitation from the gloomier passions, I was yet amused by the pertinacity with which he clung, through bad reasons or no reasons, to any public slander floating against men in power, or in the highest rank.” During “one of these nightly walks”, Hazlitt recalled to De Quincey how he had once followed close behind and observed the King of Hanover, at that time Duke of Cumberland, out walking. De Quincey wrote:

It is the custom in England, wheresoever the persons of the royal family are familiar to the public eye … that all passengers in the streets, on seeing them, walk bareheaded, or make some signal of dutiful respect. On this occasion all the men who met the prince took off their hats, the prince acknowledging every such obeisance by a separate bow. Pall-Mall being finished, and its whole harvest of salutations gathered in, next the Duke came to Cockspur Street. But here, and taking a station close to the crossing, which daily he beautified and polished with his broom, stood a negro sweep … yet the creature could take off his rag of a hat and earn the bow of a prince as well as any white native of St. James. What was to be done? … The Duke of Cumberland, seeing no counsel at hand to argue either the pro or the contra, found himself obliged to settle the question de plano; so, drawing out his purse, he kept his hat as rigidly settled on his head as William Penn and Mead did before the recorder of London. All Pall-Mall applauded: contradicente Gulielmo Hazlitt, and Hazzlit only. The black swore that the prince gave him half-a-crown … whether he was more thankful for the money gained, or angry for the honour lost did not transpire … ‘No matter,’ said Hazlitt … Was he not … a fellow-subject, capable of committing treason, and paying taxes into the treasury? Not perhaps in any direct shape, but indirect taxes most certainly on his tobacco – and even on his broom?

These things could not be denied. But still, when my turn came for speaking, I confessed frankly that (politics apart) my feeling in the case went along with the Duke’s. The bow would not be so useful to the black as the half crown.

In 1791 Wordsworth wrote to his friend, the Rev. Robert Jones, with whom he’d shared an experience of walking in the Alps, and to whom he dedicated his “Descriptive Sketches taken during a Pedestrian Tour among the Alps”: “You know well how great is the difference between two companions lolling in a post-chaise, and two travellers plodding slowly along the road, side by side, each with his little knapsack of necessaries upon his shoulders. How much more of heart between the two latter!”

Early in June of 1797, Coleridge “set out on a long summer walk”, from Nether Stowey to Racedown in Dorsetshire, to visit Wordsworth. They had met only briefly in Bristol two years earlier. Coleridge “preached at the Unitarian Chapel at Bridgewater on Sunday 4 June, and then pounded the forty-odd miles southwards in a day and a half, reaching the road going down from Crewkerne on the early evening of 5 June.

“Here, at a field gate that still exists, he paused to look over the little valley of the River Synderford, from the hillside near Pilsdon Pen. Below him, across a field of corn, he could see the square, brick Georgian façade of Racedown Lodge among a little grove of beech trees, with a woman’s figure working in the vegetable garden behind.” Dorothy Wordsworth “looked up, and he vaulted the gate and hurried down through corn towards her”. Dorothy wrote to Mary Hutchinson, her cousin and future sister-in-law, who had left Racedown just the day before: “You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. … At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes … But if you hear him speak …” Coleridge said of meeting Dorothy, “Miss Wordsworth is a most exquisite young woman in her mind, & heart.” The friendship between William, Coleridge and herself, which Dorothy held together, became one of the greatest of their lives. For William and Coleridge it “was based on an attraction of temperamental opposites”. In Coleridge’s Conversation Poem, “The Nightingale”, describing a night expedition to listen to the birds north of Holford-Stowey, which only sing for a few weeks each spring, he addressed “My Friend, and thou our Sister”.

About halfway between London and the Lake District, “A Northamptonshire Pheasant” (as he referred to himself) John Clare was isolated. “The winter comes; I walk alone / I want no bird to sing,” he wrote. “To those who keep their hearts their own / The winter is the spring”. But Clare, who was an unfortunate victim of “straddling social classes”, clearly had ambivalent feelings about his solitude. In his book, Edge of the Orison, Iain Sinclair examines the effect that going to London had on Clare, who had written (in a style which Sinclair compares to Jack Kerouac):

I lovd this solitary disposition from a boy and felt a curiosity to wander about spots where I had never been before   I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young   it cost my parents some anxiety   it was in summer and I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields and I indulged it. I had often seen the large heath calld Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curiosity urgd me to steal an oppertunity to explore it that morning   I had imagind that the worlds end was at the edge of the orison and that a days journey was able to find it   so I went on with my heart full of hopes pleasures and discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believd I coud see heaven by looking into the water   so I eagerly wanderd on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky   still I felt no fear   my wonder seeking happiness had no room for it   I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world often wondering to my self that I had not found the end of the old one   the sky still touched the ground in the distance as usual and my childish wisdoms was puzzled in perplexitys   night crept on before I had time to fancy the morning was bye   the white moth had begun to flutter beneath the bushes the black snail was out upon the grass and the frog was leaping across the rabbit tracks on his evening journeys and the little mice was nimbling about and twittering their little ear piercing song with the hedge cricket whispering the hour of waking spirits was at hand when I knew not which way to turn but chance put me in the right track and when I got into my own fields I did not know them everything seemd so different   the church peeping over the woods coud hardly reconcile me.

It was a similar experience for Clare later when he returned from London. He made four visits to the city, and attended dinners for London Magazine (to which he contributed), where De Quincey “swam into his ken” and “Coleridge talked for three hours”, but these “did not win him entrée” into the literary set; instead they just alienated him from most of his fellow villagers. “I live here among the ignorant like a lost man,” he wrote to his publisher. “They hardly dare talk in my company”.

“I had a romantic sort of notion about authors,” Clare wrote, “and had an anxious desire to see them fancying they were beings different to other men but the spell was soon broken when I became acquainted with them …” He described Coleridge as “a man with a venerable white head fluent of speech not a ‘silver tong[ue]d hamilton’   his words hung in their places at a quiet pace from a drawl in good set marching order so that you would suppose he had learnt what he intended to say before he came”.  Hazlitt, “if you was to watch his face for a month you would not catch a smile there … when he enters a room he comes stooping with his eyes in his hands as it were throwing under gazes round at every corner as if he smelt a dun or thief ready to sieze him by the collar and demand his money or his life … you woud wonder were his poetry came from that is scattered so thickly over his writings.” And the “little artless simple seeming body somthing of a child over grown in a blue coat and black neckerchief for his dress is singular with his hat in his hand [who] steals gently among the company with a smile turning timidly round the room” was “De Quincey the Opium Eater that abstruse thinker in Logic and Metaphysics XYZ”.

At first Clare was a curiosity in fashionable London circles. A Mrs. Emmerson “was at one word  the best friend I found,” he wrote of his first visit to London, “and my expectations are looking no further   her correspondence with me began early in my public life and grew pretty thick as it went on   I fancyd it a fine thing to correspond with a lady and by degrees grew up into an admirer some times writing as I felt sometimes as I fancyd and some times foolish[l]y when I coud not account for why I did it   I at length requested her portrait … she sent it and flatterd my vanity in return   it was beautifuly done by Behn[e]s the sculpter but bye and bye my knowledge [of] the world sickened my roma[n]tic feelings   I grew up in friends[hip] and lost in flattery afterwards so she took to patronizing one of Colridges who had written a visionary ode on Beauty in Knights quarterly Magaz[in]e in whom she discovered much genius and calld him on that stake one of the first Lyric poets in England – she then whisht for her picture agen and I readily agreed to part with it – for the artificial flower of folly had run to seed.”

Clare was “suddenly exposed to what London was,” Sinclair continues, and it was “a nightmare … for him, but having done it there’s no way back into the old self”. In his book, Sinclair – for whom “the power of landscape and the transgressive nature of walking remain central to his work” – retraces Clare’s journey (the book was originally going to be titled Journey Out of London), and he explores more closely territory that he passed through in his last book, London Orbital, while walking on the M25 (the second in his walking trilogy, begun with Lights Out for the Territory): Epping Forest and the asylum where Clare was incarcerated for being “addicted to Poetical prosing”. In 1837, after four years there, “He did this phenomenal three and a half day march back to his village north of Peterborough and I always wanted to repeat that journey,” says Sinclair. Clare wrote an account of his Journey Out of Essex, in which he said, on the first night “I lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering-point in the morning.” And “on the third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass by the road side which seemed to taste something like bread   I was hungry & eat heartily till I was satisfied”. “But on the last day I chewed tobacco & never felt hungry afterwards … . I heard the voice of freedom … & could have travelled to York with a penny loaf and a pint of beer for I should not have been fagged in body only one of my old shoes had nearly lost the sole before I started & let in the water & silt the first day & made me crippled and lame to the end of my journey.”

“So the book starts with a reprisal of his journey,” Sinclair goes on, “walking at exactly the same dates in July when it’s sweltering hot and it was weirder than the M25 because I found that the whole of middle England was just deserted. There’s nothing there once you’re off the motorway. In the villages the pubs are shut, there were no obvious farmers, abandoned airfields, huge industrial fields of corn and a very very weird landscape.”

Though he had been overwhelmed by the broadening of his horizon, what Clare dreaded more than anything was enclosure, as he wrote in “The Village Minstrel”: “There once were lanes in natures freedom dropt / There once were paths that every valley wound – / Inclosure came & every path was stopt / Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found / To hint a trespass now who crossed the ground / Justice is made to speak as they command / The high road now must be each stinted bound / – Inclosure, thourt a curse upon the land / & tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plannd.” He was writing here about the Enclosure Acts which caused the “legal expropriation of the commons – land belonging to all and crucial, traditionally, for the subsistence of the rural poor”. At the same time he predicted the final erosion of the “ways of passage for pedestrians” reported by Sinclair, and his own incarceration for the last 27 years of his life.

He had declared in his melancholy that he wanted no birdsong, but Clare was an extraordinary observer of nature, and thought to have been one of the finest ornithologists in British history. Much like Dorothy Wordsworth, he was more interested in describing what he saw and heard on the “lower earth”, as he called it – in the words of fifteenth century Indian poet, Kabir, the tinkling of “the anklets on the feet of an insect as it walks” – rather than veering into transcendental interpretation.

But even for someone with an education, London was hard. “I really cannot on any account venture to London unless upon the certainty of a regular income,” Wordsworth wrote to a friend. “Living in London must always be expensive, however frugal you may be. As to the article of eating, that is not much; but dress, and lodging, are extremely expensive”. And Dorothy, “writing in a front room in one of the busiest streets in Bristol”, could “scarcely conceive how the jarring contrast between the sounds which are now forever ringing in my ears and the sweet sounds of Allfoxden, makes me long for the country again. After three years residence in retirement” she found “a city in feeling, sound, and prospect is hateful.”

In August of 1803, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dorothy set off on a walking tour of Scotland. Just two weeks before, Wordsworth had responded to his first letter from the 18-year-old De Quincey, in which he wrote: “I am going with my friend Coleridge and my Sister upon a tour into Scotland for six weeks or two months. … I need not add that it will give me great pleasure to see you at Grasmere, if you should ever come this way.” Unfortunately this time Wordsworth and Coleridge did not get along well. Wordsworth said later of his friend that he seemed “in bad spirits and somewhat too much in love with his own dejection”. While Coleridge said of Wordsworth, that he “himself a brooder over his painful hypochondriacal Sensations, was not my fittest companion”. Dorothy’s “happiest moments were passed tramping beside a jibbing horse on a wet Scottish road without certainty of bed or supper. All she knew was that there was some sight ahead, some grove of trees to be noted, some waterfall to be inquired into. On they tramped hour after hour in silence for the most part, though Coleridge … would suddenly begin to debate aloud the true meaning of the words majestic, sublime, and grand. They had to trudge on foot because the horse had thrown the cart over a bank and the harness was only mended with string and pocket-handkerchiefs. They were hungry, too, because Wordsworth had dropped the chicken and the bread into the lake, and they had nothing else for dinner. They were uncertain of the way, and did not know where they would find lodging: all they knew was that there was a waterfall ahead. At last Coleridge could stand it no longer.” Dorothy “shivered at the thought of [Coleridge] being sickly and alone, travelling from place to place”, but on the fifteenth day, they parted company. Coleridge “now tried to exorcise his opium demons in a mad, non-stop, walking bout of eight days, during which he covered 263 miles”. Wordsworth responded to De Quincey on 6 March 1804, that “We had a most delightful tour of six weeks in Scotland; our pleasure however was not a little dashed by the necessity under which Mr. Coleridge found himself of leaving us, at the end of something like a fortnight, from ill health; and a dread of the rains (his complaint being Rheumatic).” The relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge was never quite the same after this.

De Quincey describes his forty-mile all-night walk from Bridgewater, after meeting Coleridge for the first time, in 1807:

About ten o’clock at night I took my leave of him; and feeling that I could not easily go to sleep after the excitement of the day, and fresh from the sad spectacle of powers so majestic already besieged by decay, I determined to return to Bristol through the coolness of the night. The roads, though, in fact, a section of the great highway between seaports so turbulent as Bristol and Plymouth, were as quiet as garden-walks. Once only I passed through the expiring fires of a village fair or wake: that interruption excepted, through the whole stretch of forty miles from Bridgewater to the Hot-wells, I saw no living creature but a surly dog, who followed me for a mile along a park-wall, and a man, who was moving around in the half-way town of Cross. The turnpike-gates were all opened by a mechanical contrivance from a bedroom window; I seemed to myself in solitary possession of the whole country. The summer night was divinely calm; no sound, except once or twice the cry of a child as I was passing the windows of cottages, ever broke upon the utter silence; and all things conspired to throw back my thoughts upon that extraordinary man whom I had just quitted.

Coleridge had confided in De Quincey about his opium addiction, when the latter mentioned “that a toothache had obliged me to take a few drops of laudanum”. De Quincey had also witnessed the estrangement between Coleridge and his wife. “[He] paused upon her entrance; his features, however … did not relax into a smile. In a frigid tone he said, whilst turning to me, ‘Mrs. Coleridge;’ in some slight way he then presented me to her: I bowed; and the lady almost immediately retired.” De Quincey discovered later, as he goes on to explain:

A young lady became a neighbour, and a daily companion of Coleridge’s walks, whom I will not describe more particularly, than by saying, that intellectually she was much superior to Mrs. Coleridge. That superiority alone, when made conspicuous by its effects in winning Coleridge’s regard and society, could not but be deeply mortifying to a young wife. However, it was moderated to her feelings by two considerations: – 1. That the young lady was much too kind-hearted to have designed any annoyance in this triumph, or to express any exaltation; 2. That no shadow of suspicion settled upon the moral conduct or motives of either party: the young lady was always attended by her brother; she had no personal charms; and it was manifest that mere intellectual sympathies, in reference to literature and natural scenery, had associated them in their daily walks. …

Mrs. Coleridge, not having the same relish for long walks or rural scenery … was condemned to a daily renewal of this trial. Accidents of another kind embittered it still further: often it would happen that the walking party returned drenched in rain; in which case the young lady, with a laughing gaiety, and evidently unconscious of any liberty she was taking, or any wound that she was inflicting, would run up to Mrs. Coleridge’s wardrobe, array herself, without leave asked, in Mrs. Coleridge’s dresses, and make herself merry with her own unceremoniousness and Mrs. Coleridge’s gravity.

From her point of view, Dorothy wrote to Mary Hutchinson about Sara Coleridge, on April 27 1801: “She is much, very much to be pitied, for when one party is ill-matched the other must necessarily be so too. She would have made a very good wife to many another man, but for Coleridge!!” And then six weeks later, with exasperation: “Mrs. Coleridge is a most extraordinary character – she is the lightest weakest silliest woman! She sent some clean clothes on Thursday to meet C. (the first time she ever did such a thing in her life). … So insensible and irritable she never can come to good and poor C.!”

Dorothy was reminded of how she irritated Sara Coleridge with her wet clothes, when she was met with a similarly cool reception on arriving drenched at an Inn. She wrote to Mary Hutchinson on April 16 1802: “A heavy rain came on, and when we passed Luff’s house we were very wet … . I had Joanna’s beautiful shawl on over my Spenser – Alas the Gloss is gone from it! but indeed I do not see it the worse. When we reached the Inn we were very wet. The Landlady looked sour enough upon us … but there was a young woman, I suppose a visitor, very smart in a Bonnet with an artificial flower, who was kindness itself. She did more for me than Mrs Coleridge would do for her own sister under the circumstances. She made a smart Lady of me at once, and I came down to William, who was sitting by a bright fire that had sprung up as if by magic …”

On what constituted the language of poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge also differed. Wordsworth claimed that rustic language was the “real language of men”. But Coleridge argued that “Examination of the tenets peculiar to Mr Wordsworth – Rustic life (above all, low and rustic life) especially unfavourable to the formation of a human diction – The best parts of language the products of philosophers, not clowns or shepherds – Poetry essentially ideal and generic – The language of Milton as much the language of real life, yea, incomparably more so than that of the cottager.” He declared that prose was “words in their best order”, but poetry was “the best words in the best order”. “I measured it from side to side / Twas three feet long, and two feet wide”, from the Lyrical Ballads, are lines of Wordsworth’s that have frequently been ridiculed, though as Philip Hensher observes, “how anyone could laugh at the size of the grave of a child, set out like this, is beyond explanation”.

Beat poet Jonathan Williams, also a peripatetic hailing from North Carolina (along with Ammons), sides with Wordsworth. “My early book Blues and Roots was done by walking a big piece of the Appalachian Trail: I listened to mountain people for over a thousand miles and I really heard some amazing stuff. And I left it pretty much as I heard it. I didn’t have to do anything but organize it a little bit, crystallize it. That’s the thing I love about found material – you wake it up, you ‘make’ it into something.” His “Custodian of a Field of Whisky Bushes By the Nolichucky River Speaks”: “took me a pecka real ripe tomaters up / into the Grassy Gap / one night / and two quarts of good stockade / and just laid there / sippin and tastin and lookin agin the moon / at them sort of fish eyes in the jar / you get when its right / boys Im talkin bout somethin / good.”

In 1962, writing his “Autobiography: New York”, Charles Reznikoff found himself “Walking along the highway, / I smell the yellow flowers of a shrub, / watch the starlings on a lawn, perhaps – / but why are all these / speeding away in automobiles, / where are they off to / in such a hurry? / They must be going to hear wise men / and to look at beautiful women, / and I am just a fool / to be loitering here alone.”

By 1969, Joni Mitchell was heading for Woodstock. “I came upon a child of God / He was walking along the road,” she sang. “Then can I walk beside you / I have come here to lose the smog / … We are stardust / Billion year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil’s bargain / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden”. But soon after she too was lamenting that “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

In his Poems on Bits on Paper (1982), South African beat poet Sinclair Beiles noted, “he always walked around / with an open umbrella. / it had spokes but not cover, / he said a cover would hide him / from his source of strength – the heavens.”

And in 2004, Rita Dove, Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993-1995, in “Looking Up from the Page, I Am Reminded of This Mortal Coil”, wrote: “What good is the brain without traveling shoes? / We put our thoughts out there on the cosmos express / … But I suspect we don’t / travel easily at all, though we keep / making better wheels – / smaller phones and wider webs.”

Like Coleridge, the solitary walks of De Quincey were not unaccompanied as he was often under the influence of opium as he walked. For both men, initially taken as a pain-reliever, it later became an addiction. According to De Quincey, Coleridge tried to draw a distinction between “our separate careers as opium-eaters”, suggesting that he merely used it for pain relief of his rheumatism, while De Quincey was an addict. “And vainly, indeed, does Coleridge attempt to differentiate two cases which ran into absolute identity,” wrote De Quincey, “differing only as rheumatism differs from toothache.” He then points to Coleridge’s unreliability regarding facts: “The truth is, that inaccuracy as to facts and citations from books was in Coleridge a mere necessity of nature … . Everything that Coleridge had relied upon as a citation from a book in support of his own hypothesis, turns out to be pure fabrication of his dreams.” And he concludes that Coleridge’s account of the subject was “perfect moonshine, and, like the sculptured imagery of the pendulous lamp in ‘Christabel,’: ‘All carved from the carver’s brain’.”

Belgian-Mexican artist, Francis Alÿs, famous for his walking performance art pieces, as a tribute to De Quincey, created a piece called Narcotourism, in which he walked Copenhagen from 6-12 May 1996, “under the influence of a different drug each day”. He charted the effects “through photographs, notes, or any other media that bec[a]me relevant”.

Ammons concludes:

If you were brought into a classroom and asked to teach walks, what would you teach? …

The first thought that would occur to you is, What have other people said about walks? You could collect all historical references to walks and all descriptions of walks, find out the average length of walks, through what kind of terrain they have most often proceeded, what kind of people have enjoyed walks and why and how walks have reflected the societies in which they occurred. In short, you could write a history of walks.

Or you could call in specialists. You might find a description of a particularly disturbing or interesting walk and then you might call in a botanist to retrace that walk with you and identify all the leaves and berries for you: or you might take along a sociologist to point out to you that the olive trees mentioned were at the root – forgive me – of feudal society: or you might take along a surveyor to give you a close reading in inches and degrees: or you might take a psychoanalyst along to ask good questions about what is the matter with people who take walks: or you might take a physiologist to provide you with astonishment that people can walk at all. Each specialist would no doubt come up with important facts and insights, but your attention, focused on the cell structure of the olive leaf, would miss the main event, the walk itself.

Ammons is, of course, using a walk to illustrate a poem, but the mirror image serves us as well.

The romantics in the Lake District had a love affair with their environment, as did Walt Whitman with Manhattan (“Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, / Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, / … What stranger miracles are there?”), but for Charles Baudelaire, arguably the first urban poet (he sometimes competes with Whitman for the title), his relationship with Paris was more ambivalent. His bohemian lifestyle meant relentless financial struggle after his private income ran out, and he was constantly moving to escape his creditors. At one point he wrote to his mother, “I am used to physical suffering to a certain degree. I am adept at making do with two shirts under torn trousers and a jacket which lets in the wind, and I am so experienced in using straw or even paper to plug up the holes in my shoes that moral suffering is almost the only kind I perceive as suffering. However, I must admit I have reached the point where I don’t make any sudden movements or walk a lot because I fear that I might tear my clothes even more.”

Like a destructive, yet addictive, relationship, Jules Laforgue said of him that he was the first to speak about himself and Paris “as someone condemned to live in the capital day after day”. Unlike Shelley, who captured the directness and harshness of London (“Hell is a city much like London – / A populous and a smoky city”, Baudelaire “owed his enjoyment of this society as someone who had already half withdrawn from it. In the attitude of someone with this kind of enjoyment he let the spectacle of the crowd act upon him. The deepest fascination of this kind of spectacle lay in the fact that as it intoxicated him it did not blind him to the horrible social reality.” But for the flâneur, it is the “pageantry of movement” that he needs. As Christopher Morley put it, even “minor poets struggling home with the Saturday night marketing … may see visions” as they witness “this various, grotesque, pathetic, and surprising humanity”; what “Whitman and O. Henry knew in brimming measure, [which] comes by gulps and twinges to us all”. And then on a more romantic note, Morley added: “In the teeming ooze and ocean bottoms of our atlantic humanity he finds rich corals and rainbow shells, hospitality, reverence, love, and beauty.”

No city is better for finding material than New York, whose streets have known an abundance of poets. “Let’s take a walk,” wrote Frank O’Hara, “you / and I in spite of the / weather if it rains hard / on our toes / we’ll stroll like poodles / and be washed down a / gigantic scenic gutter.”

As essayist Phillip Lopate says of objectivist poet, Charles Reznikoff, “Walking was both a way for the poet to be alone and – controlledly, indirectly – with others, knowing the spark of intimacy would last only a short while and incur no further obligations.” Of himself, Lopate says, “I was not looking to find romance itself, so much as to be invaded by sharp glimpses of heart-stopping beauty, to take back with me and muse over in my rooms.”

Reznikoff wrote: “I like the sound of the street – / but I, apart and alone, / beside an open window / and behind a closed door.” Unlike Whitman, who “liked to sit by the front window in a chair and not just watch the world walk by, but talk to people outside”.

Baudelaire wrote in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, about his friend Constantin Guys, whom he refers to simply as M.G., that he “loves mixing with the crowds [but] loves being incognito … . And so, walking or quickening his pace, he goes his way, for ever in search. In search of what?”. And the flâneur becomes a detective. Baudelaire was strongly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, whom he described as “the most powerful pen of this age”, and translated his work into French. He cites Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd”, where “Sitting in a café, and looking through the shop window, a convalescent is enjoying the site of the passing crowd, and identifying himself in thought with all the thoughts that are moving around him. … In the end he rushes out into the crowd in search of a man unknown to him whose face, which he had caught sight of, had in a flash fascinated him. But in the end, Poe decides that “perhaps it is one of the great mercies of God” (and the city?) that this man of the crowd “er lässt sich nicht lesen” (it does not permit itself to be read).

On November 2 1974 beat poet Allen Ginsberg “… walked out of my red apartment door on East tenth street’s dusk – / … . Walked past a taxicab controlling the bottle strewn curb – / past the young fellows with their umbrella handles & canes leaning against a ravaged Buick – / and as I looked at the crowd of kids on the stoop – a boy stepped up, put his arm around my neck / tenderly I thought for a moment, squeezed harder, his umbrella handle against my skull, / … as I went down shouting Om Ah Hum to gangs of lovers on the stoop watching … . / one boy felt my broken healed ankle, looking for hundred dollar bills behind my stocking weren’t / even there – a third boy untied my Seiko Hong Kong watch rough from right wrist leaving a clasp –  / prick skin tiny bruise / ‘Shut up and we’ll get out of here’ – and so they left, / as I rose from the cardboard mattress thinking Om Ah Hum didn’t stop em enough, / the tone of voice too loud – my shoulder bag with 10, 000 dollars full of poetry left on the broken / floor.”

Nineteenth century “sociological impressionist”, Georg Simmel, remarked that “Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the activity of the ear.” Still, the city streets are a great place to eavesdrop. Charles Reznikoff, whose widow recalled of him that when he said “I did not walk today,” he always conveyed an air of “tragic loss”, wrote in “By the Well of Living and Seeing”: “I was walking along Forty-Second Street as night was falling. / On the other side of the street was Bryant Park. / Walking behind me were two men / and I could hear some of their conversation: / ‘What you must do,’ one of them was saying to his companion, / ‘is to decide on what you want to do / and then stick to it. Stick to it!’”

When Reznikoff was 80-years-old, Paul Auster met him for the first time. He said of him:

I have met some good story-tellers in my life, but [he] was the champion. …  What at first seemed to be an endless series of digressions, a kind of aimless wandering, turned out to be the elaborate and systematic construction of a circle. For example: why did you come back to New York after living in Hollywood? There followed a myriad of little incidents: meeting the brother of a certain man on a park bench, the color of someone’s eyes, an economic crisis in some country. Fifteen minutes later, convinced that Reznikoff was lost, too – he would begin a slow return to his starting point. Then, with great clarity and conviction, he would announce: ‘So that’s why I left Hollywood.’ In retrospect, it all made perfect sense. …

There were also stories about his walks – in particular, his journey from New York to Cape Cod (on foot!), which he undertook when he was well past sixty. The important thing, he explained, was not to walk too fast. Only by forcing himself to keep to a pace of less than two miles per hour could he be sure to see everything he wanted to see.

“He walked, as much as anything, to get material,” says Philip Lopate. But when it came to distilling the stories into poetry, “he felt no responsibility to give a full report of the walk; on returning home, he would focus on only that image or situation that had moved him. Many of his poems are miniature narratives, told in spare, plain language.”

City life requires a different kind of stamina from long walks, though, and having received less recognition than he deserved, “alongside the manifest tenderness in Reznikoff’s work,” says Lopate, “there was a preoccupation with cruelty, though the cruelty was often directed at himself”; as when “his stale solitude is not mitigated by any invigorating encounter”, and haunted by his own reflection,  Reznikoff wrote: “I am alone – / and glad to be alone; / I do not like people who walk about / so late; who walk slowly after midnight / through the leaves fallen on sidewalks. / I do not like / my own face / in the little mirrors of the slot-machines / before the crowded stores.”

“What are the dangers of the forest and the prairie,” wrote Baudelaire “compared with the daily shocks and conflicts of civilisation?”. From a distance, he wrote “To a Passer-by”: “Graceful, noble, with a statue’s form. / And I drank, trembling as a madman thrills, / From her eyes, ashen sky where brooded storm, / The softness that fascinates, the pleasure that kills.”


During the final weeks: Solnit, Rebecca. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin USA, pp. 81-84.

“I always think of him”: Morley, Christopher. (1917). “The Art of Walking”, in Shandygaff.

“wonderful prowess in the walking way”: Wordsworth, William & Wordsworth, Dorothy. (1935). The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), edited by Ernest De Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 111.

“I cannot pass unnoticed”: Ibid, p. 113.

“Happily the scandal of pedestrianism”: De Quincey, Thomas. (1862). Confessions Of An English Opium-eater. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, p. 147.

“Rhymes to be Traded for Bread”: quoted in Morley, “The Art of Walking”.

“On the Road to Nowhere”: Lindsay, Vachel. (1929). “On the Road to Nowhere”, in Collected Poems. New York: Macmillan, pp. 296-297.

“Shelter and patient hearing”: Lindsay, Prologue of “Rhymes to be Traded for Bread”, in Collected Poems, pp. 294-295.

“persuaded the tired businessman”: quoted in Kronick, Joseph G. (2000, February). “Vachel Lindsay’s Life”, Modern American Poetry.

“I would be one with the dark-bright night”: Lindsay, “The Traveller-Heart”, in Collected Poems, pp. 70-71.

going to buy a pencil: Woolf, Virginia. (1930). “Street Haunting”, in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. 1942, London: Hogarth Press, pp. 19-29.

“I take the walk to be”: Ammons, AR. (1967). “A Poem is a Walk”, in Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews and Dialogues, edited by Zofia Burr. 1996, University of Michigan Press, pp. 15-17.

“Coleridge’s manner is more full”: Hazlitt, William. (1823). “My First Acquaintance With Poets”. Originally published in The Liberal, No. 3.

“at present he is walking”: The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), pp. 392-393.

“was, on the whole”: De Quincey, Thomas. (1862). Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets. Edinburgh: Charles Black, p. 139.

“the Opium Eater made the classic pronouncement”: Morley, “The Art of Walking”.

“Here is his library”: Thoreau, Henry David. (1862). “Walking”, Atlantic Monthly.

“attracted ardent, youthful, admirers”: Holmes, Richard. (1989). Coleridge: Early Visions. London: Hodder and Stoughton, p. 142.

“I rose one morning”: Hazlitt, “My First Acquaintance With Poets”.

“One of the pleasantest things in the world”: Hazlitt, William. (1822, January). “On Going a Journey”, in Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners, Vol. 2, No. 3.

“My soul has indeed remained”: Hazlitt, “My First Acquaintance With Poets”.

“Twice, I think”: Confessions Of An English Opium-eater, pp. 303-307.

“You know well how great”: Wordsworth, William. (1793).“Descriptive Sketches taken during a Pedestrian Tour among the Alps”, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, edited by Thomas Hutchinson. 1916, London: Millford, Oxford University Press.

“set out on a long summer walk”: Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, p. 148.

“You had a great loss”: The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), pp. 168-169.

“Miss Wordsworth is a most exquisite young woman”: Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1971). Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 1-2, edited by Earl Leslie Griggs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 327.

“was based on an attraction”: Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, p. 149-151.

“My Friend, and thou our Sister”: “The Nightingale”, Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1798, April). “The Nightingale”, in Poems of Coleridge. 19– , Edinburgh: Jack, p. 152.

“The winter comes”: Clare, John. (2003). “The Winter’s Spring”, in The Poems of John Clare, Vol. II, edited by J.W. Tibble. 1935, London: J.M. Dent, p. 517.

“I lovd this solitary disposition”: Clare, John. (1983). John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“swam into his ken”: Blunden, Edmund. (1920). “Biographical”, in John Clare Poems: Chiefly from Manuscript. London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, p. 24.

“I live here among the ignorant”: quoted in Martin, Frederick. (1865). The Life of John Clare. London: Macmillan.

“I had a romantic sort of notion”: Clare, John. (1983). John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 137.

“if you was to watch his face”: Ibid, p. 135.

“was at one word”: Ibid, pp. 130-131

“suddenly exposed to what London was”: Lang, Kirsty. (2005, September 29). Interview with Iain Sinclair, BBC: Radio 4 Front Row.

Sinclair, Iain. (1997). Lights Out for the Territory: 9 excursions in the secret history of London. London: Granta Books.

Sinclair, Iain. (2002). London Orbital: A walk around the M25. London: Granta Books.

Sinclair, Iain. (2005). Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s “Journey Out of Essex” . London: Hamish Hamilton.

“addicted to Poetical prosing”: quoted in Bate, Jonathan. (2003). John Clare: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 5.

“I lay down with my head”: John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings, p. 159.

“But on the last day”: Clare, John. (1841, August). “Letter to Dr. Matthew Allen”, in The Letters of John Clare. Tibble, JW & Anne (eds.). 1951, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 294-295.

“So the book starts”: Atherton, Mike. (2005, June 10). “The Iain Sinclair Interview”, Londonist.

“There once were lanes in natures freedom dropt”: Clare, John. (1821). “The Village Minstrel”, in The Early Poems of John Clare: 1804-1822, Vol. II, edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell. 1989, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 169.

“legal expropriation of the commons”: Miller, Eric. (2002, March 21). University of Victoria, British Columbia. “Clare, John”, in The Literary Encyclopedia.

“the anklets on the feet of an insect as it walks”: Bly, Robert. (trans/ed.) (2007). Kabir: Ecstatic Poems. Beacon Press, p. xvii.

“I really cannot”: The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), p. 115.

“writing in a front room”: Ibid, p. 196.

“I am going with my friend”: Ibid, pp. 333-334.

“in bad spirits”: Moorman, Mary. (1965). William Wordsworth: A Biography, Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, p. 591.

“himself a brooder”: Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 1010.

“happiest moments were passed”: Woolf, Virginia. (1957). “Dorothy Wordsworth”, in The Common Reader: Second Series. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 170-171.

“shivered at the thought”: Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography, p. 592.

“now tried to exorcise”: Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, p. 353.

“We had a most delightful tour”: The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), p. 369.

“About ten o’clock at night”: De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, p. 67.

“that a toothache”: Ibid, p. 67.

“paused upon her entrance”: Ibid, pp. 60-61.

“A young lady became”: Ibid, pp. 63-64.

“She is much”: The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (1787-1805), p. 273.

“Mrs. Coleridge is a most extraordinary character”: Ibid, p. 303.

“A heavy rain came on”: Ibid, p. 290.

“real language of men”: Wordsworth, William. (1802). Preface in “Authors’ Accompanying Statements”, Lyrical Ballads, edited by Michael Mason. 1992, London: Longman, p 57.

“Examination of the tenets”: Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1817). Biographia Literaria. 1956, London: J.M. Dent, p. 188.

“words in their best order”: Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1909). The Table Talk and Omniania of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: G Bell, p. 54.

“I measured it from side to side: Wordsworth, William. (1802). “The Thorn”, in Lyrical Ballads, edited by Michael Mason. 1992, London: Longman, p. 120.

“how anyone could laugh”: Hensher, Philip. (2000, October 29). “When he was good…”, Guardian.

“My early book”: Beam, Jonathan. (2003). “Tales of a Jargonaut: An interview with Jonathan Williams”, Rain Taxi, Spring.

“took me a pecka real ripe tomaters up”: Williams, Jonathan. (1969). “Custodian of a Field of Whisky Bushes By the Nolichucky River Speaks”, in An Ear in Bartram’s Tree: Selected Poems 1957-1967. 1972, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, (no page numbers).

“Walking along the highway”: Reznikoff, Charles. (1977). “Autobiography: New York”, in Poems, Vol. 2. Black Sparrow Press, p. 27.

“I came upon a child of God”: Mitchell, Joni. (1970a). “Woodstock”, in Paglia, Camile (2005). Break, Blow, Burn. Vintage Books p. 225.

“They paved paradise”: Mitchell, Joni. (1970b). “Big Yellow Taxi”, on Ladies of the Canyon. Warner Bros.

“he always walked around”: Beiles, Sinclair with Marta Proctor. (1982). “Spokes”, in Poems Under Suspicion/Poems on Bits of Paper, quoted in New Coin, June 1997.

“What good is the brain without traveling shoes?”: Dove, Rita. (2004). “Looking Up from the Page, I Am Reminded of This Mortal Coil”, in American Smooth. WW Norton & Co, p. 136.

“our separate careers as opium-eaters”: De Quincey, Confessions Of An English Opium-eater, pp. 6-7.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1797). “Christabel”, in Empson, William and Pirie, David (eds.), Coleridge’s Verse: A Selection. 1972, London: Faber & Faber, pp. 146-165.

“under the influence of a different drug”: Basualdo, Carlos. (1999, April). “Head to toes: Francis Alÿs’s paths of resistance”, ArtForum.

“If you were brought into a classroom”: Ammons, “A Poem is a Walk”, pp. 22-25.

“Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan”: Whitman, Walt. (1950). “Miracles”, in Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Library, pp. 306-307.

“I am used to physical suffering”: quoted in Benjamin, Walter. (1938). “Modernism”, in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, translated by Harry Zohn. 1983, London: Verso, p. 72.

“Hell is a city much like London”: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. (1819). “Peter Bell the Third, Part the Third – Hell”, in Shelley: Poetical Works. 1970, London: Oxford University Press, p. 346.

“owed his enjoyment”: Benjamin, Walter (1938) “The Flâneur”, in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, p. 59.

“pageantry of movement”: Baudelaire, Charles. (1869). “Any Where Out of The World”, in Paris Spleen, translated by Louis Varèse. 1970, New York: New Directions, p. 99.

“minor poets struggling”: Morley, “The Art of Walking”.

“Let’s take a walk, you”: O’Hara, Frank. (1974). “Let’s take a walk”, in The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen. New York: Knopf, p. 14.

“Walking was both”: Lopate, Phillip. (2004, March 24). “On the Aesthetics of Urban Walking and Writing”, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

“I like the sound of the street”: Reznikoff, “Autobiography: New York”, p. 27.

“liked to sit by the front window”: Silverblatt, Michael. (2005, June 16). Interview with JD McClatchy. KCRW: Bookworm.

“loves mixing with the crowds”: Baudelaire, Charles. (1863). “The Painter of Modern Life”, in Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated by P.E. Charvet. 1972, Viking.

“Sitting in a café”: Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”.

“perhaps it is one of the great mercies”: Poe, Edgar Allan. (1840). “The Man of the Crowd”, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination. 1971, London: Minerva Press, p. 110.

“walked out of my red apartment”: Ginsberg, Allen. (1978). “Mugging”, in Mind Breaths. San Francisco: City Lights, pp. 49-51.

“Interpersonal relationships”: Simmel, Georg. quoted in Benjamin, Walter. (1938). “Modernism”, in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, translated by Harry Zohn. 1983, London: Verso, p. 38.

“I did not walk today”: Hindus, Milton. (1984). Charles Reznikoff: Man and poet. University of Maine, p. 42.

“I was walking along Forty-Second Street as night was falling”: Reznikoff, “By the Well of Living and Seeing”, in Poems, Vol. 2, p. 131.

“I have met some”: Auster, Paul. (1996). “It reminds me of something that once happened to my mother”, in Why Write? Burning Deck Press, pp. 5-6.

“He walked, as much as anything”: Lopate, “On the Aesthetics of Urban Walking and Writing”.

“I am alone”: Reznikoff, “Autobiography: New York”, p. 26.

“What are the dangers”: Baudelaire, Charles. (1932). Oevres Vol. II, Le Dantec, edited by Yves-Gérard. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, p. 415.

“Graceful, noble, with a statue’s form”: Baudelaire, Charles. (1857). Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). 1989, New York: New Directions, p. 118.


This essay first appeared in New Contrast, No. 150.

Stepping into the Future

Gordon Bruce, father of activist David Bruce, passed away on Human Rights Day at the age of 89 in Yeoville. Though an unassuming man, he had an interesting and unusual contribution to make to the debates on race and citizenship. Following is the conversation I had with him on 29 November 2005, for my book Slow Motion, a collection of stories about walking:

Gordon Bruce was born in 1922 in Bath, in the west of England, about 12 miles from Bristol. In those days, as he puts it, ‘cars were never even thought of in my family’. His father was a schoolmaster, and he recalls the ‘picture in my mind of him walking home with the headmaster, walking side by side – I’ve never forgotten this, I don’t know why – and they were deep in serious conversation, and for the whole of their lives the idea of getting into a car, and doing this by car, would never have entered their minds.’

By the end of the Second World War, Gordon had joined an organisation called Federal Union ‘which was trying to create a world federal government, during and after the war. All this was very interesting, but suddenly I realised that world government wasn’t something you could just fish out of your hat, by working hard for it and all that sort of thing. There were certain obstacles in the way and one was of course racism, and one or two black people pointed out to me that I might see world government as a thing oriented on the Western, predominantly white, countries –  America and the European countries.’ And this is what brought him to South Africa.

‘I thought the best opportunity to study racism, and to become familiar with it in practical terms, was to come to South Africa. My original intention was only to stay here a few years, but when I returned from London in 1958 I met my wife and we married.’

His late wife, Ursula, and her family, were refugees from Nazi Germany. The Bruces settled in the Yeoville area, where 83-year-old Gordon still lives, at the Larmenier Village at Nazareth House. Though run by the Catholic Church, the residence is nondenominational. ‘I, for one, am, a rather inadequate term, but we’ll call it an agnostic,’ he explains. ‘My wife was Jewish, and many people here don’t have any religious observances, but they enjoy the benefits of the building and eat in the dining room and so on.’ Alongside the retirement village, Nazareth House runs a home for HIV-positive orphaned and abandoned babies, a hospice, and an outpatient antiretroviral clinic. Many of their patients are ‘non-citizens’, whom government hospitals and clinics turn away. So, while to many eyes Yeoville appears to have changed beyond recognition over the past decade, in one respect it hasn’t changed at all: it remains a haven for immigrants and refugees. Though now, for the most part, they are from the African continent.

Yeoville has always been an accessible area for him and his family to live, says Gordon. ‘I’ve always found it quite easy to get around on buses. My outdoor excursions normally take me particularly to Rosebank. I go to Hillbrow police station, and I get off the bus there, cross the road, and get on the other one. I have used minibus taxis. I find it very convenient to get a taxi to go into town, but coming back I find it much easier to get on a bus.’

And Yeoville has always been a pedestrian-friendly suburb. ‘I think that walking gives you a different experience of your environment,’ he reflects, ‘because if you’re car-borne the whole time you almost have a blind eye to certain social realities. If you walk you have decidedly closer contact with others, if only because you’re moving at a much slower rate than you would do in a car, and you absorb the atmosphere around you.’

His observation about having a blind eye is unexpected, since his wife Ursula, with whom he enjoyed many walks, was blind. ‘Going over rough ground was a problem, of course, so I tried to avoid that kind of walk with her. But she wasn’t a person who cowered within her living quarters.’ And he adds, almost in answer to my unspoken question: ‘You don’t have to be blind to do that, some people seem to do it psychologically.’

Strangely, though his son David is also a dedicated walker, they have not done much walking together. Gordon recalls one of his favourite walks, showing me on a map: ‘If you walk right up Webb Street’ – the street in which he lives – ‘to the end… at the very top, as far as you can go, there is a green place on the top of Bezuidenhout Ridge. You walk two to three kilometres and eventually you get back onto the main road, through Rockey Street and up to Observatory. David and I did it once about six months after he came out of jail.’ David, who had spent two years in jail for refusing to do military service during the worst days of apartheid, had commented at his trial on his decision to go to jail rather than leave the country. He said that he did not want to flee from racism in the way that his mother had been forced to.

I suggest to Gordon that some would argue that the streets of Yeoville are no longer safe, but he disagrees. ‘Yes, well you see this is a creation of people’s minds. Shall we say in 33 per cent. It’s how you view yourself and how you feel about things around you. My conviction of walking through Yeoville is that 99 per cent of the people walking past, apart from the colour of their skins, they’re just like me, just going about their daily business. And the odd number of people who are gangsters, or what I would like to call make-believe gangsters, don’t bother about an old man with a walking stick! I’m always a bit mystified by people who talk about “Ooh, Yeoville, it’s such a dangerous place.”’ He agrees, though, that it’s inadvisable to walk at night.

His only negative walking experience was not in Yeoville, but about twenty years ago in the upmarket shopping haven in Rosebank. And ‘this wasn’t a violent experience,’ he says. ‘Two or three men… I used a little narrow path with bushes on either side to get from the back end of the Mall down to a lower street, because I had to visit a doctor in the street below, after I’d done some shopping. As I went down, I was about halfway down, two men approached me from behind, and they were amazingly courteous about it. I didn’t have any violence in the strict sense at all. He just said: “I’ve got a knife here. Don’t do anything, and you’ll be all right. I want to go through your pockets.” Luckily I didn’t have much money on me. What I did lose was my watch, and that was all. There was nothing else they could take.’

For the most part, walking is what has kept him healthy. ‘I was a very sick person as a child,’ he says, ‘and consequently I virtually never played games, sports, or anything of that kind. But I was fit enough to join the Air Force at the age of 19, and that was in a way what made my life for me because I’d been living a very protected life until then. It was quite a shaking experience for the first few weeks, as you can imagine, but I managed it, and I went through all the normal drill that you have to do for the first four weeks in any armed force, and the physical exercise.

‘I survived all that and worked on a bomber station on the Eastern side of Lincolnshire. I joined up on the 31st of December 1941. I had volunteered for flying before, at least twice, but I was rejected. The first medical they said my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I wasn’t accepted for flying. I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today if I had been because they had a fantastic death rate, about 80 or 90 000 Air Force personnel who were involved in flying during the Second World War. But I did a lot of other work, checking on intelligence reports brought back by bomber pilots on their return from flying over Germany, collating this information. Then I was sent to Burma. We got to Rangoon about two or three weeks after the Japanese had walked out. They were evacuating Burma, and British Services came in behind them.’

There was a time when Gordon attempted to get a driver’s licence. ‘It’s a rather doleful topic, really,’ he says. ‘I took driving lessons here, and during the period that I went overseas I continued them in London, and finally returning here I carried on again. I’d taken the test many times, and I was with the test official. Finally he said, “You know, until we came to that last robot I was just about to give you your licence, but then unfortunately you made a mistake, so I can’t give it to you today, but I’m sure you’ll get it next time.” I became so disillusioned with this that I just gave up at that point. It was very stupid of me actually, I’m sure I would have got it the next time.’ It makes me wonder how his life, and his attitudes, would have been different if he’d become a driver.

‘It’s been quite exciting living through transformation in South Africa,’ he tells me.  ‘White people here had got into a way of thinking racism was a natural part of life, having a group of people who you more or less regarded as your inferiors, at least those who did all the work, and who occupied a place that was convenient for the working of the industrial nation.

‘It’s a triumph for all the people of South Africa. Perhaps not an unmitigated triumph, but it’s still a triumph all the same. There is an element of disillusionment in it. It seemed before that we only had to have a black government and we would be on top, as it were. People are beginning to realise now, painfully I think in some cases, that having a black government is not the only thing. You need education. You need training and industrial skills, and those things cannot be done in five or ten years, they take a much longer period, perhaps 20, 30, 40, even half a century. You quantify the growth of freedom with being able to be a skilled worker, for one thing, and not just doing all the unskilled jobs. Being able to share in the education that you’ve seen white children having in the past.’ Until his retirement, Gordon worked as a clerk for Afrox, African Oxygen Limited.

I wonder what he imagines for the future of South Africa. ‘I often give this some thought,’ he says. ‘One of the things that will happen is that there’ll be tremendous integration between the countries on the African continent; shall we say southern Africa, I think. And by integration I’m not thinking merely of black and white people living in the same suburb, but more in the sphere of what you do, in life, you know. I think these things will change dramatically.

‘I mean we already have a black president, but he isn’t really representative of what I’m thinking of. Because what has happened at the present moment is you have empowered a certain group of people, and they are predominantly middle-class black people. And those are the people who are really beginning to wield power here. But there’s still another group, the unskilled worker for example, the person who is virtually a slum-dweller, if you ask those people to express what they really feel they would probably tell you something along the lines that we haven’t really got what we were looking for. But that can only come with education. It’s not an easy thing to do.’

In June 2007 it was reported that 43 per cent of South Africans live on less than R250 a month; and 14 million South Africans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. As of 2007, South Africa is also ‘the planet’s fourth most efficient producer of dollar millionaires’.

When I ask Gordon what he thinks historians will make of the time we’re living through, he returns to his earlier thoughts. ‘It’s a period of adjustment to what is virtually a kind of world citizenship. It’s quite clear that not even the United States has the power to control the world, in totality, in the way that Hitler visualised controlling Europe. All that is passé as far as I’m concerned. We’re living in a period now where we’re all adjusting to being citizens of a single society really. It’ll take a long time, but there’s no going back.

‘It’s the end of the old system in Russia. We’ve come to the end of that historical period, and we’re now embarking on a period of integration, some form or another. Spiritual integration perhaps is almost a more realistic way of looking at it, because technology and the material unification can only be achieved over a long period. But I think we’re at the moment coming into an era of envisaging that in some way or other the world belongs to everybody, in a spiritual sense. We move all around all over the world. The only limit to moving around the world is your bank balance. It’s possible to move right around the world in a few days. A week, ten days perhaps. So all this is something which we’re beginning to come to terms with.’

And his personal future? ‘I’m reasonably fit, and I hope to be so for some years ahead because I hope to do some writing on the subject of people who emigrate to a satellite of another sun in our galaxy.

‘I started being interested in science fiction many years ago, and then of course I realised that we have already embarked on the early stages of something that seemed almost fictional 20, 30, 40 years ago. Now there’s no reason why we shouldn’t accomplish the rest. But it will be very hard, because the bulk of the colonists will never return home.’

I comment on the parallel with his own environment, in Yeoville, surrounded by exiles who for one reason and another might never be able to return home. ‘Yes, indeed,’ he says soberly, and recalls that he and his wife returned to Europe only three times throughout their lives. Though his younger son Eric now lives in Bristol.

Returning his attention to beyond the borders of our planet, he says: ‘You see all these institutions, and space ships, are primarily now in the hands of the United States, but that won’t last forever. So I rather think that before too much time has passed there will be a new kind of exploration. This would be with the purpose of finding suitable places for us to live in our galaxy.’ And the consequences of man’s desire to colonise other spaces is never far from his mind. ‘What happens if we meet intelligent beings? What is going to happen to them, to us? Are we going to be able to forge any kind of good relationship, or is it going to involve further war? If there are other beings, are they already watching us, wondering what we’re going to do with our newfound power, preparing to defend themselves, perhaps?’