Away with the stupid adage about a man being
as old as his arteries! He is as old as his
—Meditations of Andrew McGill.
“There was fine walking on the hills in the direction of the sea.”
This heart-stirring statement, which I find in an account of the life of William and Dorothy Wordsworth when they inhabited a quiet cottage near Crewkerne in Dorset, reminds me how often the word “walking” occurs in any description of Wordsworth’s existence. De Quincey assures us that the poet’s props were very ill shapen–“they were pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs”–but none the less he was princeps arte ambulandi. Even had he lived to-day, when all our roads are barbarized by exploding gasoline vapours, I do not think Wordsworth would have flivvered. Of him the Opium Eater made the classic pronouncement: “I calculate that with these identical legs W. must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles–a mode of exertion which, to him, stood in the stead of alcohol and all other stimulants whatsoever to the animal spirits; to which, indeed, he was indebted for a life of unclouded happiness, and we for much of what is most excellent in his writings.”
A book that says anything about walking has a ready passage to my inmost heart. The best books are always those that set down with “amorous precision” the satisfying details of human pilgrimage. How one sympathizes with poor Pepys in his outburst (April 30, 1663) about a gentleman who seems to have been “Always Taking the Joy Out of Life”:
Lord! what a stir Stankes makes, with his being crowded in the streets, and wearied in walking in London, and would not be wooed to go to a play, nor to Whitehall, or to see the lions, though he was carried in a coach. I never could have thought there had been upon earth a man so little curious in the world as he is.
Now your true walker is mightily “curious in the world,” and he goes upon his way zealous to sate himself with a thousand quaintnesses. When he writes a book he fills it full of food, drink, tobacco, the scent of sawmills on sunny afternoons, and arrivals at inns late at night. He writes what Mr. Mosher calls a book-a-bosom. Diaries and letters are often best of all because they abound in these matters. And because walking can never again be what it was–the motorcars will see to that–it is our duty to pay it greater reverence and honour.
Wordsworth and Coleridge come first to mind in any talk about walking. The first time they met was in 1797 when Coleridge tramped from Nether Stowey to Racedown (thirty miles in an air-line, and full forty by road) to make the acquaintance of William and Dorothy. That is practically from the Bristol Channel to the English ditto, a rousing stretch. It was Wordsworth’s pamphlet describing a walk across France to the Alps that spurred Coleridge on to this expedition. The trio became fast friends, and William and Dorothy moved to Alfoxden (near Nether Stowey) to enjoy the companionship. What one would give for some adequate account of their walks and talks together over the Quantocks. They planned a little walking trip into Devonshire that autumn (1797) and “The Ancient Mariner” was written in the hope of defraying the expenses of the adventure.
De Quincey himself, who tells us so much jovial gossip about Wordsworth and Coleridge, was no mean pedestrian. He describes a forty-mile all-night walk from Bridgewater to Bristol, on the evening after first meeting Coleridge. He could not sleep after the intellectual excitement of the day, and through a summer night “divinely calm” he busied himself with meditation on the sad spectacle he had witnessed: a great mind hastening to decay.