Kings of the road

26 Jul|Pamela Clemit

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

The romantics and revolutionaries of the late 18th century loved to ramble, says Pamela Clemit

TRAVELLING ON FOOT had a subversive edge in the age of the French Revolution. The educated classes aspired to the slow life and took to the road. They wanted to step off the social ladder, to feel themselves on a level with labourers who were too poor to travel in any other way. Meditative walking fed the needs that bodily effort out of doors can satisfy in those not compelled to do it for a living.

Walking is a gesture of freedom, both physical and intellectual. The sixteen-year-old Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to go for walks in the country outside Geneva. One evening he found the gates of the city locked so he could not return. Locked out, he decided to stay out. He abandoned the bondage of apprenticeship and set out on a lifetime of wandering and reflection. He spent much of his youth rambling in France and Italy. He later wrote: ‘When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to get my mind going.’ His last great work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), evokes ten random walks which inspired ‘flights of thought’ on life, nature, and the hypocrisy of society.


Many of the English Romantic poets were also great walkers, either from choice or necessity. William Wordsworth walked everywhere, and so did his sister Dorothy, because they had no money. They also walked for pleasure. Wordsworth rambled hundreds of miles in England and Wales, across the Channel, and all the way to Italy. He liked to compose his poetry out of doors, walking up and down on the same spot. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his closest friend, was a fellow wanderer. Wordsworth later remembered Coleridge’s arrival in his life at Racedown Lodge, Dorset, in 1797. He ‘did not keep to the high road, but leapt over a gate and bounded down the pathless field, by which he cut off an angle’. Coleridge had already walked some twenty miles that day.

William Godwin was another philosophical rambler. He remembered childhood excursions, in which he ‘made whole books’ as he walked, ‘books of imaginary institutions in education, and government, where all was to be faultless.’ When he moved to London to become a writer, he took daily walks from his lodgings in Chalton Street, Somers Town (between St Pancras and the Euston Road), to visit friends who lived in villages outside the city: Wimbledon, Clapham, Southwark. But he sat still long enough to write his masterpiece, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793).

When he met Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived just round the corner, they walked out together. She looked forward to days when ‘we might vagabondize … in the country’. They married after she became pregnant, and he grew protective: ‘I think it not right, mama, that you should walk alone in the middle of the day. Will you indulge me in the pleasure of walking with you?’ Three months later she was dead, ten days after giving birth to their daughter, Mary. Godwin again became a solitary walker.

It is easy to imbue walking with a higher purpose. In The Enquirer (1797), a collection of essays, Godwin describes a walk from Temple Bar to Hyde Park Corner:

The dull man goes straight forward; he has so many furlongs to traverse. He observes if he meets any of his acquaintance; he enquires respecting their health and their family. He glances perhaps the shops as he passes; he admires the fashion of a buckle, and the metal of a tea-urn. If he experience any flights of fancy, they are of a short extent…. On the other hand the man of talent gives full scope to his imagination…. His whole soul is employed. He enters into nice calculations; he digests sagacious reasonings. In imagination he declaims or describes, impressed with the deepest sympathy, or elevated to the loftiest rapture…. He passes through a thousand imaginary scenes, tries his courage, tasks his ingenuity, and thus becomes gradually prepared to meet almost any of the many-coloured events of human life. He consults by the aid of memory the books he has read, and projects others for the future instruction and delight of mankind. If he observe the passengers, he reads their countenances, conjectures their past history, and forms a superficial notion of their wisdom or folly, their virtue or vice, their satisfaction or misery. If he observe the scenes that occur, it is with the eye of a connoisseur or an artist. Every object is capable of suggesting to him a volume of reflections. The time of these two persons in one respect resembles; it has brought them both to Hyde-Park-Corner. In almost every other respect it is dissimilar.

Godwin, who had earlier been a nonconformist minister, is preaching an eighteenth-century version of ‘mindfulness’. He saw opportunities for self-improvement in every aspect of daily life. An amble through the streets of London is a chance to enlarge the mind, to exercise the imagination, to resist torpor, to see, to feel, to hear. For the ‘man of talent’, even a walkabout cannot be wasted. He reads London street culture as if it were a book, giving rise to a volume of reflections.

Walking is a metaphor for living. Godwin is less interested in destinations than in what happens on the way. He puts us in a mind to put on our walking shoes, to wander the same streets, to discover the freedom of the road.


Professor Pamela Clemit is the editor of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. (OUP, 2011-), among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Godwin_lives.