By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I like long walks,’ Noel Coward is said to have once quipped, ‘especially when they’re taken by people I dislike.’ The Romans had a phrase: Solvitur ambulando, meaning ‘it is solved by walking’. The Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough used it as the epigraph for his long epistolary poem, Amours de Voyage. There is a long-standing and deep-rooted relationship between walking and poetry, as these classic poems demonstrate.
1. Thomas Traherne, ‘Walking’.
To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.
In terms of having the longest wait for a posthumous poetic reputation to begin, the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-74) may take first prize. Over a century before Romanticism, Traherne describes how walking amongst nature can provide us with an appreciation of the beauty all around us.
2. Charlotte Smith, ‘Sonnet on being Cautioned against Walking on a Headland’.
Is there a solitary wretch who hies
To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
Its distance from the waves that chide below …
This poem is that rarest of things: a Gothic sonnet. This needn’t surprise when we bear in mind that the sonnet’s author, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) was associated with English Romanticism and was also a key figure in the revival of the English sonnet.
3. William Wordsworth, ‘Sweet Was the Walk’.
Sweet was the walk along the narrow lane
At noon, the bank and hedge-rows all the way
Shagged with wild pale green tufts of fragrant hay,
Caught by the hawthorns from the loaded wain,
Which Age with many a slow stoop strove to gain …
According to Thomas de Quincey, Wordsworth clocked up an estimated 180,000 miles during his lifetime, walking around his beloved Lake District (to say nothing of the Quantocks, where he lived near Coleridge during the 1790s). In this sonnet, Wordsworth recalls a walk he took along a narrow lane at noon, and reflects on how the intervening years between childhood and adulthood have changed his view of the scene as he remembers it.
4. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Walk’.
You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind …
This is one of Hardy’s acclaimed ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written in the wake of the death of Hardy’s first wife, Emma. Hardy contrasts the days ‘of late’ with the ‘earlier days’ he spent with Emma: late in life, she was ‘weak and lame’ and so couldn’t accompany him on his walks, as she had when she was younger.
5. A. E. Housman, ‘White in the Moon the Long Road Lies’.
White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love …
Although this poem doesn’t explicitly mention walking, it does mention trudging, and let’s face it, sometimes walking isn’t the pleasurable experience Wordsworth painted it as. In this poem, the king of lugubrious English verse writes about leaving his beloved, with the road lying ahead of him that ‘leads me from my love’. And although he trusts that the same road will eventually lead him back to his love, first he must travel far, far away.
6. Robert Frost, ‘Acquainted with the Night’. This sonnet begins and ends with the same line, which also provides the poem with its title: ‘I have been one acquainted with the night’. This is another poem about walking and despairing: the poet wanders the city at night, and finds little to comfort him among the dark streets. A fine poem about urban isolation, and one of Frost’s best (and most accessible) poems.
7. Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘A Walk’.
‘So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp’, as the English translation of this wonderful short poem has it. Rilke, who also wrote one of the most wonderful experimental novels about walking around Paris, here salutes the value of walking as an act which transforms us in ways that are almost spiritual.
8. T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’.
Arguably the first modernist poem written in English, this short poem from 1908 begins with Hulme (pictured left) sketching out the poem’s autumn setting and telling us how he ‘walked abroad’ into the countryside, where he notices the moon and is inspired to make an unlikely comparison…
9. Dylan Thomas, ‘Poem in October’.
This poem was written in 1944 when Thomas turned 30. The poem celebrates his walks in Laugharne, a small Welsh town where Thomas and his wife settled following their marriage in 1937. Listen to a 1945 recording of Thomas reading ‘Poem in October’ here.
10. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Snowman on the Moor’.
A number of the poems of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) contain Gothic elements and tropes, and ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ makes our top ten pick of great Halloween poems because it’s got more than its fair share of them. It’s about a woman who walks out on her husband in order to wander the moors, only to be hunted down by him and brought back home.
The likening of the woman to a ghost, and the description of the ‘giant’ husband as ‘corpse-like’ – and the collection of women’s skulls he carries in his belt – make for a suitably Gothic poem.
Explore more classic poetry with these poems about the English landscape, these classic poems about the coast, and these poems about school. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
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Beautiful. Wordsworth’s poem is an old favourite, Hardy’s the most haunting. I read The Snowman on the Moor for the first time today. Thank you.