The literature of walking is large. It’s grown quickly in recent years, in part as an offshoot of the ‘new nature writing’. Most of it, though, is concerned with walking in the light of day. Nightwalking has received much less treatment.
Frédéric Gros, in his recent A philosophy of walking (2014) fails to mention it. Rebecca Solnit in her almost comprehensive work Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001) has a chapter on nocturnal walking, but it’s concerned exclusively with urban prostitution. Nightwalking, though, is about more than fallen women.
To start with, there are two varieties. The more common, since the nineteenth century at least, is wandering the streets of towns and cities during the hours of darkness. Nowadays this barely counts as nightwalking because of the high luminescence that immerses the walker. Pervasive street lighting renders cities as plain at night as during the day. Though of course there will always be ill-lit lanes, alleys and ginnels where darker things lurk and darker deeds are done. This is the land of the urban gothic, of film noir, of nighthawks and midnight ramblers, vampires, and, yes, harlots.
Part of the Enlightenment project was precisely to rid the world, or at least that part of it that was socially civilised, of the curse of darkness. Now we take it for granted that the dark can be defeated in most urban areas.
In pre-industrial times the dark could be banished only with the aid of full, or fullish, moon. In the eighteenth century the members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham would hold their meetings to coincide with the full moon so that they could find their individual ways safely through the streets of the city to and from their rendezvous. This kind of walking, though, was strictly utilitarian. A few years after Joseph Priestly, Erasmus Darwin and James Watt were stalking the streets of Birmingham a completely different sort of nightwalking emerged, or more accurately was invented, by men and women with a radically different sensibility. For them walking was ‘a mode not of travelling, but of being’ (Solnit).
I only recently came to know about what we must surely call ‘Romantic nightwalking’ through reading about the youthful Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Richard Holmes’s book Coleridge: early visions (1989). In summer 1797 Coleridge was living with his wife Sara and their baby son Hartley in the village of Nether Stowey, below the Quantock Hills in Somerset. William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were staying six miles away at Alfoxden, near Holford. (They were all, incidentally, under constant surveillance by Government spies anxious about their radical pro-Revolution records.) The Quantocks proved irresistible to the hard-walking poets, who would think nothing of covering sixty or seventy miles a day on foot (De Quincy calculated in 1839 that Wordsworth had walked between 175,000 and 180,000 miles in his life so far). They used the hills and streams as a tinderbox to spark their poems – this was the gestation period for the poems that would fill the revolutionary joint volume Lyrical ballads in 1798. But Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dorothy didn’t restrict their roaming to daytime. They would hike over the hills for hours after dark by the light of the moon.
Whether they took lanterns is uncertain. I rather doubt it, for two reasons. Once the eyes have grown used to limited light it becomes easier to make out features in the landscape. And for all three writers the point of walking by night was to leave the artificial behind them in order to feel closer to the natural.
According to Dorothy these night walks continued into the winter of 1797 and spring of 1798. The commonest activity she records in her short ‘Alfoxden diary’ is walking, and walks at and after dusk form about a fifth of the hundred or so entries between 20 January and 22 May 1788.
The Government spy observed the Quantock rambles carefully, and reported on them to his masters – comically misinterpreting the romantic motivation of the verse-crazed walkers:
The man [Coleridge] has Camp Stools, which he and his visitors take with them when they go about the country upon their nocturnal or diurnal excursions, and have also a Portfolio in which they enter their observations, which they have been heard to say were almost finished. They have been heard to say that they should be rewarded for them, and were very attentive to the River near them – probably the River coming within a mile or two of Alfoxton from Bridgewater. These people may possibly be under Agents to some principal at Bristol.
Coleridge, Wordsworth and Dorothy were indeed spies, but their masters were the muses rather than imaginary ‘controllers’ in faraway France. They constantly made detailed written observations of plants, water, clouds and, at night, stars. The whole landscape was grist to their poetic imaginations. Coleridge wrote that he was ‘making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding my thoughts into verse, with the objects and imagery immediately before my senses’ – a sort of impressionist, plein-air approach to creative writing.
Each of the three writers fed off the poetic imaginations of the others. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge seem to have read Dorothy’s journal, and lifted ideas and language from it. Coleridge owed several of the images in his poem ‘Cristabel’ to entries in her diary. He soon developed an acute affinity with her. He wrote of her in a letter:
She is a woman indeed! – in mind, I mean, & heart … Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive […] her information various – her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature and her taste a perfect electrometer – it bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties & most recondite faults.
William was just as attentive to her words. On 25 January Dorothy noted:
Went to [Tom] Poole’s after tea. The sky spread over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth with shadows. At once the clouds seemed to cleave asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault. She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small, and bright, and sharp. Their brightness seemed concentrated, (half-moon).
Wordsworth’s poem ‘A night-piece’ takes its lead directly from Dorothy’s short paragraph:
… The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground …
…he looks up – the clouds are split
Asunder, – and above his head he sees
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens.
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along,
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss
Drive as she drives …
Wordsworth lights on Dorothy’s distinction between the dullness of the clouded moon (and earth) and the bright grandeur of the moon unclothed. He extends this natural contrast by connecting it to the changing mood of an explicit human observer (from earthly unconcern to heavenly awareness), and adds a third, final mood, quiet contemplation of the immensity of the universe.
It was on one of the nightwalks, according to a letter by Dorothy, that Coleridge first conceived the Rime of the ancient mariner. This was part of a long expedition over several days by Coleridge and William and Dorothy Wordsworths, from Nether Stowey through Quantoxhead to Dulverton. The first walk, of over ten miles, began at dusk on 13 November 1797 and ended at the Bell Inn in Watchet. During the trip the poem seems to have taken shape through the conversations between Coleridge and Wordsworth, though many of the seeds had been germinating in Coleridge’s mind much earlier, and much work was needed before it was completed, in March 1798 (in the same month the two poets began planning for Lyrical ballads).
However, the poem that best reflects the night walks is not the ‘Ancient mariner’ or another famous poem, ‘Frost at midnight’, but Coleridge’s ‘conversation poem’ The nightingale, addressed to William and Dorothy, which was written towards the end of April 1798. It’s the product of a walk to listen to nightingales in a wood near Dodington Hall, north of the Holford to Stowey road.
The poem satirises literary types who characterise the nightingale’s song as ‘melancholy’, projecting into the bird their own human moods:
But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain.
This is also a fallacy of the traditional poet. Coleridge contrasts it with the response of the new Romantic poet, surrendering himself, without conceptual interpretation or the projection of subjective emotional states, to the naturalness of nature:
And many a poet echoes the conceit;
Poet who hath been building up the rhyme
When he had better far have stretched his limbs
Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell,
By sun or moon-light, to the influxes
Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements
Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song
And of his fame forgetful!
To seal his argument Coleridge introduces, at the end of the poem, his baby son, a creature too young to use cognition to complicate a natural response with conceit and projection, but one who can teach his elders how best to receive unmixed joy:
… My dear babe,
Who, capable of no articulate sound,
Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
How he would place his hand beside his ear,
His little hand, the small forefinger up,
And bid us listen!
‘The nightingale’ describes more clearly than most poems in Lyrical ballads the chasm that separates the pre-Romantic from the Romantic poetic sensibility, at least in the eyes for the two authors. It also helps us to understand what it was that was important to them about walking the countryside at night. Night helped the poet ‘surrender’ himself directly to the sounds and indistinct sights of the hills, streams, sea and skies. Walking with close friends helped to share his perceptions, and discuss them.
Nightwalking did not end for Coleridge when he left Somerset. In 1800 he moved to the Lake District, again with the Wordsworths, where he resumed long walks, some in the hours of darkness. That summer he made a traverse of all the Eastern Fells, descending in the dark, and recorded the physical experience in his notebook:
The Moon is above Fairfield almost at the full! – now descended over a perilous peat-moss then down a Hill of stones all dark, and darkling, I climbed stone after stone a half dry Torrent and came out at the Raise Gap.
When he arrived at Dove Cottage William had already gone to bed, but Dorothy reports in her Grasmere Journal:
At 11 o’clock Coleridge came when I was walking in the clear moonshine. He came over Helvellyn. Wm was gone to bed and John also, worn out with his ride round Coniston. We sate and chatted till ½-past three, W. In his dressing gown. Coleridge read us part of Christabel. Talked much about the mountains etc etc.
Again, the link between night, walking and writing poetry is clear: the first part of the Christabel is saturated with moonlight (though its supernatural themes and dreamy mood lie very far from the immediacy and vividness of Coleridge’s nature observations in his notebooks).
In 1802, armed with a rucksack, he went on a nine-day solo walking and climbing exploration of the Lake District, described by Richard Holmes as ‘the first literary description of the peculiarly English sport of fell-walking’. Coleridge was in effect inventing a new kind of Romantic tourism, abandoning the coach and the high-road for the hill, the flask and the knapsack’. Descending Scafell he got into difficulties on steep rock, and was lucky to escape without injury: Robert Macfarlane reckons that his was the first true rock climb in British history.
Nightwalking is still practiced by writers, and Macfarlane is probably its pre-eminent practitioner. His account of a sleepless winter night spent on the summit of Ben Hope in Sutherland (3,041 feet), included in The wild places (2007), is written in direct line to the notebooks of Coleridge, though it’s unlikely that the latter would have exposed himself to so extreme an experience:
If I could have safely descended from the summit of Hope in the darkness, I would have done so. The comfortless snow-shires, the frozen rocks: this place was not hostile to my presence, far from it. Just entirely, gradelessly indifferent. Up here, I felt no companionship with the land, no epiphany of relation … This place refused any imputation of meaning’.