Until the mid-eighteenth century, Britain’s barren mountains were regarded with fear by all thoughtful people. The romantic movement, with its cult of the ‘sublime’ and of the ‘picturesque’, modified this perception, and the mountainous regions of Wales, the Lake District, and even Scotland, became fashionable to visit and to admire for their ‘beauty, horror and immensity’.
But these tourists never left the well-beaten and recommended path. They did not venture into the hills themselves. Only miners and quarrymen, or shepherds with sheep to find, or pack-horse drivers did that. And when the first eccentric visitors asked to be guided to the summits the locals were amazed and bemused.
When Coleridge, wild, unconventional and physically fearless, arrived to join the Wordsworths in the Lakes in 1799, he immediately set out onto the high fells on his own. His records of these explorations, in his notes and in letters, particularly to his beloved but unattainable Sara Hutchinson, provide a totally new and modern appreciation and understanding of the mountain landscape.
Helvellyn, Skiddaw and most of the now popular summits were visited by him alone, without maps or any equipment beyond his notebook in which he scribbled his impressions and his reactions—‘O joy for me’ he jotted on first seeing Ullswater from the top of Great Dodd. It was not till the very end of the nineteenth century that solitary walking on the fells became acceptable, and then, almost overnight, universally popular and fashionable.
This book explores and explains the experiences of a true pioneer and one of Britain’s greatest and most remarkable creative spirits.
Wall Street Journal:
Books for Walking 2019: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s walks changed our view of landscape and his view of human company. Keir Davidson, the author of “O Joy for me!” (Wilmington Square/Bitter Lemon, 194 pages, $30), hides behind a light scholarly robe and lets Coleridge’s walks take the stage. It is an original and rewarding approach, far from dry.
Early chapters remind us that Coleridge’s walking career began at a time when the “picturesque” was in vogue, thanks to writers like William Gilpin. Landscapes had become framed in the traveler’s eye, static and distant. Coleridge lamented “ladies reading Gilpin passing by the places instead of looking at the places.”
Far from being just a “poor, mad poet,” Coleridge was a pioneer who shifted our view of nature from a lens that can be used to reflect on art and culture, to something worth our attention in its own right. Walking for walking’s sake, with a love of nature in all its sublime and subtler guises, was born.
Sadly for Coleridge, he abandoned many fascinating walking companions on the way to these insights, including William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Solitude didn’t help his poetry, but in prose scraps and scribbled maps we are lucky to witness up close how this new view of landscapes emerged.