Peripatetic Scholarship, or, the Romance of Ideas

I’m reading from a used copy of Wordsworth’s Complete Poetical Works; there’s no date in the front matter other than a note giving the textual provenance as an earlier edition from 1857, but the pages are densely-columned and Biblically thin, and an inscription reads “To Rose with love. 1909.” The thing is hard to read and unwieldy, and I realize that I tend to forget that during the vast majority of Wordsworth’s reception history, readers didn’t pick up Broadview Press’s Lyrical Ballads, complete with both 1798 and 1800 editions, prefaces, notes, contemporary reviews, and scholarly appendices. Systematicity may seem like a professional mandate, but it’s also a luxury of modern scholarship.

Casually opening this particular chronological edition somewhere near the beginning, you might easily find yourself starting at “The White Doe of Rylstone” and continuing from there, accidentally overleaping the “great decade” altogether. I’m not a Wordsworth scholar, especially, but it is awing to encounter the sheer volume of the Wordsworthian output unabridged and unselected. Taking pains to sift through the fragile pages to the volume’s very beginning, you will find a few pages of “school exercises” before alighting on the more substantial couplets of “An Evening Walk; Addressed to a Young Lady.” This first mature poem (he was 17?) is accompanied by the following note from Wordsworth:

“The young Lady to whom this was addressed was my sister. . . There is not an image in it which I have not observed; and now, in my seventy-third year, I recollect the time and place where most of them were noticed. . . I will mention [one] image:

‘And, fronting the bright west, yon oak entwines
Its darkening boughs and leaves, in stronger lines.’

This is feebly and imperfectly expressed, but I recollect distinctly the very spot where this first struck me. It was in the way between Hawkshead and Ambleside, and gave me extreme pleasure. The moment was important in my poetical history; for I date from it my consciousness of the infinite variety of natural appearances which had been unnoticed by the poets of any age or country, so far as I was acquainted with them; and I made a resolution to supply, in some degree, the deficiency. I could not have been at that time above fourteen years of age.”

There is much to enjoy in this note, not the least of which is the quaint but indomitable self-mythologizing of Wordsworth even at seventy-three. I am struck, however, by the germinal poetics it encapsulates so briefly: there is observation, and pleasure, a sense of infinitude, resolution to action, modesty.

It seems perfectly fitting that such a vision of poetry should attach itself to the image of an evening walk, and indeed, as the volume proceeds through the “Descriptive Sketches Taken During a Pedestrian Tour Among the Alps” and the poems composed while “wandering on foot over Salisbury Plain,” the image of the poet as solitary walker comes so continuously and indelibly to the fore of readerly experience that is seems like really the only possible image one could have of the man. Imagining this edition falling into the hands of the student or casual reader of the last 150 years, I imagine generations of strolling Wordsworth-readers. Now this will seem obvious to many Wordsworth-lovers and certainly to older scholars of Romanticism, but the simple fact is that—for the graduate student of today—our Wordsworth has been so multiply deconstructed and reconstructed, historicized, and ideology-ized (not to mention Hartman-ized, Liu-ized, Siskin-ized, etc.) that it may be worth dwelling on this image of an earlier, more ambling time.

Anne D. Wallace has a wonderful book on “the origins and uses of Peripatetic in the nineteenth century” in which she tackles the confounding combination of (1) the ubiquity of walking in Romantic poetry, and (2) the fact that readers have tended to overlook walking as a specific physiological activity. Wallace’s nuanced account inveighs against the readerly tendency to either under-read the image of walking (not remarking it at all, or subsuming it in larger categories like travel or tourism) or to over-read it (modulating into a psychological or allegorical register of odyssey, life-journey, or pilgrimage, etc.). Walking-in-itself seems to be too ‘pedestrian’ of an activity to dwell upon. Certainly, the politics of enclosure, the aesthetics of the picturesque, and the internalization of the quest romance are worthy themes, and while much fascinating scholarship has resulted from such interpretations, it is useful to remember, too, the observation, pleasure, and modesty intimately linked to the process of walking itself. A specific emphasis on walking delineates a genre that Wallace (after Thelwall) calls the peripatetic, which “represents excursive walking as a cultivating labour capable of renovating both the individual and his society.” I like the book not only for the merit of its method and argument, but because of Wallace’s winning admission that her research started, at least in part, as a grad-student gambit to get funding for a hiking trip through the Lake District with her friends.


One of my favorite general studies of the Romantic era is Raymond Schwab’s The Oriental Renaissance. Schwab’s central claim holds that while the English Renaissance was kickstarted by the recovery of the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome, the period we call Romanticism was catalyzed by a similar recovery of Sanskrit texts at the end of the eighteenth century. More important to me than his claim, though, is his methodology: a thick-descriptive historical account of European Romanticism published in Paris in 1950 (eleven years before Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique), The Oriental Renaissance is an old-school sprawling ramble of a book. Beginning with a preface titled “The Reason for This Book” (ha!) and then a prologue of “Definitions,” the hefty work ambles at a variable pace through six large and heterogeneously organized “Parts” (including overlapping and intersecting “Parts” on archeological history, biographical case studies, interpretations of canonical texts, “Myriad Details,” and “Detours and Continuations”) before wrapping up with a three-part (no less) conclusion entitled “What Remains.”

Edward Said—who devoted a chapter to Schwab in The World, The Text, and The Critic—characterizes the vast “méandre” of Schwab’s work as an alternation between historiographical methods of “filiation” and “affiliation,” between a “linear, or genealogical, fidelity to his subject” and his “encompassing structural ambitions to show prefiguration, latency, refraction, and metalepsis despite linear history.” What emerges from this tension, according to Said, is “endless detail” and a “treasure of insight and information,” a “generous awareness“ and a “rare type of unhurried scholarship” that reveals “fascinating nooks, sheltered from the broad outline of his large theme, in which new, often intimate spaces appear.” It’s a great pleasure to read, if only to marvel at the detailed vignettes and provenances, the lush reanimations of old coteries and correspondences. It’s special appeal to me is in Schwab’s irrepressibly detailed, almost refractory—and yet somehow emphatically humane—mode of scholarship, which Said tries to capture thus:

“What his historical research discovers for him, and causes his readers actively to enjoy, is the real underpinning of cultural life, which is that culture is not mere collection, or incorporation, by triumphant egos here and there. . . He never assumes work to be the result of an individual’s linear appetite to remake the world as simply as one makes a bookshelf. Culture for Schwab is less a pantheon than a lyceum, and a bustling one at that.”

Moving us beyond the somewhat romantic idea of a scholarly méandre, the final metaphor of the lyceum recalls an even earlier episode in the history of the peripatetic. In Wanderlust, a collection of essays about the history of walking, Rebecca Solnit recounts the cultural infatuation of eighteenth-century England with the “spurious” history of the Peripatetic School of Athens. Originally named for the campus’s most distinctive architectural feature—the long colonnade, or peripatos, that connected the temple with the shrine of the Muses—Aristotle’s Peripatetic School irreversibly linked the ideas of wisdom and walking in the English mind: “In one respect, at least,” Thelwall wrote, “I may boast a resemblance to the simplicity of the ancient sages: I pursue my meditations on foot.” While this sounds like the boast of a Rousseauian solitary, we should remember that it was Thelwall’s long ramble to visit Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the “nest of democrats” in Alfoxden in the summer of 1797 that prompted the government dispatch of “Spy-Nosy”—an incident which reminds us all of the multiply-networked and deeply-embedded status of these so-called recluses. Said’s image of cultural history as a bustling lyceum therefore goes some way towards restoring the Romantic walker to a scene of community, to all of the friends, house-guests, acquaintances, antagonists, and fellow-travelers who inflected their perambulations.


Every few months or so the New York Times publishes a new study or article about the salutary effects of walking—cardiac health, memory, creativity, and so on. In Wanderlust, Solnit extolls at length the simple virtues of “the mind at three miles an hour.” Just this year, Verso published a book of bonafide walking philosophy by Frédéric Gros. And it is true to my own experience that a long walk taken while in the grips of a writing project has a way of allowing the mental sediment to fall out of solution, leaving a clearer distillation of what’s really necessary in a given line of inquiry. But at the risk of appending yet another tenor to the overladen walking metaphor, browsing through my used edition of Wordsworth reminds me that the experience of scholarship is naturally more of a méandre than the professional products of precisely interlocking interpretations and assiduously polished monographs might lead you to believe. There is observation, pleasure, a sense of infinitude, and then resolution, tempered by modesty. A scholarly peripatetic doesn’t confront a knot to be unraveled to a unitary origin but rather a textile interlace, a landscape of crossing paths traversed and negotiated and continuously re-evaluated in the tradition of the knights errant of old. This intellectual adventure is what Said calls the “romance of ideas,” and what I (following Wallace) would venture to describe as “a cultivating labor capable of renovating both individual and society.”

Coleridge’s notebooks for 1802 include a great passage in which Coleridge fantasizes about his ideal pair of hiking boots. “N.B. Have two Lasts made exactly the shape of my natural foot — the Boots to have a sole less on the hollow of the foot. . . should be stout Horse leather — if none to be had, Cow-leather/a piece of oil Silk 6 inches above the Heel, 2 inches wide with a back strap to the Boots.” Once he has them designed, he even provides for their maintenance: “Mutton suet 1. Hog’s Lard 2. Venice Turpentine 1/2 — all mixed & melted — always put on warm, Shoe or boot being held to the fire, while it is being rubbed in.” Like the Wordsworthian note at the beginning of this ramble, something about the sheer personality of the passage gives me pause—the pleasure, the care, the tactile quality of “all mixed & melted”—I don’t know why. I wonder about Venice Turpentine, about what fellow-traveler might have shared the recipe for this concoction with Coleridge on the steep ascent of Sca Fell. My mind wanders to the possible influence of Thelwall, to the maintenance of leather as a weird form of husbandry, to a literary economy in which a twenty-six-year-old Coleridge thought that composing “The Ancient Mariner” would net him five pounds to fund a hiking trip through western England with his friends. At some point I’ll need to sort it out.