William Wordsworth Walking: Art, Work, Leisure, and a Curious Form of Consumption

William Wordsworth Walking: Art, Work, Leisure, and a Curious Form of Consumption

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William Wordsworth Walking: Art, Work, Leisure, and a Curious Form of Consumption


William Wordsworth spent a good portion of his life on foot, walking. Consider a sequence of Dorothy's journal entries: Monday the 14th, "Wm & Mary walked to Ambleside in the morning to buy mousetraps" (about 5 miles round trip); Tuesday the 15th, "Wm & I walked to Rydale for letters" (about 3 miles round trip); Wednesday the 16th, "After dinner Wm & I walked twice up to the Swan & back again" (3 miles), met Miss Simpson and walked with her to the Oliffs and then back to her house (another 3 miles); Thursday the 17th, "we had a delightful walk" (a couple of miles); Friday the 18th, "Mary & Wm walked round the two lakes" (about 6 miles); Saturday the 19th, "We walked by Brathay to Ambleside" (6 miles). Now such distances are not remarkable in fine weather, but these were walks from the 14th to the 19th of December 1801, and Dorothy's notes include "A very keen frost, extremely slippery," and "Snow in the night & still snowing," and "the evening cloudy and promising snow" (GJ 48-49). Undeterred by bad weather, Wordsworth (and Dorothy) gave walking a central position in their daily lives, even to the extent that not walking becomes a remarkable event. Dorothy records that on September 13, 1800, "William writing his preface did not walk" (GJ 22). And of course in better weather there were shorter and longer walking tours such as Dorothy's record of September 3, 1800, in which Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Jonathan Wordsworth left "after breakfast" to walk "upon Helvellyn" and returned home at 10 at night, having covered probably 15 to 20 miles (GJ 20-21)--a long, but not unusually long for them, walk. In short, Wordsworth habitually spent at least several hours a day walking, and it was not at all uncommon for him to spend entire days on foot.

The central role of walking in Wordsworth's life suggests a number of interesting questions, but I will focus here only on those related to the theme of this conference, work and leisure. Obviously, much of Wordsworth's walking could be classed as leisure-time activity. There was probably no compelling reason for Wordsworth and Dorothy to walk twice to the Black Swan or for Wordsworth and Mary to circumambulate the lakes.

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Indeed, the reasons given for some of the walks--mousetrap buying and letter fetching--seem a bit contrived, as if almost any excuse would do for the sake of a good walk. Yet at the same time, Wordsworth was a poet adept at picking up poetic materials from those walks--a beggar, a leech gatherer, a field of flowers. Moreover, Wordsworth used walking as a compositional device, as he composed and revised his verses. In other words, for Wordsworth, walking was also a form of work, both a process for extracting raw materials from the world and a manufacturing method for shaping or refining those materials.

Let's consider those two ways in which walking was work for Wordsworth. Some of this ground has been tread on before. Anne Wallace has performed excellent studies of Wordsworth and walking--arguing forcefully that Wordsworth actively redefined leisure walking as labor, in part to link his poetry with rural work as a move to invoke past systems of value, including the value of common land, in response to the enclosure movement. For manufacturing poetry, Wordsworth, and those around him, recognized that walking to compose and refine verses was his work. For example, Dorothy records that on July 12, 1800, they "walked along the Cockermouth road--he was altering his poems" (GJ 17), or that returning from Rydale on December 22, 1801, "We walked home almost without speaking--Wm composed a few lines of the Pedlar" (GJ 50). More commonly the walking was, as Dorothy terms it, "'backwards and forwards'" on a path, on the orchard platform, in the woods, and so on (GJ 219 n.). (I'd mention at this junction the interesting study by Andrew Bennett that argues such ungainly walking movements are replayed as scandals within Wordsworth's narrative form.)

But for Wordsworth's poetic project, to admit up front that walking is a form of directed activity to mine poetic materials is a bit of a problem. Anne Wallace argues well that Wordsworth's project included redefining walking as "an instrument of perception" (527) and both walking and wandering as "purposeful agents of home-building" (531). To put the problem in simple terms, in the poems, the experiences that happen to the walker, have to happen in the context of non-directed, non-purposeful walking, in contra-distinction to, for example, what Dorothy termed "walking industriously" in the streets of Edinburgh on their tour. For the idea of the poetry to work, in his walking, the poet has to work at not working. Consider for example, some of the terms used for walking in "An Evening Walk." I will use the 1793 edition: "rove" (1), "coursed the plain"--as a young boy (31), "wander" (43), "Quiet led me up" (71), "to stray" (195), and "my homeward way," (434), about the only purposeful walking noted, outside of following Quiet. The series of scenes and events recorded in the poem give the effect of random stuff the poet notices--ducks, rural workers, a rooster, a river, the sky, and the "strange apparition" of one "desperate form" spurring his steed (179) on some seemingly purposeful but unknown journey.

I don't think it's merely a matter of pretending to be wandering while really hiding a purposeful labor. A couple of years earlier, in 1790, Kant had explored the conundrum of "purposiveness without purpose" (382), which is what this labor of leisure has to be. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant notes that it is "the mere form of purposiveness in the representation by which an object is given to us, so far as we are conscious of it, which constitutes the satisfaction that we without a concept judge to be universally communicable" (380; Kant's emphasis). Certainly Wordsworth was seeking the universally communicable in his poetry, rendering those objects that are "given" to him. In walking as work Wordsworth must retain the "form of purposiveness" without falling into the abyss of actual purposefulness.

But how can there be purpose with no purpose, work with no work? I won't try to resolve this paradox directly; it seems on logical bases better suited to Xeno. But I will have a go at it in terms of Georges Bataille's concept of expenditure. For Bataille, the basic human drive is towards loss--expenditure--a process that is thwarted when political forces maintain power by institutionalizing expenditure in utilitarian forms, robbing it of its liberatory potential. For true unproductive expenditure (or what Kant might term purposiveless expenditure), "the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning" (858). Poetry, according to Bataille, is one such genial form of expenditure in which the poet is condemned "to the most disappointing forms of activity, to misery, to despair, to the pursuit of inconsistent shadows that provide nothing but vertigo or rage. The poet frequently can use words only for his own loss . . ." (859).

But this over-expenditure is also the sense that I at least derive from reading of Wordsworth and his walking. It is too much. It is excess. For sure there were not too many alternatives to walking. As Anne Wallace points out, horses were expensive and private or public carriages neither comfortable nor quick. But still the amount Wordsworth walked far exceeded the amount needed in the normal course of events. How are we to read this excess? And how do we react to the claim that such excess is labor in order to produce poetry?

I'd like to bring in here--and close with--reference to Thorstein Veblen. In Chapter 3 of Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen discusses the characteristics of "Conspicuous Leisure":

The term "leisure" . . . does not connote indolence or quiescence. What it connotes is non-productive consumption of time. Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness. But the whole of the life of the gentleman of leisure is not spent before the eyes of the spectators who are to be impressed with that spectacle of honorific leisure which in the ideal scheme makes up his life. For some part of the time his life is perforce withdrawn from the public eye, and of this portion which is spent in private the gentleman of leisure should, for the sake of his good name, be able to give a convincing account. He should find some means of putting in evidence the leisure that is not spent in the sight of the spectators. This can be done only indirectly, through the exhibition of some tangible, lasting results of the leisure so spent -- in a manner analogous to the familiar exhibition of tangible, lasting products of the labour performed for the gentleman of leisure by handicraftsmen and servants in his employ.

Reading Wordsworth in such a context puts quite a different spin on the "walk to work" connection that Wallace makes. In Veblen's terms, Wordsworth's association of walking and rural labor must be seen less as a positive commitment to the real labor of real men present and past and more as that kind of appropriation of proletarian cultural forms by the leisure class that we see today in $200 T-shirts and $3,800 torn jeans--an aspect of what John Seabrook recently termed "nobrow culture." Additionally, in Veblen we find the same double-edged sword of leisure and productivity. Consumption of time--for Wordsworth, the excess of walking--must be both public and private. The poet/wanderer must be seen and acknowledged, as in the poems in which others are met, and unseen--a private, observing eye as in "An Evening Walk." In these cases, the poems themselves become the "tangible, lasting results of the leisure so spent," exhibited within the circle of readers apt to discriminate the excellent results of this laborious leisure.

Finally, Veblen gives us a leg up, perhaps, on Kant's "purposiveness without purpose" in the poet's walking. In his fourth chapter, Veblen writes that ". . . along with the make-believe of purposeful employment, and woven inextricably into its texture, there is commonly, if not invariably, a more or less appreciable element of purposeful effort directed to some serious end," the serious end being, in Wordsworth's case, his poetry. Wordsworth walked a lot. He pretended that walking was work, just like that of real men. It was really a form of conspicuous consumption in its excess. He had to revel in that excess and produce something others in his leisure class could appreciate. That was his poetry.

Works Cited

Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato. Fort Worth: HBJ, 1992.

Bataille, Georges. "The Notion of Expenditure." Trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovett and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Adams 857-864.

Bennett, Andrew J. "'Devious Feet': Wordsworth and the Scandal of Narrative Form." ELH 59.1 (1992): 145-73.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. J. H. Bernard. Adams 376-393.

Seabrook, John. "Nobrow Culture." The New Yorker, 20 Sept. 1999, 104-111.

Veblen, Thorstein. Theory of the Leisure Class.

Wallace, Anne D. "Farming on Foot: Tracking Georgic in Clare and Worsworth." TSLL 34.4 (1992): 509-40.

Walking, Literature, and English Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere Journals. Ed. Pamela Woof. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Wordsworth, William. An Evening Walk. Ed. James Averill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.
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