Our second CRECS event of the year was ‘Romantic Landscapes: Geography and Travel’, where we gathered to discuss the centrality of travel, topography and landscape in the Romantic period.
Jamie Castell, of Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy, began by announcing that his intention, and hope, for the evening’s discussion was that it would persuade us all to do some of our own Romantic wandering.
To illustrate the concept of the Romantic wanderer, Jamie turned to Caspar David Fredrick’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818). It portrays a classic Romantic scene of a lone male, facing outward into a swirling cloud of mist that partly obscures the mountain range. Jamie suggested that there are several important considerations we might bring to an image such as this. Firstly, that it might serve as an archetype for a certain type of liberty: the freedom of walking in the mountains juxtaposed with the state of surveillance that the aftermath of the French Revolution brought to Britain. Secondly, that the mind is just as important an aspect as the physicality of the landscape: classic Romantic outward looking leads to inward revelation. It was at this point that Jamie indulged us all with a delightful pun—all Romantic wandering is also a’wondering. A humorous addition it may have been, but nevertheless an important contemplation when considering Romantic poetry.
Jamie then brought our attention to the physical nature of wandering and that the movement to cities in the shifting demographic of the Romantic period meant that walking, mountaineering and outdoor sports became popular leisure pastimes. It was here that Jamie put forward his theory that Coleridge and Wordsworth were the inventors of the hiking boot: they were constantly writing back to London to request the addition of nails and tougher soles in order to create a boot designed specifically for mountaineering. Finally, Jamie drew his talk to a conclusion with a compelling argument for dispelling the notion of the solitary Romantic walker. His argument being that solitary walking is a paradox: when one is walking the beaten path one is in constant conversation with those who have walked there before, or written about the route, and even with those walkers one meets along the way. Jamie touched upon Book XII of Wordworth’s ‘Prelude’ to say that walking is not always just about space stretching into infinity, it can simply be about walking a public road through which one is exposed to the widest set of people possible. To bring his discussion to a close, Jamie recommended the Wordsworth Summer Conference as a place where we could all have our own Romantic experience of the Lake District.
Our second speaker of the evening was Mary-Ann Constantine, based in the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales. Her talk drew upon material from her work on the Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour 1760–1820 project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Mary-Ann began her talk by posing a question: what can travel writing do for us? She suggested that reading reports on the walks leads us to locate and ground the Romantic wandering, allowing us to transcend the image of the solitary walker by fitting them into the busier landscape. Such an approach allows us to qualify what makes Wordsworth and Coleridge special as writers: it puts them back into the writing of the age and by tracking the use of words or phrases in travel writing, it helps us to see in a better light what a poem might be doing. Secondly, the perusal of such writing causes us to interrogate how we subconsciously view words such as ‘travel’, ‘visit’ and ‘tourist’ and how our own readings of the period are inflected. In discussing these ideas, Mary-Ann focused our attention on ideas of nationality in travel writing, particularly on the fact that since the narrators of the Welsh tours are English voices, the perspective is of the outside looking in. She expounded the importance of understanding the British Isles as a composite of languages and voices. Moving the discussion onto notions of class in travel writing, Mary-Ann suggested that we must always ask questions of the realities of the land: what do pictures not tell us? Who works this landscape? To what extent are tourists aware of the economies of the land? To focus this, Mary-Ann stated that Thomas Pennant starts his travels interested in landscape and geological materials, but he is quickly drawn to the human stories within them. Building upon this point, she suggested that travel writing was fundamentally linked to the enlightenment project: as you travel you add to your knowledge base.
Mary-Ann then brought us back to the twenty-first century by comparing eighteenth-century travel writing to the modern day TripAdvisor. She argued that both were of a heavily mediated nature, and deeply plagiaristic as echoes of previous work on the same landscape are always present – which complicates matters from an authorial point of view. Finally, Mary-Ann brought the discussion to a close by proposing that engagement with material of the past makes us critically question the heritage industry of today.
After so much encouragement it would have been churlish not to indulge in some travel of our own to partake in a wine and nibbles reception to continue to discuss the points raised by both speakers and plan trips to the Lake District.