William Hazlitt On Going A Journey Essay

It is my habit, whenever journeying anywhere, to take a book with me. No matter what the journey, whether it be short or long, on foot or by transport, there must always be something to hand that I can read. At some point I will sit down, and though a certain amount of staring out into vacancy is unavoidable, even desirable, for the greater part of the time I must read. So this requires a book which can be slipped into a pocket, and if the pocket is small then so must be the volume. My regular choice on such occasions is a small set of the essays of William Hazlitt, produced by Gresham Publishing around 1920. Aside from its portability, it is a book for reminding one what walking, and thinking, are for.

I live close to what might be called Hazlitt country. He was born in 1778 in Maidstone, the county town of Kent, a few miles south of here. Though there are no books by Hazlitt in the town’s bookshop, in other respects Maidstone has acknowledged its famous son appropriately. There is a Hazlitt theatre, around the corner from the Unitarian Church where Hazlitt’s father preached (marked by a plaque on the wall of the still-operational church). The excellent town museum and gallery lauds him appropriately, and has a bust and self-portrait of the man (he was a painter of some skill). This is all the more noteworthy since Hazlitt left the town when aged two, so it can hardly be said that the town made a mark upon him, nor he on the town. Hazlitt’s family moved to Ireland (his father was Irish), then the United States, before settling in Shropshire when he was eight. He was schooled in London, and it was in the city that he would gain fame as an essayist, theatre critic, biographer and journalist, friend of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, one of the finest minds and finest writers of his age.

But Maidstone is where it began, and it is Hazlitt country to me. It is through such countryside that I journey at weekends, walking over the North Downs with a start or an end of the adventure in the county town, and always with a book – so often that book – at my side.

One of the essays in the small volume is entitled ‘On Going a Journey‘, originally published in 1822. I have read it many times. It is not considered one of his great essays, not of the calibre of ‘The Fight’, ‘The Indian Jugglers’, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ or ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’, but it is one where we can get a strong sense of Hazlitt as a character (though everything Hazlitt wrote was autobiographical). The opening lines state his case:

One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.

Hazlitt was a difficult character at times; sociable, with a circle of notable friends, but a troubling presence to others, subject as he was to saturnine moods rooted in a lifetime of disappointments, personal and political, and liable to say things as he saw them no matter whom it might offend. Hazlitt needed to get away from company as much as he welcomed it, and found relief in solitude, and movement. It was in journeying that he could rediscover things.

Then long-forgotten things, like “sunken wrack and sunless treasuries”, burst upon my eager sight, and I begin to feel, think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence.

However, the subject of ‘On Going a Journey’ is not merely escape. That is only the start of it. The essay strides from idea to idea like a mind working things through on such a journey, expanding the thesis to consider how it is that we position ourselves in the world.

The world, in our conceit of it, is not much bigger than a nut-shell. It is not one prospect expanded into another, county joined to county, kingdom to kingdom, lands to seas, making an image voluminous and vast;- the mind can form no larger idea of space than the eye can take in at a single glance. The rest is a name written on a map, a calculation of arithmetic.

For Hazlitt, this particularity is how we are able to understand, and cope with the world, apprehending not all things at
once but instead picking out elements from the ‘infinity of things and places’, picking out single threads from ‘the whole web of our existence’ – much as we now know memory works, the converse being the wretched, inhuman state of Borges’ ‘Funes the Memorious‘, the man whose curse is to remember everything.

For Hazlitt, a journey is a means of processing thought and self-discovery, and the essay is a form of journey. The essayist sets out with an objective in view, but may only get to that point discursively, taking in views along the way, enriching argument through discovery and the association of ideas, pulling the threads together. To walk is to write. He makes the analogy clear in the later ‘A Farewell to Essay-Writing’ (a title it only gained after his death, when his son edited his father’s works), another essay that reveals much of the man’s character. Here he describes walking in a way that clearly signifies writing:

Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye forward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory.

The essay gains its name from the 16th century French writer Michel de Montaigne, who called his prose pieces Essais, from the French verb essayer, or ‘to try’. Montaigne set out to try out or explore an argument through his writings, and though the essay has developed into a varied form embracing any number of definitions, its essential rationale remains as Montaigne knew it. The essay explores an idea, discursively yet with an end in view, so that wherever the mind may wander the direction is always certain. To write, and to read, an essay is to go on a journey, and the experience of it is profoundly analogous with walking.

Of course there are different kinds of essay, as there are different kinds of walking. There is the purposeful stride over a short distance to a clear objective. There is the casual stroll, the prolonged ramble, the inquisitive exploration, the splendid adventure, and the ill-advised speculation in which the walker succeeds only in becoming lost. And just as there is walking for its own sake, there are essays on walking.

Hazlitt’s ‘On Going a Journey’ is generally recognised as the first such essay. Many other have followed since, to the point where the walking essay is practically a genre in itself: Charles Dickens (‘The Uncommercial Traveller’), Robert Louis Stevenson (‘Walking Tours’) and Henry Thoreau (‘Walking’) are some of the prime examples. Nietzsche, Kant and Rousseau were each prodigious walkers who found that to walk was to think, while later generations of flâneurs – Baudelaire, Benjamin, Iain Sinclair – revere dream-walking through the city. The Wordsworths (Dorothy and William), in their letters, set down in words the exhilaration they felt at the discovery of walking for its own sake, and of finding the words to express their delight in what was both exercise for the body and mind. Not before the Romantics (Hazlitt was among their number) had anyone written of walking as anything other than a means of getting from A to B. The literature of walking found the philosophical in what was previously purely functional.

This has much to do with the new relationship between the observer and nature that the Romantics championed, of course. But it is also about the championing of solitariness. Apart from the Wordsworths, literary walks are almost always undertaken solo. They are means of discovering the self, and having someone else alongside you can only be a distraction, turning the walk into something else. Though Hazlitt refers to walks with friends, and refers throughout his essay to conversations he has had with others, he needed to be alone to do so – or at least not among friends.

These hours are sacred to silence and to musing, to be treasured up in the memory, and to feed the source of smiling thoughts hereafter. I would not waste them in idle talk; or if I must have the integrity of fancy broken in upon, I would rather it were by a stranger than a friend. A stranger takes his hue and character from the time and place; he is a part of the furniture and costume of an inn … In his ignorance of me and my affairs, I in a manner forget myself.

Hazlitt’s solo walking was not egotistical; it was an attempt to forget the self.

The irony was that this escape from others was recollected in the company of readers. Hazlitt was never alone; if he was not writing for others, then he was composing his thoughts through experience in preparation for setting down such ideas on paper. The writer can never be alone. They will seek solitariness, but only the better to compose themselves for their readers. The essay is the quintessence of this situation, which is maybe why it enjoys such a high literary status. It brings together the personal and the universal, isolation made manifest in the company of strangers. It sums up who we are, figures without meaning except for the associations we carry around with us. ‘We measure the universe by ourselves, and even comprehend the texture of our own being only piece meal’, writes Hazlitt, adding ‘In this way, however, we remember an infinity of things and places’. In walking alone we both lose ourselves, and regain ourselves.

I walk to think, or try to. If I need to solve a problem, compose a talk, formulate an argument, or even write one of these blog posts, I find heading out on foot is the way to make incoherent ideas fall into place. But as the walk progresses, the facility fades. My mind begins to wander, not necessarily distracted by sights in country or town (I am as likely to walk through the back streets of London as I am to stride along the North Downs of Kent), but by the act of steady motion. The rhythm of walking takes over. When I am composing thoughts for problem-solving or writing, I walk quickly. As I slow down, I lose control of my thoughts. My head becomes filled with half-formed notions, arguments, unanticipated recollections, snatches of inspiration that fall away upon later reflection, songs that refuse to leave my head, forgotten voices. Walking becomes like a dream, in which all of the mental associations to which Hazlitt refers are there, but forming a narrative of their own. I do not shape them; I have no control over them, being asleep.

And then reality intrudes once more, as I have to wipe mud off my boots, or negotiate a stile, or I find an eye-catching view that demands that I capture its picture. The reverie is broken. Or perhaps it has been a long journey, and it is time for a pause, if the weather will remain kind. So I find a tree trunk, or a dry patch of grass, and, sitting down, reach into my pocket for the book, brought along for just such a moment. And with that I find company, and so inspiration; and must then rise up, and walk on.


And letting the fumes ascend into the brain, to sit considering what we shall have for supper -- eggs and a rasher, a rabbit smothered in onions, or an excellent veal-cutlet! Sancho in such a situation once fixed upon cow-heel; and his choice, though he could not help it, is not to be disparaged. Then, in the intervals of pictured scenery and Shandean contemplation, to catch the preparation and the stir in the kitchen [getting ready for the gentleman in the parlour]3Procul, O procul este profani! These hours are sacred to silence and to musing, to be treasured up in the memory, and to feed the source of smiling thoughts hereafter. I would not waste them in idle talk; or if I must have the integrity of fancy broken in upon, I would rather it were by a stranger than a friend. A stranger takes his hue and character from the time and place; he is a part of the furniture and costume of an inn. If he is a Quaker, or from the West Riding of Yorkshire, so much the better. I do not even try to sympathize with him, and he breaks no squares. [How I love to see the camps of the gypsies, and to sigh my soul into that sort of life. If I express this feeling to another, he may qualify and spoil it with some objection.]4 I associate nothing with my travelling companion but present objects and passing events. In his ignorance of me and my affairs, I in a manner forget myself. But a friend reminds one of other things, rips up old grievances, and destroys the abstraction of the scene. He comes in ungraciously between us and our imaginary character. Something is dropped in the course of conversation that gives a hint of your profession and pursuits; or from having some one with you that knows the less sublime portions of your history, it seems that other people do. You are no longer a citizen of the world: but your "unhoused free condition is put into circumspection and confine." The incognito of an inn is one of its striking privileges -- "Lord of one's self, uncumber'd with a name." Oh! It is great to shake off the trammels of the world and of public opinion -- to lose our importunate, tormenting, everlasting personal identity in the elements of nature, and become the creature of the moment, clear of all ties -- to hold to the universe only by a dish of sweet-breads, and to owe nothing but the score of the evening -- and no longer seeking for the applause and meeting with contempt, to be known by no other title than the Gentleman in the parlour! One may take one's choice of all characters in this romantic state of uncertainly as to one's real pretensions, and become indefinitely respectable and negatively right-worshipful. We baffle prejudice and disappoint conjecture; and from being so to others, begin to be objects of curiosity and wonder even to ourselves. We are no more those hackneyed common-places that we appear in the world; an inn restores us to the level of nature and quits scores with society! I have certainly spent some enviable hours at inns -- sometimes when I have been left entirely to myself and have tired to solve some metaphysical problem, as once at Witham-common, where I found out the proof that likenesss is not a case of the association of ideas -- at other times, when there have been pictures in the room, as at St Neot's (I think I was), where I first met with Gribelin's engravings of the Cartoons, into which I entered at once, and at a little inn on the borders of Wales, where there happened to be hanging some of Westall's drawings, which I compared triumphantly (for a theory that I had, not for the admired artist) with the figure of a girl who had ferried me over the Severn, standing up in a boat between me and the twilight -- at other times I might mention luxuriating in books, with a peculiar interest in this way, as I remember sitting up half the night to read Paul and Virgiria , which I picked up at an inn at Bridgewater, after being drenched in the rain all day; and at the same place I got through two volumes of Madam D'Arblay's Camilla . It was on the 10th of April, 1798, that I sat down to a volume of the New Eloise, at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and cold chicken. The letter I chose was that in which St. Preux describes his feelings as he first caught a glimpse from the heights of the Jura of the Pays de Vaud, which I had brought with me as a bon bouche to crown the evening with. It was my birth-day, and I had for the first time comer from a place in the neighbourhood to visit this delightful spot. The road to Llangollen turns off between Chirk and Wrexham; and on passing a certain point you come all at once upon the valley, which opens like an amphitheatre, broad, barren hills rising in majestic state on either side, with "green upland swells that echo to the bleat of flocks" below, and the river Dee babbling over its stony bed in the midst of them. The valley at this time "glittered green with sunny showers," and a budding ash-tree dipped its tender branches in the chiding stream. How proud, how glad I was to walk along the high road that overlooks the delicious prospect, repeating the lines which I have just quoted from Mr Coleridge's poems! But besides the prospect which opened beneath my feet, another also opened to my inward sight, a heavenly vision, on which were written, in letters large as Hope could make them, these four words, Liberty, Genius, Love, Virtue; which have since faded in the light of common day or mock my idle gaze.
"The Beautiful is vanished, and returns not."
Still I would return some time or other to this enchanted spot; but I would return to it alone. What other self could I find to share that influx of thoughts of regret and delight, the fragments of which I could hardly conjure up myself, so much have they been broken and defaced! I could stand on some tall rock and over look the precipice of years that separates me from what I then was. I was at that time going shortly to visit the poet whom I have above named. Where is he now? Not only I myself have changed; the world, which was then new to me, has become old and incorrigible. Yet will I turn to thee in thought, O sylvan Dee, in joy, in youth and gladness as though then wert; and thou shalt always be to me the river of Paradise, where I will drink the waters of life freely!

There is hardly anything that shows the short-sightedness or capriciousness of the imagination more than travelling does. With change of place we change our ideas; nay . our opinions and feelings. We can by an effort indeed transport ourselves to old and long-forgotten scenes, and then the picture of the mind revives again; but we forget those that we have just left. It seems that we can think but of one place at a time. The canvas of the fancy is but of a certain extent, and if we paint one set of objects upon it, they immediately efface every other. We cannot enlarge our conceptions, we can only shift our point of view. The landscape bares its bosom to the enraptured eye, we take our fill of it and seem as if we could form no other image of beauty or grandeur. We pass on and think no more of it; the horizon that shuts if from our sight, also blots it from our memory like a dream. In travelling through a wild, barren country, I can form no idea of a woody and cultivated one. It appears to me that all the world must be barren, like what I see of it. In the country we forget the town and in the town we despise the country. "Beyond Hyde Park," says Sir Fopling Flutter, "all is a desert." All that part of the map which we do not see before us is a blank. The world in our conceit of it is not much bigger than a nutshell. It is not one prospect expanded into another, country joined to country, kingdom to kingdom, land to seas, making an image voluminous and vast; --the mind can form no larger idea of space than the eye can take in at a single glance. The rest is a name written in a map, a calculation of arithmetic. For instance, what is the true signification of that immense mass of territory and population, known by the name of China to us? An inch of pasteboard on a wooden globe, of no more account than a China orange! Things near us are seen at the size of life; things at a distance are diminished to the size of the understanding. We measure the universe by ourselves, and even comprehend the texture of our own being only peace-meal. In this way, however, we remember an infinity of things and places. The mind is like a mechanical instrument that plays a great variety of tunes, but it must play them in succession. One idea recalls another, but it at the same times excludes all others. In trying to renew old recollections, we cannot as it were unfold the whole web of our existence; we must pick out the single threads. So in coming to a place where we have formerly lived and with which we have intimate associations, every one must have found that the feeling grows more vivid the nearer we approach the spot, from the mere anticipation of the actual impression; we remember circumstances, feelings, persons, faces, names that we had not thought of for years; but for the time all the rest of the world is forgotten! -- To return to the question I have quitted above:

I have no objection to go to see ruins, aqueducts, pictures, in company with a friend or a party, bur rather the contrary, for the former reason reversed. They are intelligible matters and will bear talking about. The sentiment here is not tacit, but communicable and overt. Salisbury Plain is barren of criticism, but Stonehenge will bear a discussion antiquarian, picturesque, and philosophical. In setting out on a party of pleasure, the first consideration is always where we shall go to, in taking a solitary ramble, the question is what we shall meet with by the way. "The mind is its own place"; nor are we anxious to arrive at the end of our journey. I can myself do the honours indifferently well to works or art and curiosity. I once took a party to Oxford with no mean éclat -- showed them the seat of the Muses at a distance

"With glistering spires and pinnacles adorn'd----"
descanted on the learned air that breathes from the grassy quadrangles and stone walls of halls and colleges -- was at home in the Bodleian; and at Blenheim quite superseded the powered Cicerone that attended us, and that pointed in vain with his wand to commonplace beauties in matchless pictures. -- As another exception to the above reasoning, I should not feel confident in venturing on a journey in a foreign country without a companion. I should want at intervals to hear the sound of my own language. There is an involuntary antipathy in the mind of an Englishmen to foreign manners and notions that requires the assistance of social sympathy to carry it off. As the distance from home increases, this relief, which was at first a luxury, becomes a passion and an appetite. A person would almost feel stifled to find himself in the deserts of Arabia without friends and countrymen; there must be allowed to be something in the view of Athens or old Rome that claims the utterance of speech; and I own that the Pyramids are too mighty for any single contemplation. In such situations, so opposite to all one's ordinary train of ideas, one seems a species by one's self, a limb torn off from society, unless one can meet with instant fellowship and support. -- Yet I did not feel this want or craving very pressing once, when I first set foot on the laughing shores of France. Calais was peopled with novelty and delight. The confused, busy murmur of the place was like oil and wine poured into my ears; nor did the mariner's hymn, which was sung from the top of an old crazy vessel in the harbour, as the sun went down, send a alien sound into my soul. I only breathed the air of general humanity. I walked over "the vine-covered hills and gay regions of France," erect and satisfied; for the image of man was not cast down and chained to the foot of arbitrary thrones; I was at no loss for language, for that of all the great schools of painting was open to me. The whole is vanished like a shade. Pictures, heroes, glory, freedom, all are fled; nothing remains but the Bourbons and the French People! -- There is undoubtedly a sensation in travelling into foreign parts that is to be had nowhere else; but it is more pleasing at the time than lasting. It is too remote from our habitual associations to be a common topic of discourse or reference, and, like a dream of another state of existence, does not piece into our daily modes of life. It is an animated but a momentary hallucination. It demands an effort to exchange our actual for our ideal identity; and to feel the pulse of our old transports revive very keenly, we must "jump" all our present comforts and connexions. Our romantic and itinerant character is not to be domesticated. Dr. Johnson remarked how little foreign travel added to the facilities of conversation in those who had been abroad. In fact, the time we have spent there is both delightful and in one sense, instructive; but it appears to be cut out of our substantial, downright existence, and never to join kindly on to it. We are not the same, but another, and perhaps more enviable individual, all the time we are out of our own country. We are lost to ourselves, as well as our friends. So the poet somewhat quaintly sings,
"Out of my country and myself I go."
Those who wish to forget painful thoughts, do well to absent themselves of a while from the ties and objects that recall them; but we can be said only to fulfil our destiny in the place that gave us birth. I should on this account like well enough to spend the whole of my life in travelling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home!_______________________________

1 Hazlitt's "On Going a Journey" is to be found in Table Talk, Essays on Men and Manners (1822).

2 (Near Nether-Stowey, Somersetshire, where Hazlitt visited Coleridge in 1798.) The original footnote found in Keynes' colllection; I have, in turn, placed them in parentheses.

3 (Added from the Author's MS. by W.C.H.) "W.C.H." is Hazlitt's son, William Carew (I believe) Hazlitt.

4 (Added from the Author's MS. by W.C.H.)

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