Going Somewhere: The Romance of Travel

Luke Inberg

Romance, as it confirms human agency with regards to understanding the world and organizing one's existence, is an enabling genre. Northrop Frye identifies "romance" in its questing, adventurous, persistently nostalgic, and "perennially child-like quality" as the "nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream" (186). Arguably, many of the texts that we have examined over the course of the term can be understood as (more or less) participating in the affirmative conventions of romance in the ways that they show men and woman turning travel into a journey.

Take for instance Gilpin's essay "On Picturesque Beauty:" what a light hearted quest ("the searching after effects") it is that he assigns to the picturesque traveler. He would not bring this intention of travel into conflict with the other more "useful ends of travel," but he also offers it as a goal for those who "travel without any end at all." Gilpin even describes the amusements of picturesque travel as a sort of adventure:

This great object [beauty of every kind] we pursue through the scenery of nature. We seek it among all the ingredients of landscape -- trees -- rocks -- broken-grounds -- woods -- rivers -- lakes -- plains -- vallies -- mountains -- and distances.

The gaze of the traveler ranges "with supreme delight among the sweet vales of Switzerland," as well as through the "limits of art;" it "seeks" after nature's "various effects;" the "scene of grandeur bursts on the eye." Indeed, Gilpin's picturesque traveler is very active. Moreover, when the traveler finds him or herself among less visually appealing natural environments, then it is that the wish-fulfilling imagination can be "let [. . .] loose" to "plant hills," "form rivers and lakes," and "build castles and abbeys." This may indeed read as a very fanciful interpretation of Gilpin's remarks, and perhaps I have over-extended the metaphor. However, applying some of the conventions of romance to Gilpin's essay allows one to read it, not merely as aesthetics, but as a document that turns purely recreational travel into a purposeful journey.

Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" also has the features of romance cited above -- most notably in the nostalgic reminisces of the poet's early relationship with nature. Incidentally, the poem was composed during the summer (the season that Frye assigns to his mythos of romance). More significant to the subject of this commentary though is the change in the poet's relationship to nature that is the subject of the poem. Passed are the "coarser pleasures of [his] boyish days" (74) when nature was "all in all" (76) to him, a "feeling and a love, / That had no need of a remoter charm, / By thought supplied" (81-83), for the poet has learned to hear in nature "the still, sad music of humanity" (92) and has felt in nature that "presence" that "rolls through all things" (103) and that has prompted those "best portion[s] of a good man's [his own] life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love" (34-36). In "Tintern Abbey" the relationship of man to nature is not to be one of aimless stasis; rather it is to be a meaningfully dynamic communion that yields both understanding and agency to those travelers who participate in it.

Goethe's Italian Journey is a work that is easily transposed from simple travel writing to a romantic quest. The journey represents the fulfillment of a long projected design to visit "classic soil" (Auden and Mayer 13). Moreover, the release from his administrative duties in Weimar, as well as the suspension of an increasingly and sexually frustrating relationship with Charlotte von Stein (13), led to regeneration of Goethe's artistic and intellectual self and to the resumption and completion of many interrupted literary projects (17). Even as he begins his descent into Italy, Goethe is already remarking on the stimulating effects of breaking with his routine existence:

The days are long, nothing distracts my thoughts and the glories of the scenery do not stifle my poetic imagination: on the contrary, favoured by motion and the open air, they excite it. (Goethe 35)

Later on he writes how "one agreeable aspect of travel is that ordinary incidents because they are novel and unexpected have a touch of adventure about them" (197). The kind of "adventures" that Goethe is referring to are (implicitly) of a sexual nature, for, as Goethe's letters frequently suggest, it is not only artistic and intellectual emancipation that are occurring during the course of the journey (69. 187, 200-203). Goethe's journey is not simply indulgent travel; rather, it is a rite of passage, and Goethe, who sees himself as being "reborn" (216) by his experiences, personally understands his journey this way.

It is perhaps also to that same nostalgic wish-fulfilling dream that in characteristic of romance that we can attribute the persistence of the trope of the primeval, patriarchal domain of the Swiss cantons that so many authors mention. When I came upon this idealized depiction of the Swiss several years ago during my initial readings of Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest, I simply dismissed it as a purely fictional convention of the gothic romance, without any conception that such a view was a historical phenomenon. However, having now seen the proliferation of that same trope in the travel writings of Coxe, Williams, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron, I have come to understand it as a site of romantic longing that supplies a background onto which the political and philosophical beliefs of these authors' could be projected.

Perhaps alone among the various authors and texts that we have so far discussed, Byron and his works -- both his brief "Swiss Tour" of 1816 and his poetry (Manfred in particular) -- fail to represent travel within the context of the optimistic conventions of romance. As the recent presentation on Byron's "Swiss Tour" remarked, Byron's account -- notable for its laconic expressions and for a narrative that is frequently disrupted by non sequiturs -- widely diverges from the expectations for writing about the encounter with the Alps that are raised by an acquaintance with the lavish expressions and attempts at expression of previous encounters by other authors. Indeed, the concluding passage to the "Swiss Tour" (in which Byron complains of being unable to "lose his own wretched identity in the majesty, and the power, and the glory" of the surrounding scenery) obliterates for him the possibility of apprehending romance through travel. Frustrated as he is by the "recollection" of "recent and more home difficulties," Byron feels robbed of agency even in the midst of the scenery that has "enabled" others (like Wordsworth).

The discussion in class of the inhibitory process of trauma that informs the character of Manfred, and the fact that he cannot be unequivocally assigned the status of tragic hero also significantly bears on the understanding of travel as journey (as romance). Manfred is a static character, and his relationship with the natural world has gone the way of his relationship with men -- he is estranged from both, so he can find no consolation or compensation in either. Byron and his works as examples and expressions of exile and wandering rather than of traveler and journeying must be understood ironically. According to Frye, irony (the mythos of winter) is the antithesis of romance. Some significant elements of Frye's conception of irony with regards to Manfred are: incertitude on the part of the reader as to what his/her response to a narrative is "supposed to be" (223), the idea that "irony consists of the non-heroic residue of tragedy centering on a theme of puzzled defeat" (224), and the presentation of "human life in terms of largely unrelieved bondage" (238). Manfred, though not un-heroic, is such a tormented, baffled, and defeated figure. In reading and responding to the drama I felt that I participated in Frye's idea of incertitude. I could not identify personally with Manfred (for he is too extremely exalted, depraved, and misanthropic). However, in a way, the work, as it divorced me from accessing the sympathy that I normally would access when engaging with human suffering, makes me into a Manfred, baffled by the impossibility of fulfilling my wish to make of his predicament of exile and wandering a journey and a romance.

In conclusion, Manfred's and Byron's travels, as they elude the resolution that is found in the conventions of romance, are travels that go nowhere because there is no achievable end to them. However, the reader, as he reads personal travel accounts that are informed by those same conventions, enjoys a rapport with the authors, texts, and characters within those texts that make him/her feel (at least they made me feel) as though they (and I) were going somewhere.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. and Elizabeth Mayer. "Intoduction." Italian Journey by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. London: Penguin, 1970.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. "Byron's Swiss Tour" (1816). http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/Byron_Oberland.htm

Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973.

Gilpin, William. "On Picturesque Beauty." http://www.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Travel/gilpine2.htm

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italian Journey. London: Penguin, 1970.

Wordsworth, William. "Tintern Abbey." http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/~dmiall/Tintern/Tintern_c.htm