A Book of English Essays has been sitting on my shelf for nearly two years now, crying out to be read. I bought it because it has all the pleasant English essayists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I was in the mood for a ‘conversation’ with them. However, I have only just finished reading my first essay from this collection — ‘On Going a Journey’ by William Hazlitt.
One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. That is how his essay begins and I found myself sitting up with an ah-ha! I do not know if I would like to go on a journey by myself. No, in fact, I am quite positive I would not want to go on a journey by myself. I am a creature who finds security in the presence of another. Not just any other, though; an other who is a kindred spirit. But, I am greatly in accord with Hazlitt’s sentiments on why he likes to go by himself. To go by oneself allows for the opportunity to experience the country (in Hazlitt’s case) or the sea or hills (in my case) without the intrusion of conversation. Hazlitt puts it this way:
Is not this wild rose sweet without a comment? Does not this daisy leap to my heart set in its coat of emerald? Yet if I were to explain to you the circumstance that has so endeared it to me, you would only smile. Had I not better then keep it to myself and let it serve me to brood over, from here to yonder craggy point, and from thence onward to the far-distant horizon?
To put into words, then, the feeling of otherworldliness that overcomes one when in the awe-inspiring presence of God’s creation has you in its grasp, is to mar the beauty of the experience. Quite often one is at a loss to describe the desire that builds up within oneself. I recall, this time last year, I was driving through the forest area between school and home. We were on the cusp of evening, with rain clouds hanging low. The road stretched ahead before us like a narrow, grey ribbon. And the trees, oh the trees! They were such a delicious green on wet barks. The desire to stop my car and dash out to hug a tree was so overwhelming that I had to force myself to think of my sons in the back seat and understand that it was not a safe idea. But I still think of it, and the feeling still comes upon me when I see that particular shade of green, sometimes dappled with sunlight.
There is another instance more recent. After a long time I succumbed to flying in May of this year. I usually feel nauseous on a flight, but this time my mother made me take a pill. I didn’t feel completely fine, but I had the amazing pleasure of watching a kingdom in the clouds. I wanted so much to have the words to capture what I was seeing. I knew photographs would never work. Cotton just rolling one over the other; mountains. I saw mountains of orange and red misted with pink, rolling into valleys of cotton candy; and I wondered if heaven was like this. I cannot, for the life of me, describe what exactly I saw and experienced through the tiny window of the aeroplane. Who could possibly sympathise unless they saw the same thing, experienced the same thing, thought the same thing? There is then no sympathy, but an uneasy craving after it, and a dissatisfaction which pursues you on your way: says Hazlitt.
I feel C.S. Lewis captures the same feeling and sentiments better in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:
I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then … found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
Even to ‘recollect in tranquility’ cannot bring back that same reaction of awe and wonder. But it is a feeling that I do get when sitting in solitude watching the waves beat upon the shore with salt crusting my lips and hair, and the blue-grey ocean spread out in front of me into endlessness.
Yes, I mentioned solitude. I do like a few hours to myself when I may just think and feel. Hazlitt believes so too. For him, a solitary journey is liberty ‘to think, feel’ and ‘do just as one pleases.’
Hazlitt, after dwelling much on the solitude of going on a journey, then turns to the anticipation of dinner. A journey full of thought and feeling must end with a delicious dinner, and while I cannot really sympathise with the entire sentiment, I do appreciate his appreciation of good food after a long day. It is after all what we all look forward to everyday after a long day at work. However, I do not care to dwell much on this part of his essay, as well as his exposition on talking to strangers. I do not fall into conversation with strangers easily, especially if I am on a journey! And if I do, by some strange chance, I am very polite and try to extricate myself as quickly as possible from any further conversation. For this, though, I think I might have to blame our times. Perhaps, had I lived even, say, fifty years ago, I might have not been on my guard with a stranger. But desperate times call for desperate measures, even if it means cutting short or altogether avoiding any interaction with a stranger.
Hazlitt ends his essay with the idea of foreign travel. While I have not done much travelling personally, I find I agree with him when he says:
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 or other state of existence, does not piece into our daily modes of life. It is an animated but a momentary hallucination.
He ends with saying that had he another life, he would consider foreign travel a must. But he believes: we can be said only to fulfil our destiny in the place that gave us birth. I am not sure that many would agree with this idea. Personally, I would like to read that last phrase as ‘the place that gives birth to our personality and our being’.
On the whole, I enjoyed this essay. I admit to reading it twice in a row. I found myself having a ‘conversation of ideas’ with Hazlitt, and loved that I could do so. ‘On Going a Journey’ reminded me of why I chose to start reading essays and non-fiction, and why I ought to get to the entire collection quickly.