Coleridge's 'Circumcursion': Some Contexts
In the pages introducing the 'Journal', Gray's account of his 1769 tour of the Lake District has been situated within the cultural context of the nascent Picturesque movement. But in what ways is it possible to locate Coleridge's 1802 'circumcursion'? Is the tour, and its textual documentation, to be treated as a characteristically idiosyncratic ramble through the landscape? Or can this engagement with environment be placed within wider frameworks?
To begin thinking about these issues, it is possible to position Coleridge's 1802 pedestrian expedition within three different, yet intersecting, contexts: the psychological context of personal experience; the cultural context offered by earlier, and contemporaneous, approaches to the landscape of the Lakes; and the context provided by what may be described as a post-Romantic spatial history of topographical engagement.
Personal Contexts: Coleridgean Psycho-spatiality
Coleridge's 1802 walking tour can be read in biographical terms although, as ever, we need to be sensitive to the theoretical issues raised by this mode of interpretation. Entrapped by what he perceived to be the oppressive domesticity of everyday life at Greta Hall, Coleridge set out from Keswick in pursuit of nine days of physical and imaginative solitude. This idea of an excursion - a setting out, an escape from confinement - can be traced in his more playful pocketbook entries: 'Quitted My house on Sunday morning, August I. 1802 over the bridge by the Hops [ . . . ] every man his own path-maker - skip & jump - where rushes grew, a man may go - ' (I, 1207). As he moves out into the precipitous and vertiginous Cumbrian landscape, Coleridge moves further away from the suffocating interiors associated with family life at Greta Hall: his pedestrian tour is a self-conscious act of personal liberation.
Yet these physical and imaginative possibilities appear to be indivisible from ideas and images of entrapment and limitation within Coleridge's prose: a core dialectic which is encapsulated by his use of 'circumcursion'. The term, 'excursion', suggests the act of 'running out'; it denotes a movement away from the fixity of the home. Coleridge's 'circumcursion', on the other hand, illustrates that the idea of escape is fundamentally illusory; it acknowledges that the journey out is followed, inevitably, by a return to the quotidian. A 'circumcursion' suggests a delimiting of spatial experience; to 'circumscribe' is to encompass and to confine.
Cultural Contexts: Coleridge & the Picturesque
It is also possible to locate Coleridge's textual account of place within a context of contemporaneous attitudes towards landscape. Elsewhere on this site, the Picturesque movement has been described as enforcing a pre-conditioned, highly aestheticised response to environment. In his tour of August 1802, Coleridge seems to follow the Wordsworthian strategy of moving away from Picturesque principles and offers, instead, a detailed articulation of the embodied experience of the geological materiality of the Cumbrian terrain. In recording his progression through and over the Lake District landscape, Coleridge moves towards the description of a new kind of topographical experience: an experience which, superficially at least, privileges exploration over convention and the physical over the aesthetic. As he indicates in his Notebook, Coleridge hopes to create a new textual map of the Lakes: his spatial engagement with the Cumbrian landscape is defined by verticality.
In addition, Coleridge's environmental response is frequently characterised by microscopic attention to detail and, more significantly, within the critical context offered by the GIS pilot project, the frequency of his naming of places. These modes of landscape engagement can be read as Coleridge's attempt to articulate an anti-Picturesque position. At the same time, however, cultural history overlaps with the personal: as with Wordsworth's 'Home at Grasmere' and 'Guide to the Lakes', Coleridge's account of his 1802 tour can be interpreted as an attempt to emphasise the author's socio-spatial insiderness within the touristic space of the English Lakes. That is to say, his personal map-making project is predicated upon the expression of his intimate familiarity with the varied places and spaces across the Cumbrian landscape.
Spatial Contexts: Coleridge & Verticality
Coleridge was not the first writer to document vertical space within the Lake District. In his 'Descriptive Poem addressed to Two Ladies at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven' (1755), for example, Dr John Dalton highlights the experiential and aesthetic possibilities opened up by an ascent of the Cumbrian fells; and, as Norman Nicholson puts it in 'The Lakers: The Adventures of the First Tourists', Dalton manages to 'catch something of the excitement of height' and 'the slight breathlessness, even dizziness' of moving up, as well as across, the landscape (p. 28). As Grevel Lindop points out in 'A Literary Guide to the Lake District', however, Dalton found the lofty height of Skiddaw 'almost too alarming to contemplate' (p. 183) and, as a result, his 'Descriptive Poem' ends with an apology to the titular 'ladies': an apology which corresponds with the emerging Picturesque predilection for horizontal, rather than vertical, movement.
In recording his August 1802 tour of the Lakes, Coleridge moves beyond Dalton's account of place to offer what may be described as an aesthetic of verticality. It is a reconfiguration of regional space which is announced in an extract from Coleridge's letter to Sara Hutchinson written on 6 August:
'There is one sort of gambling, to which I am much addicted; and not of the least criminal kind for a man who has children & a concern. It is this. When I find it convenient to descend from a mountain, I am too confident & too indolent to look round about & wind about 'till I find a track or other symptom of safety; but I wander on, & where it is first possible to descend, there I go - relying upon fortune for how far down this possibility will continue.' (p. 841)
Degrees of personal myth-making and self-dramatisation are embedded in this letter to Sara Hutchinson; and it is illuminating to compare Coleridge's notes of his descent of Broad Stand with this example of the retrospective reconstruction of spatial experience. Yet, in articulating the addictive thrill of a pathless descent, Coleridge offers an account of what Robert Macfarlane describes as 'the first rock-climb' (p. 84). Writing in 'Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination', Macfarlane suggests that Coleridge's vertiginous drop down Broad Stand 'began a century in which risk-taking in the mountains escalated' and a 'hunger for willed and authentic fear came to usurp the more decorous pleasures of the Sublime' (pp. 84-85).
In his more recent book, 'The Wild Places', Macfarlane argues that 'conventional plain-view maps are poor at registering and representing land that exists on the vertical plane' (p. 218). Verticality, however, is central to Coleridge's spatialisation of the Lake District landscape. To understand Coleridge's sense of place and space, then, there is a need to turn to a new kind of mapping: there is a need to look towards the virtual cartography presented by Google Earth technology.