Travel literature, like portraiture, is one of the peculiar glories of Western culture, and the tendency towards it is so strong that there is hardly a western writer who does not incorporate an appreciation for landscape and travel into his works. And much like portraiture, travel-writing constituted a tradition which lent some of its strength even to otherwise feeble creative intellects, and consequently there are not only many delightful travel books by literary geniuses such as Goethe and Wordsworth, but also a great crop of fine books by writers otherwise unexceptional.
Amongst this latter category must be placed Augustus Hare. Hare was a clergyman, and wrote a book of sermons as well as a lenghthy autobiography chronicling what might be the most irregular and abusive family of the entire 19th century, but he will be known to lovers of literature as the author of a staggering number of unfailingly good guide books. In the case of the Italian books, he rises to the loftiest heights of the pure style of travel writing.
Travel books may be generally grouped into three categories, the first of which is the guidebook, containing useful information for travellers; the second is the travel essay, which uses the landscape as the vehicle for some idea or moral; and the third is the pure type of travel writing, more heavily descriptive, a kind of portraiture of landscape which reveals the interaction between place and mind. The first type can hardly be considered literature, but Augustus Hare gives it its greatest treatment in his Walks in Rome. In this remarkable book, Hare implicitly gives an interior sketch of the idea of the Grand Tour even in his presentation of the most bare facts. His first chapter, entitled “Dull-Useful Information,” contains not only the opening times of museums and the location of Roman garages, but also a list of fine subjects for artists, grouped by morning and evening light. This list contains the following passage appended to its conclusion:
The months of October, November, and December are the best for
drawing. The colouring is then magnificent; it is enhanced by the tints of decaying vegetation, and the shadows are strong and clear. January is generally cold for sitting out, and February often wet; and before the end of March the vegetation is often so far advanced that the Alban Hills, which have retained glorious sapphire and amethyst tints throughout winter, change into commonplace green downs; while the Campagna, from the crimson and gold of its dying thistles and finochii, becomes a green plain waving with flowers.
Guide books usually imply a type of reader by the type of information they contain. Hare wrote for the sensitive, the philosophical, and the cultivated, for the artist and the thinker.
It is only in this sense that Hare’s writings may be counted amongst the second type of travel-literature, the essay; for while behind all his work is an idea of communion over shared appreciation of the landscape, he seems to have no particular moral besides a sentimental love of the beautiful, the picturesque, and the past. His walks and sketches are not impregnated with purpose or conceit like the travel writings of Irving. He lavishes his contempt upon all novelty, and praises everything that used to be, but always in asides, and he never argues for a degeneracy in the times. He does not tour institutions or attempt to describe the social organization of the citizens where he sojourns. He set out to write guide-books, and not meditations or sociology. His prose is intent upon place, and is fully descriptive of locality alone. He sees humanity as an element in the landscape, and his eye is attuned to pageant and costume instead of character and government.
This pure descriptive prose is a rare treat for a reader, because it has the savor of the spiritual love which inspired it. It is strongest in Hare’s works on Italy, where his love of the picturesque and ancient found its proper home. Every page has about it a quality of religious devotion. It is a specimen of another kind of love of country than that which is called patriotism; it is one more purely contemplative and intellectual, in which the lover does not love the land which nourished him or which he must defend, but loves a phenomenon as he has found it in the world, and cares not to improve it nor worries about its imperfections, but rejoices in its being and wishes to share it with others. This acceptance, so rare in everyday life, is frequently to be found in travel writing, and it constitutes one of its perfections. It is an opportunity to see the earth from the vantage not of a responsible agent in its destiny, which is a heavy burden always, but as a transient witness to the outpouring of the divine into the world. It is peculiarly relieving literature, and it contains in it a kind of religious atmosphere, which indicates still the ancient derivation of all vacation travel from the pilgrimage.
It is in consequence of this outlook that much of the finest travel writing is the fruit of a single experience, as opposed to recurring experiences. Indeed the proper nature of travel resides in its singularity. Hare’s Days Near Rome, clearly the record of a group of one- or two-day excursions within the environs of Rome, contains within its pages almost none of the anguish that is to be found in Walks in Rome, where Hare’s long residence in the city is evinced by his scattered dirges on the slow yielding of the Eternal City’s monuments to time. Within the span of his repeated visits and lengthy stays he witnessed the destruction of the most famous villas and gardens of Rome, the end of papal governance and the suppression of the processions, religious festivals, monasteries, and other trappings of Catholicism, and the work of well-meaning archaeologists who gave churches, castles, and towers to the dynamite in order to uncover what was beneath them. The elegies he penned for the past are interesting to the antiquarian and resonate with the romantic, but for a healthy spirit they are uncomfortable to read, for it seems that in sliding from raptures to lamentations Hare moves from eternity to time, and from literature to journalism. Every generation as it ages laments the decline of the times and predicts the final barrenness of the world, but each as it rises finds anew the beauty of the whole.
It is for a related reason that much fine travel writing is done not by experts but by true visitors, writers passing through a country often only meagerly known and frequently writing about churches, towns, hills, or museums they have encountered but once in the space of a few hours. The singularity of the experience isolates it from time, and it is the liberation from time which is one of the primary goals of travel. A human being must periodically feel free from all discomforts and all his plans to eradicate them, and sink into passive contemplation. Repeated visits tend to disclose the tendency of the times, which the human mind with its love of stasis is apt to oppose. It is very rare that a traveller have two perfect experiences of the same thing; usually one is but the remembrance of the other.
But for all of Augustus Hare’s attachment to the productions of time, nevertheless the cities he described, Rome most of all, are very much the ones we see today. Rome boasts perhaps fewer twentieth century buildings than any capital in the world, and its historical monuments and associations still far exceed the grasp of any single human life, much less a visit. And Augustus Hare is still the most faithful companion on a journey through the city. He is particularly noteworthy for his liberal use of quotation, by which he sketches artfully the effect of the city on other men, just as an artist will include human figures in his scene. These extracts from many of the finest authors are a fund of inspiration in themselves, revealing the city not merely as a center of population or tourist attraction but as a kind of intellectual community which stretches across the ages. In cities as stable as Rome this community has gained real definition, with a certain set of sacraments and symbols and saints. And Augustus Hare within that community has gained the status of a kind of father.
In this day and age there is little doubt that a guidebook of the sort Hare composed would not compensate its compiler in coin, but it still may be a worthwhile endeavor, even as a spiritual exercise. The undertaking of a description of a city in its best portions and in its best light, and ornamented with extracts from the best writings upon that same city; this would be a work of purification for the author, to strip away all low thoughts about a place, and of inspiration, to collect and group the thoughts of other men upon the life that they have lived in their time and upon the same place.