Foreign Travel

Samuel Rogers, Italy: A Poem. London: T. Cadell, 1830 (pp. 169-174).

It was in a splenetic humour that I sate me down to my scanty fare at TERRACINA;a and how long I should have contemplated the lean thrushes in array before me, I cannot say, if a cloud of smoke, that drew the tears into my eyes, had not burst from the green and leafy boughs on the hearth-stone. 'Why,' I exclaimed, starting up from the table, 'why did I leave my own chimney-corner? -- But am I not on the road to BRUNDUSIUM?b And are not these the very calamities that befel HORACE and VIRGIL, and MÆCENAS, and PLOTIUS, and VARIUS? HORACE laughed at them -- Then why should not I? HORACE resolved to turn them to account; and VIRGIL -- cannot we hear him observing, that to remember them will, by and by, be a pleasure?' My soliloquy reconciled me at once to my fate; and when, for the twentieth time, I had looked through the window on a sea sparkling with innumerable brilliants, a sea on which the heroes of the Odyssey and the Eneid had sailed, I sat down as to a splendid banquet. My thrushes had the flavour of ortolans; and I ate with an appetite I had not known before. 'Who,' I cried, as I poured out my last glass of Falernian,1 (for Falernian it was said to be, and in my eyes it ran bright and clear as a topaz-stone) 'Who would remain at home, could he do otherwise? Who would submit to tread that dull, but daily round; his hours forgotten as soon as spent?' and, opening my journal-book and dipping my pen in my ink-horn, I determined, as far as I could, to justify myself and my countrymen in wandering over the face of the earth. 'It may serve me,' said I, ' as a remedy in some future fit of the spleen.'

Ours is a nation of travellers;2 and no wonder, when the elements, air, water, fire, attend at our bidding, to transport us from shore to shore; when the ship rushes into the deep, her track the foam as of some mighty torrent; and, in three hours or less, we stand gazing and gazed at among a foreign people. None want an excuse. If rich, they go to enjoy; if poor, to retrench; if sick, to recover; if studious, to learn; if learned, to relax from their studies. But whatever they may say, whatever they may believe, they go for the most part on the same errand; nor will those who reflect, think that errand an idle one.

Almost all men are over-anxious. No sooner do they enter the world, than they lose that taste for natural and simple pleasures, so remarkable in early life. Every hour do they ask themselves what progress they have made in the pursuit of wealth or honour; and on they go as their fathers went before them, till, weary and sick at heart, they look back with a sigh of regret to the golden time of their childhood.

Now travel, and foreign travel more particularly, restores to us in a great degree what we have lost. When the anchor is heaved, we double down the leaf; and for a while at least all effort is over. The old cares are left clustering round the old objects; and at every step, as we proceed, the slightest circumstance amuses and interests. All is new and strange. We surrender ourselves, and feel once again as children. Like them, we enjoy eagerly; like them, when we fret, we fret only for the moment; and here indeed the resemblance is very remarkable, for, if a journey has its pains as well as its pleasures (and there is nothing unmixed in this world) the pains are no sooner over than they are forgotten, while the pleasures live long in the memory.

Nor is it surely without another advantage. If life be short, not so to many of us are its days and its hours. When the blood slumbers in the veins, how often do we wish that the earth would turn faster on its axis, that the sun would rise and set before it does; and, to escape from the weight of time, how many follies, how many crimes are committed! Men rush on danger, and even on death. Intrigue, play, foreign and domestic broil, such are their resources; and, when these things fail, they destroy themselves.

Now in travelling we multiply events, and innocently. We set out, as it were, on our adventures; and many are those that occur to us, morning, noon, and night. The day we come to a place which we have long heard and read of, and in ITALY we do so continually, it is an era in our lives; and from that moment the very name calls up a picture. How delightfully too does the knowledge flow in upon us, and how fast!3 Would he who sat in a corner of his library, poring over books and maps, learn more or so much in the time, as he who, with his eyes and his heart open, is receiving impressions all day long from the things themselves?4 How accurately do they arrange themselves in our memory, towns, rivers, mountains; and in what living colours do we recall the dresses, manners, and customs of the people! Our sight is the noblest of all our senses. 'It fills the mind with most ideas, converses with its objects at the greatest distance, and continues longest in action without being tired.' Our sight is on the alert when we travel; and its exercise is then so delightful, that we forget the profit in the pleasure.

Like a river, that gathers, that refines as it runs, like a spring that takes its course through some rich vein of mineral, we improve and imperceptibly -- nor in the head only, but in the heart. Our prejudices leave us, one by one. Seas and mountains are no longer our boundaries. We learn to love, and esteem, and admire beyond them. Our benevolence extends itself with our knowledge. And must we not return better citizens than we went? For the more we become acquainted with the institutions of other countries, the more highly must we value our own.

I threw down my pen in triumph. 'The question,' said I, 'is set to rest for ever. And yet --'

'And yet --' I must still say. The WISEST OF MEN seldom went out of the walls of ATHENS; and for that worst of evils, that sickness of the soul, to which we are most liable when most at our ease, is there not after all a surer and yet pleasanter remedy, a remedy for which we have only to cross the threshold? A PIEDMONTESE nobleman, into whose company I fell at TURIN, had not long before experienced its efficacy; and his story, which he told me without reserve, was as follows.

' I was weary of life, and, after a day, such as few have known and none would wish to remember, was hurrying along the street to the river, when I felt a sudden check. I turned and beheld a little boy, who had caught the skirt of my cloak in his anxiety to solicit my notice. His look and manner were irresistible. Not less so was the lesson he had learnt. "There are six of us; and we are dying for want of food." -- 'Why should I not,' said I to myself, 'relieve this wretched family? I have the means; and it will not delay me many minutes. But what, if it does?' The scene of misery he conducted me to, I cannot describe. I threw them my purse; and their burst of gratitude overcame me. It filled my eyes . . it went as a cordial to my heart. 'I will call again to-morrow,' I cried. 'Fool that I was, to think of leaving a world, where such pleasure was to be had, and so cheaply!'


Author's Notes

1. We were now within a few hours of the Campania Felix. On the colour and flavour of Falernian consult Galen and Dioscorides.

2. As indeed it always was, contributing those of every degree, from a milord with his suite to him whose only attendant is his shadow. Coryate in 1608 performed his journey on foot; and, returning, hung up his shoes in his village-church as an ex-voto. Goldsmith, a century and a half afterwards, followed in nearly the same path; playing a tune on his flute to procure admittance, whenever he approached a cottage at night-fall.

3. To judge at once of a nation, we have only to throw our eyes on the markets and the fields. If the markets are well-supplied, the fields well-cultivated, all is right. If otherwise, we may say, and say truly, these people are barbarous or oppressed.

4. Assuredly not, if the last has laid a proper foundation. Knowledge makes knowledge as money makes money, nor ever perhaps so fast as on a journey.

Editor's Notes

a. Terracina. On the coast about 50 miles south-east of Rome.

b. Brundisium. A Roman town on the coast of Calabria in the far south-east Italy.

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Document created January 3rd 1999