With Dante on the Camino

Back in June, my first week on the Camino, I met up with Daniel and Gabriel, 18 and 17-years-old, both strong walkers, one Czech, the other Italian. Daniel told me that his friend loved to talk about Dante, and they’d renamed him ‘Dante’.  I remember well a conversation with Dante in the main plaza in Pamplona when he explained as best he could, in English, the poet’s terza rima rhyme scheme – aba, bcb, cdc.  He the 17-year-old, me in my 60s. I resolved to read the Divine Comedy over the summer and before I resumed on the Camino in October – and I did.

A quote from Osip Mandelstam, sent to me by Graham Fawcett, has sent me back to the poet.

“Both the Inferno and, in particular, the Purgatorio, glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the footstep and its form. The step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought, Dante understood as the beginning of prosody. To indicate walking, he utilizes a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase. In Dante, philosophy and poetry are constantly on the go, perpetually on their feet. Even a stop is but a variety of accumulated movement: a platform for conversations is created by Alpine conditions. The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step”. (Osip Mandelstam, Conversation about Dante)

To which my first response was ‘wow!’ I read Graham’s note two days out from Santiago, too late for me to practise ‘the step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought’. Maybe just as well.

You do think about walking and all it entails when you’re walking over 500 miles.

I walked the Camino with mind empty, with mind and senses open to the landscape, sounds and smells, with mind and feet in meditative step with each other – and with mind ‘saturated’ with thought. I found rhythm in songs and hymns, and had I a better memory for poetry I’d have been speaking out loud more of my favourite verse, to the occasional consternation of fellow-walkers.

But I have yet to master linking my step with thought!

Frederic Gros in his book A Philosophy of Walking points out that for thinkers such as Nietzsche and Thoreau walking was key to their work. And in earlier times, when walking was the normal mode for getting from A to B, thinking your best thoughts while walking would have been normal practice.

What levels of thought and imagination were achieved by pilgrims to Santiago in the 11th,12th, 13th centuries? In an age when most couldn’t read or write. Our obsession with conveying our thoughts in written form, fed by this computer age of ours – and by blogs! – has downgraded walking as prime time for thinking. We are now overwhelmed with the thoughts of others.

In our city lives, too often when we walk we rush, and when we rush we don’t think. Gros has a better understanding: walking “is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found”.

Time for a walk.

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