My Bicycle and I
Humber Cycles poster by Alfred Choubrac, 1895
by Vernon Lee
We two were sitting together on the wintry Campagna grass; the rest of the party, with their proud, tiresome horses, had disappeared beyond the pale green undulations; their carriage had stayed at that castellated bridge of the Anio. The great moist Roman sky, with its song of invisible larks, arched all round; above the rejuvenated turf rustled last year’s silvery hemlocks. The world seemed very large, significant, and delightful; and we had it all to ourselves, as we sat there side by side, my bicycle and I.
’Tis conceited, perhaps, to imagine myself an item in the musings of my silent companion, though I would fain be a pleasant one. But this much is certain, that, among general praising of life and of things, my own thoughts fell to framing the praises of bicycles. They were deeply felt, and as such not without appearance of paradox. What an excellent thing, I reflected, it is that a bicycle is satisfied to be quiet, and is not in the way when one is off it! Now, my friends out there, on their great horses, as Herbert of Cherbury calls them, are undoubtedly enjoying many and various pleasures; but they miss this pleasure of resting quietly on the grass with their steeds sitting calmly beside them. They are busy riding, moreover, and have to watch, to curb or humour the fancies of their beasts, instead of indulging their own fancy; let alone the necessity of keeping up a certain prestige. They are, in reality, domineered over by these horses, and these horses’ standard of living, as fortunate people are dominated by their servants, their clothes, and their family connections; much as Merovingian kings, we were taught in our Cours de Dictees, were dominated by the mayors of the palace. In stead of which, bar accidents (and the malignity of bottle-glass and shoe-nails), I am free, and am helped to ever greater freedom by my bicycle.
These thoughts came to me while sitting there on the grass slopes, rather than while speeding along the solitary road which snakes across them to the mountains, because the great gift of the bicycle consists to my mind in something apart from mere rapid locomotion; so much so, indeed, that those persons forego it, who scorch along for mere exercise, or to get from place to place, or to read the record of miles on their cyclometer. There is an unlucky tendency like the tendency to litter on the part of inanimates and to dulness on that of our fellow-creatures to allow every new invention to add to life’s complications, and every new power to increase life’s hustling; so that, unless we can dominate the mischief, we are really the worse off instead of the better. It is so much easier, apparently, to repeat the spell (once the magician has spoken it) which causes the broomstick to fetch water from the well, as in Goethe’s ballad, than to remember, or know, the potent word which will put a stop to his floodings; that, indeed, seems reserved to the master wizard; while the tiros of life’s magic, puffed up with half-science, do not drink, but drown. In this way bicycling has added, methinks, an item to the hurry and breathlessness of existence, and to the difficulty of enjoying the passing hour nay, the passing landscape. I have only once travelled on a bicycle, and, despite pleasant incidents and excellent company, I think it was a mistake; there was an inn to reach, a train to catch, a meal to secure, darkness to race against. And an order was issued, “Always make as much pace as you can at the beginning, because there may be some loss of time later on,” which was insult and ingratitude to those mountain sides and valleys of Subiaco and Tivoli, and to the ghosts of St. Benedict, of Nero, and of the delightful beribboned Sibyl, who beckoned us to rest in their company.
How different from this when one fares forth, companioned by one of the same mind; or, better still, with one’s own honourable self, exploring the unknown, revisiting the already loved, with some sort of resting-place to return to, and the knowledge of time pleasantly effaced! One speeds along the straight road, flying into the beckoning horizon, conscious only of mountain lines or stacked cloud masses; living, for the instant, in air, space become fluid and breathable, earth a mere detail; and then, at the turn, slackening earth’s power asserting itself with the road’s windings. Curiosity keenly on edge, or memory awakened; and the past also casting its spells, with the isolated farms or the paved French villages by the river-bank, or the church spire, the towers, in the distance…. A wrong turn is no hardship; it merely gives additional knowledge of the country, a further detail of the characteristic lie of the land, a different view of some hill or some group of buildings. Indeed, I often deliberately deflect, try road and lane merely to return again, and have bicycled sometimes half an hour round a church to watch its transepts and choir fold and unfold, its towers change place, and its outline of high roof and gargoyles alter on the landscape. Then the joy, spiced with the sense of reluctance, of returning on one’s steps, sometimes on the same day, or on successive days, to see the same house, to linger under the same poplars by the river. Those poplars I am thinking of are alongside a stately old French mill, built, towered, and gabled, of fine grey stone; and the image of them brings up in my mind, with the draught and foam of the weir and the glassiness of the backwater, and the whirr of the horse-ferry’s ropes, that some of the most delightful moments which one’s bicycle can give, are those when the bicycle is resting against a boat’s side (once also in Exmouth harbour); or chained to an old lych-gate; or, as I remarked about my Campagna ride, taking its rest also and indulging its musings.
I have alluded to the variety and alteration of pace which we can, and should, get while bicycling. Skimming rapidly over certain portions of the road sordid suburbs, for instance and precipitating our course to the points where we slacken and linger, the body keeps step with the spirit; and actuality forestalls, in a way, the selection by memory; significance, pleasantness, choice, not brute outer circumstance, determining the accentuation, the phrasing (in musical sense) of our life. For life must be phrased lest it become mere jabber, without pleasure or lesson. Indeed, one may say that if games teach a man to stand a reverse or snatch an opportunity, so bicycling might afford an instructive analogy of what things to notice, to talk about and remember on life’s high-roads and lanes; and what others, whizzing past on scarce skimming wheel, to reject from memory and feeling. The bicycle, in this particular, like the imagination it so well symbolizes, is a great liberator, freeing us from dwelling among ugliness and rubbish. It gives a foretaste of freedom of the spirit, reducing mankind to the only real and final inequality: inequality in the power of appreciating and enjoying. The poor clerk, or schoolmistress, or obscure individual from Grub Street can, with its help, get as much variety and pleasure out of a hundred miles’ circuit as more fortunate persons from unlimited globetrotting. Nay, the fortunate person can on a bicycle get rid of the lumber and litter which constitutes so large a proportion of the gifts of Fortune. For the things one has to have, let alone the things one has to do (in deference to butler and lady’s-maid, high priests of fitness), are as well left behind, if only occasionally. And among such doubtful gifts of fortune is surely the thought of the many people employed in helping one to do nothing whatever. It spoils the Campagna, for instance, to have a brougham, with coachman and footman, and grooms to lead back the horses, all kicking their heels at the bridge of the Anio: worthy persons, no doubt, and conscientiously subserving our higher existence; but the bare fact of whom, their well-appointed silhouettes, seem somehow incongruous as we get further and more solitary among the pale grass billows, deeper into that immense space, that unlimited horizon of ages.
These are some of the prestigious merits of the bicycle, though many more might be added. This grotesque iron courser, not without some of the grasshopper’s absurd weirdness, is a creature of infinite capacities for the best kind of romance the romance of the fancy. It may turn out to be (I always suspect it) the very mysterious steed which carried adventurous knights and damsels through forests of delightful enchantments, sprouting wings, proving a hippogriff and flying up, whenever fairies were lacking or whenever envious wizards were fussing about And, as reward or perhaps crown for its many good services, reposed occasionally by Britomart’s or Amadis’ side, far from the world’s din, even as my bicycle rested on the pale wintry grass hillocks, under the rolling cloud bales and the song of invisible larks, of the Campagna.
Essay first published in 1904