by Evan Edwards
Part of the reason I enjoy walking so much is because of the opportunities it affords to immerse me entirely in my senses. I have thought for a while now that I feel most like those who say they experience the divine when I feel most immersed in my senses, when I feel “embodied.” Walking affords this route to embodiment most readily because there is so much to see, hear, smell, and feel—the wind, the ground, my muscles and bones moving along.
So, walking when it is very cold always poses a dilemma for me. When it is very cold — and I live in Chicago, so very cold actually means very cold — something happens on my walks. If I am very attentive, as attentive as I normally am on walks, I feel as though the world appears with much more clarity. Surely you’ve experienced this as well. The sounds are clearer, crisper, maybe even louder. It sometimes seems as if a thin veil had just been lifted from around you, and noises were all of a sudden less muted. The same thing happens with vision. As if the subzero cold condenses all the matter in the air so that light travels more freely to the eye, making contours clearer, colors more vibrant. When the cold is accompanied by a heavy snow, it is of course more difficult to see, but the help that the ensuing silence lends to our hearing makes up for it. This clarity in the cold is a revelation of the previous inadequacy of your senses, and you feel that you’d been half-asleep up until this point.
On the other hand, when it is very cold—Chicago cold—you also tend to move much more quickly than if you were sauntering in the temperate weather of early fall or late spring. Just the other day it was so cold that my face began hurting after being outside for just a few minutes. If you have lived in a very cold place, this is no shock to you. If you have only visited, you probably weren’t visiting in the dead of winter, and this probably seems like an exaggeration to you. It is not. An animal part of you is kicked into action when it is that cold. You are overcome with one very simple desire: to not be this cold any more. There is a certain kind of embodiment that you experience when it is this cold, only it isn’t the pleasant kind of embodiment.
You can imagine the dilemma, then: move as quickly as you can, huddle into yourself, shut out everything except the effort to get warm again, or move deliberately, take advantage of the acuity of your senses, feel that share of the divine. These are, by and large, mutually exclusive. There’s no good solution to the dilemma. At least not one that I’ve discovered.
Several years ago I worked at a coffee shop in downtown Chicago. I often had to be there at five am to set up before we opened at six. Later in the day, you can take the brown line train to just down the street from the shop, but the only train running at four or five in the morning is the red line. The closest red line stop to my coffee shop was Grand, and that was almost twenty minutes away. In the summer this isn’t a problem, but in the dead of night in winter it is like being on another, harsher planet.
I had to open shop once during the polar vortex of early 2014. On one of the days of the “vortex,” the windchill was officially -45 degrees. I remember hearing on the news that it was actually much lower than that in places, but I can’t seem to find anything to corroborate that memory now. Either way, I was up at three am one of those mornings. I got off the train at just before five, the better part of a half hour walk ahead. Above ground, on the street, that serenity of cold weather scenes was compounded to an extreme degree by the complete absence of any vestige of life. The buildings were less places of commerce and culture, and more the remnants of a civilization completely extinct. They loomed in that space. Beyond time, past history, more science fiction than anything else. There isn’t even a morning chorus in that kind of cold. Just quiet. If there were a time for perfect clarity in observation it would be on just such a morning.
Of course, I noticed this all whilst making my way through what was—while beautiful—a frozen hellscape that I desperately needed to escape as quickly as possible. I didn’t even try running. Sucking down air that thin and dry would have been impossible. Moreover, my entire body was contracted and tense in an unconscious attempt to generate and retain heat, so moving any more than with a strained, fierce hobble was out of the question. The snow was deep in some places where either the city hadn’t yet got to plowing or where the duty fell on the owners of the buildings, and no one was going out to plow in that environment.
Battling the snow and my own body as it struggled through the wind and winter, I never had the opportunity to consider my gait or composure. The motion—restrained though brisk, tempered yet unrestrained, deliberate and automatic—was governed solely by the two aforementioned principles of walking in the cold. But I was not simply walking, or “powerwalking,” or running through the cold that morning. It might be best to describe what I was doing as “trudging.”
This word first shows up in print in 1547, in a poem by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. It is safe to assume that it was in use before the Earl snatched it up from the vernacular and put it to use for poetry, but we should still give him some credit. He is an interesting figure in English literature, both largely influential and historically significant, but not as famous as his cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the second and fifth wives of Henry VIII. Surrey rebelled against King Henry when he cut ties with the Catholic Church, and was part of the “Pilgrimage of Grace” uprising in 1536. The poem in which we find “trudge” was printed the year that Surrey died. Henry had condemned Surrey and his father to be beheaded for treason in January of 1547, and while the poet was executed on the nineteenth, his father escaped the executioner when the king himself died on the twenty-eigth.
Surrey, alongside his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt, introduced the sonnet form into English literature. While Wyatt was the first to write poems in the form, Surrey was the one who invented the division of the poem into quatrains and defined the rhyme scheme. For this, the two are sometimes called “the fathers of the English Sonnet,” and “fathers of English Renaissance poetry.” Just half a century later, William Shakespeare had taken the sonnet form to new heights, pondering the pros and cons of comparing his lover to a summer’s day and all, but might not have done this without the form devised by Surrey.
The poem in which the word first appears is called “The Three Ages of Life.” It describes the poet lying in bed, passing from manhood to old age and contemplating his experiences as a boy and young man, unable to sleep. He writes: “Laid in my quiet bed, in study as I were,/ I saw, within my troubled head, a heap of thoughts appear.” He considers the way that the young boy prays to “GOD, to ‘scape the rod, a tall Young Man to be.” But when the boy becomes a Young Man, however, he hates his pains from working, and from being troubled by day to day problems, and wishes “how he would be a rich Old Man, to live and lie at rest!” In turn the Old Man, whom the poet is about to become, wishes “how he would be a Boy again, to live so much the more!” It’s an old problem of course, for each age to be envious of another, to be so unsettled by those hypothetical lives that we aren’t living. But of course our interest in Surrey arises when he, considering all of this, tells his own lack of satisfaction, his “wonted joy,” to come out of him, gather up its bags, and “trudge from [him], to every little boy.” This “wonted joy” is supposed to deliver a message: “Their time most happy is,/ If to their time, they reason had to know the truth” that each age has its own sorrow, so we must cultivate a little bit of joy at whatever age we are. Any time not doing so is only lost opportunity. He concludes that youth is the best time to be alive, because it affords the most time to recognize this truth, and to reap its benefits most thoroughly.
The structure of this address is fascinating. The “message” is the poem itself, and the “they” in the last lines is both the poet and the reader. Surrey indirectly addresses both himself and us in sending his “wonted joy” out into the world. We also note that the poem is not only a “message,” but also a hypostasized form of the “wonted joy” itself. If, within the logic of the poem, what the poet sends forth is this lack of satisfaction, then the poem itself, which is the only way we encounter this emission, is this self-referrential emotion of the poet.
We can infer from the verse that trudging has something to do with carrying out a task, a mission, a project. We might also note that things that trudge do so with some sort of pain. The anxiety, or lack of joy, that is sent out from the poet is pain itself, and carries a heavy burden. Surrey also gives us a powerful image when he asks his message to trudge from him “to every little boy.” This is an endless task. As long as humanity still clings to this planet, this message is supposed to search out every young person (let’s drop the anachronism of gendering the reader) and warn them. It is a failing task as well. We said already that the inability to recognize that every age has its sorrows is a very old problem. Surrey must know this, because he was young once as well, and anyone who has been young will remember the contempt they felt when told this by adults. In other words, Surrey has set himself up with a completely hopeless task. It is one that has no point, since it has no hope of succeeding, but it is one that must be done nonetheless. Like Coleridge’s ancient Mariner, the poet cannot rest (remember he is lying in bed trying to get to sleep) until his message it relayed, although it makes no difference that it is done.
This is consistent with the purported origin of the word itself. In his Grammatica linguae anglicanae from 1653, English mathematician John Wallis conjectures that ‘trudge’ was created by blending “trot” with “drudge” (John Wallis, while we’re on the topic, is the person credited with introducing the symbol ∞ for “infinity”).
“Trotting,” a term originally used to describe a horse gait faster than a walk but slower than a run in the fourteenth century, refers us to the speed at which we trudge. Even if we are trudging through a foot of snow at negative twenty degrees, we’re moving as fast as we can, maybe faster. To trudge through the polar vortex is not just to walk through it, but to move somewhere between the speed of running and that of a casual stroll. There are many words that describe this speed, however. To hone in on the specificity of what it means to ‘trudge,’ we also have to look at the second half of Wallis’ conjectural mash-up. He says that there is a relationship between this type of movement and a ‘drudge.’ In the fourteenth century, this word described someone who was made to do “mean, servile, or distasteful work.” The word ultimately seems to come from the Old English druggen, “to do menial labor.”
To ‘trudge,’ then, is like having to do something that you don’t want to do, but to do it with a sense of urgency nonetheless. Surrey’s “wonted joy” and it’s doomed message ‘trudges’ precisely because it is hopeless, mean, and menial work, but work that must be done with haste, lest one more minute pass by in the reader’s life when they don’t heed the poet’s warning. Trudging is a kind of movement that is internally divided in its concept. It pulls us in two different directions at once.
By the time I got to the coffee shop that morning, my body was numb. I had wanted to get out of the cold so badly that I kept my face down to the iced-over pavement the entire time. Unlike Surrey’s trudging disappointment, my goal was, in fact, achievable after all, but I would have rather not had to do it either way. I would have rather had the opportunity to spend time in that barren space, where the air let through the sound of every crack of the snow, every gust brushing against the street, every labored breath I took as I inevitably trudged along.