All experience is an arch: a traveller’s motto

“All experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I recently added the above quotation to the main page of my travel photos on this website. It’s taken from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, but I first came upon it when the great mountain explorer Eric Shipton quoted it at the end of his autobiography That Untravelled World, a title lifted from the quotation.

My father Ian glimpses that untravelled world, a moment captured on camera by my late mother Elisabeth in 1997
My father Ian glimpses that untravelled world, a moment captured on camera by my late mother Elisabeth in 1997

The Greek hero of Tennyson’s poem is soliloquising about how boring it is staying at home and ruling his kingdom, and only by travelling does he truly extend his experience. First reading it out of context from the rest of the poem, I gave it a slightly different interpretation that seemed especially apt for a travel website. The arch denotes that everything we experience is just a tiny glimpse of something much bigger, but because we experience it uniquely it’s like looking into an untravelled world where nobody else has been before. While we retain the central features, over time our memory of the experience fades around the margins, and every time we move it fades a little more.

Travelling is a great example of experiencing these glimpses into an untravelled world. While we gain an understanding of a new culture or landscape, we only see a small part of it, and of course like everything else in life it fades. I decided to put the quotation on my photos page because the image of an arch brought to mind the lens of a camera, a device that helps to capture the memory and keep it with us for a little longer.

Another way of capturing the memories and giving that small glimpse through the arch to other people is by putting your experiences down in words. I always keep a daily journal when I’m on my travels, and because I’m usually out in the wilds on an expedition where I have little or no access to electricity, I record it with pen and ink and type it up when I return home. I’m constantly amazed at how much I’ve forgotten about my experiences even just a few months later, and I actually enjoy typing my diaries up because it helps to bring it all back for me. Shipton died in 1977 after a lifetime of extraordinary adventures. His memories would have faded into dust had he not recorded them on paper, and now we can all still experience and enjoy them 30 years later.

I’m not really a poetry man, but sometimes even I have to take my hat off to these poets for capturing a feeling so evocatively with their remarkable gift for words.

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