William Bartram

Snails, dragonfly, crab and snake: a veritable peaceable kingdom, except perhaps for the hapless frog?

William Bartram had perhaps as much direct impact on the Romantic poets as any other eighteenth-century naturalist. His influence is evident in works by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth, Shelley and others. His Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791) became a source for images ranging from alligators and waterfalls to magnolias and natural fountains throughout the early decades of the nineteenth-century. Coleridge virtually quotes him in “Kubla Khan,” as does Wordsworth in “Ruth”: “He spoke of plants that hourly change / Their blossoms, through a boundless range . . . He told of the magnolia, spread / High as a cloud, high over head!” A sample of Bartram’s lavish prose suggests why he was so influential:

Near me on the left, was a point or projection of an entire grove of the aromatic Illisium Floridanum; on my right and all around behind me, was a fruitful Orange grove, with Palms and Magnolias interspersed; in front, just under my feet was the inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute, forming a bason, capacious enough for large shallops to ride in, and a creek of four or five feet depth of water, and nearly twenty yards over, which meanders six miles through green meadows . . .

Bartram embraced the tendency to link natural history to travel narratives when he titled his most famous work Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws . This groundbreaking volume was first published in 1791. Since then, this text has been discussed almost exclusively in terms of its contributions to natural history and to Romantic writings by Coleridge and Wordsworth. Bartram’s work, however, first announces itself, in its title, as an anthropological journey through areas controlled by the indigenous peoples of North America . Indeed, Bartram begins his book as a travelogue:

The attention of a traveller should be particularly turned, in the first place, to the various works of Nature, to mark the distinctions of the climates he may explore, and to offer such useful observations on the different productions as may occur (11).

Again and again, Bartram frames the narrative of his discoveries in terms of his travels through strange and hitherto unexplored landscapes: “When travelling on the east coast of the isthmus of Florida, ascending the south Musquito river, in a canoe” (17); “There are few objects out at sea to attract the notice of the traveller, but what are sublime, awful, and majestic” (30); “Beyond yon promontory, projecting far into the great river, beyond the still lagoon, half a mile distant from me: what a magnificent grove arises on its banks!” (91). Bartram paints himself into the scene as our only narrative point of view, as the first European traveler to many of these locales, and as a careful scientific observer who reports back the precise and accurate details of his journey. The novelty of these events is part of what makes them memorable, but Bartram’s rhetoric allows him to compare these new objects and events to things he already knows. His narration combines the new and remarkable with the well known and comprehensible.

One of the first images of dinosaurish alligators from the New World

At the same time, however, Bartram’s most powerful language tends to be reserved for the nonhuman nature that he encounters. In fact, it is often natural features of the landscape that become the organizing principles of his narrative. In fact, Bartram’s language often reaches a fevered, and seemingly fanciful, pitch in his effort to describe the wonders he encounters in the New World. As poet James Dickey says in his introduction to a recent edition of Bartram: “his imagination is so strong and so emotionally charged that some of his creatures outleap the science in which he tries to net them [. . .] the animal which Bartram calls interchangeably ‘alligator’ and ‘crocodile’ belongs more to William Blake than to Linnaeus or Darwin” (1988, ix). Dickey’s reference to Blake reminds us of the way an ostensibly objective observer can sometimes approach the “visionary” if the intensity of the description is sufficient. Here is Bartram’s travel writing, transformed almost to naturalistic fantasy, when he stumbles upon his first swamp full of alligators:

Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue fro m his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder (115).

This sounds like an announcement for the apocalypse, or at least like an image from a fantastic world. But the tone of the travel writer soon returns, describing the landscapes that hold these alligators as though they are Elysian fields: “I was however induced to deviate a little from my intended course, and touch at the enchanting little Isle of Palms. This delightful spot, planted by nature, is almost an entire grove of Palms, with a few pyramidal Magnolias, Live Oaks, golden Orange , and the animating Zanthoxylon [prickly ash]. What a beautiful retreat is here! Blessed unviolated spot of earth, rising from the limpid waters of the lake” (143). Bartram’s tone thus moves through a whole range of emotions in his ostensibly objective descriptions: fear, anxiety, excitement, enthusiasm, anger, relief.

Bartram offers two sometimes contradictory goals. On the one hand, like many travel writers before and since, he wants to say to his readers: you should come to this place, you should see these things I have seen. You should learn to appreciate the richness of the world in all its variety, the complex variety that my travels have confirmed. At the same time, Bartram wants to say to those same readers: you cannot believe the size, the scale, the untamed wildness of this place. You cannot quite imagine this world, inhabited as it is by literal dragons, carnivorous plants, howling wolves and rattlesnakes as thick as your arm. This world is almost beyond my powers of description. Bartram had set out initially on a specific geographic and naturalistic mission: “Dr. Fothergill, of London ” had simply asked him to search this region “for the discovery of rare and useful productions of nature, chiefly in the vegetable kingdom” (29). But like all successful travel writers, Bartram records many remarkable details he could not have imagined when he set out, and he concludes his narrative only when he returns to those parts of the world that are already well known:

I shall pass as speedily as possible from hence to Pennsylvania, my native country; since those cultivated regions of Virginia and Maryland, through which I design to travel, have been over and over explored, and described by very able men in every branch of natural history (378).

So the tone of the writing, and the level of attention to detail, can change dramatically based on the extent to which the local flora and fauna fulfill the specific needs of the explorer at each point in the narrative. Ever since Livingston Lowes chronicled every detail that might have fostered Coleridge’s eidetic imagination, we have appreciated the way Bartram’s roaring alligators, unfolding tropical blossoms, and lush Floridian landscape must have played on the minds of poets in the chilly mists of the Lake District. Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals sometimes adopt syntax or a cadence that echoes Bartram’s hyperbolic diction. Bartram still reminds us of the way verbal pictures of the vastness, the strangeness, and the natural beauty of America stimulated European imaginations for several centuries. –Ashton Nichols

(revised and reprinted from “Nature as Narrative: Bartram, Darwin, Dillard, Matthiessen,” Festschrift for Helio Osvaldo Alves (Minho, Portugal: Centro de Estudos Humanísticos, 2005):  221-31

Bartram links:

Bartram’s illustrations

Bartram biography (North Carolina Natural.com)

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