Landscape Sailing to a New World: British Romantic Poetry and the Unsettling of America [1]


Peter Larkin


Coleridge Bulletin New Series 17 NS, Summer 2001, pp 39-57.





   … this fair river issuing from the two lakes… bending itself in an amazing number of curvatures to gather in its course a greater number of creeks and rivulets and to impart mankind a greater degree of benefits.  Few rivers in this part of the world exhibit so great a display of the richest and fertilest land the most sanguine wish of man can possible covet and desire.[2]


If J. Hector St-John de Crevecoeur puts forward his writing about the Susquehanna valley with the authority of one who has been there,  he can at the same moment evoke a world perfectly recognisable to another writer who hadn’t ever seen it and never would:


Yet will I love to follow the sweet dream,

Where Susquehanna pours his untam’d stream;

And on some hill, whose forest-frowning side

Waves o’er the murmurs of his calmer tide…


Coleridge’s ‘Monody of the Death of Chatterton’ touches eagerly on the harsher ‘forest-frowning’ margins of the Susquehanna which suggest an untamed but freshly nurturing vigour, while Crevecoeur will find himself drawn into dissonances of the place that are less agreeably elemental.  The contrast between a promising landscape and its aptitude to divert promise to threat finally leads Crevecoeur not to publish his account of the region at all, while for Coleridge wilderness bespeaks a welcome to his storm-tossed generation in particular, a sublimity which if not greater than he can know will turn out to be further than he can go.  It is a wilderness already understood and classified as an environment, as the ground of a new human community which calls to him across a ‘soft green, pathless field of novelty’ (CL I 84).  ‘For a few months America really inspired Hope, and I became an exalted Being’ he tells his Notebook in 1805 (CN II 2398), and the hope, if not the practical expectation, was to last more than months: even as late as 1801 Coleridge is assuring a sceptical Poole that ‘I say I would go to America if Wordsworth would go with me, and we could persuade two or three farmers




of this country who are exceedingly attached to us to accompany us’ (CL.II 710).

As poets Coleridge and Wordsworth had already in the 1790’s made their way to an America of the mind, an America perhaps only a little less real than the elusive horizons it offered to its earliest explorers and travellers who had almost nothing to guide them.  It has for long been acknowledged that the two British poets had a strong feeling for the American landscape throughout the decade and for some years beyond.  Coleridge’s fantasies of finding a haven for himself and his family often suggest, sometimes quite overtly, an American ethos, while Wordsworth’s famous ‘What dwelling shall receive me? In what vale / Shall be my harbour’ of the Prelude is shot through with the feeling that dwelling is no simple native return but is a place on the far side of travel and exploration, in geographical as well as psychic terms (1805 I 10).  References to America, its woods and savannahs, continue to haunt the Excursion, while earlier poems like ‘The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman’ or ‘Ruth’ could not have been written without the premise of an American landscape.  Coleridge’s echoes of William Bartram, from the early drafts of ‘Lewti’ onwards are well documented, and ‘This Lime Tree Bower’ openly acknowledges Bartram in a footnote which recognises the latter’s Savannah Crane as the genius (if not genus) behind Coleridge’s own ‘creeking’ Quantock rook.

The whole Pantisocratic venture is now seen to have had a more serious cultural basis than the enthusiasm of two young poets freshly out of college might warrant.  The germ of Pantisocracy probably derived from a similar project initiated by Thomas Cooper and Joseph Priestley, a prospectus for which was circulating in France as well as England.  Priestley was already in America by 1794, and Lamb’s friend George Dyer assured Coleridge that Priestley would be sure to join the Pantisocrats the moment they set foot in Pennsylvania.  Priestley’s son-in-law Thomas Cooper was in London in 1794 supervising the publication of his Some Information Respecting America, a book which avidly promotes the Susquehanna, and Coleridge had direct contact either with him or one of his associates, speedily writing to Southey to pass on the latest news from this favoured region.  Both Coleridge and Wordsworth read widely in American travel literature.  A second edition of  Bartram’s Travels came out in 1794, as did an edition of the English translation of Brissot de Warville’s Travels in the United States, works which we know Coleridge became thoroughly familiar with.  Two years earlier Gilbert Imlay’s much reviewed Topographic Description of the Western Terrain of North America had excited London, with its attempt to lure settlers across the Ohio into a more radical (though perfectly safe!) wilderness.  These were all figures known to one another, and Brissot was also acquainted with Crevecoeur who was a fellow founder-member of the Gallo-American Society.[3]  Republican America was




intimately linked to Revolutionary France on the one hand, and on the other was a scene of real-estate promotion as the business of opening up preferred areas and procuring settlers got underway.  Both Imlay and Cooper (and by implication Priestley himself) were putting forward rival parts of North America as the most desirable or progressive areas to settle in, and dabbling in land sales and speculation. 

However, British attitudes to America were growing more complex and ambivalent since the loss of the colony (the only severe defeat Britain was to suffer during the century): a much less Arcadian view was emerging.  How America was viewed was itself part of a culture-war between left and right, with  radicals hailing a return to a Golden Age at last realisable in a thoroughly progressive and modern state, while conservatives suspected the American wilderness as a false panacea or a dangerous regression to barbarism.  As part of the fall-out from the Terror even liberals could cast a sceptical eye on the utopian hopes of America, but could set against that the potentiality of American land in itself, the promise of an American agrarian republic based on solid Georgic ideals, avoiding the political extremes of the chaotically growing European cities.  The Pantisocrats would certainly have been attracted to America in terms of a landscape, not just a disembodied Utopia: landscape for them had a political meaning in itself and suggested potentiality for a non-violent and more sustainable mode of advance.  The British press needed some convincing, however.  Coleridge, Southey and their circle were familiar with the frequent reviews of American travel books in the Monthly Review, many of which expressed scepticism toward the claims of the New World.  In January 1795 it was the British Critic which derided Cooper and Imlay in particular as two ‘rival auctioneers’ or ‘show-men stationed for the allurement of incautious passengers’ and questioned how anyone who claimed to be from the ‘thinking part of the nation’ could possibly be attracted to emigrate.

Emigration to America in the 1790’s could not be an innocent choice, for to embark for that destination was to declare oneself either a refugee from persecution in need of a truer liberty, or  worse, a simpleton and ne’er-do-well who could be persuaded to part with money.  Southey would certainly have been ruefully aware of this latter aspect, as Pantisocracy had always been something of an investment for him, despite his initial idealism, but the papers were now full of tales of miserable “returnees” who had lost everything in the recalcitrant American forest and swamp.  Coleridge no doubt hoped a farmer or two taken along with the party might give them some chance against America at its most hostile, but in any case his dream of America was as much inflected by fascination for the long, transformative voyage it symbolised.  This was a voyage which might of itself separate dread from hope and constitute a process of purgation, even before the moment of arrival.  Writing to Southey in July 1794, Coleridge identifies himself as one who has already been shipwrecked by the habit of despondency, so we can speculate that the lure of a long sea-voyage might have offered him paradoxically the chance of




outsailing those inner reefs and rocks, with the promise of a safe haven and pastures new for voyagers who would have been already internally renewed in the very process of crossing an ocean (CL I 85).





Perhaps it wasn’t just settlers or travellers who made voyages at this period.  How was the projected landscape of America itself faring, and where had it come from?  Had the very scenery, to the extent it was visible, made its own voyage out from Europe, and was now shuttling back and forth, each time returning to Europe as much as it had originally taken out?  In this paper I will consider the distinctive voyages we can imagine the American landscape itself entering on, a landscape at once a European construct and a counter-invention of European elements no longer laid out in a European way or in a European space.  Throughout the eighteenth century and during the two or three opening decades of the nineteenth, America, to the extent it could function as a landscape, remained uncertain of its actual ‘location’.  Was it a rejection of European conditions but one designed for the European settlers who brought that rejection with them?  Was it a conscious reminiscence of Europe devised by cultivated American nationalists with sufficient confidence in their own regions to undertake distinctive explorations of the cult of landscape?

Landscape could not have come to mean what it did for the eighteenth century without the contemporary preoccupation with travel.  Nobody seemed to stay at home anymore, and even sceptics like Johnson, Swift, Smollet and Sterne took trouble to travel enough in order to bring back in their luggage rich evidence of its newsworthy shortcomings.[4] The British seemed to travel more than any other European nation, and with peculiarly divided loyalties: a virtual convention of the Grand Tour was that you contrasted your admiration of Italian art and landscape with distaste for that country’s modern political and economic decadence.  The genius of the Ancients needed to migrate further north where an improved landscape was waiting to enshrine classic verities within an upright moral climate and progressive economy.  And as you crossed the Alps through a more tormented region before descending into the light of the Campagna, you also collected experiences that were to re-envision landscapes nearer home, opening your eyes to the wilder margins of Britain, or even to the pleasurably discoverable irregularities of Derbyshire and Yorkshire.  The emergence of the idea of landscape, initially in painting, had almost exactly coincided with the establishment of the first American colonies, and as the eighteenth century itself wore on an elaborate classificatory apparatus was to evolve within the




writings of Addison, Burke, Gilpin, Price and Knight.  As the century drew to its close what one might loosely call the ‘discreet disorder’ of the picturesque claimed the upper hand, beauty and order having deferred to what interested the eye, and sublime terror to a more advised taste for the uncommon.  But the craving for visual novelty remained a destabilising appetite, and as British taste became increasingly impatient with suave artificiality it seemed almost at the point of inventing an America – which, happily, had the grace to exist in outline.  Dr John Brown’s account of the fells around Keswick, which came out in 1766, seems to yearn for a world of untouched and monumental wilderness as he gazes on:


[r]ocks and cliffs of stupendous height, hanging broken over the lake in horrible grandeur,… the woods climbing up their steep and shaggy sides, where mortal foot never yet approached.[5]


       From the outset Addison had lauded grandeur of scale, openness of prospect and uncommonness of feature as essentials for any landscape worthy of the name, a landscape susceptible to being invented and shaped by the human mind and hand.  Landscape creation, or ‘place making’ as Capability Brown dubbed it, was not confined to consciously artificial arenas, but was capable of extending to an eagerness to differentiate, describe, classify and colonise what lay beyond any formal grounds.  The American wilderness was waiting to be explored, and once found was initially eager to have its own disposition taught it.  The French savant Buffon believed ‘nature’ was an entity needing to be imported into America along with European civilisation, since nature was a garden made fruitful by human cultivation out of the debased state of wilderness into which the natural had fallen.  Later eighteenth century British aesthetics had a more positive feeling for the earth’s natural variety and a greater willingness to recognise in disorderly juxtaposition of forms signs of divine animation, but even this more sophisticated sense of creation’s mysteries remained to be deployed as an instrument of intervention.  The picturesque itself teetered on the margins of a darker landscape, one enduring but also to be endured.  Implicit in Cowper’s much admired ‘Yardley Oak’ or in Gray’s lonely bardic figures was the sense not only of a less smiling nature (which had begun to jade the eye) but also of the beleaguered human being isolated amid a hostile nature.  This too seemed to suggest America, or imply  a similar motif might be fittingly arrayed in American materials.  It was a landscape tradition sailing for the opportunity of projection and amplification amid the alluring wastes of America, with a firm conviction that wilderness could be spelled out as spectacle. 








The contraries of the sublime and the picturesque were the ruling passion of British landscape thinking in the 1790’s, and the American writers I look at now were totally familiar with such fashionable categories.  Unsurprisingly, even while they strive to respect them as an international benchmark against which to record and make real their experience of America, so the terms slide or the same landscape begs to be read in contradictory or quite un-European ways.  In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (1787), his mountains which run in ridges rather than scattering themselves in an Alpine manner hardly conjure up images of Salvator.  They more easily suggest Enlightenment values of order and restraint, whereas it is the rivers where they tumultuously break through the measured mountain chains which are the more convincingly sublime.  From the perspectives of settlement and commerce, however, it is the river which acquires the more civilised status, allowing a wilder sublimity to revert to the now distantly overhanging ridges.[6]  In the 1790’s American writers made some effort to hold onto such distinctions but by the opening decades of the new century it was a discrimination liable to break down under the pressure of American experience.  For Crevecoeur the problem was already how to set about viewing scenery on so vast a scale, where ‘view’ implied a settled European framework and convenient access.  In his suppressed ‘Susquehanna’ chapter from his Letters of an American Farmer (1782), he tries to notate the contrasting landscape around the village of Wyoming in picturesque terms, but observes ‘[w]hat a scene an eminent painter might have copied from that striking exhibition, if it had been a place where a painter could have calmly sat, with the palette in his hands’ (Hales 59).  Thomas West’s 1778 Guide to the Lakes had laid down that a visitor should seek out suitable ‘stations’ from which to view a mountain from its finest aspect, but Crevecoeur, sailing up the Hudson beside lofty crags, has the American dream revealed to him in a baffling way.  ‘This is in reality only a dream’, he remarks to his companion, ‘for the progress of the vessel is so rapid that it is impossible to enjoy fully the general effect of these mighty images.  Scarcely are the eyes fixed on certain striking objects when immediately the change in our position gives them a new aspect’.[7] This very rapidity of fleeting aspect valued for its own sake  will provide the key to a new generation of Americans hungry for fresh ways of experiencing their landscape, and it was already becoming an experimental mode of perception among the perambulating British Romantic poets. 

American writers will identify with the picturesque where they can in the 1790’s, and we should recall that Bartram’s Travels didn’t lead its author




through virgin wilderness for the most part, but through thinly settled areas of Southeastern America, where he could cling to his status as a visual tourist.  Crevecoeur too, writing about the Susquehanna, will seize on a picturesque effect when one can be had:


The drumming of partridges… heard at a distance greatly resembles the discharge of  cannon; the roaring of distant falls produces likewise a singular effect strangely modified either by the wind or the situation in which you stand.  (Hales 48)


This sounds like a promising ‘station’, reminiscent of the artificial cannon-boomings across Derwent Water, but this is America and Crevecoeur uninnocently includes the detail as a premonition of the fate which will overtake the village of Wyoming during the Revolutionary War.  The cannon will come to destroy the picturesque, since in America effects and images are disconcertingly over-fulfilled by history.  Jefferson too will catch at a picturesque effect.  Whilst in the midst of a sublime evocation of the dizzy heights of the Natural Bridge he subdues the painful sensation by calling attention to the pleasing view of the North Mountain on one side and the Blue Ridge on the other, visible from below the Natural Bridge at least .  Or not even here, Jefferson was later to admit, for he had gone beyond his field-notes to delineate a picturesque view in order to offset or blend a sublime moment, as might any improving landscape gardener.  It was important to be able to show that the natural spectacles of America were not rudely isolated and isolating, but could occur (with a little adjustment) in the midst of more ‘finished’ and pleasing landscapes.  Jefferson makes a similar adjustment when  describing the junction of two great rivers, the Potomac and Shenandoah, water-courses not bountiful or pastoral like the Ohio, but turbulent mountain-breakers.  The junction of the two rivers isn’t simply constituted within the awe inspired by having cut through a mountain ridge,  but (as significantly) has composed itself at its margins into a view:


[T]he distant finishing which nature has given to the picture is of a very different character.  It is a true contrast to the foreground.  It is as placid and delightful, as that is wild and tremendous.  For the mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small patch of smooth blue horizon…inviting you…from the riot and tumult around, to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below.[8]


The ‘cleft’ recalls the cunning glimpses and judiciously interrupted planting of a Pope or a Shenstone, by which unexpected detours open up the




possibility of a further removed prospect.

Bartram is more reluctantly drawn to the picturesque, acknowledging that it is expected of him, but keen to show how the sheer scale of scenery runs ahead of the composing eye.  By implication, Bartram approaches to the Romantic feeling that there is something paltry in an eye that so infills a scene.  He comes upon an aquatic plant matted together to form floating islands, affording an entertaining prospect:


[F]or although we behold an assemblage of the primary productions of nature only, yet the imagination seems to remain in suspension or doubt; as, in order to enliven the delusion, and from a most picturesque appearance, we see not only flowering plants…but we also see them completely inhabited and alive, with crocodiles, serpents, frogs… There seems, in short, nothing wanted but the appearance of a wigwam and a canoe to complete the scene.[9]


This rejoins the world of Dorothy Wordsworth overlooking the Bristol Channel from her Quantock ridge and positioning in her mind’s eye a sail upon the water.  How does a crocodile inhabit the picturesque, however?  A wigwam or two would certainly fit, but Bartram will explode that scene by canoeing on downriver, observing as he goes groups of alligators basking on the banks, some of enormous size.  They are on a scale to task the imagination, but the point is also implicitly made that in their disconcerting factuality they need not or cannot be imagined.  He repeats the ploy when, at the entrance to a pine forest, he observes a series of low mounds or sand hills of gentle ascent, yet at a distance swelling like a tempest-tossed ocean.  As his party approaches the hills, all sense of elevation is dispelled and the features seem little more than a visionary illusion.  The imagination remains ‘flattered and dubious’ amid the hills’ circular uniformity, surrounded by expansive green meadows of strange regularity, together with a ‘picturesque dark grove of live oak’.  Bartram concludes:  ‘one might naturally suppose [it] to be the sacred abode…of the guardian spirit:  but it actually is the possession and retreat of a thundering absolute crocodile’ (Bartram 156).  Bartram seems to be challenging us to say, What is the picturesque rating of a crocodile den? He is not interested simply in subverting a locus amoenus by brutality: it’s more a question of a vitality which permutates too rapidly for stable classification.  The crocodile is too lowly to be sublime but rivals that quality in fearsomeness, while the gentle hills, lakes and groves are not posed enough to be absolutely beautiful, but they can’t be consigned to visual barrenness either.

In less peremptory vein, Bartram extols the luxuriance of the Gordonia shrub (in a passage which inspires a moment in Wordsworth’s ‘Ruth’), a tall and singular plant which Gilpin himself would have been pleased to acknowledge.  Its growth is so lavish at the time during which its foliage




mutates from green to yellow, from scarlet to crimson, that Bertram claims for it the quasi-mythic capacity to change its garments “every morning throughout the year” (Bartram 146).  Here is a New World indeed, one not even containable within a European decorum of the seasons, and it chimes with Gilbert Imlay’s insistence on exuberance as the prime characteristic of nature in his Ohio valley, where ‘on boundless savannas’ buffalo and elk ‘wanton in the exuberance of their luxurious pastures’.[10] As a pastoral this can’t  register as sublime, but it is too prolific and unseemly to remain within the economy of the picturesque either.  Bartram and Imlay will frequently substitute lavishness for more stately magnificence, and even Crevecoeur in the North-East when encountering a more familiar grandeur will question why such wonders were placed by the Creator so far from the ‘sight of civilized nations’. The enlightened sensibility alone permits a worthy admiration of these marvels.  There remains a residue of doubt whether the American supplement to the known wonders of Creation, however lavish and wondrous, doesn’t also displace them, by suggesting a created world not fully recognisable or answerable, and dislodging the centrality of the admiringly adverting mind.

Gilpin had supposed pure wilderness unfitted for pictorial representation precisely because it was “unfinished”, and Bartram will question, on encountering less fecund landscapes, with their scattered bones and dreary mountains, whether such a plethora of incult landscape is not too disagreeable to delicate feelings (Bartram 263).  It is impossible to discern, he opines, what direful or unjust histories might lie unrecorded among such solitudes.  The shadow of a moral wilderness charts the limits of any American picturesque, given the scale of fate and unknown history too vast to discriminate upon such terrain.  Not surprisingly, American settlers were slow to pursue this air of menace.  Crevecoeur, Jefferson and Bartram were all imbued with the  dream of an America fulfilling an Arcadia only dreamt of in Europe, and they were reluctant to set aside claims that precisely attracted notice in Europe on that count.  Wilderness in itself might be too untaught to be picturesque, but it promised the way to a more genuine rendering of the picturesque than was possible in the overlay of the European landscape.  There, many effects were necessarily artificial, while in America contrasts and roughness where manageable remained genuine properties of an only partly settled country.

A commonplace for the European picturesque was the obligation to decide at what point it was no longer possible to ‘delineate’ a scene, by which time one was likely to be trespassing on something more sublime.  The American predicament was rather where to begin to delineate scenery, the immeasurable beckoned from the outset.  American wilderness remained literally ungraspable, its extent and structure still unmapped for the most part during the 1790’s.  The continent was that ‘vast / Expanse of unappropriated earth…/ Free as the sun, and lonely as the sun’ which Wordsworth would




evoke in The Excursion, a country where freedom and solitude were also mental pioneers surveying wood and wide savannah from ‘some commanding eminence which yet / Intruder ne’er beheld’ (Excursion III 941-47).  It was a place where perception itself could appear unmindful of its own intrusion but remain innocently expansive, suspended in a generous moment of pre-appropriation.  Coleridge’s own sense of a Miltonic sublime seems tailor-made for American spaces already presaged in the imagined voyage to America, where greatness arises from ‘effort and daring, and also from…moral endurance’.[11] Gilbert Burnett’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684) identified mountains as ruins left over from the Biblical Deluge, and in the same way American mountains (especially the more southern and western) were readable as primeval ruins on the margins of the valley of human civilization, perhaps ambivalently uplifted beyond it.  Imlay will compare the imagery of a great ridge to the debris of a noble city, where an individual feature as soon suggests a grand mosque (Imlay 25).  The sublime is the site of a civilization unknown or displaced, but hauntingly familiar enough in imagination to turn out to be one’s own.  What sort of ‘place’ does this make America as the cradle of a new society?





If the American sublime was, in Kantian terms, limitless and devoid of form, it took its own characteristic turn towards what we can recognise as a “sublime of origin”.  This includes not just the Burkean sense of being hurried on by an irresistible force, but of being caught up in a process of elemental transformation, one that is world-creating.  Crevecoeur’s companion remarks, as they cross the Susquehanna together, how the harsh and sterile forests they see will soon provide food for thousands:


I am having the opportunity of observing what can truly be called the origin of society…in these places where, just seven months ago, only the cries of panthers and the howls of wolves were to be heard.  Yes, without doubt…we are traveling paths which will some day be great and beautiful highways. (ECTP 36-37)


In American terms, certainly until the close of the eighteenth century but also beyond, the exploitation of a landscape was seen as a work of sublime power, not an inevitable taming or deflating of it.  A more recalcitrant sublime, one of resistance to human intervention, still prowled the environs, however.  In his Susquehanna essay, Crevecoeur records how, upon leaving a neat, well-ordered village, he is almost at once overwhelmed by a terrifying immediacy of




wilderness in which he is bewildered geographically and psychologically:


[W]e were all at once suddenly stopt by a huge pine swamp which had been partly consumed by some accidental fire; immense trees burnt at the roots were oversat, one over the other in an infinite variety of directions…there was no penetrating through such a bleak scene of confusion; it was a perfect chaos.  (Hales 50)


This hardly resembles a developer’s paradise: on the contrary, the landscape set against itself, fallen in on itself, presents a concentrated resistance.  Bartram too records areas devastated or congealed by fire, abandoned even by local wildlife, where for humans direction-finding becomes virtually impossible.  These are not scenes offered as self-consciously sublime, though they infiltrate both the sublime of world-creation and the sublime of future exploitation as emblems of the immeasurable.  It is an immeasurable, however, which defies any fabulous becoming and defers itself endlessly from resourcefulness, no more possible a settlement than Antarctica was to be for the Ancient Mariner.

This darker sublime does prove more malleable on occasion, particularly in the Northeast, where it mutates to a more European-like sublime of spectacle, one that projects key-sites along the lines of Mont Blanc and the Grande Chartreuse.  Niagara is the hallmark, for here was deployed a natural force actively pulsing through the landscape, carving out its gorge at a speed which could be tracked by the scale of human history, at the same time symbolising an enormous resource begging for transformation and industrial harnessing.  It was a spectacle too awesome to be represented from any single perspective, but composed one gigantic, unified spectre of energy.  In the closing decades of the century a sublime like this, though formulated in conventional Burkean or Kantian terms, was not seen to be antithetical to the excitement to be had from contemplating its industrial potential.  Here was a version of the American sublime that was equally an objective aesthetic category and an engine for modernisation.  For Crevecoeur Niagara inspired a fantasy of gothic structures, colonnades suspended in aerial perspective, ancient castles and the rest, but more than that, it was a power-house of new creation, capable of a fantastical precision.

As he travels through Pennsylvania and New York (and writing for a French audience), Crevecoeur makes a point of detouring to the Sterling Iron-works where the great chain was manufactured which successfully blocked access for the British Navy along the Hudson.  Manufacturing bespeaks American self-reliance and independence from Europe, even within the larger frame of an Arcadian difference from Europe.

Jefferson sees how the American landscape inscribes on itself the path of its own sublime genesis, a process of struggle and awesome self-composition which he realises, at least in aesthetic terms, still continues.  Here is a drama where the irresistible does encounter the immovable, where a power of is




scoured out and dynamized by a power for:


The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is…one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.  You stand on a very high point of land.  On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountains a hundred miles to seek a vent.  On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also.  In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea.  (Jefferson 19)


This sense that the landscape has its own ongoing history, punctuated by sudden catastrophic events, remains a matter of aesthetic fancy that is not yet geology, but is already full of the undertones of American self-transformation.  The sublime travail of water and rock also features in Imlay’s The Emigrants, where the rivers Allegheny and Monongahela flow towards union in defiance of the mountainous partition closing off the West.

Jefferson’s most tactile account of sublime spectacle features the  Natural Bridge, which has him creeping up to the parapet on hands and feet assailed by dizziness: ‘It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here’, he proclaims, and this for him is indeed the American sublime, a junction of natural enormity with a superhuman functionality, since it is through such given and found channels of communication that the landscape can be traversed and settled (Jefferson 25).  It is the mind which reads the potential of the bridge in what is the residue of an enormous cave-roof; what remains terrifying is that a bridge of this scale is too vast, too awesome, to be merely part of any settled human order.  For Bartram, travelling further afield, the grandeur of the land is less a dream of magical artefact than a power which breezes through the ‘high lonesome forests with an awful reverential harmony, inexpressibly sublime, and not to be enjoyed anywhere, but in these native wild regions' (Jefferson 160).  This is more a sublimity of remoteness than magnificence, but it is a clear foretaste of the Romanticism which will sweep the American landscape during the opening decades of the new century.  And remoteness will turn out to be a more fragile but contesting value, one marshalling protest out of threatened contrast as the sublime of magisterial potential is increasingly acted out and burdensomely fulfilled.  Could anything be found in the American landscape to mediate this polarity? How was an “idea” of American landscape, a place in its own terms and not just a set of objective aesthetic recognitions, to be created?





America, reached only by a long sea-voyage, had for two centuries held out to European settlers the thrill of a new world to be won, a space disclosing new potentialities for natural well-being or a secure haven from which to pursue spiritual vision.  In 1799 Charles Brockden Brown, in the preface to his novel




Edgar Huntly, is still confidently expecting a land which will furnish ‘new springs of action and new motives to curiosity’ capable of differentiating themselves decisively from what existed in Europe (Sayre 4).  ‘Curiosity’ suggests a world of unexpected relations between newly discovered facts, a shaking up, perhaps, of the European order of knowledge, or a new way of combining the elements of human living.  The prolific variety of America’s natural history conjured up a landscape upon which a European sense of political history and contention had not yet intruded.  America was the world’s western horizon, and the further west you went the nearer you touched upon a precipice of pre-history, or stood at a border beyond which time had never been, or was exhibiting a perpetual era of newness before and after history.  Such primordiality seemed to offer itself as the fount of a new politics, or a displacement from political entrammellings altogether.  Gilbert Imlay could claim that just as America’s natural history was remarkable in the physical world, so was its constitution no less a marvel in the political world (Andrews 38).  Brissot declared he had travelled to America not to discover new plants but to observe how men behaved who had at last acquired a real liberty (Andrews 38).  Crevecoeur, born in Europe, wrote as a man who had found the means of changing his life as no European could.  With America came the chance for a simple man to own property, and the ‘Michael’-like tie an American could feel for his own self-made holding Crevecoeur took to be more profound than the European tradition of property-inheritance. 

       Improving the land through your own labour spelled not just progress but a way of life based on a wholesome integrity: ‘Here we have regained the ancient dignity of our species’ Crevecoeur wrote, ‘our laws are simple and just, we are a race of cultivators, our cultivation is unrestrained, and therefore everything is prosperous and flourishing’.[12] This is much more a Georgic vision of America than a picturesque one, but Americans cleaved to their country in this light, fearing that Europe’s already spawning industrial centres would undermine traditional rural virtues.  America was to be a refuge for the husbandman.  For Jefferson those who worked the land were a chosen people, America’s great advantage lay in its immensity of land ideal for inculcating rural excellence, indeed the very place to apply the pastoral tradition (in Europe reduced to an effete fable) to the strategies of actual living.  The need to  achieve mastery over the forces of nature and realise the potential of the wilderness was from the first, for thoughtful Americans like Jefferson and Crevecoeur, a struggle for a new regimen for human nature itself.  This implied a sphere of minimal politics ‘unencumbered either with voluminous laws, or contradictory codes’ as Crevecoeur characterised it.  ‘Americans live with more ease, decency and peace, than you can imagine: where, though governed with no laws, yet find, in uncontaminated simple




manners all that laws can afford’.[13] Here was an America of the ‘middle landscape’ identified by Leo Marx, a place for human beings amid nature, a working landscape, and as such no escapist immersion in a pure atmospherics of idle nature.  It comes close to the sort of landscape the Pantisocrats were in search of, to flesh out their dream of a political liberty grounded on frugality rather than urban excess, a politics of small self-regulating communities rather than industrialised mass-transformation.

The matter of America cannot be resolved quite as happily as that, however.  Throughout eighteenth-century Europe a polemic had persisted over the nature of American nature: was its wilderness a reserve of stable, inherent fruitfulness, the same since pre-Columban days, or was wilderness itself essentially a fallen nature needing to be redeemed from barrenness and kept fertile by the human arts of cultivation? The New World’s very existence was taken to be a product of European expansion and increased mobility, factors which opened up in their wake unsettling doubts about the nature of human order, an order perhaps given (as in the ancient world) to periods of rapid improvement succeeded only be deep troughs of degeneracy.  Was America’s future as well as its (Indian) past to be bounded by indecipherable ruin?

This ambivalence is encapsulated in Brissot’s laconic optimism (part of which Coleridge quotes in a letter to Poole).  Describing the luxuriant Ohio valley, Brissot remarks: ‘A man in that country works scarcely two hours a day, for the support of his family: he passes most of his time in idleness, hunting or drinking' (Andrews 44).  Writing of the equally fertile Susquehanna valley, Crevecoeur deplores how a land too easily cleared, its natural fecundity taken for granted, may lead to idleness and careless habits of husbandry.  America is a country where men ‘are left wholly dependent on their native tempers and on the spur of uncertain industry’.[14] Another danger is impatience with arable tillage and an over-resort to the easier spoils of hunting, which turns men against their neighbours who thus become rivals for the game, so undermining the establishment of solid agrarian communities (AF 51).  Here is a real risk of degeneracy for Crevecoeur, a life lacking either the methodicalness of the European or the astuteness of the Indian.  The American settler relapses into a dangerous and morally polluting  hybrid, a parody of both the old world and the new (AF 53).  How deeply did Coleridge ponder all this, one wonders? What would he have made of Crevecoeur’s account of Martha’s Vineyard, a model society in many ways, but where ‘[s]hining talents and University knowledge would be entirely useless’ (AF 125).  Coleridge might have winced at Crevecoeur’s  bewilderment on discovering that the upright Quakers of Nantucket have adopted ‘the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning’, without which, apparently, they felt unequal to conducting any




business (AF 144).

It’s in the Susquehanna valley itself that Crevecoeur’s sense of the risky stakes of the American landscape comes to a head.  Here, the ‘inexhaustible fertility’ of the valley bottoms is bounded by ‘hideous ridges’ which no plough can ever tame.  Crevecoeur could ascertain that the same river simultaneously spread an alluvial wealth and stranded itself along the unforgiving ridges overlooking its course.  Here was fertility and barrenness, welcome and rejection, inextricably joined (Hales 45).  Into this world comes the returning burden of history in the form of the American Revolutionary War (in part, of course, a civil war), in the face of which Crevecoeur’s American farmer plans to live alongside the Indians, though he has no faith he can ever become one with them and dreads the possibility of assimilation for his children.  He finds himself doubly marginalised: no longer at one with the colonists (who in aspiring to independence are compromising their simplicity of life), and unable to penetrate the far more ancient but riddling culture of the Native Americans.  The New World had promised the vision of a refreshing, elemental harmony, but was proving a crucible for disturbing hybridity and cultural bewilderment.





If Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth had ever landed in America, what would have become of the landscape they felt drawn to, a landscape never one to stand still?  How would the activities of their fellow-settlers have affected them as writers, especially as the new century came in? There were clues to be had how things might go, even in the early 1790’s.  Gilpin had pointedly not recommended the newly peopled parts of America to the painter, for there, he remarked distastefully, it was ‘the sole employment of each colony to cut down wood; and it is astonishing what devastation the woods in these countries have suffered during these last three centuries’.[15] The conquest of the wilderness still being celebrated by  many in the late eighteenth century was soon to give way to a profound unease during the opening decades of the next century.  The effects of civilization on a New World seemed a more dubious blessing.  Buffon, in his Natural History, had encouraged the drying out of bogs, the firing of undergrowth and the clearing of ancient forest with extraordinary rancour, for these were all symbols of primordial degeneracy.  The settlers themselves did not necessarily lack all feeling for their environments, but the need to obtain a return on their land in the shortest time, plus a shortage of labour and capital, meant that in practice their activities were often damaging and wasteful.  So long as settlements could be seen as isolated islands in a sea of wilderness, it was wilderness which appeared more menacing than threatened.  Not until this wilderness could plainly be observed retreating into residual pockets were the effects of clearance to




become obvious, a process far advanced in the Northeast by the early nineteenth century, but even there softened in its impact by the constant push onto virgin land further west.  Jefferson noted ruefully that his fellow-Americans’ apparent indifference to sound agriculture was produced not by want of knowledge but by a profusion of land to squander as they pleased (Jefferson 125).  And deforestation was not solely a means to fuel and farmland, it was also used as a  way of thinning out the presence of Indians in a particular territory.

Concerned voices were soon raised, and the Pantisocrats, we can hope, would have swelled their number.  William Strickland, an English visitor to Connecticut in 1794, impressed though he was by the egalitarian nature of the society and the sublimity of the mountains, condemned the ‘barbarous backwoodsmen’ for their wanton destruction of trees and ‘utter abhorrence for the works of creation’ (Nygren 21).  In 1804 another traveller complained: ‘The woods are full of new settlers.  Axes were resounding and the trees literally were falling about us as we passed’ (Nygren  37).  Fennimore-Cooper and Washington Irving turned into bitter critics of the despoliation they saw around them, Irving lamenting in 1809 the “melancholy progress of improvement” and the ‘savage hand of cultivation’, two phrases which brusquely contradict the expectations of the previous century (Nygren 58).  Crevecoeur’s companion, as they sail up the Hudson, wonders: ‘Can future generations preserve these beautiful cedars, these gigantic pines, these venerable hemlocks, these oaks, more than a century old?…Human ingenuity could never replace them’ (ECTP 7).  For him it is the imagination which betrays when it seduces a settler into installing himself in an unsuitable spot, to the dereliction of the trees hitherto admired.  But for the good cultivator, it is to be hoped, trees soon cease to be simply in the way; rather, their owner comes to feel more flattered in going through his woods than in crossing his fields (ECTP 43).  Crevecoeur’s proto-ecological antennae could be acute, as when he notices how a creek diminishes as the number of surrounding clearances goes up (ECTP 46).  He describes how in the Susquehanna valley the fecundity of the soil has of late sharply diminished, the exhaustion of its rich coating of leaves proving to be beyond the arts of cultivation to compensate for (Hales 45). 

Bartram too was to pass through areas environmentally impoverished, either where the Indians themselves had fired undergrowth to improve the hunting, or, on another occasion, where loyalist colonists newly settled by the British government were bent on hacking down the rich orange groves (Bartram 213).  Through these years the deforestation of New England and the soil exhaustion in the Tidewater South were the direct results of prodigal wastefulness by new settlements (Bercovitch 138).  Numerous plant and animal species were disappearing, often to be replaced by invasive European imports, and the wolf was virtually wiped out in New England after 1800.  By the 1830’s John James Audubon was to look back with nostalgia to a time, only twenty years before, of unmolested grandeur and beauty in the Ohio




valley, the very region Imlay had been touting in the 1790’s.  For Audubon his boyhood had been an era before the ‘surplus population of Europe’ had come to assist in the destruction of the forest, replacing its shades with the dint of hammers and machinery.[16]  The sacrifice of the wilderness was painfully felt by the painter Thomas Cole and the novelist Fennimore-Cooper, and not just as a loss of tranquillity and solitude, which might have been a European reaction, but as a primal violation of and intrusion into a wilderness whose absolute otherness they now identified with.  For these early nineteenth-century Americans, Romantics in their own terms, their country had just suffered historically that loss of harmony between nature and human beings only otherwise recorded mythically, a harmony which had been America’s chief promise of renewal.





The picturesque had set up a dichotomy between the visible landscape and the visual one, between objects in view and their composition which might ideally interest the eye.  In America the gap between what is seen and what the eye can learn to see was to open a path towards a whole new way of perceiving landscape, one no longer conforming to what Americans took to be the European norm, but one providing a new emphasis on how the inherent unexpectedness of the literal was itself capable of taking on the power of myth.  It was the lack of any classical finish to the American scene that was to inspirit writers like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.  For them the unfinished was the correct dynamic of American nature.  For Thoreau in particular the task was to appraise how immediate and unfamiliar experiences could inform a sensation of the real as it moved toward a deeper conviction of the integrity of place.  Something similar might well be said of The Prelude, of course, a work unknown to these writers in their formative years.  American sensibility in the 1830’s and beyond was investing in looser genres, in a greater sense of extemporisation and informality with a view to breaching the frame within which the idea of landscape had been exported to them.  But that frame was hardly at its peak in Europe at a time when Constable and Turner were finding the preliminary sketch so basic to their aesthetic, though they were still unable to communicate this sense of immediacy to a public which demanded finish.  By the 1840’s Ruskin was publicly undermining the picturesque in his Modern Painters, and The Prelude had itself become a whole series of sketches endlessly deferring any more finished philosophical poem.  The Prelude as written was too sketchy to be published and proving impossible to complete in terms of any inherited genre. 

America could hardly have come to terms with its own landscapes except




in ways that would be sharply differentiated from what it knew of European conventions.  The desire for difference was already moving along a Romantic course, however, and inscribing itself in that emergent tradition.  America’s hunger to realise differentiation was to have dramatic but also self-wounding consequences.  If America existed to discover rather than chronicle, to name rather than enshrine, it did so out of a feeling for a cultural experimentation that was itself a creative mutant originally arising from within European tradition.  The mutant projected a transformed America even before there was an America real enough to feed into such innovation, an innovation projected by European revolutionary thought in search of a para-European reality.  Similar tensions were at work within the subterranean aspects of British Romanticism, within the sketchy poetic fragments and private notebooks, the very material that has only come to light largely through the labours of twentieth-century American scholars often beginning from within their own intellectual landscape.

Landscape for Whitman was no metaphor but a compulsive reality, a continual displacement of outstretched horizons flowing away in every direction.  Whitman couldn’t have known Coleridge’s early Notebooks in which, as Robin Jarvis notes, Coleridge takes topographic richness to a point of overload, allowing himself to be baffled as well as excited, insisting on the body in motion traversing a landscape pulsing with force and event, not stationing himself according to any pre-given compositional scheme.[17]

Naming was another vital moment of inauguration for American nature.  Bartram had visited Mount Hope on his travels, a site itself christened by his own father some fifteen years before, and Crevecoeur mourned the loss of old tribal place-names which seemed to enshrine the secrets of the land as no European labels could.  For Whitman the names of places were magical tokens of reality charged with creative energy, a way of subsuming history within a new spiritual geography.  But Wordsworth, too, in his Poems on the Naming of Places had invented a similar geography out of his favourite sites, places made new and renamed by the imagination, the journey of exploration having gone ‘underground’ as it were within the more confined European landscape.  His inscriptional poetry retains a sense of the place in which or onto which it is written (even if only notionally), and one can as well say that the leading fantasy of early American literature is to constitute itself as one vast inscription upon the American landscape.

If Thomas Cole in the 1830’s could look forward to ‘poets yet unborn’ who would ‘sanctify the soil’ of his homeland, we can glimpse from our vantage-point how some of the groundwork for that sanctification was in fact being laid by two British Romantic poets who remained ‘unborne’ in the sense of never having been borne across the waves to the New World.  It was an America they did much more than imagine as a country of the mind.  Rather,




in their own most radical work, they were sketching the conditions for a modern landscape, one having to learn to come to terms with economic exploitation but finding in itself a visionary resistance based upon a personal self-investment within the fabric and texture of the scenery.  By not sailing to America, both Coleridge and Wordsworth continued through their own strange seas of thought, and from it arose the seeds of an America which America hardly knew, or perhaps an America no longer pursuable once the energy of vision was overtaken by the scale of literal discovery.  In such a Romantic age as the times were to become Americans might have suspected, however, that the elsewhere that they dreamed of being their own had already been sketched out elsewhere. 


[1]               This paper is based on a lecture given at the Friends of Coleridge Kilve Court Study Weekend in September, 1998, and is dedicated to the memory of the Weekend’s Director, Reggie Watters, who encouraged me to pursue this theme.

[2]               Quoted in John Hales, ‘The landscape of Tragedy: Crevecoeur’s “Susquehanna”’, Early American Literature, 20, 1 (1995), 50.

[3]               Stuart Andrews, ‘Fellow Pantisocrats: Brissot, Cooper and Imlay’, Symbiosis, 1,1 (1997), 42.

[4]               S. Bercovitch, The Cambridge History of American Literature, I: 1580-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 110

[5]               William Ruddick, ‘Thomas Gray’s Travel Writing’ in Hutchings, W.  B.  and Ruddick, W.  (eds), Thomas Gray: Contemporary Essays (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993), 139.

[6]               Sayre, Gordon, ‘Thomas Jefferson at Niagara’, paper delivered at the ASLE Conference on Culture and Environment, Bath Spa University College, Bath, July 1998, 12.

[7]               Crevecoeur’s Eighteenth-Century Travels in Pennsylvania and New York, trans P.G.  Adams (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961), 5; hereafter ECTP.

[8]               Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 19.

[9]               Travels of William Bartram, ed Mark Van Doren (New York: Dover, 1955), 94.

[10]             Gilbert Imlay, The Emigrants (London: Penguin, 1998), 204.

[11]             Quoted in Nicola Trott,  ‘The Picturesque, the Beautiful, and the Sublime’ in Wu, Duncan (ed), A Companion to Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 78.

[12]             Quoted in Edward J Nygren, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 (Washington,D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 1.

[13]             Quoted in Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 113.

[14]             J Hector Saint John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, ed.  Susan Manning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47; hereafter AF.

[15]             William Gilpin, Remarks on Forest Scenery (Richmond: Richmond Publishing, 1973), 286.

[16]             Quoted in Daniel G.  Payne, Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 24.

[17]             Robin Jarvis, Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), 131.