Landscape Sailing to a New World:
British Romantic Poetry and the Unsettling of
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.
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
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
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
However, British attitudes
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
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).
wasn’t just settlers or travellers who made voyages at this period. How was the projected landscape of
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. 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
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
[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.
From the outset
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. 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’. 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)
like a promising ‘station’, reminiscent of the artificial cannon-boomings
across Derwent Water, but this is
[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.
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.
the world of Dorothy Wordsworth overlooking the
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
As he travels through
scoured out and dynamized by a power for:
The passage of the Patowmac through the
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'
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
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
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
This is much more a Georgic vision of
manners all that laws can afford’. 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
This ambivalence is encapsulated in Brissot’s laconic optimism (part
of which Coleridge quotes in a letter to
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
Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth had ever landed in
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 (
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
Naming was another vital moment of inauguration for American
nature. Bartram had visited
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
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.
 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.
 Quoted in John Hales, ‘The landscape of Tragedy: Crevecoeur’s “Susquehanna”’, Early American Literature, 20, 1 (1995), 50.
 Stuart Andrews, ‘Fellow Pantisocrats: Brissot, Cooper and Imlay’, Symbiosis, 1,1 (1997), 42.
 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.
 Sayre, Gordon, ‘Thomas Jefferson at Niagara’, paper delivered at the ASLE Conference on Culture and Environment, Bath Spa University College, Bath, July 1998, 12.
 Crevecoeur’s Eighteenth-Century Travels in Pennsylvania and New York, trans P.G. Adams (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961), 5; hereafter ECTP.
 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 19.
 Travels of William Bartram, ed Mark Van Doren (New York: Dover, 1955), 94.
 Gilbert Imlay, The Emigrants (London: Penguin, 1998), 204.
 Quoted in Edward J Nygren, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 (Washington,D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 1.
 Quoted in Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 113.
 J Hector Saint John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, ed. Susan Manning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47; hereafter AF.
Gilpin, Remarks on
 Quoted in Daniel G. Payne, Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 24.
 Robin Jarvis, Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), 131.