Romanticism and Colonial Natural History

By Bewell, Alan | Studies in Romanticism, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Romanticism and Colonial Natural History


Bewell, Alan, Studies in Romanticism


"The wilderness has a mysterious tongue Which teaches awful doubt"

("Mont Blanc" 76-77) (1)

THAT "NATURE" IS A PRIMARY TOPIC IN ENGLISH ROMANTIC LITERATURE IS commonplace. For many, Romanticism is nature writing, and quite rightly so, because nature appears in this literature as if seen for the first time, with a freshness, richness, depth, and intensity that has not been equalled. Nature pervades romantic thought, as notions of natural harmony, beauty, and form, of life, process, and the interdependence of all things are ongoing themes and the standard against which artistic, ethical, and political values were measured. Nature and its powers, both visible and invisible, are constantly invoked in political, aesthetic, religious, and moral debates. Often appearing in personified form, as a nurse, guide, lawgiver, healer, teacher, and muse, nature is invoked by poets, priests, philosophers, and prophets as the source and ground of beauty and truth. Many explanations have been given for the advent of this important cultural phenomenon. It has been seen as a Rousseauistic "return to nature," as cultural nostalgia for simpler times, or as an escape from revolutionary history. Dialogic and dialectical models emphasizing the interaction between "mind and nature" abound, often emphasizing the power of the sublime in the production of authorial voice, identity, and power. The emergence of Romanticism has also been seen as inseparable from the coming into being of an ecological consciousness, an awareness that human beings are part of a larger physical environment that they must preserve. (2) These are valuable accounts, but they are only partial, because they do not explain why observing, writing, and talking about nature mattered in the first place or why certain kinds of nature appear more frequently in romantic literature than do others. We take it for granted that it is perfectly natural for poets to devote so much time to describing landscapes, writing odes on the seasons, and meditating on daffodils, nightingales, albatrosses, skylarks, "rocks and stones and trees." (3) Why not write an "Ode on an Olive Tree," or poems on spiders, bees, butterflies, moths, snow drops, violets, and Jamaican fireflies, as did Charlotte Smith? Or why not talk to a mountain, as did Percy Shelley? Accustomed to such dialogues, we do not address their puzzling qualities, leaving it for others to figure out why Shelley felt he could make a strong claim for the value to be had from chatting with rocks: this "Great Mountain" has % voice ... to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood / By all" ("Mont Blanc" 80-81).

These explanations appear in a different light when the historical emergence of nature is set within the broader global context in which it was situated and from which it drew sustenance. English nature needs to be seen in relation to the new and unfamiliar natures from across the globe, a burgeoning proliferation of colonial natures, that were appearing at this time both in print and material culture. Viewed abstractly, nature, like gravity, may everywhere act the same, but for naturalists the perspective on the ground was quite different. La Condamine powerfully conveys the excitement with which Europeans talked about these new natures, and the three primary elements of which they were composed: "in a new world ... I met there with new plants, new animals, and new men." (4) In his account of his inland journey across the barren winter landscape of northern Canada, Samuel Hearne declares that he will bring to his readers' view "the face of a country ... which has hitherto been entirely unknown to every European except myself." (5) Europeans had been encountering new worlds for centuries, and particularly during the Renaissance, with the discovery of the New World. Whereas early travel narratives, as Stephen Greenblatt has suggested, depicted these worlds as "marvelous possessions" and powerfully linked knowledge to wonder, the many worlds that were documented during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, were fashioned scientifically in a context of globalized commerce.

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