Academic journal article Early American Literature

"In th'Immensity of Nature Lost!" Vision, Nature, and the Metaphysical in the Landscape of Richard Lewis's "A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis"

Academic journal article Early American Literature

"In th'Immensity of Nature Lost!" Vision, Nature, and the Metaphysical in the Landscape of Richard Lewis's "A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis"

Article excerpt

The journey of a spring day, along the banks of the Patapsco River and traversing colonial Maryland from an inland village to the coastal capital of Annapolis, forms the subject of a once forgotten but recently revived poem by Richard Lewis (1700?-33?). "A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis" (1731) records a depiction of the New World's landscape by a haggard language teacher, part-time colonial government functionary, Enlightenment-era amateur scientist, and "Pedagogue of Art," (1) a depiction that records the nature of the region and its inhabitants using aesthetic, pastoral, scientific, and spiritual discourses.

The poem exhibits delightful attention to and appreciation of natural detail as well as surprising moments in which aspects of the environment are repressed and ignored. Lewis, himself an immigrant who faced the challenges of holding a liminal class position in the raucous social world of colonial Maryland, creates a narrator who seeks identification within the natural environment but who also wishes to read nature as a text for scientific analysis and spiritual edification. Among those forces that shape the poem are a keen attention to aesthetics and concern for the intersections between beauty and bounty. Yet in order to create a work in which humans seemingly exist harmoniously with nature, the poet must willfully excise grating elements from the landscape, a gesture that haunts the narrator when he considers that which is beyond nature, an all-powerful deity who could as easily excise him from the universe.

The poem's two primary emphases--description of material nature and representation of spiritual crisis--have been the basis of scholarly division in earlier criticism of the poem. While most critics have selected one of those two aspects for examination, positioning the other as secondary (Carlson 307; Johnson 117; Beyers, "Augustan" 209-12), we see Lewis as a poet who purposefully juxtaposes earthly and heavenly themes. Lewis's epigraph, taken from Virgil's Georgies, suggests a complex intertwining of the natural and the spiritual: "Give me the ways of wandering stars to know, / The depths of heaven above, and earth below." (2) Lewis's quest traverses the material environment, while apprehending its metaphorical applications and its metaphysical implications. He brings to bear the discourses of science, religion, and art as he examines nature, divinity, and ultimately himself. We assert that Lewis's poem requires careful attention to both materiality and spirituality, as well as to what is seen and unseen more generally in the poem; therefore, our reading combines an ecocritical emphasis on materiality with an ecothoeological recognition of metaphysicality.


Viewing Lewis's poem through an ecocritical lens reveals the poet's struggle to envision and articulate his own position within the nature he seeks to represent. Robert Kern identifies a range of modes by which texts depict nature. He sees some literature as anthropocentric, blind to "the possibility that nature might validly pursue its own goals and intentions, without need of human ... 'improvement'" (267). At times, Lewis's poem seems blind in this way, performing the work of an imperial gaze in a sweeping appropriation of everything it sees. In contrast, the ecocentric poem, Kern asserts, must be "displaced, taken precedence over, virtually and grammatically, by what lies outside" (272). Lewis's narrator engages in self-displacement while centering attention on the more-than-human world, though identity and resource politics complicate this displacement; still, the narrator's vision often exhibits an ecosensitivity that registers the poem on the ecocentric end of Kern's scale, since the poem expresses "a sort of neighborly solicitude for [the] more-than-human inhabitants of [the] local environment" (Kern 273).

Lewis and his narrator invoke a series of contrasting methodologies to situate his poem. …

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