Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History

By Ruston, Sharon | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History


Ruston, Sharon, Studies in Romanticism


Alan Bewell. Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. xvii + 393. $60.

Alan Bewell's important book urges us to think of nature as plural. He asks why, when we are comfortable with so many other plurals--such as the idea of many cultures rather than a single culture--we persist in thinking of nature as a monolithic entity. The natures that emerge from his book are in constant movement, translated from one place and peoples to another, circulating around the globe, adapting and changing to ever-new environments. The natures he describes in the book are "thoroughly modern" in this ability to be translated.

Bewell sets out to read "human history as it was registered in the changes that were taking place in the natural world" (xii). This is a focus throughout and a really interesting new consideration of Romanticism. As Bewell puts it, "Nature was where history was being made at this time" (7). A natural landscape--whether in Britain or abroad--can be seen as a palimpsest, revealing its history, which has been "shaped by mobility, conflict, and change" (xiv). While both Wordsworth and Clare see nature as a link to the past, Wordsworth saw it as a "spiritual alternative to the pressures of modern industrial, urban and commercial life, Clare's was a nature that was irretrievably lost, a ghostly world that spoke of his displacement and exile" (6). Bewell's book reinscribes colonialism into the historical study of Romantic poetry written in the Lake District, Helpston, Australia, and America, commenting that in all cases "where one nature stands, another nature has been displaced" (16). Landscapes can be read historically through the evidence of the nature present and lost. Colonial settlers carried with them the flora and fauna of their past locations and in turn they displaced local and indigenous nature.

The idea of translation offers an apt means by which to think through the movement of nature. Plants and animals accompanied human migrants on their travels, being carried from one place to another; in the "words of Alfred W. Crosby they are "portmanteau biota." What emerged at the other end are, according to Bewell, "hybrid natures, brought into being by the mixing of indigenous plants and animals with newcomers" (28). There are some great stories of plant life being introduced on the soles of British shoes, found growing on the graves of French sailors, or deliberately cultivated across swaths of newly colonized land. The British weeds that invaded and took over the New England countryside were labelled "intrusive, pretentious, self-asserting foreigners" (30). The catalogues and taxonomies produced often revealed the geographical origins of plants and retained their Native American or Aboriginal names while also giving their newly acquired names. Indeed, Bewell sees the Linnean system as "inherently a project of translation" (41). Even Wordsworth chose to use the Latin name "celandine" rather than the local "pilewort" for his poem to that flower (85).

Bewell finds that Erasmus Darwin "adopted a dated poetical style in order to present a thoroughly modern conception of a natural world that was undergoing ceaseless change and transformation and was bound up with global commerce, industry, and consumption. He even considers Darwin's conception of nature to be "hypermodern" despite the style in which it was expressed (54). Nature became fashionable during the Romantic period, according to Bewell, with the popularity of gardening, and there developed a fascination with acquiring and growing exotic and luxurious plants. Such activities altered the natural landscape and Darwin's The Loves of the Plants indulged such interests. Darwin's poetry more generally also served to turn nature into commodities to be bought and sold. Apparently, P. B. Shelley bought a packet of seeds when he visited Mont Blanc, intending to use them to "colonize his garden in England" (81). …

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