early american natural history

Romantic Naturalists


"Infinitely Varied and Without Bound": Naturalists Inspiring Romantics Inspiring Naturalists


In the first half of the eighteenth-century,  Europeans found America  a fascinating, exotic landscape.  It was, largely, an imaginary landscape, as the vast majority of Europeans had never been there.  The idea of such a wilderness, yet to be controlled, appealed to the Romantic thinkers in Europe.  America's unknown and uncivilized nature opened up possibilities of freedom of imagination and of the soul in the minds of Romantic poets. Map of Eastern Florida from William Bartram's Travels


European Romanticism experienced less of a dichotomy than American Romantic writers, and individual Romantic writers in Europe investigated the sublime, the Gothic, and an intense, hopeful connection with nature in their body of works.  Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime influenced poets and scientists alike.  And the major literary figures of the day (Byron, Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge) were all deeply interested in the scientific discoveries of their time.


Romantic-era naturalists such as William Bartram were also experiencing the sublime. William Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791, came to be widely read among European Romantic poets and writers as well in the natural history community. The Travels recounts Bartram’s journey through the south eastern territories of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from 1773 to 1776 on commission by his British patron, Dr. John Fothergill. 1


Bartram writing reveals  a late eighteenth-century “pantheism” that was popular among Romantic writers in Europe and in tune with the writings of the Transcendentalists in America. In addition, Bartram’s language, his emotional and awestruck responses to nature, were deeply inspiring to Romantics.  His celebrations of natural environments that are wild and untamed were significant for writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, both of whom read Bartram’s Travels in the 1790s. 2


In particular, Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentions the work in his notebooks from 1775- 1798 where he jotted down phrases and paragraphs from Bartram’s work. Some of these descriptions influenced  poems written by Coleridge from 1797-98. 3  For instance, “Kubla Khan” is one of the poems which scholars agree includes descriptive passages that correspond to those found in the Travels.


“Kubla Khan” is one of the more elusive works by Coleridge, and he relates it came to him him a dream.  Yet it is a vision of wild nature, a place near a “stately palace” and yet wholly untamed, a mix between Coleridge’s arm-chair enjoyment of exotic locations through Bartram’s writings and the experience of Bartram himself in his adventures.


Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” published along with “Kubla Khan” in the joint publication Lyrical Ballads 4 reveals the same pantheistic impulses and worship of nature’s wildness (as nature in the poem re-claims the structures of men) which can be found in Bartram’s writings.


In addition, quite a few of the drawings created by Bartram as he journeyed through the American southern wilds exhibit a surreal quality, in keeping with the almost surreal visions of “Kubla Khan” or even some passages in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  In this way, his illustrations as an attempt to recreate his personal experience of nature are like those of William Blake in the paintings he created to accompany his poems.  They both partake of a desire to represent an a relationship to nature beyond the purely descriptive qualities of artistic or scientific illustration.



Suggested Activities:


Read "Tintern Abbey," and  "Kubla Khan"; then, discuss key elements of Romanticism. Read an excerpt from Bartram’s Travels.  Does this work by a naturalists/ scientist display the traits of Romanticism? Should it be classified as a Romantic work? Why or why not?


Survey Bartram’s drawings looking for the surrealists or dream-like elements.  What are these? What about the pictures creates a dream-like quality?  Then, look at the paintings created by William Blake to accompany his poems, such as the illustration for the poem “Infant Sorrow” or his other works which stand alone such as Newton.  How are these images alike in their dream-like qualities? How are they different? What does each emphasize about the human experience?  About the relationship between man and the natural world?



1.William Bartram,  Travels and Other Writings by William Bartram, edited by Thomas P. Slaughter (New York : Literary Classics of the United States) 1996.

2.  Judith Magee,  The Art and Science of William Bartram, (University Park, Pa. : Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).

3. Ibid.

4. Academy of American Poets


Arkansas Frameworks:

English Language Arts Strand: Reading

• Standard 10: Variety of Text; Students shall read, examine, and respond to a wide range of texts for a variety of purposes

Literary and Content Prose:

• R.10.11.18 Reads a variety of literary and content prose including selections from American, British,

and/or world literature.

• R.10.11.20 Describe literary contributions of various cultures

• R.10.12.18 Evaluate the influence of historical context on the form, style, and point of view of written

works from history or literature


This site  was created through a fellowship from the William Reese Company

and completed through the  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library