early american natural history

American Naturalists & Romanticism


Scientists influenced by Romanticism, such as the British chemist Humphry Davy, saw the natural world as ever-changing.  This was a sharp contrast to the immutable fixed laws of nature that dominated the views of post-Newtonian science in the Enlightenment.


Coleridge and Bartram

In addition, Davy, like many scientists of the Romantic era, tried to locate an underlying and unifying force or power in nature, often associated with God, or as Henry David Thoreau would have put it, the “Universal Being.”  This organic unity would include man as a part of nature, ideally existing in harmony with it. 1  Like their European counterparts, American Romantics and Transcendentalists rejected the Enlightenment or Classical view of nature as in need of control, and as existing primarily for man’s use and cultivation.  Nature was to be revered even as it was studied.  This was just as true for the Naturalists in America, such as William Bartram, whose writings communicate a euphoric desire to be at one with nature. Bartram's writings in turn inspired romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.


Yet the implications of the study of nature, Darwin's theories in particular, had an impact on Romanticism and literature. Natural selection, and the dramatic competition for survival it implied, appear in the work of naturalists such as John James Audubon.


Heade & Hawthorne

The Dark Romantics, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, were more influenced by the darker the darker, awe-inspiring elements of nature and the human spirit. Their sense of the oneness between man and nature was complex, with nature, whether human nature or external environment, being a potentially treacherous place.  In their works, reason and order are overturned for passion, insanity, or chaos.  In addition, the Dark Romantics saw potentially ominous outcomes for the new-found abilities to understand and manipulate nature provided by scientific study.


Natural Selection

Later early modern and contemporary authors also rejected the sense of nature and man as part of a benevolent whole.  The legacy of natural selection seemed to uncover a cruel reality: a constant battle between individuals for survival.  Poets such as Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and James Dickey address what  such a pattern in nature could mean for the design of nature as a whole.


All speaks of change: the renovated forms

Of long forgotten things arise again;

the light of suns, the breath of angry storms,

The everlasting motions of the main.


These are by engines of the eternal will,

The One intelligence, whose potent sway

Has ever acted, and is acting still

While stars, and worlds and systems all obey.


— Humphry Davy, 1808

Sonnet—To Science


Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

   Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

   Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

   Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

   Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,

   And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

   Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?


— Edgar Allan Poe


1  Richard Holmes,  The Age of Wonder, (New York: Pantheon, 2008).

2. Christoph Irmscher,  The Poetics of Natural History. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999). & Judith Magee,  The Art and Science of William Bartram, (University Park, Pa. : Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).


Arkansas Frameworks

Strand: Reading

Standard 10: Variety of Text

Students shall read, examine, and respond to a wide range of texts for a variety of purposes.


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

and completed through the  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Library