The Romanic Age, which took root in the 18th century and extended into the 19th century, inspired trends in art, philosophy, music and literature. Innovators of the movement focused attention on the individual and the power of singular thought, which intimately related Romanticism with the European Enlightenment. It was not enough to privilege the Scientific Method and taxonomy as seats of intellectual power: poets and philosophers were lauding personal imagination, spontaneity, and contemplative mysticism as means to investigate higher concepts.
Tales of exotic lands and ancient time periods became en vogue; explorers and naturalists were regarded as oracles to a fuller spiritual life.
The relationship between art and nature was most provocatively realized in the figure of William Bartram, the American naturalist whose own poetic work influenced some of the most notable creative figures of the Romantic movement, and thus the lingering Romanticism in contemporary art. Born in Pennsylvania in 1739, Bartram was America’s first native naturalist, and the son of John Bartram.
As a child, Bartram was exposed to nature through his father’s travels and the family’s garden; he learned to sketch and cultivate exotic plant specimens. In 1791, his triumphant exploration of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee was chronicled in a published text called Travels and Other Writings; in it, Bartram broke new literary and scientific ground by detailing the natural landscape of the southern United States from a personal point of view as well as from a detached, taxonomical framework.
The text was “a source of images ranging from ‘roaring’ alligators and crashing waterfalls to fragrant magnolias and natural fountains throughout the nineteenth century “ (Nichols 305).
In this way, Bartram situated himself as an icon of the Romantic Age: he fused art and science, he allowed for creativity and (seemingly) spontaneous personal reaction to inform his writing, and he elevated the study of nature to a spiritual level.
Travels and Other Writings enjoyed profound success in Europe, and there, many of the great Romantic poets found themselves inspired by Bartram’s descriptions of the wild, reckless wetlands of Florida and the exotic Native Americans who populated the South and Southeast on the continental United States. “His direct influence is evident in literary works by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth, Shelley, John Keats, and many others,” including direct attributions from Coleridge and Wordsworth, who “went so far as to footnote Bartram in order to record his debt for the image of the fabulous cypress spire” (Nichols 305-6).
Bartram brought the myth of the great American frontier to life for European readers, placing in their hands (which most likely rested in comfortable armchairs) tales of natural wonder that was both available and conquerable. This legendary territory was rendered through Bartram’s naturally lyrical language; “[h]is vivid writing style combined with careful observations to produce powerful images of the natural wonders of the New World” (Nichols 305-6).
Bartram fundamentally affected the way the greatest of the Romantic poets interpreted the sublime aspect of Nature, and the way they gained access to the wild American landscape. “His prose is full of lyrical descriptions, sensuous language, and metaphors worthy of a poet. In addition, his rhetorical technique combines remarkably accurate field observations with an ability to link these details through imaginative and analogical thinking” (Nichols 306).
His legacy was perpetuated not only by generations of naturalists and botanists, but by poets and philosophers who continued the creative Romantic movement. His understand of the inherent provocative element of nature inspired others to take the metaphors even further.
Nichols, Ashton. “Roaring Alligators and Burning Tygers: Poetry and Science from William Bartram to Charles Darwin1. ” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149. 3 (2005): 304-315.