The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 14. The Travellers and Wordsworth

The relation of English poets to American observers is most significant of all. Coleridge praises Cartwright, Hearne, and Bartram; “the impression which Bartram had left on his mind,” says his grandson, “was deep and lasting.” Lamb is enamoured of pious John Woolman, and eventually favours Crèvec…ur, yielding to Hazlitt’s recommendation. Southey commends Dwight, and employs Bartram in Madoc. In Mazeppa, Byron, an inveterate reader of travels, takes the notion of an audible aurora borealis from Hearne. But the most striking instance is Wordsworth. Commonly supposed to have refrained from describing what he had not seen with the bodily eye, and to have read little save his own poetry, he was in fact a systematic student in the field of travel and observation, for the ends of poetical composition. Accordingly, he writes to Archdeacon Wrangham, perhaps in 1811: “You inquire about old books; you might almost as well have asked for my teeth as for any of mine. The only modern books that I read are those of travels, or such as relate to matters of fact–and the only modern books that I care for.” What they meant to him may be seen in Ruth, which is full of images from Bartram—the magnolia, the cypress, green savannas, and scarlet flowers that set the hills on fire; in The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman, based on Hearne; in the address to Hartley Coleridge, reminiscent of Carver; in Book Third of The Prelude, where the ideal environment for a university and its students is clearly that of Bartram’s “Alatamaha” River, “where the generous and true sons of liberty securely dwell”; and in Book Third of The Excursion. Here the Solitary, a returned American traveller, first relates his dissatisfaction with the “unknit Republic,” echoing Ashe, and English opinion in the year 1814, and then tells of his vain search for the natural man of Rousseau. He found little more to please him than ‘the Muckawiss,’ of Carver:

  • So, westward, tow’rd the unviolated woods
  • I bent my way; and, roaming far and wide,
  • Failed not to greet the merry Mocking-bird;
  • And, while the melancholy Muccawiss
  • (The sportive bird’s companion in the grove)
  • Repeated o’er and o’er his plaintive cry,
  • I sympathised at leisure with the sound;
  • But that pure archetype of human greatness,
  • I found him not. There, in his stead, appeared
  • A creature, squalid, vengeful, and impure;
  • Remorseless, and submissive to no law
  • But superstitious fear, and abject sloth.
  • The Solitary is not Wordsworth, but a dramatically conceived malcontent. The animating note that is characteristic of American travel at its best was sounded, not by English poets in the time of George the Third, but forty years before the of the French and Indian War in Berkeley’s anticipatory lines On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America:
  • There shall be sung another golden age,
  • The rise of empire and of arts…
  • Westward the course of empire takes its way.