Places and Senses.
THIS SPECIAL ISSUE OF STUDIES IN ROMANTICISM IS DEVOTED TO PLACES and senses in Romantic poetry. Traditionally in literary studies, place has been seen as complementary to space; the former is thought to be rooted, bounded, and associated with local authenticity, while the latter is abstract, empty, and associated with the universal and the global. Human geographers no longer think in terms of this place/space binary, however, but instead increasingly conceive of place as a dynamic meeting place, necessarily entangled with more distant, even global, developments. As Doreen Massey has argued, place is better thought of as an event than as a bounded location, "an ever-shifting constellation of trajectories" and mobilities. (1)
One of the Romantic era's most intellectually and physically mobile men of letters, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, spent five years exploring South and North America, and in his popular Aspects of Nature of 1808 (as the volume was first known in English), he devoted an essay to "The Nocturnal Life of Animals in the Primeval Forest." His readers' tropical visions were of landscapes to be looked at, but Humboldt wanted to evoke not the apparent uniformity of a tropical forest choked with vegetation, but rather, the species diversity converging in a tangle of unique places:
the exceeding variety of their flora renders it vain to ask of what trees the primeval forest consists. A countless number of families are here crowded together and even in small spaces individuals of the same species are rarely associated. Each day, and at each change of place, new forms present themselves to the traveller, who, however, often finds that he cannot reach the blossoms of trees whose leaves and ramifications previously arrested his attention. (2)
Humboldt reveals a world dominated by the agency of plants, their movements, associations, innovations, and the arresting powers of their flowers. Like Erasmus Darwin had done in The Botanic Garden, we might say that Humboldt restored to plants "their original animality." (3) Human travelers encounter new and distinct places everywhere they turn in this forest, places shaped by the convergence of nonhuman inhabitants. Humboldt draws our attention to the movements of animals along mysterious treetop routes and pathways "at considerable distances from each other, which have doubtless been made by the larger four-footed beasts of the forest" as they "stalk leisurely" through this seemingly impenetrable flora:
There came down together, to drink, to bathe, or to fish, groups consisting of the most different classes of animals, the larger mammalia being associated with many-colored herons, palamedeas, and proudly-stepping curassow and cashew birds (Crax Alector and C. Pauxi). "Es como en el Paraiso"--it is here as in Paradise--said, with a pious air, our steersman, an old Indian, who had been brought up in the house of an ecclesiastic. The peace of the golden age was, however, far from prevailing among the animals of this American paradise, which carefully watched and avoided each other. (4)
Indigenous and Christian visions may converge in the steersman's glimpse of Paradise, but instead of an unchanging Eden, Humboldt sees the forest as a cultivated and contested place, shaped largely by the secretive comings and goings of nonhuman animals and plants.
Here it is helpful to draw on anthropologist Tim Ingold's emphasis on place-making as a practice, instead of place as a static and bounded location. Far from being the unmarked, unoccupied, and undifferentiated space that we at first imagine, Humboldt's primordial forest is what Ingold describes as a "tangled mesh of interwoven and complexly knotted strands": "Every strand is a way of life, and every knot a place." (5) The wayfarers moving through and making this complex mesh are for the most part non-human animals. They break trails, broker uneasy truces, negotiate co-travel, walk with leisure and pleasure, and fight fierce battles invisible to humans, which we register only through the nocturnal "wild cries of animals [that] appeared to rage throughout the forest." (6) We see and hear in Humboldt's primordial forest not Nature herself in all her Romantic grandeur as sublime landscape, but partial traces of place-making, where the makers are the inconceivably diverse animal and vegetal inhabitants, entangled with the less numerous Indigenous wayfinders (the steersman) and missionaries.
To our dominant sense of sight, and human scale of vision, the primordial forest in the full day's heat appears entirely still, just as the vibrancy of the nocturnal forest is lost on us if we only look with our eyes. But if we shift scale and sense, Humboldt observes, we encounter an utterly different place in the intensity of the daytime heat on the river banks. Here Humboldt imagines that lounging cold-blooded reptiles are capable of partaking of the intense heat with an unknown sense: "Motionless, with uplifted heads and open mouths, they appeared to inhale the burning air with ecstasy." (7) We may lack these animals' unknown pleasures, but relying on more of our human senses is revelatory:
if, in this apparent entire stillness of nature, one listens for the faintest tones which an attentive ear can seize, there is perceived an all-pervading rustling sound, a humming and fluttering of insects close to the ground, and in the lower strata of the atmosphere. Everything announces a world of organic activity and life. In every bush, in the cracked bark of the trees, in the earth undermined by hymenopterous insects, life stirs audibly. It is, as it were, one of the many voices of Nature, heard only by the sensitive and reverent ear of her true votaries. (8)
Ants and bees undermine the apparent stillness of earth, their labor audible and all pervasive. Humboldt writes of the voice of Nature and speaks to us as one of her truest votaries. But the vibrating life beneath the ground to which he draws our senses are alien agents of place-making that exceed the Romantic vitalism of his language.
Like Humboldt in writing of nocturnal Amazonian forests, the essays in this issue explore the unfamiliar senses and places, beyond the place/space binary and its tendency to reify coherent places and ecological balance. Byron, for example, is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of Romantic poets engaged with nature, but as J. Andrew Hubbell argues here, Byron's "nature offers a more collective human-nature organization for an ecological imaginary" than do the harmonious and localized visions of ecological place imagined by William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. "In contrast to the localist," organic ecologies of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hubbell argues, Byron reached towards a planetary poetics of the ecotones, the boundary spaces between more stable ecologies. Also turning to that overfamiliar Romantic place, the Lake District, Joanna Taylor unsettles our expectations by opening our senses to the soundscape of this iconic landscape. Acoustic experience and the acoustic sublime, Taylor suggests, were essential to the Lake Poets' poetics of place and their appeal to tourists who sought to experience these phenomena.
In John Keats's poetry of sensory saturation and intoxication, we may expect the synesthetic potential of sound and sight melting into one another. But as Peter Henning argues here, what has been overlooked in Keats's sensational idealism is the role place-making plays in this making and unmaking of self. Following Keats's placement of the senses and their dissolution, Henning shows, leads not just beyond the Romantic subject but "beyond the interpretive limits of anthropocentric thought." For Matthew Rowlinson also, it is Keats's poetry (and the great odes in particular) that excel at this merging of nature and culture, in this case through the poetic incorporation of nonhuman voices, with the added related dimension of the literal incorporation of animal bodies as food.
The potential for finding reciprocity in such nonhuman and human animal encounters is the subject of Inhye Ha's essay on Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a poet known for poems of trans-species encounter like "The Mouse's Petition." Ha argues that "Barbauld's animal poems elucidate an eighteenth-century posthumanist formulation of self and community, one that arises from the poet's ability to register the beauty and vitality manifested in nonhuman species." Like Keats and Byron in these essays, Barbauld contributes a new dimension to Romantic place and sense, in her case a potentially radical yet tentative "interspecies community" based on a "fellowship of sense."
Humboldt's hypersensory immersion into the nocturnal tropical forest had also explored this fellowship of sense and community. But he insisted on looking and listening beyond such harmonies, in order to explore the unseen origins of the deafening animal voices that raged through the nightside of nature. "If one asks the Indians why this incessant noise and disturbance arises on particular nights," Humboldt notes,
they answer, with a smile, that "the animals are rejoicing in the bright moonlight, and keeping the feast of the full moon." To me it appeared that the scene had probably originated in some accidental combat, and that hence the disturbance had spread to other animals,... and thus the whole animal world becomes in a state of commotion. Longer experience taught us that it is by no means always the celebration of the brightness of the moon which disturbs the repose of the woods: we witnessed the same occurrence repeatedly, and found that the voices were loudest during violent falls of rain, or when, with loud peals of thunder, the flashing lightning illuminated the deep recesses of the forest. (9)
This event of place is marked by a global "clash of trajectories" (10) of Indigenous wayfinder, Spanish missionary, and Prussian naturalist with a cacophony of predators and prey--"the jaguar... the peccaries and tapirs, the apes... the tribes of birds," (11) Humboldt enumerates--together making possible this place at that time, under that full moon. This is not place as landscape, as bounded dwelling or chthonic community under threat of imperial intrusion, nor is it a frozen moment in time. Humboldt's volatile presentation of what Massey calls "the elusiveness of place" reveals that "the negotiations of place take place on the move, between identities which are on the move," (12) identities which include the unseen, the unheard, and the apparently immobile. As the essays assembled here attest, encounters and events of place remain unpredictable and unevenly understood, even to those who appear as the most Romantic of nature's votaries.
Darwin, Erasmus. Proem. The Botanic Garden, Part 1 of 2. In The Loves of the Plants. 3rd ed. London: J. Johnson, 1791.
Humboldt, Alexander von. Aspects of Nature, in Different Lands and Different Climates. Translated by Mrs. [Elizabeth] Sabine. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849.
Ingold, Tim. "Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge." In Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement, edited by Peter Kirby, 29-43. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009.
Massey, Doreen. for space. London: Sage, 2005.
(1.) Massey, for space (London: Sage, 2005), 151.
(2.) von Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, in Different Lands and Different Climates, trans. Mrs. [Elizabeth] Sabine (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849), 208.
(3.) Darwin, Proem, The Botanic Garden, Part 1 of 2, in The Loves of the Plants, 3rd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1791), vii.
(4.) Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, 211.
(5.) Ingold, "Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge," in Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement, ed. Peter Kirby (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009), 37.
(6.) Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, 212.
(7.) Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, 214.
(8.) Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, 214.
(9.) Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, 213.
(10.) Massey, for space, 158.
(11.) Humboldt, Aspects of Nature, 213.
(12.) Massey, for space, 158.